I finished my breakfast, using the last of my toast to soak up every last bit of egg yoke on my plate, and left Denny's totally satisfied. I walked around back to the parking lot to find my Element six inches closer to the ground than when I had parked. Some asshole had slashed all four tires. I had to close my eyes for a minute as the throbbing in my head returned, but I tried to look on the bright side. More than likely I needed new tires anyway; but, fuck, what else can happen? I called AAA and ordered a flatbed to tow me over to the Honda dealership on Foothill Boulevard.
I left Crown City Honda four hours later with four new Goodyear Wanglers and my wallet a thousand dollars lighter. It had been a hell of a few days. Finding out I had a sister, who had now disappeared, being clubbed over the head and winding up concussed, and between the hospital and my slashed tires I’d lost half my financial reserve, which was a big deal for a freelance artist.
When I got home I closed up the house. After locking all the doors and windows, I pulled the blinds down and got back in bed. It had been a bad idea getting up. My tummy was full but my wallet was empty.
Two days later, I woke to the sound of a car horn and someone pounding on my door. I looked out to find a Pizza Hut delivery man on my front porch. The pounding continued until I opened the door. The young driver smiled, sitting a pizza box and a six-pack of coke down on my porch and began to leave.
"Hey, dude, wait a minute. I didn't order this and I'm not paying!" I said.
"No problem, it's prepaid. Enjoy,” he yelled as he scurried back to his dented Ford Fiesta with a precariously placed illuminated pizza sign. He spun his tires, leaving black marks on my driveway as he headed out to what I guessed was his next delivery. Dazed, I made my way into the kitchen. The pizza smelled great, so I flipped the lid open to see what kind it was. In the middle of a large pie was an oversized ziplock bag stuffed with documents. I peeled the bag off the pie and placed it in the sink while I pulled out a slice. It was a pepperoni, sausage, and onion on a thin crust. My favorite.
After downing a couple of slices with soda, I walked to the sink to examine the Ziplock. I washed and dried the bag, then pulled out the contents, placing them on my kitchen table in a neat row. Along with plane tickets, I found a prepaid American Express card and a lot of currency. I counted out five thousand euros in 100-euro banknotes, fifty thousand Egyptian pounds in 200-pound notes, twenty 100-dollar bills, plus an envelope containing a handwritten itinerary.
The itinerary indicated that my first flight was at the end of next week. It would take some time to decide if I was going to go, but at the moment, I didn't have a current passport, so I'd needed to get moving if I wanted to give myself the option of going.
I did a selfie and emailed it over to an "Expediting Service" that assured me that for two hundred and fifty dollars they'd have my new passport ready at the end of the week. Once I had that in process, I gathered up the cash and tickets and walked into my back bedroom. Pushing aside my chest of drawers, I knelt down to pull up a floorboard to get at my secret cache. I pulled out my record book and made careful notations of what I had found in the pizza box. I put the cash, tickets and record book back into my stash hole, replaced the floorboard and pushed the chest back in place.
My next step was to call detectives Van Ness and Nordin and let them know that I might be leaving the country. When I got Van Ness on the line he told me that they were just going to call. They had a suspect in my father's case and would like me to take a look at him to see if I'd ever seen him before.
"Like in a line-up, you mean?" I asked.
"No, we just have him in for questioning. We don't have any real evidence, but we know he's a professional at this and we're holding him for 24 hours to see if we can make something happen."
"I can be there in 15 minutes. Is that convenient?"
"Yeah, that's great, Mr. Price. Come to the Garfield Street entrance and ask for Red. He'll be here. I've got to leave on a personal matter, but Red will take good care of you.”
"That's him?” I asked incredulously. "Are you serious?"
"He may not look the type, but Mr. Juan Miller is a dangerous man with a stone for a heart, as they say. In his teens, he’d been a hitman by the local Armenian gangs. When he aged out of the juvenile justice system, he moved over to extortion and strong-arm work. But he’s getting a little too old for that now, so we think he’s gone back to his first love, whacking people. He may not look tough or imposing, but he's mean, clever, and best of all, they say he enjoys his work."
The man I was looking at through the one-way mirror was a balding overweight middle-aged guy who looked more like a shoe salesman than a stone killer. But what did I know? I turned to Red saying. “Sorry, I’ve never seen him before.”
Red asked if I'd eaten. When I said I hadn’t, he invited me to a late lunch. His fairly new Mustang was parked in front of the Jackie Robinson statues across the street from city hall. We headed South on the Arroyo Seco Parkway. After a fast 12 minutes, we took the Chinatown exit. We cruised south on North Hill and made a left onto Ord Street. It was late afternoon, and Phillippe's parking lot had a few empty spaces. After parking, we crossed the street and entered through the Southwest door, where you get a great view of the masses while you're descending the stairs to the main floor trying to guess which line would have the fastest turnover. When we got to the front of our line, an overly rouged septuagenarian asked what we'd like. Red ordered a pork French dip while I asked for a roast beef dry. After we collected our sandwiches, chips, and drinks we moved over to one of the communal tables. Always nice to see homeboys, cops, city bureaucrats, and down-and-outers rubbing shoulders. After a couple of giant bites, Red swallowed and asked, "What do you think is going on? What's this trip to Egypt about?"
"Detective, I have no f-ing idea. It does seem like someone has taken a dislike to me and my family, but I have no idea why and I'm not sure what to think or do. My instinct is move. I had a sergeant in boot camp who during maneuvers would get frustrated, screaming, ‘I don't care what you do, just do something. Standing still will get you killed.’ And I've always taken that advice to heart."
"So you're thinking of going to Egypt?" Red asked.
"I'm thinking about it. I'd like to speak with my half-sister and see if she as any insights, but I'm nervous about the whole thing.”
"Are you sure she sent you the tickets? Someone could be playing you,” Red added.
"I realize that, but doing nothing seems to be just about as dangerous. Going to Egypt has something of a romantic appeal.”
"Yeah, you could romance yourself right into a coffin.” Red was smiling again. "Do you know how to use a gun?”
I said, "A little. I did a little shooting in the army, but that was a long time ago. I haven't pulled a trigger in years.
Red smiled. “The L.A.Gun Club is just a few blocks away. How'd you like to squeeze off a few?”
“How would that work?” I asked
“Well, let's finish here and you'll find out.”
The L.A. Gun Club is on Sixth Street just east of Alameda. It was late afternoon and the place was rocking. A vast cross-section of L.A.’s exceedingly diverse population was there to relieve a little stress. Red identified himself as a police officer and he asked me what I'd like to shoot.
Embarrassed, I said, "To tell the truth I'm not sure. What would you recommend?”
Red turned to the counter and stared into the glass display, telling the rental agent, "Let us have that sig 226."
"What caliber do you want?"
"S&W 40 with two boxes of Sig ammunition. No, make that three."
The counter guy looked apologetic. "Sorry, no Sig ammo in stock, I've got a box of 100 rounds by Winchester for $38.99. That give you 40 more rounds at about half the price, and your only target shooting, not trying to bring down a crazed maniac."
Red okayed the substitution with a nod.
"You guys gonna need ears and eye protection?” the counter guy asked.
Red snarled, "Give us the works.”
The counter guy rang up the total: 40 bucks for the ammo, $10 for the gun rental, $18 range fee and $16 for the ears and eye protection. "That's $83.99 plus $9.20 in tax for a grand total of $93.19,” he said with a crocodile smile.
"Jesus Christ! That's a shit load of money,” I said as I pulled out my American Express card.
Red laughed saying, "Life in the modern world. It’s a dangerous place and it's good to know your options and your limitations. But I’ve got this. It’s a write-off for me and I get a discount, don't I?" as he smiled back at our salesperson.
We took our paper targets and plastic tub loaded with the Sig Sauer and ammo into the firing range, following the arrows to station 3. I hung the target and hit the switch to send it out to a middle distance while Red loaded the Sig Sauer.
"Let me see how you hold the weapon and your shooting stance," Red instructed
I'd been taught in the service to hold a pistol with both hands and face my target with a slight bend in my knees, but I was never comfortable with that. So when I lined up in a fencing pose, Red began to laugh.
"What kind of stance is that? You some kind of ballerina?"
"They don't call me twinkle toes for nothing,” I smiled back.
"You're sure that you can hold onto the weapon one handed? If you drop the gun, there's going to be an extra charge, and that’s on you,” Red warned.
I just nodded. "Can I shoot now?"
"O.K., just keep your thumb out of the way. I don't want the slide action to break it. Just take a deep breath and squeeze one off." Detective Nordin seemed a little bit more concerned than he'd been at the sandwich place.
I took my stance, tried to relax, took a deep breath and let out half, then pulled the trigger. The recoil wasn't as bad as I had expected. So I looked over to Red for his critique.
Smiling he said " I don't believe it, a center mass hit right where the heart is. You've got seven more rounds in the clip, so squeeze off two, wait a beat, then double tap again. When you're down to your last round, try a head shot."
I lifted the pistol, drew a bead and did as instructed. Once I'd finished, I lay the pistol down as Red flicked the switch to bring the target in. He examined it with great care.
"Not bad for someone who hasn't shot in years. You hit the target six times, which means you missed it twice. In a worse case scenario, you'd be looking at two wounded or dead innocent bystanders. You'll need to watch that. The first two double taps you got hits in the center mass, the last two you missed entirely. With the headshot, you took off his ear. If he was wearing body armor you would have gotten his attention, but he'd still be able to return fire."
Red reloaded the Sig and stepped to the line in his two handed stance. He rattled off 8 clean center mass hits. Smiling, he said, "You don't have to be real fast, but you need to keep your breathing under control and concentrate on hitting your target. What will happen, will happen, sometimes it’s more a matter of luck than training.”
We spent the next half hour trading off and using up the ammo. We stopped by the counter to return the gun and empty shell casings as Red traded pleasantries back and for with the counterman.
It was rush-hour, so the drive back to City Hall took four times as long. About half way there, Red offer me some friendly advice. “I’m guessing if you do try to find your sister, there's a pretty good chance you're going to encounter some dangerous situations. My advice is when you believe you're in a life-threatening situation, DON'T TALK, SHOOT! Don't hesitate. And when the encounter is over, don't wait for the authorities. Do your business and get the hell out of there. Nobody likes Americans. So if you can get out, do it! One other thing, today’s little excursion, and our talk are strictly off the record, one vet to another. OK?”
“Yeah sure. And thanks.”
I'm a firm believer in doing research before beginning any endeavor. Over the next few days, I spent hours finding out as much on Egypt as I could. Not so much about the history but on the physical layout of the country, customs, and likely routes of escape. Just being paranoid, but that's just the way I am.
I was blurry eyed when Delta flight DL140 touched down at Cairo International Airport a week later. It was early evening and the safety rail of the stairs we used to deplane was freezing cold. We quickly walked onto the waiting shuttle buses, with their heaters going full blast, that would take us the short distance to the terminal. Once inside, I looked for and found the line for entry visas and queued up. I'd been warned that the place would seem to be a madhouse, but things got done, it would just be in Egyptian time. After what seemed forever, I got my visa, which cost an exorbitant sixty U.S. Dollars. Shaking my head, I grabbed a baggage cart and pushed through the thinning crowds to the luggage carousel. I found my duffel making the loop all by itself. I guess the visa process had taken more time than I had imagined. I'd spray painted my initials in large block letters on the side my bag in lime-green paint to make it easy to identify and undesirable to thieves. I quickly grabbed my bag, moving on to customs, which turned out to be a breeze. They just checked my passport once again, marked my duffle as having been checked, and waved me on through. Once through the security doors, I was funneled towards the exit where I was confronted by a large restive crowd waiting for family members and men in black western dress holding name placards, looking for the arriving passengers that they’d been hired to pick up. I was looking from sign to sign when someone called out my name.
I spotted him waving and walked over to a gentleman who identified himself as Ahmed Safe, my driver for tonight. He was in his late thirties, trim, well turned out, with a pencil thin mustache from 1930’s Hollywood and very good English.
"You are Mr. Price?” he asked. And when I nodded in the affirmative, "The car is in the parking lot only a short distance. Let me take your bags." He grabbed my duffle and would have taken my carry-ons but I indicated that I preferred to keep them. The limo was an older model black Mercedes, dented but well polished. Ahmed put my bag into the trunk and opened the rear door for me. I just put in my camera and laptop bags, closed the door saying that, "I'd rather ride up front.”
He started the car, but before he pulled out I asked, "Ahmed, I have a question. How did you know who I was?"
"My service provided me with your photograph,” he replied.
"May I see it?”
"Sure, Mr. Price,” he said, as he dug in his inner coat pocket. He pulled out a folded photograph and handed it to me. It was an image of me on a street in Pasadena. I had no idea when or by whom the picture had been taken, which sent a little shiver of fear up my spine.
"How did your company get this?" I asked a little indignantly.
"My company received it in a packet delivered by messenger a day ago. It contained instructions, your photograph, and payment for our services. Our company is very small, just the owner, who is my uncle, myself, and my cousin, the other driver. Nothing happens there that we all aren't privy to. We have a good reputation, expensive but very reliable and discreet. We take good care of you.”
The first thing I noticed about driving in Cairo at night is that no one uses their headlights. I asked Mr. Safe what was going on and he told me that Egyptian drivers think headlights are too strong and cause more accidents than they prevent, so they use the street light to see their way.
Traffic was very heavy and it was a show slog to make any progress, but I was enjoying the sights. I started to roll down the window, but Mr. Safe advised me fumes here are very bad for breathing, especially at night, so they keep the windows closed even if the car doesn't have air conditioning. “It’s better to be hot rather than poisoned. Also, when the windows are up this is a secure vehicle armored with bulletproof glass," he said with pride.
“Yes, It used to belong to an important Saudi businessman. I was his driver for several years. When he went home, I convinced him to lease it to my uncle's company. Technically, it still belongs to him, but by leasing it to my uncle they avoid the insane 135% import tariff.”
"You're kidding, that more than doubles the cost. How can anyone afford a car here?" I asked.
"Egyptians always find a way, God willing,” he said with deference.
I had a pre-paid reservation at the Nile Ritz-Carlton. The hotel is a Mid-Century design masterpiece, built along the Nile by the Hilton hotel chain back in the late 1950's as an outpost of modernity in an ancient land. It was a Hilton flagship property for a long time, but as we moved into the 21st century the hotel’s luster had waned and the bean-counters at corporate headquarters felt it would be unprofitable to bring it back up to a five-star standard hostelry. Luckily the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company picked up the torch and came up with a solution after acquiring the property in the early 2000s. It took years for the place to be remodeled, but it's up and running, a shining beacon of American 1950's optimism. I was looking forward to seeing the place, especially since it was on someone else's dime.
When Ahmed swung the Mercedes into the hotel's circular driveway to queue-up for the guest arrivals, he turned to me saying, "Lots of security here, Mr. Price. You'll have to go through metal detector, your bags will be X-rayed and you may be frisked, but once inside you should be very safe."
He handed me his card and said, "Mr. Price, I have been engaged not only to pick you up, but I am at your disposal for your entire stay. Twenty four seven, as you American say. Just call my mobile. I should be less than 20 minutes away at all times. I am happy to provide whatever services you desire. And if you go out alone, please be careful; Cairo is a very safe city, but sometimes not for Americans.”
I was thanking Ahmed as the doorman opened my door and welcomed me to the hotel. Ahmed got out to open the trunk for the bellman to grab my bag. We shook hands goodbye and I was ushered inside. The security protocol was strict but not that intrusive. I was at the check-in desk in minutes.
"Good evening, I'm Mr. Price and I have a reservation."
"May I see your passport, sir?"
I handed my passport and a printout of my reservation to the deskman.
"Sir, if you would like to take a seat over there and I'll make a photocopy of your passport and get your registration card ready. I see that your stay is prepaid, but I will need to make an impression of a credit card for incidentals."
I handed over my American Express card and found a seat where I could watch the comings and goings of Cairo's movers and shakers. In short order, the night manager came over and introduced himself as Mr. Gad. He handed back my passport, credit card, and held out the registration card and credit slip for me to sign.
"If you're ready Mr. Price, I'll show you to your room." I nodded and he led the way to the elevators. I inquired when the restaurants closed, and he assured me that I still had a couple of hours to get something to eat.
He opened the door to room 413 and showed me how to use the room card to get the light to come on, then demonstrated the other features of the room. He pointed out the bottled water on the table, saying that it was complimentary and that even though the hotel water was safe, it was advisable to get into the habit of only drinking bottled water. He hoped that I would enjoy my stay and made his exit. I double locked the door and made a beeline to the bathroom and spent the next while relieving myself. I washed up, brushed my teeth with the bottled water and slicked back my hair. I gathered my negotiable valuables then went back down to the front desk, asking for the use of a safety deposit box. I didn't use the room safes because most hotels have a special code that they use to open them when a guest forgets the code they've input. Usually’s it’s 0000, and when I punched in the four consecutive numbers I heard the pins slide in opening the safe.
From the lobby, I took the elevator up to the rooftop restaurant and ordered Spaghetti Bolognese. I'd read that getting food poisoning was the number one thing to avoid as a solo traveler. The article had recommended Spaghetti because of the way it was prepared. It should be a safe bet almost anywhere in the world. When my food arrived it looked great, but my eyes were so heavy I gulped down what I could and headed back to my room with the remains of the bottle of water I’d purchased.
I have a strategy I use to thwart "Jet Lag.” Once I leave home I don't sleep or nap until I reach my destination. Once there, I stay awake until my normal bedtime, then I set my alarm for my usual get-up time, take a Xanax tablet and I'm dead to the world. The Xanax helps to calm all the stress and indignities that modern travel entails that I would normally agonize about at bedtime.
I woke the next morning feeling great. The message light on the phone console was flashing, so I called the operator and found that I had a package waiting at the front desk. I finished my toilette and headed down to where the complimentary breakfast was being served. The place was packed, so I ended up sharing a table with a middle-aged teacher from Beirut. Mrs. Haddad was the inquisitive type and grilled me mercilessly about all things American, especially what California was like. I got the impression that she thought everyone from there was a rich descendant of old hippies who had made the state an egalitarian paradise, but she did become suspicious of me when she found I didn't have an iPhone.
When I stood to leave, she asked, "Will you join me again for breakfast tomorrow morning?"
“If we're here at the same time I'd be glad to. I'm not sure of my schedule right now, but I did enjoy meeting you, Mrs. Haddad. Have a nice day.” I said, feeling a little like a "smiley face.”
"Good morning, I'm Mr. Price in room 413. I had a message this morning that there was a package here for me.”
The desk man asked if he could see my room card. I handed it over and he slid it through his reader. He smiled and handed it back, saying, “One moment, please.” He left the desk and returned with a manila envelope. We exchanged pleasantries as he indicated that I needed to sign the delivery receipt.
I spied an empty couch in an out-of-the-way corner of the lobby and made my way to it. Inside the envelope, I found a short note and a ticket for entry inside the Great Pyramid of Khufu for 1 pm today. The note stated that Mr. Safe would be there at 11 am to pick me up and take me to the Giza Plateau. It was signed with the initials ML, but the note was computer generated, nothing I could look to for authentication. This left me in a quandary as to which way to jump.
Unsure what else to do, I was outside at ten to eleven waiting for Ahmed to show up. Even in the shadows, the heat was blistering. My research had forewarned me, and I was wearing a 100% cotton, khaki safari jacket with long sleeves and a Panama hat that I hoped made me look a little rakish. Even in the shade, it was uncomfortable. I was carrying a bottle of water, my camera bag and a moleskin journal that I kept meticulous notes in. I spotted the Mercedes as it pulled into the driveway. Ahmed was behind the wheel and there was another gentleman in the passenger seat. I walked down the line of waiting cars and opened the rear door and got in.
"Good morning, Mr. Price. How are you feeling today? And may I introduce Mr. Tarquic. He will be assisting me today."
I reach over the seat-back and shook Mr. Tarquic's hand, asking, "I feel great. What's going on?"
"We're going to the great pyramid. Lately, there have been some troubling encounters between tourists and local vendors. The overly aggressive sellers surround a visitor's car and won't let them leave until they buy something. Some tourists who refuse have been pulled out of their vehicles and roughed up. We're looking to avoid any such incident. Just sit back and enjoy the ride. But please, don't open your door until we're sure it's safe,” Mr. Safe advised, looking at me to make sure I understood.
"You're the boss.” I smiled at him in the rearview mirror.
"Mr. Price, you'll find a cooler on the floor behind my seat with cold drinks and some snacks if you become hungry or thirsty.”
We took the Ring Road out to Giza then used a side street to reach Pyramid Road, which leads directly to the Plateau of Giza. Just past the famous Mena House Hotel, we pulled up to a swing barrier that blocked our entry. Ahmed rolled down the window and had a back and forth with the head policeman in a dusty uniform. Voices were raised, then something changed hands and the crossbar came up. Mr. Safe parked the black Mercedes next to a group of tour buses that had just disgorged a flock of colorfully dress sightseers.
"Mr. Price, please wait here until I have arranged a few things. Mr. Tarquic will wait outside to ensure no one bothers you and I will leave the engine running so that you can have air conditioning. I won't be long. Please stay inside the vehicle,” Ahmed said in a somewhat commanding tone.
Mr. Tarquic posed with a walking stick I hadn't seen before in front of the car, looking more menacing than I would have thought when I first laid eyes on him. I watched Mr.Safe walk up to the base of Khufu and use the exposed blocks to make his way up to the entrance. He approached the group of men blocking the entrance. After shaking hands with each, in turn, they all spoke for a while, then one of them pointed down to his left and Ahmed left. He climbed down and walked over to a gentleman who was smoking up a storm. They shook hands, and after speaking for a bit they walked over to the car.
Mr. Safe opened the back door and I got out.
"Mr. Price, may I introduce Inspector Gahiji Eddine of the Egyptian Antiquities department. His boss, Dr. Zahi, has given you special access to Khufu today.”
"Good day to you, Mr. Price. I will be your guide today," the inspector said in heavily accented English.
"May I bring my camera?"
"It is not permitted for most, but because you are Dr. Zahi special friend, you may.”
I was going to tell him that I'd never met the doctor but decided on discretion. We walked over and climbed the stone blocks up to the entrance were the Inspector and the officious group of men had quite a discussion about my camera bag. But like all things Egyptian, it was left in the hands of God.
The Egyptian Antiquities Authority allows 300 visitors to enter the Great Pyramid of Khufu each day, one hundred and fifty in the morning and another one hundred and fifty in the afternoon. The Inspector and I joined the end of the line of afternoon visitors. The tunnel is a lot lower than I would have imagined, forcing me to walk stooped over or in a modified duck-walk depending on which was hurting more, my back or knees. It was hard going, especially since the shaft descended down at more than a 30° angle, forcing me to use my arms and legs to keep me from sliding onto the person in front of me.
About 60 feet in we came to a fork in the tunnel. One branch continued on down but was blocked by a no entry sign and a locked chain. The other branch ascended up to what everyone had come to see, the king's and queen's chambers and the magnificent grand gallery. Things bunched up a little at the fork as my fellow visitors gathered themselves up for the upward climb. When the last of the visitors in front of me had made his way in, I prepared to go, but the Inspector pulled me aside and pointed down.
As he pulled a key from around his neck, he unlocked the gate saying, "You may descend into the Subterranean Chamber now,” pointing down.
"I don't think so, dude," I said staring down into the darkness. “Where the hell does this go and why aren't you coming?”
"All I know is that I was asked to allow you to enter the chamber below, alone, and I was to wait here for your return. Don't worry, it’s only another 40 meters down, then the tunnel will flatten out and lead to a small unfinished chamber." He thought for a minute then asked, "You did not ask to see the chamber?"
"No!” I said with obvious frustration.
I stood there trying to think, but with all the bodies that had just passed through this close space, it was hot, stuffy, and more than a little claustrophobic. Unable to think of anything else, I grabbed the flashlight the inspector offered, moved my camera bag to my front and continued down the descending corridor.
"Don't worry, sir, I will be waiting here,” the Inspector’s call echoed behind me.
All material ©2017 Ronald Gary Dunlap