Near the bottom of the shaft, I hit a patch of sand that loosened my foothold on the cross member and sent me careening down the last few feet. I hit the bottom pretty hard causing my feet to slide out from under me, busting my ass on the floor of the connecting corridor. There was a dim light ahead, which I guessed was the subterranean chamber. There wasn't room enough to turn around so I had to crab walk on my back, entering the chamber feet first.
Once inside the chamber, I lay on my back breathing hard. Then out of the darkness at the far end of the chamber, a tiny voice asked, "Are you Jackson Ford Price?"chamber a tiny voice asked, "Are you Jackson Ford Price?"
"Yeah, that's me. Who the fuck are you?" I replied.
From out of the shadows on the far side of the chamber, an old guy and a little girl emerged from the dark into the pool of greenish light cast by the one fluorescent bulb that illuminated the chamber.
Pushing myself off the floor, I said, "I asked who you were!"
"Once we've established who you are I will answer your question. May we see your passport?" she asked in a thin voice.
"I don't have it with me.”
"Then how am I to know who you are?”
"Don't you have my picture? Everyone else seems to.” I was tired, hot and totally disappointed that Mai Le wasn't here. "I've got a photocopy if that will do?" I added.
I started to walk forward but in a protective manner the old man held up his hand in a stop motion gesture. He uttered a guttural sound, left the girl's side and walked directly to me. I handed over the copy and he retreated.
She looked at the photocopy and asked, "Come a little closer. I want to see your eyes."
I took two steps forward into the glare of the unshaded light. “This OK?” I asked. And she nodded. The more I stared, the more I came to the realization that she wasn't a child at all, but a very small, very mature woman. Like a pristine porcelain doll of exquisite proportions that had been left out in the sun too long causing the glaze to crack. The old man beside her was massive compared to her but not that much bigger than myself, I surmised.
"I understand that there was an attempt on your sister's life while she was in California. What can you tell me about that, Mr. Jackson Ford Price?"
"I don't know about any attempt on her but I got a good clobbering. I was laid up in the hospital for a week and I left in a bad mood. You know, the kind where you don't want to take shit from anyone, especially an old woman and her custodian."
"You know nothing about what happened to her?" she continued, paying no heed to my sarcasm.
"While I was in the hospital, the Pasadena Police tried to find her but came up empty. She hadn't checked out of the Hilton, just disappeared. There was nothing that would indicate what had happened to her. No message, no note and no evidence of violence. So I'm not sure what transpired. Then out of the blue, a week later, I got a package containing a boatload of cash, plane tickets, and instructions to come here. I'm hoping that she was my benefactor, but right now I'm starting to wonder,” I said in reply to her question.
'Why are you here today?”
"Are you fucking kidding me?” I was beginning to lose my temper. "I'm just following instructions, stumbling along in the hope that Mai Le will show up. I have no fucking idea who you are or what the fucking hell I'm doing here."
Shaking her head, "Profane just like your father. Your semblance is a shadowy reminder of him, a man who respected nothing but overwhelming force. I knew and dealt with him for nearly a quarter century but never could fathom his personal motivations. He lived by his overarching mantra of ‘The only time violence doesn't work is when you don't use enough of it.’ I don't think he enjoyed brutality but he wasn't afraid to use it to obliterate those who stood in his way. He considered himself an Orientalist, in that way that many Occidentals do after they've lived and worked in the East for an extended period. He believed that he had acquired sufficient knowledge into the arcane mysteries of Asia that he had left his western prejudices behind. But he hadn’t. He never came to terms with the fact that he couldn't alter his or anyone else's fate. He pictured himself as a white knight, always at war with one thing or another, trying to enact his vision of what was fair.
“He loved his Americanism, that gave him an aura of privilege with a hint of underlying danger. Back home, he was just another gray man, with no special status or privilege, just another disenchanted member of the masses. That was the reason he spent so much of his time in Asia. It wasn't that he disliked you or your mother, it's just that he was addicted to his status of being an expatriate with an expense account. But I don't want to get sidetracked on your father's character flaws. You need to leave soon, so listen and take notes if you're like others of your generation."
"First, when you get back to your hotel, have the Concierge book you a sleeping compartment on the overnight train to Aswan for tomorrow night. Make sure he understands you want a sleeping compartment. And of course, you need to tip him lavishly. Like anything else in Egypt, ‘baksheesh’ makes things possible. Second, have dinner on the patio by the pool tonight. Someone will take your picture. Don't object or cause a scene. Third, tomorrow morning, visit the Egyptian Museum, with your camera. Go to the employee's entrance and tell the guard that you have an appointment with Dr. Waziri. There's a wonderful statue of Taweret, goddess of the river and child birth, on the ground floor. It is important he photograph you in front it with both his phone and your camera. Fourth, the overnight train's first stop is Giza and this is where you should board. Have Mr. Safe take you to the station, wait with you until he's sure you've gotten on board and the train has left the station."
"The train should arrive at Luxor around 6 am the next morning and this is where you will leave the train. That early, most of Luxor will still be asleep, but if you're lucky there'll be a cab waiting for a fare. Tell the driver that your destination is the Old Winter Palace hotel.
You have a reservation there for a week's stay. It's all prepaid with an early arrival. So, even that early, your room should be ready. Make a fuss if it's not. The early arrival charge was very dear. Check in and wait till word is passed to you. I don't know when that will be, so don't get nervous. Visit the Valley of the Kings or some of the other fabulous temples. The Ramesseum and Medinet Habu are both wonderful and be sure you visit the tomb of Seti the First. Be a tourist, enjoy your stay. Hire a local guide and be generous. The locals have to work very hard for their subsistence so don't be stingy. It will pay off in the long run," she instructed.
"Wait a minute, I don't understand why all this cloak and dagger shit is necessary. Why couldn't you have just come to my hotel? It wouldn't have been
"You are not the only one looking for Mai Le, Mr. Price. Even though her blood is diluted by her grandfather and father’s western influences, part of her is still the culmination of an ancient maternal pedigree. Many of her relatives believe that the clan still have a claim upon her and that duty binds her to whatever service the clan elders dictate. This puts us who are working for her self-determination in the position of making sure that we don't expose her to undo jeopardy. Thus, the "Journey of Meaningless Tasks.” A way of evaluating those who would interact with her person. No matter how nonsensical things seem, remember that your life and Mai Le’s may depend on the manner in which you overcome the obstacles placed before you. Be on your guard at all times, and be especially careful that you don't become a Stalking Horse."
“As for me, you can call me Suzie. It’s not the name I was born with but it's one that westerners can easily manage. I am a somewhat distant cousin of your sister and a past confident of her mother. This gracious, self-effacing gentleman is my husband of 40 years, Katip Suma Dich. His bloodline can be traced back to the first Arab traders who ventured into Southeast Asia in search of commerce and converts to Islam. Our union was considered an affront by the male members of my clan. Shortly after our marriage ceremony and before it could be consummated, my intransigent uncles abducted him, removing his tongue and gelding him to prevent our union from producing, in their words, an abomination, thus ending my husband's ancient line and relegating his family name to oblivion. Which is something that we both have sworn to avenge and why we are sympathetic to the plight of Mai Le's branch of the clan."
“When the French were ushered out of Vietnam and the Americans came in, many Ethnic Chinese, like myself and Mr. Dich, became uneasy and began secretly to move some of our assetsout of the country. When President Diem was assassinated we decided that Singapore would be a better long term solution for our little family. Singapore was one of the few places on earth that hadn't shunned us. With what tangible assets we had smuggled out, we were able to establish ourselves as modest restauranteurs in Singapore’s Chinatown.
“For the next few years, we had a semi-isolated existence concerning family matters. Then fate intervened. It was mid-morning, on a Monday. We were enduring an exceptionally hot and muggy summer when a willowy phantom glided in from the shimmering heat and seated herself at one of our tables in a darkened corner. At first glance, fear. We thought she was a ghost because she was the physical embodiment of the infamous Ju-long, our Great Grand Aunt. We envisioned that her spirit had come here to demand a service.
“It took a while for me to summon up the courage to walk over and confront her. But once at her table, she simply looked up at me, smiled and asked, ‘Can I get a bowl of Beef Pho and a large Coca-Cola, in a bottle, please?’”
“We didn't carry Coke so I sent the kitchen boy out to fetch one while my husband began preparing her soup. When the boy got back with the bottle of coke it was lukewarm so we chopped up some ice and treated it like a bottle of champagne. She was fanning herself trying to recover from the heat when I placed her meal on the table. And the boy had placed an ice bucket beside her table containing the Coke. When he popped off the top, Coke spewed everywhere. The young lady was startled, covered in the sugary drink. I was shocked into immobility, but in just a moment she began to laugh. After we cleaned her up as much as possible, I sent out for another bottle. While we waited we talked. I brought out a picture of my Grand Aunt and showed it to her asking who her people were. Well, it didn't take long before our family bond was reconnected.
“Soung Archimedes Patti, formerly of Paris, was a very successful young woman who had made her wealth independently of her family’s influence. She, like her daughter and your sister, Mai Le, had been schooled in Europe and America. Her ability with languages had enabled her to move between financial centers in America, Europe, and Asia with unprecedented ease. Her mixed parentage had once been a hindrance in her past, but with the rise of Asia's financial clout, it had become her best attribute. While Singapore was her home base, her work took her around the world.
“She had a lovely four bedroom flat in one of the newest high-rises in downtown. After a few months of knowing her, she invited us to stay with her so that we could become better acquainted and keep watch on the place while she was jetting around.
“It was around that time that she brought your father into our restaurant to meet us. They were an odd couple. Compared to Soung he was a closed book, but that didn't seem to matter to either of them. Over the next month, they were inseparable and oblivious of world events. Your father had an inner glow that radiated confidence and self-assurance. An evangelist for the American way, he was very well financed and believed that he could provide a justifiable solution for any situation.
“He was assured of the right of his and America's cause. He was in and out of our lives over the next twenty years. Even after your sister was born he couldn't be bound to anything except the rightness of his cause.
“Things in Vietnam weren’t going especially well for the South Vietnamese, but the word was that the U.S. was just about to up the anti. And Mr. Price was called back to duty. He'd been gone a couple of months when Soung's pregnancy began to show. He'd fly in every couple of weeks, stay for a couple days then rush back to solve another unforeseen problem in Vietnam. He wasn't there for Mai Le's birth but arrived with apologies and stuffed toys a week later.
“My husband and I became Mai Le's default family when both her parents were traveling. She became the joy of our lives for the next twelve years until she went off to boarding school.
“As we aged, my husband began to long to return to a land of his fathers. After a year of research into the financial feasibility of the move, we settled in the Zamalek section of Cairo. Compared to most of Cairo, Zamalek has a cosmopolitan European feel that helped me adapt to the role of women in a Muslim country.
“Mai Le's mother and I continued to correspond and when Mai Le came to Egypt to work for Dr. Zahi, she stayed in my flat while she was working at the Supreme Council of Antiquities. And believe it or not, I am here today at her behest to instruct and guide you.”
She looked at the watch on her husband's wrist, then said, "You should go now. You have many things to arrange. But do as your heart tells you."
All material copyright 2017 Ronald Gary Dunlap