THE EGYPTIAN CAT MYSTERY
A RICK BRANT SCIENCE-ADVENTURE STORY
BY JOHN BLAINE
GROSSET & DUNLAP, INC., 1961 NEW YORK, N. Y.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Printed in the United States of America
[Transcriber's Note: Extensive research did not discover a U.S. copyright renewal.]
I THE WINSTON PLAN
II THE EGYPTIAN CAT
IV EL MOUSKI
V SAHARA WELLS
VI THE CAT HAS KITTENS
VII THE EGYPTIAN MUSEUM
VIII THE MIDNIGHT CALL
IX THE UNINVITED VISITOR
X THE GREAT PYRAMID
XI THIRD BROTHER SMILES
XII THIRD BROTHER STOPS SMILING
XIII THE SPACE MYSTERY
XIV THE BROAD SAHARA
XV THE CAT COMES BACK
XVI THE HOWLING JACKALS
XVII ISMAIL BEN ADHEM
XVIII THE FIGHT AT SAHARA WELLS
XIX THE CAT'S SECRET
XX THE SIGNAL VANISHES
List of Illustrations
The room had been searched inch by inch. Someone wanted the cat!
A snub-nosed revolver was pointed at Rick's midriff
Hands pulled Rick from the saddle
THE EGYPTIAN CAT MYSTERY
The Winston Plan
The date was December twenty-third. The time along the Greenwich meridian, from which all world times are measured, was 8:15 P.M. At widely scattered points around the globe, four voices were raised simultaneously.
Even an experienced observer could not have found a connection between the four voices and what they were saying, yet each voice started actions that would soon be interwoven into a single pattern—a pattern of danger, adventure, and mystery that would culminate in sudden violence within sight of one of the seven wonders of the world.
In Chicago, it was 2:15 in the afternoon. At the edge of the city a man spoke into the telephone in the office of a small plastics factory. "The cat is ready," he said.
In Paris, a phone rang. The man who answered noted in the log that his overseas call had gone through at exactly 9:15 p.m. He picked up the phone and spoke crisply. "_Monsieur l'Inspecteur? ... _Bien._ This is Interpol. We have a relay for you from the United States. Monsieur, this will please you—and it most certainly will amaze you. Message begins..."
In Cairo, the time was 10:15 P.M. A famous Egyptian astronomer walked into his office and called to his associate. "Hakim! Good news. He can come. Now we can find out what that accursed hydrogen-line impulse means."
On Spindrift Island, off the coast of New Jersey, it was 3:15 in the afternoon. The island was quiet under a blanket of snow. The long, gray laboratory buildings, where so many dramatic scientific developments had taken place, were deserted. Only in the homes of the scientists was there activity, and all of it was in preparation for Christmas.
In the big main house on the seaward side of the island, Dr. Hartson Brant, director of the world-famous Spindrift Scientific Foundation, walked to the foot of the stairs and called to his son.
"Rick, can you come to the library in five minutes? Bring Scotty with you."
Rick Brant, a tall boy with light-brown hair and eyes, paused in his gift wrapping long enough to call an affirmative to his father, then he made sure Don Scott, whose room was next door, had heard the summons.
Scotty had. He came through the connecting door. "What's up?"
"Don't know. Maybe Dad has some Christmas chores for us to do."
Scotty, a big, husky boy with black hair and brown eyes, was an ex-Marine who had originally joined the Spindrift group as a guard during the adventure of The Rocket's Shadow. Since then, he and Rick had become the closest of friends, and the Brants had accepted him as a full-fledged member of the family.
"I'm willing, whatever it is," Scotty told Rick. "I'm so full of Yuletide spirit I may bust a seam from sheer joy."
Rick grinned. He felt exactly the same way. He continued wrapping the present for his sister Barbara, a pretty girl a year his junior. Barby had a definite talent for sketching and painting and Rick had bought her a complete artist's kit, hoping it would encourage her natural skill.
"She'll be tickled pink," Scotty remarked. "Come on. Let's go down."
"Go ahead. I'll be right with you." Rick finished taping on a spray of evergreen, then he carefully put the present out of sight under his workbench. Barby's lively curiosity was subdued at Christmas time, but it was better not to take chances. He surveyed the bench to see if he had left anything out. Usually it was cluttered with apparatus, tools, and parts, because Rick was an inveterate experimenter, but it was clear now, in preparation for the holiday.
He walked down the corridor to the stairs, smiling to himself. Christmas at Spindrift was fun. The entire scientific staff and their families joined in, first in cutting their own trees from the stand of spruce at the back side of the island, then in decorating the big tree in the Brant library. On Christmas Eve there was a Yule log to be brought in and presents to be exchanged, although the Brants waited until morning to open their gifts to each other.
Hartson Brant and Scotty were waiting in the library, standing before the great fireplace in which logs crackled merrily. Seated in the leather chair next to the Christmas tree was Parnell Winston, one of the leading staff scientists.
Winston was a big man, with jet-black curly hair and great bushy eyebrows that hid merry blue eyes. He was an expert in cybernetics, the science of electronic computer design, and his contributions to the theory of computer operations, and to advanced electronic control systems, were known to scientists around the world. Winston had originally joined the staff to supervise the design and construction of a "thinking machine," the Tractosaur.
Hartson Brant, an older version of his son, greeted the boy. "Come in, Rick. Parnell, the floor is yours."
Winston motioned the boys to chairs. "Sit down. I called this meeting to make a proposal. But first, how are your bank balances? Fat or thin?"
Rick considered. Most of his income, including his small salary as a laboratory assistant, went into his education fund. However, the salary he had earned for working at the Nevada rocket base during The Scarlet Lake Mystery had been put into his "ready" fund. "I'm in good shape," he said, and Scotty echoed him.
"Fine. Now, the Egyptian Astronomical Society has just finished constructing a new radio telescope. It's a first-rate instrument from which we expect great things. Your father and I were in at its birth, so to speak. We consulted on the initial designs during a meeting of the International Astronomical Union."
Rick knew that was one of the many world-wide private scientific organizations operating under the International Council of Scientific Unions. He also knew of the growing importance of radio astronomy, but he hadn't known the Egyptians were in on it.
"Apparently some unusual trouble developed during the tuning of the instrument," Winston went on. "Earlier this afternoon I had a phone call from Cairo, and a request to help our Egyptian colleagues iron out the bugs. I accepted."
Rick sat upright in his chair. Winston going to Cairo? How did this concern Scotty and him?
"My proposal is this," Winston concluded. "The Egyptians are short of technicians and we may need help. I'll leave the day after Christmas, returning within ten days. If you two can pay half your expenses, and help me half the time, I'll take you with me."
Both boys jumped to their feet. Rick looked anxiously at his father.
Hartson Brant smiled. "According to Parnell's schedule, you'll be back just in time for school at the end of the holidays. If you want to go, of course."
Rick let out a wild yell of exuberance that brought his sister Barby running to the library. She looked at the group with wide eyes. "Rick! Was that you?"
He grinned at her. "It wasn't a wounded buffalo, Sis. Guess what? We're going to Egypt!"
Barby's pert face lengthened. "I don't suppose I can go, too?"
Parnell Winston walked over and ruffled her blond hair. "Not this time, Barby. But I'll make you a promise. The next field expedition under my supervision will include my wife, you, and Jan Miller."
The prospect of an expedition that included Jan, daughter of one of the staff physicists and her dearest friend, cheered Barby at once.
"I don't suppose you could promise to leave Rick and Scotty at home?" she asked.
"Can't promise." Winston chuckled. "We might need them to carry your luggage. Girls can't travel without a dozen suitcases each, I'm told."
The scientist turned to the boys. "Start reading up on the country, and I'll arrange for you to get some additional background by meeting some Egyptians. It happens that an Egyptian physicist is arriving in New York today for a lecture tour of American universities. There's a reception for him tomorrow. We'll drive to New York. You can meet him and some of his countrymen, and we'll go to the consulate to obtain visas. Are your passports and health cards up to date?"
Fortunately, all was in order because the boys had spent a part of the summer in the Sulu Sea region, where they had helped to locate and rescue two staff scientists.
Barby asked wistfully, "Couldn't I meet some real Egyptians, too?"
As Scotty had once said, if Barby ever got wistful while fishing, the fish would knock themselves out trying to climb into the boat to cheer her up. Winston replied quickly, "No reason why not. I'll check with my host, but I'm sure it's all right, so you can plan to come with us."
Rick's eyes met Scotty's. He shrugged. He was glad in one way that his sister could go, because he always hated to have her unhappy about being left behind. On the other hand, Barby was unpredictable. He couldn't be sure of what she might do or say, but he could be certain her curiosity and enthusiasm would stir up something.
If Rick had been enough of a prophet to see all the events his pretty sister's helpfulness at the reception would get him into, he would have handcuffed her to the Christmas tree before ever allowing her off Spindrift Island.
The Egyptian Cat
The reception for Dr. Hayret Ahmed was at the home of an Egyptian importer named Mohammed Bartouki. Barby, the boys, and Winston rang the bell of a brownstone house on New York's Upper East Side promptly at noon.
Winston had checked with his host by phone, and his request that he be allowed to bring his young associates to meet Bartouki had been met with enthusiastic pleasure. Mohammed Bartouki had assured the scientist that he would look forward to meeting the young people of Dr. Hartson Brant's household.
The door was opened by a figure right out of The Arabian Nights, or so it seemed to the young people. The doorman was a huge Negro dressed in flowing red trousers that tucked in at the ankles. His sandals turned up in points at the front, Persian style. An embroidered vest set off a loose white silk shirt, and on his head was a red fez, shaped like a section of a cone, slightly less in diameter at the top than at the bottom.
"Please come in," he requested. His voice was accented. Rick saw that he had two horizontal hairline scars on each cheek.
The man took their coats, giving Barby a courtly bow. "Dr. Bartouki asks if you will please join him in the salon. It is straight ahead."
As they walked down the carpeted hall Barby gave Winston a smile of sheer delight. "He's right out of a movie," she whispered. "Even to the fez and the scars on his cheeks."
Winston smiled back. "In Egypt a fez is called a tarboosh. The scars mean he is a Sudanese, from the country south of Egypt. I agree he's a very picturesque type. I suspect Bartouki dressed him up for effect. It's a common practice."
"What's Bartouki a doctor of?" Rick asked.
"I don't know. Law or something similar, I imagine. He's not a scientist or medical doctor."
Mohammed Bartouki himself came to meet them. He was a round little man, scarcely taller than Barby, with twinkling eyes behind horn-rimmed glasses. He was dressed in an ordinary business suit.
"My dear Dr. Winston, how nice of you to come. And these are your young friends?"
Winston introduced the young people. Rick found his hand captured in a warm, firm grip.
"Welcome, welcome," Bartouki said, beaming. "We will have an opportunity to talk about your trip to my country as soon as these scientists turn the conversation to some matter of science we do not understand." He smiled at Winston. "You see, I know you professional people. The nationality does not matter. Put two of you together and the conversation at once turns to some development a poor merchant cannot possibly comprehend. That is why I am glad you brought Miss Barbara, and Rick and Scotty, as you called them, if I may be so familiar. At least I can talk with them."
Rick could see that Barby was charmed by the little merchant, and he could understand why. Bartouki radiated warmth and enthusiasm.
In a moment the four Spindrifters were being introduced to Dr. Hayret Ahmed and a bewildering assortment of people. Evidently they were all scientists of different nationalities, except for two officers of the United Arab Republic consulate. Rick recognized a few of the names, and found he knew one or two of the Americans.
True to Bartouki's prediction, the talk turned to scientific subjects within minutes. Rick followed the conversation, which was about a new development in the capture and study of free radicals, but only for a few minutes. The scientists were over his head in short order.
Scotty chuckled. "I always thought a free radical was a political bomb thrower out of jail."
"It's a highly energetic chemical particle," Rick said.
"That's nice," Barby said. "Only I'd rather talk with Dr. Bartouki than discuss energetic chemicals."
The merchant arranged things very smoothly. He announced that he would not dream of allowing protocol to interfere with such a fascinating conversation, and put the scientists together at one end of the table. The officers from the consulate, evidently in deference to the distinguished Egyptian scientist, continued to listen closely to the talk, even though Rick was sure they didn't understand a word.
The three young people found themselves free to talk with their host, and the boys at once began firing questions.
Bartouki described Cairo and promised that he would present them with guidebooks to be read on the way over. He told them about things to do in the ancient city, and listed places that were "musts" for tourists. They included the step pyramid at Sakkarah, the Egyptian Museum, the mosque of Sultan Hassan, and the mosque and college of El Azhar, founded in the ninth century.
"Of course you will see a great deal of the Sphinx and the pyramids at Giza, since our new radio telescope is nearby. But most of all, you must see El Mouski."
"What is that?" Rick asked.
"It is the Cairo bazaar. There are several sections, known as sooks. They have names like Khan El Khalili, Ghooriyeh, Sagha, Sook El Nahassin, and so on, but the principal one is Mouski."
"Spell it for me," Barby pleaded.
Bartouki smiled. "What you ask is difficult. We use a different alphabet, so there is no exact equivalent, only what is called transliteration, which uses phonetics. So the bazaar can be Mouski, Muski, Mosky, Mouskey, or anything else that sounds the same. Even for Giza, where the pyramids are, there are many spellings."
"I wish you'd tell my English teacher that." Barby sighed. "I think my way of spelling is just as good as hers."
Bartouki and the boys laughed sympathetically. The little merchant said, "Whatever the spelling, El Mouski will fascinate you. Many things are made there especially for tourists. Some of the workmanship is excellent, and the prices are very low."
"We haven't had much luck with bazaars that cater to tourists," Scotty replied. "We prefer markets where local people buy, because the things are more authentic."
Bartouki chuckled. "That is wise, in most countries. But consider. The attraction for tourists are things that are clearly Egyptian in origin, no? Such things vanished from all but our museums some years ago. You could not buy a genuine Egyptian tapestry, or a stone carving from a tomb. Such things are beyond price. They are national treasures. But you can buy very attractive and authentic reproductions."
"The people of Cairo wouldn't want reproductions, would they?" Barby asked. "So they have to be made just for tourists."
"And for export," Bartouki added. "I import them myself for a few American shops. After lunch I will show you samples and you will see."
It seemed reasonable to Rick when he thought about it. Genuine Egyptian things simply were not obtainable. "What else is made for tourists?" he queried.
"Many things, of gold, silver, and ivory. There are bags of camel leather that Miss Barbara would enjoy having. There are brass goods of all kinds, and copperware with a partial tin coating called washed tin."
The conversation paused long enough for a few bites of lunch, then Bartouki resumed. "We try to take good care of tourists in the United Arab Republic, both in Egypt and in Syria. For example, we license our guide-interpreters, who are called dragomen. There is also a special police force with no job but aid to tourists. And we are always looking for ways to improve our reproductions to make them more attractive and authentic. I will show you a new design."
By the time luncheon had ended, the talk among the scientists had progressed to the basic theory of what physicists call "the solid state." Even Rick, with his rapidly growing background of scientific knowledge, could understand only fragments of conversation.
"Let them talk over their coffee," Bartouki said. "They are enjoying it. We will retire to my den and I will show you examples from El Mouski."
The samples were everything Bartouki had promised. There were wall hangings, beautifully made of tiny pieces of colored cloth appliqued on a natural-color fabric, bags and pouches of leather, leather hassocks, ivory carvings of ancient Egyptian gods, inlaid boxes and chests, and dozens of both useful and ornamental utensils of brass, copper, washed tin, and ceramics. Barby went into raptures. At every new item she urged Rick to bring her one just like it.
"I'll rent a jet just to carry my luggage," he said, grinning. "You've already ordered a ton, and I get only sixty-six pounds."
Bartouki came to his rescue. "Let me show you a new tourist attraction. It just arrived by messenger this morning."
He went to a cabinet, opened it, and produced a stone cat. It was about ten inches high, in a sitting position with its tail curled around to meet its feet. It was of sandy texture, reddish in color.
"Sandstone?" Rick guessed.
Bartouki smiled. "I hoped you would say that. Here. Examine it."
Rick took the cat. He liked it very much. The design was clean and elegant, stylized after the Egyptian manner. But it wasn't sandstone. It was heavy, but not heavy enough to be sandstone, and the sheen was not that of a mineral. Whatever the material, it had been fashioned in one piece, probably cast in a mold.
"I give up," he said. "What is it?"
"Plastic," Bartouki replied, obviously pleased. "It did not come from Egypt. It was made right here in America. In Chicago, to be exact. It is what you call a prototype."
"But it's Egyptian in design," Barby protested. She took the cat from Rick and examined it.
"Yes, it is clearly an Egyptian cat. The design came from Egypt, but the cat from America. I have been working on this for months with a plastics company. Now I have the model, and the method. We will reproduce these in quantity in Cairo."
"It's pretty heavy for plastic," Rick commented.
"True. We put a piece of lead in the middle of the casting. You see, it looks like stone, and the buyer will expect it to be heavy. So, for psychological reasons, we give it weight—only not so much that it becomes a problem to carry."
"You certainly have it worked out," Scotty said admiringly. "But why a cat? Why not a ... a camel?"
"We have camels of camel leather, brass, and wood. But we do not have a good cat. You see, the cat is important in Egyptian history. There was even a cat goddess of the Upper Nile Kingdom, called Bubaste. In the ancient tombs there are sometimes mummies of cats. Some cat lovers think our land first developed the domestic strain of cat. So we believe tourist cat lovers should have an authentic reproduction of one. This particular cat is a faithful copy of an antique, which I am fortunate to own."
"What will you do with it now?" Barby asked.
"Send it to my associate in Cairo, as soon as possible. I would like to airmail it right away, but you Americans overload the mails at Christmas, so it would be safer to wait. Next week I hope to send it with full instructions, hoping to get production started in time for the big tourist season. I wish it could go sooner. It is needed."
Barby said impulsively, "Rick leaves the day after tomorrow. He could take it for you. Couldn't you, Rick?"
There was no reason to refuse. It was certainly a worthy project, and Bartouki had been generous in answering their questions.
"Be glad to," Rick said.
The merchant's eyes lighted. "It would not be an imposition?"
"Of course not. I can put it right in with my clothes. I have plenty of room."
"Believe me, I will be in your debt. And so will my associate, Ali Moustafa. You will like him. He is a great, jolly man, three times my size. If he had a beard, he would resemble your Santa Claus. And he will insist that you accept some token of his appreciation. I will send the instructions separately, so you need not bother with the technical reports."
"I couldn't accept a gift for such a little thing," Rick protested. He looked at the cat, now in Scotty's hands. It was a handsome little statue.
"Ali Moustafa is a hard man to refuse," Bartouki said. "You should not deprive him of the pleasure of making a gift. But I will not press you. It will be between you and him. You are quite sure it will be no trouble?"
Rick's words would return to haunt him during the days ahead. He said blithely, "No trouble at all."
The jet descended smoothly over the desert on the approach to Cairo International Airport. Rick leaned toward the window to watch for the first sign of a runway. In the distance he could see the valley of the Nile River, a great green swath which cut through the tan desert wastes.
"Excited?" Scotty asked.
Rick had to grin. "Excited? Why should I be excited? A trip to Egypt is an everyday event for me. Stop asking silly questions and look at the scenery."
"I would," Scotty told him, "only somebody's head is in the way. I won't exactly say it's a fathead, but it's too thick to see through."
"Real subtle. I like the way you give delicate hints." Rick moved back so Scotty could see, and watched as the great plane dropped toward the desert, then touched down and sped along modern runways to the administration building.
Two Egyptians were waiting as Winston and the boys walked down the stairway, and the scientist at once hurried to greet them. Obviously the three were old friends.
Winston introduced the two boys. The older of the two Egyptians was Dr. Abdel Kerama. He was a tall, gray-haired man of distinguished appearance. Rick thought that in traditional desert costume he would look like the head sheik of all the desert tribes. The younger Egyptian was Dr. Hakim Farid, a youthful, clean-cut man with an attractive smile.
Rick knew from Winston's advance briefing that these were the two leading radio astronomers of the United Arab Republic, and that both had international reputations in the field.
The Egyptian scientists made the boys feel at home right away. Dr. Kerama took Scotty and Winston by the arms, and Dr. Farid fell in step with Rick as the group walked toward the administration building.
"We're glad you could come," Farid said in excellent English. "We'll try to make your visit interesting."
Rick thanked him. "I don't know whether we'll be of much use, but we're willing to do anything we're told. All we ask is a little chance to see your country."
"You'll have every chance," Dr. Farid told him. "Before there is any work for you, Parnell will have to do a pretty thorough analysis of data we've collected. It's a problem that has us ... what's the American expression? Buffaloed?"
"That's it," Rick agreed. "What kind of problem is it?"
"It's what you might call very strange behavior on the part of a hydrogen-line impulse we picked up while calibrating our receiver. Are you familiar with radio astronomy?"
"Not very," Rick admitted. "I tried to read some of the current literature when I found we were coming, but most of it is over my head."
"Then I won't bore you with a technical discussion. Briefly, the noise emitted by hydrogen gas in space is very important to us in our analysis of the nature and distribution of matter. This radio noise is, of course, random. Usually when we are examining a hydrogen source we get pretty continuous and regular signals. If we could hear it, there would be a sort of hissing noise. Do you follow me?"
"Good. Our problem is that we are picking up impulses. You might even call them signals. They are on the frequency of neutral hydrogen, but it's hard to believe they're natural in origin. We've about concluded that somehow our amplifier system is modulating the incoming hydrogen signal from the antenna. The trouble is, we can't locate the cause."
"Is that why you called Dr. Winston?" Rick asked.
"Yes. He has a reputation for finding bugs in electronic circuits. If he can find this one, we'll be tempted to reward him with a pyramid or something appropriate."
Rick saw the twinkle in Dr. Farid's eyes. "Better not make it a pyramid," he said hastily. "His luggage is limited to sixty-six pounds. They might not let him on the plane with it."
"A happy thought," Dr. Farid said seriously. "You have saved us from possible embarrassment. It would be useless to give him a pyramid when his weight limit is thirty kilos, as we call sixty-six pounds."
Rick chuckled. One reason he so enjoyed his association with scientists was the dry sense of humor most of them seemed to share.
They reached the administration building and started through the formalities of customs and immigration. The Americans had filled out customs forms and currency declarations on the plane, and in only a short time the formalities were over and their admission into the United Arab Republic was official. The customs inspectors hadn't even asked them to open their luggage.
The trip from the airport took over an hour. It led through Heliopolis, City of the Sun, the first capital of a united Egypt. The land had been governed for over a thousand years from Heliopolis. But that, as Dr. Kerama explained, was over four thousand years ago.
Rick was awed. Coming from a new land where a hundred years seemed a very long time, the antiquity of Egypt stirred his imagination. But there was little that seemed ancient in modern Heliopolis. There were attractive, modern apartment houses, new public buildings, and rows of trees carefully trimmed into perfect green cylinders.
The entry into Cairo itself was through rows of tall wooden or brick structures, along streets traveled by everything from the latest European cars to plodding donkey carts. The people were dressed in a variety of costumes, from suits and dresses that would have been suitable in New York, to traditional Arab dress with flowing robes and the cloth headdress that is held in place by a band or roll of fabric around the head, just above the eyes.
The car passed the railroad station and the great statue of Rameses the Second, Pharaoh of Egypt. The Nile came into view, and Farid pointed out the row of hotels on the other side. The Shepheard's and the Nile Hilton flanked the older, Victorian bulk of the Semiramis, where they would stay. They sped across a bridge, entered a plaza full of honking horns and speeding cars, then moved to the comparative quiet of a street along the Nile embankment to the hotel.
Uniformed attendants came running for their bags. The group entered the lobby, and Rick looked around with interest.
The Semiramis was big, with lofty ceilings and chandeliers. The walls were decorated with scrolls and tapestries. The rugs had once been red. There was a kind of eighteenth-century grandeur about it, even though it had turned a little shabby over the years.
The formalities of registration were completed, then the Americans went to the cashier and exchanged dollars for Egyptian pounds and coins in units called piastres. They carefully put away their receipts for the exchange, since currency control in the country was strict.
"Go ahead," Winston told the boys. "Farid and Kerama will come with me. I want to start talking over this interesting problem of theirs, and I imagine you want to rest."
Rick did not feel in the least like resting, but made no comment. He and Scotty got into a tiny, ornate elevator cage with walls of gilded-iron lattice. There wasn't room for the porters with their bags; they ran up the stairs while the boys rode with the smiling elevator operator. It wasn't a fast ride.
"Climbing rate, one hundred feet per minute," Scotty said. Rick grinned.
They were let off at the third floor, and weren't in the least surprised to find the porters waiting for them. They followed the men into a room that made them stop short with amazement.
The entrance to the hotel and the lobby had been big, but the room was enormous, spacious, and very tastefully furnished, European style.
"As big as Grand Central Station!" Scotty exclaimed.
Rick echoed, "We'll rattle around in here like a pair of pebbles in a fifty-gallon tank."
The bath was larger than most American hotel rooms, with a twenty-foot ceiling, and the closet would easily have accommodated a king's wardrobe. Rick thought that maybe it had, in times past.
He tipped the porters and closed the door behind them, then motioned to Scotty. "Go on down to the other end of the room and shout. I want to see if I can hear you."
Scotty started to oblige, grinning, then turned and called, "Come look at this view!" He had discovered that the French doors at the front of the room opened onto a tiny balcony that overlooked the Nile.
The great river was only the width of a narrow street away. Sailing gracefully along with brown sail set was a Nile boat. The bridge they had crossed was directly ahead of the boat, and Rick looked for the drawspan through which it would pass. There was none!
"He'll crash right into the bridge!" Rick exclaimed. "Why doesn't he correct his course?"
"Rudder stuck, maybe," Scotty offered. "But why doesn't he drop the sail and try to lose headway?"
They watched helplessly as the boat, fully fifty feet in length, bore down on the bridge. There were many people in sight, and a steady line of cars crossing the bridge, but no one paid the slightest attention.
Scotty grabbed Rick's arm. He started to laugh. "Look at that mast!"
Fascinated, Rick watched as the huge mast dipped slowly backward, triangular sail and all, until it lay nearly flat on the deck. The boat slipped under the bridge with room to spare. On the other side, the mast slowly went up to its normal rakish position again, the sail filled, and wind and current bore the boat steadily down the Nile.
"Not exactly the way we'd do it," Rick said with a grin, "but pretty effective." It was a reminder that they were in a new land, where customs were strange to them.
"You learn something new every day," Scotty agreed. "Let's unpack, then go visit the city."
"Better wait and see what Winston has in mind for us," Rick cautioned. He began to stow his clothing in one of the big dressers. He lifted a shirt, and stared down at the Egyptian cat nestling among his T shirts. "Tell you what, if Winston doesn't need us, let's deliver the cat. We can see some of the city coming and going."
When their clothes were stored, they washed away the grime of travel and Rick called Winston's room.
Hakim Farid answered. "Don't think we've forgotten you," the young radio astronomer said. "But Parnell and Kerama wasted no time in getting down to business. I doubt that you could interrupt long enough to get a sensible answer. Do you have any plans?"
"We have an errand at El Mouski," Rick replied. "Would it be all right for us to go?"
"No reason why not. You'll need a car. I would offer you mine, except that you have no local license. You could take a taxi, but a licensed dragoman would be better. Suppose I suggest one with a car?"
Rick remembered that Bartouki had told them a dragoman was a guide-interpreter. "That would be very good of you," he replied.
"All right. I will send one I know, or a friend of his if he is not available. Wait in your room and he will come for you."
Rick thanked Farid and hung up. He reported the conversation to Scotty.
"First time I've ever had a guide in a city," Scotty said. "Makes me feel important, like visiting royalty or something. Couldn't we just get a map instead?"
"We'd still need a car. Might as well get one with a built-in talking map. Besides, I like the idea. I want to be escorted like a visiting prime minister."
There was a paper laundry bag in the closet. Rick used it to wrap the cat against possible scratches. Scotty took the few moments to get some cards written, to which he signed both their names.
There was a polite knock on the door, and Rick opened it. He gaped at the sight of what was apparently their dragoman. He was a magnificent figure in blue pantaloons and short red jacket. He had an engaging black face marred by three straight hairline scars that ran in a diagonal across his cheeks.
"Have honor to present me," the figure announced formally. "Name of Hassan. To serve you."
"Come in, Hassan," Rick invited. "Are you the dragoman Dr. Farid sent?"
"Is same, ya sidi. To serve you."
Rick introduced himself and Scotty. He inspected the guide with interest. Hassan was young, with a friendly white-toothed smile. The scars identified him as Sudanese, but Rick didn't know enough about the markings to tell what part of the Sudan he came from. A different part from Bartouki's servant, though, because the scars were at a different angle, and Hassan had three on each cheek.
Rick's quick imagination could picture the Sudanese in a different setting, with scimitar in hand, guarding the palace of a legendary sultan. It was hard to imagine him in the prosaic role of a guide. Rick resolved to take a picture for Barby's benefit. A blackamoor warrior right out of the tales of Scheherazade! That was how she would see it.
The boys shook hands with the dragoman, and Rick saw that he responded to their obvious friendliness. The costume was an odd one, though. Rick hadn't seen any like it on the street, and he wondered if Hassan wore it for effect, since most of his customers probably were tourists. Later he found that the guess was right.
"Where you like to go?" Hassan asked.
Scotty spoke up. "You know El Mouski?"
Hassan's face split in a wide grin. "Who does not?"
"That'll teach me to ask silly questions," Scotty said ruefully. "Like asking a New Yorker if he ever heard of Central Park."
The boys walked downstairs with Hassan, since it was faster than taking the elevator, and went to the alley behind the hotel where he had parked his car.
The car was a small foreign sedan of a make neither boy had ever heard of. Apparently Hassan also used it as a taxi, because the front passenger seat was taken up mostly by a taxi meter.
Rick showed Hassan the address in his notebook. The guide shook his head. "Please, you read."
Rick looked at him with astonishment. A guide who couldn't read? But apparently it was so. "It is the store of Ali Moustafa," he explained.
Hassan shrugged. "I do not know it. But it can be found. Enshallah."
Although the boys did not recognize it then, the word was a common expression meaning "If God wills it."
They would learn it, though, and with it other Arabic words, including zanb, dassissa, and khatar—or, in English, crime, intrigue, and danger!
Hassan drove out of the hotel alley into a chaos of horns, pedestrians who flirted with sudden death, wildly maneuvering cars, and donkey carts that always seemed on the verge of being hit by an accelerating truck. It was a normal day in Cairo traffic.
The boys watched with mixed fear and amazement—fear that Hassan would hit someone and amazement that he didn't. Time after time he bore down on a slow-moving Egyptian and Rick's heart leaped into his throat until collision was averted by some miracle or other, usually a wild, record-breaking leap by the pedestrian.
The trip from the airport had been along streets that formed a kind of throughway, but in the city itself, the traffic was the kind that would send an American traffic cop screaming for the riot squad. Here, no one seemed to think anything of it.
The boys relaxed a little as it became clear that Hassan knew what he was doing. His driving was perhaps a shade more careful than that of most drivers. Once, as he sped down a crowded, narrow street at forty miles an hour, horns blasted behind them.
Rick turned, but could see nothing wrong. He asked, "Why all the honking, Hassan?"
"They want we go faster," the dragoman said.
Scotty laughed. "Might as well relax. This is the slow, sleepy pace of the Middle East we used to read about."
Rick laughed with him. He had seen hectic traffic before, but nothing to compare with Cairo. This wasn't traffic. It was some kind of wild contest with no rules and only survival as the winner's prize. "Any number can play," he muttered.
He tried to pay attention to signs, but they were in Arabic script. He saw that modern Cairo was giving way to the older city. The buildings were smaller, more closely spaced. Most were of wood, but a few were obviously of ancient stone. In this part of the city, merchants displayed their wares on the sidewalks in front of cubicle-sized stores.
Then, with a suddenness that threw them forward, Hassan pulled into a parking place, jammed on the brakes, and killed the motor. "We walk now," he told them. "Street too small for car."
Rick could see only narrow alleys. If they were the streets Hassan meant, walking was the only possible means of transportation.
In the square where Hassan had halted were dozens of merchants, some with their wares in carts, others carrying them on their backs. A rug merchant approached and Hassan waved him off. "Come. El Mouski over there." He pointed to a narrow alleyway.
The boys followed, eyes taking in the sights, smells, and noises. Merchants hawked their wares with raucous cries, charcoal braziers smoked under assorted foodstuffs, and the air was redolent with the odors of food, people, and the accumulated living of many centuries.
In the alley were shops, closely packed, some little more than a doorway wide and others of quite respectable size. A few even had glass windows with displays. There were textiles, foodstuffs, tinned copper, brass, leather goods, inlaid work, rugs, shoes of strange designs, clothing, and a variety of antiques.
Hassan stopped before a cubicle crowded with interesting brassware and spoke in Arabic to a dark man with tiny spectacles. Rick thought he heard the name of Ali Moustafa. He waited while the merchant replied at length, with much waving of the hands as he outlined the path to the establishment.
"I know now," Hassan informed them. "We go."
Rick and Scotty fell in step with the guide. In many places the alleys were under roofs or wooden awnings. In other places the buildings were so close together that the three walked in single file. Rick could see that daylight seldom reached the bottom of El Mouski. He moved aside to make room for a donkey which carried huge jars.
Merchants beckoned to the boys, promising low prices and goods of superb quality, but Hassan waved them off. Occasionally a beggar approached, but the boys were surprised by the small number of mendicants.
The path passed from alley to alley, past dozens of shops. Rick saw a few tourists, but the tourist season was still weeks ahead and most of the people were Egyptian.
A little Egyptian boy with a dirty face called, "Yonkees! 'Ello!" The boys returned his cheerful grin.
"This is a good-natured crowd," Rick commented. Many of the dark, Semitic faces greeted them with cordial smiles and a half-salute of welcome.
"Friendly people," Scotty agreed. "How far, Hassan?"
"Two streets. Soon."
The dragoman turned a corner, led them straight ahead for a few hundred steps, then turned a second corner. He pointed. Diagonally across the alley was a large store with display windows. A sign over the door carried the name ALI MOUSTAFA surrounded by Arabic script.
"We'll get rid of the cat, then do some shopping," Rick said. "I'm anxious for a closer look at some of these shops. How about you?"
"Ali Moustafa's seems pretty good to me," Scotty replied. "Look at that stuff." He pointed to leather goods displayed in one window. "It's beautiful. Go on in and deliver kitty while I see what some of these things are."
"I tell you," Hassan offered. "Then I help bargain so prices be low. No bargain, prices too high."
Rick walked in through the open door, his eyes taking in the amazing collection of stuff sold by Ali Moustafa. The store was a big one, especially compared with most in the bazaar, and there were several clerks. The walls were lined with shelves that held copperware, brassware, silver, and inlaid boxes. He saw rolls of tapestries, collections of brass camels and donkeys, and glassed-in cases of jewelry. Crowding the floor space were huge vases of brass or pottery, camel saddles, metal trays on low stands, and huge leather hassocks.
The clerks eyed him with interest, then all eyes focused on the package under his arm. For a moment Rick felt a current of tension run through the store, but he dismissed it as imagination. He walked toward the rear counter, trying to identify Ali Moustafa, but none of the clerks fitted the description Bartouki had given.
He addressed his question to the clerk behind the rearmost counter. "Is Mr. Moustafa here?"
The clerk's dark eyes flickered, and his face became expressionless. "Please to be seated. I will get him."
The clerk vanished through a curtained door at the rear of the store, and Rick turned. He was sensitive to impressions, and he was again conscious of the tension. As he turned he saw that all the clerks were watching him, their faces impassive. His eyes went to the front of the store. Scotty was with Hassan in the doorway, discussing some object in the display window.
A voice spoke from behind him. "You wish to see me?"
Rick turned. The newcomer was a tall, well-built Egyptian with glossy black hair and a military mustache. Unblinking black eyes met his gaze, and there was no hint of welcome in them.
"Are you Ali Moustafa?" Rick asked.
The man bowed a quarter of an inch. "At your service," he said.
Rick didn't know what to say. Bartouki had described a huge, jolly fat man, like Santa Claus without a beard. This man was big, but not huge, not fat, and definitely not jolly.
For a moment Rick hesitated, then asked, "Is there another Ali Moustafa in the bazaar?"
The black eyes locked with his. "There is no other. I am the only Ali Moustafa. And you? If you are Mr. Brant from America, I have been expecting you. Bartouki said you would deliver a package. Is it the one under your arm perhaps?"
Rick didn't like this at all. Even if the description had been exaggerated in some respects, this cold conversation was scarcely a cordial welcome. Yet, the man knew about the cat, and about Bartouki. Something was wrong. He wanted to deliver the cat as he had promised, but he had no intention of turning it over to the wrong man.
"I have a package," he returned evenly. "I'm sorry it can't be delivered now. The man who receives it will have to identify himself without question as the proper Ali Moustafa."
The man shrugged. "You came to my shop. The sign tells you who I am. There is no other Ali Moustafa. So, I will accept delivery of the cat, if you please."
Rick shook his head. "Sorry."
The man spoke in Arabic and took a step forward. Sensing movement behind him, Rick whirled.
The clerks were moving to block his way!
Rick reacted with lightning speed. He yelled, "Scotty!"
Scotty sensed the urgency of the call and jumped into the doorway.
Rick lifted the Egyptian cat and rifled a pass through the closing ranks of clerks. Scotty snatched the cat out of the air. Rick followed through with a battering charge that sent a clerk caroming into a stack of copper jars. They went down with a clatter. Another clerk reached out and Rick gave him a straight arm that cleared the way long enough for a jump to the outside.
"Run!" he yelled.
Hassan had been standing with mouth open, astonished at the proceedings. Now, as a clerk charged through the door, the dragoman flung himself sideways in a beautiful body block that sent the clerk back into the store with a crash. Then the three were rounding the corner at top speed, pushing through the people in the street.
From behind them came a shouted command in Arabic. A figure in a long, dirty robe stepped into Scotty's path and grabbed for the cat. The boy tossed a lateral pass to Rick, who tucked the package under his arm. Scotty's hand lashed out and his open palm caught the Arab under the chin. The man lifted inches into the air and his head thudded audibly against a brick wall. He lost all interest in the proceedings.
Hassan led the way like a charging lineman, with Rick in his wake. Scotty fell back a few paces to prevent attack from behind. But in spite of a few yells from the rear, no one else menaced them. The people of the bazaar obviously were curious, but not involved.
Rick had a fleeting thought that a pair of obvious foreigners running at top speed through a department store at home would arouse some curiosity, too. He grinned, in spite of his bewilderment. Then they were at the car. Hassan wheeled the little sedan around in almost its own length and charged through the crowded streets like a miniature juggernaut, heading back to the hotel.
* * * * *
A short time later over cafe au lait, part coffee and part hot milk, the boys and Hassan held a half-angry, half-amused post mortem. There had been no opportunity in the car for real conversation because of the sheer adventure of rocketing through impossible traffic at equally impossible speed. Rick had reported briefly to Scotty, and that was all.
Scotty took a sip from his steaming cup and turned to Hassan. "You ever play football?"
Hassan stumbled over the word. "Footsball? What are footsball?"
"Never mind." Scotty grinned. "The way you took that clerk out, I thought you might have played blocking back for the Green Bay Packers."
The dragoman's bewilderment deepened. Rick came to his rescue. "Football is an American game, Hassan. It is rough. The Green Bay Packers is the name of a famous professional football team."
"One thing is for sure," Scotty offered. "The clerks didn't know football. That flat pass you threw was good for plenty of yardage."
"It made a touchdown," Rick pointed out. He changed the subject. "Look, what went on in that store, anyway? I don't know who the big man was, but he wasn't Ali Moustafa. At least he didn't come close to Bartouki's description."
"Why didn't you give him the cat, anyway?" Scotty asked with a grin. "Afraid a brand-new mystery might end without you getting a piece of it?"
Rick grinned back. "Not a bad idea, now that you mention it. I didn't think of it at the time. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wasn't going to hand over any helpless little pussycat to a guy with eyes like that. He'd mistreat it."
"Uhuh. Only, now what do we do with the cat?"
"Give it to the right Ali Moustafa," Rick said. "There must be a right one somewhere."
Scotty waved his arm in a gesture that took in all of Egypt, half of the Sudan, and most of Libya. "Help yourself. I'll bet there are ten thousand Ali Moustafas around. How do you find the right one?"
Rick didn't try to answer. Instead, he asked Hassan, "Could there be another Ali Moustafa in El Mouski?"
The guide shook his head. "I ask my friend when we stop. He say there is only one, and he tell me how we get there."
Rick's brows furrowed. "Then that must be the shop Bartouki meant. Only where was big, fat, jolly Ali Moustafa? Or could I be wrong about the description?"
Scotty was definite. "Not a chance. I remember the description the way you do. Either Bartouki didn't know his own partner, or the man you saw was not Ali Moustafa—unless he took off weight and shaved his beard. And changed his disposition in the bargain."
"Which brings us back to the question before the house. What do we do with the Egyptian cat?"
"Give it to Hassan," Scotty suggested with a smile.
The dragoman's pleasant black face assumed an air of great sadness. "Cat's nice," he said. "But no can take. Too much cost for food."
Rick smiled at the joke, then suddenly he realized Hassan was not joking. He was genuinely sad! He took the package from his lap and held it up. "Hassan, what do you think is in here?"
The dragoman shrugged. "You say cat. I believe."
Scotty asked incredulously, "Didn't you think carrying a cat wrapped in paper was pretty strange?"
Hassan smiled apologetically. "Americans many time do thing I not understand."
Rick choked back laughter with a heroic effort and almost strangled. Scotty found a handkerchief and blew his nose violently.
"Pretty strong coffee," Rick managed finally.
Scotty nodded, struggling to keep a straight face. Neither of them wanted to risk hurting the guide's feelings.
"Hassan," Rick said at last, "even American science couldn't keep a live, wide-awake cat quiet in a paper parcel. This cat is a model, a statue. You see?"
For an instant Hassan stared, then he rocked back, his white teeth flashed, and he shouted with laughter. The boys broke down, too, and in a moment the entire patronage of the coffee shop was staring at the three idiots who roared with unrestrained laughter in public. Such behavior in Americans was to be deplored, perhaps, but understandable. But a licensed dragoman ... incredible!
When they had quieted down, Rick summed it up. "Well, Hassan knows what's in the package now, but that's the only new bit of information any of us has. We still don't know exactly what happened in the bazaar, or why. And we don't know what to do with the cat."
He felt the cat through the heavy paper, as though to reassure himself it was there. Suddenly he didn't want to get rid of it quite so urgently, and inwardly he laughed at himself. A mystery was one thing he couldn't ignore.
"I hope I'm wrong," he concluded thoughtfully, "but I have a hunch this little plastic feline is going to be more trouble than the liveliest real cat you ever saw!"
Hassan arrived during breakfast on the following morning. His colorful costume had given way to European clothes, except for a tarboosh. He wore a topcoat.
At Rick's invitation he joined the boys on the balcony overlooking the Nile, and accepted the offer of coffee. Rick went to the novel push-bell system which had three buttons identified by pictures. One was a porter, another the room maid, and the third a waiter. The little drawings were for the benefit of strangers who knew neither Arabic nor English.
Rick rang for the waiter and ordered more coffee and a cup for the dragoman.
Hassan shed his topcoat and grinned at the boys. "Cat catch mouse last night?"
"No mouse," Scotty replied. "The cat just caught some sleep. And so did we."
Hassan puzzled out the reply, then smiled his appreciation.
Rick thought that the cat hadn't even caught any interest—at least from the scientists. At dinner he and Scotty had described the incident at El Mouski to Winston and the Egyptian scientists. The scientists had only one suggestion, to the effect that perhaps the boys' imaginations had run away with them.
It was obvious that the scientists were far more interested in the problem of the radio telescope than in listening to tales of wild adventure in the bazaar, so the boys let the matter drop. They had excused themselves immediately after dinner and turned in, tired from the long plane trip and the day's excitement.
Rick had gone over the events at the bazaar a dozen times. He had compared notes with Scotty on what Bartouki had told them. Clearly, something was pretty strange about the whole affair. It was simply inconceivable that Bartouki would have given an inaccurate description of Ali Moustafa, so the man in the store had not been Bartouki's partner. Yet, he had known about the cat, and had called Rick by name. Who was he? And where was the real Ali Moustafa? There were no answers, at least for the present. But Rick didn't intend to give up.
He motioned to Hassan's coat. "Is it cold out today?"
"Yes. Good you wear coats when we go out. Later it will be warm, then cool again when sun goes."
The boys had decided to keep Hassan as a guide and driver during their entire stay. The dragoman's services were not expensive, and besides, both of them felt they had found a friend. The way Hassan had pitched in at the bazaar, with no questions asked and their interests obviously at heart, had been a fine example of professional loyalty coupled with a quick mind and fast reflexes.
After breakfast the boys went to the wardrobe and took out the coats they had brought. Rick's was brand new, a Christmas present from his father. It was a short, hip-length woolen coat that could double as a hunting jacket. In addition to the big outer pockets, it had inner game pockets lined with a leatherlike plastic. It was warm, but light. He was thoroughly pleased with it.
Scotty slipped into his own short coat, much like Rick's except for the game pockets. Then the ex-Marine motioned to the Egyptian cat, unwrapped and sitting in elegant repose on the writing desk. "What about Felix?" he asked.
Rick went over and picked up the cat. "We'd better take it along, I guess. It might get lonesome. Or we might run over Ali Moustafa on the way to the project." He slid the cat into an inner pocket. It fit with room to spare.
Scotty asked Hassan, with mock seriousness, "You know Sahara Wells?"
Hassan answered with equal seriousness. "Know Sahara Wells well."
The ride was an interesting one, up the Nile to a bridge different from the one they had crossed en route from the airport, along roads with a palm-shaded center strip, past mosques, stores, and airy, modern apartment houses. There was less traffic than in downtown Cairo, and Hassan went faster.
Scotty muttered, "Fewer close calls today."
Rick winced as the car almost scraped a woman with a basket of fruit balanced on her head. "Fewer, but closer."
The costumes on the street were mixed. There were many people, including women, in Western dress, but there were also many women in cloaks, and men in the traditional Arab bornoss, the enveloping robe called a burnoose in English. For the first time, the boys saw several men in blue gowns, and Rick asked Hassan what they were.
"Fellahin," Hassan replied. "How you say? Farmers. From country. Man tell me that is where your word 'fella' come from."
Rick looked with new interest. He had heard of the fellahin, the farmer-peasants of Egypt. Many of them lived and worked as their ancestors had centuries ago, plowing with wooden plows, living in mud-and-wattle houses. They represented the past of Egypt, as installations like the atomic energy plant at En-Shass, or Inchass as it was sometimes called, represented the future.
There were soldiers along the route, too, dressed in British-style brown uniforms. Some carried Sten guns, vicious little submachine guns originally of English manufacture.
"Why the soldiers?" Scotty asked.
"Camp near," Hassan replied.
And then, abruptly, the boys lost interest in people, because looming ahead, like something from a travel movie, was a pyramid!
Hassan rounded a corner and another pyramid came into view. They were enormous, Rick thought. He hadn't expected anything so huge. "Are we at Giza already?" he asked.
"This Giza," Hassan agreed. He pronounced it more like Gize'h.
"I always thought the pyramids were out in the desert," Scotty objected.
"Is true," Hassan said. "You will see."
They did, within minutes. The terrain changed from the green, fertile, Nile Valley to the bleak Sahara as though cut by a giant knife. For the first time, Rick understood the phrase "Egypt, gift of the Nile." Where the yearly Nile overflow brought fertile silt and moisture, there was lush green land. Where the overflow stopped, the desert began. No intermediate ground lay between. Egypt consisted of the Nile Valley and the desert, with nothing in between.
The road crossed the dividing line and they were in the Sahara Desert. Hassan drove between houses of faded red clay and tan stucco, unlike the modern apartments a few hundred yards back. It was as though they had driven into a different country. Children, goats, chickens, and Arab adults scattered before the car. It was a typical desert-country scene, and right at the edge of modern Cairo!
Hassan turned a sharp corner and Giza lay before them, up a gradual, rising slope.
In the immediate foreground was the Sphinx. Rick's first impression was that it was disappointingly small, as the great pyramids behind it were truly enormous. He could see all three Giza pyramids now.
Then he realized that his impressions had been gained entirely from pictures—and to an extent, the pictures had been false. The Sphinx, always shown in the foreground of pictures or taken from a low angle, loomed large in the camera lenses, with the pyramids looking relatively small in the distant background.
Human vision set the image straight, abruptly. The Sphinx was small, but only in comparison to the pyramids. Actually, it was a monument of heroic proportions.
"Please stop," Rick called, and Hassan did, with skidding wheels. The boys got out and stood gazing, in mixed awe and delight. This was the Egypt of antiquity, Rick thought. These were the monuments of a civilization already ancient when the Old Testament was new, monuments engineered with astounding precision when Rick's Anglo-Saxon forebears were still building crude shelters of mud and reeds.
Scotty's nudge aroused Rick from his reverie, and he turned for a close-up of his first live camel, not counting circuses or zoos. The camel was such a vision of homely awkwardness that Rick had to laugh.
The cameleer led the beast to where a party of tourists, obviously American, waited. The boys watched as the animal came to a halt. The driver bowed to the party. Then, taking a thin stick, he tapped the camel on bony knees that were wrapped in worn burlap. Instantly the camel let out a heartrending groan. Its ungainly legs folded like a poorly designed beach chair, and moaning in pure anguish, it knelt.
A lady tourist, giggling self-consciously, climbed up on the blanket-covered saddle. The camel let out a louder groan, one filled with such phony pain and despair that the boys burst out laughing. A tap of the driver's stick and the camel lurched to its feet, hind legs first like a cow. The lady tourist squealed mightily, the camel wailed in protest, the other tourists cheered, and the boys doubled with laughter.
Rick asked, still chuckling, "Hassan, do camels always complain like that?"
"Is true. They nasty and plenty noisy. They hate work. Driver makes them carry tourists and they holler plenty."
The camel quieted down to a low-voiced grumble. He was letting the world know that the arrangement was not pleasing and that he didn't intend to suffer in silence. Cameras began to snap, recording for the folks back home the undignified ride of the lady tourist on the ungainly camel before the ancient, majestic pyramids and the changeless, unsmiling Sphinx.
The three got back into the little car and Hassan took a road that curved gradually around a hill, past a hotel that he identified as the Mena House, and up to the largest pyramid, once the tomb of Khufu and still the greatest monument in all the world.
On a line into the desert were the slightly smaller pyramids of Kefren and Mankara. These, with the Sphinx, were among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Later, Rick promised Scotty, they would explore Giza and its wonders inch by inch. But now they were due at Sahara Wells. Hassan sped around the Khufu pyramid and pointed. There, on the horizon, was a strange contrast to the monuments of the Pharaohs. The steel-and-aluminum shape of the great, steerable dish antenna, designed for modern astronomy, was silhouetted against the sky.
Rick was excited. He enjoyed new sights and experiences more than most people, and here, within sight of each other, were unique objects of almost equal interest, but entirely different.
The way led past a single large building surrounded by shabby tents, and a sign in English and Arabic that proclaimed that this was Sahara Wells. Then the blacktop road curved out into the desert to the great radio telescope.
Hassan drove into a parking lot before the main project building in the shadow of the antenna and Dr. Hakim Farid came out to greet the boys.
"Welcome to Sahara Wells," he said cordially. "How do you like our baby?"
Rick looked up at the huge dish. "It's a good mate for the pyramids," he said.
"Pretty impressive," Scotty added.
"We hope its performance will be impressive, too, once we get this bug ironed out. Come on in. Winston and Kerama are hard at work."
The boys followed him into the building, while Hassan squatted in the sun next to his car. The door opened directly into the main control room, a bewildering confusion of panels, instruments, and controls. There were several scientists and technicians clustered around Winston and Kerama. The group was studying Sanborn tracings, continuous graphs showing the lines traced by the incoming signals.
Farid introduced the boys to the staff, then took them on a quick tour. He showed them the controls for the great dish. They were fully automatic. The operator needed only to set the co-ordinates for the part of the sky to be examined, then clock mechanisms of remarkable precision would keep the telescope on target until the target sank below the horizon.
The boys examined banks of amplifiers that would turn faint signals into usable ones. The latest techniques had been used to ensure maximum performance.
Outside, Farid showed them the self-contained diesel-electric power plant. They stood directly under the massive concrete mount for the great dish and marveled at its size. The main bearings on which it moved were bigger around than Scotty was tall, yet the whole affair was so delicately balanced that a tiny electric motor could control it with fantastic precision.
Still under construction were offices and barracks. The latter would allow the scientists to stay there for days at a time when working on particular projects. The offices were nearly done, and plasterers were at work, but the forms for the barracks floor were just being completed. The pouring of concrete would start on the following day.
Rick looked at the pyramids on the horizon and contrasted this scene of construction with the one that had produced the great tombs. Then, it was only men—thousands of them. Today, it was a handful of skilled workers plus machinery.
"Now," Farid said, "let's get back to the control room. Kerama is going to review the situation for the staff. Some of them are new on the job."
As Farid and the boys rejoined the others, Dr. Kerama was pointing to a series of peaks on the Sanborn tracings. "You will note that these peaks occur at intervals, with the spacing apparently random. The main sequence of noise out of which the peaks rise is the 21-centimeter hydrogen line. Notice also that the peaks have nearly identical amplitudes. Obviously, the source is neutral hydrogen, which is to say hydrogen in its normal form, not ionized as we find it in plasma in a star's atmosphere. Our problem is simply to locate the source of the peaks. Somewhere in the circuit there seems to be an effect that serves to modulate the incoming signal. Our antenna will be useless unless we eliminate this interference so that the signal can be pure once again."
Rick had seen Sanborn tracings before. The system was a standard method of recording. His first experience with it had been in making permanent records of telemetered signals from rockets.
A technician asked, "Sir, do these peaks occur no matter how the antenna is pointing?"
Kerama shook his head. "No. If you will examine the peaks in terms of time and the co-ordinates, you will see that they began at a particular point during a sweep of the sky. Our first thought was that we had picked up some source emitting pulsed signals, but the source is apparently moving. This is why we concluded the difficulty was in our system, since no sky source moves with such angular velocity."
The Egyptian scientist began giving assignments. Rick and Scotty were given a test kit and put to work checking a part of the circuit one wire at a time. It was slow, difficult work, requiring great care.
It was warm in the control room. Rick hung up his coat, pausing to touch the Egyptian cat in his pocket. He hadn't thought of the little beast for some time. What was he to do with it? From a simple delivery job, as a favor to an acquaintance, the cat had become a problem. Rick couldn't resist a mystery, but this one had him stopped cold for the time being. He didn't know what to do next. The only solution that had occurred to him was to send a cable to Bartouki, to ask for further instructions.
He shrugged and put the problem aside, and went back to helping Scotty.
It was late before Kerama called a halt. The boys rode back to the hotel with Hassan, grateful for the relief of concentrating on thousands of tiny wires. They told the dragoman to go on home, then went into the dining room for dinner before retiring for the night. Winston, who never seemed to tire when working, had stayed with Kerama and Farid to continue discussions of possible sources of trouble.
After dinner Rick picked up their key at the hotel desk and they rode the tiny elevator to their floor. They opened up and went in. Rick locked the door while Scotty snapped on the lights.
Scotty let out a sudden yell! Rick whirled and gasped. The room was a shambles. Every drawer was open and their contents were dumped out on the floor. Their suitcases had been left open. The bed-clothes were in a heap in the middle of the room, and the mattresses were on the floor.
Rick glanced at the key in his hand and realized that it was a very ordinary type; master keys that would allow a thief access could be bought in any hardware store. He followed Scotty to the closet and saw that their clothes had been searched and dropped carelessly. Nothing was left on the hangers.
The room had been searched inch by inch, and by someone in a hurry.
Rick's hand went to the Egyptian cat in his pocket.
"They wanted the cat," he said slowly. "I can't see that anything is missing. But why is the cat so important?"
He drew it out of his pocket and stared at it. Then his eyes met Scotty's. His pal shrugged. Neither of them had even the slightest clue.
The Cat Has Kittens
The sun blazed down on Sahara Wells. In the distance the pyramids looked hazy, and beyond them Cairo was a thin line of green and brown along the Nile. It was fairly warm in the sun, but a cool wind blew across the desert and coats were comfortable.
Rick and Scotty sat on a box under the antenna while Hassan squatted and watched them. For the moment there was nothing for them to do. The scientists were occupied with calculations, and neither boy could make a contribution to high mathematics of the kind used in radio astronomy.
Rick was glad of the break. His mind hadn't been on the job, anyway—it had been on the Egyptian cat. For perhaps the hundredth time he asked, "Why is the cat valuable? Why would anyone want it enough to stage that scene at El Mouski and then ransack our room?"
Scotty had no answers, but he had some questions of his own. "What I want to know is, did the hall porter just happen to step out at the right moment for the thief? Or is he in the act somehow?"
"It really doesn't make much difference," Rick pointed out. "He might have been paid to take a walk, but that doesn't mean he knows anything."
"Okay. Try this one. Where is the real Ali Moustafa?"
"Good question. Now I'll ask one. What do we do next?"
"You could cable Bartouki, or even phone him," Scotty replied. "You said you had thought about it."
Rick hesitated. He tried to put his reluctance into words. "I just don't think getting in touch with Bartouki is the right thing to do. I don't know why. Call it a hunch."
Scotty had a deep respect for Rick's hunches. They had a way of turning out to be right. He remembered a description of a hunch Rick had once used and repeated it. "A hunch is only a conscious conclusion based on subconscious data you don't know you have. Isn't that about it?"
Rick looked at him. "What are you driving at?"
"What data are buried in your subconscious that make you distrust Bartouki?"
"I didn't say I mistrusted him."
Scotty shrugged. "No, but you must, if you don't think it's right to call him."
Rick had to admit Scotty was probably right. What basis did he have for mistrusting the charming little Egyptian merchant? Certainly Bartouki had been nice to them, so carrying the cat to Egypt had been only common courtesy.
Experience had shown Rick that very often he could get ideas from reviewing conversations. He walked away from Hassan and Scotty and stared at the construction details of the antenna. But he wasn't really looking. Instead, he was trying to recall the entire scene leading up to his acceptance of the cat.
Bartouki had explained its importance. He had said it was needed. Now, what had led Barby to offer Rick's services as a messenger? The merchant had said that he was anxious to get it to Egypt, but that the Christmas mails were crowded. The Christmas mails ... that didn't seem like much of a reason for not sending it by air freight. Bartouki could have delivered it personally to Idlewild Terminal, to avoid getting it mixed up with the domestic mail....
"I've got it!" he yelled. He hurried over and stood in front of Scotty and Hassan. "Listen, who sends mail at Christmas time?"
Scotty's brows wrinkled. "Everyone, I guess."
"Not everyone." Rick warmed to his idea. "There are plenty of people who wait until the last few days before Christmas, but where are they? In America! Anyone overseas who sends a package home tries to get it in the mail early. Wouldn't you say so?"
"Maybe they should, but I suspect they don't. People are always waiting until the last moment."
"But is the overseas airmail so crowded you wouldn't trust a parcel to the regular mail system?"
Scotty shook his head. "I doubt it. What are you getting at?"
But Rick had an even better argument to bolster the case he was developing. "Christmas mail is to and from Christians, isn't it? Sure! Egypt is a Moslem country. Moslems don't send Christmas cards or presents, and they don't get them, either. The Christians in Egypt are Coptic—anyway, they don't celebrate Christmas the same way. So why would the airmail to Egypt be jammed?"
Hassan spoke up. "It not so heavy. My brother is letter carrier, and he no work very hard on Nasrani holiday. Nasrani is what we call Christian."
"I think you've got something," Scotty agreed. "Bartouki could have mailed the cat, but for some reason he wanted a messenger ..."
"... and we walked right into it," Rick finished. "Chances are that's why he showed us the cat in the first place."
"Barby had the bright idea," Scotty reminded. "Bartouki wasn't the one who suggested it."
"He didn't have to," Rick pointed out. "If she hadn't, I'll bet he would have led around to it some other way."
Scotty held up his hands in surrender. "I'll buy it. Bartouki needed a messenger. Why?"
Rick sat down on the box again. Why, indeed? He knew now why he distrusted Bartouki, but he had no idea of the merchant's reasons. He glared at his pal. "Kill-joy. So we get back to the basic question. What does kitty have that people want?"
He took the statue from his pocket and examined it closely, as he had done several times before. The bright sunlight disclosed nothing but a perfect bit of casting. He took out the pocket lens he carried for examination of specimens that might be useful in his hobby of microscopy, but magnification showed him nothing. It was a flawless job.
"I'm stumped," he admitted. "Come on. Let's stretch our legs before we get called back in to go to work."
Scotty and Hassan joined him as he walked toward the barracks where cement was being poured to form the floor. Scotty borrowed the cat for a quick look, then handed it back. Rick stowed it in his pocket.
"Whatever kitty's got, it's pretty interesting to some people," Scotty commented. "Otherwise, why go to all the trouble of trying to get it in the bazaar, then taking the risk of searching our room?"
Rick said what had been on his mind. "I have another happy thought for you. If they really want the cat, they'll try again."
"Whoever 'they' are," Scotty agreed. "Let me add a cheery note of my own while we're at it. They won't have to get the best detectives in the world to figure out that you've got the creature, either. If it isn't in the hotel room, it's on you."
Rick mulled that one over as they watched the workmen smoothing the poured concrete in the form. Would it be better if he disposed of the cat? But how could he? He couldn't leave it at the project, even though it was locked at night. The lock wouldn't stop professional thieves. He couldn't give the cat to one of the scientists, because that would expose them to the thieves, too. He could have it put in the hotel vault, but what assurance had he that it would be safe there? It occurred to him that he would have entrusted his valuables to the hotel vault with no hesitation, but the cat was different, somehow. He just didn't want it out of his hands until he knew more about it.
Hassan said idly, "Cement color like cat."
Rick's thoughts snapped back to the scene before him. The dragoman was right. The concrete mix had been colored to imitate sandstone, apparently a part of the plan to make the architecture as Egyptian as possible. There was enough of the mix in the form to make a thousand cats, and more was being mixed in a portable cement mixer.
The Great Idea took shape in his mind, and suddenly he laughed outright. "Kittens!" he exclaimed. "Wouldn't that throw them for a loop? I mean, if several Egyptian cats showed up."
Scotty laughed with him. "It definitely would. We'll show 'em that it doesn't pay to confuse us. Only how do we do it?"
Rick pointed to the office building where the plasterers were still at work. "Make a plaster cast, then use the concrete mix for the models. How about it?"
"Could work," Scotty said quickly. "Come on."
They rummaged around through the construction debris and found a pair of small wooden boxes that had held instruments. With Hassan as interpreter, Rick talked to the construction foreman and a plasterer was detailed to help. If the form could be prepared right away, the low desert humidity would harden it enough to use by the time they were through work.
The wooden boxes were filled with soft plaster while Rick coated the Egyptian cat with oil used to lubricate the antenna bearings. The cat was pushed into one box until only half of it showed. The plasterer smoothed the surface around the cat.
A sheet of scrap metal was used as a lid for the second box of plaster. Working quickly, the plasterer turned it upside down and held it in position while Scotty slipped the metal out of the way. The plasterer pushed it down on the cat, losing only a little plaster in the process. The little statue was now firmly embedded in plaster.
By the time the boys were summoned to the control room again, the plaster was firm enough so the plasterer could run a thin wire between the two boxes to start the process of separation. When the plaster was a little harder, he would use the wire and a long knife to separate the two halves completely.
The boys went to work, checking various elements under Winston's direction. They kept at it until late afternoon. The sun was slanting down behind the pyramids when they were told to knock off for the day.
They hurried to the plaster mold at once. Hassan was already there, waiting, with the plasterer. The Sudanese guide pointed to a batch of concrete in a wooden tub. "We mix, more dry than for the floor, so easier to make cats. Now we start?"
"Any time," Rick said. "Thanks, Hassan." The resourceful dragoman had realized the concrete mix being used for the floor was too liquid for easy handling and had prepared a drier batch.
The plasterer went to work at once. He worked rapidly but skillfully, using the wire and knife to cut through the plaster until he reached the cat. Rick worried that he might cut or scratch the original, but the Egyptian was deft. In a few moments he lifted the upper box and the cat came to light, still gleaming from its coating of oil. Rick lifted it out of its plaster bed. The two boxes now contained perfect half impressions.
The boys, Hassan, and the workman shook hands all around. It was a job well done. The rest was easy. Rick oiled the form while the plasterer put the new concrete mix through a screen to remove lumps, then the two halves were filled slightly overfull and put together. Pressure was applied simply by standing on the upper box.
The workman lifted the upper box off with great care, disclosing a perfect half-cat in fresh concrete. The dry mixture kept its shape, but made great care necessary. The Egyptian workman held out both hands and Hassan turned the bottom box over. Working gently, the plasterer released the casting from the mold. It dropped into his hands. The boys watched eagerly as he used his knife to trim the flashing from the cat replica, then he wet his fingers from a bucket and smoothed out a few rough spots. The man grinned with pleasure, and the boys grinned back.
"Perfect," Scotty said.
Rick added, "If I didn't know its mother personally, I'd think this was it."
The first kitten was put gently aside to dry while others were cast. The next two castings broke, but three perfect kittens resulted from six tries.
Rick was satisfied. "By tomorrow they'll be hard," he said with a grin. "Then we'll work out a cat distribution program. I may go back to El Mouski and hand one to the phony Ali Moustafa, just to see what happens."
"Not while I'm healthy enough to stop you," Scotty said positively. Then he grinned, too. "But there's nothing more fun than kittens, and we'll have plenty of laughs with these. You wait and see!"
The Egyptian Museum
Rick hung up the room phone and joined Scotty at the breakfast table. The ex-Marine was munching on a Lebanese tangerine and watching the Nile boats below.
"Farid says to take the morning off," Rick reported. "The scientists are about convinced that the signal isn't internal receiver noise, but that leaves them up a tree. If part of the circuit isn't causing the trouble, what is?"
Scotty waved his hand at the scene across the Nile where a great concrete tower rose into the sky. "It's this land. Look at it. There's a tower for television. A couple of miles away are the pyramids. Down the street is a new office building with aluminum walls, and it's right next to a stone mosque that's nearly as old as the city. If you ask me, Horus or Thoth or one of the old Egyptian gods is getting fed up and messing with the signal just for the fun of it."
Rick knew exactly how Scotty felt. The remarkable blend of the very old and the ultramodern was visible everywhere in Cairo. But somehow the two did not conflict, probably because the Egyptians had been wise in their choice of architecture.
"Maybe we'd better burn some incense and do a chant or two," Rick suggested. "How's this? Oh, Osiris, son of Isis, please get the bugs out of our antenna."
"That's no fit chant," Scotty objected. "A chant should rhyme, shouldn't it?"
Rick searched his memory for incantations to Egyptian gods, but there had been none in the books Bartouki had given them, although the gods had been described. He improvised quickly. "Then how's this?"
He took a pinch of sugar from the bowl and sprinkled it on Scotty's head as an offering to the gods, then bowed like a high priest and chanted:
"Anubis, Horus, Amon-Re, Are you near or far away? If you're tuned in close at hand, Clean up the H-emission band."
The piece of hard Egyptian bread thrown by Scotty caught him just behind the ear. Rick picked it up and threw it back, grinning.
"The things I have to put up with," Scotty exclaimed hopelessly. "I'm sorry I brought the whole thing up."
"It didn't help," Rick admitted. "But it gave me an idea. How about going to the Egyptian Museum this morning?"
"It's right across the park. Hassan can take the morning off and come back after lunch to drive us to the project."
"I'm your boy," Scotty agreed. "If you keep your chants to yourself, that is. Try one on those old statues at the museum and they'd fall on you."
"Oh, I don't know," Rick said loftily. "Maybe those old Egyptians had a better ear for poetry than you have."
"That's what I'm afraid of," Scotty returned. "If it sounds so terrible to me, think what it would sound like to a poetry lover. Go on and make your phone call."
Rick did. He asked the desk to relay a message to Hassan, then asked about the weather. The clerk spent a minute apologizing profusely. It was chilly, he admitted reluctantly. Very unusual for Egypt. Hadn't happened since 1898. Most regrettable. And so on.
"He sounded like a Sunshine Tourist Service trouble shooter explaining that the downpour was only a heavy mist," Rick said as he hung up. "The weather is unusual, remarkable, etc. It's chilly."
Scotty finished his coffee. "Okay. Let's go. Got the kitty?"
Rick took the Egyptian cat from its nest under his mattress and put it into the inner pocket of his coat. "Couldn't leave our pal, could we? Bad man might get 'im."
"We can't let that happen until we find out why the animal is so appealing," Scotty agreed.
"Spoken like a true Spindrifter. Do we walk, or take the elevator? Walking's faster, but the elevator is more adventurous."
"Walk," Scotty said. "You need the exercise."
Outside, the air was pleasantly crisp, but the sun was shining. Rick wondered if it ever rained in Cairo and made a mental note to look it up. He had brought a guidebook with him, and the map showed them the location of the museum.
They started off at a brisk pace, past the Nile Hilton Hotel, then across the heavy traffic of the bridge circle to the open park before the museum. As Rick turned to look at a statue he caught a glimpse of a figure dodging behind some shrubbery. His pulse speeded.
"Could be that we have a buddy," he announced. "I saw someone dodge behind a bush."
Scotty took a quick look without seeming to. "Someone there all right. A pal of our little cat?"
"It's certainly no chum of ours, if it's anyone who's interested in us. Let's hike and see how it goes."
They strolled idly past the museum, crossed the street, and walked up Kasr El Nil past the Modern Art Museum and the Automobile Club. Scotty took a pair of sunglasses from his pocket. They were of the silvered one-way mirror type that cuts down light transmission much as a neutral-density filter does for a camera.
Rick watched as he put them on, took them off again, and polished them with a handkerchief, turning them from side to side as he watched for spots.
"I knew those things looked like headlights," Rick gibed. "I didn't know they could also serve as rearview mirrors."
"I may write an article on this for the Journal of the Optical Society," Scotty said. "Works fine. Our buddy is a Sudanese, from the looks of him. Also, he has a comrade. A big, sloppy type in a black coat and a tarboosh. I'd hate to tangle with either of them."
Rick thought of Scotty's comment that it wouldn't take much of a detective to realize he had the cat on him.
Scotty added, "Some distance behind are two other types, in tarbooshes. They're striding along at the same pace we are, and keeping their distance. I'm flattered. Looks as if 'they' figured it would take four to handle us."
"Maybe they sent one for us and three for the cat," Rick said hopefully. "Cats are good scrappers. Any bright ideas, ol' chum?"
"Yep. Let's go to the museum. They can't touch us in a public place. Got the map?"
They consulted it, letting the trailers see what was going on. The street they were on formed one side of a triangle, with its apex at the square in front of the museum. The next left turn, and another left a block farther on, would bring them to the front of the museum through Gami Sharkas and Shampelion streets.
Rick wondered if the latter was the Arab-English equivalent of the name of the man who had translated the hieroglyphics on the famous Rosetta stone and is considered the father of Egyptology. He knew from his study of cryptography that the first man to read the strange Egyptian written language was Jean Francois Champollion. Or maybe the map maker had made a mistake by misspelling the name. He looked for a street sign in English when they reached the street, but he saw none.
He had to grin to himself at the strange turns his mind sometimes took. He should be concentrating on a plan of escape, not wondering about a strange spelling of a Frenchman's name. "See anything?" he asked Scotty.
"They're still with us. All four."
"Probably the second pair is in case the first pair loses us," Rick guessed. "Let's keep out of deserted alleys. They must be just waiting for an opportunity to grab us."
"I hear you talking," Scotty agreed. "And I believe every Brantish word of it."
They turned into the museum grounds, waving off guides who came running. Normally, they might have hired a museum guide, but they were suspicious now of all strangers.
Rick produced some piastres and paid their entrance fee. He noticed a sign at the window that said all parcels must be checked. He was glad kitty was hidden in his pocket.
Inside, they paused at the sudden spectacle of great stone figures and huge stone sarcophagi. There was a great hall filled with giant statuary straight ahead, and on each side, wide staircases led to the upper floor.
"Topside," Scotty said. "Then we can look down and see if any familiar faces come through the door."
They walked up the left-hand staircase, past rows of ancient wooden mummy cases, and came to the upper landing. A few minutes were spent inspecting the last resting place of a one-time Egyptian lord, with frequent glances toward the entrance.
"They don't need to follow us in," Rick pointed out finally. "Sooner or later we'll have to go out, and they'll be waiting."
"Sure. But it's wise to be careful. If one had followed us in here, we'd have been forced to keep an eye on him. Me, I want to see this museum."
They wandered through the countless rooms of the upper floor, each filled with antique treasures that were impossible to identify. There were few cards of explanation. One room was crowded with alabaster carvings, any one of which would have rated a whole room to itself in a modern American museum. The great building was literally jammed with rare objects, many of them thousands of years old. Uniformed guards were posted at every corner, obviously to protect the myriad treasures.
"The police are keeping an eye on us," Rick muttered.
"What else are they here for?" Scotty commented. "Don't try to carry off one of those ten-ton statues and they won't bother you."
Rick paused before a collection of brightly painted miniature clay soldiers, created to serve as a phantom army for some forgotten nobleman. "This stuff is priceless. I'll bet they really do need guards."
As the boys walked into a small room containing shelves of assorted clay and stone dishes and utensils, Scotty exclaimed, "Look, on the third shelf!"
Rick searched until he saw what Scotty's quick eyes had spotted. It was partly hidden behind a clay jug. An Egyptian cat!
Closer inspection showed that it was not the mate to the one he carried. The museum cat was darker, obviously older. It was more stylized and slightly larger. There was no identifying card.
The Egyptian cat returned his gaze with dark stone eyes. "Wonder if they'd like to have you, too?" Rick said to himself. Four men wanted the one in his pocket. He wished it was as safe as the antique before him. Suddenly he let out a pleased chuckle. He had the solution.
"Are you lonely, little cat?" he asked. "Would you like company?"
Scotty got it instantly. He patted Rick on the shoulder. "That's the old Brant brain, boy. I'll duck out and distract the guard."
Rick moved on, inspecting jugs until he saw Scotty engage the guard in conversation. His pal gradually turned as he talked, until the guard's back was toward Rick. It was the work of only a moment to slip the cat from his pocket and push it out of sight behind the jug that partially screened the museum cat.
He smiled to himself. From the looks of the museum, it was highly unlikely that the cat ever would be noticed, even if it stood there forever. If one of the Egyptologists ever did happen to see it, there would be a new puzzle to solve. Which dynasty invented plastics?
He walked to where Scotty was busy with the guard. The officer's understanding of English was about zero, and Scotty's knowledge of Arabic was slightly less, so they were getting nowhere.
When he saw Rick, Scotty stopped trying. He grinned and put out his hand. The guard grinned back and clasped Scotty's hand, with obvious relief that the struggle to communicate was over. He waved cordially as the boys went on their way.
"It is a distinct privilege to make such an outstanding contribution to Egyptian culture," Rick said. He was really relieved. Being unfamiliar with Cairo, they were apt to walk into an unexpected situation that might have resulted in loss of the cat. There would be no reason for anyone to suspect the cat's hiding place now, because no one except Scotty knew that he had carried it out of the hotel.
There was much to see, and the boys took their time, spending over an hour in the section devoted to the relics of Tut-Ankh-Amon, the boy Pharaoh who had died at about the age of eighteen. His tomb had been found intact, one of the few that had escaped the desert thieves. Priceless objects had been found, including the King's death mask of painted gold. It was one of the most beautiful objects of art the boys had ever seen.
Rick noted that at least one guard was always within easy reach of them, and that several guards patrolled the area. The area itself could be fenced off by steel grillwork. He agreed thoroughly with the precautions. The sheer weight of gold would be worth a Pharaoh's ransom, even if melted down. In their present form, Tut's treasures were beyond price.
The pangs of hunger finally drove them from the fascinating place, and both agreed to return with someone who could explain what they were seeing. They emerged into the brilliant Egyptian sunlight and stood blinking.
"We'd better head for the hotel on a beeline," Scotty suggested. "No sense in taking a chance on getting roughed up for nothing."
"That's sense, ol' buddy. Let's go."
They walked down the steps and out a path to the street. An old man with a pushcart was on the path, his cart laden with nuts of some kind. Rick stepped behind Scotty to give the vendor room, but the old man turned his cart suddenly and pushed it into them!
The cart upset and nuts cascaded underfoot. The boys struggled for balance. "Watch it!" Scotty yelled.
Four men bore down on them at top speed, screaming imprecations in Arabic. Rick saw the setup instantly. The four would simply be retaliating for the treatment of an old man by two foreigners. He got to his feet just as the four arrived, and saw that Scotty was crouched beside him.
The Sudanese and the big man in the tarboosh dove for the boys like a well-rehearsed wrestling team!
The Midnight Call
Rick and Scotty left the ground simultaneously in a dive for the legs charging toward them. They connected, and the impact sent the attackers to the ground. Rick recovered from the dive and tensed for a swing, but he never made it. Arms locked around his chest, pinioning his own arms to his side. He struggled violently, but the grip never yielded.
From the corner of his eye he saw Scotty get in one driving punch that sent the Sudanese down to one knee, then Scotty was pinioned from behind, too.
The big man and the Sudanese swung into action fast. Hands slapped Rick's clothes in a fast but thorough search. Next to him Scotty was getting the same treatment.
The big man spoke sharply in Arabic and both boys were suddenly hurled sideways, landing together in a heap. They jumped to their feet and saw only four retreating backs. Even the peddler had scuttled away, leaving the spilled nuts on the ground. It was senseless to pursue the men. The boys looked at each other grimly, then suddenly Scotty smiled.
"I don't know who they are," he stated, "but I'll tell you this. They're real professionals. I haven't been taken like that in a long, long time."
Rick had to agree. The two-team operation had been swift and efficient. Neither boy had been hurt, or even roughed up particularly. That wasn't the purpose. "So they won't get us in a public place, huh? Well, if they'd wanted to do damage, they could have." He added, "And we couldn't have done a thing. But all they wanted was the cat."
Scotty nodded agreement. He brushed dust off his trousers. "Might as well go back to the hotel. I'm hungry. Anyway, they know now that you don't have the cat on you—and that I don't, either. So what will they think?"
"Either that it's at the hotel or the project, or that we've put it somewhere for safekeeping. They searched the hotel room. Suppose they'll try the project?"
"It's possible, I suppose. Anyway, if they want us they can get us. Notice that no one saw the ruckus? The timing was perfect. A few feet sooner and we'd have been within sight of the museum's ticket office. A few feet later and we'd have been on the street. As it was, shrubs shielded them. Pretty good operating, I'd say."
Rick thought so, too, and it worried him. "I have an unhappy idea buzzing around. If I were the big boss, and really determined to get the cat, I'd pick us up and make us talk."
"The language is a little mixed, but the thought is clear as air. We'd better keep our guard up at all times."
"Meanwhile, what do we know about anything? Nothing. If only we knew why the cat is valuable!"
"If it wasn't before, it is now," Scotty replied. "It's a genuine museum piece. But if the cat is gone, we have three lovely kittens."
Rick chuckled. "What's the problem everyone has with kittens? It's finding a home for them. I wish we'd had one of the kittens a few minutes ago. There would have been one less homeless orphan."
"The kittens' turns will come. And it's our turn to eat. My stomach is quivering in Morse code. 'Send food. Send food.'"
Rick pointed to the hotel, just ahead. "Okay, chow hound. Lunch ahead. And lay off that hot-pepper stuff or that stomach of yours will be sending distress signals."
"I hear you talking," Scotty said feelingly. One dish, served at dinner the previous night, had required enough water to put out a three-alarm fire before the burning sensation stopped.
Hassan was waiting after lunch. He drove the boys to the project, where they looked into the control room long enough to let the scientists know they had arrived, then went at once to look at the kittens. Three identical statues, almost perfect replicas of the original, were sitting in the sunshine.
"Except for being a little rougher, they're our own dear little mysterious pet," Rick said. "Are they dry yet?"
Hassan passed the question on in Arabic to the workmen who had helped make the kittens. He reported, "They okay. You can take now."
"Ask him if we can give him a present for helping us," Scotty requested.
Hassan did so, then shook his head. He grinned, his teeth white in his pleasant black face. "He say making statues fun, not work. He help you yesterday, so he not have to fix plaster. All even."
The boys laughed at the explanation and shook hands with the workman.
"Now," Scotty asked, "what do we do with the children?"
"One goes in my pocket," Rick replied. "I feel lost without a friendly little feline weighing down one side of my coat. We can leave the others here in a safe place, maybe inside one of the control cabinets."
"Good idea. Going to tell Winston and the others about this morning?"
"Sure. Only I don't think we'll mention where the mama cat is hiding out. No use bogging them down with useless information. We'll tell Winston."
Scotty quirked an eyebrow. "Not suspicious of the others?"
Rick wasn't, and said so flatly. "Only the more people who know something, the more others are apt to find it out."
The scientists, however, were not even remotely interested. Their whole attention was given to the problem of getting the big radio telescope working.