Egypt, July 1962
Mahmoud Yussuf hated the desert, especially at night.
He hated its eerie silence, the snakes and scorpions waiting for him in the rocks, and the creatures with sharp teeth lurking in the shadows; but he hated other things even more. He hated being poor; he hated seeing guns in other men’s hands, especially if they were pointed at him; and he hated the slightest thought of pain. However, for enough money, for that bastard Landau’s money, Yussuf could tolerate almost anything.
Money! He cursed it now, as well as and his own greed. It was the reason he was lying on a dark sand dune … cold, paralyzed with fear, and doomed to stare over a tall, barbed-wire fence into an old and long abandoned British Royal Air Force base, waiting for that damned fool Landau to crawl back out through the barbed wire. As he waited, Yussuf felt the imagined terrors of the desert night wrap themselves around his fat body ever so slowly like the coils of a giant snake. It made him shiver and want to scream, but he couldn’t. He wanted to jump up and run away, but he couldn’t do that, either. He was trapped between his own demons and Landau’s money; so, he burrowed his fat, sweating carcass even deeper into the cold sand praying to a long-ignored God that that he might survive the night.
Yussuf and Landau made a very strange pair. He was a squat, jovial, dark-skinned Egyptian with his round cheeks and singular gold tooth, while the thin, gaunt Israeli had the unsmiling eyes of a mortician. The one thing the two men had in common was Landau’s money. Unfortunately, that was Yussuf’s dilemma. If he ran away now, he would never see a Shekel of it. So, he continued to curse himself, curse his mother for giving birth to such a spineless creature as he, and to curse every god he knew. He cursed them all, yet he continued to stay here on the sand dune.
It had been an hour since Landau had left him. When he did, he handed Yussuf an old Czech revolver, crawled through the same small cut in the fence that he used the night before, and calmly disappeared inside the old RAF base. Yussuf’s terrified eyes continued to search the darkness around him as his fingers tightened on the pistol grip and his knuckles turned white. His head whipped around and he looked over his shoulder, convinced he had seen or heard something moving about behind him. He anticipated that the guards would be back soon. Had they seen him? Had they found the hole in the fence and were creeping toward him through the sand dunes at this very moment? If they had, this old revolver wouldn’t be of much help. The guards carried submachine guns, and they would kill him if they caught him here … slowly, painfully, and without the slightest mercy.
Yussuf cursed this damned place again; and he cursed Landau, wishing he had never met the man. Finally, he cursed himself. How could he work for this Jew, not that the breed mattered a fig to Yussuf. In his day, he had spied for the Turks, the Syrians, the Russians, the Americans, and even the British. Why not an Israeli? After all, business was business, he shrugged. This time it was different, however; because Landau truly was insane. The man took what should have been a quick ‘break-in-and-look-around’ and turned it into a suicide mission. Cutting his way into that compound last night was risky enough. Going back inside a second night to take still more of his stinking photographs was certain to get them both killed. It was madness! If Yussuf had a brain in his head, he would crawl away into the night and go home this very instant. There was, however, that small matter of Landau’s money.
Yes, Landau would pay well for the night’s work if he came back out alive; so, Yussuf forced himself to forget the danger and focus on the money. He thought of all the lovely things he could spend it on — a new, white-linen suit; the down payment on a used Fiat sedan; or perhaps a juicy, young whore to finish off the night in style. Yussuf closed his eyes, ran his tongue across his parched lips, and felt himself getting hard at the thought. Perhaps he would look up that sharp-tongued bitch who worked at Karim’s, the one with the reed-thin waist and small, firm breasts. She had laughed at him when he wanted her, because he had no money. Well, Yussuf chortled to himself, he would settle his score with her properly. She wouldn’t be laughing at him or anyone else when he was finished. He would ride her until she was bow-legged, and then he would slap her raw.
Yussuf opened an eye just wide enough to realize that he was still lying on the cold desert sand. He groaned as his pleasant thoughts of Landau’s money and the delicious whore suddenly vanished, as did the stiffness in his pants. Like it or not, he was on his belly in the shallow trench he had gouged into a low sand ridge barely a hundred feet from the hole Landau cut in the wire fence dry-humping nothing but cold sand. After the crazy Jew disappeared through the wire, Yussuf scrambled up here, got down on all fours like a dog, and scooped the sand out with his bare hands, convinced he had found an excellent place to hide. That was an hour ago, when the hole in the wire had looked so very small and insignificant, barely large enough for a rabbit or wild dog. Now, however, as Yussuf continued to stare at it minute after agonizing minute, the hole appeared to be growing larger and larger until it gaped and yawned at him like the mouth of Hell itself. It was inviting him to come back down and crawl inside the old base and die alongside Landau.
Yussuf grimaced. When Landau crawled away, he turned toward Yussuf and told him to bend the wire back into place and cover the hole with some dry brush. That seemed like a reasonable task for the fellow to give him. To Yussuf’s eternal credit, he did manage to pull the fence somewhat back together and to kick a few dead branches toward the hole before he fled into the darkness just as fast as his short, panic-driven legs would carry him.
“Allah, oh most merciful and understanding, forgive me, forgive me,” he now looked up at the dark sky and fervently prayed. Unfortunately, Allah rarely granted miracles to fools. No, Allah reserved His very special punishments for them, punishments that precisely matched their sins; and they usually involved demons, venomous snakes, and large, hungry animals with sharp teeth. Tonight, Allah saw fit to condemn Yussuf to lie on this sand dune and stare down at the hole he had failed to cover … sweating, terrified, and knowing it would be his own sloth that got him killed. Yussuf knew the guards could not help seeing the fresh cuts in the wire. They would blow their whistles, set loose their snarling dogs, run across the dunes with flashlight beams dancing, and gun him down … that is, if the dogs didn’t tear him apart first. Nonetheless, Yussuf couldn’t summon even half the courage it would take to crawl down to the fence and fix it. No, Yussuf was doomed to lie here, to watch, to wait, and then to die for it.
“Landau, where are you?” he moaned and pounded the sand with his fist.
Slowly, he raised his head and took another desperate look into the compound. What could be so damned important down there? He knew there were two groups of buildings inside. He had seen them when they made their first reconnaissance of the area. Most of them were old army barracks, like the ones bunched together off to Yussuf’s left. Landau had given those a quick look last night, and then appeared to ignore them. No, his interest appeared to be exclusively focused on the larger buildings sitting by themselves farther back to the right. They looked like old airplane hangars with crates and old equipment sitting around them, but they were lit up like the Nile Hilton for Eid-al-Fitr, the big holiday at the end of Ramadan.
Why didn’t Landau care about the barracks, Yussuf wondered. True, they were old and decrepit, built in the 1940’s and dark inside. Earlier, however, there had been lights on and he saw troops milling about. The Army must be using them again and that meant something. More important still, what about all those tanks? Even he could see them … dozens and dozens of Russian T-34’s and T-54’s, enough to outfit an entire armored regiment. Someone tried to hide them in the groves of trees that ran around the far edge of the old base; but nothing stayed hidden from Yussuf’s prying eyes for very long, at least nothing of value.
Why were they here, he wondered. Why was any of this here? That, he knew, was the real mystery. The British abandoned this old base many years ago. There should not be any troops or tanks out here nor should there be so many guards, the fresh barbed wire, or perimeter lights, either. Everyone knew that Egypt’s armored regiments were based up north in the Delta around Alexandria or east across the Suez Canal in the Sinai, where the troops could protect the country from the Israelis. Cowards! They weren’t supposed to be hiding here in the suburbs of Cairo, less than fifteen miles from Tahir Square.
Yussuf reached up and tapped his gold tooth for luck. Well, if the Israelis didn’t care about these troops and tanks, someone else surely would. Yes, secrets were always worth something; and Mahmoud Yussuf never had a shortage of customers. Still, he was getting a bad feeling in his stomach about this place. Something wasn’t right. It did not resemble any air force base he had ever seen. What air force base was crisscrossed with strings of tall light poles? There was too much harsh, white light, and far too few dark shadows for a sane man to trust with his life. Yussuf never would, even if the hounds of hell itself were snapping at his heels. Landau, on the other hand, was as thin as a reed and simply ignored the lights. He thought he could float through the shadows as if he were one of them. That, Yussuf concluded, only confirmed the man’s complete insanity.
The wire and the lights were ominous enough, but what scared Yussuf most out here were the guards he saw around the compound. They were real ones, not the incompetent Egyptian militia who usually guarded monuments, historic places, and places like this. The militia were amateurs, and Yussuf had not seen crack troops like these since the British left. Methodically and relentlessly, he watched them sweep through the compound and around its perimeter repeatedly … hard-eyed, alert, and heavily armed. Well, one thing was for certain, he thought. They were not Egyptian. The troops sleeping in those barracks and minding the tanks might be Egyptian but not the men who guarded them. They were far too professional.
Landau hinted he was Mossad and talked a good game, but what would happen if the guards caught him, or worse still, what if they had already caught him! That thought made Yussuf break into a cold sweat. What if Landau was down there at this very moment spilling his guts out and telling them about his Egyptian ‘partner’ hiding in the sand dunes on the other side of the fence? Yussuf had been crazy to trust his life to a lunatic like that. The money had looked so very, very sweet back in Cairo. Now, he realized that he had sold himself too cheap by at least half.
Suddenly, he heard a sound. This time, it was not his imagination, either. He pressed his fat carcass deeper into the sand and prayed. There! He heard footsteps, slow and steady, walking along inside the fence, coming closer. The guards! He could see them now, two men with automatic rifles backlit by the lights in the compound, and he heard voices. Yussuf couldn’t make out their words, only hushed laughter as they joked and shared a quick smoke. He strained to make out the words, but he couldn’t. The language was certainly foreign. Russian? No, he knew a smattering of Russian and that wasn’t what he heard. It sounded more guttural … German? Perhaps. Yes, a few words here, a few more there, and then he was positive … it was German, all right. Those bastards! They were Germans, old Nazi Storm Troopers, no doubt, strolling about the Egyptian desert after they had been evicted less than twenty years before. So what were they doing here guarding Egyptian troops and tanks? Were they keeping them in, or keeping others out? It was a mystery all right; but if Landau wanted to know it this badly, then it must be valuable indeed and Yussuf knew what to do with things of value. There was no telling what it might be worth, but in the Middle East, even bits and pieces of the truth were like gold nuggets to a shrewd operative like Mahmoud Yussuf. He could only guess what that information might be worth and began licking his lips and dreaming again of the smart-mouthed whore in Cairo. Soon, he would have money, enough money to keep her all night this time and maybe the next day and the next day and night too. She wouldn’t be laughing at him then.
That was when the guards stop walking, and Mahmoud Yussuf stopped breathing. The guards were not a hundred feet from where he lay and not ten feet from the fence. Surely, they saw him. Surely, they saw the hole. After all, it was right there at their feet. With the slightest turn of their heads and the slightest glance, they would see the cut wire and Yussuf would be a dead man. He would hear the shouts and the angry chatter of gunshots, just before their bullets punched him full of holes. When the sun rose in the morning, his corpse would be lying out here like a bloody lump of carrion left for the vultures.
However, what if they decided not to kill him? His stomach suddenly jumped into his throat as he realized those grim prospects. What if they grabbed him and took him alive? Torture? “Oh, merciful Allah,” he groaned as he closed his eyes again, thinking of the terrible pain they would inflict on his body. He could never let that happen. Yussuf could not stand even the slightest amount of pain, so he could never let them take him alive. In his sweating hand was the pistol Landau had given him. It was old, but it worked. He gripped it tighter, raised it to the side of his head, and slowly pulled the hammer back until he heard a crisp Click! Better to die right here in the sand, he vowed, than to let those sadistic German bastards take him alive. Still, the touch of cold steel made him whimper. Gritting his teeth, he took up the slack on the trigger, trying not to think of the white-hot pain that was about to follow.
Then, just as he was about to blow his own brains out, he heard muffled laughter. He opened one eye and saw that the guards were actually laughing amongst each other, not pointing at the hole in the fence and screaming. To his utter amazement, he saw them turn and continue walking down the fence line and away from him. His finger froze on the trigger. He couldn’t believe it. As quickly as they had come, their footsteps faded away into the stillness of the desert night and they were gone.
Yussuf’s body began to tremble. The pistol dropped from his limp hand as if it weighed a ton. He felt drained, numb, giddy, and astonished to still be alive, until he remembered what he had almost done. His blood ran cold. The bile rose in his throat, making him gag. Had he lost his mind? He had almost killed himself although those jackals had not seen a damned thing. He had almost pulled the trigger and blown his own brains out, all because of that crazy Jew bastard, Landau! He cursed the man even harder now, convinced his insanity had become contagious. That son of a whore. If he wanted to go get himself killed, that was fine; but now he had Yussuf doing it, too. Well, no longer. The money be damned and Landau along with it.
Yussuf rose to his hands and knees and began to crawl backward across the sand, intent on quickly getting away until a new sound made him drop flat on the sand again. He froze. Someone was coming. Oh, no, not those cursed guards again, he moaned. They had only been pretending to leave, taunting him; and now they were coming back to kill him. Yussuf could not bring himself to look. He shut his eyes and listened to the pounding of his heart, certain they could hear it in Cairo.
He prayed to the cold sand, “I shall never do this abominable work again. Never! Allah, let me live? Mecca! I’ll take Haj, the pilgrimage; I swear it by the Prophet’s beard.” The prayer died in his throat, however, as a pebble plopped onto the sand next to him. Then he heard a faint whisper calling to him from the other side of the fence.
“Yussuf,” the whisper called out his name. “Yussuf, where are you?” He frowned and lifted his head a few inches as he realized it was Landau. Landau, the insane bastard of all insane bastards, had finally come back. “You fat piece of crap,” he heard Landau whisper again. The Israeli wore a dark sweater and slacks and had blackened his face like a commando, so Yussuf couldn’t see him. Still, Yussuf knew he wasn’t far away. He scrambled down the sand dune to the fence as if the Israeli was his long-lost brother. Forget the money, forget that skinny whore, and forget all the cursing and insults he had laid on him. All Yussuf wanted now was to grab Landau and run as far away from this place as he could. He reached the hole in the fence, intent on pulling that crazy Jew the rest of the way through and running away; but Landau pushed his hand away.
“No,” he said calmly. “I’m not finished yet, I’ve got to go back inside.”
Yussuf was stunned. “Back inside? You’re going back in there? You … you cannot do that. I won’t let you. You are insane, Landau. We must get away from this cursed place before the guards come back. Can’t you see that?”
“You go, if you must,” Landau whispered, as he fumbled with something in the dark.
“But the guards were just here, you fool …”
“I know. I saw them too.”
“They are Germans; they’ll feed us both to the dogs if they catch us.”
“Then go back to the car; I’ll meet you there in thirty minutes.”
“Thirty minutes? You’ll be dead in thirty minutes. Can’t you see that? Then once they kill you, they’ll come back here and kill me, too. Have you no pity?” he begged, his gold tooth flashing in the dim light.
“Don’t worry,” Landau smiled at him in the darkness, “You’ll still get your money.”
“How does a dead man pay someone?” he demanded to know, his voice trembling with fear. “Tell me, how am I going to get paid?”
“Yussuf, if you don’t shut up, you’ll get nothing. I’m not finished in there, so I must go back inside … unless you want to come back here tomorrow night and do this all over again? That isn’t what you want, is it?”
“No, I thought not. Here,” Landau said as he reached his hand through the fence and pressed something hard into Yussuf s palm.
Yussuf jerked the hand away, as if Landau had put a red-hot coal in it.
“Take it,” Landau snapped. “Go back to the car if you want, but take this with you.”
“You really are insane, you know,” Yussuf whimpered, looking down at his hand, realizing that it held a small, silver can of film. “More photographs? Haven’t you taken enough of your cursed photographs already?”
“Don’t lose them! Don’t get any cute ideas like leaving me here, either. You and the car had better be there in thirty minutes when I get back.”
“And what if you don’t come back? What happens to me?”
“You?” Landau chuckled. “You’ll land on your feet like the overfed alley cat you are, Yussuf. If I don’t come back, take the film to Evans. He’s CIA. He’ll know what to do with it, and he’ll pay you. Have no fear about that.”
“Evans? … You crazy Jew,” the Egyptian muttered in frustration. “What if they catch you this time? The Americans, those cheap bastards, they’ll never …” and his voice trailed away into nothing as he realized he was alone talking to the empty sand. Landau was gone.