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Authors: P. Djeli Clark

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BOOK: A Dead Djinn in Cairo
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She looked closer at the object she’d mistaken for a bookmark—a length of metallic silver tinged with hints of bright mandarin. She picked it up, holding it aloft as it glinted in the gas lamps’ glare.

Aasim cursed, his voice going hoarse. “Is that what I think it is?”

Fatma nodded. It was a metallic feather, as long as her forearm. Along its surface, faint lines of fiery script moved and writhed about as if alive.

“Holy tongue,” Aasim breathed.

“Holy tongue,” she confirmed.

“But that means it belongs to…”

“An angel, ” Fatma finished for him.

Her frown deepened.
Now what in the many worlds,
she wondered,
would a djinn be doing with one of these?

*   *   *

Fatma sat back in a red-cushioned seat as the automated wheeled carriage plowed along the narrow streets. Most of Cairo slept, except for the glow of a gaslight market or the pinprick lights of towering mooring masts where airships came and went by the hour. Her fingers played with her cane’s lion-headed pommel, watching aerial trams that moved high above the city, crackling electricity illuminating the night along their lines. Their carriage passed a lone man in a rickety donkey cart. He drove his beast at a slow trot, as if in defiance of the modernity that surrounded him.

“Another damned ghul attack!” Aasim exclaimed. He sat opposite her, reading over several cables. “That’s odd. They didn’t kill anyone—they took them. Snatched them and ran right off.”

Fatma looked up. That
odd. Ghuls fed on the living. Their victims were usually found half-devoured. They weren’t in the habit of stealing people.

“Have they been found?”

“No. It happened just before midnight.” He made a face. “You don’t suppose they’re saving them … for a later meal?”

Fatma didn’t want to think on that. “I’m sure the Ministry has some people on it.”

The inspector sighed, folding away the papers and leaning back into his seat. “Whole city falling apart,” he muttered. “Djinn. Ghuls. Sorcerers. Never had to worry about this in my grandfather’s day. Thank you, al-Jahiz.”

The last words were mocking, common Cairo slang uttered with praise, sarcasm, or anger. How else to remember al-Jahiz, the famed Soudanese mystic and inventor? Some named him as one and the same with the medieval thinker of Basra, reborn or traveled through time. Sufis claimed he was a herald of the Mahdi; Coptics a harbinger of the apocalypse. Whether genius, saint, or madman, no one could deny that he had shaken the world.

It was al-Jahiz who, through mysticism and machines, bore a hole to the Kaf, the other-realm of the djinn. His purpose for doing so—curiosity, mischief, or malice—remained unknown. He later disappeared, taking his incredible machines with him. Some said even now he traveled the many worlds, sowing chaos wherever he went.

That had been a little more than forty years past. Fatma was born into the world al-Jahiz left behind: a world transformed by magic and the supernatural. The djinn, especially, took to the age, their penchant for building yielding more wonders than could be counted. Egypt now sat as one of the great powers, and Cairo was its beating heart.

“How about you?” Aasim asked. “Prefer the city to that sand trap you Sa’idi call home?”

Fatma cut her eyes to the man, which only made him grin. “When I was attending the women’s college in Luxor, I dreamed of coming to Cairo—to go to the coffeehouses, visit the libraries, see people from all over.”

“And now?”

“Now I’m as cynical as every other Cairene.”

Aasim laughed. “The city will do that.” He paused before leaning forward, a gleam in his eyes and a twitch in that ridiculous moustache. That meant he was going to ask something daring, or stupid.

“Always wanted to know—why the Englishman’s suit?” He gestured at her clothing. “We kept them out, thanks to the djinn. Sent them running back to their cold, dreary little island. So why dress like them?”

Fatma flicked the rim of the black bowler she’d donned, crossing a leg to show off a pair of caramel wing tips. “Jealous I can out-dress you?”

Aasim snorted, pulling at the edges of his too-tight uniform that showed patches of a summer night’s perspiration. “I have a daughter who’s twenty-one—just three years younger than you. And still not married. The thought of her walking unveiled in these streets, like some low-class factory woman … The men you meet out here are filthy-minded!”

Fatma stared. He was calling
men filthy-minded?

“Had I named my daughter after the Prophet’s own, peace be upon him,” he went on, “I would want her to honor that.”

“It’s good, then, that I’m not your daughter,” she remarked dryly. Reaching into her breast pocket, she pulled out a golden pocket watch fashioned like an old asturlab. “My father is a watchsmith. He gave me this when I left home. Said Cairo was so fast I’d need it to keep time. He came here once when he was younger, and used to tell us endless stories of the mechanical wonders of the djinn. When I tested for the Ministry, he was the proudest man in our village. Now he brags to anyone who will listen about his daughter Fatma, who lives in the city he still dreams about. He sees that as bringing blessings upon the Prophet, peace be upon him.”

Aasim pursed his lips. “Fine, then. I’ll leave upholding your family’s good name to your father. You still haven’t told me about the suit.”

Fatma closed the watch, tucking it away and sitting back. “When I was in school in Luxor I would see these photographs of Englishmen and Frenchmen who visited Egypt, before the djinn came. Mostly they were in suits. But sometimes they’d put on a jellabiya and headscarf. I found out they called it ‘going native.’ To look exotic, they said.”

“Did they?” Aasim cut in.

“Did they what?”

“Look exotic.”

“No. Just ridiculous.”

Aasim snickered.

“Anyway, when I bought my first suit, the English tailor asked me why I wanted it. I told him I wanted to look exotic.”

Aasim gaped at her for a moment before erupting into barking laughter. Fatma smiled. That story worked every time.

The carriage crossed onto the bridge that led to the neighborhood of al-Gezira, where two steel lions guarded the entrance. Such decorations were affectations of the wealthy in this flourishing island district. They drove past wide streets with well-built apartments and villas, stopping at a tall U-shaped building of polished white stone surrounded by sprawling gardens—once the summer palace of an old Khedive. It had a new occupant now.

Aasim eyed the imposing building nervously. “You’re certain about arriving so late?”

Fatma stepped from the carriage to join him. “Their kind don’t sleep.” She nodded to two sleek shapes trotting toward them. They looked like jackals constructed of black and gold metal, only with wings that lay folded on their backs. The mechanical beasts walked up on slender legs to inspect the newcomers, the gears of their bodies rotating with their movements. Seeming satisfied, they turned, as if beckoning to be followed.

The small party crossed a large, well-tended garden before walking up a set of stairs and through a tall doorway. The inside of the old Khedive’s summer palace was like something from the last century, a mixture of Arabic, Turkish and Neoclassical styles brought together under one roof. The floor was made of antique marble arranged in a chessboard pattern of brown and white tiles while rectangular columns supported a golden ceiling of geometric ornamental design. Whatever furniture once decorated the interior had been replaced, by constructions of stone, wood, and iron. Inventions, Fatma could tell, from through the ages of time. She walked around a full replica of an old wooden noria water wheel, glancing at a detailed sketch of an aerial screw that took up a section of wall. This place was like a museum.

They stopped at another set of doors that opened before their mechanical guides, revealing a glass-domed room bathed in light. The air was filled with a curious blend of haunting Gregorian chants, lilting anasheed, and harmonies Fatma could not pick out, all coming from a towering tree of burnished steel. Beneath its broad canopy was a pair of bronze automata fashioned as a man and a woman. Colorful clockwork birds sat above on the tree’s outstretched branches between metallic green leaves that swayed as if in a breeze. Their open beaks poured music in time to a swirling display of light, like thousands of fireflies moving to the same rhythm.

Beneath the tree, a tall figure inspected a curious structure of overlapping gear wheels—some massive, others small and delicate as a coin. Each had been cut with precision, so that their teeth meshed seamlessly together. Their surfaces were engraved with metal script, some she knew to be numerals. At their arrival, the tall figure broke from his inspection and turned about.

With effort, Fatma suppressed a gasp similar to the one that escaped Aasim’s lips. It was always an odd thing to be in the presence of an angel—or at least the beings that claimed to be so.

They had appeared after the djinn, suddenly and without warning. Considerable debate was expended on affirming their identity. The Coptic Church argued that they could not be angels, for all such divinities resided in heaven with God. The Ulama similarly asserted that true angels had no free will, and could not have simply come here of their own volition. Both issued cautious statements naming them, at the least, “otherworldly entities.” The self-proclaimed angels were silent on the matter—validating no particulars of either faith, and remaining enigmatic regarding their motives.

Unlike djinn, their bodies were almost ephemeral, like light become flesh, and required frames to house them. This one towered at least twelve feet, his body a complex construction of iron, steel, and gears that mimicked muscles and bone. Four mechanical arms extended from his bronze armored shoulders, while brilliant platinum wings tinged in traces of crimson and gold lay flat upon his back. It was a wondrous working of machinery that seemed suited for nothing less than immortality.

“Welcome to my home, children,” the angel pronounced, his voice a melodic rumble. A translucent alabaster mask hid his face, with lips fixed into a permanent faint smirk—meant, perhaps, to put others at ease. Brilliance poured from behind oval openings that stood as eyes, as if holding back a star. “May you be found in peace and know His glory. You have come to see Maker. Reveal yourselves and your wants and Maker will aid you as he can.”

As with djinn, angels didn’t share their names. They instead took on titles that emphasized their purpose. Maker had come to monopolize the business of crafting mechanical bodies for his brethren, work not to be left for djinn hands.

Fatma stepped forward. “Peace be with you, Maker. I am Agent el-Sha’arawi with the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities, and this is Inspector Sharif of the Cairo Police. We don’t mean to disturb your work.” She paused, taking in the tall mechanism the angel had been busy with. “Is it … some kind of clock?”

Maker cocked his head at her, then nodded. “It is an instrument of time, yes. You are perceptive.” There was surprise in his voice.

“I grew up around watches and clocks,” Fatma explained. “This one looks like it’ll do more than just keep the local time.”

“Indeed,” the angel remarked, turning to look over his creation. “It will take the measure of the very transition of time. Not just here, but across space and distance, bringing together all of time in this one place. It shall be the greatest clock in this world, or perhaps any other.”

Fatma suppressed a smile at the obvious pride in his voice. First unwritten rule of investigation—when in need of information, make sure you flatter your source. In that regard, immortals were no different than anyone else. This one, in fact, seemed quite pleased with himself.

“It looks like it’ll be magnificent when finished,” she said.

Maker turned back to her and nodded. “I believe it will. And your business here Investigator?”

Fatma turned to Aasim, but the man just stared up at the angel beatifically. It seemed she would have to do the talking. Briefly, she laid out the events of the night. The angel listened in silence, no emotion on that unchanging face.

“Maker is saddened to hear of such senseless acts,” he said when she finished. “It seems, at times, as if all there is in this city of late is mayhem.”

“You mean the ghul attacks?”

“Ghuls, sorcerers, foul spirits, and other unclean things. Al-Jahiz’s touch yet marks your mortal world. Not for the better, I often fear.”

“It keeps us busy at the Ministry.”

If Maker got the joke, he didn’t show it. She wondered if there were any documented cases of an angel laughing.

“Your dead djinn,” he said instead. “They are unpredictable creatures. Lesser beings, you must understand. Only slightly above mortals. They are often consumed by their passions.”

“Right,” Fatma said, sidestepping the insult in that comment. “But suicide?”

“Djinn often make war upon their kind. Is it so hard to believe one might take his own life?”

Fatma couldn’t disagree there. She’d broken up some djinn brawls before—messy business. But there was more. She nudged Aasim, who broke from his awe long enough to unwrap a bundle tucked under his arm. The feather.

“We also found this, among the belongings of the djinn. Do you recognize it?”

The angel swept forward, gliding like air over water. He gripped the feather between mechanical fingers and brought it up for inspection. “Maker knows every gear, every wheel, every cog that is put together to form a vessel. Maker knows this feather. And it was found with the dead djinn?”

Fatma nodded. “We know your kind don’t surrender such things lightly. We thought maybe talking to the owner might give us some answers.”

Maker eyed the feather for a long while, seeming to be in thought. Angels were notoriously secretive. She wouldn’t be surprised if he simply refused to help. “Maker will give you the name of the one for whom this body was crafted,” he said finally. “May it be of help to you. He is called the Harvester. You will find him in the cemetery.”

BOOK: A Dead Djinn in Cairo
7.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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