Chapter One - Paradise Regained
Dressed like a bridegroom for his wedding, Magdy Kamal Fahamy had an appointment with death.
Passengers leaving the steam train clashed with the human herd trying to board, jamming the doors.
Standing back from the chaos on the platform, Magdy used a little trick he learned from his Boy Scout years: he pulled a whistle from his pocket and blew hard. “Get away from the door; Secret Service Police are coming. Let the people on board out first, or I’ll throw all of you animals in jail.”
Some froze in fear and obeyed, allowing the arriving passengers off the train without injury.
Luckily, no Secret Service Police came to seize Magdy as an impersonator.
He fought his way through the crowd onto the train. Farmers crushed inside, their rough faces ploughed by winds and hard work. Women wore long, black gowns resembling potato sacks. They carried crying children whose dirty faces served as landing grounds for flies. A rotten-egg scent hung heavy in the compartment.
A muscular man with a scarred face and a wrestler’s build called out from his seat, “Afendy? You there, Afendy?”
Finally realizing this hulk was addressing him, Magdy turned. Only eighteen, Magdy still found Afendy (Mister) only appropriate for his father or big brother.
“Care to sit by the window?” The man sat next to a plump woman in a black veil, and beside her on the bench, a stack of suitcases and packages claimed the window seat.
“Captain El Faumoy is at your service.” He began shifting the baggage to the floor below the bench.
Helping move the last two, Magdy struggled with their heft. What was in there, barbells?
“Thank you, Afendy.” El Faumoy sat, and crammed the last bag between his legs. “Sit, sit.” Smiling, he patted his wife’s thigh. “Don’t mind Fatima. She doesn’t bite.”
Magdy took his seat and hung his head out the window, gulping fresh air. The draft softly caressed his cheeks and freed his soul. The worn tracks shone under the sun’s rays, belying their age. The train whistle screamed like a mourning woman as the train left the station.
He pulled his head in and settled into his seat. A freshman studying architecture at Sohag University, Magdy was returning to his home in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, for Christmas break. How he wished the train would go faster. Not just for his family, but for his high school crush, Janet. Imagining her face and voice, he realized how much he missed her.
Suddenly a hand rubbed against his side.
Fatima pressed against him, and he felt every curve of her body. Her shiny cat eyes peered at him over the loose veil, rippled by a seductive smile.
Was she flirting? Lord have mercy.
To free himself, he shifted to the window and dangled his head out again. The sweet aroma of the lush green fields purged her exotic scent.
Satan was tempting Magdy, big time. What would Father Mathew say?
El Faumoy looked Magdy’s way. Did he think Magdy started this? Men like him had killed for less.
Trying to act casual, Magdy felt a hand pulling on his pants.Fatima! He jumped away as though shocked with a thousand volts.
Fatima tipped her head toward El Faumoy. “My husband wants to talk to you.” Her soft voice was like the soprano aria in Aida.
Magdy swallowed hard and looked at the muscular giant. Warm blood rushed to his face.
El Faumoy showed no signs of suspicion or threatening. “Afendy, are you going to Nag Hammadi?”
“Yes, the next stop.”
El Faumoy howled like a wolf. “So are we. You’ve seen how heavy my packages are. What a jam, We could use a strong young man like you. Will you help us?”
Though wary, Magdy did owe him for the window seat. “What did you have in mind?”
“At Nag Hammadi station, I’ll jump from this window to the platform. Then you’ll hand me the luggage, one by one, and then help Fatima to exit through the door. What do you say, Afendy?”
How would this big ape jump out of the train’s window without getting stuck? Talk about passing a camel through the eye of a needle! Which part would go first, head or tail?
Magdy looked at Fatima, who had warmed him like an electric blanket during the ride. He took an inventory of the five packages under the seat.
The lifting would be no problem. But escorting Fatima to the exit?
Magdy prayed for help.
“Brother El Faumoy, you escort your lovely wife. I’ll get through the window and help you with your bags. You just throw them to me one by one. What do you think, brother?”
The woman squirmed like the giant sand worm of Dune, and her breast squashed against Magdy’s chest.
The husband scratched his skull, looked at the window opening, and surveyed his scattered bags. Then he smiled a mouth full of a smoker’s yellow fangs. “Okay, Afendy. You look like an honest man. Watch for thieves; they’re everywhere.” Looking at his wife, he yelled, “Fatima get ready.”
Fatima gave Magdy a parting pat and a wink with her big black eyes. She moved closer to her husband’s thick arm.
The train howled like a hungry wolf. It came to a full stop at Nag Hammadi, and the struggle between the incoming and leaving of people ensued again. Riding the third-class train in Upper Egypt could be a life-changing experience. With wallet, pants, dignity, eyes, and limbs all at risk, a passenger should be thankful just to stay alive.
Magdy received a text message on his cell phone from his elder brother, Gergis: I’m at the station. He searched the throngs outside until he located Gergis running parallel to the train, then shouted his name.
Six feet tall with wide brown eyes and a thick groomed mustache in the tradition of the Kamal men, Gergis beamed back at Magdy.
“My brother is here.” Magdy waved to Gergis. “I’ll give my suitcase to him, and then I’ll jump from the window. Once I’m on the platform, throw me your bags. Please make sure you don’t bust my head.”
El Faumoy found Gergis in the crowd. “Tell your brother to come closer.”
As soon as Magdy opened the window sash, a group of four passengers clambered to it, lifting their packages high to throw out first.
Magdy blew his whistle and shouted at the invaders, paralyzing them with surprise. He flung his suitcase to Gergis, then jumped out the window. He landed firmly on the platform and gazed at El Faumoy, arms held out to receive his bags. “Ready.”
The four passengers’ contention over the window exit resumed.
Fatima stood back, then did the unthinkable. She took off her veil, exposing her round olive face, beautiful with daring wide eyes. After a brief glance at Magdy, she reached down and removed her high-heel shoe. Striking at the other passengers, she hammered like a woodpecker until one poor man cried and retreated from the window.
El Faumoy hauled his first load and yelled at Magdy to catch it.
Magdy and Gergis received the five pieces and watched Fatima and her husband exit safely from the train’s door.
“Thank you, Afendy, how can we repay you?” asked Fatima.
“Glad we could help, mum,” Magdy said, “Shall I call a taxi for you?’
“No need, Afendy.” El Faumoy gestured toward a car on the other side of the road. “Do you see that beautiful green Fiat? That’s my second woman. She’ll take it from here.”
Gergis stared at El Faumoy as if trying to place him. Suddenly Gergis looked away, perspiring. “Come on Magdy. We have to go.” They raced down to a waiting taxi. Gergis pushed Magdy into the cab.
Had Gergis gone mad? What did he see?
“What’s the matter, Gergis?”
His brother replied, “Do you know who that man was?”
“Yes, his name is El Faumoy, and his wife is Fatima.” Magdy grinned.
“Ahmed El Faumoy is no good. He’s been convicted of a dozen crimes. He’s a hired killer.”
Magdy gasped. He’d just helped a killer. “Lord have mercy.”
Gergis rubbed his forehead. “I have to call Bishop Michael right away.”
* * *
Magdy’s house wasn’t a mansion with marble stairs or elaborate rising columns, but it was his sweet home. He wouldn’t trade it for the Taj Mahal. The moment he set foot on the chipped mosaic steps, he climbed them with the vigor of a professional athlete. Gergis could hardly keep pace with him.
The door was open; the aromatic smell of Mama’s cooking flowed in the air, promising a feast. Mama stood by the door with a bright smile, so tender and loving that no words were needed. She hugged and kissed him as if he’d been gone nine years, not nine weeks.
But much had happened in those nine weeks. He had progressed in his studies and defined his plans for the future. He left this place as a boy, but he was returning as a man.
His fourteen-year-old sister, Mary, leapt up from reading on the couch. She ran to him and Mama and joined in their embrace.
Such a homecoming. Only one thing missing.
Janet. What was she doing tonight?
His mother pointed to the couch. “Sit, Magdy. Habebe, have you been eating well, sleeping well? Do you like school? Do you have good teachers? Do they like you? I can’t imagine anyone couldn’t love this angelic face.” She cuddled Magdy’s cheeks between her warm hands and showered him with more kisses.
“Mama, please.” He caught her hands. “I’m a grown man.”
Mama raised her eyebrows, retrieving her hands. “Not too grown for my eggplant casserole.”
Magdy’s stomach purred. “Is that what I smell?”
“Come and see.” She waved him to the kitchen. “My, you have grown taller.”
Gergis flexed a muscular pose. “Not as tall as me. With his looks on this body, I could be a real lady killer.”
As if the word killer triggered a relay in his brain, Gergis turned serious. “Excuse me. I have to call Bishop Michael.” He went back into the living room.
“What he is talking about, Magdy?” Mama looked worried; she twisted up the hem of her plaid apron.
“Nothing, Mama.” Magdy eased her concerns. “Now, let’s see what you’ve prepared. It smells wonderful.”
In the small kitchen, a brass kettle brewed rice-stuffed cabbage. Mary took a scoop and flipped steak fries on the second burner.
“Check the oven, Magdy,” Mama said
He peered through the window. Delicious fried slices of eggplant covered with tomato sauce and onions baked in a Pyrex glass pan. The aroma fueled his hunger.
“Sit.” Mama waived him to a chair and prepared a platter. “Enjoy, habebe. Baba won’t mind that you have a taste now.”
Magdy ate until he was quite full.
* * *
Gergis Kamal called Bishop Michael on his cell phone. “Bishop, I have bad news for your Holiness.” He told of his encounter with El Faumoy and unloading the packages. “Three in particular felt as if they contained heavy artillery.”
Bishop Michael drew in a breath. “Are you certain it was El Faumoy? I thought he was still at Qena State Prison.”
“I’m sure, Bishop. I looked him in the eyes, and I know it’s him.”
The bishop was silent as if pondering. “Why do you suspect he was carrying weapons?”
“I lugged similar containers in the Army. I know how it feels to handle them. They were probably machine guns.”
“Why would he carry guns and ammunition in a public train?”
Gergis paced. “El Faumoy had a driver, but the car was in bad shape. It wouldn’t handle the two-hour trip. In the midst of all the farmers going to market, El Faumoy became just one peasant among many.”
“Gergis, I see your point. I have known El Faumoy for several years. Someone smart is planning for him.”
“Your Holiness, what do you make of his appearance two days before Christmas?”
“El Faumoy is out of the cage to strike at the Copts during the Christmas celebration. More than two thousand men, women and children will come tomorrow night to worship.”
Charged silence prevailed.
The Bishop continued. “My son, we must neutralize this threat. But I won’t let my enemy quench the Christmas spirit. His Holiness, Pope Shenuda the Third, is aware of the threats I received. I informed the police, but we should take all measures to protect the worshippers. How much does your brother know about El Faumoy?”
“Not much, Bishop. I told him that El Faumoy is a violent criminal.”
“Good, tell him nothing more. I’ll call Colonel Muhammed and inform him of El Faumoy’s arrival, but I’m certain he is aware of it. May the blessings of our Lord and his blessed mother Virgin Mary be with you? Give your family my love and tell Magdy I have a lot for him to do in this year’s Mass.”
* * *
El Faumoy and Fatima rode in the green Fiat tooling slowly down the dusty streets of Nag Hammadi. Humza, his skinny and mousy driver, swore at five kids chasing the car like little puppies. The filthy rascals, some barefoot, giggled.
One kid pleaded through the open window. “Any change or candy, please, Basha?”
El Faumoy barked, “Go away, or by Allah, I’ll break your legs.”
The kids ran along, then picked up a few chipped stones and pelted the car.
One stone hit Fatima’s arm, and she screamed. “What are you waiting for? Stop that rascal before he hits me again.”
Any other day, El Faumoy would have raged against any attack on his beloved Fiat. But today he had no time to defend his other woman, the one who didn’t yell back.
Swallowing his anger, he shouted to Humza, “Honk the damn horn to scare them away and speed up.” He turned to Fatima. “Relax, they’re just little kids. We need to go home and secure the cargo.”
The street boys clearly recognized a losing battle. They retreated to prey on another car.
A few minutes later, the Fiat reached a run-down house with a rustic wooden door. Fatima almost ran El Faumoy over in her dash for the bathroom. With the help of Humza, El Faumoy carried his cargo inside to the storage room in the back.
Humza opened the wrapping to expose a plastic machine gun casing.
El Faumoy checked the handle, barrel, and nose. Perfect shape, clean and ready to use.
Humza lined up five boxes of ammunition on the table. “Welcome home, Capitan. It’s just like the good old days. How did you manage to get out of prison so soon?”
El Faumoy stretched his arms and cracked his ring- studded fingers. “Allah is great.” He laughed.
“You do make things happen for them.” Humza opened another crate.
“El Amir and El Basha do their thing with telephones and cash; I do mine with arms and guns. They work in offices behind closed doors; I work in the streets. They kill people with laws; I kill with bullets.” Inwardly it enraged El Faumoy. He was their pawn. All they did was talk and dress fancy. He was the one who got things done.
He tossed Humza a bundle of cash. “Here’s your first installment, one thousand pounds.”
Humza started to count the money, his skinny fingers holding the money against the light as if checking for counterfeits.
El Faumoy shook his head and spat on the floor. There is no honor among thieves. “After the job is done, you’ll get three thousand more. Meet me at Horia Café.” He walked Humza to the door.
El Faumoy’s cell phone rang, and he answered. “Hello?”
It was El Amir. “I need an update.”
On hearing the voice, El Faumoy’s mouth cracked into a wide crocodile grin. “Allah is great, we are ready for jihad.”
El Amir growled. “Allah is great. Proceed as planned.”