G. S. Singer
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Brittan Salter craved revenge. Not because he missed the joy girls at Fatima’s on Rue des Soeurs, and not because he couldn't bet on the camel races. He didn't blame the prison sergeant for stealing his clothes and giving him rags, and he wasn't upset that his meals, when he got them, tasted like sawdust soaked in brine. Being sentenced without a trial two months ago by what passed for a judge in this country was not the reason he was angry, nor was it because he'd only managed to insult the Khedive of Egypt, Isma'il the Magnificent, twice before being thrown to the ground and arrested. Even his appointment today at sunrise to be shot through the heart by twelve, under-trained riflemen did not raise his ire to the point of revenge. The whippings, however, did.
How they yearned to hear him whimper as they tied him to the post. Longed for him to scream when the lash ripped skin from flesh. Ached to see him tremble in the pause between each strike when fire burned through his nerves and blood coursed down his back.
By God, they could cut the meat from his bones inch by inch and he would not give them satisfaction. For the thousandth time, he uttered the vow that kept him alive.
“The Khedive will pay for every stripe.”
The cadence of boot steps and the click of rifles echoed from the courtyard. Britt struggled to his feet. Daybreak. The firing squad was moving into position.
Like every morning since his incarceration, he pushed his way through the stink and filth of a hundred sleeping men, over rat holes and around piles of excrement. When he reached the wall, his fingers found the ancient handholds and, despite his wounds, he climbed the centuries-old block. High above the floor, light from a small window pierced the hazy air. He pressed his cheeks to the bars.
Dawn lit the rooftops of Alexandria. Farther out, the Mediterranean glistened. Clippers and steamships crowded the harbor, their stacks and rigging silhouetted against a clear, red sky. Egypt was beautiful; he’d give it that. But with the Confederacy gone now seven years, and the world hungry for cotton, a flood of gold had turned the Khedive from monarch to tyrant.
“…pay for every stripe.”
Beneath him in the cell, keys jangled and hinges squealed. The soldiers had come for him. How long did he have? One minute? Two? Britt closed his eyes and waited.
Laughter broke the stillness. His eyes opened. In the square below the prison, children ran between the tents and stalls of the marketplace. They stole figs from a woman in black, who bit her forefinger and swore. Turbaned Bedouins grinned. In open doorways, old men puffed their pipes and nodded.
Britt smiled. Even under a despot’s thumb, life goes on. When the rifles were aimed at his chest, and the blindfold tied over his eyes, he would peer into the blackness and see these images: the children, the figs, the woman, the Bedouins, the doorways, the old men.
His gaze returned to the doorways. Near the middle of the square, that door off by itself, why had it been painted blue? As he pondered, the blue door opened, and a man in a gray burnoose stepped into the street.
Britt squinted into the rising sun. The man was taller than most Egyptians and crossed the square with a purposeful stride. When he reached a large, one-wheeled barrow, he flipped a coin to a boy who stood guard. The boy ran off as the man in the gray burnoose adjusted something amid the sacks piled six or seven high in the barrow.
The barrow seemed unusually heavy for one filled only with sacks of grain, and the man had great difficulty lifting the handles and maneuvering it across the rutted street. When man and barrow had traveled no farther than the prison wall, the barrow wobbled and fell, and the sacks tumbled against the stones.
Oddly, the man in the gray burnoose made no effort to lift the sacks or even right the barrow. Instead, he turned and hurried away. Halfway across the street, a lock of blond flashed from under his hood. And there, a boot shined black beneath the hem of his burnoose. At the blue door, the man stopped and faced the prison. He raised a single index finger high above his head, held it a moment, then disappeared inside.
Britt eyed the still open blue door and wondered what he had witnessed. His gaze shifted to the barrow tipped against the prison wall. Faint against the early light, smoke rose from the sacks of grain.
Counting quietly, he climbed to the floor. Excitement and apprehension filled his heart, pounding hard in time with the seconds passing over his lips. Eight, nine, ten… Across the cell, the sergeant and two soldiers were searching for him, rousting the prisoners one by one.
Britt bent low and weaved between the murderers and thieves, awake now and arguing amongst themselves. Whispering numbers through the teens, he tore off bits of cloth from the tatters that covered his body and stuffed them into his ears. By the time he counted to twenty-one, he’d arrived at the farthest end of the cell.
A fleshy prisoner studied him from the corner. “To possess such muscles, your mother must have bred with a camel.” He spat into the dirt. “What do you want, giant?”
Britt barely heard him through the wadding in his ears. He knew the man as an informer. “I want that corner.”
Two, lean, bare-chested men rose from the floor and stood. The informer pointed toward the soldiers working their way closer, examining each prisoner's face. “Leave, son of a whore, before I call to the sergeant.”
Britt clenched his fists and tried to keep the numbers in his head. Thirty. Thirty-one. “The men you betrayed await you in hell.”
The informer swung. Britt dodged and drove his knuckles into the man’s face. The informer's head crashed back into the wall. Thirty-five. Britt wrapped his arm around the man's neck and threw him from the corner. Thirty-seven. The informer’s companions sprang. Britt kneed one in the gut and elbowed the other in the throat. They fell away as the informer returned, fists swinging, blood streaming from his nose. Forty-two.
A line of prisoners gathered to watch. They cheered when Britt blocked the informer's punches and hit him in the stomach. Forty-seven. The man doubled over. Britt caught him by the waist and spun him around. Fifty. He locked the man’s flailing arms behind his back. Fifty-three. He pulled the informer down on top of him where floor and walls met. Fifty-six. Fifty-seven. The sergeant and his soldiers had reached the barricade of shouting prisoners. Fifty-nine. Britt closed his eyes and spoke the last number aloud. “Sixty.”
“Damnation!” Britt cursed and kept counting. Sixty-one, sixty-two.
Still nothing. Sixty-three, Sixty-four.
The informer fought to get free. Britt strengthened his grip. Something was wrong. His timing was off, or he'd miscounted. A single finger meant one minute. Sixty seconds. Working in coal mines, he'd counted it a thousand times.
Sixty-six. Sixty-seven. Britt cracked one eyelid. The soldiers had punched through the ring of prisoners. Pistol aimed, the sergeant shouted for him to surrender. Seventy. Seventy-one. The informer stopped fighting and began to laugh.
The numbers in Britt’s head vanished. The man in the burnoose… His face was in shadow…but the blond hair, the index finger…
The informer laughed louder. Prisoners joined in. The sergeant's pistol cracked. Britt jerked forward. Chips flew from the stones behind his head.
The sacks, the smoke, the boot, the barrow, the man in the burnoose… Had it all been a mistake? Had everything he'd seen been the fantasy of a doomed man?
The far wall exploded in a deafening boom. Smoke and debris filled the cell with darkness. Something heavy struck the informer’s gut making him convulse and shake. Britt held tight and savored the smell of the detonation.
The informer shuddered then relaxed. When the ring of the blast dissipated, Britt pulled the cloth from his ears and listened. Cries and moans were all he heard.
He pushed the informer’s body to the floor. Pulverized masonry saturated the air like silt in muddy water. Brown sunlight streamed through a jagged, wagon-sized hole. The concussion had knocked everyone down; sergeant, soldiers, and prisoners lay scattered about.
Slowly, stunned inmates began to rise and stumble toward the gaping light. Britt crawled over shattered stones and injured men. At the edge of the hole, he stretched his body over the rubble and opened his eyes in a dead man’s stare. Dust-covered prisoners staggered past him. They climbed out the hole, gathered in the ruined marketplace, and gazed numbly at the open sky.
Britt didn’t flinch at the staccato bang of the Gatling gun high above him on the prison wall, nor wince as inmates spun to earth, flesh torn away in chunks, rags red with gore. From his corpse-like pose, he watched the prisoners in the marketplace wake from their trance and run. He lay perfectly still as twenty more soldiers entered the cell, raced past him and fanned from the wall’s breach like hornets from a punctured hive. He saw their boots trample tents and stalls and heard their rifles snap. He watched them chase prisoners through screaming crowds, down the streets and out beyond the marketplace.
When the soldiers had gone, and the melee calmed to a scene of sobbing women and cursing merchants, Britt leaped through the hole and dashed toward the open blue door. At the threshold, two arms jerked him inside.
Britt embraced his old friend. “Damn your bones, Lockie. Did you have to wait until the last second?”
“I couldnae act until the Khedive left and his soldiers relaxed.”
Britt pulled away, eyes keen. “How long has the bastard been gone?”
The Scotsman swept a gray robe from a hook. “His Blasted Magnificence left on the royal yacht day before yesterday. We’ve got to hurry. I’ve tickets on a paddle steamer with a load of cotton. She’s a fast boat and, with the king stopping in Italy and Great Britain, we’ll beat him to New York by a month.”
Teeth clenched against the pain, Britt shrugged off his filthy rags. He felt Lockie’s eyes linger on the ooze and scabs that striped his back.
“Villains cut you good, didn’t they, lad?”
Britt shook on the robe. “That they did, Lockie. And when we reach New York, king or not, the Khedive will pay for every stripe.”