A Tall Ship Tale #40: Saturday Morning, Khartoum

Tree-Cow of the alt.callahans ficton (aka Paul de Angurera) has regained his composure and his beautiful reticulated yellow and brown appearance. “If you just came in, and are wondering what this is all about, I borrowed the ship’s log from my friend Captain Quid — it should be around here somewhere?!” He lifts a few unlikely-seeming objects and peers under them, then shrugs and resumes the story.

“There’s someone here whom I’d like you to meet.” Sir Hillary Throckmorton- Shillingsworth III leaned over the chart of east Africa and pointed to Khartoum. Captain Quid slowly filled his pipe, waiting for more information. “The area is filled with ruins that date back to the mysterious kingdom of Kush,” Sir Hillary supplied. “Professor Rita Hentrack is studying the Meriotic inscriptions.” Yet the Captain still hesitated.

“We don’t like to make any Sudan moves,” the First Mate pointed out.

“She’s a renowned cryptographer,” Sir Hillary amplified. “Your letter…” Quid and the First Mate glanced quickly at each other. They had puzzled for many chapters over Cilantro’s letter — their only clue to the whereabouts of the Captain’s pinnace. Quid hurried to the quarter-deck and began shouting orders. Soon the flying frigate H.M.S. Legume was soaring eastward across the desert under full sail. They anchored near the confluence of the blue and white Niles, and hurried to the Meriot Hotel where Professor Hentrack was staying.

Rita slid silently into the hotel bar. She moved with catlike grace, and her many-pocketed colonial-interloper khaki outfit could not conceal her charms. They sat around a tiny table. Rita stretched languidly, plucked the letter from its envelope with a long-nailed hand, and studied it through almond-shaped green eyes.

Your oar, dears! Art, to prose — cede to thee! Why douse, Anisette? Fie, you’re due wit!


“As you can see, I’ve been trying to translate it,” the First Mate boasted; but his voice trailed off uncertainly. Rita cooly inspected the handwriting under a magnifying glass. She consulted a tiny Arabic book whose margins were worn down nearly to the print. She put a corner of the letter to her lips and tasted it. She tore off a bit, set fire to it in the ashtray and sniffed the smoke. Finally, she slid the letter into a front hip pocket and buttoned it, regarding them through long lashes.

“I’ll have to look at this in the lab,” she purred in a sultry voice. “Meet me here tomorrow at ten.”

But when the sailors returned next morning, she did not appear. “Learn to be like the English; patient!” Sir Hillary advised. So they sat between potted palms under the rotating fans, watching their ice melt. But at the stroke of eleven, they couldn’t sit it any longer.

They crowded around the hotel desk to inquire about Rita. One by one, the Egyptian clerk turned the sweat-stained pages of the register, studying each in turn. Then he slowly looked up, his gold-framed pince-nez glinting briefly red. “Professor Hentrack checked out last night,” he announced haughtily.

“Did she say where she was going?” the First Mate asked.

“No, but I expect she’s slunk back into the ruins,” the clerk replied with evident satisfaction. They wandered disconsolately through the dusty marketplace toward the river, ignoring the blaring Arabic music, the shouting vendors and the swelling sun.

“You know, I think that clerk knew all along that Rita had checked out,” the First Mate panted.

“And I don’t think he likes us!” Sir Hillary added.

“Aye!” Captain Quid growled, wiping his brow. They walked on quietly for a bit. Suddenly, as if by means of telepathy, an awful possibility dawned on each of them, swiftly ballooning into a painful probability and a new problem. That was…

It has been a long story, and Tree-Cow’s long throat is sore. He pauses to sip a glass of strong iced tea that is mostly ice, while Eddie toys with the piano keys and, across the bar, Mike polishes glasses. “Dey was feline da heat?” Eddie guesses. But Tree-Cow shakes his head.

“The desk clerk was Claude?” Mike offers. But Tree-Cow has a last noisy slurp and concludes:

“…The purr-loined letter!”

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