Captain Black Hand when young was called Murtius. And he came from an obscure little town from the hinterland of northern Africa, which is now known as Libya. The town called Heliopolis in the Roman times had become a ghost town by the time Murtius became aware of a world about him. He didn’t know if it were a good thing where nothing happened and the people about him walked as though were asleep. It was a one camel town avoided by the caravan route. Murtius of course could not understand why nothing moved around him. The town unfortunately lay in the path of swirls of dust blown every now and then from the Sahara. The air clogged by sand made the passage of men and animals despair for life. The sand that was whipped across blistered them and each was like spark singeing wherever it touched the skin. Despite of all that the caravan went on since the alternative was much worse. Treacherous sand traps and rocks kept the Arabs stick to the route around Heliopolis. They called the town the Sun’s Anvil and avoided it as much as possible. The townsfolk knew why. Their town was a ghost town. It had a population 200 men of which, one was staying in the Royal State Prison in Tunis, and his son is what we are here concerned about.
Murtius didn’t know his father who was a highway bandit, cat burglar and a carrier for the slave ships that touched at Tangiers. Murtius didn’t know of a father till he was eight. His mother a winsome woman lost her youth fast and had the dubious honour of bringing up a boy who didn’t think much about the joys of having a father or mother. However his mother managed to educate him before he could cut himself loose. She was pious and she taught him from the Scriptures. While he seemed to give keen ear to her lectures he was also bursting with a curiosity to hang out with boys of his age. When he could he stayed out as far as he could. There were many children who were thus neglected because in a ghost town like Heliopolis nothing moved for good or worse. Except the howling winds that at times made everyone lose his wits and sleep.
One day some boys of his age told of a ghostly caravan that went through the town gates at regular intervals. Murtius wasn’t interested but as a boy of 11 he braved his vague fears to step out of the town limits to see them for himself. He with playfellows hid from a mound of rubbish and watched them. Their camels and the men who rode them not to speak of their armed guards were a sight. The shadows cast by lighted torches were eerie. This ghost caravan came out of somewhere and trafficked in saffron, salt, horns, and what not. They had places to go to. While his life was bounded by boredom. Boredom of a ghost town. It gave him something to think about.
That night when he finally came in his mother was already in bed. The life on the move must be unlike his life he could well imagine.
Murtius lived in a mud hut with a terrace where her mother slept while he had a straw bed below in a hall and company of some goats and sheep. Cooking was done outdoors and there lay a plank for water pots and other vessels. The only furniture was a table fashioned out of split logs and three chairs. Washed clothes lay on one while the other held blankets and other pieces of linen. He made his bed over the table and turned in. What he had just witnessed outside the town gates came back with clarity. Life went on elsewhere while he lay there settled in his circumstances.
The same day he saw the ghost caravan he vowed he would travel into the unknown as those merchants.
Some days later Murtius had a visitor brought by his mother. Monk Anselmo was an itinerant preacher sent by the Bishop of Antioch and he had come with the good news. Murtius was still open to catechism and he heard the old man in his rude apparel and who slurped the bowl of milk his mother served him. To riches stored in heaven the boy had a healthy respect. He also repeated the prayer recited by the venerable visitor.
He asked him as he led him to the gate, “Father when do I get some of all those riches?” It struck the old man as ominous and he had to probe him further. He told the woman that her son would see him to the town gates.
They walked on and he asked the boy to explain himself. Murtius explained to the Venerable of his encounter with the ghost caravan. He spoke about the rich dress of the merchants that rode the camels and their swords and drinking cups were of fine quality. “Is it not nice to have riches as they?” The monk merely smiled and went off saying, “Learn from your father’s example.” It was a cryptic message.
That night the mother for the first time spoke of his father with seriousness and he knew from the tone was different from other times. At bedtime she made him kneel down and say a prayer. He didn’t mind. Only one sentence perplexed him.
She had made him say thus, “Give me strength to set my father free from his prison.”
He could not understand the connection. It was his father’s destiny to be a guest of the Sultan and it was God’s grace to clothe him as finely as any of those merchants who went past them.
Murtius was twelve and his mother took him along to visit Simonidas, his father…
Murtius allowed himself to be led through the Prison and the stale air that enveloped the prisoners chained to the wall made him want to leave. His father had told that he and others were living as though ‘in a Paradise served by hand and foot by houris who had hairy legs and bald pates’. Murtius didn’t get the joke when his father followed his observation with these words, “They wield a hefty stroke with their palm fronds, though.” They spoke for sometime and in between he drew his son to his side and caressed him. In the end he said cryptically, “boy, don’t let me down. It is all in your hands.”
Only later he understood what his father meant.
Murtius hated his visit and the stranger who made his mother cry and sigh uncontrollably.
Some four months later one morning his mother hauled him off to see some one of great importance. From his mother’s serious air and trembling hands he knew the place belonged to one who had power of life and death. He stood in a large hall where there were many who had come on official business and saw they were as affected as his mother was. Murtius saw how depressing they in their helplessness were. They wheedled and made themselves disgustingly low before authority that treated them with scant respect. It was disgusting for a boy who was astir for life of color and action. His mother was gloomy and her serious air made his heart beat faster. He dreaded she would make a scene and suddenly he felt embarrassing to be seen with her. He also noted those who sat on a raised platform and gave themselves airs; those officials when they moved were escorted by men in arms and who had the air of being there for some unexplained reason. Murtius took all these with wide eyes and in some way knew they were there to browbeat the likes of his mother and make them know their place. He sensed what gave them authority to be superior and made his mother cringe was bad. Then he heard his mother’s name being called and she with a start clutched his hand and dragged him. The Bishop was present, before whom his mother bent her knees and kissed his ring. He looked at the boy and said, “Here is the order. Are you the man to do his duty by his father?”
Murtius had no idea what he was talking about. He felt embarrassed to see his mother clutch the order and kiss once again his hand in gratitude. He despised his mother and thought he was wasting his time in Heliopolis.
All the way home his mother kept on how important it was for the boy to prove himself.
“Think, boy where bad boys will go to? If you do not save your father you shall be the cause for his death. Only hell is reserved for boys who fail their fathers.”
That night Murtius didn’t sleep wracked by strange fears. He didn’t precisely know the import of that day but something told him that he has to obey his mother totally in order to save his father. Something else also equally staked its claim: the authority that expected him to prove he was good was his weapon. ‘He would prove how good he was in his own way and all in good time.’
He didn’t know how, but in a strange way he was answerable to Toufiq Bey. His palace was in the outskirts of Tunis where he lorded over his province. The Bey was in fact the Authority. He held power over the lives of some ten towns of which Heliopolis was one. He also took Murtius into his service. The Bishop had put in a word for her. Murtius felt somewhat brightened to be taken to the palace of Toufiq Bey who had deputed his chamberlain to interview the boy. After that meeting his mother glowed which the boy did not fail to note. She took her son to the prison. She gave the good news to her man. The prisoner heard it morosely. When she stepped out for something he said to his son,“ So you are going to the household of Toufiq Bey. There is an old hag Mother Molina. I knew her son. The fixer. Find what is he doing.” He said it in a whisper and the son didn’t know what to make of it. Something told him not to share the secret with his mother.
One morning an attendant called on his mother to take the son and he was to herd the sheep of Toufiq Bey along with five others at a pasturage that stretched as far as eye could see. It meant that he stayed elsewhere for months and didn’t go home to his mother. It didn’t bother him.
He saw he had company, boys who were older than he and they took charge of him.
Living under the stars and eating by the campfire telling stories and playing made the thrill of being a boy. For the first time he knew he belonged somewhere and that in turn connected him to a greater world and he didn’t know where it stopped…
In the days to come he realized the five were as nasty as the sand that overpowered the town. In order to be initiated into their Friendship Club he had to steal a few items among which was included a chicken. He managed it with ease by stealing from the neighbors.
These five had their nicknames. One was Whistle-blower and another Rotten fig, Tin-fart described another whose breaking of wind at will described him. Lock and Key described two who were inseparables. Since he looked young for his age he was called Baby Face. They taught him tricks and most of which were involved in pilfering items from their overseer. They even dined on lambs and accounted for their loss to wild animals on the prowl. They threw dice and drank beer or smoked weeds. Their boyish pranks included shocking matrons by their lewdness in words or in actions. Murtius went along with them though he didn’t act lewd or shock women. They at times feasted on lambs left under their care and told stories around a campfire and some one would by lots will entertain others. He relied more on them than home where he was sure to be lectured by Monk Anselmo who had founded a church in the neighborhood.
Murtius knew he was being buried alive either way by the bad company or by bromides of the Church. The upshot of it was foreseeable. ‘Baby Face’ Murtius let his father down. Thus Simonidas remained in the State Prison for another six years.
During this period the boy became more hell-bent for mischief. He began to set things rolling as he thought fit. It was time he cultivated Mother Molina and he chanced upon her as though by accident. He charmed her with his baby face. Every six months he went home and wheedled his mother to present him with a parcel of wedges of goat cheese and dried fruits. He added to these a few items by pilfering along the way. He cultivated contacts all around.
Soon Mother Molina took more interest in the boy whose eyes were as beguiling as his words. He didn’t shock her with great demands but slowly he went about making sure he got what he wanted. He extended his power over her surely but slowly. There came a stage when he could tell her anything. He said one evening he was unable to sleep at night for the longing of women and she merely shrugged shoulders and let him sneak into the Slave’s quarters. He was sixteen when the scullery maid and housekeeper thought the baby-faced boy made them feel good.
Mother Molina was his first test case.
His experience with her stamped his future: his ways were rotten and he knew to paper over them with words, which cost him nothing. He knew he was gaining some control over his passage in life.
One day he broached the subject of her son. Molina couldn’t get enough words to speak on her wayward son who was older to him by some ten years. She said his son Munir was earlier a camel driver for the Berbers who went in caravan from coast to coast. She added that he worked presently for the Tuaregs’ and other riffraffs. Obviously Munir was a pain to her.
He gathered more information of the Tuaregs. He knew Tuaregs were ready for plucking if he had the right contacts. Munir the fixer was going to do that for him.
Murtius knew he had to take the five also into his plan. Of their abilities he didn’t have much confidence. The plan was audacious and needed all the help he could get. It was not yet time to draw them into confidence. He had to know his terrain best before he let others onto his plan.
He studied the layout of slave quarters where these women brought by many ships to Tangiers finally ended up. It stood on an elevated mound and each room of these slaves had a large window with jalousies. It could be fully opened for view if so the woman desired. Only problem was the Phoenician slaves who patrolled the quarters and beat women who were lax and kept them under control. Having got the whereabouts of Munir the camel driver he went into action.
Munir had a lodging in the street of Glass blowers. He fixed anything for a price. He called himself a camel driver but he had men who were eyes and ears for him or who worked as camel driver in his place.
He must have been kept busy. A corrupt official like Toufiq Bey let another circle of crooks to assert their control over the city where service of Munir brought results. He could afford to lie low till people came looking for him. Those who wanted to flee on a moments notice found him god -sent. So did those who wanted to sell stolen goods. He lived alone and he knew how things worked.
One fine morning before he sneaked out to town he saw the young man who stood curiously searching him. He moved forward till he was within earshot. He hissed: “Curiosity killed the cat. You think you are a cat?”
The boy said without any show of emotion. “Mother Molina sent me.”
He stopped in his stride. He wagged his finger and he turned back. Murtius climbed the crooked steps after him. He was in the derelict part of the town and among lowlife. He was afraid that if he touched anything the ramshackle section of the town would clatter down in so many pieces. The steps led to a platform leading to warren of rooms in which beggars, whores and counterfeiters flitted like ghosts never daring to meet any curious eye. Munir was in his natural habitat among them. It was another world, a netherworld in which he was some sort of the Buddha around which transmigration of souls went on without ceasing. Murtius felt lightheaded. From his perch he could see the sea. Many dhows that closeted in a corner of the pier were a good omen. He knew it led somewhere.
Munir, the fixer was short and compact. His meanness was in his eyes that were hooded and the jaws that went on grinding on and on. When he smiled his black teeth added meanness to his unpleasant aspect.
He curtly asked what his game was. Countering that the Baby Face asked if he were interested in making some quick money. With an unspeakable curse he asked what made a total stranger like him confer on him out of the blue a favor that could be dangerous. He murmured, “Simonidas told me to get in touch with you. He is my father.”
The fixer relaxed. Murtius wanted to ask what connected him to his father. But he had something more pressing on hand. So he outlined the proposal. He said his mother would stand guard while they pulled off their stunt. Only danger was, being surprised by Syrian slaves who guarded the quarters.
“Whom do you want to fleece?”
“The Tuareg merchant caravan”.
“The whole lot?”
“Yes. Why not?”
Murtius asked unflinching, “You get the merchants interested, and lead them to the quarters. We charge everyone price of admission. Two silver for each head. We split the winnings between us.” He paused and waited for the reaction. Munir looked at him and smiled, “I am the one to do all the dirty work. Besides after this job I shall have to look elsewhere for another position.”
“You would have made enough money to need another work.” Murtius argued.
Munir agreed half-heartedly and they discussed the time and saw the place where the merchants were to be brought.
Standing below the quarters Murtius said, “I shall ask the girls to stand against the window in order to entice the men. I will collect half the agreed price as they go in. You take yours as they come out.”
Munir the Fixer stared at him silently and said, “OK.”
Going back to his room Munir explained that they might not be able to remain in the town more than a day at the most after the job.
“But you can fix passages for both of us.”
“That will cost money.”
Murtius reflected. His face showed the inner turmoil.
“I shall waive my share if you get a man out of the State prison.”
Munir stared on. “He is my father.” said Murtius.
The fixer said that prison had broken him. He would only be a weight on him…
White-faced he blurted out, “I failed to get him out by other means.”
Munir looked at him and said nothing. Late that night they went out through narrow alleyways by the wharf and fixed false papers for Murtius and his father. Murtius had his name changed to Abu Baker. The fixer held back his father’s paper and said, “I shall get your father out and give his papers to him myself.”
“I’m doing you a favor. Silence is all I ask in return.”
There was one more point to decide and they discussed the matter and decided the date depended on the arrival of the caravan.
Before Murtius left he asked, “How are you connected to my father?”
Munir laughed uproariously at this. He said, “He was merely a father to you, whereas he taught me all the tricks of my trade.” He paused and said, “My spiritual father so to speak.”
Without so much as a wave Munir went up to his lodging.
He went out to call on his five friends whom he had not seen last three years. They were still looking after the sheep for Toufiq Bey. They were happy to see him and little did they guess that he had outclassed them by far. Murtius was careful to give the impression that he was chafing under the librarian who didn’t allow him a moment’s rest, – a lie that suited him. ‘I wish I could enjoy your freedom of open air’. They could understand. He was not yet ready to share his plan.
He spent a while in their company. In fact last two years he was checking out the people who would be of help. The office of the librarian where he did as a drudge let him check on the records of the Bay’s extensive holdings. He laid hold on the maps and what he was interested lay there, neatly drawn and bearing the Bey’s seal: the plan of the Slave quarters and how it was connected to the Harem.
In that office what interested him most was a woman in her mid forties who came in. He had seen her leaving the lodging of Old Molina. She also had caught sight of him. After his encounter with Munir one morning he was poring over records that he looked a but his mind sent warning bells.. He had an uncomfortable feeling of being watched.
He brashly turned around and greeted her. He asked if she were related to Mother Molina. She gave him a dirty look as though he was beneath her notice. A week later she burst upon the hall where he was chatting with the old woman. Molina first threw her scarf over her face and said, “ Take a good look at him. Doesn’t he look an angel?” She meant it as a banter to break her embarrassment. Murtius knew in his bones there was something more to it. He asked her name and Molina said tersely, “Zuleikha.”
Only later she told him that unless he did as was told Munir could do harm to him. So Munir had warned her about him. He merely looked at her and said nothing. Murtius learned to read faces and her face struck him as odd. Her features nose with slight hook at the tip and shape of the temples resembled Old Molina. Munir’s face also seemed to reflect certain resemblance. His eyes were entirely different. One day as he stepped out of the library in the evening Munir came from behind the shrubs. Munir asked him to follow. They went to a tea-house and they chatted over their plans to bilk the Tuaregs. Murtius asked off-handedly, “ Suleikha is your mother?”
“Well what of it?”
“Nothing,” hazarded the younger, “ She has some strange hatred to all men.”
“What is that to you?”
Murtius didn’t persist. He was slowly beginning to piece together the man who was taking the whole winnings. But he had no other choice. He at least had a safe passage in case the plan failed.
Munir sent his emissaries not so much as with information but to check his whereabouts. He had a feeling that his plan would have to be put into operation.
One day one stranger sidled up to him and said, “Meet Munir in his place. Today after the evening prayers.”
Then he was gone.
Murtius went over to meet him. There was a stranger who was cowering behind a threadbare curtain. His host simply parted to reveal his father who was sullen and he gave a weak smile. Munir hurriedly drew him apart to say, “I have fulfilled my part. I have got him free. Not a moment to lose.”
Murtius wanted to speak to his father but Munir brushed him away, “He is no longer your concern.”
Murtius sensed it was his way to show his power over him.
As he went down the steps Munir came quickly to say, “Before alarm is raised he would be out of the country.” Next day word was sent to him through one of his emissaries, “The caravan comes around by the next moon.”
Straightaway Murtius went around calling on each of his five fellows and asked if they were ready for an adventure. They were to assemble at a grove of Lime Trees by the road that passed from the bottom of the Bey’s palace. Tin-fart was impressed. He asked, “Do we get to meet him?”
“No silly,” Murtius replied, “We go there since he is away.”
He explained what they were to do.
“The Tuaregs were expected to halt there and they would be away for awhile. Those who are left to watch over their baggage and animals need distraction”.
He spelled out role of each. One was to set alarm if anything went wrong. Another would sell drinks that made them dizzy while three went at it picking nothing but gold pieces and jewelry.
Whistle-blower queried, “Do we pass to another?”
“Yes, Me.” replied Murtius curtly.
He let out dire warning that there could be danger. He assured that the Bey would know nothing. There was a powerful gang who might kill them if they thought of holding back any of the booty. They asked how they were to escape if something went wrong. He promised to meet them in the smaller hours at the wharf by the Old Town where the dhow, ‘Ports of Gold’ was anchored. The way he detailed escape plans made them rest assured.
Munir came on time and he could see that Murtius had arranged with Old Molina and everything was set in place. At that point she was in the hall where the male slaves were finishing their supper. As they came out she ladled out their drinks.
The absence of Toufiq Bey was obvious. The slaves took their drinks into the garden where under a pleasant evening sky they could drink unhurriedly. No one however asked for a second round They dozed off by the drink that was spiked with bhang.
Murtius nervously watched Munir who had a few of his cronies stationed secretly at a distance. He heard the caravan and the tinkling of bells and hubbub of trudging feet in the night was ominous. He excused himself to his accomplice saying he needed to relieve himself. He quickly went to check the five who were for once alert and at their posts. He whispered to go into action once he whistled thrice, long short and long. Murtius asked Whistle blower to keep the mule tethered. It was to be getaway animal. Two large satchels were thrown across the beast that he knew would be full before the dawn broke.
Munir’s men joined with the caravan. They greeted them and began speaking excitedly to the merchants. From the way they looked at the slave quarters Murtius knew the merchants were hooked. Munir stood by impassive but for his jaw that went on chewing an imaginary cud. Murtius craned his neck to see the lighted windows were some 40 women took their potluck. They positioned to show themselves to advantage. The merchants haggled over them and out stepped Munir to collect silver coins that were thrown into a wicker basket. Murtius asked the guide to move the animals aside into the open maidan by the side of Lime Grove. The men who left behind found it a convenient place while the merchants took their pleasure. Murtius watched them keenly as they trampled their way through to the hall. Murtius followed them undetected. They flowed into the inner court where they fanned out to the harem as well as the slaves who were let into the secret by Old Molina. It was something new. Murtius felt a stab of pain to realize if the women in the harem made a ruckus the Nubian guards would come in to check.
Luckily silence assured that the matter was out of his hands. Instinctively he checked in the folds of his tunic. His paper was secure. From that time onwards he would assume another name.
As he went on Munir was still busy collecting and his face showed he had made a killing. He sneaked out past him.
He went to the open space where the five had begun their spiel. One was playing up to the watch while another as per the plan dispensing with drinks for a copper coin. Whistle blower was about to go into action and he paused to see if Murtius was around. He waited for him to give a signal. When Murtius was satisfied he whistled and he went towards the mule. As soon as the satchel was full he hastily whispered to meet him by the wharf.
He had scalped all. He went direct to the wharf where he boarded the vessel with the name, Golden Plover. Ports of Gold lay in yet another part of the harbor.
Next day every one who had known Murtius whispered to one another that Baby Face Murtius was a cheat and a black hand.
Only one kept his contact and he was already in the vessel to see Munir who told him that his father had already left the country. He asked where to and Munir said nothing. Murtius didn’t press the matter. He knew he was his half brother and Suleikha was his mother. She had spoilt the happiness of his mother forever. Grimly he cursed his hometown and the people. All that money he had made somewhat deadened his feeling for his home or his birthplace.
Later Toufiq Bey, when he was told that his mule was stolen he said highly irritated, ‘Whoever stole it would stop at nothing’. Murtius was precisely determined to prove him right.