Laura’s first glimpse of the Nile came when the little cab crossed the Giza Bridge. Upstream, one heavily laden barge toiled in earnest against the river’s northerly current. Three faluka boats, their weathered sails pieced together from odd remnants, tacked expertly in zigzag holding patterns clear of the barge’s path.
Pyramids Road boasted four lanes – two on either side of a raised median. Nevertheless, a noisy profusion of trucks, busses, donkey carts and taxicabs three and four abreast, all jockeying for position, elbowed their way forward in each direction. Painted lines on the road were disregarded as were traffic lights. Like everyone else seeking a place among Cairo’s ten million competing motorists, the cab driver tooted his horn incessantly. It was a signal, not of aggression, but of survival – a statement and a plea: “I am here. Please don’t squash me like a scarab.”
For several kilometers, the old Fiat lugged along at a slow but surprisingly steady pace. Then everything came to a stop.
Policemen in white uniforms filled the street, some of them shouting and running around willy-nilly. Others stood in place apparently awaiting orders. Still others moved from vehicle to vehicle, conducting a cursory search.
“What’s happening?” Laura asked, her body stiffening.
Nick repeated her question in Arabic to the driver, who shrugged his shoulders and switched off his engine.
In time someone in authority barked an instruction that resulted in vehicles already inspected being waved on. Traffic trickled forward.
Suddenly a rifle barrel was thrust through Laura’s open window. The excited young soldier-policeman wielding it yelled something in Arabic at the driver, who responded angrily in kind. Nick frowned; clearly the men were speaking too fast for him to comprehend what was being said. In any case, the young man withdrew the rifle – a Soviet designed AK-47 – and motioned with its barrel for the taxi to proceed.
As it lurched ahead, the source of the pandemonium gradually became visible. A fleet of Ford pickup trucks, painted police sky blue, was parked in a rough semicircle around an abandoned tourist bus in front of a gift shop on the south side of the street. The once gleaming white-and-gold bus was now a bombed-out hulk. Most of its windows were gone; one side was ripped open and heavily scorched; thick black smoke belched outward through the shattered windows. There were seven bodies lying on the asphalt, where they had been placed – burned, bloody and uncovered – in a disorderly row near one of the pickups.
“My God,” Laura said. “How gruesome.”
Nick squeezed her hand. “It’s been going on for years – attacks on tourists. Part of the extremists’ campaign to bring down the government. They want tourists to stay away, hoping the Egyptian economy will go down the tubes.”
“I can see how they might think twice about coming,” Laura said, then caught the look in Nick’s eye. She knew what he was thinking – I told you so – but wouldn’t say.
“Their campaign’s been pretty effective,” he did say, “even though not all of their attacks are as successful as this one appears to have been. Last I heard tourism was down about sixty percent.”
“So you see, it’s a good thing we came. Otherwise the government might have folded. You wouldn’t want us to be responsible for that, would you?”
“We could turn this cab around and head straight back to the airport.”
Laura cocked her head and glared at him sideways. “Never! And stop being so damned protective, will you?”
Nick mouthed an exaggerated but silent “Owww” and rubbed the back of his wrist as though it had been swatted with a ruler.
Laura chuckled, knowing that in reality he’d have been shocked had she reacted any other way to the notion of turning back.
He winked at her and smiled.
She twisted her head and shoulders, watching through the rear window as the death scene faded from sight behind a curtain of humanity and a rusty dump truck that was rattling along behind their taxi.