Liz, Donnie, and Rayhan walked to the parking lot. He opened the rear door and she slid into the passenger seat behind the driver’s side, tilted her head, and smiled. Donnie waited for Rayhan to release the trunk lock, loaded their luggage, then sat in the front across from Rayhan.
“How much do you know about your friends’ disappearance?” Rayhan asked as he eased the car onto the busy highway.
Liz caught his eye in the rearview mirror. “Not much, Mr. Shenouda. They’d been missing for two days when you called me.”
Her heart pounded against her ribcage and she fought to breathe. “I had been instructed to call her family if anything happened, and when I called Donnie, he and I agreed to come here.”
“This is all you know?” Rayhan murmured. “Fil-mišmiš!
Liz sat on the edge of her seat and bent forward as she gave Rayhan a gentle, but firm message. “It did happen. Don’t be so skeptical, Mr. Shenouda. Just to let you know, I understand every word you say. We can speak either Arabic or English.”
“I’m sorry, Miss McCran. It is just odd they disappeared with no other information.” Rayhan fixed his eyes on Donnie, who shrugged his shoulders.
“They were here on vacation. I don’t know any more.” Liz sat back in her seat and speculated how she could spend the next few days with not one, but two, headstrong men.
She fell into silent thought as she remembered the weeks right before their vacation, and Addie’s excitement about her first trip to Egypt. Her husband, Gary, as a hobby compared early Christian writings and Egyptian mythology. Liz wondered if this had gotten them into trouble. Had they asked the wrong questions of someone? Addie and Gary were good, decent people.
They wouldn’t have knowingly stepped into a smuggling situation. Or could it be an issue of Christianity? They would have been arrested, not missing. Unless…Liz shuddered. She glanced out the tinted window of the sleek, black vehicle and recognized the streets approaching the Embassy. She found an inner strength and forced down the panic rising in her throat.
Donnie and Rayhan discussed something trivial about the weather and she joined their exchange. “Spring in Egyptis a beautiful time, isn’t it, Mr. Shenouda?” Forgiving him for his earlier assumption, she continued. “We shouldn’t have a problem, unless there is a spring sandstorm.”
“It’s a bit early for the Kashmin,” Rayhan offered. “It will not be a problem in the city.”
“No. However, we may not stay in Cairo.” Donnie shifted in his seat to include Liz in the conversation as he continued speaking to Rayhan. “We need to find a gentleman named Mr. Moustafa.”
“It is a very common name,” Rayhan said. “Do you know anything else about him?”
Liz rummaged through a stack of papers she’d brought and hesitated. Should I tell Rayhan about the letter?“His first name is Abubakar.”
“I know of a man with the same name. He lives very close to my Uncle Al Abdul.”
“Can you arrange a meeting with him, Mr. Shenouda?”
“Yes, after we’ve met with Mr. Aston.” Again, Rayhan locked eyes with Liz in the mirror. “Miss McCran, Mr. Barnes, if
Abubakar Moustafa is who you are looking for, I believe you are going to be here a while. I think we need to at least be on a first name basis. I request you call me by my given name, Rayhan. May I have permission to use your first names?”
Liz nodded and acknowledged his request. She understood the formality of the tradition. “Who is he and why would he extend our stay?”
“Do you know anything about the Christians here, Liz?” Rayhan glanced at her.
“Some. I’ve worked mainly with the ancient Egyptian culture, but have also studied the beliefs and customs. I probably don’t know as much as I should.”
“And you, Mr. Barnes?” Rayhan questioned.
“I know absolutely nothing. I’m still working on my own Christianity. Go on, though. I find this all very fascinating. Do you think there’s some religious connection to their disappearance?”
“I am a Christian, as is Mr. Moustafa, and we have learned to live secretively. With a population of over eighty million, there are roughly eight to twelve million Christians. We are, and have been, persecuted by our fellow Egyptians and the government.” Rayhan paused as he approached the gate of the Embassy parking lot. He showed the guard his identification, and the entry gate swung open.
“At any rate,” Rayhan said after he’d drove away from the gate, “we are generally careful, fearing danger for not only ourselves, but our community. Mr. Moustafa gambles with his own existence. He is being followed closely. There could be a problem if he is involved in this, even accidentally.”
Liz moved back in her seat as Rayhan approached the parking stall marked: Ambassador Aston. “They were doing a favor for their pastor by delivering an envelope from a builder. Their church planned to volunteer during the construction. Why would something so simple have caused them to vanish?”
Rayhan grew silent. He parked the car and quickened his pace to the rear door to offer Liz his hand. “The involvement of Abubakar Moustafa makes me uneasy. He isn’t careful.”
Rayhan took Liz’s hand and pulled her to stand beside him. They hesitated for a moment, facing each other, inches apart, until Liz moved away. She had been drawn to him from the beginning, mysteriously intrigued by his smooth, dark skin, brown eyes, and black hair, which glistened in the sunlight. The stylish cut of his suit accentuated his muscular build. He stood a good foot taller than she, and Liz slanted her head to explore his face. Another time, she thought, different circumstances, but not now.
“Donnie, Liz, come this way.” Rayhan indicated to the large back door just beyond a small courtyard. “We’ll use the employee entrance.”
The sizable concrete building, the color of sand, loomed before them. Liz had been there many times, but it always struck her as odd. A pillar to Americanism in a country so different from her own, yet she’d been drawn to Egyptby those differences and now, to find her friend.
Liz and Donnie followed Rayhan. On previous trips, she frequented the Embassy to deal with visas or passports for the crew she’d brought from the museum, but never to meet the ambassador. On occasion, there’d been a problem with their rights to enter a dig and the Embassy would become involved in any relations with the Egyptian government. The museum staff ranked among a handful of outsiders allowed onto the archaeological sites of the various ruins.
The U.S. Embassy stood across the Nile, tucked into an area close to its shores. Mr. Aston’s large, mahogany desk sat in front of an oversized window which offered a commanding view of the blue-green water of the river. He rose from his chair and extended his hand to Donnie.
Mr. Aston smiled. She appraised him with one quick glance and observed his full head of gray hair. She put his age about sixty. He’d spent too much time behind his desk the last few years and not out playing golf, his sport, as hinted to by the trophies displayed on a matching bookcase to his left. He exuded a warm and pleasant persona, but Liz caught a lack of conviction in his voice as he turned and shook her hand. She wondered if he hid his true feelings under his professionalism.
Did he think they came here on a whim? Would he help them?
“Miss McCran, Mr. Barnes, it’s good to meet you.” He gestured to twin brown leather chairs with brass buttons down the front of the arms, ending at the wooden legs. He put a hand on his jacket, and in one swift motion unbuttoned it and smoothed his tie down, while he returned to his seat. “I have done some investigation this morning, and no group has come forward claiming they are holding your friends or wanting any demands. I’m not exactly sure how we can be of help to you, other than the normal routine. We will check where Mr. and Mrs. Wright have been and where they were supposed to be. Unless we hear word from some militant faction, it’s about all the Embassy can do.”
Liz turned to see where Rayhan had gone, but he had disappeared when they entered the ambassador’s office. “I’m concerned about them, as is her cousin, or we wouldn’t have come all this way because they changed their vacation itinerary. I’ve been in touch with the travel agency. I filled out papers for them to contact me in case of emergency. They obviously thought there was one.”
“We might bring in the Legats,” Mr. Aston offered.
“The who?” Donnie, raising his eyebrows, stared at him.
“The Legal Attaché for this country. Legats are assigned to the forty-five countries we work with by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
The thought of the FBI connected with Addie and Gary’s disappearance made Liz concerned the ordeal might be more serious than she’d thought. “You must not think it’s necessary, or you would have already notified them.”
“Not just yet, but ...” He hesitated as he groped for words. “Let us say, we may.” He placed his hand on his jawline, touching his perfectly trimmed white beard. “I’m really sorry I can’t help you more. There are many things which come into play when two countries are involved.”
“You mean you’re done?” Donnie blurted out. “We’re on our own?”