As a respite from political commentary, I offer here a chapter from We Three Kings, a suspense novel I completed in 1980. It is the second of a three-title series featuring Merritt Fury, an American entrepreneur hero first introduced in Whisper the Guns, published in 1992. The chapter is not entirely irrelevant in relation to the Islamic jihad, the Ground Zero mosque, and the pragmatic vacuity of American foreign policy. Because it is uncertain when and if this novel will ever be published, I thought it appropriate to give readers a sample of what many who have read the entire novel say should see the light of day.
In We Three Kings, Fury has come into possession of a rare and highly prized gold coin, the British Queen Una, given to him by a man whose life he saved but who was subsequently murdered by a Saudi sheik’s thugs. The sheik, who is a close relative of the ruling family and who holds a diplomatic post at the United Nations, wants the coin, and also suspects that Fury killed his younger brother during the first assault on Stephen Crenshaw, the murdered man. Fury also suspects the sheik of engineering a warehouse fire that destroyed some of his imported property. The sheik has been given leave to deal with Fury by an appeasing, circumspect State Department, not abroad, but on American soil. His interests are represented by a disgraced Texan politician, Cooper Dean.
The scene is a palatial residence in a suburb of New York City, Forest Hills Gardens, owned by the sheik. Fury has been invited here by the sheik to discuss the coin. The occasion, attended by the diplomatic corps, is to display a model of a museum the Saudis are planning as a showcase of Western culture. The disputed coin is to be one of its exhibits, in the Hall of the Firmament. During the soiree, Hamdan Khair escorts Fury to the sheik’s sanctum for the interview. He is one of the sheik’s functionaries, bested by Fury in a previous encounter.
* * * *
Sheik Ali ibn Quamisi, standing courteously behind a Louis Quintz desk, cut a dashing figure. Unlike other titled Arabs, he was slim, tall, and showed no sign of fat. His hands were graceful, almost effeminate, and there was a pleasant, regal grace in all his movements. His face was so light-complexioned that Fury speculated that his ancestry must have included a strong mix of Circassia and northern Spain; he could have easily been nicknamed “The Blond Bedouin.” He wore the common spade beard which accentuated the chin and framed the mouth, his black hair was Western-styled, and the black eyes were intelligent, alert and perceptive. He wore a chalk-striped, three-piece suit, a white shirt, and an English striped tie.
Quamisi gestured expansively and with unconscious practice. “You see, Mr. Fury?” he chuckled, “I have not even the time to attend my own celebrations! Always the business, always the proposals and negotiations! Fortunately, you are my last caller. Welcome to my house, newly purchased that it is! You are well?” He waved to a green leather armchair in front of the desk.
Fury answered, “In spite of everything,” then sat down.
“I am pleased.” Quamisi snapped his fingers. Khair appeared from behind Fury and went to the silver coffee service on the desk. With it on a leather blotter were an antique telephone, a marble ashtray, and a tall object that was covered with cheesecloth. Khair poured two demitasse cups; the sterling silver looked fragile in his thick hands, but the liquid spilt nowhere but into the cups. Quamisi accepted a cup from him, then with a smile and another wave bid Fury to accept the other. Again, Fury obliged. Khair retired to his station across the room, out of Fury’s sight.
“That is Hamdan,” said Quamisi, nodding in Khair’s direction, “one of my ablest and most trusted bodyguards.” He grinned. “I believe the two of you have met?”
“Not intentionally, I’m sure,” said Fury. He tasted the black coffee, which was incredibly sweet.
Quamisi chuckled again. “No, not intentionally. I apologize for the clumsiness of my men. Needless to say, Hamdan is not eager to broaden his acquaintance with you, Mr. Fury.” He paused. “You have heard of our religious police?”
Fury nodded yes.
“Hamdan and Yosef — the guard outside the door — are former members of that esteemed organization. Ardent members, and somewhat controversial. One of their duties was to ensure observance of our laws and customs by the countless foreign workers in my country. As you may know, alcohol is proscribed by Islamic law. Hamdan and Yosef once caught an American transporting a large volume of it in a van, many cases of it smuggled into the airport. They tied him to the steering wheel of that van and set fire to it. The man did not so much consume his alcohol, as it consumed him.”
Fury lit a cigarette. “Now they set fire to warehouses and murder Americans in their own country.”
Quamisi smiled innocently, and sipped his coffee. He set the cup down, then studied Fury for a moment. He said, “You know, when I was attending school in your beautiful California, I heard many native pearls of wisdom, one of which was: Never discuss politics or religion at a party.” He shrugged. “I thought nothing of it until I assumed the leadership of my people. At parties, politics and religion — somewhat embellished with alcohol — may spoil enjoyment and good will. And in business, they may ruin the chance for profit. All the businessmen I have ever dealt with avoid these subjects with a discretion I am not sure is either flattering to them or a courtesy to me. However, I can appreciate how this discretion makes things easier for all concerned.” Quamisi paused to light a cigarette himself. “You, I suspect, are different, Mr. Fury.”
Fury finished the coffee and put the cup and saucer back on the silver tray. “And I don’t attend many parties, either.”
“I thought not. I sense that you can be extraordinarily voluble, given the opportunity.”
Fury wondered what the man was driving at. “It all depends,” he replied.
Quamisi gestured with his cigarette. “I grant you the opportunity,” he said with a smile. There was genuine curiosity in his words.
Fury waited a moment, then said, “For openers, you’d never find me begging for contracts or concessions in Riyadh, Lagos, Moscow, or Peking. As for religion, I can ridicule the faith of your choice. But you will excuse me if I refrain from levity. Inventing jokes was never one of my strong points.”
Quamisi frowned. “You are not a man of God, Mr. Fury?”
Fury smiled. “I don’t even worship the false ones.”
“That makes you the universal infidel,” said Quamisi, who then laughed. He smiled generously at Fury. “Truly a man of the world, with no eye on the next one. And he knows this world.” A distant, speculative look came to the sheik’s face. “A formidable man,” he added. “I must thank you for accepting the invitation, Mr. Fury. You have been the sole bright note in what has been a tedious evening.”
“I didn’t come here to celebrate,” said Fury.
“I imagine not. But it is difficult to fit you into the familiar categories. I confess I am at a loss.”
“Stephen Crenshaw,” Fury said. “Queen Una and the Hall of the Firmament.”
“Yes,” said Quamisi tentatively. “I understand from Mr. Dean that you do not wish to sell the coin in question for any figure. I am certain now that your words are not mere sales strategy. I would make you an extremely high offer for it, but I feel that it would simply be adding zeroes to zeroes.”
“Mr. Dean’s been dirtying his hands lately,” remarked Fury.
Delight spread over Quamisi’s face. “You know something of our attitudes, Mr. Fury! What a pleasant surprise!”
“The dirt on Mr. Dean’s hands is not the usual kind, gotten through honest work.”
“Truly cosmopolitan!” exclaimed Quamisi. “Tell me: What is your view on the state of the world today?”
Fury sighed. “I don’t do soliloquies on the obvious.”
“Poor Mr. Crenshaw,” said Quamisi.
“Not so poor,” replied Fury.
Quamisi shrugged and permitted himself a smirk. “If one man owns a handful of marbles, and another the quarry from which they came before being encased in glass, I will not quibble over the issues of scale.”
“Mr. Crenshaw did not come into possession of quarries that others were afraid to own.”
Quamisi smiled. “And poor Mr. Dean. I expect too much of him, perhaps. His behavior lately has been quite erratic. I asked him to find the man who had been involved in some hooliganism.”
“And he found him.”
“But he can’t be punished,” said Fury. “Not yet, at least.”
Quamisi smiled in reluctant agreement. “Indeed a problem.” He paused. “You know the ways of my people, Mr. Fury. So you must know my feelings on the matter. While this hooligan is still alive, I have a chance to possess that coin. So I must make him regret everything, including his being alive.”
“More warehouse arson?”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not.” Quamisi leaned forward in earnest. “I had sincerely hoped that Mr. Crenshaw would at least see reason. But, he did not, and I have no patience with men who had no good reason not to see reason.”
“It isn’t anyone’s reason you address.”
Quamisi sat back in his chair and waved his cigarette affectedly. “Who was it that said, ‘One should not like to tie one’s hands down for the future by agreeing to something reasonable’?”
Fury, in the midst of putting out his cigarette, frowned, then answered almost immediately, “Lord Clarendon, British foreign secretary, commenting on Austrian peace proposals between Russia, France, Turkey, and Britain, on the occasion of the Crimean War.”
Quamisi looked so stunned that Fury was tempted to laugh.
Fury asked, “You did intend Clarendon’s remark to be pertinent to our discussion?”
Quamisi sighed in concession. “You are a remarkably literate man, Mr. Fury.”
Fury shrugged. “Literate, or well-read. There’s a difference.”
Quamisi chuckled. “Quite. In the future, I shall be more cautious with my allusions.” With meticulous attention, he put out his cigarette in the ashtray. Twisting the filter one last time, he said, “Mr. Fury, I seem to be failing to put the fear of God in you.”
“Perhaps it’s because I never had it that you’re bound to fail.”
Quamisi, his sight fixed shyly on the desktop, smiled foolishly. “Mr. Fury, it is not an issue of ownership we discuss here. Surely you realize that. Another one of your native pearls of wisdom is that ownership is nine-tenths the law. A uniquely Western concept. But as you may have deduced for yourself, the law has, for the moment, forgotten you, and the outstanding fraction has suddenly and quite inexorably become the rule of your life. You are quite isolated, Mr. Fury. More isolated than if you were alone and lost in the Empty Quarter.”
“You can’t have the Queen Una,” said Fury. “It’s mine.” He was beginning to grow bored and impatient with Quamisi. He had come with the hope that he could glean some unique gesture or other facet of the man that would define the essential in him. Perhaps it was wrong of him to come here; perhaps there was nothing more to Quamisi than what he had already known.
Quamisi abruptly grinned. “But — enough of that for the moment.” He turned in his chair and removed the cheesecloth from the object on the desk to his right.
The thing took Fury’s breath away. It was a foot-high sculpture, on a black onyx pedestal, of a young, nude woman in frosted, translucent crystal. She was standing on her toes, her slim body arched gracefully upward, her head thrown back, her eyes closed in rapture, her arms stretched out to her cupped hands to capture the rays of the sun. The sight of the statuette stirred him instantly, arousing a response whose root was both sexual and esthetic.
“It is a remarkable representative of Western art, is it not?” said Quamisi, studying both it and Fury. “My team of specialists say it was one of three copies, done by some French artist early in this century. His name eludes me at the moment.” Quamisi smiled affectionately at the statuette. “I have another copy of this in my villa at Cannes. The third, I am told, is lost forever, probably destroyed during the last European war.” He turned to Fury with a beguilingly sincere expression. “I acquired this recently at a private auction. Do you attend auctions, Mr. Fury?”
“Not often,” Fury replied. For a reason he sensed rather than knew, he regretted having shown his reaction to the statuette.
“I would say it is priceless, except that I was able to purchase it,” Quamisi continued. “And it was a very private auction. There were only two items for sale, and I was the only bidder. There was the previous owner — some moderately wealthy recluse in Minnesota whom my specialists reported was not open to a sale — and this statuette. The previous owner did not think his life was priceless, not after some senseless vandalism and two near-fatal accidents. It was while he was recovering from cardiac surgery that he agreed to price.” Quamisi paused to find Fury staring at him. “It is exquisite. Do you like it, Mr. Fury?”
Fury answered, “I’d say that the man who did not was either esthetically blind or exceptionally corrupt.”
His answer caused Quamisi to frown briefly. Clearing his throat, the sheik said with mock blandness, “But, it is a shame. I had intended to present this piece to Riyadh University, but I have recently received word that certain doctrinaire members of its administration promise to cause trouble if this piece is added to its infant collection. As you may know, human images, exquisite or not, are forbidden in my religion. So, I must dispose of it.”
Quamisi beckoned to the silent Khair and spoke to him casually in Arabic. An expression of bewilderment flattened the servant’s face. Quamisi sharply repeated himself. Khair took the statuette, crossed the room, and stood about fifteen feet from the fireplace. With one last baffled glance at his employer, he pivoted on his feet and flung the statuette into the fireplace with all his strength.
The crystal shattered on the brick behind the flames. A thicker, less delicate crack was made by the onyx pedestal, which ricocheted back onto the rug with other exploded pieces of crystal. The head, severed neatly from the neck, shot back out and rolled to Quamisi’s feet and touched one of his shoes. He glanced down from watching Fury and saw it. Quamisi bent and picked it up and held it in his hand. The crystal that had disintegrated in the fire began to emit odd sounds.
Fury stood up and regarded Quamisi for a moment. Quamisi looked back at him, a pleased, eager and expectant expression in his eyes. Fury said, “I trust you’ve made yourself clear.”
Quamisi tossed the crystal head to Fury, who caught it. “That is for you to decide, Mr. Fury. Have I?”
Fury hefted the crystal head in his hand once. “If this is supposed to be a reminder to me of your power, then yes, I think you’ve made yourself clear.”
“And what is the only possible conclusion to draw from my demonstration?”
Fury glanced at the crystal head in his hand, then smiled at the sheik’s gloating face. “That this is going to make a very interesting souvenir.”
“Get out!!” bellowed Quamisi, jumping up and overturning the coffee service, which tumbled off the desk and clattered to the rug, the pot’s contents spilling over the colors. Hamdan Khair, his face aghast, stood in frozen immobility by the fireplace. “Get out, killer of my brother!!” Weakened with pent-up rage, Quamisi leaned with both arms on the desktop. “I will have you, and I will have that coin!!”
“Of course you will,” replied Fury. His expression had turned to mild contempt. “When the sun rises in the west.” Then he turned and left the room.
© 2010 by Edward Cline