Monday, November 27, 2006

LOOKING FOR HERCULE POIROT or Death on the Nile

Murder on the Nile! Hercule Poirot, mahogany paneling and elegant staterooms, ladies with parasols and men in spats. Palm trees decorating the banks of a wide river while a boat horn plays a lively tune. It’s clear in my mind’s eye. I know exactly how this trip will be. Waiters in white jackets and pants will carry silver trays through narrow halls while crocodiles lift their snouts in menace, glimpsed through beds of reed. The captain will preside over canapés and cocktails dressed in marine splendor. There will be “murder most foul” and a dapper Belgian detective to catch the killer.

We do have white-jacketed waiters, palm trees, silver trays, cocktails. We also have a cast of characters that includes a professor of English history from Witwatersrand in South Africa. With him is his wife who bleeds. Not just a little bit, but a lot. That’s when I knew.

As Shakespeare said and as Sherlock Holmes plagiarized: “the game’s afoot!” We had a victim. That thought gained credence as we gathered on the second morning to set off for the great temple at Esna.

First, a bandage on the professor’s wife’s ankle turned red. Then, blood seeped through and into her socks. It ran into her shoe, overflowed and pooled on the carpet.

Where is Hercule Poirot when you need him? The rest of the cast had assembled. We had the professor and his wife. We had their companions. We had haughty Spaniards and wealthy French honeymooners plus an even wealthier older French couple. The latter had suites with their own deck on the forward bow (we could lean over the top deck railing and look down on them). They also had potted palms.

There we were that Tuesday morning, standing in the main lounge, wondering if we shouldn’t say something about the blood. What is proper etiquette with a murder in progress and the victim seemingly unaware of her fate? “Rae,” the companion finally spoke, “You might want to sit down.”

I gaped, then. A double gape. One part was for the understatement. Sit down? Rae would soon be lying down—permanently! Anyone could see that. The second part was for the amount of blood. It was as dramatic as anything Agatha Christie ever put in a book.

“We must call a doctor,” our Egyptianologist said. He seemed unperturbed, his swarthy skin smooth and unwrinkled. Nothing impressed him ... that what his expression said. I did notice a small indentation where his eyebrows lifted into his forehead, though. But was it disapproval or sympathy? Impossible to tell.

Nevermind. We would have the indispensable doctor added to our cast. He would wear a white jacket and a vest decorated by watch fob and chain. He would doff his panama hat as he came aboard, inquiring in impeccable English for his patient. Yes! But would he be in time?

In the event, reluctantly, we left the hemorrhaging Rae and her husband behind, and we went ashore to take copious numbers of pictures and to express pious hopes at regular intervals. These ran along the lines of, “I hope Rae is doing all right.” “Such a pity she is missing this.” “Yes, it’s a shame, but she must look after her health.”

“Is she a hemophiliac?” I asked finally, thinking her husband was feeding her rat poison, but not wanting to voice that conclusion too soon. (Well, with no HP around, someone had to play detective, and I can do Miss Marple’s accent.) Rat poison would account for the bleeding and would be something a professor from Witwatersrand might think he could get away with in Egypt.

“It’s the medicine she takes for her asthma,” the companion said. “If she scratches her skin, she bleeds.”

“The poor thing,” I say, hiding my true reaction. LIKELY STORY!!

That night we dressed for dinner served by white-jacketed waiters and presided over by a haughty chef in a black jacket (he directed, the sous-chefs in tall white hats who did the actual cooking). Should we dine with the South Africans? Witnesses would be needed, or maybe our presence would discourage any further sprinkling of rat poison on poor Rae’s food. I was torn between humanitarian instincts and a desire for a good drama.

Outside beds of reeds hid lurking crocodiles. Lights came on in huts and mud brick villages. Boys with sticks trail cattle returned from the fields. The occasional camel stood impervious to river traffic and donkeys protesting their lines. Galabayas flapped around the legs of men and great jars stood on women’s heads. The sky deepened to a dark blue, providing a dramatic backdrop to sand-strewn hills. In short, the Nile banks parodied illustrations from my childhood picture bible.

The companion appeared. “Rae is eating in her cabin, but the doctor has seen her,” she said.

So, we sat at a table next to two Spaniards and their daughter and debated what the Bush administration should do about Iraq, decided that Wyoming won’t elect a Democrat to national office in our lifetime, and considered the important issue of what to wear for tomorrow night’s costume evening.

Later, water swished almost silently past the sides of the boat. Inside chandeliers dripping with cut glass sent prisms of color across deep pile carpeting. Music played softly. Men in black tie cut their meat and one man probably thought profound thoughts: how easy would it be to slip a woman’s body into the Nile?

I went to sleep, eventually, to awake to a new day and the sight of Rae, bandaged and ready for to go sightseeing. “It’s the medicine,” she said. “And we just have to control the bleeding.”

Yeah … likely story. He was killing her. No doubt. If my “little gray matter” was not quite so little, I’d present her with the evidence and save her life. As it was, I shrugged and went sightseeing, too. What I want to know: where’s Hercule Poirot when he’s needed?

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