"How soon can you get to your brother-in-law?"
"My brother-in-law is a cheap, lying, fornicating quack."
"That may be so, but I didn't ask for a description of your brother-in-law."
"He's a slimy back-street abortionist."
"The question is, does he have Atabrine?"
"I wouldn't go to him if I had a sore throat."
"Do me this favour, Ahmed."
The lift had arrived. As he went inside, Wingate missed a step and ended up on his knees. Tayib immediately reached for the phone. "What that man needs isn't more Atabrine. He's had too much of that already. Go back to your post, Ahmed. This is no matter for a quack abortionist. I'm calling the Royal Army Medical Corps."
"Why didn't he go to them in the first place?"
"If I could read minds, Ahmed, do you think I would be trapped behind this desk?"
He dialled the operator and asked for the RAMC.
In the lift, Wingate somewhat groggily tried to call his floor but his hands seemed to have gone into sudden revolt and every time he thought of a new task for them, no matter how basic, they simply hugged the wall tighter and refused to obey him. The ache in his head, just above his eyes, was like a migraine followed by a kick in the skull. He could barely see, and when he could see, the effort was so draining, so painful, he closed his eyes and prayed that he would pass out. Even with his eyes shut, he could see vividly the cut-glass chandeliers and electric lamps hanging down the ceiling of the lobby. They twinkled like countless stars and see-sawed dangerously any minute now they would come hurtling down and crush him in the lift. He was drenched in sweat; his heart was beating furiously, his uniform glued to his skin.
"I'm Tim. Tim Mitchell," a voice said, distant and echoing, as if from the far end of a tunnel.
With his half-opened eye Wingate saw a gathering shadow hovering over him. The voice and the shadow merged into a clean-shaven face which widened into a gleaming set of dry white teeth and a spongy, eager smile. "I haven't had the honour of meeting you, Major Wingate. I just wanted you to know that I've heard of your campaign in Ethiopia. Indeed, I've read all your reports and I think ..."
"Not now," Wingate said. "I need to get to my room."
"Of course," the colonel said. He pressed the button for the fifth floor. "As a matter of fact I'm billeted right next door to you. I said as much this morning in a letter to Gwen. I hope you don't mind. I told her that I'd had the honour of living next door to Wingate of Ethiopia."
Wingate didn't ask him who Gwen was, but Mitchell told him anyway. "Gwen," he announced, pulling out a photograph from his wallet, "is my dear fiancé. We got engaged in Plymouth two weeks ago, just before I set sail for Egypt."
"Colonel," Wingate said weakly, "what makes you think I care one jot about your private life?"
"That's rude, Wingate."
But it also shut him up, which was all Wingate wanted. As the pneumatic lift made its slow ascent to the fifth floor, Wingate blacked out for a few seconds. But the young colonel didn't seem to notice this. Wingate's reputation, carved out of a series of outlandish myths and true but hard-to-credit exploits, had preceded him and, in Mitchell's eyes, his behaviour only served to confirm legends of the man's extreme eccentricity.
As they arrived at the fifth floor, Mitchell came out of his sulk. "Major," he said, "how did you come up with the name Gideon Force?"
"Colonel," Wingate said before leaping out, "how did you come by such a perfectly dull mind?"
"Are you always this odious?"
"Only to toadying spies from GHQ."
The world was starting to spin out of control. Wingate tried to get away from the colonel, to get to his room as quickly as possible. But he could barely see and could only barely stand upright, let alone walk. In the corridor, he careened into the wall, clung to it and began to slither towards the door to his room. Mitchell watched him first with irritation mixed with amusement then with concern.
Excerpted from The King's Rifle by Biyi Bandele Copyright © 2009 by Biyi Bandele. Excerpted by permission of Amistad Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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