"That was meant to last a week," Tayib said gently.
Behind Wingate, at the bar across the lobby, the colonel was waving.
"Someone is trying to catch your attention, sir."
"Get me another week's dosage, will you, Tayib?" He sounded desperate.
"Colonel Mitchell, sir, is trying to tell you something."
Wingate turned and looked, with evident distaste, at the colonel. "Ape," he hissed before swinging round again to face Tayib. "Well?" he said.
"Doctor Hamid " Tayib began.
"Indeed, sir. But the prescription I got you yesterday came from Doctor Hamid, and Doctor Hamid left Cairo only this morning to visit his father in Alexandria."
"I need Atabrine. I'm putting my trust in you, Tayib. I'll be in my room."
"I'll see what I can do, Major Wingate."
The receptionist watched Wingate struggle unsteadily towards the lift. Then he called out to the concierge, "Ahmed."
The concierge sauntered over to the front desk.
"I need some Atabrine," Tayib said.
"What happened to the batch I picked up yesterday from Doctor Hamid?"
"Can you or can you not get me some from your brother-in-law?"
"Why can't you get it from Doctor Hamid?"
"Why must you always answer a question with a question?" Tayib leaned closer and said, "I got quite an earful from him yesterday when I telephoned for the batch you picked up."
"Doctor Hamid loves the sound of his own voice. Especially when he's about to slap you with a heavy bill."
"That wasn't the problem. The problem was that the major simply came to me and said, Tayib, get me some Atabrine."
"Naturally. He seems to think Atabrine grows on trees."
"So I telephoned Doctor Hamid. And he said to me, Where's the patient? Bring him here to my clinic, he said. Tell him I want to see him."
Atabrine was known to be toxic and unpredictable. Even when taken in the recommended dosage, the doctor explained to Tayib, it was sometimes impossible to tell its side-effects apart from the worst symptoms of the illness it was meant to cure. It had been known to induce a deep psychosis in some people and had sent others into a coma. It was crucial, Doctor Hamid said, to examine the patient before prescribing Atabrine. But Tayib knew that it was futile to go back to Wingate with such a message.
"So I said to him, Doctor, I said, I cannot bring Major Wingate to you. He's just spent the last year or so in Abyssinia fighting the Italians. There's a rumour something went badly wrong for him out there and he's lost his marbles."
"That's no rumour."
"It's Atabrine or my job, I said to him. So he took pity on me and said to send someone along to pick up a week's dosage. Next time, he said, remember I'm a physician, not a pharmacist."
Down by the lift, Wingate was resting against the wall, shaking as he waited for the lift to come.
"Did you know that back in Abyssinia your major was a colonel?"
"May I divorce if I tell a lie. And what happens the moment the Italians surrender? What happens after the Abyssinian war is over? He's ordered by his commanders to report immediately to GHQ Cairo. Why? Well, no one knows. But the first thing he got when he went to GHQ was news that he was now a major. A demotion. I don't know what crime he committed in Abyssinia but I hear he might even be facing a court martial. There's more to that man's haggard, wasted look than malaria. There's a cloud hanging over his head. And I for one feel no sympathy for him. He's the rudest, most uncouth guest I've ever encountered in all the years I've worked here. Did you see him on the day he checked in? He arrived chewing an onion. An onion, Tayib. Don't get me wrong, I do like onions. But an onion is not an apple. At first I thought it was an apple he was biting into so greedily. But it wasn't an apple. The man was eating a raw onion. You think you"ve seen everything, Tayib, and then you meet a creature like that. Vile. Vile."
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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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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