It was a hot day, but the streets were crowded, because this was July, but this was Istanbul. To be precise, July 1935.
Simon had said, rightly, though for completely the wrong reasons, that Istanbul was the most exciting place to be in the world. Simon's reasons were of course that it was a predominantly Islamic country that had just elected 18 women as members of parliament, and that Mustafa Kemal's programme of reform and modernization would bring about dramatic changes that would show the rest of the world, almost from one day to the next, that change was good, and that social progress was real.
Harriet Black couldn't care less. She had never once used her right to vote, in any of the countries where her citizenship – real or counterfeit – entitled her so to do. Harriet Black was in Istanbul because it was the hub of the Game. Widely considered neutral territory – the point where for thousands of years East meets West, someone whose loyalty, on the rare occasions where anyone was sufficiently foolish to test it, would always and only prove to be to herself, could find herself at ease, at rest, and in absolute control of her destiny.
Picture then, if you can, the hot, dusty but not altogether dry streets of the world's oldest Capital – never mind that a little more than ten years ago this country's official capital had been moved to the much more Turkish city of Ankara; Istanbul was still the capital of the world. Under the makeup of her architecture, under the flesh of her streets and houses, were the bones of the oldest city in the world, an among those bones, the bones of men of more nations, more cultures, more difference, than any other city. No wonder she was too western for the Young Turks: she was too eastern for most Europeans; small wonder nonetheless that when the ottoman had become sickly, it was on exotic Istanbul that the world's treasure-hunters had turned their greedy eyes.
Which was how Harriet had come there the first time. It was not common knowledge, but she had arrived in 1904 on horseback, aged 13, with nothing but the clothes on her back and a mismatched pair of stolen pistols for which she had no cartridges – though this she had rectified within a couple of hours. Several more days, numerous thefts and at least one probable murder later, she was installed in the hotel known as the Grand Byzantine* – an ostentatiously wedding-cakey affair so full of bell-hops and flunkies there was hardly room for the guests.
Today, she hardly ever thought of her first visit. It was a very different city today, even though, in so many ways, exactly the same.
Harriet sauntered down the middle of the street, her wide hips swaying, shuffling the black silk of her dress from side to side, leaving an oddly organic trail in the dust. The people in the street could be neatly divided between those who knew her silhouette well – most of the people who lived on the street were her tenants, after all – and those who had never seen her before. Since while the former would nod politely to her, and then sagely to one-another, the latter simply stopped whatever they were doing to stare, slack-jawed, a the woman with the explosion of black curls, the ice-white skin behind huge sunglasses, the scarlet smile almost as wide as her face, showing wide teeth even whiter than her skin; the black silk dress, open at the front to reveal a black leather bodice both discreet and practical – her décolleté covered by a black muslin veil – and black silk trousers tucked into black riding boots that were last in fashion in about 1913, if you were a Hussar, but which, if you knew Harriet Black, you would realize had probably been made only a few months ago.
On the street, Harriet Black was known as one of the richest women in a city of millionaires. In the Game, she was known as one of the most elusive and dangerous**.
And indeed, the other major reason why Istanbul was considered neutral territory was the presence of Harriet herself.
Our story starts, then, with her sauntering along a busy street, making towards a much busier one, where a dark mauve Rolls Royce is waiting for her, the rear passenger door open.
And busy though the street was, once she was within a couple of hundred yards of the car, the crowd parted, leaving her a path a good three yards wide which though people occasionally strayed across it, noone lingered long between the white woman all in black and her destination.
As she got into the car, two young men in tropical suits detached themselves from the coffee counter they had been leaning on, and wandered languidly over to a small two-seater. One of them handed a couple of banknotes to the boy who had been sitting contentedly in the driving seat, and he hopped out and disappeared into the crowd.
"She doesn't look a day over twenty-five," one of them observed.
"Legal records indicate that the city considered her an adult – and indeed a widow – in 1910. She must be over forty – even if she lied in 1910."
"They say that last year in Chicago –"
The older man cut him off:
"You will find, Brian, that there are an awful lot of 'they says' about this woman. Nonetheless, what I said before stands, and you would do well to remember it."
"She isn't on your side. If you're in her way she'll go through you."
"Good. And don't forget it. She has both charm and beauty, but she also has a sort of honesty... the tiger may smile, but never tries to pretend that he is not a tiger."
After a short trip up a couple of major roads, the Rolls Royce stopped outside a big, regular building, rather anonymous looking in spite of the distinctively Istanbul collision of styles known as "Ottoman Baroque". Opening her own door to get out, Harriet walked over to a door above which had been stencilled simply "HOTEL". As she stepped inside, the little two-seater pulled over, a little further down the street.
"What the bloody hell is she doing here?" said the younger man, but the other didn't reply.
Inside was a small lobby, where a man in a tatty green uniform stood behind an ancient polished counter. He didn't react in any visible way to the appearance of Harriet Black.
"Black, for Quest."
The man wrote something in a ledger, and then handed her a key. At the other end of the lobby was a new-looking lift, but she ignored it, and sprang lightly up the stairs.
Simon Quest's office was a long walk – almost half a mile if you included the stairs, and looked out of six romanesque arches over the Bosphorus, a stretch of water almost as crowded as the street on which Harriet Black had begun her day.
She walked in without knocking, served herself some tea from the samovar, and walked out onto the balcony. She smiled as she sipped her tea. This balcony had been the scene of her "little epiphany" – and Simon Quest its only witness. Ten years later, he looked, well, he looked ten years older. A slight man, only a little taller than her, thin and neat, close-cropped blond hair and a manner that would have been effeminate if it were a little less restrained. A man of astonishing knowledge, about the city, about people, about her.
Dangerous, maybe. Not because of what he did. Simon Quest wasn't a doer. Not because of what he knew. Simon Quest wasn't a teller, either. Dangerous because of what people would tell him. And what he would tell them. And what they would subsequently do.
As he stepped into the room, Harriet bounced uncharacteristically across to him and treated him to a peck on the cheek that lingered only a little longer than necessary. Needless to say his reaction was limited to a microwatt smile – that was nonetheless enough to get a gigawatt back from her. She served him a glass of tea, and poured another for herself.
"You're not going to like it," he began, matter-of-factly.
"No need to break it to me gently then."
"It's about the Library."
Harriet didn't bother to say that the subject of the Library had been put to bed; that they were sure that the Library was not here in Istanbul, and indeed that the Library was a fantasy. The two people who best knew this were the two people in this room.
"Hat, you've always played the game at street level. I'm expected to work a little higher up these days."
"You know what the purpose of the Game is. War. The game is about war. When there isn't adequate grounds for open war, the game is used to attempt to establish adequate grounds. I know you don't play it quite that way. But that is what it is for. And that is what this is about."
Harriet stared out at the chaotic shipping and waited for him to go on.
"The powers think that their last chance is coming to achieve their European objectives. The Colonial Solution has failed – they have reached a stalemate – and they think that before long, another European War will be, for numerous reasons, impossible. So they will use the game, and you, and me I don't doubt, to establish adequate grounds for total European war."
She continued to stare at the glare of the sun on the waters.
"I bet you think that has nothing to do with the City, nothing to do with the Library, nothing to do with you. I bet you think that you and your city are unique. And I bet even you forget, from time to time, what I know about you."
She turned and stared at him, and began to say "You wouldn't..."
"No! Of course I wouldn't. But there is enough of that kind of thing elsewhere in the world, and enough people who will believe everything and stop at nothing that does not prove it untrue... people who will do anything to gain an advantage, no matter how small, in what is surely to come."
"Here and now," he went on, "here is what everybody thinks they know: the Library left Rome. The records at Herculaneum make that pretty clear. The Library went east. After the fall of Constantinople enough minor artefacts and rare texts left the City to convince a lot of people that there had to be more."
He went back in to fill up his glass, and finding the samovar a little cool, pulled on a pair of long cotton gloves, and carefully emptied and refilled it. He dropped a little tea and sugar in the kettle, and left it on the tray while the cistern re-heated, before coming back out empty-handed.
"Here and now," he picked up, "here is what we know, you and I: the historian Torsius deliberately invented the myth of the Library in order to perpetuate the idea that the Romans possessed the hidden knowledge of the ancients, and he deliberately sent many of the materials salvaged from Alexandria to Constantinople, knowing that Constantinople's already legendary possession of Greek Fire would encourage the Roman Legend. We know this because we have read Torsius' book. We've read it because we found the Annexe. Even so, we also both suspect that the Library, even if it isn't here, probably did exist and maybe still does."
"You've never said that before."
"Harriet, you have to go back to the Annexe and destroy it."
"You know I can't do that."
"Then others will find it. Others will read Torsius, and they will assume that if he lied about part of the story he could be lying about all of it. They will come here, and the war will be fought here and they will tear the city apart looking for it."
Simon Quest had, up to this point only ever seen two expressions on Harriet's face – a gigawatt smile or a scowl of intense concentration. Now, her face was twisted into a mask of confusion. You couldn't say if it was panic, or anger, or fear, or even anything human. He knew very well, of course, that Harriet didn't feel things the way that others do.
He watched as her face settled back into a familiar smile, but he could see the clenched fist, and he could see the waters of the Bosphorus turn suddenly choppy as a tremor crossed over from the eastern side to rattle the shutters, and stir up the dust. He walked calmly back into the room, and held the samovar gingerly by the two hot wooden handles as the tremor crossed the room, rattling the kettle and the glasses in the tray.
He looked up, and saw Harriet's curls bouncing and shaking in silhouette against the white sky like snakes coiling and uncoiling.
Simon went back outside to watch the dust settle.
"There have been some collapses in Sariyer. I have to go."
For a moment she had seemed pressed – hurried – to leave. Suddenly she was still, composed, listening.
"They will send their best people first. Most of them are probably already here. When you find them, deal with them in final and interesting ways. They'll keep sending more people but they won't get better. So you can keep dealing with them. It could get time consuming. And messy. If necessary, start a gang war. I see no reason to be discreet about this. To be honest with you, Hat, I'm getting a little fed up with the whole thing."
He filled up the kettle and balanced it on top of the samovar.
"And once everything is a real mess here, go and find the damn Library, and when you do, destroy it."
Harriet looked at him, smiling blankly.
"Go on, go, your city is waiting for you."
The mauve Rolls Royce sped north through the city, the little two-seater not far behind. Most of the way there was little sign of the tremor's passing, but up ahead there was a significant dust cloud, and, possibly, some smoke.
When the Rolls Royce arrived in Sariyer, it was no longer being followed by the little two-seater, a fact explained by it's later discovery wrapped around a tree in one of the many small parks along the way. Driver and passenger may or may not have survived the accident – but this was academic as both had been shot in the face with, the experienced Turkish Police concluded, a large calibre pistol. They further concluded that the murderer was long gone, and would not be discovered. As it turned out, they were quite right about the latter part.
* There is a "Hotel Byzantium" not far from where the Grand Byzantine stood, and though it is a rather more modest establishment, it looks very comfortable; I have never stayed there. The place known as the Grand Byzantine never actual had those words over the door, though I was assured by Frost himself that that is what everyone called it.
** Frost once digressed into the Art of War, and observed that one of the best times to conquer a neighbour was when the neighbour was beset by a natural disaster – flood, famine, earthquake. The equivalent in the Game was being beset by Harriet Black.