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Excerpt from Edward Cline’s Novel The Black Stone (Chapter 3)

Chapter 3: Table Talk  

“Did you know,” Skeen asked casually over breakfast the next morning, “that Mohammedans, when they go on a pilgrimage to Mecca, must walk counter-clockwise around the Kaaba seven times, and run between some hills looking for water, and perform a schedule of other rituals, all designed to make them feel like silly, worthless asses?”

 “Kaaba?” asked Dilys, who was paying only half attention to her husband. “Sounds like a Greek dish, smothered in the finest feta cheese sauce, and best served with ouzo.” She was reading the morning Observer-World. She had fixed a breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast. Skeen had just poured himself a second coffee and was on his first cigarette of the day. He was reading from notes he had made last night in his study and had passed the newspaper over to Dilys.

“The Kaaba,” read Skeen, “is a cube-like structure smack in the middle of an open-air mosque about the size of Kezar Stadium, about forty-four feet high and fifty in length. Other scholars reverse the dimensions. It is built of granite on the outside, marble on the inside. It sits on a spot, according to Mohammedan lore, that Allah designated that Adam and Eve should build a temple, or an altar.” Skeen paused. “Of course, that story must have been concocted after the Kaaba had been a pagan shrine for an undetermined number of centuries, housing scores of other deities. Allah’s own genealogical antecedents seem to be rooted in a moon god of fecundity.”

Dilys looked up from the newspaper. She said, wearing an incredulous but amused frown, “You’re making that up.”

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Skeen chuckled. “No, I’m not. It’s all in the encyclopedia.”

Dilys shook her head. “I know you’re not. Forgive me for saying, but it still sounds like you’re ad-libbing.”

Skeen smiled wickedly. “Great material for a stand-up comedy monologue at the Fantasma Theater.” He went on. “The Kaaba is skirted by an enormous black silk table cloth, with Koranic verses embroidered in gold, high enough out of reach of light-fingered pilgrims.” He paused. “Presumably, the roof is bare, but somehow water-proofed. All in all, the Kaaba that exists today is just one of several that have been built, destroyed, collapsed by floods, damaged in war, redesigned, and gussied up ever since it probably began as a stone shanty erected by heathens thousands of years ago, housing wart-nosed witches they probably called vestal virgins, visited by decrepit old priests who performed Masonic-like rites over bowls of foul-smelling incense.”

Dilys chuckled. “I can just picture it now. Thousands of the heathen votary doing a syncopated conga around the place to a mad drum beat. Some cranky old priest on the roof with a megaphone acts as a cheerleader, prompting them to shout en masse some obscene imprecation in Arabic, or whatever they spoke back then.”

“A very fine parody, darling,” said Skeen, “worthy of Cecil B. DeMille’s talents.” He continued reading. “Today, observers write, about one hundred thousand pilgrims perform the Hajj annually.”

Dilys looked up from the newspaper again. “Hodge? As in hodge-podge?”

Skeen shrugged. “I suppose so. Or perhaps it it’s ‘Hadge,’ as in ‘badge.’ There was no pronunciation guide in the encyclopedia.” He frowned. “As for Mecca, historians and cartographers aren’t even sure the place existed when the alleged prophet, Mohammad, or Muhammad, is said to have graced the Kaaba with his presence and laid the Black Stone. They think it might have been a backwater town, a kind of camel stop, noted by Ptolemy, called Macoraba. Which, in turn, raises a question mark over the existence of Mohammad himself. It’s all quite hilarious.” Skeen put aside his notes. “And that’s all I was able to glean from my sources here.” He finished his coffee. “I’ll be going downtown today to find more books on Islam. Care to come along?”

Dilys shook her head. “No, thank you. I want to work on ‘Phryne’ and address some issues about her audience.” She frowned again. “Why this sudden interest in Islam?”

“Professor Lerner advised me to look into it.”

“Think it will help you solve Rachel Lerner’s murder?”

“It might. I don’t know yet.”

“I see.” Dilys closed the newspaper and thrust it aside. “I’ve decided you will be one of Phryne’s judges.”

Skeen’s face brightened. He shook his head. “Why not her defense attorney? What was his name?”

“Hypereides,” Dilys replied. “Phryne was reputedly his mistress, as well.”

“Oh, yes. Against Philippides,” mused Skeen, vaguely recalling Hypereides’s famous oration he had read at Yale in one of his classics courses years ago.

Dilys put on a tentative smile. “Well, if I do cast you in that role, you shall remain beardless. I’ll still need you to pose for that look of surprise Valda mentioned.”

“Why would he look surprised?” Skeen rose and went around the table to kiss Dilys on her forehead. “I remain your humble servant.”

Dilys smiled and reached up to flick the curl from over his left eyebrow.

Θ

Skeen returned early in the afternoon with a bag full of books on Islam he had purchased in two Market Street bookshops. He repaired immediately to his study. Aside from three recent books on current events in the Middle East, he had bought The Qur’an, by Mirza Abul Fazi, which featured the text in Arabic and English, and The Holy Qur’an, by Maulana Muhammad Ali, which featured annotations on the English text. The two other books were Whither Jerusalem? by Hortense Abigail Pickett, a traveler in the Mideast who taught at Oxford University, about the Jewish-Arab conflicts beginning in the late 19th century, and two books by H. St. J. B. Philby, The heart of Arabia: a record of travel and exploration, from 1922, and Arabia of the Wahhabis., from 1928, both books published in London by Constable.

Dilys came into the study around midday and espied the pile of books on Skeen’s desk. “Well,” she said, sitting on the edge of the desk, “I guess I won’t be seeing much of you today.”

Skeen grinned up at her.  She was wearing her blue smock. “I can take a hint. Lead on, Lady MacDuff.”

In the studio, Dilys positioned him on the model’s “throne” that sat on a raised platform, told him to remove his sweater and shirt, and assume a certain pose that faced her. She fixed a blank sheet to her easel and began making lines. “You may talk, darling,” she said. “I know you’re dying to.”

Skeen said, “I’ve been dipping in the Koran. It’s worse than the Bible in many respects. Utterly schizophrenic in parts. One moment you’re being urged to behave like St. Francis, and be kind to all animals, even Jews and other infidels. The next it’s inveighing against Jews and other infidels, calling for their extermination. It’s beginning to read like a manual for a career in sadomasochism, authored apparently by a person currently incarcerated in Sing Sing, and provided with a liberal and lifetime supply of cannabis or some other hallucinatory pharmaceutical product. You know, one of those serial killer convicts who finds religion.”

Dilys said, “Surely you’re exaggerating.”

Skeen shook his head. “Remember that my sole encounters with Islam in the past were two of Mr. Winston Churchill’s books about his experiences in the Sudan and the Northern Frontier in which he describes Moslems, or Mohammedans, or Muslims and their practices and fanaticism, then my declining an invitation to join the Ancient Arabic Order of the Noble Shrine last year – can you picture me wearing a red fez decorated with mystical symbols? – ”

“No, I couldn’t,” replied Dilys. “And stop moving your head so much.”

“—and occasionally passing the Temple Islam on Geary Street on my usual rounds of investigation.” Skeen paused. “Or is that the Odd Fellows Hall?”

“Sounds as though the Ancient Arabic Order and the Odd Fellows are connected, and have as much to do with Islam as do the Boy Scouts.”

“Anyway, that being my past exposure to Islam, reading about it in such detail is an eye-opener.”

“Move your head, please, to the right, just a smidgen.”

Skeen obliged. “In the one Philby book I discovered the Saudi Ikhwan – ”

“The icky one?” asked Dilys, pausing to scrutinize her husband’s face for a moment.

“The Ikhwan,” repeated Skeen, spelling the term. “Plural for Moslem ‘brothers.’ Tribal allies of this Saudi king. They’re Wahhabists, sticklers for pure Islam.”

Again, Dilys looked incredulous. “Wahhabists? As in the Wabash River? Or should it be the Swanee?”

“No, not quite. I’m not sure of how to pronounce it, either. Say! I think I’ll use that phrase of yours the next time anyone asks me about the Ikhwan.”

“What phrase?”

“The icky ones.”

Dilys shrugged. “I thought that was what you said. You’re welcome to it.”

“According to Philby and Picket, they’re first-class throat cutters. Very similar to the Thugees of India.” Skeen chuckled. “That would be a sight. Allah versus Kali. More interesting than both Dempsey-Tunney fights. Kali, you see, would have twice the punching power.”

“Why?”

“She’d have four arms. She could deliver a double sucker punch. I wouldn’t put my money on Allah.”

“I’m not a betting woman.”

Skeen paused before replying. “You bet on me.”

Dilys shook her head. “No, I didn’t. I set my cap for you the moment I laid eyes on you.” She sighed. “I’m finished here. You can go back to your icky ones and the Wabashites.”

Skeen left the “throne” and came around to look at the sketch. He hummed once and said, “I don’t look surprised at all.”

“A little smug, I’d say. And possessive.” Dilys paused. “And proud.”

Skeen hummed again. He saw a certain look in Dilys’s eyes. “Back to the icky ones,” he said. At the door, he paused to turn and add,  But…hold that thought.”

Θ

Later that Saturday afternoon, after they had had a light dinner, and had decided to not try to see a movie, Skeen enveloped Dilys in his arms, her back pressed to his chest.  He said to her in a voice that was not quite a whisper, “Your nape is more accessible on that swan-like neck that invites exploration. Your eyes are captivating, your brow is noble and kissable. Your ears are eminently nibble-worthy, your nose peckable. Your shoulders, deceptively frail, carry so much care. Your lips are mashable. Your spine is a perfect valley, rooted on a finely sculpted derrière, all poised atop showgirl legs worthy of the Folies Bergère.”

Dilys turned her head to glance up at Skeen with narrowed eyes of arousal he knew so well. “Your rhyming and meter are abominable, but would you mind typing that up and leaving it on my vanity?”

Skeen smiled down at her. “Or would you prefer this: Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety. Other women cloy the appetites they feed, but she makes hungry where most she satisfies…”

Dilys frowned up at him, and shook her head, trying to recollect the lines. “Much better. Hamlet?” she ventured, unsure of which Shakespearean character Skeen had quoted.

“Enobarbus.”

“Who….?”

Skeen put an arm around her shoulder and walked her to their bedroom. “I’ll explain who…presently.”