Cairo, 1912: The case started as a simple one for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities—handling a possessed tram car.
Soon, however, Agent Hamed Nasr and his new partner Agent Onsi Youssef are exposed to a new side of Cairo stirring with suffragettes, secret societies, and sentient automatons in a race against time to protect the city from an encroaching danger that crosses the line between the magical and the mundane.
P. Djèlí Clark returns to the historical fantasy universe of “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” with the otherworldly adventure novella The Haunting of Tram Car 015—available February 19th from Tor.com Publishing.
The office of the Superintendent of Tram Safety & Maintenance at Ramses Station had all the decor befitting someone who had been elevated—or likely pushed along the lines of patronage—into such a vaulted position. A sprawling vintage Anatolian rug of blue angular motifs, red spandrels, and golden tulips bordered in deep lavender. A hanging painting by one of the new abstract pharaonists, with its irregular shapes, splotches, and vivid colors that no one could truly understand. A framed photograph of the king, naturally. And some conveniently placed novels by the most recent Alexandrian writers, their leather-bound covers looking as unopened as the day they’d been bought.
Unfortunately, Agent Hamed Nasr noted with the meticulous eye of an investigator, the superintendent’s contrived attempts at good taste were subsumed under the humdrum tediousness of a mid-level bureaucratic functionary: transit maps and line timetables, mechanical schematics and repair schedules, memorandums and reports, all overlaid one upon another on washed-out yellow walls like decaying dragon scales. They flapped carelessly beneath the air of an oscillating copper fan, its spinning blades rattling inside its cage as if trying to get out. And somehow, still, it was stifling in here, so that Hamed had to resist the urge to pull at the neckband of his white collarless shirt—thankful, at least, that the dark uniform he wore concealed any signs of perspiration in the lingering heat of late-summer Cairo.
The office’s proprietor was seated in a high-backed chair behind a stained, coffee-colored desk. It showed signs of wear, and a fine crack led up one leg where the wood had been split. But its owner had taken care to keep it polished, so that it gleamed under the lone flickering gas lamp in the windowless room. He didn’t seem bothered by the unbearable climate. Much like his noisy fan, he prattled on, impervious.
“It’s odd that we call it a tram system,” he intoned. His finger stood poised beneath a bold nose sheltering a waxed moustache streaked with gray that twisted and curved up at the ends. Hamed was amazed by the man’s pomposity: behaving as if he were lecturing first-year students at university—and not speaking to agents of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities. “It is really a telpher system, when you think on it clearly,” he droned on. “Trams are pulled along a single cable line. But like telphers, our cars move independently along any given line, even switching lines at given points much like a train. The original telpher was invented in London back in the 1880s. But once our djinn got ahold of the idea, the mechanics were greatly expanded upon.”
“Absolutely fascinating, Superintendent Bashir!” a younger man seated beside Hamed exclaimed. At twenty-four, only four years younger in truth. But the round, clean brown face beneath his Ministry-issued red tarboosh looked as if it belonged on a boy. At the moment, he was rapt with both attention and genuine interest.
“Oh indeed!” The superintendent’s head bobbed like some windup toy, eager for the audience. “People have little understanding of how the transit system that connects much of Cairo works. Not to mention what has to be planned for the future. A city of over two million and growing is going to require major works to keep up with its population.” He reached for a bronze dish on his desk and jerkily offered it forward.“More sudjukh, Agent Onsi?”
The younger man gave his thanks, gleefully grabbing a few more bits of the sweet—a brown concoction of hardened syrup and nuts that tasted of cloves and cinnamon. The superintendent presented the dish to Hamed, who politely declined. He’d been fighting to get one of the things unstuck from his teeth for the past few minutes.
“Delicious!” Onsi said, crunching down on a mouthful. “Where did you say these were from, Superintendent?”
“Armenia!” The man beamed, drawing out the word. “I visited last year on a development trip with the Transportation Bureau. The government hopes increased modernizations will assure stability for the republic, after so much hardship brokering their independence. While there, I absolutely fell in love with the local food. Sudjukh is by far my favorite.”
“Sudjukh,” Onsi mouthed as he chewed, his bushy eyebrows furrowing above a pair of round wire-rimmed silver spectacles. “I always thought that was a type of cured sausage.”
“Ah!” the superintendent exclaimed, leaning his angular body forward. “You may be thinking of sujuk! The spelling is sometimes similar, though the pronunciation—”
Hamed cleared his throat loudly, coughing into his short moustache. If he had to sit through a conversation about the dried meats of Transcaucasia, he just might go insane. Or be forced to eat his foot. One or the other. And he liked both his sanity and his feet. Catching the superintendent’s attention, he spared a remonstrative glance for Onsi. They were here on Ministry business, not to spend the morning chatting idly like old men at a coffee shop.
“Superintendent Bashir,” he began, trying to smooth the impatience in his voice into something more diplomatic—and scoot a bit of sudjukh from between his molars. “If you could tell us about the problem you’re having with the tram?”
The man blinked, as if just remembering why they were there.
“Yes, yes, of course,” he answered, sitting back into his chair with a huff. He fiddled with the blue-striped kaftan that he wore over a crisp white gallabiyah, the latter complete with buttons and a shirt collar, after the ministerial fashion. Pulling a kerchief from a front pocket, he mopped at the perspiration on his forehead. “It is all such dreadful business,” he complained. “Well, there’s no way to put this politely—the tram is haunted!”
Hamed opened his notepad, sighing under his breath as he jotted down the word “haunting.” That’s what had been typed on the file that landed on his desk this morning. He’d hoped the case might turn out to be something more interesting. But a haunting it was going to be. He stopped writing, looking up as his mind worked out what the man had just said.
“Wait, your tram is haunted?”
The superintendent answered with a dour nod that made his moustache droop. “Tram 015, that runs the line down to the Old City. It’s one of the newer models that came out in 1910. Only two years in service, and we’re already having these troubles. God protect us!”
“I didn’t know trams could be haunted,” Onsi murmured, plopping another sudjukh in his mouth.
Hamed had to agree. He’d heard of haunted buildings. Haunted homes. Even had a case once of a haunted mausoleum in al-Qarafa, which was rather silly when you thought about it. Why make your home a cemetery, then complain about hauntings? But a haunted tram car? That was new.
“Oh, it’s quite haunted,” the superintendent assured. “Passengers have encountered the spirit on several occasions. We’d hoped perhaps it would just leave on its own accord. But now it’s attacked a woman, just yesterday! She was able to escape unharmed, praise be to God. But not before her clothing was all but ripped to shreds!”
Onsi sat gawking until Hamed cleared his throat again. The younger man jumped at that, fumbling out his own notepad to begin scribbling.
“How long has this been going on?” Hamed asked.
The superintendent looked down to a calendar on his desk, tapping the days contemplatively. “This was the first report just over a week ago, from a mechanic. The man has an ill moral character: a drinker and a carouser. His work chief believed he’d arrived at his station drunk. Almost wrote him up for dismissal, until the passenger complaints began arriving.” He motioned to a small stack of papers nearby. “Soon we were hearing from other mechanics. Why, I’ve seen the wicked thing myself!”
“What did you do?” Onsi asked, drawn in by the tale.
“What any right-standing man would,” the superintendent replied, puffing up. “I informed the foul spirit I was a Muslim, and there is but One God, and so it could do me no harm! After that, a few other men took my lead, reciting surahs in the hopes of driving it away. Alas, the vexed thing is still here. After the attack, I deemed it best that I call in those who are more skilled in these matters.” He patted his chest in a grateful gesture.
Hamed suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. Half of Cairo flooded the Ministry with trivial concerns, jumping at their own shadows. The other half assumed they could handle everything themselves—with a few verses, some amulets and charms, or a bit of folk magic passed down from their teita. “You say you’ve seen the entity in question,” he prodded. “Could you describe it?”
Superintendent Bashir squirmed. “Not precisely. I mean, well, it’s difficult to explain. Perhaps I should just show you?”
Hamed nodded, standing and pulling at the hem of his coat. The superintendent followed suit, leading Hamed and Onsi from the small hot room. They walked down a hallway that housed the station’s administrative offices before being herded through the gilded silver doors of a lift, where a boilerplate eunuch stood waiting patiently.
“The aerial yard,” Bashir instructed.
The machine man’s featureless brass face registered no sign of hearing the order, but it sprang into motion—reaching out a mechanical hand to pull on a lever embedded onto the floor. There was the low grumbling of turning gears, like an old man roused from bed, and the lift began to rise. They traveled a short while before the doors opened again, and when Hamed stepped out he had to shield his eyes from the late morning sun.
They were atop Ramses Station where you could see Cairo spread out below: a sprawl of busy streets, spired masjid, factories and architecture that spanned the ages amid the scaffolding of newly rising constructions. The superintendent had the truth of it. The city was growing by the day, from the cramped downtown to the south, to the mansions and well-tended gardens in wealthy Gezira. And that was just on the ground. Because up here was another world entirely.
The pointed steel turrets atop Ramses Station that mimicked golden minarets served as mooring masts for airships. Most of these ships were lightweight dirigibles that shuttled between Cairo and the main port of Alexandria by the hour, discharging passengers from across the Mediterranean and beyond. Some medium-sized crafts sat among them, heading south to Luxor and Aswan and as far as Khartoum. One giant vessel dwarfed the others, hovering impossibly like a small blue oval moon: a six-propeller heavy class that could make uninterrupted trips east to Bengal, down to Capetown, or even across the Atlantic. Most of Cairo, however, got around by less extravagant means.
Corded cable lines stretched across the skyline in every direction, metal vines that curved and bent as they went, interwoven and overlapping the breadth of the city. Aerial trams zipped along their length—leaving bright electric bolts crackling in their wake. The tram system was Cairo’s lifeblood, running on a network of arteries and transporting thousands across the bustling metropolis. It was easy to take it for granted when you walked the streets below, not bothering to look up at the rumbling of their passing. But from this vantage, it was hard not to see transit vehicles as a stark symbol of Cairo’s celebrated modernity.
“This way, if you please.” The superintendent beckoned.
He took the two agents across a narrow walkway like abridge, away from the airships and the main cable lines, and up several flights of stairs. When they finally stopped they were in a land of trams. Some twenty or more of the cars sat about in neat rows, hanging from cables by their pulleys but otherwise inactive. From somewhere beneath came the sound of other trams in motion, and between the gaps of the platform Hamed could catch glimpses as they streaked by.
“This is one of the main aerial yards,” Bashir explained as they went. “Where we put trams to rotate out of service, those needing rest or repair. When 015 started giving trouble, we placed it here.”
Hamed looked to where the man was leading. Tram 015 appeared like all the others he’d ever seen: a narrow, rectangular brass box with sectioned glass windows that wrapped nearly all around. It had green and red trim, and two bulbous lanterns on either end encased in cages of densely decorated interlacing stars. The number 015 was embossed in gold lettering that covered a door near the front. As they approached, the superintendent hung back.
“I’ll leave matters in your capable hands from here,” the man offered.
Hamed thought impishly of insisting he come along and show them how he had bravely stood up to the spirit. But decided against it. No need to be petty. He waved to Onsi and they walked to the car. The door came open at a pull to reveal a small set of steps. There was a gap between the hanging tram and the platform, showing the Cairo streets a far drop below. Trying to ignore the dizzying sight, Hamed placed a booted foot onto the tram and climbed aboard.
He had to duck his tall frame, holding onto his tarboosh, and draw in a set of broad shoulders to clear the narrow doorway. The car rocked slightly at his entrance and jostled again as Onsi came following behind—shorter by at least half a foot but stout enough to be near equal in weight. It wasn’t precisely dark inside the tram, but dim. The lamps on the ceiling were on, and the flickering alchemical filaments cast a glare off the silver buttons running down the front of the two men’s coats. The crimson velvet curtains at the windows were drawn back, allowing in some sunlight. But there was still a shadowy cast, making the burgundy cushioned seats of the bolted chairs running along either wall seem as black as their uniforms. The air was different too, thicker and cooler than the dry Cairene heat—filling Hamed’s nostrils and sitting heavy on his chest. No doubt about it, something was peculiar with Tram 015.
“What’s the procedure, Agent Onsi?” he asked.
If the Ministry was going to saddle him with new recruits, he might as well check to see if they’d been trained properly. The younger man, who had been peering about with interest, brightened at the question. “Sir, we should make sure the area is secure and no civilians are in present danger.”
“It’s an empty tram car, Agent Onsi,” Hamed replied. “And I told you, stop calling me sir. You passed your academy exams so you’re an agent just like me. This isn’t Oxford.”
“Ah yes, sir. Sorry, sir.” He shook his head, as if trying to clear it of a lifetime of English schooling, which filtered into his accented Arabic. “I mean, Agent Hamed. Ministry procedure says that, taking into account what we’ve been told, we should make a spectral examination of the area.”
Hamed nodded. Trained right after all. He reached into his coat to pull out the small leather case where he kept his spectral goggles. The copper-plated instruments were standard Ministry issue. They fit like eyeglasses, though the pronounced round green lenses were far wider. Onsi had removed his spectacles to slip on his own pair. Eyesight mattered little when it came to the spectral world—which appeared the same to everyone in a haze of startlingly vivid, luminescent jade. The brocaded flower patterns on the cushioned seats could be seen in detail, along with the golden calligraphy that ran along the black window panes. But what stood out more than anything was the ceiling. Craning to look up, Hamed couldn’t fault Onsi for his breathy gasp.
The curved ceiling of the tram was awash in a spectral glow. It came from a complex arrangement of cogwheels covering the entire space. Some of the gears meshed with one another, their teeth interlocking. Others were conjoined by chains into sprockets. They spun and rotated in multiple directions at once, sending out swirling eddies of light. Trams didn’t require conductors, not even a boilerplate eunuch. The djinn had created them to run by themselves, to plow along their routes like messenger birds sent on an errand, and this intricate clockwork machinery was their brain.
“I say,” Onsi asked, “is that supposed to be there?”
Hamed squinted, following his gaze. There was something moving amid the spinning gearwheels. A bit of ethereal light. He pulled up his goggles and saw it clearly with the naked eye—a sinuous form the color of grayish smoke. It slithered about, like an eel who made its home in a bed of coral. No, that was definitely not supposed to be there.
“What’s the next step for first encounters with an unknown supernatural entity, Agent Onsi?” Hamed quizzed, keeping his eyes on the thing.
“Perform a standard greeting to ascertain its level of sentience,” the man answered on cue. It took a brief awkward silence for him to comprehend that Hamed meant him to perform the task. His mouth made a perfect “Oh!” as he hastily drew out a folded document. Opening it revealed a sepia-toned photo of his beaming face above a blue and gold Ministry seal. “Good morning, unknown being,” he said in loud slow words, holding up his identification.“I am Agent Onsi and this is Agent Hamed of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities. We hereby inform you that you are in breach of several regulations governing paranormal persons and sentient creatures, beginning with Article 273 of the criminal code which forbids trespass and inhabitation of public property owned by the State, Article 275 on acts of terrifying and intimidation of citizens…”
Hamed listened stupefied as the man rattled off a series of violations. He wasn’t even certain when some of those had been put on the books.
“…and given the aforementioned charges,” Onsi continued, “you are hereby instructed to vacate these premises and return to your place of origin, or, barring that, to accompany us to the Ministry for further questioning.” Finishing, he turned with a satisfied nod.
Rookies, Hamed grumbled quietly. Before he could respond, a low moaning sounded in the car. There was little doubt where it came from, as the gray smoke had stopped its slithering and gone still.
“I think it understood me!” Onsi said eagerly.
Yes, Hamed thought dryly. And you probably bored it to death. If it was already dead, you might have just bored it back to death.
He was about say as much when there was a sudden terrible screeching.
Hamed moved to cover his ears at the sound, but was sent stumbling back as a jolt went through the tram. He might have fallen flat had he not reached out for one of the stanchions—catching the vertical pole by a hand. He looked up to see the gray smoke swirling furiously like an angry cloud, screaming as it swelled and grew. The lamps that lined the walls flickered rapidly and the tram began to tremble.
“Oh!” Onsi cried, trying to keep his footing. “Oh my!”
“Out! Out!” Hamed was yelling, already heading for the door. At one point, he slipped to a knee as the car shuddered hard and had to pick himself up—grabbing Onsi by the coat and pulling him along. When they reached the stairs something heavy pushed at them from behind, and they went tumbling down in tangle of flailing arms and legs until they were deposited unceremoniously onto the platform. From outside they could still hear the screeching as the hanging craft bucked and jumped. With a fury, the door slammed shut and all was quiet and still at once.
“I think,” Hamed heard Onsi put in from where they lay in a heap, “we may confirm that Tram 015 is indeed haunted.”
Excerpted from The Haunting of Tram 015, copyright © 2019 by P. Djeli Clark.