“Yes, there are some similarities to other incidents like the Philadelphia case I sent you,” said Mahmoud. “We’ve read up on them, though, and there are considerable differences as well.”

“Go on,” said Col. Hamid. “I haven’t had time to read your message. But this is a matter of considerable personal interest to the Ministry of the Interior and the King, so bear in mind that everything you uncover may be destined for the highest organs of the state.”

“Well, ordinarily the investigation of a suicide would be conducted by the Mutawa, as suicide is a sinful violation of the public order,” Mahmoud continued. “But the sumber of suicides, as well as their geographical proximity, led to it being passed to the Mabahith.”

“You were afraid that there was a serial killing preying on pilgrims to Mecca,” Col. Hamid said. His tone indicated that he was comfortable settling on a threat he knew, a threat he could shoot.

“That was our first thought, yes,” Mahmoud replied. “Or that someone was attempting to cover up personal murders by passing them off as random, like the woman in America who poisoned her husband’s pills and then the pills of random others. I sent you that case as well.”

“Go on,” Hamid said, waving a hand. “My time is too valuable for reading.”

“Very well, sir,” said Mahmoud, repressing any instinct to respond in kind. Hamid had his position through royal patronage, after all, and it would do nobody any good. “But the investigation quickly showed that there was no question of suicide in many of the cases. Pilgrims running off of building roofs and balconies in full view of witnesses. Pilgrims stabbing themsleves with hidden knives. Pilgrims laying down and allowing themselves to be trampled.”

“All right, but the presence of sinners among the supposedly faithful is no surprise,” Col. Hamid said. “We have adultery, robbery, even apostasy in the holy city every year. How is suicide any different?”

“With respect, sir, twenty-seven dead in three weeks is different,” Mahmoud said. He bit the inside of his cheek to stifle an angry outburst.

“Could be a coincidence.”

“With respect, sir, all of the victims had been in close proximity to one another.”

“Oh, they had all arrived at the same time? Perhaps it is one of those, what do they call them, suicide rings? Suicide pacts? Very unfortunate, but we can round up the stragglers and see that they get their wish for death.” Again, the prospect of rounding up, imprisoning, or shooting–using the tools he was comfortable with–seemed to make the colonel much more energetic.

“No, that’s not it at all,” Mahmoud said. This had all been covered in his report, naturally; a report that the colonel had neglected to read just like everything else that crossed his desk. “They arrived in different groups at different times and in some cases spoke different languages. What I meant by proximity is that each victim had been close to or physically touched the previous one due to chance, as near as we can tell.”

“So…a conspiracy?”

“With respect, sir, no. Not at all. A Turkish woman cannot conspire with an Egyptian man when they only contact they have ever had is both touching a Turkish husband. Something is being passed between these pilgrims like a disease, and whatever it is leads them to murder themselves as quickly and efficiently as they can.”

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