The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Pharaoh's Heart Was Hardened
2.30 pm, 11 March 1998
John Torillo, waiting for the others' response to his suggestion, heads over to the bar to order some drinks. "Stella, please – and the local one, not the export."
Johnny Stone puts his Ray-Bans on, squinting in the bright sunlight that filters through the gaps in the blind. His eyes are invisible. "I'm with John," he says. "Let's head down to the site and introduce ourselves to Professor Bird." He looks around the group. "I'll let you decide, I've a couple of things to pick up from my room. Any of you got a mobile phone? May be a good idea if we get some, if not... if we split up we can at least keep in touch."
With that he heads off upstairs.
John returns from the bar, shortly followed by a smiling waiter bearing a tray of beers. Eddie sips his with some mistrust: it is a lager, but rather sweet, not like a European style. "Didn't they have no bitter, then?" he asks.
"This is Stella – what everyone drinks here," says John. "Just as nice as the exported stuff, and about three times cheaper."
Eddie seems unconvinced, but he does not refuse the beer. "Reet then John owd cock," he says expansively, "tha's t'owd bones bloke, tha should have a word wi' this professor, and see what's up wi' t'robot. I'm off to see if I can find Mr Foster, an' see if he can shed any light on this abduction of his."
"Is that a particular interest of yours?" asks Isobel politely.
"Aye," nods Eddie, looking pensive. "Y'see, thing is I had a similar experience, up on't Ilkley Moor, an' I lost a couple of days. Meeb he can help me figure out what 'appened to me. It might even be connected to this stuff 'appenin' in t'pyramids – I've 'eard that E.T. had summat to do wi' building them in't first place."
"Er, actually that theory has gained no significant credence among serious archaeologists," puts in John, wincing at the very thought.
"Well, anyroad, does anyone want to come along?"
There is a brief silence as everyone looks at each other, then "I will join you," says Celestina. "I know Russell Osbourne, Mr Foster's companion, so he may be prepared to talk to me."
"Splitting into two groups is sensible," says Andrew.
"Well then," says John, "I suggest that we ride down to the excavation site by horse-drawn carriage – I think you'll find that travelling by car will be rather uncomfortably hot."
"I'm not so sure about that," says Micky, who has had a distinctly bored look on his face up till now. "We want to be in control of our own wheels. I say we hire a couple of four-wheel drives – preferably enclosed. What does anyone else think?"
"I agree," calls Johnny, who has returned downstairs. He is wearing an Arab-style headscarf with navy blue and white stripes, tucked in around his neck, and is carrying a daysack bulging with equipment. He heads over to the bar and buys some mineral water.
"All right then," says John, to whom everyone seems happy to defer, "Eddie and Celestina try and find Foster; Micky, you and – Andrew? Good – go and hire two vehicles, and Johnny, Isobel, you and I take a ride down to the site and introduce ourselves to Professor Bird and her team."
There is a line of gaily-decorated horse-drawn carriages outside the hotel, their drivers lounging under an awning. Operatives of a sensitive disposition are pleased to note that the horses all seem to be well-tended. The heat of the day is all but overpowering, and the pleasant breeze the motion of the carriage generates is welcome.
"We might want to think about changing our daily schedule," says John. "The usual practice out here is to get up around five or so, do things until eleven or twelve, then have a siesta after lunch – by eight or so in the evening it's cooled down enough to get up and start moving about again."
"We should all be careful about clothing, too," says Johnny – for Isobel's benefit, as he and John are old tropics hands. "Exposed skin can burn, and an uncovered body will lose sweat through evaporation: you need sweat to cool down." Of his own body, barely an inch is exposed: his headscarf is drawn down about his face, and his combat trousers are tied at the ankle over his boots.
The Sharia al-Ahram, the Avenue of the Pyramids, is a broad well-paved road, and before more than a few minutes have passed the great bulk of Khufu's monument can be seen looming above the buildings of Giza.
Micky and Andrew are directed by the Hilton's reception clerk to a Hertz Motor Rental outlet a couple of streets away. They decide to walk, and are surprised to find the streets all but empty at this time: a few other tourists, wearing hats and sunglasses. A few locals, wearing jellabahs and tarboushes, lounge within shop doorways and regard them incuriously. The heat is overpowering, and there is a rather unpleasant smell – ten million unwashed bodies and a great, slow-moving river.
The air-conditioned Hertz offices are a blessed relief. "God only knows what this place is like in the summer," mutters Micky to Andrew as he pushes the doors open.
Within a matter of moments they have hired two Suzuki four-wheelers, and are poised to bowl back to the hotel. Micky has also got hold of a street plan of Cairo – although laughably incomplete in its coverage of the suburbs, it shows the main arterial routes and notable landmarks clearly enough.
Eddie and Celestina stroll over to the reception desk. "I'm tryin' to find a friend of mine, Mr Ben Foster – I was wonderin' if you knew where he might be located."
The clerk helpfully checks through her register. "No Mr Foster staying here now, sir, sorry." She pages back. "No sir, Mr Derek Foster yes in August of last year, but no Mr Ben Foster."
"Thanks for your help," Eddie says amiably, and he heads out of the lobby towards the rank of taxis that is drawn up across from the horse-carriages. He approaches the first driver, who at once becomes alert. "Can you do us a favour, mate, and take us round t'hotels? I'm lookin' for a friend."
The taxi-driver's eyes light up in a way that is pleasing to behold. He knows how many hotels there are in Cairo.
As the taxi drives away from the Hilton, a small crowd of beggar boys who were huddled under a piece of corrugated iron nearby charge forth and thrust their hands in at Eddie's window. The driver curses them in Arabic, and the hotel's commissionaire can also be heard shouting at them. Eddie hands over a few fifty-piastre notes – he still has not really worked out how much the local currency is worth – and that seems to satisfy them. One, though, a bright-looking if grubby lad of about ten or so, continues running alongside the car. "Mister, lady, you American? English? You want guide to city? I show you pyramids, I show you mosques, I show you everything! Very cheap, very good guide. You ask for Mahmoud, I very good guide... awk!"
The sentence ends in a yelp as the taxi-driver accelerates out into traffic and Mahmoud is forced to let go.
Despite the familiarity of the image of the pyramids, nothing can quite prepare the three operatives for the sight of the real thing. Even John, who has seen them before, feels a frisson of excitement as the staggering vista of the three great tombs, lined up one behind the other, swings into view. Although modern villages now straggle their way towards the site, one overlying the supposed site of Khufu's valley temple, it is easy to imagine that this site has changed little in the last four thousand or more years.
There are soldiers in the Egyptian Army scattered about the site, patrolling with submachineguns slung, and standing guard on every door. They are outnumbered by the souvenir vendors, hawkers, guides and mystics who throng the paths tourists must take to visit the monuments, and the overall air is one of cheerful industry. There are not a huge number of tourists present, and those there are seem to be rather overwhelmed with 'helpful' locals.
John tells the driver to take them to the Bird expedition's HQ, behind Khufu's pyramid near to the southern boat pit. Here a small cluster of tents huddles away from the public eye, barbed-wire fencing enclosing the site. An unsmiling guard takes John's card inside.
Only a couple of minutes pass before a small, roundish, dark-haired woman in glasses comes bustling out of the largest tent, pulling a sunhat on. At her shoulder is a tall, languid-looking man with swept-back dark hair and a studious expression. He wears a tweed jacket, despite the heat.
"Professor Torillo? How good to see you again – do you remember, we met at the Congresse des Arts, in Nice last summer." Professor Bird shakes his hand firmly.
"Of course, Sonia – may I call you Sonia? – and what a delightful event that was. Your own paper was fascinating," replies John, readily falling into the habits of academia.
"This is Dr Marcus Matthews," says Professor Bird.
Matthews reaches up over her shoulder into the carriage to shake John's hand. "Torillo," he says laconically. His own hand is very cool.
John descends from the carriage. "And these are my companions..."
"Dr John Stone," says Johnny.
"Mrs Isobel Blyth," puts in Isobel, feeling a bit left out in this cluster of doctorates.
"Come indoors, it's cooler through her," urges Professor Bird. As they walk she says to John "I didn't know you were on the board of the Davina Millhouse now, John?"
"Oh, it's a recent appointment," says John.
"Matter of fact, I've not come across it before – I suppose it's your appointment which has drawn it into the field of archaeology, eh?"
"Mm, that's right," says John casually. He gets the feeling he is being pumped.
In the tent, apart from a load of rubbings, carved blocks of stone, digging equipment, plastic bags and so forth, there is a tense-looking round-faced young woman with curly mid-brown hair peering intently at a computer screen. It is full of program code. Next to it is a television, which is showing nothing but the time and date in the lower left-hand corner.
"This is Jane Tate, one of our doctoral students," says Professor Bird, introducing the operatives. Jane looks up only briefly to say hello: she has a Californian accent.
"Really, Jane, you might as well give up on that for the moment," says the Professor.
"I've just got a couple more things I want to try," says Jane, the tip of her tongue trapped between her teeth as she makes a delicate manipulation with the mouse.
"Lay off it, girl," says Matthews, and he leans over and turns the monitor off, much to Jane's surprise and apparent annoyance: she swallows heavily as he looks her in the eye.
Professor Bird missed this little exchange and says brightly "So! How can I help you? Hibiscus tea, anyone?"
At the third hotel, the Novotel, Eddie and Celestina strike lucky. "Mr Foster?" says the clerk at the desk. "He stayed here last year, yes, but he is not here now."
Another clerk says something to him in Arabic. They converse briefly before he turns back to Eddie and Celestina. "She says he comes in to use the bar and restaurant here – which is very fine, I recommend to you, special Chinese banquet tonight – but he is staying somewhere privately in Cairo, with friends he said. Do you want to leave a message if he comes by again?"
"Er, mebbe," says Eddie. "I'll call you if I do."
Micky and Andrew roar up to the dig site in their Suzukis, spraying sand over the gate guard. After a brief debate they are admitted to join the others.
"How's it going, guv?" says Micky to John as he is introduced to the team of Oxford archaeologists – who are fortunately far too polite to question what someone like him is doing in an educational charity.
Professor Bird has just started explaining the findings so far. Marcus Matthews has wandered off outside and can be heard shouting loudly and in fluent Arabic at the team of local workmen, so Johnny sits down next to Jane Tate, who has switched her monitor back on. "Is this the monitor for the robot camera?" he asks friendlily.
She smiles at him, her face softening considerably. "Yes, that's right. We've got a direct video feed from it to this monitor, and we control its movements with radio signals from this PC here."
"We were told you'd been having some sort of trouble – what's been happening?"
Jane sighs. "Oh, it's just so annoying. The experiment was going really well, the robot had been in the channel system for three days and we had some really excellent results. Then there was some sort of power overload, or something, and the whole system fritzed. We lost the video completely, and I reckon we lost the radio link too – what I've been doing since, me and Harry the other student, is trying to steer the robot back to us – although it's difficult, because we don't know exactly where it is. We've been trying to give it sort of standing orders – 'carry on along that wall until you hit an opening to the left' sort of thing, and according to our map of the layout we should have been able to bring it out if it was still working..." She sounds rather dispirited.
"Of course, you're familiar with the published material from this site," Professor Bird is saying to the others. "Khentkaus's sarcophagus and grave goods were four thousand years gone by the time we got here, of course, but the carvings remain in good condition. Dupeyron published the definitive texts in 1962. She – Khentkaus – seems to have been an interesting figure – apparently she was executed by Khufu, whether for politics or domestic reasons the inscriptions in the burial chamber didn't say. But we've found out more of the story since, thanks to our little robot." She pulls out a video cassette and slaps it into a player hooked up to another television. At once the screen starts to show what looks like a slow-motion tracking shot of a long, dark wall lightly incised with carvings. "This is from an internal chamber which we got the robot into down one of the air channels. Fascinating! No-one's ever set foot it in – not since Khufu's day – and no-one ever will, the Egyptians don't want to break it open – rightly, I think. Unfortunately it was just at this point that the robot gave up the ghost, three days ago." She sighs. "Just from what we've seen so far, I think there's some really excellent material in that chamber – and there may be further chambers! We'd only scanned one wall." She hands John a printout. "Here's a transcript of the carvings."
Isobel is looking keenly at the screen. After a few minutes, the picture suddenly terminates in a bright white flash which blanks out the nearby carvings. "That's when it failed," says Professor Bird. "Perfectly good pictures up to here, then a flash and nothing more."
"So Khentkaus was executed for plotting with Sargon of Akkad to bring down the kingdom of Egypt?" says John, pointing to a passage in the hieroglyphs. "That's interesting."
"Isn't it?" beams Professor Bird. "And her vizier, Haremakhet, was executed too – presumably he was the go-between."
"Why would Khufu let her be buried in state if she was a traitor?" wonders John.
"He 'loved her more than the day', it says here. But he got over her soon enough – it says here that his 'royal lady and queen over the land, Hetepheres' sat beside him as sentence was pronounced on Khentkaus. A rival, we suppose – it's a new name to us."
"This really is fascinating material," says John, with unfeigned interest.
"Isn't it? And that's why your arrival at this time is so fortuitous. We need another robot, to send into the channels and continue filming, perhaps even recover the first one. But we simply don't have the funds left in our grant. It seems absolutely criminal that we'll have to leave here in a few days with all this work undone just for the lack of a grant." She looks up at John. "But if the Davina Millhouse Trust can be persuaded to help us out, we can get moving again straight away..."
Back in town, Eddie and Celestina return to the Hilton and prepare for dinner. Down beside the pool a small stage has been set up, with behind is a poster announcing the performance of 'Masood Akhtar, crooner extraordinaire – while you eat". A youth of about eighteen with a wispy embryonic moustache is struggling with a bank of three keyboards, and at the front of the stage is a microphone on a stand.
By the time they come down, Masood Akhtar himself has appeared – a burly man of about thirty in a dinner suit, he bounces on his toes before the microphone, hands clutched behind his back, then turns it on. "Welcome one, welcome all, ladies and gentlemen, to the Giza Hilton poolside cabaret – I am Masood Akhtar, I hope you enjoy my performance." His voice is strongly accented.
As Eddie and Celestina claim a table, waiting for the return of the others, the wispy youth presses a button on one keyboard and cheesy chords start to ooze forth, over a syn-drum backing. It is only when Akhtar begins to sing, in a high, syrupy voice, that the tune is recognizable as a slowed-down version of Madona's 'La Isla Bonita'.
During the performance a group of four tourists come down into the restaurant, taking a table a little way across from Eddie and Celestina – three men and a woman. Akhtar finishes his song, then bows in their direction. "Next, he announces, "in honour of our guest Mr Presley, I will perform that great old favourite 'Love Is All Around'."
The man pointed to smiles and waves cheerily as though accustomed to such tributes, and with some surprise Eddie and Celestina see that he is in fact Reg Presley of The Troggs. The three people with him, though, look distinctly embarrassed at this attention.
7.30 pm, 11 March 1998
Eddie and Celestina: at the Hilton
Everyone else: at the Bird dig site
Eddie: you phone the British Embassy from the hotel, and they tell you that you can get hold of the Yorkshire Post from Thomas Cook's offices in the Sharia Mohammed Ali. It is likely to be several days out of date, unfortunately, but given Trinity's recent form that may be no bad thing.
Micky: you chat to the porter and find him very helpful indeed. He tells you that he personally can get hold of anything you want, for the right price – apparently he has strong connections all over the city. His name is Wasim.
Johnny: observing the rest of the team, you see a couple of interesting things. Celestina frowns when speaking of Russell Osbourne, as though unhappy memories are associated with him. Eddie seems to have been considerably traumatized by his ordeal on Ilkley Moor. Micky seems ill at ease and unsure of his role in the team.