The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness

Pharaoh's Heart Was Hardened
Chapter 3

7.30 pm, 11 March 1998

Eddie turns excitedly to Celestina. 'Ey up, does tha know who that is? It's Reg Presley that is. You know, from t'Troggs!'

'From the what?' inquires Celestina in puzzlement.

'T'rock band! Ah've seen 'im at Rooftop Gardens in Wakefield. Apparently he's got some sort of interest in UFOs an' aliens an' stuff like that.'

Celestina nods politely.

'I wonder who 'is mates are, and what 'e's doin' 'ere?' Eddie muses as he studies the other occupants of the table. None are recognizable, though. 'What's tha reckon, love – should us go over for a chat, you know, introduce us'sens proper like an' tell 'im about our interest in ET an' that? You use your looks an' I'll use me charm, we may find summat out.'

'Very well, if you think it will be worthwhile,' says Celestina with limited enthusiasm. She is glad of a distraction from the food she has been pushing idly around the plate, missing her own cooking. The dismal efforts of Masood Akhtar have provided little relief, and the sweet Egyptian lager is weak and tasteless compared to the thick, brown English beer she is used to.

As the haunting strains of 'Love Is All Around' draw to a close, Eddie rises and, with Celestina in tow, saunters around the pool to Presley's table.

'Reg Presley? Ah'm Eddie Davies.' He sticks out his hand, which Presley takes with an air of resignation. The three other people at the table – two men (one in a suit, the other in a tweed jacket) and a woman wearing ethnic-y-printed loose clothing a little like Celestina's, show varying degrees of disapproval.

'Would you like an autograph, Mr Davies?' The great man's voice still holds its famed West Country burr.

'No, actually – well, mebbe, if you're offering – no, ah came to talk to you about summat else – about summat strange that 'appened to me on Ilkley Moor. Ah lost two whole days of me life – right strange it was.'

'Reg! Really!' hisses the tweed-jacketed man, frowning. 'We have important matters to discuss!'

Presley turns reluctantly to Eddie. Or perhaps the reluctance is feigned. 'I'd love to talk with you, Mr Davies, but... you see how it is... busy, busy. Perhaps you'd like to leave a note for me – I'm staying here in the hotel? We might meet up some other time.'

Eddie is a man who can take a subtle hint when it is offered, so he backs away, cheerfully bidding Presley and his companions good night. As he and Celestina return to their table they see the four gather into a conspiratorial huddle.

'Mickey, why don't you take a walk outside for a minute?' suggests Isobel.

Mickey, who has been looking rather out of place among the excited discussions of hieroglyphs, walks relievedly out of the tent, and the atmosphere within relaxes slightly: Professor Bird looks out after him as though to check that no valuable artefacts have fallen into his pockets.

While John and Sonia Bird continue to translate the symbols on the printout, Johnny takes a seat next to Jane Tate. 'So, how did you come to be involved in this project?'

'Oh, I came to Oxford specially to work with Professor Bird – she's got such a good reputation!' Her eyes sparkle. 'And this project seemed so interesting – we'd be the first people to set eyes on these hidden parts of the inside of the pyramid since they were built, four and a half thousand years ago. And the results are really good, too – until the robot bust. I'm sure we can bring it back, it's just a question of being patient – because it looks like we can't afford to buy a new one.' She looks across at John Torillo. 'Unless your Fund can help us out.'

Johnny leaves that one dangling and says 'I expect equipment trouble like that puts quite a strain on the group – the personalities involved, I mean.'

Jane sighs. 'That's right. We were all getting on so well until the failure, but now...' She turns down the corners of her mouth.

'I'm not familiar with Dr Matthews's work – does he have a reputation?'

'You know, it's so strange...' Jane's voice goes rather quiet. 'Until three days ago I'd have said he was the nicest man I'd ever worked with – so considerate, always asking after how you were, and really kind. But it's such a change has come over him since it all started going wrong. He's like a different person.'

'If you don't mind me saying, you seemed almost a little scared of him earlier.'

'That's right! He really has quite a scary side to his personality.' She looks gratefully at Johnny. 'You can't imagine how difficult it is when one of your working relationships just gets turned upside down like this.'

'You'd be surprised what a common story it is, though, when everyone comes under strain like this,' says Johnny: he has dealt with any number of similar problems on his radio programme.

Isobel says brightly 'Professor Bird, we're going to have to get back for dinner now – would you and the rest of the team like to join us? As our guests, of course.'

Sonia tears herself away from the printout with some difficulty. 'Oh... Mrs Blyth, how very kind of you.'

'Isobel, please.'

'I'm afraid we're going to be very busy this evening, but could we make it tomorrow instead? I should be able to gather the whole team together for that.'

'Lovely! If we say eight, then – shall we come and pick you up from here?'

'Well, I suppose we'll need to change, and wash, and so on. We'll meet you at your hotel. I'll make sure everyone's on their best behaviour!'

Meanwhile, Mickey is wandering around the dig site. Matthews is still shouting at the cowed-looking workers in fluent Arabic, so he approaches a young man busily strapping digging tools into the back of a Landrover. 'Hi – are you with the archaeologists? My name's Mickey Thomas.'

'Harry Challis.' He has a London accent. 'Are you one of the Davina Millhouse people?' He ha short blond hair, a well-muscled physique, and nasty sunburn on forehead and nose.

'Well, I'm the driver,' says Mickey diffidently, 'sort of general gofer, you know.'

'I'm a postgrad student of Professor Bird's – that means I'm scum of the earth round here. Same sort of job as you – go there, do this, pick that up – join the Army and see the world, they said!'

Mickey tuts sympathetically. 'Not what you reckoned archaeology'd be like, eh? Is this the first time you've been to Egypt?'

'Yeah – isn't it brilliant? I love this place. All this...' he gestures to include the pyramid complex '... all built when we were still living in caves, more or less – makes you think, doesn't it? Saying that, I'd like to get up the river, up to Luxor – the Valley of the Kings, and the temple of Karnak – that's much later of course, like 1500 BC – we were still in caves! There's a famous bust, you might have seen it, a bust of Nefertiti, Akhenaten's queen – the most beautiful thing you could imagine. And we were still making flint axes!'

By now Harry is enthusiastically waving his arms around and his voice is raised, and Mickey cannot help but smile, although he has very little idea what the young student is talking about. Suddenly Matthews breaks off talking to the diggers and calls sharply 'Challis! Don't you have work to do?'

With a rueful smile Harry turns back to the truck. As Mickey wanders away he sees him make a face at Matthews's impervious back.

It is late when the SITU team reconvenes back at the Hilton, and although dinner is still being served those who were at the dig have missed the end of Masood Akhtar's act. The Presley table has also left.

Eddie reveals what he and Celestina have learned during the day.

'We are going to try and recruit that boy Mahmoud,' says Celestina. 'Local legend is quite often fact and fiction muddled together, and some of the sites and rumours he shows us might be helpful in our investigation.'

''E seems willing enough, 'e'll be cheap, and 'e'll be able to get answers where we can't,' adds Eddie.

'You'll want to see the dig as well,' says John enthusiastically. 'It's amazing what they're doing there.'

Celestina's expression is guarded as ever and she nods politely. 'I plan to contact Russell Osbourne through SITU. We can leave a message for Ben Foster – Eddie, we should perhaps pose as a husband and wife team writing a book on alien abductions. If he believes we are not sceptics he may well be more open to talking about it. And I can also mention Russell in passing, which might make him talk more.'

Johnny has been checking the team to make sure no-one has suffered from the sun today. He is pleased to see that Isobel has taken his advice about covering her skin. Celestina's style of clothing, with long flowing skirts and loose tops, is well suited to the climate, and her predilection for headscarves means she blends in reasonably well with the other veiled women here – although the veil is much less common in Egypt than in many other Arab countries, the political situation may mean that caution is advisable.

'Ah've been thinkin' about these terrorists,' says Eddie. 'Could the damage to the robot have been sabotage? Has the terrorist threat to tourism been extended to archaeological sites and staff? Have any particular threats been made against Professor Bird's team?' He looks at Micky. 'Could you find that out?'

'Eh? Oh, yeah, no trouble,' says Micky, not too surprised that he seems to be the obvious choice to deal with terrorist threats. 'I was trying to talk to the locals down at the dig – ask about circles of black glass, local myths, that sort of thing – but that Matthews guy was round them all the time. Might need to catch them off duty.' He thinks for a moment.

'John, do you know anything about this Hetepheres?' asks Johnny.

'Not my speciality, of course,' says John hastily, 'but I can certainly read up on her.'

Eddie has been sitting back watching the other members o the team, and now he leans forward. 'I think it'd be good to find out a bit more about each other, don't you? Per'aps we should all tell each other what got us into this line of work – strange experiences or whatever. I've "bared my soul" – who's next?'

This suggestion is not met with the immediate enthusiasm for which he might have hoped.

The next morning, Celestina and Eddie descend early to find Mahmoud. No sooner do they appear outside the hotel's doorway than he and a couple of other street kids leap out. 'Mister, lady, you want guide? Very cheap, I know everything. Show you pyramids, show you sphinx, show you all things.'

'We do need a guide,' says Celestina. 'How much would you want to work for us for a few days?'

Mahmoud's eyes shine and he licks his lips. He counts on his fingers. 'Very cheap guiding, but for whole day...' he screws up his face. 'Would be... five English pounds each day!' He looks nervously at Celestina.

'That's fine,' she replies, seeing no need for haggling over such a small amount.

Mahmoud's face cracks into a huge grin – clearly this is way above the going rate he was expecting.

'You can start by running this message to the Novotel for us. It's for a Mr Foster – leave it at the desk. Then come back here – we may want to talk to you some more.' The note says simply that Eddie and Celestina are working on a book about alien abduction, and were referred to Foster by Russell Osbourne: they will be at the Novotel bar this afternoon at 5 and hope to meet him there then, or at some other time if more convenient.

'Oh, another thing,' says Eddie as Mahmoud starts to dash off into the traffic. 'Can you get me a detailed map of the pyramids area? I want to mark on the spot where Foster disappeared, and see if I can plot any alignments,' he explains to Celestina.

'What to do today?' says Johnny as the others gather over breakfast. 'We may want to think about adopting the local day – get up early, siesta in the afternoon.'

'Good idea,' says Isobel.

'I'd like to get back to the dig,' says John. 'But really today we're going to have to tell Professor Bird whether the Fund will get her a new robot or not. If we ordered one up straight away, it could be here in a couple of days – it's an off-the-shelf item, and they can use the same controller software. They're made by a firm in Cambridge, these robots, actually.'

'Will SITU count that as allowable expense?' wonders Isobel.

'It's the best way of getting the group's confidence, isn't it? And we want to know what else is in that pyramid, too – or I do, at least!' says John. 'I'd like to get inside the pyramid, as well, and we won't be able to do that without her authority. Anyone interested in joining me?'

'How are we going to handle this dinner?' asks Andrew.

It is not long before Mahmoud returns, with a scrumpled map of the Giza complex. In truth, though, it shows little more than the map SITU provided initially: there are a myriad other smaller features, but none of significance.

'There's one theory that t' three pyramids correspond with t' three stars of Orion's Belt,' says Eddie, laying the map flat on a table at the pavement café where they are sitting – Mahmoud not being allowed in the hallowed precincts of the Hilton.

To Celestina's sceptical eye there are enough points on the map that lines of almost any shape desired could be drawn between them, with a thick enough pencil.

'Mahmoud, do you know anythin' about circles of black glass found in t' sand? Or about strange lights in t' sky?'

Mahmoud looks a little blank but then nods enthusiastically. 'Lights in the sky, yes! From airport.'

Eddie sighs. 'No, lad, I mean aliens – little green men, UFOs.'

Mahmoud's eyes grow wide. 'I have never seen! But I will ask?'

'Ask about t' black glass, an'all – probably near t' pyramids. And will you do another thing for us – nip up to Thomas Cook's and pick up copy of t' Yorkshire Post.' Celestina raises her eyebrows questioningly. 'Just to keep tabs on boys back 'ome,' he explains.

There is the toot of a horn, and a dusty Landrover draws up in the hotel forecourt. Driving is Harry Challis, who waves cheerfully at Mickey and the others. 'Hi all! They sent me into town to post some letters early on this morning, so I thought I'd swing by here on my way back – anyone fancy a pint? Things look like they might get a bit hairy in the centre, actually – some sort of march on this afternoon, the local Islamists. Hope there's not any trouble.'

Secret Actions

Johnny: as you are leaving the dig site you see Isobel suddenly turn pale and give a very small gasp. The flash of fear just lasts a second, before her customary smooth control is reassumed, but it was definitely there – as though someone had walked over her grave. Looking around, you cannot see what might have prompted it.

Isobel: as you are leaving the dig, looking at Marcus Matthews, you get the strangest feeling – as though his face is not his own, as though another man is looking out from behind his eyes. The feeling is deeply disturbing but fortunately passes very quickly – Matthews looks at you sharply and somehow you feel that he knows.

Mickey: you buy a 9mm automatic, plus 32 rounds of ammo, off Wasim for £120 – he cannot supply anything more potent at short notice, although he says he could get you the semi-auto you requested in a few days, most probably.

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