The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Pharaoh's Heart Was Hardened
9.05 am, Thursday 12 March 1998
'I'm with you, John,' says Johnny Stone. 'I think it's about time we tried to get inside the pyramid – preferably with permission from Professor Bird.'
'I'm sure it'll be fine, as long as we're careful,' says Professor Torillo.
'Come on, let's go for a beer,' says Micky, looking over at Johnny. He strides over to where Harry Challis waits in the Landrover and gets into the front seat alongside the young student. 'Well, Harry, where are you taking us – somewhere sleazy and cheap, I hope!'
'Everywhere here's cheap compared with back home,' says Harry cheerfully, 'and as for sleazy -' he sees that Isobel is also approaching the Landrover, and changes what he was about to say '- it won't be anywhere too disrespectable, don't you worry Mrs Blyth!' She is wrapping a large headscarf about her head.
Johnny also piles into the Landrover, clapping his sunhat on first. 'Beer sounds good – and you can fill us in on the local situation.'
The Landrover roars out into the traffic.
'What was that you were saying about a march, Mahmoud?' asks Celestina. From where she and Eddie are, slightly nearer into town, the sound of gathering voices can be heard.
'Is Islamic men, miss – very religious men. Is enemies of the government.'
'Perhaps you should go and observe the march from the cooler confines of a hotel bar,' she smiles to Eddie. 'I heard of a case where a group of young Muslims took to the streets, chanting and pestering people, saying that the "infidels" had caused the recent eclipse of the sun with their evil ways. You'll have to be careful though.'
'I don't much fancy that,' says Eddie warily. 'Let's leave 'em to it for now, eh?'
'Very good idea,' nods Mahmoud. 'Will be much fighting with police, much gas, water.'
Harry leads the others to the bar of the Savoy Hotel – which bears no relation at all to the London establishment of the same name. It is a rather seedy-looking three-star affair on the edge of the shopping district. 'A bit tatty,' he says as he pushes back the doors into the cool, dark bar, 'but Hassan here has a heart of gold, isn't that right?'
'Mister Harry! Here again! What would your mistress be saying?' A fat, middle-aged Egyptian in a grubby beige linen suit unfolds himself from behind the bar.
'She's not my mistress, you fat idiot, she's my boss – mistress's something different! Chance'd be a fine thing... anyway, what's it to be, folks?'
'No, let me,' says Micky, and he orders drinks for everyone – Isobel sticking to mineral water, and unobtrusively checking the seal of the bottle before opening it. As Micky hands her it he winks at her, so that no-one else can see.
'So, what about this march, then, Harry?' asks Micky.
'Oh, it's not a big deal, I think – they have 'em every week here, more or less. The Islamic Brotherhood are complaining about the government – keeps repressing them, they say, too Westernized. The government are worried the Islamists are going to put off tourists – it's a big industry here. What'll happen is they'll give them half an hour to march about and shout slogans, then they'll send the police in to break a few heads and send 'em running.' He sighs. 'Just another one of those Egyptian attractions you don't get to hear too much about.'
'Mine's a pint,' says Micky, nudging Johnny. As the surprised psychologist wanders over to the bar to get another round of drinks, he continues 'That Matthews seems a bit of a dictator – is he always like that?'
'No, it's funny – he seems to have taken the loss of the robot pretty badly. He used to be a really decent guy, easy-going, friendly – you know. But now -' he whistles '- he's a right little Genghis Khan. What can you do?'
'Have you noticed changes in anyone else?' asks Isobel, leaning forward.
'Well, none of us were exactly too chuffed when the robot went belly-up. Poor old Jane, she was driving it at the time, she got very upset – although the boss was very good about it, said it wasn't her fault, which it wasn't of course – some sort of electrical discharge or whatever it was, could happened to anyone. Mind you I don't suppose she'd have been so charitable if it'd been me at the wheel at the time!'
Micky turns his glass round reflectively on the table. 'This is going to sound a bit weird, but I don't suppose any of you lot've seen any circles of black glass in the sand around the dig, have you?'
Harry frowns. 'You're right, it does sound weird. No – why, should we?'
Eddie and Celestina return to the hotel and Eddie scribbles a note for Reg Presley, asking for a meeting later. 'I think I've managed to get 'is attention, but 'is friends seemed to be a bit stuck up, so I'll try to get 'im on 'is own,' he confides.
He spreads the Yorkshire Post Mahmoud obtained for him out on the reception desk, open at the rugby results. 'Ey! Magic! Well done lads!' Wakefield Trinity beat Featherstone Rovers 24-18 in the Cup the previous day.
Harry drops the operatives back at the hotel before heading back to the dig, and they regroup in the café.
While ordering coffee, Johnny draws Isobel aside. 'You seemed to be a little shaky back at the dig – as if somebody walked over your grave – just a little worried, perhaps the heat is getting to you.'
'No, it wasn't the heat,' Isobel replies. She is a little pale. 'I'll tell you all in a minute.'
They return to the others and Isobel says 'Micky, this evening, do you think you might be able to get to know some of the locals, find out some information about the Bird team?'
'While you lot are eating dinner, you mean,' says Micky, resignedly. He winks at her again, but no-one else sees.
'We should skip the dinner too,' says Celestina, indicating herself and Eddie. 'Introducing new people will just break up the friendly atmosphere you've managed to achieve.'
Eddie looks a little disappointed, but consoles himself with the thought that he might be able to meet Reg Presley instead.
'I wanted to tell you all something,' says Isobel, sitting down. 'It's about Matthews. I feel he's not himself. It's as though it's his body, but someone else has "taken it over".' She smiles. 'I know that sounds a bit strange, but... I think we all ought to be careful when we are with him.'
'Is this summat to do with some strange experience o'yours, why you joined SITU?' hazards Eddie, who has already filled the others in on what he has learned so far.
'No, it's just that I'm interested in such things,' says Isobel. She swallows. 'At this dinner – I know you're a bit worried about how it's going to go, Andrew – I suggest we just stick to business. Talking about the robot, and the dig, and perhaps we can find out more about Haremakhet and Hetepheres.'
'I'm going to call SITU and get them to authorize the new robot,' says Johnny.
'I've been wondering about that,' says Celestina reflectively. 'How much use will it be? Firstly it won't help them find out why the first one broke down, presumably the new robot won't be able to get any further as the first one will be blocking the passage. And also, if we buy the new equipment then their reason for being on the site will be gone.'
'Oh, no, I think if we give them the robot they'll be happy to let us stay as long as we like,' says John.
Celestina looks at him slightly doubtfully. 'So far you have only seen the equipment through the TV screen, is that right? Do you intend to get more hands on and get as close to the equipment in situ as possible?'
'Yes, yes, with any luck we'll enter the actual pyramid today and see for ourselves.'
Before their meeting with the mysterious Ben Foster, Celestina calls SITU and leaves a message for Russell Osbourne. 'Fancy goin' to t'library, have a nose around?' suggests Eddie.
'Maybe later – let's take a tour of the sites now,' says Celestina firmly. 'Mahmoud can show us the interesting features. I've got this book which we can use as a guide.' It has a map in it looking much like Eddie's, with thick lines joining every point. Certain 'nexuses' are indicated as being sites of alien visit interest: one is between the pyramids of Khufu and Khephren.
Once Johnny has phoned SITU and ordered up the robot – 'it should be with you the day after tomorrow' – the others bump their hot and dusty way down the Avenue of the Pyramids once more. The dig site is much as it was the previous day. Andrew at once goes over to Sonia Bird and asks how things are going – she replies that all they have been doing so far today is working on more translation of the hieroglyphs found so far.
'Would you like to have a look round the inside of the pyramid? I'll show you round, if you like – it won't take long, there's not really all that much to see, I'm afraid.'
Together, the group walk over to the pyramid – dwarfed by that of Khufu behind, it is nonetheless a structure of appreciable size, considerably bigger than a large house. At the eastern entrance stand two soldiers, each with a semi-automatic rifle slung lazily around his shoulder: they do not look especially alert. 'There are more guards on the back entrance,' explains Sonia. 'No-one's supposed to get in without a permit, you see.'
As she approaches the guards straighten up and stand aside, allowing the party to enter the entrance tunnel. It is about six feet high by four feet wide, lined with limestone blocks, and is not decorated. 'Painting these tunnels is a much later development,' explains John. 'In the Old Kingdom they kept the decoration for the chambers.'
The tunnel is cool, with a damp, acid smell about it. The sound of their feet echoes in a curiously muffled way. After a couple of minutes they come out into a large, roughly cubical chamber – about twelve feet on each side, it has plenty of room for the group to stand and stretch after hunching their way through the tunnel. All four walls are painted with Egyptian figures and hieroglyphs, but all are extremely faded and can barely be made out. 'This is all just the standard inscriptions,' explains Sonia. 'Saying how noble and wise Khufu was and offering prayers for Khentkaus's soul, to guide it through the underworld on its way to the gods. Not very interesting.'
The opposite chamber wall is broken by a rough entrance which leads to another tunnel, this one not faced. 'That's where the tomb-robbers got in,' says Sonia. 'The sarcophagus would have stood here, where we are: they must have broken it down and taken it out piece by piece.'
'So where is your stuck robot?' asks Johnny, looking about him curiously.
'See that vent there?' says Sonia. In one corner there is what looks like a ventilation duct. 'We sent it down there: there's a little network of vents. We were trying to see if it connected up to that one,' she points up at the ceiling, where another vent can be seen, 'but instead we found another chamber – it's sort of above us and to the left, if you can imagine that. That's where the robot is now, broken down.'
'So what would this second chamber have been – another burial?'
'We think so. Presumably something to do with this Haremakhet, whom the inscriptions you saw mentioned.'
Andrew is frowning. 'So, you put the robot in this hole, and then you control it from the tent over there?'
'That's right. Jane was driving it that day, but Harry sometimes does.'
'So she was not in here, in this chamber, when it broke down? Was anyone else in here?'
Sonia looks surprised. 'Goodness, no. There's nothing to see or do from here. We just came here to put it in – all the real work happens in the tent.'
Meanwhile, outside, Micky is chatting with Harry Challis and an attractive brown-haired Frenchwoman in her thirties who Harry introduces as Dr Marie Chenevix. 'Have you had any trouble with the locals? I know these Islamic Brotherhood types don't like tourists, have they been targeting archaeologists as well?'
'Not yet. They've left us alone up till now. I know our Ministry of Culture guy, though, Essawi, has told the boss that there might be a bit of a problem, though. Apparently one of the Islamic guys' leaders has started making a fuss about people taking relics.'
'That is such nonsense, to me,' says Marie. 'Everyone knows that the Muslims are not so concerned about this ancient history – what they call pagan. And in any case we are not taking anything – except pictures. That Essawi – I think he has his own interests here.' She waves her hands as if to suggest wheels operating within wheels.
'You're so paranoid, Marie – he seems a perfectly nice guy to me,' says Harry.
'Ha! You expect him to make obvious his plotting?'
Johnny comes out of the pyramid and wanders over nonchalantly towards Marcus Matthews, who is once more directing the workers: they are looking up at him with a sort of sullen fear. 'Bad luck about this robot breaking down, eh? But we should be able to get you another one.'
Matthews glares at Johnny, who feels curiously small in his presence – although they are pretty much of a height and Matthews is much thinner, he has a presence about him that makes Johnny feel almost childlike. 'That is good news, yes. Then we can recommence our researches.' His Oxford-accented voice has a rolling resonance to it.
'I suppose it must have been very upsetting, losing it like that.'
Matthews chuckles, unexpectedly, although his face retains the hawklike air. 'Sometimes these things are meant to be, Dr Stone – fated. We see them as accidents, but who can say what the gods have disposed?'
Mahmoud proves a keen and enthusiastic guide, if a little over-excitable. Celestina and Eddie can tell from the limited background reading they have so far managed to do that much of the history he relates has little foundation in orthodox Egyptology. It is unlikely, for example, that the Great Sphinx was once a living creature, turned to stone by a mighty magician whose sleep was disturbed by its roars. But he conveys the wonder of the Pyramids admirably, and is able to identify many of the smaller temples, burial pits and such like that often get overlooked.
By the time they have to head back and meet Foster, Celestina and Eddie are well conversant with the layout of the Giza site. Eddie has been trying to draw Celestina out about her childhood, and has learnt that she grew up with her grandmother above her occult bookstore-cum-occultist. She in turn has heard the rather sorry tale of the succession of foster homes he attended, not knowing his parents, and about the fateful rugby trial for Trinity during which he broke his neck. Considering what a miserable life he has had it is a marvel he is always so cheerful.
'We've learned a bit more about Hetepheres,' Jane Tate tells Johnny. 'A couple of other sources mention her. It seems she disappeared at the same time as Khentkaus was executed, so she didn't get to triumph over her rival for very long! Poor old Khufu didn't have much luck with his wives.'
'Disappeared? Does she have a pyramid around here too?'
'Not as far as anyone knows.' Jane is more cheerful today, perhaps because she is working at translation rather than persisting in trying to recover the robot. 'She just seems to have dropped out of the picture – one source talks about "Queen Hetepheres, dearest in the Heart of Khufu, who left his side and he was sad", or words to that effect – that's not the sort of thing they say when someone dies.'
Celestina, Eddie and the ever-willing Mahmoud make their way to the Novotel for their liaison with Ben Foster. Asking at the desk, it appears that he is in the bar awaiting them. 'Celestina, my way of askin' dunt seem to get people talkin' – mebbe you should do all talkin' an I'll keep me gob shut,' whispers Eddie. Celestina does not argue with this suggestion.
Over by the bar, perched on a stool in an ungainly fashion, is a small, stocky man with a short brown beard. He is deeply tanned and wears a local-style linen suit. As they approach, he nods his head to Celestina. He does not offer his hand.
'Mr Foster? How do you do – Celestina Mirande and Eddie Davies. As I said in my note, we are working on a book, and I was given your name by Russell Osbourne.'
'Yes... Russell,' Foster says. His voice is dry and distant, like the susurrus of the sands.
'I met him back in the UK, and he told me about what happened when you and he were here,' continues Celestina.
'How is Russell?' There is barely the hint of a question mark at the end of the remark.
'He's very well – he asked to be remembered to you,' embroiders Celestina – no doubt Russell will ask that when he gets the note. 'We were hoping you'd be able to tell us more about your abduction experience.'
'I were abducted too! – or, at least, summat like,' Eddie puts in enthusiastically, unable to restrain himself further. 'On Ilkley Moor it was.'
Foster smiles, and his teeth show: they are very yellow and regular, like the teeth of a skull. 'You've come on a wasted journey, then. I remember nothing about the experience.'
'Not even the disk of black glass?'
'Not a thing. I only know of that because Russell told me about it. Perhaps I just fell over and banged my head. Perhaps he just fell over and banged his head. Perhaps you will do likewise.' He starts to laugh, small, dry chuckles, each one brought up with seeming effort from his chest.
Eddie and Celestina exchange troubled glances.
The archaeologists look for the most part rather uncomfortable in their dinner finery. Marie Chenevix, with her Gallic chic, is the only one who could be described as in any way presentable. Sonia Bird seems merely to have changed from one tweed skirt into another slightly newer one, and she has assumed a string of pearls. Marcus Matthews is dressed like a country landowner on the grouse moor, and both Jane and Harry are wearing what must be their interview suits.
'I thought you had another member of the team,' says John, greeting them, 'a Dr van Heuvelen?' He remembers the name appearing on SITU's briefing.
There is an embarrassed clearing of throats. 'Er... yes, Dr van Heuvelen was on the project. But... he decided to resign from it,' says Sonia.
Matthews barks a laugh. He seems more imperious than ever in these formal clothes. 'The man was a drunkard and a fool, and he was rightly dismissed. He should have been punished more severely.'
'Marcus!' Even Sonia seems surprised by this. 'I always thought you rather liked him – he was your protégé, after all.'
'Opinions change,' says Matthews curtly, his face dark.
'Shall we dine on the terrace?' says Isobel brightly, covering over the awkwardness.
Micky has made his way back to the dig site in the gathering darkness. The workers are tidying away their tools and preparing to leave: there are groups of armed soldiers patrolling the whole complex. He approaches the Bird team's tents and calls out 'Anyone here speak English?'
The workers look at him suspiciously and remain mute.
Micky sighs and reaches in his pocket for a couple of ten-dollar bills. 'Anyone want to be some help here?'
There is a certain amount of Arabic muttering and nudging, and a man steps forward, wearing a white jellabah as they all are: he seems the eldest, a wiry chap with short grey hair under his tarboush. 'What you want, sir?'
As Masood Akhtar and his keyboardist strike up their version of 'Fast Car', Eddie and Celestina are returning to the Hilton. 'That guy fair give me the creeps,' mutters Eddie. 'He really weren't all there – know what I mean?' Celestina shivers and nods. Foster reminded her of nothing so much as a man possessed by a spirit of the Guede. What form these spirits took locally, she did not know, but their truth was universal. Maybe the man did not know it himself, but another force was controlling him.
'Ey! Here's a note from Reg, look!' Eddie tears it open eagerly. In it Presley explains that he can spare Eddie half an hour after dinner tonight, at 9.30: but he has to be on the way elsewhere by 10. 'He says "Sorry I can't give you longer, I'd love to hear about your fascinating experience"! How about that?'
'So you should have your new robot by noon the day after tomorrow,' explains John. 'I hope that you'll be able to continue this fascinating research straight away – the Trust are very keen for it to succeed.'
Sonia's face is wreathed in smiles, as are those of the others. Even Matthews seems pleased. 'This is wonderful news!' she says. 'You really have been wonderful, John – and you others as well, of course,' she adds hastily.
'So we'll be able to find out more about the story of Hetepheres and Haremakhet,' says Isobel, glancing at Matthews as she speaks. At the sound of the latter name his lips move along with hers, as though he is pronouncing it silently to himself.
'And another tune for our very special guest Mr Presley,' says the crooner Masood Akhtar. 'Wild thing – you make my heart sing!'
8.10 pm, Thursday 12 March 1998
Andrew, Isobel, Johnny, John: dining with the Bird team
Eddie and Celestina: in the Hilton lobby
Micky: at the dig site
Micky: you chat with Wasim and find that (a) he doesn't think any group he knows of would really want to sabotage the dig (b) the Islamists are marching to overthrow the government and set up a religious state, in the long run (he doesn't support them at all) (c) he'll scout around and try and find some good Pyramid stories for you. You wear the gun concealed in an inside jacket pocket: it's pretty small so no problem.
Isobel: you call your husband just before dinner, and fill him in on the basics of what has happened so far: he expresses polite interest. None of the rest of the team excite 'feelings', but Matthews still definitely does.
Johnny: you continue to observe the others, and note that Isobel is definitely scared of Matthews – and the bit of byplay at the end suggests she is following a theory. There also appears to be some tension between her and Micky.
Andrew: you talk with Harry Challis about carrying a gun, and he says he understands your concern. 'I'd like to carry one myself, I must say. You'd have to go to your local police and bribe them to get the right papers – that's no problem, I can come with you and do the talking if you like. Then you can just buy a pistol at a gun shop. Or if you don't want the police to know about it, you have to get hold of a gun on the black market, and I can't help you there, I'm afraid – you'd need one of the locals to help out. Our senior digger, Sarfraz, could probably help you, if you think you could trust him – or you could try the people at your hotel.'