The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Pharaoh's Heart Was Hardened
10.30 am, Friday 13th March 1998
Andrew watches warily, standing close to Professor Bird, as Essawi makes his way around the site, peering into the tents. This seems to be a routine visit, though, and once Marcus Matthews and Jane Tate have handed over the disks, Essawi prepares to leave once more.
'Thank you for your interest in the work done here,' says Andrew to him as he gets into his car. 'I hope you'll be continuing to keep an eye on us.'
Essawi eyes him speculatively. 'Yes indeed, sir, you may be sure of that. Developments here are of the greatest industry to those whom I serve.' He salutes Andrew, and drives off.
Andrew, looking round once more to make sure that all is safe at the dig, returns to the Hilton to greet the others.
Eddie has also returned to the hotel, after a couple more fruitless hours grubbing through the Cairo Messenger and Bulletin – there seems to be nothing more of any interest or relevance. It really is a rather dull paper.
'I'll tell you what I reckon I should do, tha knows,' he announces. 'I'm going' to contact SITU an' see if they can tell us owt abaht that group that Reg has hooked up wi'. Who were it again Celestina?'
'The Circles Phenomenon Research Group,' says Celestina, who does not look terribly well: she occasionally massages her temples, as though suffering from a headache.
'Aye, an' that bloke an'all, Dr Jonathan Sherwood, he were a bit off abaht Reg talkin' to us, mebbe I should ask if they have owt on 'im an' all.'
Andrew describes what he saw at the dig the previous night. 'Do any of you know anything about spirits and the way they operate? If Matthews was being possessed by the spirit of Haremakhet, perhaps someone else is now.'
'Different peoples have their own different spirits and ways of behaving,' says Celestina, the occult professional. 'We'd need to know more about the way the ancient Egyptians viewed the spirit to know whether that's possible.'
'Nonsense!' says John sharply. 'The soul is divided into seven parts, according to Egyptian belief, but none of them would be capable of possessing a person as you describe. We must assume that Matthews was undergoing some sort of delusional state – hm?' He turns to Johnny for confirmation.
'Maybe,' says Johnny, eyeing John. 'The mind can play all sorts of tricks on us.' He rests his fingers together. 'Does anyone think there might be a connection between the flash of light seen on the robot's video tape when it went haywire, and the flash of light Isobel witnessed last night when Matthews fainted? What do you think?'
'If Haremakhet was possessing Matthews, then perhaps the initial flash was when his spirit was released from within the pyramid,' says Celestina. 'And then Isobel's flash was it leaving Matthews's body. But where is it now?'
'Really!' says John sharply. 'This is the most absurd speculation. I must insist that we all abandon this line of inquiry – it's just embarrassing. We're supposed to be scientists, not wild-eyed mystics!'
Isobel looks at him uneasily. 'Micky, are you going to go and see this Wafic Said? I'll come along, if you like – but just for moral support, you can be the one who loses his soul!'
Micky shakes his head. 'The boss -' he indicates John '- says no, so no it is. I was going to go and see one of these sheikhs or imams instead.'
Isobel nods uncertainly, and frowns. 'What do you think Essawi meant about the crocodile, Andrew? What does the crocodile do when the waters rise? Perhaps I should ask Marie when I see her next.'
'I should think it probably swims around and eats things,' says Andrew.
'Essawi,' muses Celestina. 'We met a man of that name at Branston Hall. I wonder if it's the same person?'
'What say we pay another visit to friend Foster?' says Eddie breezily. 'Isobel, Johnny? He may 'ave been as slack as a bag o' nuts, but there may be some reason for it. He might 'ave 'ad a bright flash an' mebbe he's alright now. It'll be worth seein' what you think.' He turns to Micky. 'You seem to 'ave a way of getting info from people – it might be an idea if you made some discreet inquiries about the party Reg's with, especially that woman who was so upset by what 'appened to Matthews.'
As the group breaks up, Eddie draws Andrew aside. 'What dost tha' reckon was goin' on at t' tomb? Does tha think it might be worth doin' some surveillance or summat?'
'Yes,' says Andrew seriously. 'I think we should spend as much time as possible at the dig site. I'm going to move out there permanently.'
Eddie calls SITU and asks for information on the Circles Phenomenon Research Group and Dr Jonathan Sherwood. This is rapidly forthcoming. It seems that the CPRG are a newish group that has grown rapidly in the last two years on the back of Reg Presley's investment in their activities. Sherwood, the founder, has a theory that important archaeological sites have to be 'readjusted' so that the aliens who built them can better communicate with us by means of crop circles. He and colleagues were recently arrested at Stonehenge when they were found to be attempting to move the great altar-stone and reorient it. Eddie describes the other two people he has seen with Sherwood, and the SITU aide identifies them as Nick Pope, a UK Ministry of Defence official, and Isobel Kingston, a well-known medium and cerealogist [the term given to devotees of crop circles].
'Keep an eye on them. Try and find out what they're up to if you can,' says the SITU aide. 'We don't know who's really pulling their strings.'
Eddie also leaves a friendly note for Presley, inviting him to a drink and a chat, before gathering Isobel and Johnny together for a trip to the Novotel to find Ben Foster.
Micky goes out to the pool and spends a few minutes looking over the lighting system. Notes change hands and he is allowed to inspect the fuse box: as far as he can tell, there is nothing that might have prompted a bright flash of the kind Isobel described. He asks Wasim, his informant, about the CPRG group: Wasim tells him that they are quiet and polite, generous with their tips, especially Presley, and spend most of their time in their rooms, talking. One curiosity is that all four of them go out every night, driving: not returning for several hours. This annoys the chambermaids, who cannot clean their rooms during the morning because they are still sleeping. And their clothes are always sandy.
Micky nods, filing the information away and asks a few more questions on religious matters. 'Thanks for the help, Wasim.' He gives him a fiver. 'Next time I buy something from you, make sure it works first, or warn me!' He turns round and walks off.
With Wasim's directions, finding the mosque of Baba El-Masjid is easy. Micky is no expert on Islamic architecture, but he can tell that this large building is rather old and very impressive. It is a walled square around a central domed chamber, with cloisters and study-rooms running off in al directions. He takes off his shoes and covers his head, as instructed, and asks the doorkeeper if he might be admitted for advice. It seems the sheikh is busy, but one of the imams will see him: he is shown through into a cool, airy room, sparsely furnished, with a well-stocked bookcase against the wall, and given a cup of tea. After a few minutes Imam Mustafa Hosseini joins him – a middle-aged man in ornate robes, with thick glasses and a long grey beard, he bespeaks holiness from every pore.
Over several cups of tea Micky outlines the problem, leaving out SITU but including a description of the supposed activity of Haremakhet's rogue spirit.
The imam looks troubled. 'These restless ghosts, if caged for long, can cause great trouble when released. The devout man must ward against their attentions.'
'Exactly what I thought,' says Micky. 'But how can that be done? Can the spirit be fought?'
'Fought, no – at least, not by means that a wise man would employ. Only those steeped in the dark arts would be capable or desirous of bending a ghost to their will. But Allah the great and good can defend the pious man from their attacks.' He reaches into a recess of his robes, and pulls out a silver necklace. Rather than a pendant, it has a tiny wooden chest hanging from it, about an inch long.
Micky watches fascinated as the imam pops open the chest with his thumbnail, to reveal that within is a scrap of parchment, folded many times. 'This scroll contains a prayer to Allah, beseeching his protection from unclean spirits. While you wear this you will be safe from them.' He ceremoniously hands it across to Micky. 'I can see that your need is great.'
Micky slips the pendant relievedly around his neck. 'Thank you kindly, oh wise one. I take it some sort of donation to the mosque would be appropriate?'
'The collection box is on your way out,' smiles the imam.
As Micky leaves he tucks the pendant down inside his shirt, so that none of his colleagues will be able to guess that he has it, or where he has been.
Eddie, Johnny and Isobel find that Ben Foster is in his accustomed place at the Novotel bar. While Eddie cheerily offers Foster a drink (he opts for a long tonic water and ice) the others inspect him closely. Isobel looks quite pale.
'So, 'ow's things, Ben?' says Eddie. 'Celestina says she's 'eard from your pal Russell – 'e sends 'is best wishes.'
This prompts a flicker of interest on Foster's face. 'Russell?' His voice is quiet and dry. 'A notable talent. I wish him well, too.'
'You and he used to work together? As writers?' prods Johnny.
'Yes... many years ago. Before... My work is different now.'
'What does it involve now?' asks Isobel.
Foster smiles – a curious grimace, as though he is forcibly dragging back the corners of his mouth. 'I am a creature of the wind, my dear, as are we all. It tells me whither to blow – I merely accede.'
Andrew returns to the dig site, where he is more or less one of the family now, he spends so much time there. Professor Bird greets him cheerily. He has stopped off on the way to send a lengthy fax to SITU describing what has happened so far, with the most sensitive parts (dealing with spirits and such like) written in Norwegian.
Over tea Professor Bird explains a little more about ancient Egyptian court life. 'The Pharaoh was absolute ruler, a god in human form, and he owned all of the country and all the people within it. He was allowed to take as many women as he wished, although he would usually only marry a few of them – those of the most important families, perhaps. These were called his queens, and we think that they may have had considerable political power, with their own advisors and courtiers. A queen who produced a son was particularly powerful. Khufu was succeeded by Khephren and Menkaure, who were both his sons, but we don't know who their mother, or mothers were.'
'Might they have been Khentkaus, or Hetepheres?'
'Possibly. When Khentkaus was executed, her sons would have been too, because it would have been assumed that they were part of the conspiracy. Hetepheres we just don't know: she may well have been the mother of Khephren, or Menkaure, or both. Except that when she disappeared, you'd think that the sons of later queens would have had a better chance of succeeding – a young Egyptian prince tended to have a short life expectancy if his mother wasn't around to look after him.'
'What about the vizier, Haremakhet – what would his role have been?'
'Basically a political advisor. The Pharaoh, and any of the important queens, had advisors – ministers, effectively – to brief them on foreign policy, trade, agriculture and so on. And these officials would have been used as diplomats, as well. From what we've seen so far it looks as though Khentkaus may have been using Haremakhet as a go-between in her plots with Sargon of Akkad – because she herself would not have been able to leave the court. Marcus's theory of last night, that Haremakhet may have been planning to betray her to the Pharaoh and expose her schemes, is an interesting one, but without knowing more about the man's character we may never know.' She sighs, but then brightens up. 'Anyway, your new robot's coming tomorrow, so we'll be able to see more of those carvings in the second chamber, with any luck! That should tell us more of the real story.'
Matthews is wandering around the site looking rather lost and aimless, his whole manner completely different from the period when, as Andrew suspects, he was possessed by Haremakhet. Nonetheless Andrew keeps a wary eye on him and sticks close to Professor Bird, ready to protect her from threat at a moment's notice.
After leaving Foster, Isobel goes to the bazaar to visit Mahmoud's uncle's shop, and buys a small alabaster model pharaoh's head each for her husband and guardian.
Johnny heads for the Medina Harafi in a taxi, and finds the confectioner's shop – a sticky riot of sweetmeats, the scent of rose-water and melting sugar almost overpowering. The proprietor eyes Johnny suspiciously as the psychologist asks for Willem van Heuvelen, carefully boxing up a consignment of baklava, but when he sees the colour of a ten-pound note he indicates the rear door of the shop with his thumb.
Johnny parts the bead screen with his hands and passes through into a dark corridor. Here the sweet smell of pastries is replaced by another, the cloying odour of hashish. Coils of blue smoke hang in the muggy air. Johnny peers into the dimness, and sees that behind an open door there is a man, a European, lying sprawled on a filthy bed.
'Dr van Heuvelen?' asks Johnny uneasily of the unshaven, dirty figure, with wild hair and the mouthpiece of a hookah stuck between its lips.
Johnny kneels down by the bed, avoiding the scurrying cockroaches, and gently removes the hookah. Van Heuvelen (for it is he) gropes feebly after it. 'I'm Dr Stone. You used to work with the Bird group? Can you tell me anything about the dig?'
The Dutchman's eyes snap open at the mention of Professor Bird's name, their pupils huge. 'Bad times. All gone now.'
'What was so bad?' Johnny has slipped into his professional, calm, coaxing voice.
'The dreams... the terrible dreams! God, lave me alone! No! No!' Van Heuvelen's voice rises to a shriek, and he curls up, sobbing.
'What did you see?' Johnny touches his shoulder, but van Heuvelen recoils.
'The pyramid... all alive with fire! The gods striding back and forth! Her face – her terrible, terrible face!'
'Whose face? Professor Bird's? Khentkaus's?'
The sobs are uncontrollable now. 'Matthews – that fool – too weak. He succumbed. I was... No! Keep away!' He presses his hands over his ears fiercely.
'I'm trying to help you,' says Johnny, 'but you must tell me all you know.'
'The Englishman... I don't know... black circle in the sand... stop! Keep away from me!' He starts to scream in earnest.
Johnny straightens to his feet, musing, and hears the confectioner hurrying down the corridor towards him. The big man frowns, shaking his finger fiercely at Johnny, and drapes a blanket over van Heuvelen with a surprisingly tender gesture. He then stands, hands on hips, until Johnny leaves.
As he walks back to the taxi, Johnny assesses the Dutchman's state: it is clear that he will need medication before he can be called lucid. But a course of antipsychotics might well show quick results, and as a psychiatrist he would be able to get these himself from a well-equipped pharmacy. Administering them without the patient's consent would be highly unethical, of course, but van Heuvelen has said enough that Johnny feels what he knows must have some bearing on the case.
He rides back to the hotel, still thinking, and it is not until he has reached it that he realizes that the taxi has been followed by an unmarked saloon car, occupied by two young moustached men in dark suits. They sit and watch as he enters the Hilton.
'Wasim, can you tell me anything about this magician Wafic Said?' asks Micky.
Wasim explains how to get to Sharia Al-Attani. 'But this is a wicked man, sir! He casts curses on your enemies if you wish it. Or will strike them with diseases.'
'Do you know anyone who's used his services?'
Wasim looks embarrassed and beckons Micky closer. 'Once I used him – yes. But please not to tell Imam!'
'Your secret's safe with me,' says Micky. 'What did you get off him?'
'Was special charm made from goats... organs. For time when I was sick... in the night. With women. And not able... you know?'
Micky is puzzled until Wasim crudely mimes what he means. Then comprehension dawns. 'Did it work?' he asks curiously.
Wasim's eyes gleam. 'Oh yes! Was like bar of iron.'
'Fancy a beer, Andrew?' asks Harry. Jane is with him: they both look happy. Perhaps the change in Matthews's mood has spread a general feeling of well-being over the camp.
Andrew is being careful what he drinks, but the young Englishman seems safe enough company. 'Thank you, Harry – I'll treat you to a proper night out on the town soon, in thanks for what you've done for me.'
'No trouble!' grins Harry. 'Always glad to help out. Let's go somewhere close by, eh? Early start tomorrow, making ready for the new robot.'
The three young people spend a rather pleasant few hours together, chatting mostly about university life and how it differs between Oxford, Los Angeles and Gothenburg. Before midnight Andrew suggests returning to the dig.
Johnny has been keeping an eye on the CPRG party, who have spent the evening huddling together over coffee. Around eleven they all rise, and head out to the car park, getting into a Landrover. Johnny catches Eddie's eye, and calls over one of the many taxis that wait outside the hotel.
Looking in the rear view mirror as the taxi follows the Landrover through the dark streets of Cairo towards the Avenue of the Pyramids, Johnny sees that another pair of headlights is following them – the unmarked saloon he saw earlier.
Harry and Jane head back into their tents while Andrew wanders restlessly around the site. Suddenly he hears the sound of vehicles approaching. First is a Landrover, the same he saw last night, which coasts to a stop near the pyramid of Khentkaus. Four people, three men and a woman, get out. Next is a taxi, which stops just off the main road, behind the Great Pyramid: Johnny and Eddie climb from it. Lastly he sees a mysterious saloon car, which turns off its headlights and stops on a rise above the road, so that it commands a view of both other vehicles and of the dig site. No-one emerges from this car.
The first four figures approach the guards on the entrance to Khentkaus's pyramid, and some conversation appears to take place between them. The guards stand aside, and the four people pass inside the pyramid.
11.55 pm, Friday 13th March 1998
Andrew, Eddie and Johnny: at the pyramid of Khentkaus
Isobel, Micky and Celestina: at the Hilton
Johnny: you get a very odd feeling from John at the moment. His mannerisms and patterns of speech seem to have changed completely. If he were a patient you would say that a different personality within him is being expressed. You also notice that Andrew is being very wary of Isobel, regarding her with suspicion whenever her gaze is averted. Foster is a curious case – he appears strangely empty of volition, withdrawn, almost autistic. Maybe a mild case of catatonic schizophrenia. Isobel seems deeply disturbed by him.
Isobel: John's behaviour is deeply disturbing. He seems to have completely changed, reminding you of nothing so much as what Matthews was like when you first met him – the same hawklike hauteur and impatience. Foster is even more disturbing – rather than appearing possessed, he seems empty, like a mannequin made of straw, as though his sole purpose of existence is to respond to some monstrous whim.