The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Pharaoh's Heart Was Hardened
11.55 pm, Friday 13th March 1998
'What's tha reckon, owd cock, should we follow them in or what?' Eddie asks Johnny.
'Let's take a look,' Johnny nods. 'See what the CPRG party are up to. I'm sure a few pounds to the guards will give us access.'
Andrew jogs up to them, looking worried. 'I think we should stay with Professor Bird, and not proceed until the others are here. These are dangerous spirits we're dealing with, and we need serious help from the rest of our team before we can handle any contact with such forces.'
'Why don't you watch our backs, then, Andrew,' says Eddie reasonably, 'and keep an eye on that strange saloon car that followed us 'ere. And let us know if we have to make any hasty exits.'
'Write down the license plate number as well,' suggests Johnny.
Andrew still looks unhappy at the risk, but agrees to stay outside and keep watch over the area.
Johnny's surmise seems to be correct. A small wodge of notes changes hands, and the pyramid guards smile broadly as they usher the pair within to join 'their friends', as Eddie described them.
Johnny clicks on his pen torch, turned down to needle beam, and sweeps the floor in front of them as they venture cautiously down the passageway. The darkness, smell of limestone, and warmth are almost overpowering.
'Ee, this is proper Indiana Jones, en't it?' whispers Eddie delightedly.
From ahead is the sound of chanting. The central chamber is illuminated by flickering light – candles. Johnny and Eddie stop just outside the circle of light that comes through its doorway, and peer gingerly within.
Inside the four members of the Circles Phenomenon Research Group are standing in a diamond, facing inwards, their voices raised in chant. In the middle of them is a small granite obelisk, carved all over with hieroglyphs. Sherwood appears to be leading, keeping their place on the piece of paper each holds. Presley's is the strongest voice, quite pleasantly tuneful. Nick Pope's voice is fortunately weak, as he appears to have little grasp of tone. The words are unfamiliar, rich in vowels and highly repetitive.
'Might be their idea of Ancient Egyptian,' Johnny whispers to Eddie. 'No-one really knows what that sounded like.'
There is a brief pause while the CPRG team find their place anew, turning over their papers with a rustle, and then they start off again. Each has an exalted look on his or her face.
'Pity we didn't bring a tape-recorder,' mutters Eddie.
Meanwhile, outside, Andrew has sneaked over to the watching saloon car. He notes its number – JS-4577 – and sees that the two moustached, suited men inside appear to be doing nothing more than watching the pyramid. Occasionally one of them glances at his watch.
Andrew sneaks back to the dig site to check on it, but everything is quiet and peaceful.
It is the best part of two hours before the chanting finishes, and the CPRG relax. Presley passes round a bottle of water. 'Thirsty work, eh?' he says.
Sherwood looks at him disapprovingly. 'We should not be thinking about bodily matters while chanting, Reg. Our minds should be on higher things – trying to will these stones to motion around us.'
Reg nods encouragingly. 'Of course, Jon, of course. Don't you worry, I only get thirsty when we stop.' He laughs. 'Back in the old days I used to be able to keep the old voice going a lot longer than this, believe you me!'
'How near do you think we are to completing the readjustment, Jonathan?' asks Pope.
Sherwood considers. 'Probably no more than a handful of days away now – not bad after two weeks' solid work! I'm certain that some of the shafts and airways have already corrected slightly. Can't you feel it? – the flow of energy about the pyramid is subtly different. Some channels have closed, or narrowed, others opened, or widened, over those weeks, as the blocks of stone shift into their proper patterns.'
Isobelle Kingston drinks gratefully of the water. 'Jon, I've been a little concerned about the archaeologists who are working here. You know how these people tend to disapprove of our activities – that dreadful incident at Stonehenge...'
Sherwood laughs reassuringly. 'Don't worry – they've got no idea what we're doing here. They're all asleep, like mice. And even if they did know, what could they do? Out here it's whose money talks loudest – and, thanks to you, Reg – we can do whatever we like here. If they call the Government down on us, we buy off whoever they send, it's as simple as that.'
'Even my pockets aren't bottomless, you know,' objects Presley mildly.
'Don't you worry, Reg, these fellows out here are very small beer – you could buy and sell the whole Ministry and not notice, I assure you.' Sherwood, who has been gathering in the songsheets, closes them into his attaché case with a snap. 'Time to leave.' He motions Pope to pick up the obelisk.
The two SITU operatives scurry backwards out of the passage before they are discovered, the guards at the door studiously ignoring them.
'I have had a communiqué from Russell Osbourne,' says Celestina at breakfast. 'He confirms Ben Foster's story: that even just after the incident he had no memory of it.'
'John, why don't you see if SITU have left any messages for us at reception?' asks Isobel.
John glares initially, as if about to say that such a task is beneath him, but stomps off. As soon as he is gone, Isobel leans towards Mickey. 'Shall we go and visit the magician?'
'If you still want to,' says Mickey. 'What about you, Celestina?'
'All right,' she replies. 'It sounds interesting.'
By the time John returns all three of them have disappeared into the city.
Andrew sends SITU another fax detailing what has been happening. There is a reply waiting for him.
"SITU believed Abdel Essawi killed in destruction of Branston Hall, Buckinghamshire, in August 1997 – please confirm identity of this man, via Operative Mirande if necessary. All caution is urged – if he is the same person, he is extremely dangerous."
Following is a fax of the latest SITUation Report, which Andrew is pleased to see contains an article, written by Celestina, which contains some material speaking of spirits and possession.
In the jeep Isobel says to Celestina 'I'd like to find out more about the ancient Egyptians' beliefs about spirits, the soul and possession – why don't we try and do some finding out?'
'That could be useful,' says Celestina, 'and I would also like to see some of these "possessed" people. Perhaps they have been taken over by their loa for some reason. How do you think we might be able to meet some?'
'Perhaps this magician guy could point us at some,' says Mickey hopefully. He thinks to himself that his new friend the Imam could probably also help.
He pulls the jeep over briefly and hops out to buy a nicely-carved sandalwood writing-case, which Wasim had advised him might make a suitable gift for Wafic Said. When he gets back in he says 'This business about selling your soul -'
'We'll leave you to take care of that department,' says Isobel quickly.
'Well, if I was him I'd prefer a more virginal soul, a nice clean unsoiled one – what do you think? One like yours, most probably.'
Isobel blushes slightly, but Celestina thinks to herself that her own, vodoun priestess's, soul would probably prove rather strong meat to a back-street magician.
Eddie strolls out into the hotel car park to see that the saloon car has left, presumably following Mickey, Isobel and Celestina into town. He heads into the street and glances around for Mahmoud.
The young street urchin is kicking a deflated football around with some of his cronies, but speeds over at Eddie's summons. 'You want more tour of Pyramids, Sphinx, Mister Eddie? You want gifts for family at home? Missis Eddie gone away?' He means Celestina.
'Nay, lad, later – reet now all as I want's information.' Eddie describes the car and its occupants, and give the number.
Mahmoud pales under his dirt. 'Mister Eddie, this car big trouble – I see in car park – I not know who they following – big trouble if they following you and Missis Eddie!'
'She's not my... never mind that, who are they, then?'
'Secret police, Mister Eddie – they secret police. First they follow, then, in the night, before dawn -' he vigorously mimes being dragged out of bed and hauled off to the cells for a spot of brutal interrogation.
'Why would they be following us, then?' wonders Eddie. 'We've not done anything wrong.'
Mahmoud looks at him in a worldly-wise and cynical way that belies his tender years. 'No have to do anything wrong, Mister Eddie. Just needs some man in Government who not like you.'
'... so that's pretty much the story,' finishes Mickey. He has described events fully, but omitted all mention of SITU.
Wafic Said nods slowly, considering. Isobel shifts uncomfortably on her cushion, while Celestina tries to analyse the various odours that throng the air of the tiny back room – several kinds of incense, of course, lamp oil and candles, but also sulphur, burnt meat, tea, and reasonably fresh blood.
Wafic Said himself is an unprepossessing character, small, hunched, of indeterminate age, his face scrunched up like a monkey's, albeit clad in elegant red silks. He accepted Mickey's gift of the writing-case wordlessly, making it disappear into the amazing clutter that throngs the room – books, pictures, heaped-up small items of furniture, piles of clothes and material, and a number of sacks, some of which move occasionally.
'What'll your help cost?' asks Mickey humbly. 'Only I heard something about a portion of a soul – what exactly does that involve? What will I lose by selling it – and do I gain anything?'
Wafic Said chews something vigorously, releasing a jet of orangish saliva accurately in the direction of a brass spittoon. 'You misunderstand the forces I represent, my friend.' His voice is thin and husky. 'It is not a question of a bargain. It is a question of surrendering oneself. The more power one wants, the more one must surrender of oneself. If you seek the help of the dark against this spirit that plagues you, then dark will take hold of your own spirit.'
Celestina grimaces. This sounds to her similar to the talk of a bokor.
'How much difference will that make to me?' pursues Mickey.
Said shrugs. 'That depends on how difficult the task is – how powerful the enemy spirit is. The harder the struggle, the more the dark will claim of you.' He smiles thinly. 'Eventually you may find you value the dark's influence – that it has become the main force driving you. Then you will serve it. You will become as I, and seek to spread its influence to others.'
'What does "the dark" mean, really?' ventures Isobel worriedly, breaking her resolve to leave the talking to Mickey.
'It has many names. Evil – Shaitan – Lucifer – the Dark Side – the power that lurks at the edge of the firelight. Selfishness – greed – envy – hatred – you Christians know as well as we do. Sin. Corruption. The more you embrace it, the more you will be driven by these feelings, the less you will feel for your fellow humans.'
'Why are you telling us all this? It can't be very good for business,' says Mickey.
'On the contrary. Business is excellent. My customers always believe that they can remain in control, and they enjoy the risk. Usually, this is true.'
'What about my friend Wasim? You gave him a little remedy to help him perform better in bed, didn't you?' Mickey glances at Isobel and Celestina to see if this revelation embarrasses them.
'For such a service the dark will not take a great hold. Wasim may have found that he has a greater love of violence in the act of congress than he had previously. But attacking an evil spirit – this is a more serious matter.'
'I'm going to have to think about this,' says Mickey.
'I would most strongly advise doing so,' agrees Said. 'As for the mundane side of the transaction – one hundred pounds will suffice for the materials and for as much of my time as is required.'
Back at the dig, Andrew and the archaeological team enthusiastically unwrap the new robot, which has now arrived. It is much smaller than he was expecting – little bigger than a cigar box.
'The TV camera's digital,' explains Harry proudly. 'Nice bit of kit. We can get back in business now!'
While Harry, Jane and Marie Chenevix prepare the robot to be put into the pyramid, Andrew asks Sonia Bird about the court of Khufu. 'What would have been important to these people?'
She smiles, pleased at his interest. 'From all we can tell, it must have been a rather dangerous place – everyone would be watching their backs permanently. The Pharaoh was the only one who was safe – all his wives, sons, and ministers were continually scrabbling for power and struggling to bring each other down. This is a common feature of absolute monarchies, throughout history. The supporting figures contend to be the one to whom the Pharaoh listens. Women used sex to hold the Pharaoh close to them, men used their advice, and they all plotted against each other... not so very different from a modern-day University department!'
'What about these particular characters – Khentkaus, Hetepheres, Haremakhet?'
'An interesting group, certainly. Khentkaus was in power initially, but if she was plotting with the Akkadians that can only be because she was afraid of her position being undermined. We may surmise that Hetepheres had arrived on the scene – a younger woman, probably – and perhaps the Pharaoh's attentions were shifting? Khentkaus would probably have been jealous of Hetepheres. Hetepheres, perhaps, envious of Khentkaus's power? As for Haremakhet – he remains something of an enigma. We really don't know if he was a co-conspirator of Khentkaus's, as eager as she to betray the kingdom, or if he really was planning to expose her plan to the Pharaoh. So he might have been an admirer and friend of hers, or have hated her with a passion!' She sighs. 'Again, much like a modern-day University department...'
Johnny has ventured into town by himself, and at a pharmacy on Sharia Muhammed Ali has purchased a two-week course of chlorpromazine, the most readily-available antipsychotic. He then heads for the Medina Harafi once more.
He finds the area somewhat in turmoil compared with the previous day. There are small knots of white-clad young men standing aggressively around the streets, talking vigorously at each other. There is a distinct air of tension.
'Some sort of trouble?' Johnny asks the taxi driver.
'Ah, Effendi, these young idlers – they make trouble.' He spits out through the window. 'The Islamic Brotherhood – they make trouble against the government. Is very bad. Will be riot today.'
'Is it safe?' inquires Johnny.
'Oh yes, Effendi,' the driver assures him. 'They would never attack tourists.' There is a certain lack of conviction in his voice, and Johnny can clearly remember the massacre of tourists at Deir El-Bahri near Luxor the previous autumn.
The confectioner eyes Johnny with some suspicion, but the handover of a considerably more sizeable wodge of notes than yesterday serves to allay his disquiet. Johnny passes through into the back and finds van Heuvelen still in his room, puffing away on a hookah. He eyes Johnny incuriously, not recognizing him.
'Willem, I've brought you some pills,' says Johnny, offering the bottle.
Van Heuvelen struggles to focus on them. 'Is it good stuff?' he slurs.
'The best,' avers Johnny. 'Take two of these every day and you'll feel better than you have done in a while, I should think.'
Van Heuvelen opens the bottle, with some difficulty, and pops two of the tablets down his throat. He and Johnny look at each other for a minute or two, then he says peevishly 'Not much of a rush off these.'
'It takes a while to build up,' Johnny assures him.
Van Heuvelen shrugs and tosses the pills into a corner of the room. 'Thanks, friend. Want some of this?' He offers the hookah mouthpiece to Johnny.
Johnny leaves the shop after a relaxing chat about nothing in particular, avoiding the subject of the dig, confident that the drugs will work on the Dutchman. However, ensuring that he takes them every day will be very difficult. And if he continues to dull his brains with dope they will be less effective than they should. The ideal would be to get van Heuvelen away from this room to somewhere Johnny could supervise him himself – or else move in here with him. Neither is particularly appealing.
Mickey, Celestina and Isobel arrive at this point. Andrew notices with some disquiet that they are again followed by the mysterious black saloon.
Celestina and Isobel ask Marcus Matthews about the Egyptian view of the soul.
'Ah, my dears... er... a rather complex matter. Our... er... forebears would have... poured scorn on our simplistic view of such matters... ah... ontological. The Egyptians recognized at least seven components to the spirit, each with its own form and... ah... purpose.'
'Hm, indeed. There is the khu, a shining integument, which is the part that dwells in the afterlife. There is the ba, shaped as the body of the deceased, which is closest-tied to the body – it requires... ah... nourishment. Hence the pictures of food so prevalent in tombs, and the actual food which... er... we believe the Egyptians to have left with their dead. If the ba was not... er... nourished, it would fade and disappear. The actual body was termed the khat, and was of little value, although of course it still had to be... ah... preserved against future need.'
'What about possession?' asks Celestina. 'Did they believe spirits could possess others?'
Matthews clasps his hands together. 'Ah, there, my... er... dear, we must seek the ka as the likely culprit... this was perhaps closest to our modern idea of the... ah... soul. It was depicted as with the body of a hawk, and the head of the deceased. It was a free-moving entity, and could... ah... come and go from the tomb, the pyramid, as it pleased, provided that the necessary airways and channels had been left in the construction.'
Johnny returns to the Hilton and sees John Torillo deep in conversation with Jonathan Sherwood of the CPRG. He breaks off as Johnny approaches, shaking Sherwood's hand – the errant cerealogist wanders off.
'Where has everyone gone?' John demands of Johnny. 'We can't just have people running off and doing their own thing without informing me. I am the leader of this group, after all. We must preserve some discipline!'
Johnny reassures him soothingly. He is concerned that John's behaviour has changed rather sharply. His arrogant attitude is strongly reminiscent of Marcus Matthews as they first met him. Could John now be possessed? It seems strongly possible.
'Right, we're just about ready now, boss' says Harry Challis breezily. 'Jane's ready to drive – shall we start her up?' The robot is in position in the entrance of the airway, and the archaeological team are gathered around the monitor, which is currently showing nothing at all.
'The initial plan is to retrace the path of the last robot,' explains Marie Chenevix. 'This way we will be able to see what happened to it – we hope.' She spreads a diagram on the table, showing the airways thus far explored as thin lines. 'Up here – see? – and then this sharp left to the second chamber.'
'Or you could take the right turn there, instead of left, and see what's the other way?' suggests Harry.
'First things first,' says Jane. 'Let's see what happened to the old one before we start exploring again.'
Isobel: Eddie approaches you and says that he has been having a few strange dreams over the past couple of nights, mainly connecting to his abduction. This is a new and frightening thing for him, and he wonders if you might have any ideas as to why this has started all of a sudden. Also, Andrew seems to be behaving warily around you, as though he expects you to turn green or something at any moment – you have no idea why this should be, nothing else about him seems to have changed.
Johnny: apart from the encounter with John described above, the others seem pretty much OK. Andrew's wariness of Isobel is difficult to analyse – he is on edge around her, as though continually expecting her to do something that will demand quick reaction. This is not prompted by any particular behaviour of hers, it's all the time.
Eddie: you confide in Isobel about your recent dreams. She is very sympathetic.