The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Pharaoh's Heart Was Hardened
7.30 pm, Saturday 14th March 1998
'Sure,' says Johnny to Sonia. 'I'm sure we could put the weight of the Davina Millhouse Trust behind your team in your attempts to open up the tomb of Hetepheres... it is all very fascinating, and I see no reason why we can't continue to work together. Your leadership on this dig has been exemplary, which should sway the Trust's decision.' He smiles winningly.
Professor Bird blushes slightly. 'Well, that's very kind of you, Dr Stone – we've had our ups and downs, of course, but I think we've all tried to do our best, haven't we?' She glances around the group. There is a slight snort from Marie Chenevix, but everyone else seems to agree.
'If you will allow me to copy some of the video footage and send it home, that will help,' says Andrew. 'So that we can make a better case when we request that your group receive additional funding and support, due to the new and spectacular finds that the pyramid is changing.'
'Certainly, as long as you make it clear that the material isn't for publication yet – in fact, that it's highly confidential,' says Sonia. 'We don't want anyone else starting to work on this before we've finished!' She nods. 'Perhaps you both might like to meet with Mr Essawi and I in the morning, to discuss the matter – I'm sure he'd like to meet you, Dr Stone, Mr Weiser, and he's quite a charming man.'
At Johnny's suggestion the SITU team regroup at the hotel for a confab, in the absence of John Torillo.
'From my chat with John, if he is possessed and to be believed, it would seem as if we have two entities, spirits, to deal with – the spirit of Haremakhet, which appears to be possessing John, and that of Khentkaus, which Haremakhet – John – believes is still a threat to the Land of the Pharaohs. Anybody have any ideas?' asks Johnny.
'I'm worried that if Haremakhet has been able to possess a body, that maybe Khentkaus has done the same thing,' says Isobel thoughtfully. 'Perhaps it'd be worth chatting to John about what he thinks she might be capable of doing in the present. As an archaeologist he must have some knowledge of ancient Egyptian beliefs about the soul and if or how it could still be around now.'
'If 'e's possessed himself, 'e'll know exactly what 'er spirit can do – the same as the one that's in 'im, I should reckon,' says Eddie.
'I'm a bit concerned about him,' Isobel continues. 'I'm not sure he should be left on his own, but I also don't think that he ought to know all that is going on. I don't mind being the one who has to work with him – to keep him out of the way of the rest of the group.'
'One thing about which I am very sure,' says Celestina, 'is that we must tell SITU everything, including the probable possession and definite betrayal by John. They will then advise us on whether to take him out or not.' She glances at Mickey. 'I know of a few "home remedies" which would put John to sleep for while if need be. It seems that the same thing happened to several of my colleagues at Branston Hall, so SITU are best placed to deal with it.'
'We need to know what he's been saying to the CPRG, as well,' says Johnny firmly. 'We really must find out what is going on between them...'
'Another thing,' suggests Isobel. 'At the moment, I don't think anyone ought to be going anywhere on their own. If the police do try to arrest us for anything, they'd be less likely to do it if we were in a pair or a group. We need to keep each other up to date with what we're doing, so that if anyone goes missing, at least we'll know where they should have been and what they should have been doing.'
'That's right,' says Mickey. He looks at Johnny. 'Boss, next time you're going to visit that Dutchman, don't take a cab – I'll drive. Safety in numbers and all that.' He stands up. 'Anyway, I've got a few things to do in town.'
Celestina is sitting as still and poised as usual, but her gaze is uncharacteristically troubled. She says 'The greatest danger may not be from the police. There is a good chance that Essawi may be planning to do away with me, and by association also all of you. I saw him on a previous mission at Branston Hall where he appeared to possess two of the other operatives, though I'm not sure how much I'm allowed to tell you. While these two were possessed they probably told him about SITU and the operatives, this means he probably knows that I am working for SITU, and also that you all are too.'
'I was going to ask you about that,' says Johnny. 'When he knew you, who were you? – I mean, will he know you are not what you claim to be now? It could make things very difficult...'
'I was posing as a "weekend mystic", as were we all,' says Celestina. 'So I could well still have been a Davina Millhouse Trust member at the same time. But if we assume that he was able to strip information from the minds of my colleagues I believe he possessed, he may know all about SITU and guess that we are all operatives – and regard us as a threat.'
'Perhaps Andrew and I should avoid meeting him tomorrow morning then, as Sonia suggested?' muses Johnny. 'But if I do, that will lose us popularity with the archaeological team – and I think we still need to keep them sweet. Or do we? Maybe they've served their purpose to us now.' He shakes his head, troubled.
'We are going to have to try and devise some sort of plan,' says Celestina calmly. 'I think we should tell SITU all of this and see what they say. It may be a good idea to talk to some of the natives about Essawi, though we should be discreet.'
'The diggers seemed to recognize him,' says Mickey. 'Perhaps they might help – they didn't give the impression they liked him much.'
Celestina looks round the group. 'We should also follow the CPRG, perhaps steal the obelisk, just to see what would happen.'
Mickey makes a quick trip out to the evening market and buys two burnouses and djellabahs. The atmosphere here is tense and expectant, with people hurrying about their business – the nearest thing he can compare it to is the mood in the neighbourhood of one of the big football grounds just before a derby match.
Returning to the Hilton in the gathering dusk, he finds Wasim, whose face splits into a grin at the sight of the generous Englishman. 'Effendi! How I help you today?'
Mickey beckons him close. 'Wasim, is it possible to get a copy of the hotel's master key to the rooms?'
Wasim recoils in horror. 'Effendi, oh no, not possible. Is more than my job worth. I help you all I can in your life, in city, whatever, but not to do business inside hotel. We have a saying – "is not good to shit on own doorstep".'
'I guess a set of lockpicks is out as well, then?' hazards Mickey.
From the expression on Wasim's face as he hurriedly bustles away, it is clear that his guess is correct.
Andrew has given his credit card limit a decent-sized nudge by purchasing a high-spec portable PC, with built-in modem and GSM cellphone, at the local branch of the French firm Sinoco. He guesses that the archaeological team probably already have whatever is needed to convert their video images to digital output suitable for transmission over the net. He spends a happy half-hour downloading and installing a copy of PGP-32, the securest readily-available encryption software around: he can now be confident that anything he sends to SITU will be coded sufficiently severely that it would need several supercomputers to unravel.
He sends a test email to SITU and is satisfied that the system works properly.
Andrew then heads back to the dig to resume his vigil over the Bird group, who are all still at work: it seems that this exciting set of finds has reinjected life into their activities.
'Care to join me for a drink, John?' asks Johnny casually.
John looks at his watch. 'A quick one, perhaps – I have much important business this night!' His eyes flash in a minatory fashion.
'I was fascinated by what you said about Haremakhet earlier. He died a hero, it seems – next to Hetepheres, clearly misunderstood.' Johnny shakes his head sadly.
'Yes! A hero indeed. Not many of the advisers of the early Pharaohs had names that have lived on in history – lickspittle lapdogs for the most part! – but this was one who would have, we may be sure of that,' says John enthusiastically.
'And probably only he had enough vision to spot the danger of Khentkaus, and enough ability to plan against it,' says Johnny. 'I tell you, I admire the man – if there was anything I could do to help his noble aims, I would, that's for sure.'
'Aha!' Here John smiles proudly. 'I have a plan in hand on that score. Dupes and fools can always be found, and all the easier manipulated. There are those here who are helping me too, Dr Stone, though they know not what they do.'
'Would that be the CPRG people?' hazards Johnny.
'Hm – perhaps!' John's face is twisted up in an ecstasy of secretive self-satisfaction. 'The imbeciles – do they think that their anile mewlings and pratings serve any greater purpose? Calling to beings from the stars, indeed – as if such things could exist, when we know the stars are but candles borne by the empyrean. But a wise man can twist them to his own purpose – can give them new hymns to chant, can shape the power they channel – can turn it to his own end, and... but I am boring you,' he hastily adds.
'No, not at all – this is absolutely gripping. I'm so impressed that you've analysed the situation so deeply, John,' says Johnny persuasively. 'But what might Haremakhet's purpose be, then – what can the CPRG do for him?'
'Think on it, Dr Stone, think on it – if shiftings within the pyramid have freed one spirit, might further shiftings, suitably guided by the correct chants, not free another? And might there not be another one there, one that was buried, slain falsely, who has as great reason to hate Khentkaus as does Haremakhet?' He is positively chortling with glee. 'Why, this scheme of mine is a match for my greatest – almost as brilliant as the plan hatched with Sargon of Akkad to bring down Khentkaus in the first place.' He rises and stalks off.
Johnny, watching him go, thinks But that one ended with you and Hetepheres both getting killed...
Isobel is also in the bar, and sees the members of the Circles Phenomenon Research Group gathered round a table talking enthusiastically. After a little while Sherwood and Presley both excuse themselves, leaving Kingston and Pope lingering over a coffee.
Isobel takes the opportunity to join them and introduce herself. 'How do you do? I'm Isobel Blyth.' She offers her hand.
Pope looks her up and down suspiciously. 'Nick Pope.' His hand is cold and dry.
Kingston is much more welcoming. 'Isobel? My name's Isobelle too – Isobelle Kingston. I've seen you around the hotel – you're a friend of that nice Mr Davies, aren't you?'
Her hand is soft and warm, but as Isobel takes it, starting to say 'Yes...', Kingston stiffens, her eyes wide and staring, her hand squeezing Isobel's tightly.
'You poor thing, you poor thing,' she says weakly.
'What?' Isobel retrieves her hand, worried.
'Oh...' Kingston seems to recover, passing a hand across her face and drinking heavily from her wine glass. 'Oh my dear, I am sorry, please don't be worried. It's just...' She looks embarrassed.
'Isobelle is sensitive,' says Pope drily.
'Sometimes I get these... flashes, I suppose you might say... especially when touching someone for the first time. You have a very strong aura, did you know that, my dear?'
'What did you see?' asks Isobel.
'Oh it was... oh, nothing to worry about, my dear, honestly.' She smiles. 'You have a strong man in your life, don't you, dear – a husband? A very masculine man? Very independent?'
'I'm married, yes,' says Isobel cautiously.
'You know, dear, we women know -' Pope snorts to himself '- although men don't always believe us, they may think they're independent, but they rely on us more than we know – sometimes more than they know. Always remember that about your husband. He relies on you for all sorts of things which you may not realize.'
Isobel is rather embarrassed now. 'Anyway, yes, I'm sure you're right, but really I came over to talk about you, your group – I've heard such a lot about you, and I was wondering what you were working on at the moment.'
'I'm afraid we can't discuss that with a stranger,' says Pope stiffly.
'Nonsense, Nick, Isobel's all but one of the family now, isn't she?' says Kingston warmly. 'It's something rather fascinating actually, my dear. We're realigning one of the pyramids – not one of the big ones! That would take more than a handful of us! – but one of the little queens' pyramids. It's all going rather well,'
'How does this realignment work, actually?' asks Isobel curiously.
'We were very lucky this time, because a well-connected Egyptian gentleman was able to give us an obelisk of power. It's a tremendously potent item, my dear, I'm telling you.' Her eyes shine. 'Goodness knows what they had to do to charge it up! Anyway, Jonathan found some old prayers he thought were suitable, and we've been in there chanting, night after night – it's tiring work, my dear. But we've been making real progress – you can feel the channels of power moving and shifting about you as the chant goes on. And just lately we've got some new prayers from another source, which Jonathan's very excited about, which we're going to try for the next few nights – apparently they're going to be even more effective!'
'He's coming now – you'd better shut up, Isobelle,' says Pope.
'Oh! As if it mattered, dear,' says Kingston, but she clasps her hands nervously as Sherwood approaches the table, looking angry.
'I'd better be off,' says Isobel hastily. 'Lovely to meet you both.'
As she disappears from the vicinity she hears Sherwood say with restrained fury 'What were you doing talking to her?'
'That's what I said,' says Pope quietly.
But Kingston replies 'She's incredible! Her aura... I think we...'
The rest of what she says is lost as the three bend together in a conspiratorial huddle.
Celestina spends a large part of the evening on the telephone to Andre Swahn. She outlines clearly everything that has been learnt so far.
'Be very careful of Essawi. We don't think he knows much about SITU – we'd have expected some sort of direct enemy action by now if he did – but he'll almost certainly see through your cover and realize that you're a group with an agenda. Don't appear to be threatening him, that's the safest option. We'll tackle him eventually, but that'll take a higher-powered crew than the people with you at the moment.'
'What should we be doing about Professor Torillo?'
'The question is whether he's endangering the mission or not – or whether you can learn more from him as he is, perhaps. You're the senior operative on the spot, you'll have to make a judgement. Basically, work out what he's up to, and if it's a threat to the mission, deal with him. If it's tangential, or if we can use it, leave him to it and we'll try and pick him up later. But err on the side of caution.'
Mickey makes a brief trip back into the darkened city, confident that he at least need not worry too much about travelling alone. This time he buys an ornately-inlaid silver-backed mirror, and heads for the magician Wafic Said.
This time the room is full of a smell of burning hair, extremely unpleasant. 'A troublesome client,' apologises Said, who is wearing pure black silk robes. He is delighted with the present Mickey has brought.
'This might sound like a funny question, but – what I was talking to you about earlier – if I was able to persuade another to meet the price of the soul,' says Mickey, 'maybe a street kid or a homeless person, would that be sufficient to meet your price?'
The magician nods agreeably. 'That would serve admirably. What is one more or less dirty sparrow on the streets of the city? I am sure a man of your resource could come by such a one easily. If you were to bring him or her here, you and I together could do what would be needed to deal with these spirits that trouble you.'
'And my soul wouldn't get eaten, that way?' asks Mickey.
Said smiles widely. 'Far from being lessened, your spiritual power would be increased.'
Andrew calls Celestina at the hotel. 'Is there any fact in the stories that say silver can hurt spirits?'
'It depends,' says Celestina cautiously. 'I would expect that silver would have an effect on them, but I would be wary of trusting my life to it.'
'I feel a need to know what can and will aid us should we have an confrontation with these "occult" beings,' says Andrew. 'I have a gun – I bought it here in Cairo – and Essawi seems to know and permit that I am armed. Maybe because this can be used against me later,' he adds.
'The most beneficial protection against evil spirits is the power of prayer,' says Celestina. 'If you have genuine faith in forces that will protect you, you will be safe – especially if it is backed up with suitable items.'
'I have faith in my gun,' says Andrew, 'but I don't think it can help me much against the powers of the occult.'
It is quite late by the time that Isobel corners John Torillo in the lobby. He is ready to go out, but deigns to give her a few minutes.
'John, Johnny was telling me about Khentkaus, and how dreadful she was. If her spirit had survived, what sort of danger do you think she might pose now? What might she be capable of?'
John's face darkens. 'That evil witch – almost anything. We do not even know if she ever died – certainly she evaded the righteous death that was marked out for her in the time of the great Khufu.'
'But that was more than four thousand years ago – she must be dead by now, surely?'
He laughs briefly and humourlessly. 'These witches, their evil tribe, they may well not die as we humans do. It may well be that she has been working her mischief throughout history, and is still doing so in the present day. Perhaps all we can do is protect against her malign influence.'
'Would she be living as a sorceress now, then, or as a queen or something?' asks Isobel, mentally running through the female crowned heads of Europe.
'Perhaps. But if I know her – and what man better? – she will be behind the scenes, using foolish lustful men as her tools, guarding the power jealously to herself.'
Mickey enters the lobby, admitting a draught of cool air and a smell of burning – there seem to be fires in the town. He draws Eddie aside. 'Listen mate, do you know where the CPRG guys' rooms are?'
'They're on the sixth floor, two down from me,' says Eddie agreeably. 'I was riding up in the lift with 'em the other day. 614 and round there, I think.'
Just then the CPRG themselves appear from the interior of the hotel, Sherwood and Pope carrying a long sports bag between them, which presumably contains the obelisk. Presley carries several flasks of water.
'Ah! At last,' says John impatiently, and he hastens to join them, abandoning his conversation with Isobel. He enthusiastically pulls several sheaves of paper out of his document case. His attitude is redolent with barely-controlled tension.
All five – Sherwood, Kingston, Pope, Presley and John Torillo – go outside, climb into a four-wheel, and head off in the direction of Giza.
11.40 pm, Saturday 14th March 1998
Andrew: at the dig site
Everyone else: in the lobby of the Hilton
Isobel: you ring home with an update. 'I'm glad you're having a good time,' says Henry. 'I hope you've been able to avoid the trouble there's been there.' 'Trouble?' 'It's been on the news here – riots in the streets of Cairo. Just in the poor parts so far, I think. If it starts to spread, come straight back here, do you hear?'
While talking to Pope and Kingston you got a succession of odd feelings. Pope seems very strange – barely human, more like a sort of dry reptile thing. Kingston on the other hand seems very warm and enveloping. She definitely has genuine powers, you are certain of that.
Johnny: you will have picked up on Isobel's disquiet after her conversation with Pope and Kingston. She seems rather low and thoughtful.