The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness

Mission Briefing

Date: August 5th 1999

From: Geoff Blaize, Chief of Operations, SITU

To: ‘John Hamilton’, George Hardy, Philip Harlow, Samantha Michaelson, Rupert de Montfort, Arabella Robyns, Donald Swathe, Joanna Wilton

Subject: Tackling Nefertiti

Code: Q/21A/5

1. Background Information

You are all experienced Operatives, and have proved yourselves capable at achieving mission goals if a trifle unorthodox in your methodologies at times. This mission is a very delicate, dangerous and difficult one, but I have full confidence in your abilities and feel that you are the best team for the job.

Some of what will be discussed in this briefing will be unfamiliar to some of you, thanks to the old system of limited debriefing by ‘Illumination level’ – we have moved on from that now, and I would appreciate it if those of you who are more conversant with SITU’s operations, purposes and targets could fill the others in. The time is past when internal secrecy about such matters helped to protect us from our enemies. The gloves are off now, and the fight is out in the open.

2. Nefertiti

The Ylid known as Nefertiti is one of the more prominent and active of her kind. It is not at all clear whether she is a member of the group of ‘organized Ylids’ or whether she is a loner. Certainly those of her activities of which SITU is aware seem to have been primarily aimed at gaining power for herself. However it would be rash to assume that other Ylids will not help her if she appears under threat.

Nefertiti, the queen of the 18th Dynasty pharaoh Akhenaten / Amenophis IV, stepmother of Tutankhamen and thought to have ruled in her own right under the name of Smenkhare, was a tremendously influential figure who was able to channel Egypt’s ancient polytheistic religion into mass worship of a single god as personified in herself and the pharaoh – classic Ylid behaviour. However, this briefing is not intended to be an Egyptological treatise: I am sure Professor Robyns can fill you in on the history. The point is that this Ylid seems to have settled in Egypt around 2550 BC under the name of Khentkaus, as queen to the pharaoh Khufu (Cheops), builder of the Great Pyramid. She may also have been the much later queen Cleopatra VII, although we have no real evidence to support this. The point is that she seems to have made it her mission to shepherd and influence Egyptian civilization during its periods of greatest strength, and it is probably thanks to her that (a) the Egyptians achieved anything at all, and (b) that so much of their work is still with us today. The strong interest Westerners have had in Egyptology, pyramidology, aliens building the Sphinx, and other such beliefs have almost certainly also been managed by this Ylid. She has built herself a very strong power base in Egypt. We do not know what her current guise is called, and you will have to decide how much effort you want to put into discovering that, or whether you just want to draw her out into the open.

3. Abdel Essawi

This man seems to be Nefertiti’s chief agent, possibly her only trusted agent. He is an official in the Egyptian government, and he also seems to lead a sun cult. Nefertiti is capable of gifting him some of her magical powers, communicating with him at distance, and so on.

4. Your mission

We are not setting you specific objectives, but rather a general goal: to cause Nefertiti as much harm as possible. It is unlikely that you will be able to do her personally any real damage (but see below), but it is quite conceivable that you could dispose of Essawi, destroy her cult and drive her into retreat. This will of course be very dangerous and you should be wary of making yourselves obvious before the ‘killing strike’ is delivered. You should also take whatever precautions you can to your own defence, and in this I will ask you all to defer to Iain Blayne, who has extensive experience of combating Ylid agents and other supernaturally-powered beings.

5. Resources available to you

* The Grail – SITU has been unable to reproduce this artefact’s reported healing abilities, but it may be that proximity to the Egyptian ‘places of power’ will allow you to achieve more with it.

* Dubhium serum – this substance, isolated from the body of Cleitus the Black, allows Ylids to approach each other in safety without the usual difficulties this produces. Not sure if it will be much use to you in the current case, but you are being issued with some anyway.

* Contacts and allies – there are five locals in Cairo who might be potentially useful: the street urchin Mahmoud, the black magician Wafic Said, the imam Mustafa Hosseini, the shady waiter Wasim and the digger Sarfraz. Files on each are available. There are also the two vengeful spirits, Hetepheres and Haremakhet, who are inimically opposed to Nefertiti, although how they might be contacted we do not know: even on the hopeful assumption that they are still extant.

* Other operatives – Operatives Stone, Thomas, Weiser and Williamson are still with SITU, and you should not hesitate to contact them for more information about their experiences. Operative Blyth is also still with SITU, but we have reason to believe that her security has been compromised.

* The Trismegistus Club – our allies in the struggle against the Ylid menace, they know a great deal about occult lore and such like, so if you need any help along these lines we can put you in touch. Remember, though, that their aims are not our aims.

6. Attachments

Debriefing packages for the investigations at Branston Hall and at the Pyramid of Khentkaus are attached. Fuller accounts of the events involved are available electronically [on the Web site – Mo].

7. Other notes.

I’m skipping all the nonsense about extra-legal activities and such like, because frankly we want results here. You should avoid rousing police interest that will make your task more difficult than it already is, of course, and bear in mind that you are fully deniable to SITU, but beyond that you must do as you think necessary. In particular, don’t feel the need to be too scrupulous about the antiquities. Wonderful things they may be, but so far their presence and preservation has served mainly to strengthen our enemy.

Good luck.


From: Andre Swahn, Briefing/99

To Operatives: Jack Callaghan, Tanya Hyde, Celestina Mirande, Tanzan Nangi, Russell Osbourne, Michael Williamson

Subject: New cult in Buckinghamshire

Code: B/99/87/6A

Rendezvous: High Wycombe Bus Station, 1000 hrs GMT, Thursday 21 August 1997 for the British operatives. Operatives Callaghan and Nangi should make their own ways to the UK, to be met at Heathrow Airport at 0900 hours GMT Thursday 21 August 1997: reasonable expenses will be paid.

Destination: Branston Parva, Buckinghamshire. Branston Parva is a small village about 10 miles north of High Wycombe, high in the Chiltern Hills. It has no notable industry apart from farming: most of the residents commute to work, to Wycombe or to the M25.

Travel Arrangements: All travel during the investigation's progress to be by taxi when possible: please keep receipts.

Accommodation has been arranged at the Black Prince public house in Branston Parva from the night of 21 August.

Background information: The Keepers of the Hidden Circles is an Egyptian-tinged sun-worship cult, established by Frank Gupper in 1993. Originally based in London, since August 1995 it has been located at Branston Hall, Branston Parva. The cult's publicized precepts are innocent: devotion to the Sun and to nature, peace, brotherly love between all humans, search for enlightenment. Members progress through stages of enlightenment, known as Hidden Circles. Gupper himself is an enigmatic figure who has received little publicity.

Your mission:

Priority A: to establish whether Gupper is the true leader of the cult (if not, who?), and as much as you can about his nature.

Priority B: to evaluate the cult's innocence or otherwise.

Priority C: to investigate and report on any items or artifacts associated with the cult.

Priority D: to ascertain, as far as possible, what hidden knowledges are associated with the higher levels of initiation.

Cover: On this investigation you will be posing as would-be members of the cult. You should say if asked that you saw the cult's advertisements (copy attached) and were attracted. These advertisements are aimed at 'weekend mystics' rather than true cult members, but they are the only form of publicity the group has. You can pretend acquaintance with or ignorance of each other as you see fit.

Note: this cover is rated Code 6: it should be unshakeable. If you need to contact SITU's offices you can do so on tel / fax 0171 865 0088. This number is on no account to be given to any members of the cult, or to anybody else for that matter. After using it on modern telephone systems you should enter another number to prevent use of any last number redial facility.

Expenses: SITU will reimburse Operatives for all reasonable expenses incurred during the investigation. Receipts will be required.

Extra-legal activity: All Operatives should be aware that, while they may choose to operate outside the Law, they are not above it. SITU does not condone or sanction unlawful activity of any nature. Note that SITU will not act on the behalf of an Operative who is cautioned, arrested, charged, etc, in the course of an investigation. Indeed, if an Operative were to attempt to contact SITU in such a situation, s/he would find all telephone numbers unobtainable and all addresses unoccupied.

From: Andre Swahn, Briefing/99

To Operatives: Ross Myers, Russell Osbourne, Sam Trend, Michael Williamson

Subject: New cult in Buckinghamshire

Code: B/99/87/6A

Achievement of aims: all surviving Operatives are to be commended on the thorough investigation of the Keepers of the Hidden Circles cult and its key personalities. Operatives' persistence and dedication in the face of considerable unexpected physical threat is particularly worthy of note.

Frank Gupper: the exposure of this 'guru' as a former double-glazing salesman with little occult knowledge raises the question of how he came by the instructions to make the obelisk, a genuine magical artifact. We can only assume that while in Egypt he encountered a force which went on to use him and his cult as a tool. Gupper was not charged with any offences after the blaze and is currently working as a caravan park supervisor in Frinton-on-Sea.

Abdel Essawi: this man appears to be a particularly dangerous servant of the conspiracy we all oppose (see below). The magical powers he evinced to operatives are beyond what has previously been observed from such servants. We may assume that he was sent solely to recover the obelisk once it had become 'fully charged', if this is the explanation for his insistence on one last ritual and its changed behaviour during and after that ritual. We must hope that he and it perished at the hands of the ghost of Roger Branston.

Nina King: has been sectioned under the Mental Health act, suffering from schizophrenia with paranoid delusions. Doctors are hopeful of an eventual recovery.

Joey Candless and his gang: all are thought to have perished in the fire, although some of the identifications of corpses were tentative. Police have declared that the sum of money in connection with which Candless was being sought is also thought to have been destroyed in the blaze. On which subject, commendations to Operatives for obtaining this money: extra funds for SITU's war-chest are always welcome, and we have no objection to each of you keeping a sum of £7500 as a reward for your endeavours.

Tony Morris: is recovering well in hospital from his ordeal. It is believed that he has been reconciled with his wife Sheila, and partially with Gupper. He has explained that he went to see Gupper, a former colleague, in the hope of gaining admission to senior level in the cult and the delights which he supposed that brought. When Gupper refused, Morris threatened to expose his true antecedents, and Gupper panicked, hit him over the head and threw him down through the trapdoor into the very same tunnels where Miles Branston had thrown his brother Roger centuries earlier. SITU assumes that Morris's howlings and demented state were the result of eating too many unsafe cave fungi.

Kate Carpenter: was reunited with her grateful parents, and this term has been admitted to the local comprehensive rather than being sent for further boarding school education.

Melissa Bugbee: has also been reunited with her parents. Her explanation that she had merely become lost in the tunnels, and her praise of Operatives Trend and Osbourne, were major factors in the dropping of charges in the case. Since her experience in the tunnels she has shown considerable interest in the world of spirits, and SITU speculates that she may become a useful medium.

Superintendent Smilie: has been censured for his heavy-handed management of the siege. New guidelines for the use of firearms have been issued to all Thames Valley officers.

Warren Martin: is known to SITU as a private investigator in the Milton Keynes region. Posing as a Daily Mail journalist is one of his favoured covers. The Carpenters discharged him unpaid after the recovery of their daughter by other means.

Splendor Solis and other books: Operatives are again to be commended on obtaining this valuable occult library. SITU will find many uses for its contents.

Operative Jack Callaghan: the loss of this Operative in service is to be deeply regretted, although as he appears from reports to have become effectively a zombie servant of Essawi it is unlikely that he could have been of any further use to SITU.

Operative Tanya Hyde: this Operative's integrity has been compromised by her closeness to Essawi: it seems likely that she may still be under his influence. She has been discharged from SITU.

The Beast of Branston Hall: no more wailings have been heard in the village since the destruction of the Hall. SITU assumes that the ghost of Roger Branston was destroyed in the explosion when it encountered Essawi and the obelisk: this theory is borne out by the growth, on the precise site of this explosion, of a single arum lily, in the midst of the blackened remnants of the Hall.


From: K S Pyke

To: Operatives: Isobel Blyth, Edmund Davies, Celestina Mirande, John Stone, Michael Thomas, John Torillo, Wotan Andrew Weiser

Subject: Pyramid of Khentkaus

Code: P/21/193/91B

Rendezvous: Heathrow airport, 0730 hours, 8 March 1998

Destination: Giza, Egypt. Giza is a suburb of Cairo best known for the Old Kingdom funerary complex centring about the pyramids of Khufu, Khephren and Menkaure, and the Great Sphinx. You will be staying in the Cairo Hilton, two miles from the site.

Travel arrangements: you have been booked on British Airways flight BA715 to Cairo. The return leg has been left open as to date. You will be met at Cairo airport by the hotel's courtesy bus.

Cover: you are posing as agents of an academic charity, the Davina Millhouse Trust. The Trust (a fictitious body) is considering funding the archaeological research work of Professor Sonia Bird's group, currently studying the pyramid of Khentkaus. Our assessment is that Professor Bird's straitened grant circumstances will lead to her welcoming representatives of such a funding body. This story will be confirmed on contacting the 'Trust' at 16-18 Boundary Row, London SE1 8HN, tel / fax 0171 865 0088, SITU's cover address for this investigation.

Background information:

Historical: Khufu (reigned approx 2551-2528 BCE), also known as Cheops, was the most important pharaoh of the 4th Dynasty: believed to be the son of Snofru, the dynasty's founder, he campaigned successfully in Nubia and in modern-day Syria and left behind the monument known as the Great Pyramid, to which his descendants added lesser structures. Khentkaus was one of his senior queens, who died in approx 2535 BC: hers is the smallest of the three queens' pyramids that stand beside the causeway leading to the presumed site of his valley temple.

Giza map

Archaeological: the pyramid of Khentkaus has stood empty of goods since the First Intermediate Period, thanks to the depredations of tomb-robbers. Archaeological work has centred on the translation of the inscriptions within its chambers. Professor Bird's group are currently engaged in exploring the air-shafts of the pyramid using a robot video camera: there is a possibility that this work will also reveal further chambers.

The robot was first introduced into the complex of air-shafts on 2 March 1998. On 8 March a fault was experienced which led to its failure, and the Bird group have since been concentrating their efforts on attempting to recover it. One possible method would involve sending in another robot with a magnetic or other grapple attached, for which the group would require additional funding: this might prove a suitable angle of pressure for the SITU team.

Professor Bird is attached to the University of Oxford Archaeological Unit, and currently has a team of six: herself, Drs M Matthews, W van Heuvelen and M Chenevix, and graduate students H Challis and J Tate. There are also no doubt various local assistants.

Other: in March 1997 Yorkshire-based science fiction author Ben Foster experienced what was interpreted by witnesses as an abduction episode while camping in the Giza complex (reported by SITU operative Russell Osbourne). Foster's disappearance was accompanied by a bright light, as was his reappearance 28 hours later - a circle of sand around him was also melted to black glass. Operative Osbourne reports that Foster had no memory of the episode. We have reason to believe that Foster has recently been back in Cairo purportedly researching for a new novel.

Your mission:

a) to establish the reason for the Bird group's robot's failure

b) to inspect any video footage available after its recovery

c) to assess and evaluate any 'occult' influences present at the site

d) to gather and assess further information regarding Ben Foster's 'abduction' and his subsequent activities in Cairo

Political climate: Operatives should be aware that the terrorist menace in Egypt is growing, and that tourist sites such as the Giza complex are being targeted. Operatives should conduct themselves with care, and in particular avoid giving offence, by word, action or dress, to the devout Muslims who form the backbone of support for the Islamic Brotherhood terror organization.

Expenses: SITU will reimburse Operatives for all reasonable expenses incurred during the investigation. Receipts will be required.

General advice: All operatives should be aware that, while they may choose to operate outside the law, they are not above it. SITU does not condone unlawful activity of any nature. Note that SITU will not act on the behalf of an Operative who is cautioned, arrested, charged, etc in the course of an investigation. Indeed, if an Operative were to attempt to contact SITU in such a situation, he/she would find all telephone numbers unobtainable and all addresses unoccupied.

From : K S Pyke, Debrief / 295

To: Operatives: Isobel Blyth, Edmund Davies, Celestina Mirande, John Stone, Michael Thomas, Wotan Andrew Weiser

Subject: Pyramid of Khentkaus

Code: P/21/193/91D

Congratulations to all operatives on their stern resistance to an extremely serious threat. The information your investigation has provided demonstrates clearly that Egypt is one of the most important nexuses of enemy activity.

You succeeded in the terms of your initial briefing, establishing the problem with the Bird robot and inspecting its video, and gained us a good deal of interesting information on the history of Egypt as it relates to our concerns - not all of our interpretation is available to all of you at your current security clearance, although it may be later. Your report on Ben Foster was also of great interest and fits well into a picture of alien activity which we are gradually building up.

By far the most significant point, though, is your report on Abdel Essawi - a man who has given us much trouble in the past - and the occult / magical powers set around Giza. It is clear that future SITU activity in Egypt will demand considerably greater security and precautions against a well-entrenched foe.

Aftermath: the Egyptian government has ascribed the destruction of the pyramid of Khentkaus to terrorist activity. Political instability in Cairo seems likely to continue or worsen.

Willem van Heuvelen: thank you for bringing this man back to us, Operative Stone. Use of hypnotic techniques have proved very fruitful, and we are sure that he has more information that will be of use to us. He is currently residing in a secure establishment, receiving treatment for his paranoid schizophrenia.

Abdel Essawi: the information you have brought back about this individual allows us more fully to map out his powers. He is clearly influential in government and rebel circles, as well as evidencing magical powers. The details of the sign on his forehead are highly revealing. We must regard him as a highly placed and extremely dangerous enemy agent, but you may have given us some ammunition to use against him. We believe that the powers he displays are largely not his, but his mistress's - Khentkaus and Nefertiti are just two of the names she has used.

Haremakhet and Hetepheres: your report suggests that these two discorporate spirits were blasted out of existence with the destruction of the obelisk. This is unfortunate, a they may have represented a potent counter to the enemy holding in Egypt, but it is unlikely that SITU could have worked with them: from your description of Haremakhet, he sounds highly unstable and motivated largely by vengeance and megalomania.

Professor John Torillo: this operative seems to bear no ill-effects from his ordeal of possession, but SITU regard him as compromised and have suspended him from active duty.

Professor Bird's group: their licence to excavate at Giza has been withdrawn by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture and they have returned to Oxford. The early results which they have so far been able to publish have caused something of a stir in the Egyptological world.

The Circles Phenomenon Research Group: we have looked into this group's background, and assess them as essentially innocent and unthreatening. It seems likely that they were initially simply trying to realign the pyramid as claimed - as to the merits or practicality of this exercise, SITU currently has no opinion. It was their misfortune to first fall under the influence of Essawi, who offered them the powered obelisk from Branston Hall to aid their rituals - we imagine that the prayers he also supplied were to serve some secret purpose of his mistress - and then under the influence of Haremakhet, who supplied further prayers designed to free Hetepheres. (It is extremely fortunate that the team were alert to the dangers of Operative Blyth being used as a vessel for this spirit. To have one operative possessed by a Fourth Dynasty ghost might be put down to misfortune: to have two so possessed would look very much like carelessness.)

The Group has now broken up. Sherwood, shaken by his ordeal and greatly weakened - we surmise that Haremakhet drew off a good deal of his life-force to help embody Hetepheres - has retired from activity to write books on his obsession. Pope has returned to his duties at the UK Ministry of Defence. Presley is still sponsoring a range of crop circle groups. Kingston is working as a medium: she may prove a useful contact for SITU in the future, thanks to the bond Operative Blyth has formed with her.

Ben Foster: we are monitoring this individual closely. We are still unsure as to which faction he serves, if any. He is clearly an important figure, but it is not clear exactly why.

Wasim, Sarfraz and Mahmoud: these lowly locals may prove useful contacts for future operatives travelling to Cairo. We retain their details on file.

Wafic Said: a more powerful potential ally, SITU is contacting him with the aid to purchasing his services.


Settling into the small community has not been a problem for ‘John Hamilton’. The people of British Columbia are not prone to asking intrusive questions of their new neighbours, and there are plenty of Scots, and people of Scots descent, in these parts. ‘John’ has had to do some reading up on chemistry, to fit into his role, but apart from that he has been spending a good deal of time out of doors, walking the ancient hills – how different from the sharp, new peaks of the high Himalaya.

His nights, though, have been spent on the Internet, researching in directions suggested to him by what he saw in Firis – that, and the memory, never far from the surface, of that night in the desert. Did the Firis legend imply that the Ylids were alien in origin? And what about the curious metal skeleton, up in the cave of the ancestors? There was plenty of material on alien contact with ancient civilizations – so much that screening it was a larger task then finding it. From Erich von Däniken to Graham Hancock, the notion that aliens had contributed to the societal development of the Egyptians, the Maya and the Khmer was an old and well-trodden one. However, looked at with an objective eye, there was little that could really be called evidence – that was not circumstantial, at least. Iain needs no convincing that alien life exists and has visited Earth: the event which changed his life for ever, out in the Gulf, settled that question for him. But it seems to him, on reading the various ill-thought-out farragos of half-baked speculation that passed for discussion of the subject, that the theories of aliens’ intervention in human development are more like wishful thinking than anything very real. What lies behind the human desire to abdicate responsibility to powerful outsiders?

‘So… this is a nice place you’ve got here,’ says Arabella Robyns, glancing around Jo Wilton’s spartan dwelling. She has been a little nervous of calling on her friend. Closeness out in the unreal world of a SITU mission is one thing: back in England, it might be more difficult to call up that atmosphere of intimacy. ‘How’ve you been keeping, since… we got back?’

‘Not bad,’ says Jo, swinging the professor’s bag up onto the bed. She smiles, warmly but a little awkwardly: her face does not naturally fall into the expression. ‘I was glad you wanted to visit.’ She has noticed the dark rings around Arabella’s eyes and the paleness of her face.

Arabella smiles too, in relief. ‘Oh, I… Jo, you can’t imagine, it’s been… since we got back, I’ve really wanted to talk to you. About… all sorts of things. Me, and…’ she gestures helplessly.

Jo nods slowly, her eyes thoughtful. ‘I went down to the warehouse in London, after we were debriefed. Thought I could use some training. It was shut, though: deserted. It looked like the police had been.’

Arabella nods encouragingly, not sure what Jo means but anxious to preserve the mood.

‘I was going to hand my gun in, as well. Like Blaize suggested.’ Jo grimaces. ‘It’s a useful thing to have, but… you don’t want to get to rely on it too much. I’m not in the Army now, and I have to keep remembering that. I should have coped better, at Glastonbury.’ She pauses, then claps her hands together lightly. ‘Come on, let’s have a drink. You look like you could use one, and I know I could.’

Rupert de Montfort, hunched on his bed in the filthy squat, turns the brightly-coloured card over and over in his hands. ‘Hope You’re Feeling Better’. Dear old George, a fine fellow, but he really had not the foggiest notion about life. The card has been forwarded from the estate, in a plain brown envelope with no note enclosed. A stab of bitterness, resentment and misery wracks Rupert, and he rocks back and forth. What right has his father to shun him in this way? Not one attempt to make contact has been acknowledged: there has been nothing since the letter cutting off his allowance.

He scrabbles under the grimy pillow, feeling for his kit. Not much left, my God, not much left at all. The money from selling his watch hadn’t lasted long. What next? He needs more money, somehow, anyhow. His shaking hands still as he takes the last fix that is left, then, breathing deeply, he rises. Time to go out and look for some more.

‘So tell me a little about Rose, dear,’ says Isobel Blyth, the medium SITU had recommended. ‘How long had you been married? She passed over four years ago, is that right?’

‘Erm, yes, that’s correct,’ says George Wellington Hardy a little stiffly. ‘We’d been married for forty-one years.’

‘A good long time,’ nods the medium sympathetically. She certainly looks the part, muses George. Print dress, grey-blonde hair, string of pearls: like your favourite auntie when you were a boy. And the crystal ball was a nicely theatrical touch.

‘You’ll have to forgive the darkness, dear, it helps my concentration,’ says Isobel, as she pulls the heavy velvet curtains across the window. They are in her Egham house, a rather nice semi-detached affair. ‘You’re my only client today, so no need to rush. We can just clear our minds of other thoughts.’

She sits down opposite George once more, facing him across the crystal, and closes her eyes, placing her hands on the table so as to touch his fingertips with her own. ‘Now you look into the crystal, dear,’ she says almost absently, ‘and you concentrate on Rose, on how she was when you were happiest together – not as she was at the end.’

George stares into the murky depths of the crystal. Does he see a faint flicker there? His eyesight is good for his age, he reminds himself. And not just his eyesight. The doctor had been delighted with his form at the recent checkup. Blood pressure of a man half his age, she had said. If he ate sensibly and kept on getting reasonable but not excessive exercise, he could avoid another attack: there seemed to have been no permanent damage to the heart muscle.

‘George? Is that you, dear?’ The voice is not Isobel’s, but another woman’s, lighter, sweeter, distant. He tears his gaze from the crystal to see that Isobel’s mouth is open, but not moving. The sounds is issuing from it.

‘Rose? Rosie? Can that be you?’

‘Of course it is, Georgie. Who did you think?’

George cannot speak, for the tears pouring down his cheeks.

Samantha Michaelson looks at the bracelet one last time before handing it over to Karen Pyke, the SITU staffer. It is almost identical to her own one: same metal, same pattern of lines, same Hebrew characters. So what was the connection between the house in Gibraltar, where she had fond this one, and the robed man who had killed her boyfriend Stephen McEwan? The Gibraltar house had not been on the list of ‘Clients’ – did that mean that the organization was still going, had taken on new faces since last summer?

‘You know what these characters mean? “Life”,’ says Pyke, grinning. She tosses the bracelet up and catches it. ‘No wonder you’re in such good health, eh?’

‘Careful with that,’ says Sam controlledly. ‘Someone died to make that, you know?’

Pyke nods seriously and slips the bracelet into her briefcase. ‘Don’t worry, we’ll take good care of it. I’ve got a little theory as to who’s behind these –’ she holds up a hand to still Sam’s question ‘– not now, not here. I’ll be in touch when we’ve checked it out.’ She puts the briefcase beside her chair. ‘Nice work in Glastonbury, by the way. The follow-up work you did, I mean.’

Sam raises an eyebrow, running her hand through her short, blue hair. She had not thought SITU would be aware of the burglaries she had framed the thugs John and Dave for.

‘Petty, maybe, vicious, definitely, but that’s why we want you on the team, Sam. You never let go of a grudge, do you?’ says Pyke cheerily. ‘You’re after the same bastards we are, and you know we can help you find them. Well, here’s a new case for you.’ She tosses a briefing pack down. ‘Thought you might like to get out of the country for a while – get whoever it is off your tail. Some nice weather, too. Enjoy!’

Donald Swathe is sitting alone in his flat, reading by the light of the desk lamp, and making notes as he does so. The stack of books to his right is a tall one, and the notes are getting pretty sizeable too. He has found no traces of the woman Tanith, but Mr Chow is marginally less elusive. Apart from Rosa Mundi itself, he is mentioned in association with a variety of other groups: all, it seems to Donald, circling around the French occult group known as the Prieuré de Sion. Not a great deal is known about this group – what there is, is well summarized in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail – but it seems clear that they have been on top of matters occult in France for a good many centuries. What was the connection with Glastonbury, then? Presumably the Grail itself – although Baigent and Leigh speak of the Grail as being a metaphor for the blood of Christ and of the Merovingian kings, they had not seen the terrible hunger on Tanith’s face as she took the cup. How aware are SITU of all this? he wonders. They have access to the same resources he does, presumably better, but are they chasing up the same trails?

He grimaces, and reaches down reflexively to the secret gun compartment under his desk. He will respect SITU’s wishes, and not take firearms on the next mission if they say so – but he is not disposing of them. Oh, no. They are staying safely here at home.

Still not punchy enough, thinks Phil Harlow to himself, his eye falling on the title page as he puts away the manuscript for the day. ‘Monsters under the Bed,’ he says aloud, rolling it round his tongue. No, definitely not punchy enough. Well, there is still plenty of work to do before it was finished: hopefully a better title will come. And in the meantime he is busy enough with freelance commissions. Call it millennial fever, or whatever you like, the fact is that since resigning his job at the Standard and going freelance, he’s been having to beat commissions away with a stick, there have been so many of them. The Glastonbury article in the Observer had started it off. It had even won a prize, not that he is too bothered about that sort of thing at this stage in his career – nice though it is. Prizes are for newcomers trying to make a name for themselves: they looked good on the CV. He doesn’t have to send out CVs any more: he is Phil Harlow. The one they ask for by name!

He picks up the SITU briefing and re-reads it, shaking his head slightly. More ghosts, magic, the same old stuff. It would be laughable if it weren’t so disturbing. Here is the big story – somewhere at the heart of SITU. He can smell it. And maybe this trip to Egypt will provide him with the opportunity he needs, to sink his teeth into it.

Arabella hastily tucks the novel away as she hears the knock at the front door, and pets the cats absently as she goes to open it. Although she has now taken the rent on this cottage a few minutes’ walk from Jo’s house, so as not to outstay her welcome, she still sees her friend every day, to talk about her childhood, her dreams, her hopes and fears, her research – anything and everything seems to come so easily spilling out of her with Jo.

For her part Jo has kept Arabella up to date on her trawl through her Army past. She has allowed the professor to introduce her to the world of the Internet, and has found a number of ex-Service personnel with similarly odd stories to tell. Whatever was really going on in the Gulf, it was more than any of them knew at the time, or have found out since. But the cover-up surely goes up to the highest level. And, chillingly, it looks very much as though witnesses are disappearing from the ranks. There was one TA unit which had been involved in night-time manoeuvres near to where strange marks had been seen in the desert, including a fused black circle of sand: one by one all its members had died or disappeared. Most recently one, Iain Blayne, who had she was sure been on the list of SITU operatives she had seen last year, had died in an airliner crash.

This morning, she is looking serious, and Arabella raises her eyebrows inquiringly. Jo waves the SITU briefing pack at her. ‘There’s probably one of these with your name on it waiting in Cambridge.’ She comes in and starts to pace around the small living-room. ‘I’ll have to make sure I do better this time,’ she says suddenly, turning to Arabella.

‘You shouldn’t blame yourself! We all made some bloody stupid mistakes.’ Arabella flushes. ‘We got the Grail, by pure luck, and that counts for something. We screwed up on other areas… but we can do better. We all can. We have to.’

At the departure lounge, Jo and Arabella have already met up with George and Phil. They are conferring quietly over the details of the briefing, when George starts up, shocked, and says ‘Good God, Rupert, what on Earth has happened to you?’

Rupert is pale, sallow, sunken-cheeked and very thin. He is dirty and unshaven, his clothes looking as though they have been on him all week. The only luggage he has is a filthy bum-bag. His face is covered with a sheen of sweat. ‘Can’t you find anything more important to talk about than me?’ he says irritably to the four concerned faces. He flings himself down in a seat.

Arabella turns to him with concern. ‘Are you all right?’

Rupert glares at her. ‘Why don’t you mind your own damn business?’

Arabella fall silent, visibly upset, and Phil chips in ‘Is there anything we can…’

‘That’s it!’ exclaims Rupert, slamming his fist down and making the coffee-cups rattle. ‘Just keep your bloody noses out! I’m fed up with this boring adventure already!’

And with that he storms off to the departure gate, leaving his shocked and confused colleagues in his wake.

Just at that point Donald appears, looking flustered. ‘I’m sorry, I had a nasty run-in with an old colleague on the way here – I must just wash my hands quickly.’ He rushes off to the cloakroom and returns, glancing from face to face. ‘Is something wrong? I may be a little wiser than last time, but unfortunately some things in my life never change.’ He attempts to inconspicuously tuck away a blood-stained handkerchief. ‘Still, despite my problems, I hope you’re all keeping well?’

It is not until they reach the Giza Hilton that the seventh member joins the group. ‘John Hamilton’ is a smallish man in his early thirties, sturdy and solid, with close-cropped hair, a tan and an air of calmness about him. He scans his new colleagues as they are directed to him by the bellboy. Small, nervous young woman, looks like an intellectual. Very nondescript average-build man with short brown hair, carrying a holdall. A bit too nondescript. Hmm. Bluff old Army type, cheerful face. Tall, skinny, sulky-looking junky. SITU must really be scraping the barrel these days! A small, thin, tousled-looking man with a scruffy but capable air. And a woman of about his own age – everything about her said ‘services’. Limp, facial scarring – looked like burns maybe. Something about her manner reminds him of Ella, although she looked completely different. But no – that memory is still too fresh, too painful. He stands up, offering his hand.

Cairo, 7pm August 6th 1999

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