The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
SERVANTS IN THE PLACE OF TRUTH
Cairo, 7pm August 6th 1999
‘Hi guys, John Hamilton,’ says the newcomer. ‘Pleased to meet you.’
Jo shakes his hand firmly. ‘Jo Wilton.’
‘Nice to meet you,’ replies John cheerily. ‘Ex-services, right? You do any time in the Gulf?’ Jo nods, uninformatively. This is not a subject she cares to discuss in public.
Sam, who has been admiring a rack of postcards in the hotel shop, walks over to John – who is rather surprised to see her blue hair – and introduces herself, whispering in his ear, ‘If you want to know what I do, I’m a thief, but don’t worry, I’m on holiday.’ She smiles and steps back.
Arabella has been watching John as everyone introduces themselves, a little wary of this new addition to their group. ‘Arabella Robyns, Professor Robyns.’ Her voice is calm and businesslike, yet part of her is very aware of her failure to spot Tanith in Glastonbury and that makes her wonder about this new member of their group. She trusts the others, to a degree, and trusts Jo totally, but this man is totally unknown to her. He’s going to have to prove himself to her before she opens up to him.
Phil too has been holding back slightly, weighing up the newcomer. Judging from the briefing he has been with SITU for some time – perhaps he could be an angle on the story. Could be an illuminating fellow. And worth being particularly careful what he says around him. He smiles warmly and offers his hand. ‘Hi. I’m Phil. I write,’ he says, as means of greeting.
‘Shall we get the bags sorted and then meet back down here for dinner?’ suggests John.
Donald meanwhile, who has been eyeing John with suspicion, finally says ‘My name is Donald Swathe, I guess I am the loose cannon in the group. I’m not an army type like Jo but I have seen more than my fair share of dead bodies in my time, mostly from my own doing. I think that’s about all I can really tell you.’ He will look at George and say ‘Was that introduction a bit better than the one I did in Glastonbury?’
George, his mind elsewhere, looking at Rupert who is sitting hunched in a corner, impervious to all this bonhomie, starts and nods.
Donald follows his gaze. ‘Jesus, Rupert you’re a mess. I hope you’re going to clean yourself up before going outside.’
Rupert glares up resentfully and is about to open his mouth, but Donald coldly stares him down saying ‘I’m sorry Daddy hasn’t given you any drug money while you’re on your latest holiday, but I’m afraid you will have to pull your finger out of your arse and get a grip on yourself. We can’t afford to have you screwing things up.’
Arabella, looking anxiously from person to person at this sudden flare-up of tension, says ‘Well, I’ve got to nip out for a bit. I’ll join you all later.’ She scurries off.
As he unpacks, John hears a knock at his door. It is Jo. She comes in and stands over by the window, looking out across the twilit city, then turns, silhouetted against the window. ‘John Hamilton, is it? Strange the SITU briefing referred to someone called Iain Blayne. I know he was killed in a plane crash last year, or that’s what the papers said. Know anything about it?’
‘A lot of people die in plane crashes,’ says John quietly. ‘Iain had a lot of people after him. He’s safer dead.’
Jo nods. ‘So… you were out in the Gulf, were you?’
John nods in turn, enthusiastically. ‘That’s right. I was a part of 148 RM Det. We were a TA unit that was sent down to the Gulf ’cause we specialized in Forward Observing for the Navy. The RN doesn’t do much in the way of shore bombardment now, so most of our training was for operating behind the lines painting targets for the fliers. Anyway, we were a few weeks into the air war and getting ready to start moving for the night when we saw a pow-wow between a Yank SF unit and some of ET’s mates.’
John makes a wry face. ‘Yeah, it sounds crazy, I know, but we really did see some aliens.’ He glances at Jo for acknowledgement: her face is impassive, so he continues, the words pouring out of him. He has not talked about this for a long time. ‘But the worst of it was that once we got out, people started turning up dead. First off there was an AWACS crew we contacted on the yomp out, their aircraft ‘crashed’ a couple of months after getting home. Then one by one our section started turning up dead. The last one was a few months ago and he turned up missing some bits. Her Majesty’s Government have so far done jack shit to help us. All the photos we took at the time have conveniently disappeared as well!’ By this point he is pacing up and down at the end of the bed. ‘But what about you? I get the impression that you had a weird time out there as well.’
Jo’s expression is still non-committal. ‘Something that shouldn’t have happened, that’s all. I was pensioned off for insisting it happened. It turns out I was lucky. Other people have been killed.’ She steps over to the bed, and picks up a matt black scope lying on the pillow where Iain has unpacked it. ‘Nice night-sight.’ She turns it over in her hands. ‘Digital enhancement?’
‘Nothing but the best for SITU’s expenses budget,’ says John, taking the sight from her and putting it back in its case.
‘What’s this?’ asks Jo, picking up a control set of some sort. She notes that the serial numbers have been filed off.
‘RC for a dune buggy,’ says John. He shrugs. ‘Thought it might come in handy…’ He tucks it into a pocket of the special kit vest he has prepared.
Jo, watching his neat, economical movements, thinks that he looks happy to be out in the Middle East again.
Arabella, who has returned from her shopping trip and stashed its proceeds in her room, comes back down to find Rupert still hunched in a smelly heap in the bar, his hands now over his face. The waiters are giving him a wide berth. She approached him. ‘Rupert, it’s none of my business, I know, but you really need a shower. Why not nip up now, before dinner? I want to slip into something a little more respectable for dinner myself.’
Rupert looks coldly at her. ‘What the hell are you doing? Is this just a convoluted way to persuade me to take your cherry?’
Arabella, swallowing hard, attempts to put her arm through his and drag him out of the chair, but Rupert shakes her off and rises himself. He is thinking that perhaps freshening up would not be such a bad plan, and might take his mind off his pain. ‘I can take my own shower, woman. Leave me alone!’ He stalks off towards the lifts, and Arabella follows at a safe distance.
Phil meanwhile is chatting with the reception staff. He learns that it is possible to phone through to England directly from the rooms, and that faxes can be sent from the concierge’s office. The room telephone sockets will also take modems. He picks up a copy of the Cairo Times, and leaps through it, scanning down the columns. Mostly rather dull features about President Mubarak opening a school or greeting a foreign dignitary. There are a few small stories about religious troubles: the Islamic Brotherhood seems to be the main agitatory group. They are pressing for Islam to be declared Egypt’s state religion again, after forty years of secularism: there is resistance from the Christian, Jewish and tribal communities. So far the Government is not budging, but the Brotherhood have pledged themselves to a campaign of gradually escalating violence until their ends are achieved.
Orthodox Egyptology is very quiet at the moment, with all the major archaeology shutting down for these extremely hot summer months. Tourism has been quiet as well, with the destruction of Khentkaus’s pyramid – ascribed to a terrorist bomb – just one of a series of incidents that have made Egypt seem unsafe to Westerners. However, there are always the occult types. An American named Warren Grace is trying to get backing for an excavation around the Sphinx: he has a theory that it is much older than conventional archaeology believes, dating from around 5000 BC.
Phil is about to fold the paper and head off to dinner when his eye is caught by a familiar name, on the back page. Half of this is occupied by a weather map, in which Egypt is dotted with bright sun symbols – being a weather forecaster here must be a pretty easy job – but underneath is the sports review. The winning horse in yesterday’s Faisal Stakes at Alexandria, a three-year-old called Shabaka, was ridden by M Wajid and owned by Mr Abdel Essawi.
Rupert emerges from the shower to find that his clothes have disappeared. Bemused, he stares at the odd set of garments that seems to have replaced them, then he scrabbles for his bum-bag – which is still safely under the pillow. With little choice, he puts on the white suit. Holding the white Homburg in his hands, he examines himself critically in the mirror. ‘You look ridiculous, old man!’ He feels as though he is on the set of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
In the jacket pocket is a leather wallet, and in it is a small lump of traveller’s cheques. Rupert’s heart starts to beat faster as he thumbs through them – 60 pounds – and at this point Arabella comes into the room, wearing a decorous black dress. ‘I thought you might like to walk down to dinner with me?’ she says calmly.
Rupert splutters. ‘What the hell is this?’ He gestures down at himself. ‘Bloody ridiculous! I look like the last white missionary who went up the Umpopo! Bloody Clive of India! Someone’s got no fucking taste! Where are my old clothes?’ However, the thought of what he can do with the money, and calculation of the prospects of getting more, take the edge off his irritation, and he quietly accompanies Arabella down to dinner. In the lift he says quietly ‘Um, Arabella, Thanks so much for the money. Er, do you have any more where that came from? – only I was really planning to buy myself a new camera. They must cost about a hundred and fifty, two hundred and fifty pounds. The good ones, that is. I’d be so grateful if you could give me some more.’
The lift stops before Arabella has to answer this request, and Rupert steps embarrassedly out into the lobby. The others politely refrain from comment on his transformed appearance, perhaps out of respect to Arabella’s challenging gaze, although Jo does raise an eyebrow at her friend, behind Rupert’s back.
Dinner is a chatty affair, with people catching up on what each other has been doing. Donald is very apologetic for his earlier outburst. Donald at some point tell the group. ‘Sorry, guys – I’m out of hand. Since Glastonbury I’ve been on edge more than usual, every time a woman came near me I’ve been convinced it was her. If we have the grail with us on this mission and there really is a leak at SITU there’s nothing to stop Tanith coming after it again. We’re really going have to keep our eyes open. It’s bad enough for me having to keep an eye out for my ex-colleagues let alone someone who can convincingly disguise herself as anyone she wants. I’ve also been having some really bad dreams about that banshee – the whole experience really freaked me out.’ He orders a round of drinks in apology to Rupert and Arabella.
John, glancing from one to the other of his new colleagues, is getting the group dynamic straight in his mind. ‘So you’ve all worked with each other before a couple of times have you? Hopefully I’ll just slot in. My last group was a good bunch but we lost someone on our last investigation and I thought it’d be good to have a bit of a change. It also gets me back to the desert which is good.’ He looks at Jo, who does not respond. ‘What say we go upstairs to my room for a bit of planning? It’s a bit public here.’ he glances around the all-but-empty dining room, in which attentive waiters considerably outnumber the guests. Every time one of the operatives takes a sip of wine, a waiter leaps forward to top the glass up, which is very disconcerting.
Phil nods. ‘And remember, we haven’t got a cover, so maybe we ought to be a bit careful about all meeting together too frequently. Where we can all be seen and linked together, anyway. And be a bit careful about what we say.’ He glances quickly at Arabella and Rupert.
‘Oh, and by the way,’ says Rupert, ‘can we just clarify something? If we meet Nefertiti, someone grab Arabella. I suggest she doesn’t go up to Nefertiti and say “Hello, we’re from SITU, we’re here to kill you.” All right?’
Upstairs, George, who has been even more amiable than usual during the evening, suggests splitting into three teams: Arabella, himself and Rupert; Sam and Donald; Jo, John and Phil. ‘At least initially,’ he adds. ‘We may want some ‘military’ characters with each group as our activities progress.’
‘I’ll be glad to have Rupert with me,’ says Arabella. ‘he’s very insightful at times and his unique view on life would be very interesting when I get to the Museum of Egyptology.’
Rupert though has noticed the way that John and Jo seem eager to be paired together. ‘Oh, Jo!’ he says nastily. ‘You’ve dumped Arabella then found yourself another person to whine to! And another thick-as-two-short-planks squaddie. Tell me, are you suffering from Gulf War Syndrome was well? If you are then you and Jo can see the same psychiatrist together!’
John is rather taken aback by this attack, but Jo calmly says ‘Rupert, you’re ill, you’ve obviously had a hard time, so I’ll go easy on you. Take this as a friendly warning.’
She swiftly stands grabs him by his shirt-front, and slams him backwards against the wall. ‘If you do anything – and I mean anything – to mess up this mission, I will personally twist your head off. Got it?’
‘Now then, let’s talk about what we’re going to do tomorrow,’ puts in George diplomatically, but Rupert is in no mood to be calmed.
‘Sod you! Both of you! I’ve had enough of the braindead military type. All you’re good for is taking orders and not thinking! Mindless zombies, that’s what you are. I’ve spent most of my life trying to avoid scum like you!’ He angrily pulls his shirt back down. ‘You’re just jealous of me. I’m a free thinker, that’s what I am. Unfettered by your boring ancient and meaningless rules and regulations. A true free spirit! All people like you and my father want to do is tie me down – pry into my affairs. Well you’re not welcome. Just get lost!’
And with that he storms out of the room.
Into the silence which follows, John says ‘Has that bloke been in the group long? He looks like a damn junkie to me. Why are SITU using someone like that?’
‘Does anyone have a way of keeping him out of trouble?’ wonders Sam.
Jo says quietly to Arabella ‘I hope you haven’t given him any money. He’ll only spend it on drugs.’
Arabella’s lips are pressed firmly together. ‘So, we’ll have a look at the Museum tomorrow, George?’
‘Yes, yes,’ agrees George relievedly. ‘And perhaps you two,’ he indicates Sam and Donald, ‘should concentrate on the, er, seamier side of our investigations. Wasim the waiter, and the street urchin.’
‘A street urchin called Mahmoud?’ muses Jo. ‘That’s strange. Do you remember we ran into a boy called Mahmoud in Mexico? There can’t possibly be any connection between them, can there?’
‘There wasn’t one in Glastonbury, though,’ points out Phil.
‘We should find out everything we can about Essawi,’ says Sam. ‘Especially who his enemies are.’
‘And try to make a contact with his cult,’ says Jo. ‘We might end up having to attend a meeting of theirs.’
John says ‘Could you see if we can get hold of some guns, off these shadier characters? I don’t know about the rest of you but I’d feel a lot happier with one. Maybe a few mobile phones could come in handy as well.’ He is not sure what he has said wrong, seeing some of his new colleagues wince at the mention of firearms.
‘Then if you three could tackle our more ‘sensitive’ contacts – the Imam Mustafa Husseini and the Magician Wafic Said,’ says George to Jo, John and Phil. ‘Both are powerful men and we should be able to get significant information and help from them, but they must be treated carefully and with respect.’ He clears his throat rather embarrassedly. ‘I would suggest that, when dealing with Husseini, Jo takes no part in the proceedings as he is unlikely to deal with a white woman,’ He looks at John for confirmation. ‘In fact, I would go so far as to say that, perhaps, she should not even be present when the group visits the Imam.’
‘On that point, veiling up would be a good idea for all three of you women,’ says John. ‘There’s a lot of Islamic feeling in this city at the moment. We don’t want these people to start off with the idea we’re decadent Westerners. Covered heads, covered arms and legs.’
‘An interesting speculation,’ continues George, ‘is that Said may well be able to help us by masking some of our activities. I have no idea what he can do… But our goal for the moment should be gathering intelligence on our targets.’ He hands out the slim dossiers SITU provided on the named contacts. ‘Well, a glass or two of muscle relaxant, I think, and then I’ll leave you youngsters to it for the night.’
‘I’d suggest a good night’s sleep and an early start tomorrow,’ says Arabella. ‘If anyone can sleep in this damned climate.’
‘Before we split up – one thing,’ says Donald. ‘What’s the arrangement about the Grail, and this dubhium stuff?’
‘SITU are holding onto both of them, but they can courier it out to us at a few hours’ notice,’ says Arabella. ‘But maybe we should ask to have them on hand, or the Grail at least? Although I wouldn’t want to just leave it in the hotel safe.’ She remembers how lax and security was at the Esplendido, in Merida.
Before retiring herself, though, she pays a visit to Rupert’s room. He starts guiltily, fumbling under the pillow, but Arabella sits on the bed and says ‘Rupert, we both know things aren’t exactly rosy for you at the moment, and don’t you dare snarl at me that it’s none of my business. When a friend of mine is in trouble, it’s my business.’ Her stare shows him she means it. ‘Now, I have no intention of telling you what to do, or of telling you how to live your life. What I do intend to do is help you take control back.’
‘For God’s sake, I’m not five, you know,’ says Rupert sulkily, but he remembers the money and is prepared to be quiet if that is the price to pay for more of it.
‘The clothes and the money are a gift, you can do what you like with them. But, if you want any more money, or help, then we’ll work out the details of the loan as and when you’re ready to ask. Like I said, I’m not making conditions on my help, but I would like you to consider a few things. Your habit is ruining your life and if that’s what you want to do, fine, but remember there are some people who care about you, though I suspect you’ve been let down by someone close recently. I thought that back in Glastonbury, but there just wasn’t time to do anything about it. Now, well I want you to know, I’m here if you want to talk or need help.’ She gives Rupert a wry smile. ‘The others would think I’m mad, but I see the potential in you. I remember the slightly weird guy I met in South America and I’d like to see him again one day. Like I said then, you were cute. Give yourself a chance, try to find your self respect again and I’ll back you one hundred percent, try to take advantage of me and I’ll drop you so quick you won’t even see me move.’
‘Oh, please, I think I’m about to weep,’ mutters Rupert.
‘Oh, and one more thing, don’t push Jo too far. She’s had a lot to put up with and she’s closer to the edge than she likes to admit. I think we all are.’
Rupert snorts derisively but for once refrains from passing adverse comment. When he came back from dinner he found yet more new clothes laid out on his bed, jeans, colourful shirts and some new trainers – far nicer to wear than Arabella’s white suit – and he is trying to guess who else feels such generosity towards him.
The next morning Donald and Sam leave early, in search of the street urchin Mahmoud. ‘We can try and link up with the waiter later in the day,’ suggests Donald. ‘Maybe go to the restaurant and have a meal: that’ll look safer.’
They do not have to go far to find the crowd of urchins, who throng about them as soon as they leave the driveway of the Hilton (the large uniformed commissionnaires keep the hallowed precincts themselves clear of such rubbish). All small, grubby, ill-clad and of largely indeterminate gender, they hold out their hands leap up and down, cry out plaintively for ballpoint pens, and offer tours of the city.
‘Is one of you called Mahmoud?’ asks Sam cautiously. The description the other team brought back to SITU could cover any of this lot. She had been hoping she and Donald would get to see Wafic Said and the Imam, not get stuck with urchin duty.
Several of them shriek and claim that honour. ‘I guess it’s a pretty common name,’ says Donald. He squats down, holding a folded five-pound note between his fingers. ‘We want one particular Mahmoud, one who worked for some English people here last year. Worked for’ (he consults his notes) ‘Mr Eddie and Mrs Eddie. When there were the big riots.’
One of the Mahmouds, slightly larger than most, shoulders his way through the throng. ‘That was me! You are friend of Mr Eddie, Mrs Eddie?’ The other children, disappointed, scamper off to mob another pair of Westerners.
‘Now we can give you plenty of money,’ says Sam, ‘if you help us out.’ He stares fascinatedly at her hair, and she is grateful that she has bought some brown dye for a possible disguise.
‘I’m called Donald, and what we want first of all is for you to give us a tour of the city – see all the sights. Then we’ll want you to turn up here every morning, in case we need you. And there’ll be some other things as well. But you’ll get paid, don’t worry about that.’
‘Will cost…’ Mahmoud screws up his face in an ecstasy of anticipation ‘five English pounds each day, Mr Donald!’ He glances anxiously from one to the other.
‘Fine, you’re on,’ says Donald, and from Mahmoud’s beam of delight guesses that he could have haggled the price somewhat. ‘So… what’s the best way of getting about?’
‘Is taxi! I find you good one. You wait here one moment, Mr Donald, Mrs Donald.’
‘I’m not…’ Sam starts to say, but there is no point, as Mahmoud has dashed out into the traffic. She shakes her fringe out of her eyes, annoyedly.
‘You are now,’ grins Donald.
‘Right, first stop the Sharia Al-Attani, to meet Mr Wafic Said,’ says John, clambering into the taxi the commissionnaire has called for them.
‘Let’s keep things brief for now,’ advises Jo, as they set off into the traffic in the direction of the Old City. ‘Just let him know who we are, and that we’re here.’
‘Sounds like an interesting guy,’ says Phil. ‘I wonder what his magic involves.’ He already has a pretty fair idea of the sort of smoke-and-mirrors act that would impress the locals. ‘But we should be careful. If SITU have already been active over here, and given what happened in Glastonbury, there’s no reason that this Essawi doesn’t know about some of the contacts. We’d better keep an eye out, just in case.’
George descends, after his regular light callisthenics, and meets Arabella at the breakfast table. There is as yet no sign of Rupert, but he eventually appears, looking tired but less grumpy than yesterday. ‘What do you think passes for a library here?’ mumbles George through his toast.
‘The Cairo Museum,’ says Arabella briskly. ‘The best museum of Egyptology in the world.’
‘Better than the British Museum?’ asks George in surprise. He still cherishes fond childhood memories of going to see the mummies. ‘As for you, Rupert, how would you like to take some pictures? You know, play the tourist…’
‘I suppose so,’ says Rupert unenthusiastically. He looks suspiciously at Arabella, wondering if she is going to try and psychoanalyse him, but she has her mind on other things this morning. ‘Just ask me what you want me to investigate. I’ll do it… maybe.’
The Museum is cool and airy, well spaced out and not too busy at this time of year. The galleries, laid out in a U shape, progress systematically through Egyptian history, and the exhibits are uncluttered and well captioned. George and Arabella fall eagerly to making notes, he scribbling on a pad while she taps into her laptop computer, while Rupert boredly slouches along behind them, taking the odd picture when a particularly pretty girl passes by. ‘I’m with the BBC you know!’ he shouts to one. ‘Oh no, hold on, sorry, that was last time.’
There is a whole large room dedicated to the historical Nefertiti, and her husband Akhenaten, although the best of the remains are at their capital of El-Amarna, up the river towards Luxor. They were remarkable for introducing a new religion into Egypt – overturning the traditional pantheon and replacing it with worship of one supreme deity, called the Aten – the sun disk – whose agents on Earth were the pharaoh and queen. After Akhenaten’s death, it is though that Nefertiti tried to rule on in her own right, under the name of Smenkhare, but the throne passed to Akehnaten’s son by another marriage Tutankhamen, who ruled with the backing of High Chamberlain Ay and General Haremhab, who in turn succeeded him to the throne. All mention of the Aten was suppressed, and all the ceremonial buildings associated with the cult were destroyed. Nefertiti herself disappeared from the records, and her end is not known. The next dynasty of kings, the Ramessids, restored the ancient religion, but there are periodic mentions that a persistent group of Aten cultists has had to be suppressed. Then much later on, in the last few centuries BC when the Ptolemaic dynasty assumed the throne, the cult seems to have a fair amount of political strength. Cleopatra VII, the last queen, who handed Egypt over to Julius Caesar, had a younger brother who was attempting to revive a solar cult of some sort, and it was only the Roman occupation under Octavius which prevented him from taking the throne on her suicide.
‘We’ll need something more modern than this, though, if we want to know what form the cult takes today – if it’s still extant,’ says George thoughtfully. The Cairo Museum stops around the time of the birth of Christ.
‘Here’s something interesting,’ says Arabella, who has been making sketches. ‘This motif is recurrent – do you see? In these reliefs, and also on this pottery.’ Her sketches depict a sun disk, with rays of light coming down from it towards grateful worshippers. On the end of each ray is an open hand: the effect is a faintly sinister one, and one that is present in no other period of Egyptian art. ‘What do you think, Rupert?’ she inquires, but Rupert is sat on the end of a sarcophagus, his head buried in his hands, and is paying no attention.
‘… so here we are,’ finished Jo. She has explained to Wafic Said that the SITU group are merely making contact with him for now.
Wafic Said nods slowly, considering. John shifts uncomfortably on his cushion, while Phil 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 is sat among an amazing clutter – books, pictures, heaped-up small items of furniture, piles of clothes and material, and a number of sacks, some of which move occasionally. ‘I can help you,’ he says in a thin, husky voice. ‘I know many things, and can find more. But you must meet my price.’
‘We’ve got plenty of money,’ says John quickly.
Wafic Said chews something vigorously, releasing a jet of orangish saliva accurately in the direction of a brass spittoon. ‘You misunderstand, my friend. I do not speak of money. That is not what I trade in.’
‘What, then?’ asks Phil politely.
‘What do you mean?’ asks Jo, grimacing.
‘You soul. You must give up part of it in exchange.’ Wafic Said looks inexpressibly sinister in that instant. ‘For everything there is a price. 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, then dark will take hold of your own spirit.’
‘Er, I think we’re going to have to think about this,’ says John nervously.
‘I would most strongly advise doing so,’ agrees Said.
‘That wasn’t all that helpful, was it?’ comments Phil as they get back into the taxi. ‘He didn’t seem like much of a magician to me. Mind you, SITU gave him a pretty good writeup. But then, if you don’t believe in his magic, then you’ve got nothing to lose, have you?’ He looks from John to Jo an back again, but both are silent and thoughtful. ‘Well, OK then, tactics. How are we going to handle the Imam? Do you think he’s going to want us to convert to Islam before he’ll help us?’
He suddenly fall silent, catching the eye of the taxi driver in the rear-view mirror, which is hung about with Muslim paraphernalia. The driver clearly recognized one word of that sentence, and was not impressed by the tone in which it was spoken.
‘Let’s go back to the hotel and catch up with the others first,’ suggests Jo quietly.
‘… and there is very old mosque. Yes! Mosque of Mohammed Ali. Very great king. And there is old palace of Mamelukes. Very old. Very great kings. And now… Ministry of Defence.’ This building is a rather grey concrete one, and looks very incongruous indeed next to the medieval palace. ‘Very old. Very great ministers in there. Yes!’
What Mahmoud lacks as a provide of accurate information, he certainly makes up for in enthusiasm, and by cross-referencing what he tells them with a guidebook, Donald and Sam have managed to get a fair idea of the layout of the city. The Giza area contains the only accessible ancient remains, although a large part of the Old City is medieval, and other medieval palaces and mosques survive elsewhere. But the administrative heart of Cairo is all modern build.
‘What’s up on that hill, up there?’ wonders Sam. ‘Those look like nice houses.’ All are ringed with razor wire and guarded, she notices. One or two even have armed patrols on their flat roofs. Clearly they take housebreaking rather seriously here. She will have to be careful
‘Is very rich, very great people. All richest people of Cairo. Is called Afd el-Na’am.’
Sam, leaning out of the window, takes a few pictures.
‘Listen, Mahmoud,’ says Donald as they get out of the car at lunchtime. ‘Could you get me a gun?’ He mimes the action of an automatic. ‘Something small. And reliable.’
Mahmoud’s eyes widen. ‘Will be many pounds!’
‘Not a problem.’
Mahmoud’s eye widen further. ‘I will bring tomorrow!’
‘Before you go – Mahmoud, do you know anything about a man named Abdel Essawi?’ asks Sam, feeling it is about time they got on with some real investigating.
Mahmoud mutters something in Arabic. ‘Is very great man, Mrs Donald, very powerful man. Very big minister. Minister of Culture. And very big priest too.’
‘Muslim priest? A mullah?’
Mahmoud looks nervous. ‘Old priest – old religion.’
‘What was that you said in Arabic just now?’ inquires Donald.
‘Was prayer to ward off evil eye. That man has evil eye.’
‘Well, this is Giza. Doesn’t seem to be any digging going on just at the moment. Too hot at this time of year, I suppose,’ says George.
Arabella frowns. She had been hoping to find SITU’s contact Sarfraz here. They have no home address for him. ‘Well, from what I remember, the diggers mostly live in that villagey bit over there.’ She gestures. ‘But without someone who can speak Arabic…’
‘Look, that must be where the pyramid of Khentkaus blew up,’ says George, pointing to a blackened crater by the side of the Great Pyramid of Khufu.
Arabella peers. Poking his way through the singed rubble, weaving about as though very drunk, is a white man wearing a battered denim suit. His fair hair blows about wispily in the wind, and periodically he mutters to himself in what sounds as though it might be Dutch.
12.00 midday, 7th August 1999
George, Arabella and Rupert near the Great Pyramid
Everyone else back at the Giza Hilton
SECRET ACTIONS – RUPERT
Rather than trying to steal more money straight away, you decide to see how far 60 pounds gets you in Cairo, and venture out onto the warm streets. Locals are out in force, wandering about in their white djellabahs, taking in the night air. You are a bit puzzled as to how to start, but how different can it be – drugs are drugs – so you walk into the first dodgy-looking bar and strike up a conversation with the barman, mentioning your aristocratic connections, which seem to impress him mightily. He at once enthuses about the benefits of opium, much more healthy than heroin and great for artistic inspiration. You explain that heroin is what you seek, he goes to the telephone, and after half an hour or so a seedy man enters with a foil-wrapped bag. You hand over your cash, pleased to find it only about half the price as in England: the clientele of the bar are regarding you with a curious mix of pity and wonderment. You rush back to the Hilton to hit up. You get nasty shakes as it surges through you, but hopefully that is just because it is probably purer than what you are used to. All the same, you will need more money tomorrow night.