The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
SERVANTS IN THE PLACE OF TRUTH
12.00 midday, 7th August 1999
‘Listen, we may as well try to meet the Imam while we’re on the road, and catch up with the others later,’ Phil suggests to his two companions. ‘Why don’t you handle the introductions, John – it looks like you’ve more experience of the Islamic environment than walking past a few mosques in London. Which is all I can manage.’
‘And I think you and I should go in alone,’ says John.
Phil nods, remembering George’s advice regarding the place of women in Islamic society. ‘This Imam may turn out to be the Islamic equivalent of an Anglican, but on the other hand he may turn out to have the tolerance of the Pope. So we’d better tread on the safe side.’
Jo is happy to accede. She is planning to purchase a burqqah – the black, enveoping garment favoured by the local women – as soon as she can. And to recommend that Sam and Arabella do the same. Quite apart from not offending local sensibilities, it makes an excellent disguise.
‘I was hoping to ask the magician if his skills extended to the spirit world, as well,’ muses John, as the taxi edges its way down the Sharia Mohammed Ali. ‘Oh well – another time. Listen – what’s with this Rupert bloke then? He seems a bit of a strange one for SITU to have working for them. I don’t want to sound too nasty about him, but he doesn’t seem like the sort of person you could trust in a tight spot. Is there something I’m missing here?’
Phil looks blank – he has never seen much point in Rupert himself, and has tended to keep out of his way. Jo feels she should say something constructive if only out of loyalty to Arabella. ‘When we were in Mexico, before he started having problems, he wasn’t as bad as he is now,’ is the best she can honestly manage.
John frowns, not much wiser, but at that point the taxi stops, and while Jo remains in it, the two men clamber out and stride up the broad marble steps of the mosque – which is an extremely fine building, clean, ariy and cool. At the door they take their shoes off, as everyone else is doing, and hand them to the crippled attendant, with a small tip.
There is a considerable wait before they are admitted to see the Imam Mostafa Husseini, who is clearly a busy man. Phil occupies himself making notes on the morning’s exploits, while John admires the beautiful carvings and mosaics that bedeck the walls of the mosque. Black-clad theological students traipse back and forth, their bare feet making a soft noise on the marble floor.
The Imam turns out to be a large, burly man in late middle age, with a white beard and a kindly expression. He is swathed in plain white robes, and greets the two politely, in accented but correct English. ‘How may I assist you two gentlemen?’
John introduces himself, and explains his relation to Mickey Thomas, whom the Imam met the previous year. Husseini’s brow darkens. ‘Ah, yes, the time of the riots. I endeavoured to save that man’s soul – which was in great danger. Does he live?’
‘Er, I think so,’ says John, who has no real idea.
‘This is good. There was wicked work about then – evil spirits and witchery. I gave Mickey a protection.’ He nods, gravely.
‘Was the trouble then anything to do with this man Abdel Essawi, holy one?’ asks Phil respectfully. Despite his personal feelings towards any religion, which accord it no more credence than ghost-busting, he is only too aware of how strong the religious feelings here are, after reading the paper that morning (and the look the taxi driver treated him to earlier).
Husseini nods approvingly. ‘Yes, that was the way of it. That man is powerful but very wrong. He serves the old gods of Egypt – they are not true gods, for there is only Allah, but devils – and he works much evil.’
‘Does he?’ prompts John. ‘That’s terrible.’
‘Yes, indeed. He has a – what would you say? – a cult. Of other lost souls.’
‘It may be that we are here to oppose them,’ says John calmly. ‘Or even destroy them.’
‘Well, you will have my blessing. And that of all true Muslims.’ He emphasizes the ‘true’ slightly, and Phil glances at him quizzically. ‘Ah, there are some who are misguided – the wild fellows of the street, the rioters. They think Essawi is a great man because he gives them money, money to buy their Kalashnikovs. They call themselves the Islamic Brotherhood, but they are walking into the paths of darkness, and they do not realize it.’
George edges towards the blackened crater, and says to the others, in a loud, clear voice, ‘So this is the bomb-site formerly known as the Pyramid of Khentkaus. Fascinating. Fancy the terrorists being willing to destroy one of their country’s treasures.’
He glances up to see if there is any response from the stranger, but Rupert has already strode across and accosted him. ‘Hello, old chap, you’re Dutch, aren’t you?’ The man stares at him fearfully, but Rupert continues breezily, ‘I know you Dutch folk are always as high as kites, and I was wondering if you knew a good place to get some high-quality cheap drugs. It’s hell for a stranger such as myself trying to find the right dealer round here.’
George rushes over to rescue the situation, followed circumspectly by Arabella. ‘Er, how do you do? I’m Dr Hardy, this is Professor Robyns, Mr de Montfort…’
The Dutchman grasps both Rupert’s hands in his. Rupert, close up, can smell a rather unappetizing unwashed aroma, and also the bitter smell of opium. He can see that the man’s pupils are hugely dilated. ‘You are a seeker after the truth, as well?’ His accent is light, but his voice hoarse and cracked. ‘Beware, my friend, of opening the doors of perception too widely. You may be unable to shut them again.’
Rupert, alarmed at this enforced proximity, jerks his hands free and recoils, remembering what the briefing said about van Heuvelen. He makes a warning face at George, twisting his finger at the side of his head to indicate madness.
‘Are you an archaeologist, sir?’ persists George, sweating in the heat. ‘Perhaps looking for anything that might have survived the bomb?’ Goodness, this is hard work, he thinks.
‘Yes… yes. I am Dr van Heuvelen. Willem.’ He grasps George’s hands and peers into his face in turn, then drops them, seeming disappointed.
‘Perhaps you could tell us what happened here?’
‘It was The Beast. He came as a man, and as a woman, and he destroyed the seven cities, as it is written. The first seal was a seal of blood.’ Van Heuvelen shudders uncontrollably. ‘Do you know what lies out in the desert? Things older than humanity. Cruel, old things. Fingers come out of the sand.’ He suddenly points towards the Sphinx, off in the distance. ‘It has a human face now, but what face did it have before, eh? What face was so terrible?’
Rupert chips in. ‘Shh, you chaps, I can’t hear the voices.’ He is standing as though listening to something unseen. ‘They’re talking to me… they’re trying to control me!’ He jumps in alarm, and turns to van Heuvelen. ‘Can’t you hear them? They know you too… they want me to do horrible things!’
‘Yes, yes!’ exclaims the Dutchman, looking terrified. ‘The one who was killed by mistake, and the one who was killed deliberately – they haunt this place. Do not listen to them! All they have in them is vengeance and spite!’ He plucks worriedly at Rupert’s sleeve.
Rupert backs away again, and mutters to George ‘The man’s clearly a nutcase, old fellow! I think we should leave him with his rantings… he’d get on well with Donald and Jo, though!’
George agrees that there does not seem to be much sense to be had out of van Heuvelen. ‘Well, if he’s still staying in the same place as the other group found him, we can locate him if we can think of anything useful to do with him.’
Arabella continues to watch van Heuvelen’s caperings carefully as the three back away. She is in no rush to leap to conclusions about the stranger’s nature. He might possibly be of use, but she is unsure of whether or not to trust her instincts: they’ve pointed her wrong before.
‘… anything on cult activity in Egypt,’ says Phil into the phone. ‘Or the name “SITU”. Yes, as it sounds. Great. Thanks.’ He gives the hotel’s fax number, and hangs up. The cuttings agency ought to be able to turn something up in the next day or so. It looks very much to him as though this is a case of cult against cult. Perhaps this Essawi is trying to cut in on SITU’s turf. Should make a good story!
‘Come on,’ says George, striding across towards the workers’ village, Nazlet el-Simman. Rupert trails after him sulkily, annoyed that van Heuvelen, although clearly a heavy user, would not give him a connection. Arabella too trails along a little disconsolately. She is sure that more research into the cult is valuable, but she feels uneasy out here without Jo’s presence to rely on: she has little faith in her own judgement.
George barks out a few words in Arabic, dredging up memories from when he was here in the Army, in the 1950s – before Suez. His unit had built a bridge over the river, about twenty miles south of Cairo. He wonders absently whether it is still standing. ‘You-feller – backsheesh! Chop-chop!’ He is soon surrounded by a crowd of puzzled labourers, clad in loincloths or in djellabahs, wondering who this mad Englishman can be. After bit of negotiation, during which George is careful to let no money change hands – nor does his own hand stray to anywhere near the secret pouch in which he has concealed the bulk of his valuables – he and his two companions are guided to the largeish hut in which Sarfraz lives. There seems to be some respect for this fellow among the villagers, George gathers.
Not so with Rupert, unfortunately. When the elderly but wiry Sarfraz emerges, blinking, into the sunlight, he snorts unimpressedly and says ‘Sassafraz, that’s a drink, isn’t it? I’m sure I remember some old Westerns with Jimmy Stewart and some painted woman behind a bar. What the hell’s your connection to that alcoholic drink, then?’
George hushes him patiently. ‘Now then, my friend, you met some of our associates last year, when the pyramid was bombed.’
Sarfraz’s eyes flash angrily. ‘Bad times! Those infidels, they destroyed everything!’ He collects himself, seeing George’s surprise. ‘Not your friends, effendi, the other infidels. The devil-worshippers, they were unclean in the sight of Allah.’ He makes a gesture against the evil eye. ‘And the servant of the witch, and his people. They shot the pyramid with grenades. I was with Professor-lady, very dangerous.
‘You’re a digger, aren’t you?’ puts in Rupert. ‘Are you Australian at all? That’s what the antipodeans call each other, when they’re not smelling each other’s farts and cheating at cricket.’
Sarfraz’s dander is up now, though, recalling the stirring events of yesteryear. His scrawny chest swells. ‘I, Sarfraz, helped defend the Englishmen and women. I spoke like a prophet, like a sheikh, and the people listened to me – to me and to the imam. Together we inspired the people to defeat the servant of the witch, and Allah gave us strength.’
‘The servant of the witch? Do you mean Abdel Essawi?’ George asks warily.
‘That man, yes. He has the mark of the witch on his forehead.’
Rupert is looking thoughtful, unusually for him lately. ‘I say old man, do you know what sort of religious rites would be carried out at Nefertiti’s tomb?’
Sarfraz looks puzzled. ‘That queen is not here, effendi, her tomb is at Luxor, far up the river. Here at Gizeh is only Old Kingdom.’
‘But I suppose on the night, or probably the day, of a big sun event, this place got quite crowded? Spitting room only?’
Sarfraz nods. ‘Yes, yes, big religious happenings here. Before the Prophet brought the word of the one true God, Allah, to this land.’
George arranges to hire Sarfraz as an investigative helper, as this is outside the digging season. The old man seems keen to do what he can, whatever that may cover. ‘We’re not just looking at pyramids, but are interested in the whole Egyptian mythos, especially as it is today,’ says George warningly as they leave, and Sarfraz nods solemnly.
‘Let’s go back to the hotel,’ says Arabella suddenly, her face downcast.
‘All right,’ says George surprisedly.
As they walk back to the car, Rupert falls in alongside the trailing Arabella. ‘Look, Arabella, I’m in need of a little cash – just to sort myself out a little bit more. Maybe to get some more practical clothes, and also to see about a haircut, and a new camera… can you lend me something?’
Arabella looks tiredly at him. ‘Rupert, I said I’d help you all I could, and I wouldn’t put conditions on it, but have you thought about the other things I said? It needs you to help yourself…’
‘Yes, you said you were my friend, but all you really want to do is interfere,’ snarls Rupert. ‘You’re just a superficial do-gooder who likes to pretend she’s helping, when in fact it’s just your own ego you’re massaging! I know exactly where your true loyalty lies, and you couldn’t give a shit about me!’ He overrides her protest, and George’s attempt to calm him. ‘I’m not playing second fiddle to Jo any more! You can have her! If you want to be a real friend then I’ll talk to you, but tokenism like this is pathetic!’
The journey back to the hotel is a strained one: Arabella looks as though she is on the verge of tears. She has decided that she is going to spend some time alone, immersing herself in research on the Web.
Sam suggests her room for a meeting, and listens interestedly as the events of the meeting with Wafic Said are recounted. ‘His help could be important. I think I should go and ask him just what he meant by “surrendering oneself”?’
‘I’m not so sure we should deal with him again,’ says Jo. ‘I’m certainly not giving him any part of my soul. Whether or not I believe in it, it’s not worth taking the chance.’
‘I don’t know,’ says Phil. ‘If it comes to it, and we’re sure we want his help, I’ll do it. Not that I think he’ll find my soul – I think I sold it already when I went into journalism.’ He does not look as if he thinks the risk a very serious one.
‘Also I have a personal reason to see him,’ says Sam quietly.
‘What?’ ask Donald.
‘Before I joined SITU, I found this.’ She raises her left leg and points at the bangle she wears on her ankle, its Hebrew characters catching the light. ‘The person I took it from said it had been made using someone’s soul, and I think Wafic can tell me something about it.’
No-one raises any objections, and Rupert takes advantage of the pause to reveal his own theory. He looks sulkily from face to face. ‘Now that all you idiots have finished pontificating and talking crap, it might surprise you to know that I’ve got a theory of my own.’
The group waits attentively, Jo looking sceptical.
‘It seems to me that the most important detail we have missed is that the total eclipse of the sun is on 11th August. Since the cult we are looking into is a sun-worshipping cult, this is – to say the least – significant. I would guess that being a very old cult they will probably believe that the sun’s disappearance is permanent, and will have some ritual, probably a sacrifice, to bring it back. I would say that the most important things we need to find out now are where the ritual takes place, and what takes place in the ritual. It’s such an old religion that they must have lived through lots of total eclipses before. Someone must know what they do in such a circumstance…’
Phil looks at Rupert in amazement. ‘Rupert, you surprise me. That’s pretty good. Arabella, don’t suppose your research into the sun worship made any mention of any special significance attached to that?’
‘Nothing specific, but I should look again,’ says Arabella, who is genuinely pleased at the usefulness of Rupert’s contribution.
‘Except that the path of totality doesn’t pass through Egypt,’ points out Jo. Rupert glares at her, and she hastily adds ‘But it’s worth following up, you’re right.’
‘Obviously I don’t expect the thick-as-pigshit squaddies to understand,’ says Rupert loftily. ‘They’re too concerned with how to do their shoelaces up and tow to tell the time to bother with effete things like these. But the eclipse is a global matter –it’s a worldwide event, and thus will affect all the Ylids everywhere. I wouldn’t mind betting that the other groups around the world will have missions which coincide with the eclipse, and that somehow this event will signal a major signpost for all Ylids. Something will be put into motion on 11th August that we will all have to stop,’ he concludes rather smugly.
John and Jo bite their tongues, in the light of the sense of this suggestion.
Arabella, glancing anxiously at Jo first, says ‘Well, I’ve been doing some research into the background of the cult – the sect. It’s not a great deal, but I think it’ll fill in a little. As near as I can find Amenhotep IV was the Pharaoh responsible for the cult’s major rise in popularity, this was around 1353BC. He was the husband of Nefertiti. Everyone assumes, because he was Pharaoh, that he was behind this rise, though some sources do point to Nefertiti.’
‘Well, chaps, much as I’d love to stay here and get bored,’ interrupts Rupert, standing up, ‘I’m off to explore on my own. See you all in the morning.’ He looks at Arabella, sitting with her mouth pressed shut, waiting for him to leave. ‘Arabella dear, when the eclipse occurs I think you ought to watch Jo closely. Since you seem to think that the sun shines out of her arse, it should prove quite a sight if you stand behind her.’
‘Rupert, for Christ’s sake shut up and get out,’ says Donald annoyedly.
Arabella looks as though on the verge of explosion, but seeing that Jo is just ignoring Rupert she says nothing, and merely waits for him to leave the room before continuing, slightly flustered. ‘Now the sect was active before that period, several centuries before that period, in the city of Heliopolis, but it was a local religion then. What Amenhotep did was proclaim Aten the one True God and make worshipping anyone else a crime. As you can imagine this did not please the priests of other religions. He actually went on to build a whole new capitol city, on a secluded plain about three hundred and twenty kilometres north of Thebes. This new city was called Akhetaten, or “Horizon of Aten” when translated. It’s now called Tell el-Amarna.
‘Now Akhenaten, as Amenhotep decided his name should be after doing all of this, was a good, old-fashioned dictator and, after his death, in 1335BC, his religion and his city died with him. For two years a Pharaoh by the name of Smenkakare ruled, keeping the Aten cult alive, but he was thought to be Nefertiti and was apparently seldom seen to test the theory out. “He’s” described as a shadowy figure, though that could have something to do with what happened afterwards. Smenkakare was ousted by a young Pharaoh called Tutankhaten, who we know as Tutankhamun. With this change of ruler the old gods were reinstated and all evidence of Aten’s cult were removed, along with the evidence of Akhenaten’s rule. Almost all of the likenesses of him and his queen were chiselled out of sculptures, and I can’t find any mention of their being entombed in the ritual way of the Pharaohs. It is possible Akhenaten wasn’t buried in an elaborate tomb, but in a pauper’s grave.
‘I’m still digging, but there’s not a lot so far. I’m going to get hold of more detailed transcripts of the last two missions involving Nefertiti and see if there’s anything there that’ll be of help.’
‘I suppose some of us could scoot off to this old capital and have a look around the place,’ suggests John.
‘It’s about half a day’s train ride,’ says Arabella. ‘But there’s not much to see: no monuments left standing.’
John nods. ‘Well, another thing which might tie in with that eclipse thing: I found out from the concierge that the next race meeting locally’s on the 11th, here in Cairo. Well, at Ausim, just next stop up the railway line. Some big prize-money, as well, the big race is the Prix des Mamelukes, the 12.00 – six furlongs. I suppose the weather’s too hot to make them run longer distances. But Essawi’s got a runner in it.’
‘What’s it called?’ asks Sam interestedly.
‘It’s called Akhetaten. Three-year old.’
Sam nods. ‘We need to find out everything we can about these horses of Essawi’s – where they’re kept, who looks after them. Most probably he’s got a stables somewhere.’
‘Great idea,’ says Donald. ‘How about if a couple of you went during the day to get a layout of the place, and then Sam and I could go late in the night and try and get some information, or kill the horse. What I’m thinking is, if we kill it, perhaps the bad guys will come to us – it almost worked with the grail. I know it’s not nice but it might get us somewhere rather than just asking all these damn questions.’
He realizes everyone is looking at him in horror. ‘I suppose you’d like to leave its head in his bed, would you?’ asks Phil.
‘Perhaps we should leave it a day or two first, though,’ finishes Donald weakly. He hastily changes the subject. ‘I’m going to find the boy again, I have to pick up the gun he’s getting me and I have a couple of jobs for him.’
Phil, holding his hand over his eyes, says quietly, ‘Oh God’. Visions of Egyptian prisons, straight out of Midnight Express, dance before his eyes.
‘You can’t just go ordering firearms like they’re doughnuts or something,’ Jo says sternly. ‘Just trying to get hold of them around here can land you into serious trouble, and if anyone finds out you’re carrying a gun…’ Shaking her head in disgust, she finishes, ‘just keep them out of sight and don’t use them unless there’s no other option.’
Donald, not taking any notice, says to Sam, ‘Right Mrs Donald, are you ready to go and see the boy again?’
Sam glares at him.
Donald rather sheepishly says ‘Oops, touched a nerve, sorry. Sam, care to join me?’
‘Sam, I saw you looking at those houses on the hill – I’m sure they are rich pickings for you, but unless they are targets for the mission then leave them well alone. I don’t think they are the sort to turn you over to the police if you get caught.’
Sam merely nods: she does not need lessons in this sort of thing. ‘You and me should go and see that Imam some time, too. Ask for his help.’
‘Ah, there he is,’ says Donald, who has been scanning the street for Mahmoud. The lad has just emerged from under a sheet of corrugated iron against the side wall of the hotel. ‘You got that… item… for me?’
‘Tomorrow, Mr Donald, tomorrow!’ says Mahmoud nervously. ‘Very good gun. Bang bang!’ He points his finger and mimes.
‘Very good, Mahmoud. Well, as well as that, I have another couple of jobs for you. Firstly, I need another gun – this time something a bit larger. Do you know how to get something like a machine gun?’
Mahmoud’s eyes are as round as saucers, as indeed are Sam’s.
‘And the other thing – I know this is tricky, but I will pay you well. It’s dangerous, but I think you are the best man for the job. My friends and I need as much information on Essawi as possible, again we will pay well for this – I would like you and your friends out here on the streets to follow Essawi, keeping a safe distance, find out where he goes and who he talks to. Remember, he is a very dangerous man so be careful. I will meet you here again each day, where you will receive some money for yourself and your friends, and in exchange you will supply me with the information you have gathered. None of your friends should know about me – tell them it’s for a friend. If Essawi catches them, you and me will be in grave danger.’
The sound of chattering teeth and knocking knees can be heard from Mahmoud’s direction. His complexion is a grubby grey.
‘Plenty of money,’ says Donald enticingly. He is starting to like this kid, he understands how he works. Well, he would – being a hitman wasn’t really very different. Money rules – well, most of the time. He unfolds a ten-pound note in his hand.
Mahmoud, edging close, takes it gingerly. ‘I will do my best, Mr Donald, Mrs Donald.’
‘Thank you Mahmoud, you are a very brave young man. I promise I’ll do my best to look after you while I’m here.’
‘And just before you dash off,’ puts in Sam drily. ‘Where does Essawi lives in Cairo?’
‘On the hill, Mrs Donald, on the Afd el-Na’am I show you. In big, big house.’
‘And where is the Ministry of Culture building?’
‘In Nasser Square, in centre, centre of town. I show you this morning.’ Mahmoud scampers off again, the ten-pound note no longer to be seen.
George, enjoying a sundowner in the bar, is surprised to see Rupert stroll in and head towards him, still wearing the bright shirt and slacks, and looking confident. ‘Out on the town, old man?’
‘That’s right,’ says Rupert. He accepts George’s offer of a drink and sits down. He looks excited. ‘Well, this is starting to move along, eh? I’m just wondering when the being chased by men with guns will start. It can’t be too long now, surely.’
George nods calmly, and dares to venture a question. ‘How are you feeling in yourself, Rupert? If you don’t mind my asking.’
Rupert flings himself back in his chair. ‘Tell me George old boy, if you don’t mind me asking – have you ever been well and truly betrayed by a member of your own family?’
George gives the question full consideration, wondering what Rupert is driving at. ‘Er, no, I can’t say that I have, fortunately. My lot are all pretty decent folk, thank goodness.’
Rupert nods, as though this confirms his suspicions. ‘I was, er, I know you lost your wife a little while ago. But how long does it take a fellow, like you, or me, to complete the grieving process? I don’t just mean death – I mean, when a member of your family cuts themselves off, so it might has well be death.’
George nods encouragingly.
‘Family can be bastards sometimes, can’t they?’ Rupert stands up, downing his drink, swaying slightly. ‘I sometimes wish I had none, then they couldn’t get under your skin and hurt you.’ He looks down at the concerned-looking Major. ‘Well, this has been a delightful little chat. Man to man, eh? Jolly good.’
And with that he sets off into the Cairo evening.
The same evening finds Sam and Donald at the restaurant of the Savoy Hotel (no relation to any other establishment of that name, they guess, from its down-at-heelness), where Wasim is currently working: they identify him from the photograph SITU have given them. He is an unprepossessing fellow with a wide, artificial-looking grin. They eat slowly, waiting for the restaurant to empty. ‘Sam, so how did you get to be a thief then?’ Donald inquires, rather awkwardly. Small talk is not really his forte, particularly not with women. Particularly not with women with blue hair.
Sam smiles lightly. ’I was born to steal, or at least, that’s what my father said – and I agree.’ She picks at a bread roll.
‘What did you get up to after Glastonbury?’
‘Just tied up a few loose ends,’ She chews reflectively. ‘And a couple of creeps.’
Donald nods enthusiastically, but has clearly run out of things to say. He takes a swig of water. ‘Your hair is very… blue!’
‘Thanks.’ Sam glances around the restaurant and sees Wasim chatting to the man on the till. He should be free in a minute.
As Donald signs for the bill, and Wasim comes over, he says quickly ‘I have a really bad feeling about this mission. I have a few enemies in Egypt and I’d hate to run into them as well as Essawi.’
Sam is serious again. ‘Let’s hope we don’t, then.’
‘Er, Wasim, right?’
‘Yes, effendi?’ says the Egyptian warily.
‘You might remember a friend of mine, a man named Mickey Thomas. Apparently you did him some favours last year.’
Wasim glances around nervously. ‘Is not to mention! Very dangerous times.’ He looks at Donald and at Sam’s hair, appraisingly. ‘You are friend of Mickey?’
‘Like a brother,’ lies Donald. ‘Listen, do you know of a man named Essawi? What can you tell us about him?’
Wasim pulls a chair over to the table and sits on it backwards. ‘That man is poison. Is big, big in Islamic Brotherhood. Bad fellows who want to kill all Europeans. Is big criminal, criminal gangs, rob banks.’
‘Dangerous fellow, then?’
‘The most dangerous,’ confirms Wasim.
John sits comfortably on the edge of the bed, the lights out. He relaxes and slowly starts to imagine the cave. It’s dimly lit as he starts into it, and after a while he notices that the light is coming from in front and not from behind him. The cave mouth leads into a large rock-strewn gully with a small lake in it. Bright moonlight illuminates the scene, although there is no moon evident. There are trees all around and it’s then that he notices the owl. This is only the third time John has met his spirit guide, and he’s still very unsure as to how he should talk to it. He still finds it strange that this being is his guide; a dirty mix of greys and browns instead of the imagined stereotype of snowy white. ‘Real’ life, maybe, he thinks, as his guide slowly blinks at him. John scrambles up the embankment until he is near the owl. ‘Greetings. It is a long time since I last trod this path. The world of man keeps me busy. I am here seeking guidance. There are two spirits that I wish to contact; Hetepheres and Haremakhet, although I do not know if they are here.’
‘The world of man is in turmoil,’ comes the owl’s voice, calm and quiet, into his mind. ‘The great spirits move; the great darkness comes soon. You will need to be strong.’
It opens its wings and flaps from the branch, swooping between two trees, and John scrambles after it, not sure if his request is being answered or not.
The trees open out, and he sees the form of the owl perched on a stump. ‘Behold the fields of the dead.’ It is as though he is on the lip of a great bowl of mist, the mist seething and bubbling, occasional movements visible within it. ‘Those you seek are not here. They are in the lands of men.’
‘Alive again? Or ghosts?’ John is puzzled. As far as he knows, all dead spirits have some sort of representation here, even if they are haunting locations on the physical plane.
The owl blinks slowly again but makes no further response, merely rising on its legs and stretching upwards. Far above, John can see a flight of hawks spiralling.
He feels the call once more, and sets off back towards the gully and the cave, emerging into his hotel room to the sound of the alarm clock. Two hours have passed.
10.00 pm, 7th August 1999
Rupert – you head out to the bar and meet your new barman friend, having converted Arabella’s clothes, and a couple of rather nice oil-lamps which were in the hotel dining-room, into cash. You have a glass of arak (vile stuff!) and subtly hint to him your interest in matters cult-related. He tells you (after supplying you with the heroin) that he knows of a sun-worshipping cult that would be just right for you – life-affirming and empowering. And it really works. Devotees can gain the benefits of divine magic, or so he has been told. It is run by a powerful priest of the old gods (here he makes an Islamic sign against the evil eye). They meet on Sunday evenings, in front of the Sphinx. If you wear a djellabah and act reverently, not throwing your weight about just because you are white, you will be made welcome, the more the merrier. You think that this sounds just the ticket, and head off merrily to inject yourself, not noticing the barman reaching for the telephone behind the bar as soon as your back is turned.