The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness


10.00 pm, 7th August 1999

Donald leans back reflectively, glancing around the all-but-empty restaurant of the Savoy Hotel. ‘Wasim, what’s the general feeling of the people for Essawi – is he liked? Has anyone ever tried to remove him from power – politically or forcefully?’

Wasim, his face alight with dark mischief, replies ‘Effendi, this man is a secret power. The people, they do not know him. The foolish people, not like you and I, they read the newspapers and watch the television, they see nothing of importance. The government controls all of that. And this man, he is a big criminal as I say, but he is also working in the Ministry of Culture, a powerful official. How this can be I do not know. Perhaps he is blackmailing the Minister. But no-one has ever dared to try and remove him, or attack him. The government is scared of the Islamic Brotherhood: they will not dare to use the army against them. They have to hope that the people of Al-Qahira – that is what we call this city – will reject their violent ways. But this will not happen, the government are fools for thinking so.’ Despite his bravado, he says this last phrase much more quietly, as though nervous that government stooges might be listening in – although there is no-one in earshot.

Sam has been chasing the end of her ice-cream around her plate with a spoon, but into the silence that follows this remark she says ‘Do you know anyone who can get hold of building plans?’

Wasim scratches behind one ear, puzzledly. ‘Plans for what building? Some of them are at the Land Registry. But that is a very secure place. And many buildings do not have their plans registered.’ He grimaces. ‘Rich men, they do not like anyone knowing what they are building, not even the government. Especially not the government.’

‘Well, do you think it would be possible to get me the plans to the Ministry of Culture building?’

Wasim shrugs. ‘I can try. If the money is right.’

‘How soon?’

Another shrug. ‘Maybe tomorrow night. One hundred dollar.’

Sam nods, thoughtfully, and turns to Donald, who is gazing out into the dark street. ‘Do you have any more questions?’

Donald’s attention snaps back. ‘Sorry… thought I saw something.’ It had just been a shadow, moving across the front of the building opposite – probably a dog. ‘What do you know of any cults that Essawi is involved with, Wasim? Do you know any of the members?’

Wasim looks blank. ‘Cults? I do not know, effendi. Terrorists, criminals, yes, but I do not know of cults.’

John gets himself a drink of water and mulls over what he has discovered. ‘The spirits are in the lands of men? So they’ve somehow been re-incarnated? Things could be getting a lot more fun than we planned! Just make a quick call before dinner.’

He taps out SITU’s number. ‘Hi, it’s John Hamilton in Egypt. Yes it’s a fascinating place, I’m just sorry I’ve never been able to come here before. Anyway, I was wondering about this serum you developed. It sounds fascinating stuff and could be just what I’m looking for, but there’re a couple things I’d like to know about it if possible. Well, like has it reached the testing on people stage yet? The main question though is how to use it. Would it offer protection indefinitely or would you need to take more doses at regular intervals?’

Andre Swahn’s dry, crackly voice explains that the serum has been tested on humans but seems to have no effect: not that you would expect it to, as humans don’t have the same problem that Ylids do of not normally being able to approach each other. The theory is that the serum works on some specifically Ylid piece of biochemistry. And there have not been any handy Ylids to test it on, so the whole thing is rather theoretical. But SITU expects that a single dose will act for a couple of days, with more needed if the desired results aren’t obtained in that time. It has to be delivered intravenously, preferably via hypodermic, but a dart gun should work: SITU can supply this.

‘Great, well thanks for your help. I’m sure I’ll be contacting you again in the near future. Bye.’

As the two walk away from the Savoy, Donald, who has been chewing at his lip nervously, asks ‘You’re a pretty secretive person, Sam – are you ever going to let on about your personal life?’

‘Only if you tell me something about yours,’ she responds cagily.

Donald nods. ‘I can understand that. It’s not easy – we both have a pretty dodgy past, we’re probably regarded as the loose cannons of the group. But as far as I see it, we’re more reliable than bloody Rupert and Arabella: they both make me feel like they will get us in trouble at some point, and we may not get out of it as easily as we did in Glastonbury.’

They walk on a little way through the cooling night air, the sounds of the city around them – cheap music, the occasional barking dog, shouts. Donald draws in a long breath. ‘The Official Secrets Act never applied to me,’ he says. ‘I didn’t work for the Government directly. I imagine that the people I worked for are a privately funded organisation – maybe the Government finances some of it, as we did do away with a lot of ‘bad guys’. When it comes down to it, though, you don’t ask the questions, it always seemed to get nowhere.’

He glances down at Sam, who nods encouragingly.

‘My parents ditched me when I was very young – I lived on the streets stealing for food, sleeping in boxes. When I was a bit older I hooked up with a gang of other homeless kids. We got into all the usual stuff that you read about, stealing, mugging and so on – anyway, one day we tried to rob an off-licence, one of the guys bought a gun along, we got to the off-licence, held it up, and demanded the money form the safe – it went very wrong from there on, the guy behind the counter had a baseball bat underneath, the next thing I knew, he swung the baseball bat around, knocked one of the guys for six, busted his head clean open, I heard a shot and saw the shop assistant go down, the gun got thrown on the floor and the guys bolted, I couldn’t move, I was so scared, I was only 12…’

The words, which have been flowing from his mouth in an accelerating stream, suddenly stop dead, and he lights up a cigarette, shaking the match out and throwing it into the gutter.

He continues more calmly. ‘The police showed up, I spent 3 years in a ‘Youth Care Centre’, being taught that what I did was wrong, etcetera etcetera, but the other kids in the centre soon showed me what I should really be learning about – revenge. They helped me become a bit more physical, you know – so I could fight, and they showed me how to hate – I don’t just mean to dislike, I mean how to really hate, enough to kill. When I finally got out, I tracked down the old gang and one by one and killed them – but it wasn’t enough, my parents abandoned me, the people I thought were my friends ditched me – I was so angry I lost it completely, I started assaulting people, not for money or anything like that, just because they were in my way.’ He shivers slightly. ‘All things come to an end. I tried knocking out this bloke, he looked harmless until I grabbed him, next thing I know I’m lying on the floor with a gun in my mouth. I begged for my life and in the end he took the gun back and just walked off as if nothing had happened. I picked myself up and followed him. He arrived at a restaurant, he walked up to the doorman and shot him in the stomach. A bunch of real tough-looking blokes ran outside and he killed the lot of them, he hardly drew a breath. I knocked over a bin, he heard the noise and chased after me, didn’t take him long to catch me up, I was bundled into a car and knocked unconscious. I woke up in a cell – not a police cell, this cell was clean, it was warm, and there was some food ready for me. An oldish, grey-haired man walked in, told me I had seen things that didn’t belong in the head of a 15 year old. I was given a choice, learn to become one of them or die. No choice really.’

Off in the distance, there is the sound of a police siren, reflected between buildings.

“I was taught to fight, I’ve learnt several martial arts styles – all pretty deadly, I was shown how to endure extreme conditions and temperatures, I was beaten many times to within an inch of death, to simulate being tortured if captured by anyone, special drugs were given to hone my reflexes and my reactions – they were the worst. When the treatment was over, I was thrown in a black room and left for about a month to come down off the drugs – Rupert would never have survived it, only the training can bring you through it. I could fire any firearm to pinpoint accuracy, even when in a moving vehicle, hear a pin drop, see the smallest detail – but the worst thing I could have learned was how to dissociate myself from death. When I was 17 I was the top in my class, and the youngest would-be assassin. Most people hated me, I think they were afraid of me. My very first job was really easy, a drug dealer, nice and simple, set up in a room, watch the guy and shoot him. That first killing shot is the worst. I threw up afterwards. You soon learn to just get on with it though: they aren’t people, just targets. After that I got better and better, I became the top shooter. One day, a job came to me to kill the kids of a very prominent drug baron in Mexico. I’d never killed kids before but I figured it was as easy as anything else. I sat in a hot hotel room for three hours watching these kids play in a park with the nanny, I could have killed them at any point but I couldn’t pull the trigger. It made no difference, my reserve did the job anyway. I saw the flash of his gun, aimed mine at him, and killed him. From that point on they’ve tried to kill me at every point possible: soon my luck will run out. I can still fight pretty well and my accuracy is still excellent, but without the constant training I had they’ll get the better of me eventually. I’m learning to lose all the hatred I had stored up, but it all takes time, I still snap every now and again.’ he glances down at Sam again, to make sure she understand. ‘Believe me, when I do, you don’t want to be there. I can joke around a little now, but my sense of humour’s still not up to much. I have no friends to help me so I put any trust I have in you guys – with people like Rupert and Arabella it is sometimes quite hard. The big problem for me is that I’m a person trained to be a robot trying to be a person again.’

They walk on in silence for a few more steps, Donald lost in thought, until he snaps back to today. ‘Wow, I’ve gone on a bit haven’t I?’ Sam smiles encouragingly. ‘Thanks – I’ve never told that story to anyone before. I’m glad you didn’t start yawning!’

‘After that I think I’d better tell you some of my life story, you interested?’

Now it is Donald’s turn to nod encouragingly.

‘Well there’s not much to say really, my father bought me up in the trade, I could pick pockets before I could walk, when dad died I struck out on my own. I met someone and after he… left, I joined SITU.’

Donald waits for a moment, but it appears that is all. ‘Hmm, that was certainly a lot shorter than mine!’

Sam nods.

‘Well, here’s the hotel now: I imagine we have another long day ahead of us tomorrow,’ says Donald cheerfully.

‘I’ve got something to sort out: catch you tomorrow,’ says Sam, and she disappears into the night, leaving Donald standing in the Hilton doorway.

Donald, walking back into the hotel, finds George enjoying a sundowner in the bar, and discusses the evening’s finding with him, before heading for a phone to order up the dubhium serum and the Grail from SITU. ‘They’ll be with you tomorrow afternoon,’ promises a tired-sounding Andre Swahn. ‘And we’re sending out a new guy to help you out, too – Michael Williamson. He’s something of an expert on the ghosts and spirits side of things. And, more importantly, he’s run up against Abdel Essawi and his tricks before, back in Buckinghamshire with the Keepers of the Hidden Circles. He’s a good man to have by your side.’

Jo wakes up suddenly, in the middle of the night, not sure what has startled her from her dreamless sleep. Her hands are both pressed against her scarring, but it is not that. No, a noise, somewhere along the corridor. She slips out of bed, picking up her knife, and pads quietly over to the door. Peering out, she sees George, who is peering likewise out of his own door opposite. ‘Did you hear something?’

‘It was Donald, I think, screaming something. It sounded like he was saying “Tanith”.’

‘Tanith? Did she get to him that badly?’ Jo wonders. Together they look into Donald’s room – the door is open and he is not there. Jo glances into the bathroom, which has water freshly splashed about. She catches a movement in the mirror, and whirls round, but there is nothing there: it was just the shower curtain, twitching in the breeze from the air-conditioning.

‘Try the bar,’ suggests George, and they head downstairs.

Donald is in the late-night bar, in his night clothes, leaning against the bar, his forehead pressed against a post, drinking a whisky – the first time either of them have seen him touch alcohol. He is smoking rapidly, and looks very pale and shaky.

‘Are you all right, old chap?’ asks George concernedly.

‘Yes, fine, thanks,’ says Donald tightly. ‘I had a bit of a nightmare, that’s all. Needed some air.’ He lights another cigarette from the stub.

‘You shouted out – it sounded like “Tanith”,’ says Jo. ‘Were you dreaming –’

‘Look, just leave me alone, all right?’ Donald snaps, glaring at Jo, his face fierce enough that even she is shocked. He immediately calms, though, running a hand across his face. ‘Sorry, sorry – I didn’t mean to shout at you. Look, maybe we can talk about it some other time? Right now I need some space.’

Jo and George, exchanging glances, return upstairs.

Phil is first up in the morning, and trots downstairs, whistling to himself, to check if any faxes have arrived for him. He has left a little note in his bedside cabinet.

‘Mister Harlow! Fax for you, sir, yes.’

Phil scans it quickly. The only SITU references are to the other SITU, the cryptozoological organization based in the USA. And a right bunch of nutters they look like, he thinks, always off looking for Yetis and Loch Ness Monsters. But plenty on cult activity in Egypt. Mostly Islamic cults, but a few millenarian Christian ones, and some pagan ones too. The combination of social pressures – rapidly-increasing population in the already-overcrowded cities – and economic ones – the agricultural woes caused by the Aswan Dam’s disruption of the Nile’s regular flood – have strengthened the hand of those who promise greater things in another life.

Arabella comes down, looking rather tired and pale, and Phil muses that she has seemed a bit, well, quieter and out-of sorts than he remembers from Glastonbury. Probably nothing, though: she was probably working into the night researching on the Web.

Rupert and the Major come down together, Rupert saying ‘George, old fellow, I feel we should speak to that mad Dutchman again, don’t you? Maybe look into what he was saying a bit more. It sounded like total madness, but then so does Donald most of the time. The difference is that at least van Heuvelen is on drugs, and can come down from them sometimes.’

‘Good idea,’ says George enthusiastically, hoping that this presages a more constructive mood on Rupert’s part on this new day of investigation.

John appears, and fills the group in on his spirit world trip of the previous evening, after checking that there is no-one close enough to overhear.

Rupert is astounded at the sound of such drolleries coming from the mouth of the normally serious John. ‘Astral travel? Well, I suppose it makes a change from assassinating innocent civilians, or maybe attempting to kill your best friends in the real American armed forces tradition. I can’t wait for what stroke of genius you and Jo are planning to pull next. It’ll be just like old times at Glastonbury.’

John says restrainedly ‘Rupert, if you tried opening your mind sometimes instead of just getting out of it things could go a lot better for you. I’ve known people that started life with jack shit and they managed to do things with themselves. But you, you had it made from the moment you fell out of your mother, and all you do is bitch and whine about how the world’s against you. Well why not take a trip down to the slum areas around here and see how some people begin. You’d better be careful though, if you actually open your eyes to what’s going on around you, you may just realize how shallow all this “Poor old Rupert” shit is.’

‘Anyway,’ puts in George hurriedly, ‘that might tie in with what van Heuvelen said. I thought his talking about “the one who was killed by mistake and the one who was killed deliberately” might refer to Hetepheres and Haremakhet. Are we any further toward finding, or even contacting, these spirits?’

‘Maybe the new guy can help out with that,’ says Donald quietly. He has been picking at his breakfast.

‘That or Mostafa Husseini. He could be a valuable ally, as he is a man of great power and influence. We would do well to keep on his good side. Do you two’ George looks at John and Phil ‘think he might be willing to help us against Essawi? Would he at least be able to put us on to any “anti-Essawi” contacts?’

‘I think so,’ says Phil. ‘He seemed like a careful man, but he clearly had quite a down on Essawi.’

‘And as for van Heuvelen, what does anyone think of what he said about the Beast?’ Blank looks. ‘Could he be referring to the city of Akhetaten when he said “fingers come out of the sand”? Bodies being uncovered? Statues marking the ancient city? Ancient Egyptians coming to life?’ He pauses. ‘I think we should have a long chat with van Heuvelen. He knows much that we could use, although we might have to straighten him out a bit before we get any sense out of him.’

‘I think we have to consider a visit to Tell el-Amarna,’ says Arabella quietly. ‘It was the old centre of Aten worship and I think it still is. I’m going to hire a car and take a drive out there. If anyone wants to come along, they’d be welcome.’

Rupert snorts. ‘For God’s sake, woman, isn’t this stuff boring enough without spending days wandering around stupid ruins. I’ve definitely had my fill of looking at old rocks, ancient scribblings, and dead plebs of all kinds. I’m not going, and that’s that. I’ve far more interesting things to do here. There’s counting the bedbugs, for one. Have you been able to distract yourself from Jo for long enough to see how many of them come out at night and try to consume you? I wonder what warped and stupid brainless army thing she has planned for today –’

But at that point Arabella sees Jo roll up her eyes exasperatedly, and something in her gives way. He needs help, but the idiot seems intent on driving away anyone who can. She’d lend him the money he wants, if she thought for one minute that he was trying to help himself, but it’s very obvious he isn’t interested in kicking his habit, only getting another fix. She stands up suddenly. ‘Rupert, shut up. I’ve had enough of this stupid name-calling. I’ve asked you nicely, now I’m telling you, back off Jo, or you’ll regret it.’

Rupert laughs nastily. ‘Oh, Arabella, come now. If you want to get into Jo’s knickers then just say so. It’s pointless beating about the bush like this and dropping subtle hints. She just isn’t bright enough to understand them!’

Arabella, her face pale and rigid, walks around the table, hauls Rupert up and without warning, knees him in the groin, leaving him wheezing on the floor. ‘You’re a pathetic excuse for a human being, and now you’re a pathetic excuse for a man…’

‘Ooh, right in the crown jewels,’ sympathizes George. He extends an arm to help Rupert back to his feet, but Rupert strikes it away, staggering up by himself.

‘You fucking bitch!’ gasps Rupert venomously. ‘My parents always told me never to hit a woman, but I’m not sure if you count as one. You’re so repressed, and so desperate for some blind moron to finally take your virginity it’s laughable. Why don’t you stick to the fake and repressed world you know?’

With that he rises, with difficulty, and spits in her face, then feints a punch.

‘I am sick to the back teeth with you two!’ snaps Donald. ‘Rupert, shut up or I WILL shoot you! Arabella, stop trying to be friends with him it is making a bad situation worse – if he wants to mope around, let him! You let us down last time and nearly got me killed, don’t do it again or I’ll line you up with Rupert. We’re supposed to be a team, not a rabble.’ He gets up and storms off. ‘I’m going to see the boy, he seems more responsible and mature than the pair of you!’

Rupert meanwhile is shouting to be heard, ‘I have really had enough of you lot! It’s about time I forgot about you and made some new friends in Egypt. The sort of friends who understand me and what I want. You’re just sick and stupid!’ He storms off too, in the opposite direction.

There is a moment’s pause, while Arabella, regaining her control, sits stiffly back down. Jo studiously avoids catching her eye, and waits.

Phil and Sam look at George: not for the first time, they are wondering what exactly happened in Mexico to create this much tension in the group.

George clears his throat embarrassedly. He realizes it is tending to fall to him to provide leadership. This SITU business isn’t proving the relaxing retirement pastime he had hoped. ‘Er… yes. Myself and Sarfraz, if he agrees to come, will travel to Amarna with you, Arabella, as companions, and we should take along one of the more capable members of our party – Jo, perhaps.’

Jo nods. She has been even quieter and more restrained than usual during this exchange, and Phil sees her looking at Arabella when she knows the other woman cannot see.

‘Sarfraz will be very helpful with his knowledge of the language,’ continues George, ‘and he may have been on digs here, so he might know his way around. The trip should only take a long day to make, dependent, of course, on the regularity and punctuality of the local trains.’

Arabella nods. ‘I’ve checked the trains: you can’t do it in a day, unfortunately, we’ll have to overnight there. And in fact we’d be better off hiring a car: the road runs alongside the railway, and it’ll be a lot more comfortable having air-conditioning. Actually, a car will be useful in any case: I’ll look into that straight away. Two cars. We should probably head down to Tell el-Amarna this afternoon, spend the evening and the morning of tomorrow investigating, and travel back to Cairo tomorrow afternoon.’ At least I’m providing useful information, she thinks to herself. But is it going to lead us into danger?’

George nods. ‘If we’re back here on the 9th, that gives us a whole day to follow up before the sun goes out.’

‘While you’re off, we can follow up the leads here – Essawi’s stables, for a start,’ says Sam.

‘You’ll have to be very careful and circumspect,’ warns George. ‘But you might be able to gauge the calibre and quantity of his guards and security measures.’

‘I found out some more about the horse race,’ says John. ‘It’s just one stop up the line – fifteen minutes’ ride – and anyone can turn up, you don’t have to book or anything.’

‘Mm, the horse race / eclipse connection,’ muses Phil, pen in his mouth. ‘Possibly a coincidence, but it may be worth a couple of us checking up on. Wasim might be a good avenue to ask through – we’ve used hi already as a contact, and as an added bonus he’s described as a ‘shady’ waiter in the briefing. He might have some gossip – we may even get a good tip and make a profit from this.’

‘And we might even get a chance to meet Essawi if we play it right,’ says Arabella, although it is not clear from her expression whether she thinks this would be a good thing.

‘We will need to find out exactly what time the eclipse will occur,’ says George, ‘and if it coincides with the horse race. If it does coincide, I wonder if the horse, “Akhetaten”, has an unwitting part to play in the proceedings. Could it merely represent the ancient city and the old ways triumphing against the darkness of Islamic fundamentalism?’

‘The eclipse isn’t until about two in the afternoon,’ says Arabella, who has already checked this on the Web.

‘And although it’s not total, the sky will darken appreciably,’ nods George. ‘Before we set off, though, I want to have a good chat with Sarfraz. Can anyone throw light on Sarfraz’ reference to Essawi having “the mark of the witch on his forehead”? Is this a real mark, or just a figure of speech?’ Blank looks. ‘And, although I personally will not be taking part, I think it could be important for anyone willing, who doesn’t believe in “soul” and “spirit”, to get involved with Wafic Said. He is a very powerful man who may be able to give us a great deal of help?’

‘Maybe his magic won’t work for anyone who’s that sceptical, though,’ says John. ‘Presumably you have to be able to make some sort of internal spiritual commitment, to participate.’

Phil snorts, but manages to turn it into a cough.

‘Don’t wander off alone, though,’ says Jo, straightening up.

‘I’ll come with you, George,’ says John. ‘And the last thing is the cult and its ceremonies.’ Much as he hates to admit it, Rupert’s observation about the eclipse was a good one. Maybe there’s hope for the junkie after all? ‘I think that should be the main thrust of the investigation at the moment. And going back to the Imam tomorrow for another chat would be a good idea – he could shed a lot more light on the activities/ceremonies of the cult.’

‘I’d just like a break from the mumbo-jumbo and a little more science this time,’ mutters Phil. ‘We’ve chased up all the contacts we were given, but it won’t harm to add a couple. We know Essawi has links with the Islamic terrorists. I could contact someone from the press and find out about activity recently. It’ll only take a phone-call, unless anyone has any objections. Also, I wouldn’t mind making a trip to a museum – they must have one somewhere. It’s Egypt. Mummies and everything. They may have some artifacts from the period.’

‘Check up if there’s any artifacts associated with this cult,’ advises Jo. ‘And how easy they are to steal.’

‘If the cult’s been operational all this time, though, it’s probably already got all the artifacts it needs,’ says John. ‘I can’t see them waiting until the last minute before raiding the museums for their vital equipment: they seem too well organized for that.’

‘And see if there’s any local celebrations planned for the eclipse,’ adds Jo, undeterred.

‘I checked up on that,’ says Phil. ‘Nothing at all, funnily enough. They don’t seem to think it’s anything to make much of a fuss about. There’s an article in the paper saying how silly Europeans are for making such a big deal of it.’

Arabella comes back from the hotel lobby, having hired two Landrovers from the Avis desk there, carrying an armful of mobile phones. She dishes them out to everyone present (ie. not Rupert or Donald).

Jo, watching her, takes the opportunity to corner her. ‘Listen, Rupert ceased to bother me a long time ago. Don’t let him drag you down with him, you’re doing fine.’ Arabella looks uneasy, and backs away slightly from Jo, clearly torn between conflicting wishes. To reassure her about the mission, Jo adds, ‘Everyone makes mistakes. But the only one you’re making right now is to doubt yourself. We all learned a lot on the last two missions. I’ve got a feeling this one will come out all right.’

Arabella can only muster a weak smile before turning away.

Phil meanwhile is calling the Cairo Times. ‘Hello – this is Phil Harlow, freelance, used to work for the London Evening Standard. Can I talk to Mustafa Nazir, please? Great, thanks. Hello? Mr Nazir? I saw your article on the Islamic Brotherhood, the day before yesterday. Great stuff, yes. I’ve got a sort of a busman’s holiday question, really. I thought I may be able to sell a story on the current state of the Islamic movement over here. I got from your piece that the Islamic Brotherhood are one of the more active groups at the present – could you fill me in what’s been happening recently?’ He learns that the Brotherhood have been steadily more active over the last year or so, broadly since the attack on the Pyramid of Khentkaus. Their target profile has changed sharply in that time, too: rather than attacking tourists, as they were previously wont, they have been aiming at infrastructural targets such as power stations, railway lines and so on. He thanks Nazir, and leaves his name and number at the hotel, inviting the rather flattered journalist to call back if he has anything interesting to add.

‘Listen, Mahmoud, forget the machine-gun, OK? That was just a joke one of my friends was playing on me.’

Mahmoud looks mightily relieved. ‘No Mrs Donald?’ he asks, as he hands over a very battered-looking .38 revolver.

Donald inspects it carefully, noting that the numbers have been filed off. He guesses it is police issue. At least the ammunition the boy had given him looks new. ‘No, she’s busy,’ he says. ‘Any information on Essawi?’

Mahmoud looks worried again. ‘Salim, my friend, he was following, last night. But… he no come back. We think he disappear. Hafiz is following now. My other friend.’

Donald nods, absently. ‘Here – come here?’ He runs his hands over Mahmoud’s grimy head, peering at his face and scalp.

‘Ow! What you doing, Mr Donald?’ Mahmoud writhes perturbedly, but Donald’s grip is firm.

‘OK, that’ll do.’ Donald finally lets him go. ‘I thought you might be ill – you’re looking a bit pasty there.’ He straightens up, relieved that he has found no strange tattoos or other marks (beyond the normal scars) on the lad’s head.

‘Sarfraz my dear fellow, how would you like a little trip up river?’ asks George affably. He, John and the old man are sitting at a pavement café, sipping arak. ‘No digging, just guiding.’

Sarfraz looks pleased. ‘To Luxor? I know all the temples, effendi. Temple of Hatshepsut, Temple of Karnak, Ramesseum…’

‘Not that far. Just to Tell el-Amarna.’

Sarfraz nods. ‘Is easy, yes, I know. But there is not good things to see there, effendi. No big temples, just all ruins. Other pharaohs, they took the bricks away.’

‘We just want to have a look at the place and maybe talk to some people, if you’ll help translate. It’ll mean staying overnight. All at our expense, of course. Leaving this afternoon.’

Sarfraz nods philosophically: he is clearly used to the whimsical ways and senseless urgency of Europeans.

John scans the people walking by in the street: mostly just villagers, plus the odd suit-clad man rushing back from the city. And two police, both talking self-importantly into their radios. It is already very hot. One of the police is staring at the two Europeans, as far as can be told from his dark sunglasses, but he is too far away to overhear.

‘You said Essawi is a servant of the witch, Sarfraz. And that you and an imam defeated him. What did you mean by that?’

‘Oh, effendi, it was a glorious victory. The witch is… a witch, I do not know her name, maybe she does not have a name as you or I have names. She is the Witch of Egypt, she lives in Cairo, has always lived in Cairo – maybe she is a spirit, or she moves from body to body. But my mother warned me against her and her servants. Her servants wear this mark on heir foreheads, a silver mark – you see it when the light catches it sideways.’ He sketches with his finger on the table. A semicircle, and under it a heart-shaped blob surmounted by a small cross.

‘Is that a hieroglyph?’ asks George, making a copy of it.

Sarfraz shrugs. ‘But it was not he who was defeated by myself and the imam, effendi, it was the Englishmen, the devil-worshippers. They wanted to cast a magic in the pyramid of Khentkaus. The imam, Sheikh Abu Kamal, he roused the good Muslim people of Nazlet el-Simman with a mighty speech against foul magics, and the people rose and attacked the pyramid, and pulled the Englishmen out. And Essawi, the servant of the witch, was also trying to stop their magic, although I do not know why. He shot the pyramid with grenades. I saw this and we all did, although the newspapers said it was terrorists.’

George nods, thinking that this ties in pretty well with the account given by the previous SITU group to visit Cairo. ‘And what was it you were saying about “big religious happenings”?’ What might have been likely to happen during eclipse ceremonies?’

Sarfraz spits disparagingly into the gutter. ‘The eclipse is only a natural thing, effendi. The Prophet, blessed be he, told us not to be alarmed or to give way to superstition. Muslim peoples are much more sensible than Christian peoples about this. But the pagan peoples, the devil-worshippers of the old gods, they are much less sensible. You can believe that they had big ceremonies, big sacrifices to their devils, on these eclipse days.’

Rupert has gone to the address in the old bazaar, behind the sweetshop, to find van Heuvelen. As he walks he mutters to himself and kicks pebbles in the road, his shoulders hunched forwards and his expression surly. People avoid getting in his way.

The shopkeeper merely jerks a thumb to where a grimy curtain hangs over a doorway, and as Rupert passes through he sees the Dutchman sitting in darkness, on a battered mattress, the mouthpiece of an ornate and sizeable opium pipe between his lips. The tiny room is hazy with the thick, bitter smoke. Van Heuvelen regards Rupert incuriously.

‘Look old chap, I need to speak to you about some important things. I need to find out who these voices belong to, what they are doing to me and my friends, and why. Can you help me? This is life or death.’

Van Heuvelen passes over the pipe – Rupert wipes it warily before putting it to his mouth, but instantly gets a powerful hit from the drug – and says ‘They are ghosts, ghosts of the dead. A man and a woman, both killed unfairly. They have an enemy here, and they seek the help of mortals to deal with her.’ His voice is calm and clear, not at all like his ravings out at Giza. ‘They died many thousands of years ago. But their lust for revenge is still strong, and their enemy still lives. If you wish to help them, let the man possess you. He tried with me, but the drugs helped me resist. I want no part of his bloody scheme.’

Rupert nods, mellowing out rather under the influence of this A-grade opium. He is beginning to think that van Heuvelen is really rather a fine fellow, once you get to know him. ‘What about the beast? and the hands coming out of the desert?’

The Dutchman shudders. ‘Things come to me in dreams sometimes, which I do not understand. I dreamed of the Sphinx’s face falling away, to reveal – I did not see what, but something. Something hideous. A terrible beast. Maybe the Beast of Revelations, with the number six hundred, three score and six on his forehead. Or maybe some other beast. But at the same time, hands came out of the desert, hands of fire, reaching upwards. I was terrified, as you might imagine.’

Rupert nods sympathetically, handing back the pipe. ‘You and I are both tormented souls, in our way, aren’t we, old chap?’

Van Heuvelen sighs in agreement. ‘But at least we have our good friend the poppy to help us deal with these things. I have plenty here, all I need.’ He indicates a huge block of raw opium – it must be a kilo – stuffed roughly under the pillow. ‘My friend the sweetshop owner gets it for me. He thinks I am mad, and these Islamic people are very kind to the mad. They think they are especially beloved of Allah.’

George, Arabella, Jo and Sarfraz pile into one of the Landrovers and head down the highway in the direction of el-Amarna, while Sam, Phil and John plan out their strategy for finding out more about the horse connection. ‘Essawi’s stables is just outside town, near Ausim actually – where the race is,’ says Phil, who has been ringing round. ‘Not too many visitors, though, I shouldn’t think. It’s a ranch sort of affair, they train there as well. Good security.’

‘And his house in the city has good security, and the Ministry where he works probably does too,’ says John.

Sam nods. She has seen the armed guards standing outside. ‘Well, what did we expect? He’s an important guy.’

‘The concierge told me that Essawi’s horse isn’t very well fancied,’ says John. ‘It’s a 6–1 shot, fourth favourite out of 13 runners. But it’s got some good form. Other horses of his have won some big races out here, including the local classics.’

They look up, to see Donald approaching. ‘I have requested the grail and the serum from SITU be sent to us. I am positive my nightmares are linked to the grail – well, I know they are definitely linked to Tanith and I want to see the magician about it. We got no real information in Glastonbury about the thing apart from its history, so why not get someone who is supposedly gifted to have a look at it?’

‘Good idea,’ says Sam.

‘Until I can sort these dreams out I’m afraid you’re going to have to suffer my outbursts. I’m not sorry for shouting at Rupert and Arabella, though – the pair of them need their heads banging together – but I am sorry for the way I did it. I’m not going to shoot him.’

‘Well, that’s a relief,’ says John drily. ‘Now, before any of that, we ought to head out to the airport and meet the new guy, Michael.’ Let’s hope he’ll add a bit of emotional stability, he thinks to himself.

Michael Williamson yawns as the plane lands at Cairo. He can already feel the heat, as soon as the doors pop open. Not what he needs, after an early start. He spent most of the flight reading the briefing pack, but he is still none too clear as to why SITU have sent him out here on such short notice. Well, that’s life in the Flying Squad, he thinks. Let’s see what these new people are like. He is not at all sure about the Holy Grail, stowed in his overhead locker. Can it be the real thing? What might that mean? He hasn’t touched it yet, just its wrapping. And the medical kit with the dubhium serum, and the dart gun: what’s all that about? The others will know.

He looks very out of place as he strides across the tarmac: tall, thin, pale, dressed in black, including a black hat. He looks like someone who works for a Goth record company, which is exactly what he is. He stoops down to touch the concrete, feeling the power there is in the land here. The taste of Egypt is strong in his mouth, and the memory of his fight with Abdel Essawi. He will need some new tricks this time.

He clears his luggage – just a couple of clean black T-shirts, plus of course the Grail and serum – and scans the waiting crowd, seeing the sign with his name. Well – not many of them! Small girl with blue hair – cute. Squaddie type, looks like he can handle himself. Scruffy, small man with sharp eyes. And a nondescript guy.

‘Hi – I’m Michael. Nice to meet you.’ His voice is quiet: he shakes their hands in turn, but as he takes Donald’s, he drops it as though burnt, and steps back quickly, dread in his eyes.

3.30pm, 8th August 1999

Arabella, Jo and George: on the way to Tell el-Amarna
John, Donald, Sam, Phil and Michael: at the airport
Rupert: with van Heuvelen


Rupert – noted your plans for the 11th, although there’ll probably be a few more turns before that happens.

Sam – you return to see Wafic, and he tells you that he could certainly provide you with the ability to pass undetected, and probably to protect you from some of Essawi’s abilities as well – for example, he could give you a charm against damage by fire – but blanket protection against this man’s panoply of powers is no possible. He tells you that giving up part of your soul is a sort of figure of speech, it means that you must surrender yourself (at least in part) to the dark forces, the demons who provide these magical powers. You will no longer be quite the same person, you will retain an evil streak to your personality. He says that he has found it best to be frank about this subject, so that people cannot say that he deceived them. You will also have to bring him a sacrifice – preferably a street urchin, but a perfect black cat would do. You tell him you will think about it. He has seen the bangle, and says that he can see the mark of the soul inside it. Effectively, the power of the sacrificed soul has gone to create its magical powers. It is a very neat piece of work: he has seen something like it before, but he will not say any more until he knows he can trust you, as these are dangerous people.

Michael – when you take Donald’s hand you get a sudden, terrible rush of death pouring into you. This man is a cold-blooded killer who is a slave to death, and will bring it on all around him.

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