The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
SERVANTS IN THE PLACE OF TRUTH
3.30pm, 8th August 1999
‘Errmmmm. Hi Michael,’ says John. ‘Welcome to Cairo. Do you two know each other or something?’
Donald, looking around to make sure Michael has not created a scene, holds his hand out again. ‘Why don’t we try that again – I’m Donald and you are?’
‘Michael,’ says Michael, this time shaking Donald’s hand normally, not even wincing at the firm squeeze the other man applies. Keep an eye on this guy, he thinks to himself. He could cause trouble, whether intentional or not.
Phil has been watching Michael’s reaction, interested to see what the newcomer adds to his picture of SITU’s recruits. Aside from John, this is his only other meeting with another SITU member apart from those he met in Glastonbury. What have we got to add to the mix this time? He can’t help a little smile – it’s almost like a game the girls had at school, picking the future love of their life from a folded bit of paper. Tinker, tailor, soldier, junkie, thief… It’s unlikely that ‘accountant’ features. He can but hope. As Donald finally steps back, satisfied, he offers his own hand, saying ‘Well, I’m Phil. Voice of sanity.’ Oasis of the bloody stuff in a desert, it feels like, he adds mentally. ‘Welcome to Egypt, land of the Pharaohs. Want a hand with that?’ He points at the luggage.
‘Thanks,’ says Michael tiredly. He puts on a pair of round-lensed mirrored sunglasses.
‘Why don’t we get this dropped off at the hotel? It’ll give us a chance to catch up on things,’ Phil adds meaningfully.
‘Not me, guys,’ says John, glancing around. ‘Sorry to do this unannounced, but I think we’ve been tumbled. Just as a precaution I’m scooting off on me own for a while. If you need to get me use the mobile, but don’t expect an immediate answer. I’ll go with you as far as the car and then peel off. Should cause a small flap with any tail.’
As Arabella drives the others to the remains of the city of Tell el-Amarna, she considers what she hopes to find and how that might relate to their mission outline. The mission outline was for them to do whatever they could to reduce or cripple Nefertiti’s power base: to that end it would be extremely useful if they could destroy or at least discredit, the cult of Aten.
‘Sarfraz, what do you know of the ruins of the ancient city of Akhetaten?’ she asks as she drives. ‘Are their any ruins of the old Aten Cult temples, especially the Pharaoh’s own temple, or the main worship place?’
‘There are places where these buildings are said to have been, professor-lady,’ answers Sarfraz courteously, ‘but there is nothing left to stand in. The floors are all broken.’
‘Do you know if there might be some active worshippers still using them?’
‘There might indeed, professor-lady. There are all manner of evil and crazed people here in the south. Outside the city, all is wilderness.’
Jo, looking out of the car window, does not see that the strip of habitation alongside the river, with its occasional small towns, is so very different from the straggling suburbs of Cairo, but clearly Sarfraz is a city boy at heart.
Arabella listens carefully. It’s time she got back into this investigation, and to do that she has to show that she intends to do what she’s good at, asking questions. The problem is that some of what Rupert said still lingers in her mind; but she pushes those worries to the back of her mind. ‘As I see it, Akhetaten is an prime place to look for Nefertiti’s activities. We’ve been given the job of attempting to cripple her power base and removing Essawi is a start, but I think we ought to think about hitting her in more than one area.’
She watches the reactions of the others through the mirror, seeing George nod encouragingly and Jo continue to look out of the window. ‘Now, Akhetaten was once the centre of Aten worship in the entire Egyptian world, it’s reasonable to expect that there is still some presence there. Even if there isn’t, Nefertiti used to have a power base there and it’s possible we might be able to locate useful information about her past there.
‘In addition I think we ought to discuss trips to the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx. If Nefertiti had influence of Cheops, it’s also possible she might have had similar influence over his son Khephren, the pharaoh who built it. There are also legends of it being either the representation of Ra, the God of the Sun, or even his abode so that he can protect the dead buried in the tombs nearby. Given that Aten and Ra have things in common, what’s the betting that the two might be one and the same ‘deity’? It’s called syncretism – the way that one god gets given some of the attributes of another, similar one, as cultures change over time. Some of these Egyptian gods originally belonged to different cultures altogether, who got conquered.’
Arabella pauses to allow the others to take this concept in. ‘What about you, Sarfraz? Does any of this make sense compared to the legends and myths you’ve been brought up with?’ Although not an archaeologist, the old digger has been around them and something he’s overheard might shed some light on things
‘I know that the sun-gods Amun and Ra were the same,’ says Sarfraz nervously. ‘But I think that Aten was intended to be different. So that the priests of Amun-Ra had their power removed. The pharaoh and his wife were the chief priests of Aten. And there were no statues of Aten, as there were of the other gods. The people worshipped it in the persons of the king and queen.’
‘Perhaps Nefertiti and her husband were absorbing the worship-power directly,’ muses George. ‘Rather than having it intercepted by priests and passed upwards to the gods. Maybe this Aten didn’t even exist before they created the cult.’
‘It certainly was not as durable a demon as the others,’ agrees Sarfraz. ‘After the king died, the cult was very weak, and their god did not work any miracles for them.’
Arabella nods. ‘In any event I’m hoping we’ll find some clue as to the centre of Aten worship in one of those places. If we can find out where the cult is centred, then we might be able to arrange for it to have an accident.’ She stifles a rather inappropriate giggle. ‘At least there won’t be any human sacrifice involved in their rituals. The Egyptians never did follow that route, even at the worst. The culture was, and still is to some degree, centred on the Nile. With it flooding twice a year, they relied on the gods to ensure the growing season. If the Nile didn’t flood, then their fields wouldn’t grow the food needed to see them over the dry season. Most offering were in the form of food, in thanks for what the Gods gave them. An interesting culture, considering its early warlike beginnings.’
Arabella relaxes a little, realizing she’s beginning to feel more a part of the team again. Jo smiles privately at the professorish tone that has taken over her friend’s voice, but she keeps her thoughts to herself and continues scanning the surroundings, looking for cover, routes up out of the valley, potential ambush points: all the old military instincts. This terrain is more cultivated than where she saw action in the Gulf. Hopefully, they won’t get into serious enough trouble to use this preparation: not for a while yet, anyway. She pats the hilts of the two ten-inch knives hidden under her burqqah.
Sam, trailing slightly behind the four men as they walk to the car, examines the items she has lifted from Michael’s jacket pocket – a good quality CD-Walkman, a passport showing him much younger and with longer hair, a decent-sized wad of money – the only interesting thing is a plain white business card, with the word MYSTERIA printed across the middle in bold black letters, and a hologram above the word of a phoenix engulfed in flame. As she tilts the card, she sees the flames wavering around the bird’s body. Shrugging, she returns the items to his pockets, without anyone noticing.
‘…I need to take this to someone,’ Donald is saying, hefting the Grail. ‘It might be and idea for you to meet a couple of people, as freaky as you are I think you can help out.’
‘Thanks,’ says Michael, the shades hiding his eyes still.
I know we got off on the wrong foot, but I’m not a bad bloke really – I just have some… issues.’
‘Are you sure?’ asks Phil. ‘Shouldn’t we stash all these things in the hotel safe – make sure they’re safe?’ But he gets no support. ‘Well, let’s put the serum there, anyway. Look at it this way. If Essawi does find out what we’re up to – and don’t forget both Arabella and Rupert are out and about – then they’re probably a little safer there than in the rooms.’
‘Arabella and Rupert, hm?’ asks Michael. He is remembering what his friend Karyn Hart told him about the SITU team with whom she went to Mexico.
‘See you later,’ says John, and he walks slowly away from the car back towards the terminal building.
‘Great stuff this, old chap,’ says Rupert appreciatively. ‘Nothing like a really effective drug to make you forget all the crap you’ve been feeling. It seems like you’re the same, old fellow.’ Van Heuvelen is nodding understandingly. ‘Why’s that, then? I know why I’m fed up. What about you?’
‘I was betrayed by people I trusted,’ says the Dutchman bitterly. Now it is Rupert’s turn to nod understandingly, and pass back the mouthpiece of the opium pipe. ‘Colleagues – friends, I thought. People who respected me, or they should have. I had a brilliant career, you know, my friend. Now – ruined!’ he makes an extravagant gesture. ‘Hounded out of the profession. I was an archaeologist, yes, although you may not believe it now. Working for the University of Oxford. But I was turned out of my job, lost my career, betrayed by Professor Bird – that vile woman – and why? Because I had these terrible dreams. She said I was unreliable, I was a drunkard, but I tell you, I had to take something to keep the dreams away. One’s friends should provide support on these occasions, shouldn’t they?’
Rupert nods again, glumly. It all sounds too familiar. ‘I hope you don’t mind if I spill my guts up, eh? In the metaphorical sense, I mean. It’s just that I’ve been wanting for such a time to speak to someone who won’t judge me.’
‘I judge you to be a very fine fellow,’ says van Heuvelen dreamily. ‘And a sensitive one.’
‘Yes, well,’ says Rupert, rather flattered, ‘you may well be the only one who thinks so. None of my group seem to want to do anything but tell me what to do. As you may know, I’m the son of a Viscount – now some idiots, like my colleague John, may think this is wonderful. “Born with a silver spoon in your mouth” is what people tell me. Everything you could ever want, all the gifts, food, houses you would ever need. My father’s just so rich, why on earth could anyone have a problem? But whoever says that is simply not thinking. You can have all the money in the world, but if it replaces good honest love from your parents then you are in deep trouble. My father just threw money around everywhere, but when it came to talking to me, when it came to really caring, giving a hug, or a kind word, he just didn’t know how. I don’t care how much money you have, a family without love is dead. So I took the money, as I was supposed to. I used it as I wanted. To enjoy myself.’
‘To buy happiness.’
‘Yes, yes,’ says Rupert, not pleased to be interrupted in mid-flow. ‘There were no strings attached, you see, so why not? Then just recently he suddenly writes and tells me I’m cut off without a penny. My income gone. My life gone. More importantly, my father’s symbol of love – money – is gone. What little he did seem to care was always shown by money. Now I don’t even have that. My brother was always both their favourites. I was always the black sheep. So I lived up to it. But to virtually tell me they don’t even care about me any more is terrible. How would it make you feel? Suddenly they leave you to sink or swim on your own. They are virtually saying I could die for all they care! It’s just horrible!’ Rupert draws extra deeply on the pipe to calm himself, tears in his eyes.
At the Hilton, Michael is at last able to relax as he enters the air-conditioned lobby. The relief of coolness is considerable.
‘Wearing black probably doesn’t help,’ says Sam, but Michael just looks at her: he has kept his sunglasses on.
They deposit the serum and dart gun in the safe, and head for a secluded table.
‘So, what can you tell us about this Essawi then?’ asks Phil.
Michael looks from one to the other, wondering how much to tell them. ‘Well,’ he says slowly and quietly, ‘he’s a mean old man. He’s got considerable mental powers – or psychic powers, whatever you like to call them. He can exert his will over others and make them slaves of a sort. Only people of weak will, I think.’ That description certainly fitted Tanya, but what about Jack Callaghan? He had been turned too. ‘But maybe it’s just harder work for him to turn someone who’s more strong-willed. He can see astral projections, and he can act against them – harm them.’
‘Er… what do you mean, exactly?’ asks Phil. He is concerned that this newcomer may turn out to be an even bigger loon than his current companions.
‘I mean, if you project your spirit out of your body when you’re around him, he can see it and can harm it,’ says Michael calmly. ‘And in Branston Hall he used a magical communication device – a bowl full of water. We think he was using it to talk to his boss Nefertiti.’
‘What happens when he… “turns” somebody?’ asks Sam.
‘They act to his will – like a zombie almost. You can tell them because they get this silvery mark on their foreheads, which you can see when the light’s right.’ He sketches it quickly on a beermat: a semicircle, and under it a heart-shaped blob surmounted by a small cross. ‘It’s the hieroglyphs for “Nefertiti”.’ He takes a long drink of his JD and coke, nerving himself to call up the memories associated with what he is about to say. ‘And… he can resist the darkness, the thanatos. He pulled out power from the obelisk – sun power.’ The flash of light, the fire, and the falling…
‘Right,’ says Donald into the pause which follows. ‘Are you coming along with me, then? There’s someone I’d like you to meet.’
John, walking back towards the terminal, sees two dark-clad men in frantic argument. Eventually they hop into their car, an unmarked Chrysler, and speed off after the other operatives, one talking into a mobile phone. Clearly they have decided he can cause little trouble here by himself.
He tours the airport shops, which does not take very long, and buys himself a hands-free microphone and earpiece for his phone. He manages to find a week-old copy of the Dagens Nyheter, and takes up a vantage, sipping strong coffee: there is a long interview with Stina Nordenstam about her new album, but other than that not much seems to be happening in Sweden. The arrivals board ticks over quietly, with a plane every fifteen minutes or so, from the great cities of Europe and from all over the Middle East. Security is more relaxed than he has seen at some places in the region, but there are plenty of soldiers about, to be whistled up in case of an emergency.
A deputation of wealthy-looking Arabs comes through the barriers, surrounded by besuited flunkies carrying briefcases: the Saudi flag is prominent. A trade visit, some sort of ministerial contact? At the moment the Egyptians are going through a phase of being nice to their fellow-Arabs: President Mubarak, needing as many strong friends as he can get, has been doing a good job of alternately satisfying Western and Islamic feeling. Within the hour, another delegation arrives, this time from Tunisia.
John finishes his coffee and takes a taxi back into the city: he is not followed, as far as he can see.
George, squinting up into the sky, gauges the sun angle shallow enough that low-lying features, and anything sticking up from the sand, will cast a long shadow. He has asked Sarfraz to sketch out for him the disposition of the ruins: the old man’s fingers move swiftly over the paper.
The whole site is in a rough rectangle along the bank of the river, twice as long as it is wide. ‘Here is the palace, effendi, and here is the great temple of Aten.’ The two compounds face each other east-west. ‘Here is what they call the hall of records, further south. Here –’ he jabs with his finger ‘– is the house of the sculptor Thutmose. Here was found a very beautiful thing.’ He peers up at George, his eyes sharp. ‘The painted limestone bust of Nefertiti which is in the museum in Berlin – very beautiful. The most beautiful portrait to have come out of Egypt. It was this which made people think that Nefertiti’s name – it means “most beautiful one” – was not just a flattery.’ He continues sketching, shading the cliffs which surround the rectangular bay. ‘And the tombs are in these cliff s here. Tombs of nobles and courtiers.’
‘What about the tomb of Nefertiti?’ asks George. Without the digger’s help, he would never have guessed that there had once been a great city here. Nothing even resembling a wall is standing above the ground.
‘That has never been found, effendi. Nor any writings as to where it may lie. The pharaoh Akhenaten’s tomb lies in the mountains to the east, but not his queen’s.’
George straightens up, gazing out across the bleak, dusty site, about three miles by six. There is no sign of habitation – the modern town is on the west bank of the river, as are the road and railway line – and only what look like rough lumps of rock break the monotony. Despite the warmth, he shivers, glancing across to where the tombs in the cliff wall to the east are now being painted by the setting sun. This must be a desolate place by night.
Arabella meanwhile is peering out towards the west, into the setting sun. Standing as she is at the main altar of the temple of Aten, the sun would be coming right over the top of the palace. ‘As people watched the sun set, they saw its rays falling last on its priest the pharaoh,’ she says quietly to herself. ‘Then in the morning he was first to greet it as it rose.’ To the east, the rising sun is supposed to fit snugly into a notch in the cliffs opposite, so that it resembles the hieroglyph for ‘horizon’. This is supposedly why Akhenaten chose this site for his capital. ‘Dawn would be the time to be here,’ she says aloud, surprising Jo, who is scanning the area rather dolefully. There is a lot of broken ground, but it is generally open. Concealment of a small group would be easy, but safe escape difficult.
‘Do you know any people locally, Sarfraz, who might be able to help us?’ asks George.
Sarfraz nods. ‘A man I worked with once, digging at Kom Ombo – Maleel. He ha a family here. A good man.’
‘Good. What I’m thinking is that if there’s a cult of Nefertiti still going, they may be worshipping here – are you with me? And it seems to me that as her tomb’s not here, the likely places are either the palace or the temple of Aten.’
‘You can see one from the other, so it does not matter which,’ points out the digger.
‘Exactly. Now I don’t have any idea when they might meet, or what they might do, but perhaps your friend could tell us, eh?’
John meanwhile is in the quarters of Imam Mustafa Hosseini. ‘Greetings again sir.’ He is not entirely sure if this is the correct way to address an Imam, but the old man smiles encouragingly. ‘I was hoping you may be able to spare some of your time again? I understand that when our friends were here last time you gave some assistance to one of them, Mickey I think it was, when he was going to visit the pyramid of Khentkaus. I am going to visit the ruins soon and would be grateful of any advice or help you may be able to give me regarding this. If it’s not too much trouble, could you give me an account of what you saw happen there?’
Hosseini grimaces. ‘Bad times, bad times. I did not witness the terrible events myself. I heard that the English people made their way into the pyramid. Then members of the faithful assaulted it. Then the man Essawi also assaulted it, and he destroyed it. But all was chaos. Allah protected those who were on the side of right, as is his way, including your friend Mickey. I gave him a phylactery to safeguard him from the attack of evil spirits, which he feared greatly. And rightly so. If you too are combating evil spirits, I can help you likewise, but these gifts are not to be given lightly.’
‘Of course they aren’t,’ agrees John.
On the way back to the hotel, he hires a Landrover, and stops in a bookshop to pick up some large-scale maps of the Giza complex. It is probably the best-mapped part of the city, quite possibly of all Egypt, and he is pleased with what he purchases.
In his room once more, he changes into jogging gear, and makes a call to SITU. ‘Hi, it’s John again. Yes I know, I can’t seem to leave you alone, but I have a question. There is a gentleman here, van Heuvelen, that I understood to be still at home under medical supervision.’
‘What? He’s supposed to be safely locked up in Yorkshire!’ Andre Swahn sounds shocked.
‘You didn’t realize he’d left the hospital? I thought you might be interested in that one. Would it be possible to send me a report from his doctor on how he was progressing?’
‘Mm, of course. How the hell could this have happened? Listen, Iain – sorry, John I mean – there’s been more and more of this sort of thing lately. I don’t know what Blaize thinks he’s up to! He must have authorized the release. And why wasn’t I told?’
‘Er, well, I’ll leave that with you then. Thanks,’ says John nervously.
While Sarfraz heads off into the town to find his friend Maleel, the three operatives check into the hotel Arabella has arranged. Freshening up before dinner, Jo hears a knock on the door, and opens it to find Arabella, already wearing a clean skirt and blouse, looking nervous. She says, after a moment’s pause, ‘I need to talk, if you don’t mind.’
Jo stands aside to let her come in, closes the door, and sits on the edge of the bed, waiting for her to speak. Arabella stops just inside the door. ‘Jo, I’m sorry for being a real pain these last couple of days, I’ve been trying to figure out if I belong here.’ She looks over at her friend. ‘I nearly got you and all the others killed in Glastonbury, not to mention blabbing all I knew to that jerk in Central America. I’m so scared that I’ll do it again here and make things all that much harder for you all. I guess messing up with Tanith really did knock my self confidence.’
Arabella lets herself walk over to the window and look out of it. ‘Now I’m overreacting to Rupert, trying to protect you like … like some kind of mother hen.’ She spins and looks her friend straight in the eyes. ‘Jo, I don’t know the best way to put this, so I’ll come straight out with it. I’m not sure if Rupert didn’t have it right after all. What if all I do want is… is go to bed with you? We’re closer than friends, I like you more like a sister, I think, yet it’s more intimate. I’ve never thought about the idea before, but now Rupert’s brought it up, I don’t know.’
She blushes and looks away from her friend’s eyes. ‘I’m a virgin, never even been kissed.’ Her voice tries to make light of it, but the confusion comes through. ‘Dammit Jo, do you want to sleep with me? If you do, I’d… I’d… I don’t know, the idea feels strange, but not repellent or disgusting. Damn that Rupert, why did he have to open this can of worms?!’
Jo’s been silent through all this, knowing that by interrupting she may cause her friend to clam up again. Unfortunately, she’s chosen the precise moment of Arabella’s question to take a mouthful of water. After she’s finished spluttering, she sets the glass aside, quite calmly, and stands up.
‘Arabella, you’re the best friend I’ve got. You know that.’ She can’t stop herself laughing. ‘Never been kissed, indeed! You know what we’re going to do tonight? I’m going to take you to a club, we’ll have a few drinks, dance a bit and then pick up a couple of men for the night. It’s about time you learned to unwind.’ She feels a bit out of her depth herself. The usual – male – army bonding rituals she’s seen seem to involve getting drunk and laid in that order and it’s the only pattern of behaviour she’s got to go by. But, feeling she needs something more than army behaviour to fall back on, she pauses then adds, more seriously ‘You know your problem? You’re confusing sex and friendship – and it’s no wonder. Until you’ve tried them both you’re hardly going to know the difference.’
Jo pauses again, staring at her feet. She desperately doesn’t want to hurt her friend, or embarrass her, but this needs to be cleared up now, before Arabella can get any further into it. ‘Sorry, ’Bella,’ she says gently. ‘I don’t want to sleep with you. But don’t let Rupert or anyone else belittle our friendship, or try to turn it into something it isn’t. I need you here.’ Grinning, she adds, ‘All that stuff about Egyptian myth; I wouldn’t know where to start. And Glastonbury was just as much my fault as it was yours, remember? At least you didn’t go shooting innocent policemen.’
Jo sees a faint smile. Has this got their friendship back on a level footing? She slings a sisterly arm around Arabella’s still rather stiff shoulder and steers her to the door. ‘Come on; lets go and get a drink and see who else is in the bar.’ The thought of what the local clubs must be like in Tell el-Amarna makes her laugh out loud again, and, gingerly at first, Arabella joins in.
Michael rather warily accompanies Donald out onto the street, where the latter whistles for Mahmoud. When the boy appears, he looks very bedraggled and miserable. ‘Mr Donald, Mr Donald – is very bad. Hafiz he no come back. And then Roshan, he disappear too.’
Donald’s face is grim. ‘Listen, you’d better call your friends off following, then, It’s too dangerous now.’
‘But Roshan was not even started following.’ Mahmoud looks close to tears.
Donald turns to Michael. ‘Can you check him out – reckon he’s under any sort of influence?’
‘It’s not just like waving a magic wand, you know,’ Michael says rather tersely. He is too tired and hot to be able to concentrate properly, but as far as he can tell there is nothing unusual about Mahmoud, apart from his extraordinary grime and smelliness.
Donald hisses breath out between his teeth. ‘OK, come with me then, there’s someone else I’d like you to meet too.’
‘Look, what you said about that male spirit and trying to get it to enter your body. Why did you want to do that? What would it achieve?’
‘No, no, I did not want to, he wanted to. To enter me. To take over my body so I would do his will. He is weak as just a spirit, he needs a host, and so does his lady-friend. If you visit the broken pyramid and open your mind, he will find you, whether you want him or not, and you will have to be strong to resist him. But he will not be a kind tenant of your body.’
‘And he and the other one brought down an empire, or a city was it?’ ventures Rupert hazily. ‘What was all that about?’
‘No, they did not, they were weak, defeated creatures, their witch enemy defeated them and they were killed. Since then they have sought vengeance, but they have not found it yet. The cities were brought down by the Beast.’
‘Beast, eh? Might that have anything to do with Nefertiti, and the sun cult she headed?’
‘Some people think that her husband Akhenaten was Moses. But they are foolish. Moses lived in the next dynasty, it was one of the Ramessids who was his contemporary. Probably Rameses II, Userma’atre Setepenre. But the Beast of Revelations has not come yet. Or if it did, it wore another face. The Book talks of the Whore of Babylon riding it, but Babylon never had a ruling Queen. It was the angels who released the seven plagues, or else they will do. But Egypt has already had seven plagues, in the time of Moses.’ Van Heuvelen seems to have descended into rambling.
Rupert shakes his head to cry and clear it slightly – he could make very little sense of that. ‘Now this is really important, old chap, and I’d appreciate your candid response. What do you think will happen on the night of the eclipse, when the sun cult meet? What do they plan?’
‘They will want to reattach, I think. The sun will have disappeared, and they will have lost their attachment to it. They will have to make sure it is still with them. But I do not think they will wait for night.’
At the doorway of Wafic Said’s house Michael pales and staggers. This is a very powerful necromancer, who has gained his powers not from within but from somewhere very dark. The stench of blood and the sound of screaming is everywhere.
Donald, unaware of Michael’s discomfort, drags him in and plonks him down opposite the black magician. ‘I need your help – you spoke to some friends of mine about Essawi.’
Said seems not at all perturbed by this sudden visitation. He grins at Michael, who now feels very sick.
‘I have a possibly magical object with me that I’d like you to look at,’ continued Donald. ‘It’s supposedly a little damaged from fire. We retrieved it from a site in England, the people using it raised a spirit and tried to control it, because I was linked to the spirit somehow I managed to stop things from getting too bad. Now I don’t understand a thing about magic and spirits, and I’m not sure if I believe in them, but I saw some weird shit that is freaking me out. It’s giving me some real crappy nightmares – I believe it was from a couple of incidents I was involved in but I need to know if it is just psychological, or if the grail and the spirit have affected me in some way.’
Digging in the bag, he hands over the Holy Grail. Said does not touch it, but allows Donald to place it in front of him. He raises his eyebrows slightly.
To Michael, the Grail looks broken. Its smooth, clean lines should be powerful, but instead it is empty and sterile.
‘Only a foolish man thinks that the mind can be separated from the spirit, and I do not think you are such a man,’ says Said slowly. ‘Psychology is a word for things that happen in the mind, yes? If what you saw affected your mind, it assuredly affected your spirit also. And if its influence can be lifted from your spirit, it may ease your mind, too.’
Donald frowns, trying to follow this. ‘Are you saying that the ghost does have some sort of hold on me?’
‘That I do not yet know, but it seems likely. I can find out, and I can lift the influence if there is any. And I can see what other influences there may be on you. But of course you must pay for this.’
‘Pay what?’ asks Donald.
‘Your friends know my price,’ says Said. ‘One of them is already happy to pay it.’ He smiles.
‘Listen, I’m not sure this is such a good idea,’ says Michael worriedly. He knows that the price Said is talking about is likely to involve part of Donald’s soul.
Donald glares at him. ‘I’ll be the judge of that, OK?’ He turns back to Said. ‘And the other thing is, this grail – can it be used against Essawi? Or stop his powers?’
The necromancer glances at it dismissively. ‘Not as it is now. It will have to be imbued with new power before it is of any use. I can do this for you. But for that you must also pay, of course.’ He smiles again.
‘I’ve got to get out of here,’ says Michael hurriedly.
He is very sick indeed over the pavement outside.
By the time John returns from seeing the waiter Wasim, with whom he has made an arrangement for a rather special purchase – to be completed the following evening – there is a fax from England waiting for him. He scans it quickly. Schizophrenia, paranoid delusions, not responding well to antipsychotics – he is no expert, but it does not look as though van Heuvelen was ready to resume a healthy and active role in society at the time of his release. The release order is signed by Geoff Blaize.
Eating a light dinner, he climbs into the Landrover and heads out to the Giza complex, by himself. It is some time after dark before he sees a knot of people, clad in white, start to gather underneath the Sphinx.
The only man in the bar is George, and that makes both Jo and Arabella laugh even louder. George looks puzzledly from one to the other. ‘Sarfraz’s friend Maleel should be coming by shortly, if you want to speak to him. I’ve been thinking about something else – I don’t suppose either of you have any idea what van Heuvelen might have meant by his “hands sticking out of the desert”?’
Jo looks blank. Arabella frowns. ‘Well, the light of the Aten was often depicted as hands – sunbeams with hands on the ends coming down to the people and to the land. But not coming up out of the ground, I don’t see how that could make much sense.’
Sarfraz reappears, with another man even older, greyer and more wizened than himself. He salaams the three, and his companion repeats the gesture arthritically. ‘Welcome to el-Amarna, effendi, professor-lady, lady. My name is Maleel Ibrahim al-Sulli.’ His expression is serious, inasmuch as the deep lines of his face permit variation. ‘My good friend tells me that you are here to defeat the evil-doers who are a plague on this accursed place.’
‘Er, well, let’s not get carried away,’ says George hurriedly. He offers the two old men seats at the table, much to the barmaid’s disgust: Maleel perches on his rather precariously, as though he is unused to such luxuries as cushions. ‘Let’s start off with what we need to know. These… evil-doers… what exactly do they get up to? And where, and when?’
‘Tonight you will see it, if you have eyes to look. The Sunday. They will be there, out in the ancient city, singing and chanting, drinking and sinning in all ways abominable.’ He spits to one side, and George hastily nudges a beermat off the edge of the table to cover it before the barmaid notices and throws them all out. ‘Twenty, thirty, more at the big festivals, the evil ones. We good Muslims are powerless against them, they include big people in the town. The police chief. All we can do is pray for Allah to send a swift sword and smite them. Which now he has done, Sarfraz tells me, in the persons of yourselves.’ Even as he says it, he appears rather doubtful.
George catches the eye of the embarrassed Sarfraz. He is beginning to suspect that the old digger may be rather given to embroidery. ‘Sarfraz, tell me a bit more about when the pyramid was destroyed, would you? Particularly about how the cultists acted.’
‘Ah, they were inside the pyramid, effendi, and I could not see them,’ admits Sarfraz.
‘But when they were going in? Did they appear to be controlled, or led, in any way?’
‘Not really,’ the old man says painedly. Clearly he would much prefer it had they been an army of devil-infested zombies. ‘They walked in of their own accord.’
Sam and Phil are examining the plans to the Ministry of Culture, which she has purchased from Wasim. They are much more informative to her than they are to the journalist: she at once sees that the whole building is connected by ventilation ducts and fire escapes, in addition to its internal lifts and staircases. Moving around it undetected should be very easy, unless it is more actively guarded than a typical office block.
She lays a set of photographs alongside, showing the building from various angles. ‘I took these earlier this afternoon.’ There are also photos of Essawi’s house, from rather further away, showing its walls topped by broken glass and its roof surrounded by motion-triggered floodlights.
‘That looks even worse than the stables,’ says Phil. He has been out to Ausim and spied out Essawi’s ranch, and the racetrack, with binoculars. Both are easy enough to approach, over the open grassland, and the outer fences are easily climbable. But the actual stable-block is patrolled by men with dogs and guns. Clearly Essawi takes racehorse security very seriously.
‘I reckon someone should take up a watch out there,’ says Sam.
‘Who would that be, then?’ asks Phil.
Sam shrugs. Both her hands have several fine scratches, but Phil is too polite to ask how she came by them. ‘I went by the museum, afterwards,’ he says. ‘Had a long talk with one of the curators – a woman, Hana Sherif. She told me all about Nefertiti and so on. Apparently there’s not much in Cairo from the period – the Germans took most of it, they were the first to excavate the site, back in 1912. And there’s a fair bit in Oxford, at the Ashmolean museum. But she showed me some wall paintings and so on – broken bits of pottery. I asked if there were any real artefacts surviving – you know, cult items and so on – and she said no, not at all. Later pharaohs smashed them all up, she said.’
‘Unless the cult concealed them,’ says Sam. She stretches. ‘We still haven’t found Essawi’s enemies.’
‘Maybe he hasn’t got any. It seems from everything we’ve seen like he’s a very well-connected guy. I guess if anyone did stick their head up opposing him, he could get rid of them. Most likely anyone who didn’t like him would be too scared to show it, by now.’
‘Well, we have to think who we might be able to persuade to help, then – who might resent him but not have the nerve to stand up by themselves.’
‘Mmm,’ says Phil. He is not too sanguine about their ability to persuade anyone to take such a risk. In fact, he would much rather avoid the risk himself, if he can.
Sam meanwhile is visualizing the three buildings: the Ministry, the house and the stables. Each has its own risks, each perhaps its own rewards. She probably has as much information about them now as she can expect to get: does that mean it’s time to act?
Although van Heuvelen is happy to let Rupert stay with him, and the sweetshop owner also agrees for a certain financial consideration, the Dutchman has no wish to accompany his new friend out that evening: he seems to have a pretty shrewd guess as to where Rupert is headed. ‘Be careful,’ he says wistfully, although he does not attempt to warn him off.
In a grubby djellabah, hunched over somewhat so he is not too much betrayed by his height, Rupert strolls down towards the Giza plateau, among the locals out taking the air. People thin out once he gets off the Sharia al-Ahram, though, and as he threads his way between the pyramids of Khephren and Menkaure he sees only the guards on duty, standing in little knots at the doors, smoking.
There is a larger group of people by the Sphinx, though, and all are dressed in white. As he approaches they fall quiet, and regard him curiously: a couple of dozen, men and women, all ages. They give the impression of having known each other for a long time. One, in a rather nice gold-trimmed djellabah and carrying a gilded crook and flail, steps forward and greets Rupert politely.
‘Er, how do you do – I’m Rupert de Montfort.’ Rupert offers his hand. ‘The son of Viscount de Montfort, you know.’ There is some background discussion in Arabic, at this announcement. ‘Recently I’ve been having a bad time of things. I’ve got no money, my parents have disowned me, and I’ve been thoroughly depressed by life in general. Nothing seems to be going right at all. So I decided to start life anew. Go to a new country, a new culture, and immerse myself in their ways of life. I’ve always been a bit of a hippy,’ he grins self-consciously, ‘and into tree and nature worship. When my local barman told me about this fantastic cult I couldn’t wait to come and see.’
‘In that case you are welcome among the Keepers of the Hidden Circles,’ the man says courteously.
‘Is that what you lot are called? Jolly good. Well, this could be my chance to start again, eh? To see life though new eyes. I’m really excited by it all, and as a Westerner I believe that all Eastern religions have had a hard time from us. Now’s a chance for me to give something back.’
‘All you need bring is a pure heart and a love of life,’ says the man. His voice is soothing. ‘The waters may be slow, but they will rise in time, as we say. Come, join our prayer – you need not know the words, to hum will suffice.’ And indeed a slow chanting prayer, its syllables meaning nothing to Rupert, has started up, the sonorous rolling sound very gentle and soothing. ‘We pray now for the sun to survive its journey through the underworld, and to return to us in the dawn. If you will stay with us on our vigil tonight, you will see the sun reborn in the east, and you too will be reborn with it.’
‘Jolly good,’ says Rupert enthusiastically. He glances up to where the immense bulk of the Sphinx looms overhead. ‘You understand, there are things I’ll need to know before I commit myself. What does joining your cult mean? How obvious is it to a stranger?’
‘When you join, you join in your heart, and that is all – there is no ceremony of initiation,’ smiles the man. ‘If you believe in the life-giving power of the sun, from whose rays we all rise, that is enough. But I will answer any of the questions you have. My name is Abdel Essawi.’
10.30 pm, Sunday 8th August 1999
Sam, Donald, Michael, Phil: at the Hilton
Arabella, Jo, George: in Tell el-Amarna
John: in the Landrover at Giza
Rupert: by the Sphinx
Sam – you are not actually in the hotel as everyone else thinks, you are at Wafic’s. He has just sacrificed the cat and burnt its fat and brain in a brass crucible. You have to eat its eyes and heart: this will grant you the power you seek, he says. But he warns you that if you use the power too often, the nature of the demon which provides it will steal over you. Do you want to go ahead?