The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
SERVANTS IN THE PLACE OF TRUTH
10.30 pm, Sunday 8th August 1999
‘Okay, er, how about heading out straight away, then?’ asks Arabella.
Jo nods: she has been thinking the same thing. They need to make the best use of their time.
‘If there is anything to see, I think it’s important we do so,’ the professor continues. ‘Of course, we’ll only watch. I don’t want to do anything that might put us in jeopardy or alert the enemy. Maleel, would you be prepared to guide us?’
Maleel looks a little wary at first, but when Sarfraz hisses annoyedly at him in Arabic he eventually nods reluctantly.
‘We need to get close enough to hear what is being sung,’ says George. ‘And perhaps to see where in particular the “sinning” is going on.’ His eyes gleam expectantly.
‘Okay then,’ says Jo briskly. ‘You two need to get changed. George – dark clothes. Arabella – wear this.’ She tosses her a shapeless black burqqah. ‘And each of you take something to defend yourselves with. Come on! Let’s get moving.’
Arabella, George and the morose Maleel shuffle into action.
John, in his Landrover, leans back. There is no point trying to take pictures, or observe through binoculars, in this dark. He plans to wait until dawn comes.
His mobile phone vibrates silently against his chest. It is Jo, filling him in on what the away group have learned. He responds with the news from Cairo – what he knows of it.
Putting the phone away again, he has been watching for no more than a further ten minutes when the interior of the cab is illuminated by a car’s headlights. The light is momentarily blinding, but after only an instant’s confusion John quietly slips out of the passenger’s door, away from where the car must be.
He is at once caught in the beam of a flashlight, being carried by a man who is advancing down the road towards him. There are two of them, in police uniform, and both are armed. ‘Your papers, please, sir,’ the man without the torch calls out.
John glances over his shoulder to see that another police car, further down the road, has stopped and is observing. It seems as though this area is being patrolled – maybe not surprising if the cult and the police are both controlled by Essawi. Shrugging, he hands over his ‘John Hamilton’ passport and visa for inspection.
The two policemen page through it carefully, then hand it back. ‘You will please have to leave this area now, sir. We are clearing it.’
John, realizing he has little option, climbs back into the Landrover and starts to head back up the Sharia al-Ahram. What are they so keen to hide? he wonders.
‘Tell me old chap,’ Rupert asks Essawi, ‘Why is this meeting being held here at the Sphinx? There seem like lots of places where you could meet and see the sun rise. Why here?’
If Essawi is suspicious of this line of questioning, he certainly does not show it. ‘This is one of the most ancient monuments, my friend, to the old Egypt. And one of the most beautiful. And so handy for the city, too. For us it is like your Stonehenge, a very suitable place because of its beauty.’
And indeed the setting is rather splendid, Rupert admits to himself, not that he lets it deflect his curiosity. ‘Are these people here the only members of the cult? If so it seems like a wonderfully select and high calibre bunch of chaps.’
Essawi seems to ease slightly. ‘Yes, this is so, only the finest spirits are here. Ur ways are not for those who insist in the old patriarchal faiths – Christianity, Islam – or the secular believe-nothings of today. We have branches in other towns on the Nile, and there are two others who are not here tonight – not everyone can come every week – but these are our numbers, yes. We all have a devotion to the faith.’
The chant has been trying to burrow its way into Rupert’s brain, and to keep it out he has been reciting Monty Python sketches – his personal mantra – to himself. ‘Our two chief weapons are surprise, fear and a fanatical devotion to the Church,’ he says automatically. Essawi looks at him oddly, and Rupert hurries to cover his slip. ‘Er, tell me, these ancient monuments, were any of them placed here as astronomical calendars, sundials, or anything of that sort? You know, like the wonderful Stonehenge you mentioned. It’s a massive sundial you know.’ Essawi nods politely. ‘Were any of these?’ Rupert gestures at the pyramids. I find all this mystical stuff so heartening, you know. The ancients knew so much more than us about spirituality and the way the universe really works.’
‘I am not so sure of that, my friend. We have preserved much of their wisdom, and added to it with understanding of our own,’ says Essawi calmly. ‘No, none of these monuments are sundials or calendars – the Egyptians did not build such things. And now we have our radio telescopes, which are more precise even than Stonehenge, no? The crocodile knows many truths, but the hedgehog knows one big truth, as we say in my country.’
‘Dinsdale?’ Rupert mutters to himself nervously, and he takes a half-step back to signify that the conversation is over, allowing Essawi to return to the centre of the group.
Joe looks keenly around as the cringing Maleel leads the small group slowly through the remains of the city. This is prime ambush country – broken ground, defiles, gullies. Nasty. ‘No flashlights,’ she says quietly. ‘They’ll kill your night vision. And stick together.’
Arabella is looking out carefully for signs of activity, and in fact the sounds of other people become apparent some while before they can be seen. Maleel hushes the operatives frantically with his hands, and a rough dissonant chanting can be heard. ‘Demon prayers!’ he whispers.
Jo holds him back, and goes forward herself, peering over a chunk of badly-eroded masonry. At the site of the great temple of the Aten, there is a small group of people, about a couple of dozen. They are standing in a rough circle, around one of their number, a woman, who is leading them in prayer. Before her on the ground is a small stone obelisk, about two feet high, which is glowing slightly, about as bright as a garden candle.
Jo beckons Arabella and George up – the cultists are about eighty yards away, and do not seem to have posted guards – and Arabella peers into the dimness. ‘She’s wearing a uraeus – the snake headband that signifies a priest,’ she whispers excitedly. ‘And those robes – I’ve not seen them before – but I suppose they could be a female version of the robes the priests of the Aten wore. They were all men, you see.’
‘Could that be Nefertiti herself?’ whispers George.
‘I don’t know… maybe… it’s too far away and too dark to tell just by looking. But, I don’t know, I think you’d expect an Ylid to be more… impressive somehow.’ Certainly this woman, although she is commanding the attention of the worshippers, does not seem to be anything too out of the ordinary.
‘Well, what do we do now? Sit here and watch them?’ asks George after a minute has passed.
‘I don’t know… it would be good to get close, I suppose,’ says Arabella. Although she had automatically been deferring to Jo on the way here, now that ancient rites were involved it seemed she had become the leader once more. But she feels a lot more confident with the reliable and supportive Jo and George alongside her.
‘See! The accursed infidels are polluting their bodies with the juice of the grape!’ hisses Maleel. And, indeed, the cultists have stopped singing now and are ceremonially drinking from what looks like a gold vessel. Shaped rather like a Minoan krater, Arabella thinks to herself. Interesting – cultural links? Surely not.
‘Okay, perhaps that’ll make them a bit less alert,’ says Jo quietly. She is reluctant to get much closer, but there seems to be not much point having come all the way out here unless they find something useful. ‘Not you, though,’ she whispers to Maleel, who looks very relieved. ‘You stay here and guard the way back, all right?’
John heads back towards the city until he is out of sight of the police patrol, then turns down a side street and circles back. But he sees another police cruiser sliding by. Well, looks like it’s going to have to be on foot then. He parks up the Landy in the shadow of a barn, climbs out, and sticking to the walls ghosts his way through the sleeping village of Nazlet el-Simman towards the Great Sphinx.
‘Looks like they probably brought that kit with them,’ whispers George to Arabella as they wait for Jo to scout the terrain ahead. He sighs. ‘I’m still not sure it was worth trekking all the way out here.’
‘Maybe,’ replies Arabella absently. She is trying to open up her consciousness, absorbing the atmosphere of this ancient place, the emotions that those who used it then, and use it still, left marked into its stones. Maleel’s words, ‘for those who have eyes to see,’ keep repeating themselves to her, in a sort of mantra, and she fleetingly thinks of some of the spirits she has had to deal with in her haunted house work. Not all were clever fakes.
There is a warmth in the place, despite its emptiness and windswept nature. And warmth is coming from the obelisk the worshippers are gathered around, now standing loosely chatting to each other, she is sure of that. An embracing warmth, like lying out on a hillside on a summer morning, the blue sky above you, larks singing. Her mother, or someone’s mother, the best mother there is, calling gently to her. ‘Come, Bella, come. Come and join me. See what I have for you. All the love in the world.’
George glances up, hearing movement, and is just in time to grab for Arabella as she stands up and starts walking towards the group of cultists. He catches her round the waist and brings her crashing to the ground.
‘What…? What are you doing?’ Arabella is confused, momentarily unsure of where she is.
‘What am I doing?’ pants George. ‘Stopping you wandering out into the middle of them, that’s what!’
Jo, some way ahead, hears the sounds of the scuffle behind her, and turns just in time to see Arabella whisked back behind a lump of stonework. She curses under her breath. It is immediately apparent that the cultists have heard it to: a handful of them start moving in the direction of the operatives. One burly man draws his robe aside to take out a flashlight, its beam stabbing into the darkness. In his other hand he carries a gun.
Donald, carrying a mobile phone, heads out into the Cairo night. He whistles up Mahmoud and checks him over for the sign of the witch – the poor lad is getting used to this indignity by now, and merely struggles mournfully. ‘Right Mahmoud, you need to tell the authorities about your friends going missing.’
‘They will not be interested, Mr Donald, we are less than sparrows to them.’
‘Well, at least a report might be made and filed somewhere. Don’t tell them about me or Essawi or any of my friends, just tell them that some of your friends have gone missing lately and you wondered if they were detained here or something.’
Mahmoud nods doubtfully.
‘I need to know what your friends look like as well, so if you can give me some descriptions and names I will try to locate them.’ Donald hands Mahmoud a ten-dollar bill as the lad recites some very similar-sounding descriptions. ‘Hide yourself well son, I think there is something very nasty going on around here and I don’t want you involved in it. You’re a good kid and I’ll try and take care of you.’
Mahmoud scurries back under his sheet of corrugated iron, perhaps thinking that had it not been for Donald he would never even have heard of all these troubles.
‘No, wait a sec, I’ve got something else for you.’ Mahmoud’s head re-emerges warily. Donald holds out a small electrical device. ‘If you get in trouble or get frightened, push this button, it’ll let me know you need me.’ He shows Mahmoud the partner device in his pocket. ‘Then this will give me a vague direction and distance to the target, sorry, your location. Try it.’
Mahmoud presses the button, and at once a green spot flashes to indicate that he is standing right by Donald. ‘Right we need a couple of rules now. Every day, I will meet you here at 12:00. If I can’t make it I’ll send someone, they will have a password for you. That password will be ‘sureshot’ – if they don’t say the password then make loads of noise and run away, and remember to push the red button.
‘Rule 2 – if anyone asks about me or my friends, don’t answer them – run away and push the red button.
‘Rule 3 – as soon as any more of your friends go missing, you tell the police and you tell me straight away.
‘Now if you follow these rules you should be pretty safe and hopefully we’ll get your friends back.’ Donald scuffs Mahmoud’s hair reassuringly.
Walking away, Donald taps a number into the phone. ‘John, I think that Essawi is kidnapping some of the local kids – I’m not sure why and I can’t prove it. You’ve got a good pair of eyes on you, so keep them peeled for these kids.’ He gives him the names and descriptions.
As the cultists fan out in the direction of the noise, George and Arabella scramble cautiously backwards, trying to stay out of the torch beam. The searchers have gone straight past Jo, pressed as she is into a patch of deep shadow, and she is able to see the remaining few standing around the small obelisk. They are passing the bowl back and forth, talking in low voices and glancing around anxiously. The woman priest who was leading the ceremony is among them, and Jo can see in the light of the obelisk that she is of Arabic appearance, small and slightly tubby, and probably around 40.
She hears the sound of raised excited voices behind her where the search is continuing, and groans inwardly. Maybe time for a distraction.
Back in the hotel, Donald unpacks the Grail and puts it at the head of his bed, staring at it solemnly. He closes his eyes, remembering what Arabella taught him at Glastonbury, focusing on the fear he has been feeling from his nightmares lately, all the anxiety of being on the run, the first sightings of the banshee in Glastonbury, the first time he had to kill someone, all the trouble he had when younger.
Do the curtains flutter, is there a hint of mocking laughter in their rustle, a woman’s laughter? Maybe. But the Grail maiden certainly does not appear, nor does the Grail do anything odd.
Donald sits on the edge of the bed and lights a cigarette. ‘Shit, now I’m in trouble.’ He draws deeply and packs the Grail away in his holdall.
George and Arabella cower in the cover they have found, and the cultist with the gun passes them too, his torch still seeking out movement. Seconds later a triumphant cry announces that he has found Maleel. There follows a rapid shouted conversation in Arabic, in which many of the cultists partake. Maleel’s quavering voice can also be heard.
‘We can’t just let them capture him!’ exclaims George stoutly. He has never deserted a comrade yet, and he does not intend to start now.
‘But what can we do?’ asks Arabella plaintively. She is near to tears with the thought that her own actions have brought this about. ‘Where’s Jo?’
Just at that point there are cries of alarm and perturbation from the cultists’ original location. There are a couple of thumps, a shrill cry, and the light of the obelisk winks out suddenly.
‘That must be her! Now!’ cries George, and leaping up he charges like a bull at the small group who are holding Maleel, brandishing his stout walking-stick.
‘Listen, magician or whatever you are, if you want me to go for this deal you’re going to have to give me a free taster. Go on – raise the maiden who’s bound to this. Then maybe I’ll believe your powers are real!’ Donald is shouting at Wafic Said, red-faced, brandishing the broken Grail at him.
Said merely smiles unpleasantly. ‘It is not for you to dictate the terms of our agreement, I am afraid. Either you want what I have to offer, or you do not.’ There is a very nasty odour of burnt fat about the place.
Donald’s face convulses in fury, and he stomps off, shouting ‘Bloody voodoo, witch-doctor, mumbo jumbo crap.’
By the time he is most of most of the way back to the hotel, he has calmed down rather, and it is then that he suddenly senses that he is being followed. He slows his pace, and glances in a shop window to confirm it. One man. Amateurish. He turns left into an alley, and waits just behind its mouth, putting the Grail between his feet so both hands are free. As the man comes to the end, glancing about him nervously, Donald reaches out and grabs him by the wrist, pulling him swiftly into an armlock.
‘Aagh! Shit! You bast-’ The voice is English.
Donald claps a hand over his mouth. ‘Now you be very quiet, sonny, or I’ll break your arm clean through.’ He is disappointed that this fellow is such a woeful specimen. Essawi could at least have sent someone decent up against him. ‘I’m going to let go of your mouth now, and I want you to answer my questions quietly and clearly – all right? And any hint of acting up – snap! You understand? Nod if you do.’
The man nods, and Donald eases his grip. ‘Right then. Let’s start with who are you, and why are you following me? Who are you working for?’
‘My name’s Trevor Green,’ he mutters. ‘I’m working for Paul Ryan. And I’m not following you, I’m after the kid – Williamson. You can tell him he’s got a beating coming.’
‘Eh?’ In his surprise and puzzlement, Donald relaxes his grip slightly, and with a twist Green slips free of the lock, kicking over the Grail, spinning round and haring off into the night.
Donald suppresses his instinct to chase after him, instead picking up the Grail and checking it is undamaged. Not his problem. Or not yet, anyway. He hopes that this does not mean Michael is going to bring yet more trouble onto the team.
George bursts into the knot of cultists from out of the darkness, laying about him and scattering them like ninepins. He makes sure to strike first at the hand of the man with the gun, and it flies off harmlessly into the ruins. [The gun does, not the hand - ed.]
Arabella, trailing in his wake, is determined to do something right. She grabs the cringing Maleel’s arm, smacking him sharply across the face when he starts to babble in confused protest, and drags him away into the darkness. George sends the torch spinning off the same way he did the gun, and comes puffing after.
Back at the end of the bridge, a shape rises out of the darkness before them – Jo, carrying a bundle she has made of her burqqah under one arm. ‘Come on, we’d better get out of here. Let’s pick up Sarfraz and move out.’
‘What about me, effendi?’ pleads Maleel. ‘Those evildoers saw my face, they know who I am. I cannot stay here now!’
‘OK, you too,’ says Jo as they hustle across the bridge. Two police sirens start up in the town ahead of them, and she remembers that Maleel said one of the cultists was the local police chief. Must have radioed in for reinforcements. ‘Come on! Move it!’
Sam, meanwhile, is ghosting through the darkness of a house high on the Afd el-Na-am hill. The guards on the roof, the dogs in the garden, none of them were conscious of her passing: and now she has disabled the internal alarm systems. She is distracted by the odd flicker at the edge of her vision, and a strange not-quite-audible noise, like a chittering, but concentration allows her to ignore it.
The house is sleeping, and the master is out, with only servants here, in their own quarters. Sam swiftly finds the study, which like all the other rooms is spacious and furnished in a spare yet expensive style. She kneels down before the great mahogany desk, and pulls out a small pack of tools, and a pocket camera.
Half an hour later she puts the camera away at her belt, two rolls of film shot. All the documentation is in Arabic, so she has no idea whether it will be of any interest, but from the way it was locked up it must be pretty important.
Her belt is also fatter by the width of a large wodge of cash, Egyptian banknotes and sterling, she found in the desk.
On the way out, pausing only to carefully break a large gilt-framed mirror hanging in the hall – she is wary not to gaze into it – she picks up a small silver bowl which is lying on an ebony plinth in the hallway. It is engraved with fine abstract carvings, and looks as though it might be useful.
‘Can we drive out a back way, or something?’ George asks Maleel.
The old man looks contrite. ‘There is only the main road, effendi, to Cairo or to the south. Or else it is farm tracks.’
‘Well, we’ll have to take our chances. Coming up to the junction now.’ Jo kills the Landrover’s lights, and slows down, peering out of the front. ‘Looks like crash barriers ahead, and two squad cars. Right then, across country it is.’
She guns the motor and accelerates up towards the barrier, swerving at the last minute. The Landrover bumps over a drainage ditch into a field, as the startled police shine torches, fire guns and clamber back into their cars. ‘Heads down, and hold onto something!’ The powerful engine roars as the Landrover barrels back over the ditch onto the road, swiping the nose of the lead police car as it does so. Bullets strike the bodywork, and one smashes the rear window above Sarfraz’s head, but the Landrover is free and accelerating down the Cairo highway.
‘They shouldn’t have anything that can keep up with this,’ says George reassuringly. ‘We’ll just have to hope that they don’t radio ahead to the next town,’ he adds, in a tone of slightly less comfort.
Arabella nervously touches Jo’s shoulder. ‘Are you… all right?’
‘I’m fine. Had to stick one guy – but he’ll live.’ Jo glances at her. ‘And I brought you back a present. Here –’ she gestures at the bundle.
Arabella unwraps it carefully to reveal the small obelisk, not glowing at the moment.
‘I thought we ought to come away from here with something,’ says Jo. ‘But it went out when I picked it up. It’s a lot lighter than it looks, too.’
‘Limestone,’ says Arabella absently. She is studying the hieroglyphic carvings on the obelisk’s surfaces. ‘This is… very interesting.’ She delves into a pocket and pulls out her book. ‘See – this cartouche is the name of the pharaoh, Akhenaten, and here’s his queen Nefertiti. These carvings are prayers, I think. Or spells maybe. And I think this obelisk is an original artefact from the period, not a copy. Although it’s been very well preserved if so.’
‘Can you translate it?’ asks George eagerly.
‘Oh, yes,’ replies Arabella absently, her finger tracing the carvings and her lips moving. ‘No problem. Just leave me to it.’
George’s eyes meet Jo’s over Arabella’s head.
‘I don’t think that was Nefertiti, you know,’ Jo adds as an afterthought. ‘Or at least, if she was, she went down like a sack of spuds when I hit her in the gut.’
As the night progresses, Rupert finds it increasingly difficult to keep control of his own thoughts. Although his colleagues might not credit it, he has a strong inner core of self-belief, but even this comes under threat as the chant persists. Images of sunlit plains, warmth, love and happiness sneak into the sides of his consciousness, and they are deeply seductive. I will not judge, the sun seems to be saying. I will love you, my child. I will deny you nothing. All my happiness is in you. To reject it and drag himself back to his miserable and rather unpleasant circumstances takes a tremendous effort of will – helped by a succession of pleasant images of his own which he conjures up, such as Donald being beaten to death by children wielding buttercups, or Jo and Arabella as the Spanish Inquisition, dressed in thigh-high jackboots and brandishing whips.
By dawn he is physically and mentally exhausted, and it is a real relief when the first rays of the sun paint the stone gold and the chant slowly comes to a close. He slumps, together with most of the other worshippers (although the effort they have been expending is presumably rather different), while Essawi addresses them in Arabic. There is a chorus of nods and encouraging noises, and Essawi turns to Rupert. ‘I was announcing our plans for the eclipse, on Wednesday, my dear new friend. Will you be joining us?’
‘I should say so!’ Rupert responds enthusiastically. ‘What a fantastically moving and unique experience! I wouldn’t miss a repeat performance for worlds!’
Essawi smiles warmly. ‘Well spoken, friend. You are truly welcome among us. On Wednesday, then, we meet here at mid-day. We will start special prayers then, to celebrate the sun while it is hidden from us. We will pray through the whole eclipse, and when the sun has returned we will celebrate. This is a very special day for us, as you can imagine. Only the tick-bird knows the true story of the eggs, as the proverb has it.’
‘Er, yes, absolutely,’ says Rupert. ‘Can I bring a friend?’
‘It would be better not,’ says Essawi smoothly. ‘You have spent the night here with us, you are now one of us. Better not to have newcomers on such an important day.’
As Rupert leaves, the fatigue washes out of him in the rays of the early sun. He walks briskly back into the city, being careful to avoid pursuit by any of the cultists.
As he sits at the Hilton’s bar, Michael thinks back to earlier in the evening when he and Donald visited the necromancer, Wafic Said. Sure he was powerful; sure he was malevolent, probably only willing to help them to further his own interests, but why did any of that affect him the way it did?
From his teenage interest in the gothic lifestyle, darkness had always followed him. The suspicious death of Lee, the big brother he looked up to; surviving the terrible reality of the Sunnyvale murders… He’d faced the darkness and chosen to control it instead of letting it control him. But tonight?
You’ve become complacent… ineffectual… letting the darkness creep past your defences. That’s what Michael tells himself, and inside he resolves to reverse that state of affairs…
‘… so each of the four faces is a different spell – or prayer, it’s the same thing really – do you see? This one is to put the power of the Aten into the obelisk. You have to do that while the sun’s shining, of course. Midday is best. You all stand around and pray. Then this one is the opposite, to call forth the power of the Aten from the obelisk. I suppose that’s what they were doing when we saw it glowing. They were using it like a solar battery! This spell is to ensure that the Aten’s blessings are upon the pharaoh and Nefertiti. And this fourth one is to ensure that the Aten’s blessings are on the two kingdoms, meaning Egypt in general.’ Arabella tucks her hair behind her ears.
‘And do you think that these are actual spells that work?’ George asks.
‘We’ve all seen some pretty strange things happen, haven’t we? It seems to me that if you have the right sort of belief, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t.’
‘It’s a pity we couldn’t stay there longer,’ says George wistfully. ‘I was hoping to take a look at the sun at dawn, to see exactly where it rose.’
‘I was thinking about checking out the local nightlife,’ says Jo drily. ‘A chance to unwind, and to maybe make some useful contacts. Play the dumb tourist. But I guess we’ve missed our chance on that one. They can get our descriptions off the hotel staff.’
Arabella remains silent. The idea of going out to a club and picking up someone random – it’s a long way from what she’d normally do of an evening. However close she is to Jo, their outlooks on life are very different, and what’s right for the other woman might not be right for her. But the idea does have a certain appeal. She sighs quietly. She has thought of a number of different situations in which she might surrender her virginity, but to a random Egyptian lounge lizard at a seedy nightclub in a small town in the middle of nowhere has never been very high on the list.
It is dawn before the light has improved enough for John to start taking pictures of the worshippers. He has found a hiding-place in one of the boat-pits, and has a good view of the group as they continue their chant. It seems to have been a very dull way to spend the night, but presumably they think it worthwhile.
He is brought up short, though, when he recognizes one of the cultists as Rupert.
John at once pulls out his phone and calls a sleepy Donald. ‘Donald, it’s John. Yeah, I know it’s bloody early but I’ve spent the night out at the pyramids. I intended to have a nose around the remains of the Khentkaus pyramid but stopped when I noticed some group in robes praying. Once the light got good enough to see them properly I only go and clock bloody Rupert there with them! What the hell’s he up to? You guys know him better than me, but if Essawi was in that group then we’re knackered! I’m going to try and follow Rupert to see where he goes. I’ll ring you every thirty minutes to let you know I’m OK. If I call and mention that the heat is too much for me and that I miss Sweden, you’ll know I’ve been grabbed.’
As the group disperses, John carefully emerges from his hiding-place, and starts out after Rupert. His colleague seems to be keen not to be followed, though, and as soon as he gets back to the busy part of the city – Egyptians start work early, to avoid the midday heat – he starts weaving in and out of crowds, ducking into shops, and so forth. Following people in crowds is not something John has been trained for, and he eventually loses his quarry in a carpet warehouse.
He calls Donald again. ‘Donald. We need to check if Rupert’s been turned. Michael should know more about this symbol on the forehead thing he saw at Branston Hall. We need to check Rupert for one. I’ve an idea he might be headed for van Heuvelen’s place – according to what the other lot said, he lived in the Old City and had a steady supply of drugs, and George said Rupert seemed interested in him when they met at the Pyramids. But we should tackle him together, I think, and we need to talk first.’
He walks back to where he left the Landrover, but is annoyed to find that it has disappeared – presumably towed by the police. Sighing, he walks back into town again – all this exercise is certainly doing him good – and is just in time to catch the waiter Wasim on his way into work. He hands over a wad of cash, and takes the gun he asked for – it is badly in need of a clean, as he suspected, so he heads back to the Hilton to meet with the others over breakfast.
‘Now wait on here people,’ says Michael, holding his hands out to still the angry babble. He has just identified John’s photograph of the cultists’ leader as definitely being Abdel Essawi. ‘Now I don’t know what type of problems you might have had with Rupert before I came here, but bottom line is he’s a SITU agent. Whatever we think of our “beloved” [this rather sarcastically] paymasters, they wouldn’t have sent him here if he’s as unstable as you’re all saying. Why would they endanger our fight against the Ylids, especially at this critical stage? Give him a chance… he might surprise you all.’ All he knows of Rupert is what Karyn told him, but she had confidence in him and Michael trusts her judgement.
‘But if Rupert gets turned, he might tell Essawi our entire mission,’ protests Phil.
Michael shrugs. ‘Then we make sure Essawi doesn’t get the chance to use the information.’
Michael shrugs again.
Sam – they are in her room – spreads out the documents she retrieved from Essawi’s house. ‘We need to get these translated somehow. I was hoping that they might be useful to discredit Essawi with the Islamic Brotherhood, or maybe they might link him to the Brotherhood and that would discredit him in the eyes of the Government.’
‘Good work!’ says Donald admiringly.
John nods. ‘Now this guy van Heuvelen, I’m sure he can help us a lot here if we could just get him off the drugs. How about if a couple of us pay him a visit and get him to come down long enough for a serious talk?’
‘Could be worth it,’ says Phil. ‘What if Rupert’s there? Perhaps it should be, erm, a couple of us who he hasn’t taken against so strongly.’ He looks embarrassed.
‘That depends if we want to persuade him or to strong-arm him,’ says John darkly.
‘Well, I say we should take Rupert out of the picture before he does any more damage,’ says Sam charitably. ‘And we should get hold of the Dutchman and ensure his possession by one of the spirits – that could prove vital.’
‘How would we do that, exactly?’ asks Phil.
‘I’m sure we can think of something,’ says Sam.
Michael looks at her rather oddly, but before he can say anything the meeting is joined by George, Jo and Arabella, who after driving all night are now arrived safely back in Cairo. It seems that the El-Amarna police chief didn’t try to raise the alarm along the highway.
Stories are exchanged, and the reunited team discuss what to do next. ‘The foreign delegations you saw at the airport, John, may well have an unwitting part to play in Essawi’s and Nefertiti’s plans. Their presence should be investigated,’ says George. He frowns as John goes on to describe what he saw at the Sphinx. ‘I seem to remember that the Sphinx was supposed to have had a different face when it was built, and I think someone mentioned rumours of a hidden vault within it. Could it have been Nefertiti’s face, and could it be her tomb? Does the reign of Akhetaten coincide with the building of the Sphinx?’
‘No,’ says Arabella, ‘the Sphinx was built about a thousand years previously. Although saying that, that was around the time when this Ylid was active under the name of Khentkaus, the period the previous team were dealing with, when those two dead spirits were alive as well. Some people think that the Sphinx is much older than that even, and that that period – 2400 BC – is just when its face was changed. Others don’t think that the face ever was changed. But really we don’t know much about it. It’s the first sphinx ever known, although they became quite common by the New Kingdom time when Nefertiti was queen.’ She rubs her eyes tiredly. ‘As for the vault, there’s no evidence of that, it’s just wishful thinking really. This is the sort of area where orthodox archaeology parts company with people who want to believe all sorts of strange things about these remains.’
‘But some of those strange things are true, as we know,’ persists George. ‘If there are obvious religious ceremonies taking place before the Sphinx, then it makes sense that the Ylid would be close at hand, to soak up all that energy. Maybe we should consider destroying the Sphinx.’ Arabella gasps in horror. ‘After all, we were told that Egyptian artefacts are legitimate targets,’ George reminds her.
‘Sounds pretty plausible,’ nods Phil. ‘Maybe having Rupert on the inside of the cult could be helpful after all – he could keep us posted on what it’s up to.’
‘If he can be trusted,’ snorts Jo. ‘And if Essawi doesn’t see straight through him.’ She yawns. ‘We should certainly search the area in daylight, though.’
‘I also think that Essawi’s horse racing on the day of the Eclipse is coincidental,’ says George, ‘but it might be worth a little flutter. Just in case. And that said, if the stables are so heavily guarded, perhaps something other than horse-training is going on in there.’
‘I can go and check it out, but I’d rather not go by myself,’ says Phil.
As the meeting is breaking up, Sam takes Donald aside. ‘I found something else at the house, too.’ She describes the bowl to him, and tells him where she has left it, hidden near Wafic Said’s house in the Old City.
‘John, why don’t you and me go and take these documents to the Imam,’ suggests Sam. ‘But first of all we need to get them translated. It won’t do much good showing him ones which prove Essawi’s a keen Islamist.’
‘Maybe Wasim would be able to screen them for us,’ says John. ‘If we can trust him…’
‘Hey, Michel.’ It’s a woman’s voice, with a slight French accent.
Michael looks up, startled, from where he is sitting in the Hilton café. ‘Yeah – who…?’
‘Don’ you remember me?’ A rather beautiful blonde woman is standing before him. ‘I’ve still got a bump on ma head from ze las’ time we met.’ She says ‘bermp’.
‘Bloody hell! Tanya! What are you doing here?’ Michael’s reaction is much more wary than welcoming.
‘Now don’ be like zat, Michel. Don’ you remember what great friends we were, in ze old days?’
‘I remember all sorts of things,’ says Michael cagily, still not offering his hand.
‘I know we did not part as friends so much – I was ’aving a bad time, yes? But I am over all zat now. Zat terrible man… but ’is influence on me is gone now. Ze power of nature, my powers, ze land, it pull me through.’
‘Oh yeah?’ Michael seems to thaw slightly. ‘Is that so?’
‘So, Michel, what brings you to Cairo? Not ze tourism, surely?’
Donald has just finished explaining his password system to Jo, Arabella and George, who are preparing to get some sleep, when the bleeper goes off. ‘Shit! That’s him now!’
He whips the location device out of his pocket. ‘North-east… about a mile… I’ve got to get after him!’
Back at van Heuvelen’s, Rupert eagerly shakes the Dutchman awake. ‘Come on old chap, stir those bones of yours. This night has really invigorated me, and I have so many questions I need the answer to. Let the glorious sunshine energize you!’ He tweaks aside the curtain, and allows the rays to fall upon the cringing archaeologist’s face.
Van Heuvelen resentfully lights up his opium pipe, but even he cannot remain sulky for long in the face of Rupert’s relentless cheeriness.
‘These voices in your head, my old fellow. If it’s not too much of a burden to speak of them, when did they first start?’
‘It was when I came to the desert,’ says van Heuvelen wearily. ‘That first night, camped out – we had one man camped on site each night to keep an eye on things, everyone else back at the hotel. It was dreams – dreams of ancient Egypt, of kings and queens struggling for power. In my dream they became aware of me, they spoke to me. It was terrible! And other voices, deeper, stranger voices, not speaking in languages of men, but in thoughts of fear. The dreadful hands!’
‘Yes, well, enough of that for now,’ breaks in Rupert hastily, not wishing to set his new friend off again. ‘Here, have a spot more opium, old chap.’ He is not sure which of his theories is correct. Is van Heuvelen already possessed by a spirit? If so, his behaviour is rather inconsistent and patchy. And in whose interest is it that he is being kept here, under the sweetshop-owner’s charge, drugged and under control? And why did SITU release him? Perhaps in the hope that he would become a vessel? But would any possessing spirit be that interested in him? Maybe he would be more use as a channel, or a medium.
He takes a reflective pull on the pipe himself, coughing slightly on the bitter fumes. ‘Listen, my good friend. My colleague here in Egypt… well, not actually my colleague, more a chap who hangs around in the same general airspace as I’m in, and pollutes it a little. Anyway, I digress. This chap, called John, claims to have visited the spirit plane. It could just be delusions brought on by Gulf War syndrome of course, but he says that on the spirit plane he searched for the spirits of the man and the woman you describe. He was told that they were no longer on the spirit plane. What could that mean?’
Van Heuvelen nods owlishly. ‘They would not be there, because they are here, in the land of men. They are floating free around the remains of their tomb, the old pyramid of Khentkaus. They are waiting for hosts. A man host, and a woman host. Now they are released from their broken tomb, they wait only for the right people to appear and to open themselves to them for possession. Then they can start to work their revenge on the witch their enemy. Or at least, this is what they have told me.’
Rupert nods. ‘I’ve thought long and hard about this. Well, actually I thought about it when I last picked my nose, but still. Is it possible that these voices you hear, the so-called schizophrenia that the quacks diagnosed, is it possible that a spirit ha already invaded your body? Surely the drugs would make perfect sense. Not that they don’t normally, fantastic things that they are, but if you had been controlled by a spirit then the only way your average person would have to control it would be through drugs. You said yourself that they find it difficult to control you through drugs.’
‘No, no, this is not right,’ van Heuvelen insists. ‘The voices are spirits who try to assail me, yes, this is true. But none has yet succeeded. This is why I smoke the good opium, yes. Because if I ever stop, these spirits will rush into my mind, and I will be like a broken reed basket. Now they just howl around the outsides…’
‘So might it not be in someone’s interest to keep you drugged up?’ persists Rupert. ‘The sweetshop owner, for example. How did you meet him? What does he know? Could he have a vested interest in keeping you in unusually cheap drugs and in easy reach? Just think about it for a little, old chap. It could be very important.’
‘I thought he was just being generous and kind,’ says van Heuvelen doubtfully. ‘The Muslims are very kind to those they think are mad.’ But it is clear that Rupert ha sown seeds of doubt in his mind. ‘Anyone who does want me to remain drugged, they must be my friend, because that is the only thing that keeps me safe from the spirits,’ he adds after a moment, and tears appear in his eyes.
‘Oh dear, listen old fellow, we’re two of a kind, you and I. Kith and kin as it were. I think you’re a great chap, and I wouldn’t do anything I thought could harm you. I am here to support you.’ Rupert places an arm around the Dutchman’s shaking shoulders. ‘If we can beat these bastards together, and at the same time get ourselves happy and on our feet again, I will b delighted. Just think about what I told you. It could change both our lives.’
Van Heuvelen gradually calms, under repeated application of the pipe, and Rupert finds himself growing sleepy too, the dank air of the room powerfully stuffy. Just before he dozes off he says ‘How can we get to the two spirits if we want to? Their knowledge and strength could be vital. How could we make contact with them?’
He thinks he hears the Dutchman reply ‘They are free now, and they can come into the minds of anyone who is suitable and who is open. Then you can speak with them.’ Then he is lost in sleep, but troubled sleep, sleep in which the fiery rays of the sun blast his father and his brother, in which pharaohs and priests pursue each other across a rocky landscape, in which a beautiful woman – the most beautiful he has ever seen – takes his head against her bosom, and comforts him, stroking his hair.
9.30 am, Monday 9th August 1999
Donald, Jo, Arabella, George and Phil at the Hilton
Michael also at the Hilton but elsewhere
John and Sam on the way to the mosque (possibly)
Rupert at van Heuvelen’s
Sam – you and Wafic complete the ceremony, which most people would find rather disturbing but you are not too concerned about. Part way through a tuneless, scratchy voice starts singing, which does not seem to come from anywhere: Wafic tells you that this is the demon which has taken part of your soul, and which is now giving you the power. You can activate it just by thinking about it. You will know when you have used it too much, because you will start to experience thoughts and feelings that are not your own. In fact, that will probably happen a bit anyway, but it will wear off quickly, unless you carry use of the power too far. He tells you that the bangle is a rather clever spell used by devotees of another demon. The dead person’s soul is handed over to this demon, and then when the person wearing the bangle has something happen to them which should normally make them die, instead the suffering is channelled on to the dead person’s soul where it resides in the demonic realm. This only doesn’t work if the demon thinks it more amusing to have the bangle pass on to someone new instead. As for the devotees who make them, he doesn’t know much about them, except they are a close-knit group scattered across Europe who are responsible for a lot of organized crime.
[I’ve saved the sole quip for next time, if Michael decides to raise the subject with you. – Mo]
Donald – you visit Wasim and fill him in on the missing children situation. He laughs merrily and says that no-one will care about a few street urchins disappearing, there are plenty more where they came from. You tell him that other children might also be in danger, and he agrees to put the word about, but you do not think he is really going to take it all that seriously unless Essawi does something more extreme. He doesn’t have the mark on his head.
Michael – there is definitely something different about Sam, she’s been in contact with a dark force, but a different kind of darkness from yours – not the power of death, but instead the same sort of demonic tint as the black magician showed.