The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness


10.15 pm, Monday 9th August 1999

Sam dodges back towards the buildings, hoping to evade the hawk. She can wait inside until it moves off, she hopes.

But as she turns, the hawk dives down steeply and cuts off her path, its claws extended as though stooping on its prey. Sam twists to one side and feels the talons rake across her shoulder, and the hawk’s strongly beating wings take it back up above her once more.

She jinks desperately, cursing as blood runs down her arm, pulling out her dagger. Is it some kind of spirit? How is it able to see her? In any case, its intent is clearly purely hostile, and it screams in triumph as it dives on her again, this time gouging her left side with its viciously curved beak. It is entirely black from beak to tail, including its eyes, claws and the inside of its mouth, as though carved from obsidian.

Sam lunges with the dagger, but quick as she is, the hawk is quicker, and it slips mockingly away from her blade. She glances about her, desperation starting to creep over her, but no refuge is available – she is in an open field, and there is no way back to the buildings, or out to the fence, that the hawk cannot cover.

It dives in again, and this time slashes at her leg, laying it open deeply with its razor-sharp claws. She claps her hand to the gash and feels blood run heavily over her bangle, which pulses hotly in a disturbing and unfamiliar way.

The smell of sulphur suddenly fills her nostrils, and she chokes involuntarily, her eyes watering. There is a terrible rushing sensation inside her guts, as though she has just been hurled downwards over a sheer drop. Then her whole world explodes in fire and pain, with a terrible gleeful laughter echoing about her.

Arabella looks at Jo, considering her words and wondering just what the right course is. True, they could attempt to overpower the guards, then do a search of the Sphinx, looking for some kind of clue as to its significance. Then again, there are problems with that approach, like how often are the guards in touch with their headquarters? Do they change the guards and if so when? Also, those guards are armed…

She bites her lip, indecisively.

‘Stay put while I have a look round,,’ says Jo. ‘There’s just two guards on the Sphinx, but there might be others in the area.’

She melts off into the darkness, leaving Arabella with her thoughts. If she were an ancient Egyptian, where would she hide an entrance, if she wanted to keep something in and others out? Tuthmosis IV’s dream must have something to do with it – he had been instructed to clear the sand away from the Sphinx, and that must have been for a purpose, presumably to enable access to it. His own tomb was much further south, in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor, so that was no use: it was only Old Kingdom pharaohs who were buried here at Giza, and they were all put into pyramids. Maybe Tuthmosis was just being used as a pawn by the Ylid, though, and had no idea himself of how to get into the Sphinx. Nefertiti had married his grandson Akhenaten: perhaps she had been behind the scenes at Tuthmosis’s court, or at least close enough to send the dream to him. His own step-grandmother had been Hatshepsut, the only female pharaoh – monarch in her own right, rather than just a wife to a pharaoh – of the New Kingdom. Another guise for Nefertiti? She shakes her head as though to clear it: at this rate, you could see the Ylid’s hand behind everything. Perhaps this was why Andre Swahn was so paranoid…

‘OK, ready to go,’ comes Jo’s voice at her elbow, and Arabella starts slightly. ‘Those two are the only ones in sight, and I can handle them.’

‘What are you going to do? Perhaps we should look round the rest of the area first…’

‘Too risky. There are plenty of guards patrolling the other monuments. We’ll need more of a distraction than I can manage by myself, for that… maybe a fire or something. Anyway, I’ll draw these two away, you slip in and have a look around.  Get moving on my signal. Be as quick as you can, and as quiet.’

‘Make sure they don’t see us and we don’t get caught,’ says Arabella nervously. ‘I’ve heard about what happens to women in Islamic jails!’

Sam does not know how much time has passed by the time she comes round, but dawn is starting to steal across the sky. She is lying in the field at Essawi’s ranch, her clothes crusted to her with blood. A little way off lies the hawk, or what remains of it. It has been utterly blasted by fire, so that only a charred skeleton remains. The stench of burnt feathers is dreadful. There is a circle of blackened grass all around Sam herself, including underneath her.

She straightens up, wincing, the pain from several parts of her body crying out at her. Her bangle hangs slick, heavy and inert on her wrist. Glancing down at it, she notices to her disquiet that her fingernails on both hands are blackened, ridged and claw-like, her hands slightly scaled on the backs. She rubs gingerly at them, but these disturbing signs do not disappear.

She calls upon the power within her and, limping heavily, starts to make her way back to the city.

All the way back the voice whispers to her, but it remains maddeningly below the level of perceptibility, no matter how hard she strains.

John draws his pistol, whispering, ‘Grab Heuvelen and check those two rooms for windows. We’re getting out of here.’ He advances down the corridor covering the far end with his pistol.

‘Come on old chap, we’ve got to get out of here, or we’re all up the creek,’ Rupert says calmly to van Heuvelen.

The Dutchman’s eyes bug out, and he whimpers ‘They have hair as the hair of women, and their teeth are as the teeth of lions!’

‘I rather hope not,’ says Rupert. ‘But they most certainly don’t plan to just shake hands and say hello! They’re her to kill us. Come on, let’s get going.’ He pulls van Heuvelen up with a hand under each arm. ‘You know I don’t want anything to happen to you, and if you stay here you’re pâté. A very odd-tasting pâté with suspicious ingredients, but pâté.’

Phil jerks open the door of the first room while Rupert manhandles the Dutchman, and scans it quickly: a storeroom, full of cartons and tins. No window.

As he darts up to the second, three men clad in white robes come charging into the corridor from the shop, yelling. All wear around their necks scrolls and writings in Arabic, and they carry large curved knives.

John coolly fires two shots into them.

The crack of the pistol is deafening in the enclosed corridor, and the smell of cordite stings Phil’s nostrils. He is frozen for a moment, then two of the men go down, blood welling out to stain their snowy robes, crying out in pain.

Coming out of his trance abruptly, he jerks open the second door, and is relieved to find a small bathroom, with a window giving out onto the back alley. ‘In here!’

John fires two more shots into the doorway to the shop – the third man has backed away, but there are more people behind him – and carefully backs into the bathroom, as Phil helps Rupert drag the terrified van Heuvelen through the window.

‘Give us enough time to get out, and then follow,’ Rupert calls to John as he disappears backwards. ‘Whatever you do, don’t get your arse shot off. It’ll make a hell of a mess of the wallpaper.’

John is not minded to hang around, though: although he could defend the doorway to the bathroom, the bad guys would have to be pretty stupid not to work out that they should come around the outside to the window. So he empties the clip into the pressing mob, and ducks out of the window himself, reloading on the run as he makes for the corner of the alley. Some more running will be needed. Maybe even some more shooting. ‘Everyone OK? We need to get out of here fast. Rupert, do you know this area at all?’

‘Er, excuse me?’ The guard turns lazily towards the importunate female Western tourist. ‘I was wondering, is it all right for me to take pictures? Of the Sphinx, I mean?’

‘No! Go away! Is not possible at night time!’ he snaps annoyedly.

‘Oh! I’m so sorry… only it says here, look…’ Jo fumbles in her pocket for a brochure.

As the guard bends to inspect it, she strikes upward sharply, catching him with a firm left uppercut. His head snaps back, and she grabs his gun from his belt as he staggers backwards, yelping muffled imprecations.

The other guard, coming round the tail end of the Sphinx towards them, yells in alarm and runs towards Jo. She darts backwards towards the mortuary temple, ducking behind a low wall as he blunders after her.

Hopefully she won’t have to shoot him. He’s only doing his job, after all.

By the time the four have got away, the whole area of the Old City is in turmoil. Word of gunfire spreads quickly, and the news that the Islamic Brotherhood are after four blaspheming Western dogs seems to be doing the rounds. ‘Well, thanks for that, chaps,’ says Rupert drily as they hide behind a wheelie bin. ‘I was living peacefully and enjoying myself, then you two come and ‘help’ me, and all hell breaks loose. Looks like the last thing I needed was a visit from Rambo Hamilton and a hack reporter from the Daily Stunner!’

‘He that overcometh shall inherit all things,’ mutters van Heuvelen, possibly in agreement, and his hands clutch nervously for his abandoned opium pipe.

‘It’s safe to say that we can’t go back to the hotel,’ says John decisively. ‘I think going to the Imam would be the best move. He seems to be fairly supportive of us so may be willing to put us up for a couple of days. Let’s give the others a call to have a quick chat.’

Phil nods in agreement. ‘The others shouldn’t have trouble finding us there.’

John taps into his phone. ‘Donald, John. We’re in the shit mate. The shopkeeper’s dead but we’ve got Phil, Rupert and van Heuvelen. Looks like Essawi’s definitely onto us so we can’t go back to the hotel. I’ve come over all religious, so that’s where we’ll head. How’re things with you?’

‘Pretty quiet here at the moment,’ comes Donald’s crackly voice. ‘Jo and Arabella are off at the Sphinx, though, so we can’t leave just yet.’ He sounds a little calmer after an evening of George’s soothing company. ‘I saw that French woman going off somewhere with Michael, though. Do you think we can trust him?’

‘SITU sent him,’ says John slightly doubtfully. ‘Anyway, come to us when you can. Speak to you later.’

‘According to the story, Tuthmosis was told by the Sphinx that he represented Amun, the Sun God and was his father,’ mutters Arabella to herself as she kneels before the granite ‘dream stela’ between its paws, spreading a large piece of thin paper over it and starting to trace the inscription.

She looks long and carefully up at the Sphinx’s impassive face, wondering if it’s possible one of the Ylids could animate stone. ‘There’s nothing in history, or even legend, about this thing animating, or moving, or opening up. So it must have been secret. If it was a big ceremony, it can’t have happened very often, or someone would have written about it.’ By the time of Tuthmosis IV, the Egyptians were great ones for gossip and records, and not long after that they came into contact with the Hebrews, who were even keener on anecdote. Yet despite all the stories in the Old Testament about the powers of various pharaohs, the Sphinx is never mentioned.

She finishes tracing the inscription, but is already glumly aware that its text is extremely well known and thoroughly studied: it contains no clues as to a secret doorway, or someone would have found it long ago.

Yet there is something about this place, nonetheless. Her work has taught her not to discount sensations, particularly those attached to places used for ancient acts of worship. And there is something here, in the stone. A warmth where there should be none, perhaps. A significance beyond the simple sandstone of which it is carved. She shivers slightly, as though someone had walked over her grave. Rupert’s wild idea about the Great Beast of the Apocalypse sounded like drug-crazed ravings, but that didn’t necessarily mean they were untrue. But could the End of Days really be upon them? ‘Only five months to the Millennium’ she mutters.

There is a touch at her elbow, and she whirls round to see Jo. ‘Thank God it’s you, I thought…’

‘I lost him in the ruins. Have you found the door, then?’

‘No… I don’t think it’s going to be as simple as that. If there is a way of getting into this thing, I don’t think it’s a matter of pressing the hidden button and dodging the giant swinging blade. That might work for Indiana Jones, but…’

‘Well, there must be some point to this thing, or they wouldn’t have made it,’ says Jo practically.

‘Mm… but Nefertiti’s true purpose for it has managed to remain hidden.’ Arabella straightens up. ‘If we assume that the Ylids have access to some advanced forms of technology, or magic, could it be possible that something in or around the Sphinx is solar powered? There are far too many links to the sun and its power for it to be a coincidence.’

‘Well, maybe it’s by solar magic that you open it up, then.’ Jo smiles at herself for saying such a thing. Only a couple of years ago she would have laughed out loud at the very idea. But what they had seen at Chichen Itza…

‘In that case I suppose only Nefertiti, and perhaps Essawi, can do it.’ Arabella slumps defeatedly.

‘We’ve got our bit of solar power too, remember? That obelisk. And the spells written on it.’ Jo pats her lightly on the shoulder. ‘Not to mention the Grail, if we can get it fixed. Who knows what we might be able to do?’

By now the sounds of general searching have started to approach them.

‘Come on, let’s get moving. The others’ll be worried.’

‘… so as I see it, we have two main targets – Essawi and the Sphinx,’ says George, sipping his brandy. ‘It seems clear that the Sphinx holds some power for Essawi and his cult, and I think we should destroy it. I have spoken to Blaize, and he has given me some contacts for explosives and an ID to use. He has also assured me that, so long as we do not actually get caught, he will be able to confound any subsequent investigation.’

Donald looks surprised. ‘Fine! I guess he knows what he’s talking about.’

‘My thoughts are that we get hold of a couple of vehicles, pack one with explosives and drive it up to the Sphinx. The driver would then run to the second vehicle, jump in and get the hell out of there, before the Sphinx is sent into orbit. Of course, Arab dress and some choice phrases committed to memory would be necessary.’ George’s eyes sparkle as he outlines the plan. ‘You have, no doubt, had experience with large bangs. What do you think?’

‘Mm, my experience has mostly been with smaller-scale stuff, actually. Individual hits. Car bombs yes, not industrial-scale demolition.’ Donald smiles, the first time he has done so for some time. ‘You used to be in the Engineers, didn’t you?’

‘Yes, and I have a certain familiarity with these matters,’ says George. ‘But I imagine explosives have moved on a little way since my day.’ He considers. ‘The other target is more up your street, I suppose. But it would be even more difficult. I mean, a hit would take days, if not weeks, of study and planning, not the day and a bit we have, but I think we would do the world a great service if we could deal with Essawi. Permanently.’

‘I’ll have a think about it,’ says Donald. A grimness enters his voice. ‘I owe him one. But he’s still got Mahmoud, remember. He’ll use him against us if he can.’

‘Whatever we do, if we leave it to the last minute we will fail. There will be far too many dignitaries, not to mention police and fanatics, to get close enough to disrupt the ceremony. We must make sure it can not take place at all.

‘And we must move quickly.’

At that point Sam comes staggering into the lobby.

‘My God! What happened to you?’ asks Donald, jerked out of his mood by the sight of her.

‘I had some bird trouble,’ says Sam tersely, dropping into a chair and taking the brandy George pours for her. She describes what took place at the ranch.

‘But what about your hands? And your eyes…’

‘What’s wrong with my eyes?’

‘Sam, they’re bright red…’


This time even Donald takes a drink.

‘I was planning to go and visit the Imam,’ says Sam slowly. ‘With those documents.’

‘Well, you can’t go looking like that, dear, they’ll probably have you burnt as a demon!’ George wrinkles his nose. ‘And it may be not quite the correct thing to mention, but you do smell rather strongly.’

‘I do?’

‘Of sulphur.’

The door swings open again, and Arabella and Jo enter the hotel. ‘Bloody hell Sam, what happened to you?’ exclaims Jo.

Sam sighs.

‘No time to chat, let’s get moving!’ says George briskly. ‘We’re not safe here.’

In the end the operatives, except Michael who could not be found, meet up outside the mosque of Ibn Tulun, huddled in the mouth of a side-alley. It is after midnight. They have with them all their useful possessions, including two copies of the documents incriminating Essawi.

The still of the night is split by countless police sirens, and flames light the sky. Clearly the Old City is still troubled.

George chairs the council of war. ‘We definitely need to contact those two spirits tomorrow: they have knowledge which could make our task here easier – if not possible.’ He looks around. One by one the others signal agreement, with greater or lesser reluctance. ‘We need at least one woman, preferably more, in case the spirits are choosy.’

Rupert nods vehemently. ‘We have come as far as we can in being able to stop the ritual physically. We can’t just run into the ritual and hope to stop it like we did in Mexico or Glastonbury. If we try that here, we’ll all be killed. No, the answer has got to be in a counter-ritual, and only these spirits know it. It’s that, and possibly getting rid of Abdel Essawi, but we simply have no other choice.’

‘Maybe we can cover that too,’ says George. He outlines the sketchy plans he and Donald have put together, to destroy the Sphinx and attempt a hit on Essawi.

‘We should do that before the ritual, then,’ says Rupert. ‘The chap is far too powerful to stop on the day, as he’ll be surrounded by armed guards and impossible to touch.’

‘Long-range sniper rifle…’ mutters Donald absently.

‘You’re the man for planning that,’ Rupert nods to Donald. ‘But I also suggest that we take out that Wafic Said fellow. It seems to me that he deals in the very stuff of hell! He has access to its very depths, and that is where his powers come from.’ He glances around to make sure that this is sinking in. ‘Now stop me if I’m getting too technical, but if Nefertiti / Aten is also shown in the Bible as the Devil, then this chap could well be one of the missing congregation. He’s far too dangerous, and should be stopped along with Essawi.’

Phil looks a little sceptical at this millennial tone – he is wondering whether Rupert perhaps had a little to much opium at the sweet shop – but holds his peace.

‘I don’t mind volunteering,’ says Sam suddenly. ‘I’m already sharing my body with a spirit, so I don’t have any problem with another.’ She looks around. ‘And I think the Dutchman should be the other one.’

‘He’s pretty strung out,’ says John doubtfully, indicating van Heuvelen, who is hunched into a foetal ball, gibbering quietly.

‘Mm, I’m rather worried about the dear old fellow,’ says Rupert quietly. ‘I had all sorts of frightfully taxing questions I was planning to ask him… he’s told me all manner of things. The international delegations will be controlled, I believe that’s the idea. And I rather think that the horse is one of the four horses of the Acpocalypse, because that is apparently what they will summon.’

‘It’s dead,’ interjects Jo.

‘Maybe. But the best part is that the Sphinx will apparently come to life and speak to the international delegates, and will kill those not already controlled. Sounds a real party, doesn’t it?’

‘Someone should find out about security arrangements for the foreign bigwigs,’ muses Jo. ‘And where they’re expected to be. Would it be possible to frighten them away from the ritual sight by staging a bomb scare or a terrorist attack? It would have to frighten them away completely, though, not just serve to increase security.’

 ‘Well, that’s what van Heuvelen thinks will happen, but can we be sure he’s right?’ asks Phil. ‘At least we can take him off the drugs now – he might be a bit more lucid.’

‘I’m sorry, but I can’t allow that to happen,’ says Rupert stiffly. ‘He’s my friend. I feel responsible for him, and I’m the one who is able to speak to him. If you want to do anything to him, you’ll have to come through me. I may not be the world’s strongest person, but I know how to disrupt!’

George winces internally at memories of Rupert’s previous ‘disruptions’, and lays a gentle hand on his shoulder. ‘No-one’s going to hurt your friend. But unless you have a way of getting the drugs he needs to him, he’s going to have to come off them anyway.’

‘Come on, this is getting silly,’ says Jo. ‘If we’re decided to go ahead with this – which we seem to be – then one of you guys is going to have to volunteer. If Rupert says it can’t be van Heuvelen – and he said himself that while he was on drugs it wouldn’t work anyway – then it has to be one of you four. If we’re to do it first thing in the morning, then you need to make your minds up. Who’s it to be?’

‘We could just let them choose,’ says Rupert. ‘I’m sure they’ll have their own opinions about who’s best.’

‘Well, if none of you have volunteered by morning, that’s what we’ll have to do!’ Jo puts her hands on her hips. ‘Now, what about this Imam – I agree that here is probably a safe place to stay, but we can’t take Sam in there, they’ll have a fit.’

‘Let’s cover her up, then,’ suggests Phil.

While Sam drapes herself in a burqqah, Rupert glances over at Arabella, whose eyes he has not yet met: he is a little self-conscious about how their last meeting went. He sees her whispering to Jo, then she leans over to him, Jo doing likewise from the other side.

‘Oh Rupert,’ Arabella simpers at him, ‘I’m so glad you’re back. You opened my eyes to so many things and I just can’t thank you enough for showing me exactly what Jo and I mean to each other.’

Jo nods slightly awkwardly. ‘Yes… it couldn’t have happened without you, Rupert.’ They both lean in to kiss his cheeks, the others watching amusedly.

Rupert, though, surprises Arabella in her turn by turning his head so that she kisses him full on the lips, and Jo ends up with the back of his head. He holds the kiss for some time, while Arabella grows steadily pinker. Then he says ‘That was a sort of apology and hello, all rolled into one. I said a lot of very nasty things before, and some of them were not true, just made up to hurt. Sorry, Arabella… well, sort of.’

Seeing everyone is looking at him, he adds ‘Can’t you see the newly-formed halo above my head? No? Oh, maybe not. It’s probably just the smoke from the opium pipe.’

‘OK, I’m ready,’ says Sam briefly.

As they walk through the entry to the mosque precincts, though, her whole body is convulsed in pain, an itching, burning sensation. ‘Shit!’

‘What is it?’ asks Phil.

‘It’s… I don’t know… I can’t go in there!’

‘Well, look, we can’t leave you out here if we’re all in there.’

‘I can look after myself,’ says Sam tersely, stepping backwards. At once the pain is relieved. ‘Just give these to the Imam, OK? And make sure he does something with them.’ She hands over one set of the prints to Phil, keeping the second for herself.

‘You’ve got your phone, OK?’ says John unhappily. He does now want to split Sam off, but clearly she cannot enter the mosque.

Sam nods. ‘I’ll keep an eye out for that Michael, while I’m out here.’

It is some time before Imam Mustafa Hosseini is raised from his well-earned rest – and it took some persuading to achieve – and Jo and Arabella pass the interval in conversation.

Arabella has been thinking over her relationship with her friend. Clearing up the idea of a torrid affair between them has made it easier, though she cannot help noticing that she sees Jo as far more than a friend. They are very good friends and, if Jo were a man, she might have been interested in a romantic fling. As it is, Jo is like a part of her, a part she always knew was missing, yet never knew to look for. Jo is dynamic at times, not afraid to take chances and yet has enough sense to know how to temper her moods. She has a strong sense of self that infects those around her and, if anything happened to her, Arabella would find it very hard to go on.

‘The hell with romance, sex and love,’ Arabella thinks to herself. ‘Friendship, respect and a healthy sense of humour are far more useful in some kinds of relationship.’

‘Jo, I want to ask you something. When we get back to England, you fancy sharing a place with me? We work well together, I can help you with your research and you can help me with this novel of mine. Besides, it would be nice to have someone around that knows I’m not totally nuts.’ She waits a moment, before adding. ‘I also like having the company. I’ve lived alone so long. Buried myself in my research and ghostbusting forays that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to have a real friend.’

Jo responds with enthusiasm, much to Arabella’s relief. ‘I like the sound of that. You could help me with my research, I can make sure nobody kills us. It’ll give Rupert something to talk about too.’

‘Great!’ Arabella grins with delight.

‘But, Bel, listen to me. You’re stronger than you think – you don’t always need to turn to me for that. Learn to depend on yourself.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘Well, for a start, how about a bit of self-defence training? I could teach you.’ Jo grins. ‘Knowing you can hold your own in a fight always brings confidence.’

The Imam comes bustling out of his quarters, in a spotless white bedrobe, blinking against the light.

John at once bows respectfully to him. ‘Apologies, holy one, for disturbing your rest like this. I’m so sorry to have to ask you this, but would it be possible for you to hide us here for a couple of days? Mr Essawi seems to be planning something for the eclipse that we need to stop, and we think it involves the state representatives that are here at the moment.’

The Imam runs a nervous hand through his hair. ‘More troubles! Yes, of course, if you are in danger you may stay here, that is certain. But we are having such troubles today. A riot in the Old City, the Islami Brotherhood on the streets, causing all sorts of troubles. I fear it will get worse in the coming days – this is how they organize. They will make trouble for Egypt in front of these foreigners, I am sure, to embarrass the government.’

‘Well, if Essawi has planned what we think, that might become a bit academic fairly shortly,’ says John. He hands over the copied documents. ‘I don’t know what’s the most useful thing for you to do with these – show them to the delegations?’

‘I cannot do that! This would be terrible for Egypt, very bad. We must keep Essawi’s disgrace secret from these foreigners.’ Hosseini starts to pace up and down agitatedly, wringing his hands.

‘Well, what about the police, or his superiors in the government, or something?’ asks Phil, thinking that Sam may well be planning to show the other set of prints to the delegates anyway, in which case the Imam’s reluctance will be moot.

‘He will have all that covered, you may be sure. He will have as his nominal superiors men who are in his pay, who will hear no ill against him.’

‘Well, what can we do, then?’ asks Donald frustratedly.

‘I was hoping that you would have had an idea…’ replies the Imam rather weakly. ‘I am a humble servant of Allah, not a… whatever it would require to think of such things.’

Michael returns to the hotel after an evening out with Tanya. ‘I cannot come in wiz you, Michel – zey must not see us togezzer so much. But I will see you in ze morning, yes? Or you are busy in ze morning, you ’ave plans?’

‘Yes, it looks like I do,’ says Michael absently, tearing open the message the others have left for him at reception and scanning it briefly.

‘Ah well… ze evening, zen,’ says Tanya with a pout, and she walks off.

Michael waits for a moment, then steps back outside and hails a taxi. ‘To the Mosque of Ibn Tulun, please.’ He has no idea what the others are up to, but clearly they’ve got themselves into some sort of trouble.

It is about ten minutes before he realizes that he is being driven along a suburban road. ‘Hey! This isn’t the way to the mosque!’

The driver merely turns round and grins at him, showing a collection of rather yellow teeth. He is clad in white, and around his neck he wears the Arabic scrolls that indicate a member of the Islamic Brotherhood.

Rupert gives up trying to converse with van Heuvelen, who seems impervious to speech, and turns to the Imam. ‘The thing is, you see, he’s a victim of Essawi’s, as it were. A drug addict. A fantastic bloke underneath it, but not in control of his own life.’

‘I can help a little,’ say the Imam sympathetically. ‘Poor, lost soul! I can say many prayers for him. And also I can obtain for him some of the methadone that these people need.’ He notices the surprise in Rupert’s eyes. ‘We have many such, here in Cairo, to our shame.’

‘Maybe you can help me out a little too, then,’ says Rupert. ‘Yes, me too I’m afraid, although I don’t have the same excuse. Just… misled. Fell in with a bad bunch.’ He smiles disarmingly.

‘It is not for mortals to judge one another,’ says the Imam soothingly. ‘I will obtain the methadone for you as well. In the morning.’

Sam gets back to the hotel just in time to see Michael leaving, and she curses feebly in the taxi. She is very tired by now, and annoyed at being unable to enter the mosque.

It seems as though the down side of her bargain is making its presence felt rather strongly. That said, it had probably saved her life against the hawk, which she now guesses to have been a guardian spirit of Essawi’s sent to avenge what she did to his horse. All told, she is still not sure how mixed a blessing her ability will be. At least the markings on her hands are starting to fade, now that she hasn’t used the power for a little while.

She clambers up onto a nearby roof to hole up in the shelter of an air-conditioning duct: up here she should be safe from view without having to activate the power again. She can see the city spread out around her, spotted with fires. Noise is getting closer, and she can see that a large, angry mob is slowly approaching the hotel, pausing only to set fire to cars it finds on the street.

3.15 am, Tuesday 10th August 1999

Michael – in a taxi bound for parts unknown
Sam – on top of a building near the Hilton
Everyone else – at the Mosque of Ibn Tulun

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