The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness

Pharaoh's Heart Was Hardened
Chapter 5

8.10 pm, Thursday 12 March 1998

Eddie turns to Celestina thoughtfully as they wait in the bar for their appointment with Reg Presley. 'Well, Celestina, Reg's only given us half an hour, what d'you reckon we should ask im? Ah mean, we di'n't get much out of Mr Foster, he were as slack as a bag o'nuts. We may have to be a bit blunt and come reet aht wi'it, and ask 'im why 'e's 'ere. He already knows a bit about me and me abduction, he may want to talk a bit more if he's on his own.'

Celestina tucks a stray curl of hair under her head dress and looks at Eddie, who she can't help liking, especially because of his cheerfulness in the face of all of the adversity he has apparently faced. 'I'm happy to let you do the talking, Eddie – after all, I'd never even heard of him.' She finds that she is looking forward to meeting Reg Presley: Eddie's enthusiasm is infectious.

It is not long before the great man himself comes into the bar, smiling broadly after what has clearly been a good dinner. 'Mr Davies? Miss Mirande? How nice to see you again!' His West Country burr is more pronounced.

Eddie's loquacity almost at once defeats his star-struckness. He launches into a lengthy description of his curious experience – the ancient swastika stone, the strange mist, the out-of-date return ticket. Presley appears fascinated and nods intelligently in all the right places. Celestina is gripped, too: the animation of Eddie's description goes a long way to conveying the strangeness of the affair.

'Have you 'ad any similar experiences, Reg?' Eddie finally asks.

'No, I'm afraid not,' says Reg regretfully, 'although I've met plenty of people who have – you know, I really think these experiences are more common than anyone realizes. One of the things my group does is to track and locate abductions and similar things – we've not had anything from Ilkley Moor before, although that stone is a well-known occult site.'

'Your group? Are you with some organization, then?'

'Oh, well, it's not much really,' says Reg self-deprecatingly, 'but I had a bit of spare cash floating about after those Scottish lads took "Love Is All Around" back into the charts, so I wanted to really try and help get to the bottom of the alien mystery. I'm no expert, I'm just the cheque-book! – but the other guys, they're so sharp, it's just amazing.'

'The people we saw with you at dinner?' ventures Celestina.

'That's right – the Circles Phenomenon Research Group, it's called. The main guy is Jonathan Sherwood – Dr Sherwood – and he's got some amazing theories, really. It's all to do with decoding the crop circles – they're messages, but what do they say? And here we have the Pyramids, and other places like Stonehenge, built by the same aliens – we presume – how do they tie in?'

'That's fascinating!' says Eddie honestly. 'So what exactly are you doing here at the moment? Have you heard about the strange experience of Ben Foster near Khufu's pyramid?'

'The circle of black glass? Yes, that's one of the things that pointed us here, although we've not been able to track down Foster himself or to learn much more about it. But Sherwood's theory is that it's our job to call to the aliens – you know? They've done their bit, sown the seed as you might say. But from the circles we've seen so far, and compiling that together with ancient knowledge, he's derived a set of readjustments that need to be made – the stars drift off their courses with time, you know. These structures aren't aligned quite how they should be, that's what the circles are telling us. If we're to learn more, to get back in touch with our mentors, we have to readjust them – do you see?'

Celestina is slightly alarmed at the animation that has come over Presley during this speech. She is concerned that he may be deranged, although at least he does not appear possessed, unlike so many other people she has met lately. 'Readjust them? How?'

'Well, it's quite complicated – I had it explained to me -'

Just at that point a voice calls sharply 'Reg!' It is the tweed-jacketed man whom they saw at dinner the previous day: he is standing in the doorway of the bar.

Reg at once looks rather guilty. 'Oh, Jonathan. Well, look, Eddie, I'd better be off now, anyway – places to go!' He hastily rises to his feet and shakes both their hands.

As the two men leave the bar Eddie thinks he hears the other man say 'I hope you weren't telling them...'

First it's out of the tent, now it's out on my own with a bunch of Egyptian labourers in the dark, thinks Micky to himself. He sighs heavily and smiles at the elderly man. 'A moment of your time, please?' He beckons the man over and offers him a ten-dollar note. 'Just a few questions.'

'No problem, effendi,' grins his interlocutor. 'My name is Sarfraz – will do all I can do help you, sir.' The ten-dollar bill disappears magically into a recess of his clothing.

'Matthews, has he changed recently?' asks Micky, as they both squat down on their haunches in the sand. 'Do you know anything about it?'

Sarfraz turns his head and spits, then mutters something in Arabic. 'I am calling on protection of the saints, sir. That one – he is tainted with the evil.'

'How did it happen?'

'It was four days ago,' confides Sarfraz. 'The English professors had put a machine into the pyramid. There was much commotion because, I think they had lost it. Then Matthews went to the pyramid to look for it, perhaps. Then he came back and the evil spirit was on him.'

'Which pyramid? This little one here, Khentkaus's?'

'Yes, effendi. He went to look, and he came back with the evil spirit on him. We have a word for these people – tarifah. In English, perhaps you say he is owned, or he is occupied?'

'Possessed, you mean?' says Micky, not quite believing he is having this conversation – but the old digger seems completely sincere. And he himself has seen stranger things than any man should have to. He shudders briefly. 'Is there anyone local – a magician, or an expert in legends, or whatever – who might know more about this?'

Sarfraz leans even closer, so that Micky cannot help but smell the fetor of his decaying teeth. 'Best would be to see an imam, or best of all one of the sheikhs at the Mosque of Baba El-Masjid. They would say how to fight this spirit. But if you want to learn about it, learn about its history, then a magician, that is a man accursed by Allah – I do know of one. A foul man.'

'Go on,' urges Micky.

'His name is Wafic Said, and he lives in the Sharia Al-Attani. But be careful if you seek him – the price he asks will be high.'

'I've got plenty of money,' says Micky confidently.

Sarfraz shakes his head, smiling. 'The price will not be in money, effendi. It will cost part of your soul.'

As Micky blinks, taking this in, Sarfraz starts to rise and walk away. 'No, hold on a second, there's something else -' and Micky shows another tenner. 'Do you know anything about circles of black glass in the sand?'

This time Sarfraz blinks, and he slowly bends back down. 'So you know of this? I had thought English people did not know.'

'Oh, I know a thing or two about it,' says Micky airily. 'What can you tell me?'

'There were two men. Englishmen. One named Foster, the other Osbourne. They were writers, they said. They made camp over there,' he points to the space between Khephren's pyramid and the Sphinx. 'We were with them – they wanted to get the atmosphere of a dig, for their book, they said. In the night there was a bright light – we all hid our heads, but the two Englishmen went to look. The light stopped, and Foster was gone. We searched, but there was no sign. The next night, the same light again. The light stopped, and Foster was back – naked, curled up like a child, rocking back and forth. Underneath him was the circle of black glass. He said he remembered nothing. The next day the two Englishmen returned to their country.'

'That's amazing,' breathes Micky.

'But Foster has been back in Cairo: I have seen him.' Sarfraz shakes his head. 'He is a hollow man now.'

'Have you ever heard about this happening any other time?'

'No, effendi – just this one time.'

Back at the Hilton, everyone is enjoying themselves despite the dismal caterwauling of Masood Akhtar.

'Marcus, do you know anything about Haremakhet?' asks Johnny. Both he and Isobel notice Matthews's lips moving silently as he says the name along with Johnny, as though correcting his pronunciation.

'He was a respected vizier to Khentkaus, we can imagine,' he says in a clipped tone. 'All we know of him is from this pyramid's inscriptions – he has left no other mark on history.'

'We think he was probably conspiring with her and Sargon,' puts in Sonia Bird.

'Can you tell us more about the political situation?' asks Andrew, who is watching Sonia closely.

'Well, in this period, the Fourth Dynasty, Egypt was beginning to look outside its borders for the first time. Khufu had conquered large parts of what is now Sinai, and no doubt his troops, or at least his envoys, had ventured up into the Holy Land. Now that was under the sway of the Akkadian Empire, a powerful Mesopotamian civilization -'

'Civilization? Barely!' snorts Matthews. 'Little more than barbarians compared with the Egyptians.'

Sonia looks at him in surprise. 'I thought you were an admirer of the Akkadians, Marcus? Weren't you one of the proponents of the theory that they built Tyre?'

'Nonsense! Absurd suggestion. They could never have done so. Sargon was a capable conqueror, but a brute at best. His ancestors were nomadic barbarians, and he stole his empire from the Sumerian city-states.'

'Er, that's only conjecture, isn't it, Marcus?' says Sonia slightly nervously. All the other archaeologists are also looking at Matthews, with expressions ranging from amazement (Harry and Jane) to amusement (Marie Chenevix).

Matthews is in full flow. 'If Khentkaus and Haremakhet were conspiring with Sargon, you may be sure it was they who were pulling his strings! And Haremakhet – a loyal servant of the Pharaoh – would he have done such a thing? No doubt he was pretending to go along with Khentkaus, that evil woman, so as to reveal her schemes to one who would act wisely on the knowledge – how else was she found out? When Pharaoh loved her so dearly? To topple such a one, such a canker eating its way to the core, is no easy task! And Haremakhet paid for his loyalty with his life...'

He suddenly stops, glancing round the table, which is silent and attentive. Then his face pales, and his eyes roll up in his head. Chenevix, sitting beside him, grabs for him, but too late, as he slumps forward in a faint, sliding off his chair onto the ground.

At once all is confusion, with various people leaping up and down unhelpfully. Andrew moves at once to Professor Bird's side and ushers her back from the trouble.

Johnny forces his way through and finds that Chenevix, who seems to know some first aid, is loosening Matthews's collar and sitting him up. His pulse is normal, and as far as Johnny can tell he has simply fainted.

A waiter brings some sal volatile, and within a couple of minutes Matthews's eyes open. He shakes his head weakly, his mouth hanging loose – he has a rather small and crumpled look. He peers up into Johnny's concerned face without recognition. 'Wh... where am I?'

'This is the Hilton, Marcus. We're dining with Professor Torillo and his team – you know!' says Sonia.

'Who...? What...?' He slowly rises to his feet, blinking, one hand to his forehead. 'I think I must... a touch of the sun, perhaps. I have the most fearsome headache, my dear,' He leans heavily on Marie's shoulder.

Johnny suddenly notices that Isobel is sitting back in her chair, pale. 'Are you all right?'

'Yes, fine...' she says rather weakly. 'I just felt a little odd... that light nearly blinded me.'

'What light?' asks Johnny, puzzled.

'That brilliant flash, didn't you see it? Just before Matthews fainted.'

Andrew, glancing across the pool, sees that although most of the other diners are pointing and whispering at what they have just seen, one of them has reacted more strangely. A woman, who he believes is the one who Celestina and Eddie saw dining with Reg Presley, has clutched her head with both hands and paled, looking at the collapsed Matthews with something like horror. Before he can say anything, though, she is taken by the elbow by her companion, the man with the dark suit, and hustled away from the scene.

Micky returns to the Hilton to find Celestina and Eddie in the bar, discussing what they learnt from Reg Presley. He fills them in on his own story.

'Osbourne,' says Celestina. 'That would be Russell, the other SITU investigator I met at Branston Hall. I've written to him asking for more details – I don't know how long it'll take before I hear back, though.'

At this point the remains of the dinner party filter through into the bar as well. Professor Bird and Dr Chenevix have taken Matthews back to the dig, accompanied by Andrew. Only the two youngest members of the team appear to be up for a drinking session.

While the others chat, Celestina draws Isobel aside and updates her on the Foster situation. 'I'd like to know a little more about what you observed in Matthews,' she says. 'Perhaps Matthews had had a similar experience to Foster – not that one would believe Foster had experienced anything, judging by our fruitless interview with him.'

'If you and Eddie are going to meet with Foster again,' says Isobel, 'can I go with you? Or we could try and arrange some way of me getting close to him so I can see what I think of him. It might be a good idea if Johnny can chat to him as well, to see what kind of impression he gets.'

'That was a bit worrying, eh?' says Johnny to Jane as he returns with her drink – a large Southern Comfort and orange.

'Poor Dr Matthews – despite how horrible he's been these past few days, I felt really sorry for him lying there on the ground. Do you think he'll be all right?'

'No worries,' says Johnny confidently. 'A good night's sleep and he'll be fine.'

'I hope – this probably sounds terrible -' she glances up at him '- hat this makes him, you know, ease up a bit – I'm sure he's been driving himself too hard these past few days, I know he's been driving Harry and me too hard!' She takes a big drink.

'Jane, they were talking earlier about Dr van Heuvelen, who used to work with you.'

'Oh, yes, poor old Willem. Sonia says he used to be brilliant, but...'

'What happened?'

'He liked a drink... and a smoke... and I don't mean tobacco. Every night he'd be off his head on hash, and he was useless most of the next day. It's very easy to come by here. He said it helped him sleep – it certainly didn't help the rest of us, he used to scream out loud in his sleep most nights.' She shudders. 'It was better for him that he left the team, really.'

'Do you know how I could get hold of him?'

'Oh, I think he's still in Cairo.' She digs around in her handbag. 'Here you go – he gave Harry this address. Behind the confectioner's shop in the Medina Harafi.'

'I'm still quite concerned about the Islamic Brotherhood,' says Celestina to Isobel and John. 'They might be behind this more than anyone expected – especially if the guards on the door to the tomb have sympathies with the protesters.'

'Those guards!' says John. 'Grease their palms and they'll turn their backs on anything you care to name. You could have a Black Mass in the middle of the pyramid and they wouldn't bat an eye if the price was right.'

'Perhaps I, or one of you or the others, should stay in the tomb whilst the robot is set in motion, to make sure no-one tampers with it.'

'That's fine,' says Isobel, 'but, personally, I have no intention of going inside again.'

'Have any of you lot ever seen lights in the sky?' Eddie asks Harry. 'Or heard rumours about UFOs?'

Harry chuckles heartily. 'And little green men, eh? No fear, mate – we've all got our feet pretty firmly on the ground here, I can tell you. Old Willem, he used to say he'd seen some funny things out here...'

'Willem van Heuvelen?'

'The same – but what he saw was big seething snakes – pink ones!' He laughs again. 'Archaeology's not the career for fanciful people, really.'

Micky winks at Isobel once more, but this time she says 'Is there something in your eye, Micky? Perhaps you ought to try an eye bath?'

Andrew decides to stay at the dig that night, and the archaeologists are happy to offer him hospitality. He sleeps in the four-wheel, parked just outside Professor Bird's tent. The only thing that disturbs him during the night is the sound of an engine – at around one in the morning, he wakes to see that a Landrover, which must have been parked behind the pyramid of Khentkaus, has stared its motor. As he watches three people emerge from the pyramid and get into it, although not before one of them has a brief conversation with the guard on duty outside. They are too far away for Andrew to hear anything, or identify the people, but the three get into the Landrover, which is being driven by a fourth person, and it heads back towards Cairo.

The next morning Isobel rises early to find Mahmoud outside the hotel. She asks him what he knows about Haremakhet, but he has never heard of this rather obscure figure. He is more helpful suggesting places where she can buy presents for people back home, and recommends in particular an excellent shop run by his uncle, from which anything from stuffed camels to carpets to Turkish Delight can be purchased at bargain prices.

Eddie then commandeers Mahmoud and sends him speeding off to Thomas Cook's to get the latest Yorkshire Post. When it appears he turns eagerly to the back, and finds to his alarm that Trinity have drawn the mighty Wigan Warriors, at Central Park, in the next round of the Cup. He consoles himself with the thought that Wigan are not the power in the land they were in pre-Super League days: and it could have been worse, it could have been St Helens.

Johnny has been ringing around his academic acquaintances, but none are able to add anything to the story of Haremakhet – it seems that this pyramid contains the only known reference to him, so having seen the carvings in the second room the Bird team know more about Haremakhet than anyone else in the world.

'I'm thinking about visiting this magician guy,' says Micky. 'What d'you reckon, boss?'

'No, I don't think that's a good idea,' says John firmly. 'We shouldn't be tampering with spirits and such like that we don't understand. Best leave the whole thing alone. Do you understand me?'

Micky gapes at him, but John simply gazes meaningly at him and then wanders back into the hotel.

Eddie makes a trip to the library, accompanied by Mahmoud, and after much waving of his hands gets hold of the local English-language paper, the Cairo Messenger and Bulletin. He leafs through recent issues and finds that the paper takes a very pro-government line. The protests of the Islamic Brotherhood get only small coverage compared with President Mubarak's opening hospitals, meeting foreign dignitaries, and making stern pronouncements on law and order. The weather forecast occupies a quarter of the back page, and shows a small map of the country with sun symbols scattered all over it. Being a forecaster here must be a pretty easy job, reflects Eddie.

At the site, the only work today is detailed translation, as the archaeologists wait for the arrival of the new robot. Professor Bird is happy to explain the history of the period to Andrew. 'As I was saying last night, Egypt expanded for the first time under Khufu's rule, and came into contact with the Akkadians, who certainly had at least a trading presence on the Mediterranean coast, modern-day Lebanon. Khentkaus was the first of Khufu's wives, as far as we know, and they were married for at least ten years before her death. Why she might have plotted with Sargon, we can only guess – perhaps she was tired of the passive role women were supposed to play at the Egyptian court? She was famed for her beauty, but it seems she was a capable and intelligent woman as well. Perhaps trusting Haremakhet was her mistake? Again, we can only guess. And this other queen, Hetepheres, who disappears at the same time – we know nothing of her beyond what this pyramid has told us.' She sighs. 'It's all so vague, this far back in history, and these personal stories are the most difficult of all to decode, just from formal inscriptions. But when we get the new robot – then we'll find something out. I'm confident there are a lot more carvings in that second chamber, and then perhaps we'll be able to fill in a few of the blanks!'

Matthews is up and about, still seeming rather frail. Andrew notes that his manner is completely different to the previous day – he is much quieter and more amiable, offering to help a surprised Jane Tate with preparing the computer disks of findings that are to be sent to the Cairo Museum that morning.

The man who is to collect them shows up at around ten – a middle-aged Egyptian, beautifully dressed in a grey silk suit, his eyes deep and dark. He introduces himself as Abdel Essawi, from the Ministry of Culture: he is the Egyptian Government's liaison with the Bird team, and is responsible for supervising their investigations and reporting their findings to the Ministry.

Sonia introduces Andrew, and Essawi shakes his hand: his own is very warm and firm. 'You are from Norway? A beautiful country. I know Oslo a little. As we say here, when the waters rise, the wise man takes his example from the crocodile.'

Andrew is a little puzzled by this remark, and notices that Marie Chenevix is staring suspiciously at Essawi. The Egyptian ignores her, though, and accompanies Matthews and Bird into the main tent.

10.30 am, Friday 13th March 1998

Secret Actions

Isobel: just before Matthews fainted you saw an immense flash of light, as though someone had let off a flashbulb in your face. You were disturbed to find that no-one else saw any such thing. After his recovery the 'oddness' you have previously sensed about Matthews is completely gone. You ring your husband, and tell him all is well – he asks, sounding half-joking, whether you have had any of your 'funny turns' lately.

Andrew: Harry Challis accompanies you to the police station early in the morning, and for a hundred dollars cash they issue you with a gun licence. You then head to a gun shop in Cairo, and are able to buy a 9mm Beretta automatic and shoulder holster for three hundred dollars. Harry is impressed with the competence with which you strip and reassemble the weapon. 'I guess you know how to use that thing, eh?'

Micky: the gun needs a little work, but you are able to make it serviceable with half an hour's work early on the Friday morning.

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