The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Pharaoh's Heart Was Hardened
11.30 am, Saturday 14th March 1998
Celestina looks gravely at Mickey, 'I'm afraid that this Wafic has sorely tricked you. By tempting you to sacrifice someone else's he is taking a larger part of your soul than you could ever offer up willingly. The bottom line of my advice is this, Mickey, do not have anything to do with this magician, or if you feel compelled to do something then use your own soul, do not drag a poor innocent into the matter.' She smiles widely as if to comfort him. 'I don't think you should have any worries, you are a strong man and can look after yourself. Besides Baron Samedi looks out for me and I'm sure he would extend that protection to the rest of the group that I'm with!'
'And I couldn't possibly condone such an idea,' chips in Isobel. She looks distinctly repelled.
Mickey does not seem all that reassured, but Celestina turns to Johnny. 'I think that Essawi gave away more than he intended to with the meeting with the archaeologists, and this may work to our advantage. Essawi has provisionally agreed to have dinner with me this evening. If he does turn up I'll get one of the others to ring you and Andrew, and then you and the archaeologists' team can get the robot up that shaft and see what dreadful secret Essawi wishes to remain hidden. Take some of the other operatives with you, but please leave a couple at the hotel to keep an eye on me, I have reason not to trust Essawi!'
Johnny nods. 'I ought to tell you all about my meetings with Dr van Heuvelen.' He does so, in summary. 'I'm planning to hypnotically regress him this afternoon, see if that reveals more. I'll try and get some more details out of John as well, and record it if possible.'
'Be sure you're safe from the rioters,' says Isobel. 'We should all protect ourselves in case they come any closer.' She looks thoughtful. 'Perhaps John would help put the robot up the ka-shaft while Essawi's distracted? If it was his new chant that opened up the shaft last night, that might be what he's hoping to achieve.'
'But does that mean it's any good?' asks Eddie. 'We know yon Essawi's a bad lad, all right, but just because John – Haremakhet – 's opposing 'im, don't mean 'e's the white hat.'
'No, Isobel,' says Celestina, 'I think you should give John the sleeping draught – give it to her, Johnny – in the hope that his inactivity will stop the CPR group from having a 'realignment' session that night. It might also be a good idea if you were to attempt to detain them in some way or other if you thought they were going to.'
'So do you think both Essawi and the CPRG are bad guys, then, Celestina?' asks a puzzled Eddie.
'Celestina,' puts in Johnny, 'is there any chance that the obelisk's power can be drained? Or even used against Haremakhet and co?'
Celestina ponders briefly. 'I am sure that both of those suggestions are possible, to one who is skilled in the ways of this particular magic. For someone like myself, whose magic is different in character -' she shrugs '- who knows? I could certainly try. What is your plan?'
'I haven't got one yet,' grins Johnny. 'But if we can't find any other way to stop what is going on, then Mickey may have to get some of Wasim's friends to hijack the CPRG and take the obelisk.'
Johnny motors out to the site to discuss Celestina's plan with Andrew. He finds the archaeologists planning how best to extract Hetepheres's sarcophagus: this is a major operation that will take several weeks, it seems. They are all very excited and seem to have forgotten the disappointment of not being allowed to send the robot into the ka-shaft. The robot control software is sitting unattended, its monitor showing the robot rather disconsolately peering at Haremakhet's skeleton.
Johnny briefs Andrew, but the young Norwegian keeps glancing over towards Professor Bird, making sure that all is well with her. Johnny, noticing this, says 'Andrew, I'm a little concerned – you seem to be spending a lot of time around Sonia Bird.'
'She needs someone to watch over her,' explains Andrew. 'We don't know what sort of risks she might be under.'
'Even so, don't forget why we are here – the mission must take priority, hmm?'
Isobel, who has ventured out in the morning to buy herself a bullet-proof vest – she wanted to buy a pistol as well, but apparently this requires a good deal of paperwork and so forth to get a firearms licence from the police first – dresses relatively casually for her lunch appointment with Isobelle Kingston, not wishing to appear over-formal to the other woman. She takes the Dictaphone.
The conversation, over a starter of mixed salad vegetables with boiled pigeons' eggs, is warm and friendly. Isobelle Kingston is a good listener, and Isobel finds herself relaxing and starting to like the woman. She raises the subject of the chanting, and Isobelle enthuses about Jonathan Sherwood's grand vision – of an Earth readied for its alien mentors to visit once more, every ancient monument perfectly realigned.
'Perhaps I could come along some time?' asks Isobel.
'Why, my dear, that would be wonderful! You'd make the perfect addition to out little group. Things have been going so well since dear Dr Torillo – isn't he charming? – brought his new prayers. Poor dear Jonathan's nose has been put rather out of joint!' She laughs. 'But we're all working together, oh yes. I know, Isobel darling, why don't you join us tonight? We'll be heading out to the pyramid just before midnight – it'd be lovely to have you along. The prayers are very simple really, and dearest Reg helps us carry the tune – he does have a lovely singing voice, doesn't he?'
The main course arrives, and Isobelle falls to with a will – it really is remarkable how much she can put away. Where does it all go? wonders Isobel.
Johnny and Eddie go into Cairo once more to seek out the egregious Dr Willem van Heuvelen. Today there are actually rifle-toting troops out on the streets, patrolling the wide avenues of the city's business and bourgeois districts. The crowded tenements of the Old Bazaar, though, are manned by gangs of white-jellabah'd youths, many carrying sticks or knives openly. There is no sign of police presence.
The sweetshop is closed, as are most of the businesses around here, metal blinds drawn down across the windows, but after a good deal of banging Johnny manages to rouse its owner. A sizeable sum of money changes hands – Johnny is glad that SITU's expenses budget seems so capacious – and the two are admitted into the darkened back room.
Van Heuvelen is pacing about, like a caged tiger. He whirls eagerly as Johnny enters. 'Doctor! How glad I am to see you! These pills – I really think they must be doing me some good!' And indeed he looks rather healthier than previously.
Eddie watches, fascinated, as Johnny sits the Dutchman down and begins to talk to him in a slow, quiet, soothing voice, holding his gaze. Johnny reaches into his pocket and pulls out a small mirror, which he flicks gently back and forth, van Heuvelen's eyes following its movements.
'Now, Willem, I want you to go back. Back into the past. Can you do that for me?'
'Yes... back...' Van Heuvelen's voice is so quiet it can barely be heard.
'It's three weeks ago, towards the end of February. Where are you?'
'I'm at Giza – working on the dig...'
'Good. Who is there with you?'
'Sonia... Marcus... Marie... the students... the diggers...'
'Good. Now it's night – but you're not asleep. You're lying in bed – what are you thinking about?'
'I need a drink. Another drink. To keep the dreams away.' Van Heuvelen becomes more agitated, and his head jerks slightly.
'We're not going to talk about the dreams. Don't worry.' Johnny's voice is soothing, but inwardly he is thinking If I have to take him over the edge mentally, I will – our need to know is of greater importance than his mental stability. 'Let's go back to before the dreams started, shall we? To when your sleep was peaceful.'
'It was on the second day here.' Van Heuvelen's voice is little more than a whisper. 'I went for a walk... towards the Sphinx. I was thinking... thinking about the past, how this place had looked in the Old Kingdom. Then... it was like walking through the wall of a bubble. I felt... like a membrane of air bursting before me. There was a dreadful pain in my heart, it was being squeezed. Then the voices, those mad, mad, voices, babbling, screaming, on the edge of my awareness, crying out for relief, for release – but in no language! – no, it was a tongue of emotion, of raw, undiluted, emotion poured from them, maddened over the millennia, into me, the unwilling vessel – I collapsed... when I came round, an hour later, the voices had gone – but not gone completely! That night, they returned in my dreams, and every other night since, and then during the day too – you must help me, doctor! – you are the only man who can! – protect me, guard me from the terrible, terrible, mad voices!'
By now van Heuvelen's voice has risen to a shriek, his face drawn and thin, his eyes staring, his mouth drooling and his hands clutching convulsively. The kindly Eddie can hardly bear to watch, but Johnny continues to tease the Dutchman along the line that separates stability from lunacy. 'Where was this, Willem? Where did you break through the bubble?'
'It was towards the Sphinx! – that great beast that looms out of the sand! – did you know, its head was carved to look human later? – what did it resemble before...?' And with a terrible shriek, van Heuvelen's eyes roll up into his head, and he collapses backwards onto the bed.
Johnny checks his pulse and gives him a shot of morphine to stabilize his sleep, while Eddie watches in horror. Then the two men back out of the room.
In the Suzuki, Eddie asks 'Well, what did you make of that, eh?'
'I don't know... he clearly believes he had some sort of communication experience. These symptoms are common among schizophrenics – Joan of Arc's 'voices', for example, which told her to resist the English. Our friend's seem less helpful, though.' Johnny ponders. 'Towards the Sphinx, he said – where would that make it?'
Eddie pulls out the map of the Giza complex he made earlier. 'Eh! That must be right around where yer man Foster 'ad 'is abduction!'
'Wasim, I still do not know if we will need to carry out the robbery, but it does need to be set up.'
Wasim tilts his head intelligently.
'Therefore I propose a hundred pounds for you to set it up, another hundred if I do not need your help, but the full payment on handing over of the obelisk by whatever method I choose.'
Wasim pretends to weigh up the offer for a second or too but spoils the effect by nodding far too eagerly. Presumably his share of the payment is planned to be a sizeable one. 'No problem, effendi!'
'If it does happen, it will happen quickly, therefore please be ready to go.'
'At drop of hat, effendi!' Wasim gives Johnny a number to call: he can have the ambushers standing by at five minutes' notice. 'And you will say whether is killing or not, effendi?'
'I'll say when I call you,' promises Mickey.
'John, I'd really like to help, if I can,' says Johnny late that afternoon. 'These plans of yours – they sound admirable. I'm thrilled to be part of them. We must defeat Khentkaus, keep her at bay.'
John's eyes flash darkly. 'Correct! At least you, Dr Stone, seem to possess a fraction of intellect, woefully denied to these other witless fools. Of course, your brain is far too puny to comprehend the whole of my scheme, but yet you may play your useful part, I think, as a pawn.'
'Anything I can do,' says Johnny, spreading his hands widely. The other Dictaphone is nestling in his pocket.
'Very well! You may join us in the pyramid, tonight, for the consummation of my grand design. Last night we laid the foundations, opening the ka-shaft. Tonight – ha! – she shall be avenged, my great lady, and return to do mischief to her witch enemy.'
'What exactly will be involved?' asks Johnny cautiously.
'You need not know the details, and could not comprehend them in any case. Suffice to say that lack-brain Essawi – who knows what foolish block-shifting scheme he originally planned, with the prayers he gave to Sherwood – and who cares? – for the scheme is dead, replaced by mine own – he will have nothing to say on the matter, indeed knows nothing of what is happening, I suppose. But he is a nobody, as dust on the wind before my Queen's righteous wrath. Once she too has her vessel, as I now have mine, the witch Khentkaus will be driven forth and Egypt will be ours!'
A page wanders by. 'Dr Stone, Dr Stone, calling Dr Stone?'
Andre Swahn is on the line. 'Operative Stone, these symptoms of van Heuvelen's you describe – they tie in with things some of our other teams have reported. Might he have come into contact with any alien artifacts?'
'Alien?' asks Johnny in surprise. 'I don't know... he seems to have been around the spot Foster was abducted from, if that was what really happened.'
'Well, this is probably a matter for a future investigation, but what you've reported pretty much confirms to us that Foster was indeed abducted by aliens. Sounds like van Heuvelen wandered into the backwash, or residue – not uncommon. For him to react that badly he must be very sensitive.'
'He said he felt like walking into a bubble, and his heart was constricted.'
'His heart!' Swahn sounds more excited than Johnny has heard him. 'Excellent, excellent. Thank you very much, Operative Stone, if we get nothing else out of this mission you've already done us a big favour.'
With that he hangs up, and Johnny, looking back, sees that John has gone.
If anyone could see Celestina preparing herself for dinner, they might almost be tempted to suggest that she appears nervous, if such a term could ever be applied to her. As she dresses she bears in mind the calm way in which her tutors taught her how to defend herself against a man, in case anything happens with Essawi. However, she is more concerned with the spiritual side, she is sure that she is strong, but is Essawi stronger?
Eddie is already stationed at a nearby table when she descends – Andrew is at the dig, Johnny and Isobel are planning to join the CPRG expedition, and Mickey to follow them, so he is the only one available – and waves subtly to her.
Essawi turns up fashionably late, dressed beautifully as ever, this time in Egyptian formal costume, a finely-embroidered robe and fez, with gorgeously-jewelled sandals. He attracts a good deal of attention around the dining-room.
The conversation starts off with fairly mindless banter, mostly Celestina giving her impressions of Cairo. 'These riots are rather worrying – can you tell me any more about their cause?'
Essawi smiles. 'That many-headed hydra, the mob – the 'mobile vulgus', as the Romans put it – so easily roused up. To whose tune do they dance? Most of them probably have no idea. Your great Shakespeare put it well in his Julius Caesar – "you blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things, you men of Rome!" Thus Antony roused the crowd against the conspirators. "Was this ambition?"'
'Well, to whose tune are they dancing?' asks Celestina. 'Is it simply a matter of religious oppression, as we have been told?'
'Far from it. Any capable servant of a Power can raise up a crowd for his purposes – you must know this from your own work.' His eyes seem very deep and penetrating, and Celestina wonders exactly what he really knows about her.
Meanwhile in the coffee lounge the CPRG are snacking before they prepare for departure. Isobel and Johnny are with them. All the CPRG are making a great welcoming fuss over Isobel, even Jonathan Sherwood: they seem greatly pleased to have her along. Johnny is not exactly made unwelcome but he gets the feeling that he would not have been their choice had John not suggested it.
John is full of energy, buzzing around the room, making sure everyone has their prayer sheets ready. 'Tonight we see the conclusion of our plans! Tonight the true transformation shall be wrought!'
'You mean, the pyramid'll finally be properly realigned,' says Sherwood.
'Yes, yes, of course,' says John hastily.
'I understand you're sensitive, Mrs Blyth,' says the dry Nick Pope to Isobel. 'I'm sure that'll be tremendously helpful to us – you'll be able to feel when the movement is right.'
'I hope so,' says Isobel rather nervously.
John laughs deeply. 'You may be able to be helpful in all manner of ways, my dear Mrs Blyth, never fear! One such as yourself is rarely found, and must be exploited!'
Isobel glances at him warily. She sees that his coffee is still undrunk: if she is lucky, she may be able to slip the sleeping draught in and hopefully fell him before they leave the hotel, although she is still not sure whether or not this would be a good thing to do.
As the clock drifts towards eleven, Essawi seems to be preparing to leave. 'I have much business afoot this night, Miss Mirande, if you will excuse me.'
He turns to ask for the bill, and Celestina catches a quick faint glimpse of a silver mark on his forehead – invisible in normal light. It is an oval cartouche with two hieroglyphs inside, a semicircle and a pear-shaped blob surmounted by a cross.
'Oh, must you leave?' she asks. 'I'm not feeling terribly well – I wonder if I could ask you to take me to a doctor?'
Essawi regards her levelly. 'The feeble damsel does not become you, Miss Mirande. If you are ill you may heal yourself, may you not? We have spoken much this night but you have told me nothing of value: I owe you nothing. Now there is evil work afoot tonight, which must be stopped, and I go to rouse my forces.' He starts to rise from the table.
11.15 pm, Saturday 14th March 1998
Celestina: trying to prevent Essawi from leaving the restaurant
Eddie: watching her
Isobel and Johnny: with the CPRG and John as they prepare to head out to Giza
Mickey: waiting outside in the Suzuki to follow
Andrew: at the dig
Isobel: you subtly turn the Dictaphone off after the lunchtime conversation reported above. You go on to draw Isobelle out somewhat more. She says that she lives in Salisbury and is a professional medium, able to receive communication from spirits, especially ones tied to a particular location. She is surprised to learn that you have not thought about becoming a professional yourself. Such gifts should be shared for the benefit of humanity, she feels. She could sense that you had the capability to receive: when you explain your 'feelings' to her, she judges that if you were to undergo training to open yourself out rather than instinctively blank them off, you could become a powerful medium, most probably.
You call home and speak with Henry, who is now deeply concerned about the troubles in Cairo – apparently the troops have been called out. 'I want you to fly back tomorrow, do you hear? It's just too dangerous, Isobel – apart from what you might feel about it, we – I – don't want to lose you.'