The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness


9.30 am, Monday 9th August 1999

Donald leaps up, looking distinctly worried. ‘I’ve got to go after the kid!’

Phil swiftly stands. ‘I’ll come along. Be whatever help I can.’ He looks around. ‘Anyone else? I’m not much in the way of strong-arm support, so the more the merrier.’

Arabella rises in turn. ‘We can keep out of the way, but be close enough to back you up if need be.’

Donald nods curtly. ‘Remember the password is “sureshot”, if you see him before me.’ He takes his gun from his holster and works the action, peering down the barrel.

‘I’ve not met the boy yet,’ points out Phil, ‘so you’ll have to tell me what to look for. And I’ll try not to startle him,’ he adds, as Donald snaps a full magazine home.

Jo says nothing, but she checks her knives.

‘Right, let’s move it,’ says Donald.

‘I don’t believe Essawi can really be a keen Moslem – he only worships power,’ says Sam. ‘But translating them’s still a good idea.’

She and John head off to find Wasim, who is not best pleased to be woken up early after a long night serving in the restaurant. His irritation fades, though, on seeing the sheaf of photographic prints. His eyes widen as he leafs through them, and he pales, glancing around his small grubby apartment, as though expecting secret police to burst in at any moment. ‘This is very dangerous writings, I think.’

‘Never mind that, just tell us which ones will help incriminate Essawi,’ says Sam impatiently.

Wasim pales yet further as he continues to work through the stack of documents. ‘I had not known this man was so powerful. Here are many letters of Islamic Brotherhood men, senior men, and they are respectful to him.’

‘What else?’

‘Ah… here are other things now. Insh’allah! This man, Ali Ramzy, who write this letter, he is big criminal, big smuggler, drugs, alcohol, antiquities. He is much wanted by police. And here he call Essawi his boss!’

‘Great, that sounds perfect. Sort out the other ones that are from him and his people, then, and we’ll use them.’

Wasim leafs through the remainder of the prints, and pulls out about half a dozen. He looks very nervous. ‘Is dangerous, very dangerous, for me to even know these things.’

‘Keep quiet about them, and you should be OK,’ says John crisply.

As he and Sam leave, though, they both glance warily at the loafers in the street outside Wasim’s tenement. Could one of them be a watcher for the cult, for the Brotherhood, for the criminal gangs, for the police? Have they brought Wasim into danger by their contact with him? Clearly, the answer is Yes.

Donald, Arabella, Phil and Jo leap into the other Landrover and head off at speed, Phil driving while Jo keeps watch out behind and Arabella monitors the tracker. ‘He’s not moving… more left, take the next left…’

They are in the warren of dirty streets around the main railway station, and Phil pulls in behind a dumper bin. ‘On foot from here.’

Donald has already spilled out of the door, and is running down the alley at the far end of which the source is registering. There is no sign of movement: the alleyway is empty but for rubbish.

Arabella and Phil follow at less speed, while Jo stays in the mouth of the alley, trying to look inconspicuous as passers-by stare curiously.

‘Jesus God!’ Donald wails from up ahead, and he drops to his knees behind a heap of rubbish, his hands over his face.

Arabella and Phil walk forward cautiously, neither being too keen to see whatever it is that has had this effect.

Lying on the ground, on its back, is the boy of a young boy. Arms and legs are splayed, and the head is tipped backwards. ‘Pointing West,’ a far-off, detached part of Arabella’s mind whispers to her. ‘To the land of the dead.’

The boy’s chest cavity has been laid open, ribs folded back to either side. His heart is missing – where it should be, the tracking device has been placed, its red button prominent.

‘Is that…’ starts Phil, his voice tailing off.

‘No,’ says Donald, his voice steady and tight, rising to his feet. ‘It’s not Mahmoud. This must be one of the other kids. But it means they’ve got him. It’s a message to us.’

There is a screech of brakes out in the street, and Jo comes running down the alley. ‘Move it! The police are here.’ She doesn’t stop as she passes the body, just glancing down to take it in. ‘This way!’

Donald, gun in hand, glances around wildly as if looking for someone to shoot at. But Arabella grabs him under the arm. ‘Come on! You can’t fight the entire police force!’ She drags him bodily after Phil, who is already dashing through the doorway Jo has indicated.

‘Go on, Bella, go,’ urges Jo, two policemen now entering the top of the alley at a run. She ducks in through the door herself, into the midst of three surprised carpetmakers. ‘Don’t go straight out the front,’ she calls to Arabella, who has built up a fair head of steam. ‘Through into next door, then out into the next alley.’ The police are probably watching the whole street.

Phil has stopped to speak to one of the workers. ‘Did you see anything out there? Any trouble, violence?’

The man looks at him terrifiedly. ‘Bad men, effendi, bad criminals gang. I say nothing.’

‘Come on!’

Rupert wakes feeling absolutely drained. The effort of wresting control of the flow of the dream, resisting the blandishments with which the woman (whom he assumes to be Nefertiti) is seeking to seduce him, screaming at her, fleeing her ‘warmth’ – having fought off the cultists’ first attempt to control him, he has no wish to surrender to an attack via the back door – has left him feeling more in need of relaxation than he was before he fell asleep. The first thing he does is, hands shaking, relight the opium pipe and pull on it heavily.

Shaking his head to clear it of the night’s confusion, he rouses van Heuvelen and calls in the shopkeeper from the front. The fat man regards Rupert suspiciously as he outlines the threat to their security. ‘Old chap, I’m a little worried that someone might want to hurt my friend here and myself. If any stranger comes here, possibly some weirdly robed sun cultists, deny knowing me or Mr van Heuvelen, deny knowing who we are, where we are, or anything about us. If anyone should barge in, or try to drag either of us off, make a much noise as you can, call the police, and tell them to go to the Sphinx. For help, contact either Mr Swathe or Mr Hamilton at the Giza Hilton.’

The shopkeeper blinks impassively while van Heuvelen translates the more difficult words.

‘And the other thing is, if some English colleagues of mine arrive, let them in. They should be all right, but you never know. Let them in, but if they start to be violent, call for help. Some of them can be real thugs.’

Rupert heads out to the library, using all his new-found precautions to avoid pursuit, and seeks out the social calendar pages of the English-language newspaper. He learns that the programme of events for the distinguished Arab visitors includes a visit to Giza that seems to coincide with the planned ceremony. No horse-racing outing is planned, though. He then spends some time leafing through a copy of the Bible, before calling briefly by the Hilton and then returning to van Heuvelen, relieved to learn that there have been no visitors as yet.

John and Sam have to cool their heels for a while at the mosque of Ibn Tulun, as it is a while before Imam Mustafa Hosseini can attend to their visit. As they wait in the antechamber, junior priests dash about the place, looking flustered.

John carefully takes off his shoes and leaves them with the gatekeeper. ‘I knew there was a reason I never bothered with those things,’ says the barefooted Sam. She does feel rather uncomfortable, though – hot and itchy.

When they are eventually admitted, they find him bedecked in fine ceremonial robes, looking rather flustered. ‘I am preparing for the visit of many foreign dignitaries,’ he explains. ‘The government has organized an unofficial summit meeting of the Arab nations, and our mosque, the oldest in Cairo, is holding services for them. It is always good to serve the faithful, but this is a big disruption to us – we are scholars, not diplomats.’

 ‘I was wondering what all these delegations were doing in the city,’ says John.

‘Yes, the Ministry of Culture is sponsoring the meeting – it is about cultural exchanges, preservation of artistic treasures, and these such things. Very important and valuable. Here in Egypt, we have our ancient history, and the other countries, they too have their antiquities – and of course we all have our Moslem heritage, for which we are all humbly grateful. The world of the West does not know enough about Islam – they think we are barbarians, terrorists, fanatics. In the Middle Ages the Islamic states, the Caliphate here in Egypt, the Emirate of Cordoba, were more enlightened, more advanced, than the Christian nations, but they will never admit that.’

John glances at Sam, but she seems happy to let him do the talking. ‘Well, I suppose that the activities of a few people have given Islam a bad name. Like this man Essawi we were talking about before – sponsoring the terrorists.’

The Imam sighs. ‘Yes, this is true. Surely one such as he is accursed by God.’

‘Well, we managed to find out something about him – here, sir, take a look at this.’ John hands over the documents.

As the imam reads, his face contorts with anger. ‘How… how did you come by these?’

John glances at Sam again. ‘I have my ways,’ she says. She twitches slightly as a spasm of heat ripples across her skin.

The Imam looks at her a little inquiringly, but he is too gripped by what he is reading to press the point. ‘This is abominable! Truly, this man is steeped in the deepest evil and trickery. I knew he was an infidel worshipper of demons, but this…!’ Hosseini rises and begins to pace about rapidly, his right hand going to his belt as if seeking the hilt of a sword. ‘Such foulness must be extinguished! He sells vile poisons, drugs, to the misguided Europeans – he brings vile poisons, alcohol, here to the lands of the Prophet – he sells the very antiquities with which he is entrusted – and this man Ramzy, I know of him, he is also gambling, keeping prostitutes, all the crimes accursed of Allah, those crimes which weaken human souls and turns them away from the path of rightness!’

‘Er, well, yes, that was what we thought – so we thought we should tell you what we learnt,’ says John slightly nervously – the Imam has worked himself up to such a pitch of fury that he looks about to spit fire.

‘Well, something must be done to stop his evil ways. But what would be best? It would be bad to disgrace Egypt in front of these foreigners, so the subtlety of the crocodile I think must be used. Do you have any ideas, Mr Hamilton?’

‘I’ll think about it and call you if I come up with anything,’ says John hastily. ‘On another subject – spirit possession. What can be done about it?’

‘The spirits can be driven out from the possessed one’s body, by a priest. But it is better not to let it happen. The power of prayer will make your body a fortress against these spirits, for Allah is great and bountiful.’

A silvery bell tinkles, somewhere off in the mosque complex, and Imam Hosseini looks around wildly. ‘Ach! I must leave you now, they are waiting for me.’ He hands the prints back to John. ‘Can you send me copies of these? Go with God, both of you, go with God.’

As Sam and John leave, they see a long line of black limousines drawn up at the kerb, each with a different flag on the bonnet, and each with two soldiers standing close by: the delegates must already be waiting inside.

Sam’s discomfort eases within a few minutes of leaving the mosque’s precincts.

The team regroup back at the hotel. Donald is not speaking to anyone, his face like a cold mask, his hands clenched.

‘While you were out, this arrived,’ says George. He passes around a letter [see attached GIF – Mo]. While each in turn is reading and inwardly digesting its contents, he continues ‘I rang the British consulate, and confirmed the purpose of these Arab delegations as being a big cultural exchange. They’re civil servants and junior ministers from all the Arab countries.’

‘Are they going to the horse races?’ asks Jo. ‘There’s got to be some connection…’

‘That would be a good place to get them all together for some purpose or other,’ nods Arabella.

 ‘Doesn’t look like it,’ says George. ‘They’re not scheduled to be there, anyway. But I did find out something interesting about their timetable – as well as the usual round of banquets, trips to the museum, meetings and so on, they’re all visiting the Giza plateau, on Wednesday afternoon – the day of the eclipse.’

He glances around to make sure everyone has read the letter, then continues ‘I don’t believe we should assume that Rupert has been compromised. He may appear to be a worthless and pathetic junkie, more interested in his own gratification than anything else, but he has hidden depths and, I believe, a very resilient core to his personality. I don’t think he would be easily “turned”. In fact, we may be able to use this to our advantage, if he can be convinced to stay under cover.’

Arabella nods. ‘Rupert may be seriously screwed up – but, believe it or not, he actually has quite a strong sense of self-preservation at times. It is entirely possible that he has some kind of plan, though what it might be I haven’t the faintest idea.’

‘Don’t anyone do anything silly with him, anyway,’ grates out Donald, the first thing he has said since finding the boy’s body. His hands continue to clench.

‘I was thinking about heading down there after this,’ says John.

‘I’ll come with you,’ says Phil. ‘I won’t say we get on like a house on fire, but I don’t think he’s actively taken offence to me yet.’

Sam says ‘Well, what you should do is get one of the spirits to possess van Heuvelen, if that’s the only way they can help us out.’

‘Either that or one of us,’ says Michael calmly.

George looks uneasy. ‘Just because we share an enemy with these spirits doesn’t mean they’re friendly. I’m… well, you know, speaking with spirits of one’s own dear departed is one thing, but letting some potentially harmful ghost into one’s body…’

Michael glances levelly at him. ‘It shouldn’t be too risky, for someone who’s got a strong mind. And they could be able to help us against Nefertiti in ways that no-one else could.’

‘I suppose you’re right,’ agrees George reluctantly. But all the same, no-one leaps forward to volunteer for possession duty.

Michael’s air is a little weary. ‘Well, we’ll have to find some other way, then. The Dutchman won’t be any use while he’s still strung out, though. We’ll have to get him off the drugs first.’

‘Another thing,’ says George. ‘Essawi’s premises. I would counsel extreme care when attempting to gain entry to any buildings belonging to Essawi or the cult.’ He looks at Sam, who holds his gaze calmly, and at Donald, who is paying little attention. ‘I’m not saying we must steer clear of breaking and entering, but am just reminding people that this man holds immense power and would likely use some of it to protect himself and his property. I know I would,’ he adds.

‘Rupert mentions in his letter a big ritual the cultists are having on Wednesday afternoon, the same time the dignitaries are there,’ points out Arabella. ‘We should be there too.’

‘I’ve been thinking about that,’ says George. ‘He mentions a hypnotic chant that they use to control their members. Maybe if we were each to wear a portable cassette player, with an earpiece, we might be protected. Especially if it was playing fairly strident music, without any lyrics – which might make the wearer inadvertently listen to the chanting instead. Bach, Wagner or Paganini would be my choices.’ He delves into a bag and hands everyone a cheap Walkman and some tapes. ‘I took the liberty of purchasing these at the hotel shop.’

The operatives receive these gifts with a mixture of enthusiasm and distaste, depending on their musical preferences.

‘And here’s something else to think about,’ says Arabella. ‘I think we also have to consider the possibility of betrayal from areas other than the group. I don’t like what’s happening inside SITU, especially the idea of Geoff Blaize letting people free after having them locked up and not telling people. It is possible he’s working against our best interests.’

This suggestion is received in silence, each operative considering their own feelings on the matter.

As the group breaks up, George takes Arabella and Jo to one side. ‘I’m a little concerned about Michael,’ he confides. ‘I briefly saw him speaking with someone earlier – a tall, blonde woman, she had a French accent. They seemed to know each other, so I straight away thought of the woman Tanya Hyde in Buckinghamshire – now a suspected agent of Essawi. He was probably seen at the airport with John and Donald, so we may have to assume that they, too, have been “rumbled”.’

‘It might be something innocent,’ says Arabella unconvincedly.

‘Perhaps the rest of us should stay separate from John, Donald and Michael, at least until Michael tells us more. Rupert says that Essawi mentioned two cult members absent from the ceremony – could they be other SITU operatives he has turned?’

Meanwhile Phil has buttonholed Donald. ‘Look,’ he says seriously. ‘If you’re determined to get something off Said, I’ve been thinking about it. I’m more than happy to sell whatever part of my “soul” he wants.’

‘Are you sure?’ asks Donald, jolted out of his mood.

‘Don’t worry. It’s not something I’ve ever known I had, and even if I do then I’m sure I won’t miss it… I never noticed it before.’

Donald looks him up and down. The scruffy journalist seems an unlikely soul-sacrificing hero. ‘Why would you want to do it?’

‘Being honest with you, I don’t think we’ll see anything Paul Daniels couldn’t do,’ Phil explains. ‘But I’ve got to admit I’m a bit curious as to what his show involves. I’m no Houdini – I don’t plan to expose him to the world as a fake, just satisfy myself really.’

In another corner Michael and Sam are also discussing metaphysics. ‘Are you OK, Sam?’ inquires Michael. He has seen an odd tinge to her aura – a red flickering around it. It does not look at all pleasant, although the effect is slight. ‘Your soul, I mean.’

‘Don’t worry,’ says Sam. ‘I’ve got two of them, and they’re tougher than the soles of your boots!’ She indicates the soles of her feet.

‘Well, this is where Sam said she put it,’ says Donald, propping the flat stone up against the wall to reveal the space beneath. The silver bowl is not there.

‘Maybe someone saw her,’ suggests Arabella. ‘Or maybe someone could tell the bowl was here,’ she adds darkly.

‘Well, either way, it’s gone now. Let’s hope it’s not Essawi taken it back.’

Even though Donald is in such an odd state of mind, Arabella feels reasonably safe in his presence: he exudes alertness and readiness. And Jo probably needs some time on her own, she thinks to herself.

On the way back to the hotel, Donald stops at a betting shop, at Jo’s request – women are strongly discouraged from betting – and puts ten pounds on Essawi’s horse Akhetaten. ‘Any news about this one?’ he asks one of the loafers who frequent the place. The odds have been marked down to 4–1, and the jockey is named as Abdullah Rahman.

‘Is not good bet, friend. Bad horse, bad jockey, will lose.’ The loafer spits. ‘Big money bet is pushing down odds. That team, they have much money but not much skill. Better you put money on horse Bulbul, very good horse, my friend he work in stables, tell me very fast, special horse.’

‘Yeah, maybe. Thanks.’

‘Look here old chap, can I run an idea past you? Assuming that what you say is right, then the Beast, or the Devil, was what took control of Egypt in the identity of Nefertiti and Akhenaten. Also according to you, the Beast was once defeated by “angels”. So do you know how to defeat the Beast if it comes again? Is the information in the Bible? Also, is what is going to happen on 11th August documented in the Book of Revelations?’

‘It is!’ exclaims van Heuvelen. ‘The Lamb will open the four seals, and out will ride the four riders – and the fourth one is on a pale horse, and his name is Death! So wrote St John the Divine. And those who worship that old dragon, whose name is Satan, their reign will come, but it will be brief. For there will be no more curse, but the throne of God, and the Lamb shall be in it: and his servants will serve him – and his name shall be in their foreheads.’

‘Foreheads again!’ exclaims Rupert. ‘According to the Book of Revelations, the forehead of the Whore of Babylon has writing on it which means “Mystery, Babylon the Great, the Mother of Harlots and Abominations of the Earth”. What does the message on the foreheads of her followers mean, other than just the name Nefertiti?’ He quickly sketches the sign.

‘If any man receive the mark of the Beast on his forehead, the same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God,’ opines van Heuvelen. He shows Rupert how the Nefertiti symbol can be drawn as three interlinked figure 6s, if you use a bit of imagination.

‘What do you think is in the Sphinx? Is it the Beast? Since the face of the Sphinx was obviously originally the Beast, is that what is in there, and do the sun cult plan to summon it on 11th August?’

‘He had power to give life unto the image of the beast, that the image of the beast should both speak, and cause that as many as would not worship the beast should be killed.’

‘But is it safe for us to rely on all these various angels and so on eventually coming forth and smiting the evildoers?’ persists Rupert. ‘What should we be doing?’

Van Heuvelen merely says ‘Thou must prophesy again before many peoples, and nations, and tongues, and kings.’

Arabella and Jo are in the hotel café, alone together. ‘I really want to spend some time investigating the Sphinx, I’m sure there’s some link there with our mission. It might not be hollow, but that doesn’t mean too much. There are so many ways to hide a compartment or passage in monuments and the Ancient Egyptians were masters of the art, though they also built some damned deadly traps too. What do you think?’

‘Good idea,’ says Jo firmly. ‘Let’s head off now: it’ll be getting dark by the time we get there.’

Arabella blinks, a little dazed at such rapid agreement. ‘Erm… OK then! Why not? Let’s!’

Jo prepares her usual supplies of camouflage and weaponry, plus torches, a rope and a camera. There is an almost conspiratorial air to the way that she and Arabella slip out of the hotel, leaving a note for George: ‘Gone to the Sphinx. If we’re not back by morning come and rescue us.’

Darkness is veiling the Sphinx’s great stone head as they approach. ‘You can see that if it had a different face before, it must have been much bigger,’ says Arabella. ‘None of the stone that makes up the face now was added, and some parts – like the beard – stick out quite a long way. But from the proportions of the body, it could quite easily have had a larger head and not looked odd.’

‘Depending on what the head was,’ says Jo. The tourists are clearing away from the monument now, and the night guards moving to their duty posts.

‘Between the paws, there, that’s what they call the “Dream Stela”. It’s an inscription put up by the pharaoh Tuthmosis IV. He had a dream in which the god Haremakhis – that means Horus of the Horizon – told him to clear the sand away from the Sphinx, because it had got covered. It was only around then that people started to worship it itself, they’d just treated it as a memorial up till that time.’

‘When was that?’

‘In the New Kingdom, the 18th Dynasty. Tuthmosis IV was Akhenaten’s grandfather.’

The two women wait, pressed into a hollow in the sand, while the darkness deepens. ‘I’m almost positive there’s some way to get inside it, or below it,’ says Arabella firmly. ‘But I won’t rule out the idea that any entrance will be hidden, or even in another place, and definitely trapped!’

‘Well, we’re not going to be able to poke around much with these guards here,’ says Jo practically, pointing at the two men who are patrolling around the Sphinx in opposite directions. ‘Sneaking, maybe, but not torch work and not digging or tapping. Wherever the chamber is, if people don’t find it every day, it must need some opening. We’ll have to get rid of the guards somehow if we want to make a proper search.’

‘Michel? Zis is very kind of you to meet wiz me like this.’ Tanya and Michael are in the bar, she sipping a virulent green cocktail, he drinking from a bottle of beer. ‘Zat terrible man Essawi – ’e made ma life vair’ difficult. But zat is all over now.’

‘Glad to hear it,’ says Michael. ‘What are you doing in Cairo, then?’

Tanya bursts into tears. ‘Zis is where ’e dump me! I ‘ave no money, no friends, nobody…’ Michael pats her on the shoulder comfortingly, but she moves into his arm and, before he knows quite what is happening, he finds that he is kissing the tears away from her face. ‘Will you be ma frien’, Michel? You are so strong, so brave… But why are you in Cairo, yourself? Are you ’ere to kill zat dreadful man Essawi? I wan’ to ’elp you! Tell me what I can do…’

The sweetshop owner comes into the back of the shop, looking agitated. ‘English visitors here!’

‘Oh, show them in, there’s a good chap,’ drawls Rupert; he is far from pleased that his colleagues have sought him out, but it was inevitable in a way.

John enters the room, followed by Phil glancing interestedly about himself.

‘Oh good God! What the hell are you doing here?’ Rupert is indignant. ‘You’ve come to order me around again, I suppose. Well, no, John, I won’t wipe your bottom for you – your mum should have taught you that!’

John remains calm and reasonable. ‘No, Rupert, nothing like that. We just wanted to check that you were OK.’

Rupert calms slightly. ‘Well, you never seem to have cared much about that before now! Still, now you’re here you may as well take a seat, the two of you. Put your feet up and have a smoke of this pipe.’

Phil tries it experimentally, and makes a face at the bitter opium. John, ignoring it, greets the surprised van Heuvelen in Dutch.

‘Maybe I ought to fill you in on this adventuring lark,’ breaks in Rupert. ‘it seems Ive probably found out rather a lot that the rest of the group haven’t.’

‘Yes, we saw your letter,’ says Phil neutrally. He has no strong feeling for or against Rupert, apart from the suspicion that Rupert stole some money from his hotel room in Glastonbury. It takes more than rudeness to offend him. ‘Good work.’

‘I’d like to check your forehead for Nefertiti’s sign, if that’s OK,’ says John.

Rupert nods. ‘Fair enough, old chap. I can understand your worries, even if they are rather Neanderthal. I’ll do it, yes, because I’m not controlled. But how do I know you aren’t controlled? I’ll go along with this forehead test thingy if you two agree to have one as well.’

Michael has described the sign as a silvery mark which shows when light is reflecting from the forehead. John, Phil and Rupert inspect each other (and van Heuvelen) at some length before concluding that none are bearing it. Rupert grins broadly, thumbing his nose at John in a rather playful way. ‘There! Well, then – first of all is van Heuvelen. He’s been so useful. I’ve learnt a lot about those two spirits in the Khentkaus ruins. They want to inhabit a man and a woman, the most suitable ones apparently, whoever they are. Then they will be able to take their revenge on Nefertiti. Secondly, I believe van Heuvelen himself could be very useful to us. He’s given me some wonderful information. But I think he might be more coherent if, and I hate to say this –’ Rupert leans forward and whispers ‘– he were off the opium.’

John turns to the Dutchman and asks him about how his experiences in Cairo have been. Van Heuvelen looks nervous – this is more Dutch at a time than he has heard in many years – and responds politely that he is very happy, thank you. He hugs the mouthpiece of the pipe to him and retreats to the filthy bed in the corner.

‘Thirdly, the sun cult,’ continues Rupert. ‘They are due to meet at midday on the 11th, to celebrate the eclipse. I’ve seen most of their members, but there are apparently two more. I do wonder who those two are. The sun cult use their chanting to control people. It’s quite seductive, but obviously not seductive enough.

‘Fourthly, well, I believe that the cult will try something on the 11th. Probably a big publicity thing involving international figures – Essawi may use his Moslem extremists to do this. Whether this will be a prelude to him proving his godhood, like Nefertiti, or whether it will simply mean he takes control of Egypt, I am not sure.

‘Fifth, I have a theory about this whole business. Basically, I believe Aten is referred to in the Bible, but there he is known as “the Beast”, or the Devil. The Sphinx used to have the face of the Beast, but this was removed when the beast was removed from Egypt. This is why the sun cultists worship at the Sphinx. So does this mean that the spirit of Nefertiti, or Aten, is in the Sphinx? The Bible therefore may well tell us the answer to how the Beast was killed or defeated once before, and I believe the Book of Revelations tells us what the Ylids eventually plan to do.’

While Rupert has been expounding, Phil’s attention has been distracted by noises out in the shop and beyond. ‘Listen! Can you hear that? Sounds like shouting…”

And just at that moment a rush of noise bursts into the shop, sounding like a bunch of men shouting furiously in Arabic. ‘Insh’allah! Allahu akbar!’ The voice of the sweetshop owner can be heard, raised in protest, and then it is cut off suddenly in a choking gurgle.

John, leaping to his feet, looks for ways out, but none are apparent other than back into the corridor that leads to the shop – two other doors also open off it – from which trouble is fast approaching.

As darkness falls, Sam is on an Alexandria train, making her way to Essawi’s stables. She squats down quietly in the corridor of the crowded carriage: no-one is paying her any attention. The ride to Ausim is only twenty minutes, and is followed by a mile or so’s walk through this semi-rural distant suburb. Not quite the Egyptian Epsom, but getting there.

The ranch itself is a grand affair, with a high barbed-wire-topped fence around it. Warning signs are in Arabic, put the pictures of Alsatians that accompany them leave little room for doubt as to their interpretation.

Sam carefully lets herself in through the locked gate, and walks alongside the gravelled driveway towards the long, low complex of stable buildings. Through the now-gathered darkness she sees the indistinct forms of guards and dogs patrolling the grounds, the animals slavering vigorously, but they pay her no heed.

She climbs carefully up alongside the main doorway, to where the electricity cables enter the building, and, wrapping cloth around her hand, snips through the alarm system’s cables. Lights are on in the office, where she had been hoping to search for documents, and she can see a watchman standing alertly in the doorway, so she abandons that idea. Instead she makes her way over the flat roof to the stable itself, where Essawi’s prize thoroughbreds are dreaming of past and future glories.

Here it becomes apparent that there are stablelads sleeping in with the horses. Sam clambers down alongside the tack room, which is untenanted, and finds the veterinary box. She takes out a large hypodermic syringe and, after inspecting and rejecting a number of vials of liquid – all are labelled in Arabic, unhelpfully – she draws back the plunger and fills the syringe with air.

Fortunately the labels on the boxes are in English as well as Arabic – in fact, they all have cartouches in Ancient Egyptian as well. Akhetaten’s box is at one end, and very nice it is too. Nicer than a lot of the houses she saw on the train, Sam thinks to herself. The stablelad – he looks about eighteen – is curled up in a blanket in one corner of the box, and the horse is asleep on its feet.

Sam slips open the lower half of the split door, and ducks inside the box just as a guard and dog pass by outside, less than twenty yards away. The stallion’s nostrils flare, perhaps at the smell of the dog, and it stamps its feet nervously, opening its eyes and glancing about. Although it cannot see Sam, it seems to sense something unusual, and its neck arches, the fine head questing for cleaner air.

Sam lays a hand on its neck, intending to calm it, but it shies away at her touch as though her hands were hot, whinnying and stamping vigorously.

The stablelad rolls over, muttering annoyedly and rubbing his eyes.

Sam reaches out, grabs the now terrified horse’s mane with one hand, and with the other slips the needle into the large vein of its neck, swiftly squeezing the plunger home.

Akhetaten rears up frantically, as far as the low ceiling will let it, tearing the syringe from Sam’s hand and sending it flying against the wall. The stablelad cries out in Arabic, and lights start going on elsewhere in the block.

Sam dodges desperately as the horse’s forehooves strike down around her. Dogs are barking outside, and she rolls into the corner as the horse, horrifyingly, bursts into flame, greenish fire erupting from every part of its body at once. The stench and the noise of its screaming are hideous. Within seconds, as Sam dives out of the stall, the animal is jerking and twitching like a blazing marionette, and its bedding is also on fire.

From the safety of the grounds, moving towards the fence, she can see people converging on the box with extinguishers, lights on all over the building, screaming and barking. Far off in the town she hears a siren start up.

Then, just at the edge of her perception, she becomes aware that swooping down towards her from the night is a black, winged shape, a great hawk, the firelight gleaming off its beak and claws.

10.15 pm, Monday 9th August 1999

Michael – in the Hilton bar
Arabella and Jo – at the Sphinx
Phil, John and Rupert – at the sweetshop
Sam – at the stables
George and Donald – at the Hilton


George: you call Geoff Blaize at SITU and he gives you the name of a demolitions firm in El’Abbasiya, in the northern part of the city. He will set you up a false ID as the representative of a civil engineering firm, Brown Brothers, involved in slum clearance in Heliopolis. ‘If you’ve got to destroy their focus, whatever it is, don’t hesitate. We can make sure you can’t be traced, as long as you don’t actually get caught.’

Arabella: you call SITU and ask for Andre Swahn. You voice your suspicions, and there is a long silence, so long that you begin to think Swahn has disappeared. When he speaks again, his voice sounds very distant. ‘Thank you for that, Operative Robyns. I’ll look into the matter. Leave it with me.’

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