The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness


4 pm, Tuesday 10th August 1999

‘Eeeeeeeee!’ squeals Rupert, his high-pitched howl echoing around the small room.

‘What the fuck?’ yelps Trevor Green, glancing nervously at Rupert, whose voice is now descending through a long-drawn-out ‘Ah-ah-a!’ He pales, his eyes darting, and he shifts uneasily and confusedly on his feet.

Michael, his face pinched with concentration, steps forward and grasps for Green’s knife hand, but he is swaying and cannot make a clean connection.

Arabella, trying to hide the jitters she is feeling, stands up. ‘Mr Green, I suggest you put down the knife,’ she says, looking him straight in the eye, ‘otherwise…’

But before the discussion can progress any further, Jo takes two quick steps forward and kicks the knife out of Green’s hand.

Green glances fearfully from Jo to Michael, backing away nervously, and Arabella, with the appearance of calm, steps around behind him and  pins his arms to his sides. The trick is to look confident in your own ability and not let him see just how scared you really are, she tells herself.

‘Wimowe a wimowe!’ Rupert exclaims, but fortunately he seems keener now to talk than to continue his bravura rendition of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ any further. ‘What a pleasant chap, Michael! Just the sort of cheerful, happy guy to make any party go with a swing.’

‘Michael, do you attract trouble naturally, or do you have to practise…?’ Arabella jokes feebly, now looking rather jittery.

Jo says nothing as she pushes Green backwards into a chair, merely glancing at Michael for an explanation. Her expression is unreadable.

‘Thanks for your help,’ says Michael sarcastically to her. ‘How long were you going to wait before you came in – until he’d had a chance to carve a slice off me? I suppose you’d think that’d be poetic justice, or something.’

Jo still says nothing, but her jaw is set with annoyance.

‘You must introduce me to more of your delightful friends, Mikey baby,’ continues Rupert blithely. ‘Dennis Nielsen perhaps, or Reggie Kray, what a laugh he is! The best party piece would be Rose West, with her DIY gardening and wall-making trick. Just the sort of thing to make one of Michael’s social events go with a swing!’

‘What’s all this about, Michael?’ asks Arabella, who has regained control of herself.

Michael sighs and pushes a hand through his hair. ‘It’s a long story… I had a client who thought her husband was in a cult of some sort, might be Satanists she thought. She hired me to tail him. I found out it wasn’t anything like that, he was just a Freemason, but he came in just as she was debriefing me…’

‘You filthy little monkey!’ exclaims Green, although he quietens quickly at a look from Jo.

‘… and he got the wrong idea. She was just hugging me to thank me, she was relieved it wasn’t anything worse – that was all it was. But he went nutzoid – he reckoned she’d been playing around while he was away. He kept popping up all over the place, when I was least expecting it, threatening to give me a good kicking and that. I thought over here in Egypt I’d have got away from it, but now he’s sent this little shit along to do his dirty work.’ He regards Green with disfavour.

‘Like hell! You expect me to believe that you had that gorgeous little piece of womanhood in your arms, and you weren’t trying it on? What are you, gay or something?’

‘Look, I don’t give a flying fuck what you believe, you stupid tosser! Just fuck off out of my life!’ Michael’s face, pale enough at the best of times, is white with anger.

‘We’re too busy to be worrying about you,’ says Arabella rather more kindly. ‘Why don’t you go home and tell your boss that you’ve sorted everything out? You could even tell him you beat Michael up, if you like.’

Green starts to snivel, his face in his hands. ‘Lord knows I’d have given anything for a crack at her,’ he mumbles mournfully.

‘Oh, get lost!’ exclaims Michael, and he drags Green out of his chair and pushes him from the room.

George assesses the warehouse carefully. ‘Yes, I think a lorryload of dynamite should be just the ticket, to take out those double doors. Under that not inconsiderable diversion, you chaps,’ he indicates Donald and John, ‘can strike. I should think that once the big doors blow, the fellows inside will head for the small door to get out, so we should either blow that up too, or else bar it. I’ll remain out here on guard with Mr van Heuvelen – don’t think I’d be much use in a fight!’

Donald nods. ‘Good thinking George, why don’t you head off and grab that dynamite now? I reckon we should wait an hour or so…’

‘Dusk,’ suggests George. ‘So we can move across the open ground from the wire to the building without being noticed.’

‘… OK… get some bolt-cutters and some rope too, they might come in handy. We’re getting the boy, maybe Ramzy too, and blowing the crap out of that warehouse. I want Essawi to think we are getting desperate with Arabella and Michael dead.’

Desperate is right, Phil thinks to himself. He is feeling not a little scared and even more of a spare part, wondering not for the first time why he agreed to come to the warehouse – surely it would have been a whole lot quieter back with the Imam. He silently resolves that his own personal plan is to stay at the back, look useful, follow the crowd, grab the boy and get the hell out of there. Perhaps they will need someone to concentrate on the objectives, rather than getting gung-ho.

‘So, Jo, what do you think of the idea me and Arabella have come to?’ asks Rupert. Arabella herself is poring once more over the spells on the obelisk, and Michael is lying down with a wet cloth over his face.

‘What do you mean?’ asks Jo warily.

‘Oh, well, Arabella has just discovered that I have fourteen-inch genitals, and we plan to go into business together as dancers.’

Jo smiles politely.

‘No, really, what we decided was that I would move into the same house as you two. You know, a threesome at our beck and call.’

Jo studies his expression to see if this is another feeble joke, then horror dawns over her face. ‘Pull the other one, Rupert. You can’t be serious.’

‘I was going to talk to you about it first,’ says Arabella nervously from where she is working at the desk.

Rupert grins broadly. ‘Oh Jo! Surely you can’t feel badly about it. Just think, we’ll be able to have all-day drug sessions. We’ll be smoking, snorting, who knows what. It’ll remind you of those happy times in Saudi Arabia!’

‘He’s planning to go into rehab,’ says Arabella, in an attempt to be reassuring.

‘Good,’ Jo says, only Arabella’s seriousness convincing her that this is not still an elaborate wind-up by Rupert.

‘And if we run out of hands to hold the camcorder, then dear old van Heuvelen can take a turn. Oh, sorry, did I forget to mention that? He’ll be staying with us as well, dear friend that he is. I’ll pair off with Arabella, and you, you lucky lucky thing, will have that hunk of burning love, Willem van Heuvelen.’

‘You and I need to talk,’ says Jo. She grasps Arabella rather firmly by the shoulder, and hustles her into the Imam’s inner chamber.

‘I’ll be honest with you, Jo, I was going to tease him a little, play him along and then… Well, I don’t know what then. But I looked into his eyes and saw how alone he really is. I guess I’m a sucker for hard luck stories. As to a relationship? Who knows, it depends on if he can clean himself up, kick his habit and if he wants to afterwards. It’ll take time, a lot of time, and in the meantime, there’s no reason for us not to go ahead with our plans. When Rupert is ready, we can reassess our ideas and take things from there.’

‘I’m glad he’s getting himself straightened out,’ says Jo. ‘I really am. And I sincerely hope it works out for you.’

Arabella looks into Jo’s eyes. ‘If you’d said yes to my clumsy pass at you, I’d have been very happy, not that I’m saying I fancy you. You’re one of the best things ever to happen to me, and nothing is going to change how I feel. You’re my very best friend and I need you, as both friend and emotional support.’ She pauses a moment, arranging her thoughts. ‘If Rupert does move in and you feel you can’t live with him and me, assuming I can live with him, then fine. I won’t think any less of you, but I will expect you to visit regularly, if not every day.’

‘Three people sharing a house will not work, especially if two of them are starting a relationship. You’ll need space to work things out between you. Or maybe we should look at getting flats in the same block or something,’ says Jo conciliatorily. ‘That way we’re practically in the same house but we all get some privacy.’

Arabella gazes fondly at her friend, then impulsively gives her a kiss on the cheek. ‘In some ways I’m a little sorry you’re not interested in a night of flaming passion, I’m curious how we’d feel afterwards, but I think I like our friendship the way it is.’ Then she smiles impishly. ‘Though if you should change your mind…’

Jo looks alarmed. ‘Don’t even joke about it, Bella,’ she says with a shudder. ‘If I’d wanted kinky sex I’d have joined a brother, not the army.’

Arabella’s girlish giggle dies away weakly. Did Jo pick up on a more worrying undertone beneath the joke?

‘Look, I told you,’ Jo says firmly. ‘It’s possible to have a friendship without sex. In fact, in most cases it’s preferable that way.’ She turns and opens the door back into the main room.

‘Sam, you reckon you can demon-up or whatever you do, I think in that form with that breath you can do something about the dogs, either scare them shitless or kill them, I don’t care which – this will leave me and John to deal with the perimeter guards. You then get up on the roof and be ready to bail us out if it starts getting nasty. When we’re done, have a scout around, find a safe entrance for us, through a window, and use the rope so we can get in. We’ll get a hole cut in this fence while we’re waiting for us mortals.’

Sam nods, as Donald turns to van Heuvelen. ‘You are wondering why we bought you? – well in this building is a small child who is very important to me, and to our plans. If we don’t rescue him we have an even smaller chance of stopping Essawi.’

‘I understand that you have a love for this boy. Such things were not unknown in my time,’ nods the possessed Dutchman.

‘I am asking you for help to get him back, but you must follow our lead and not start shouting around. If you have any special powers then now is the time to use them.’

Van Heuvelen chuckles mirthlessly. ‘I am a vizier, not a priest – a minister, not a magician. I know nothing of spells and the like. If you wish me to negotiate a treaty with these enemies, I can do so.’

Phil blinks. ‘What about you possessing this body, then?’

‘That is a simple matter of flowing into a vacant space. I cannot pretend to fully understand it. In my day, we had people for such things, and those who were above such things cared little of them.’

‘Brilliant!’ exclaims Sam. ‘So you’re no use at all!’

Donald shakes his head. ‘Whatever. All of you, there’s a very good chance this is a trap and Essawi could well be waiting for us in there. If he means to control us, then we’d better start thinking of our chants to counteract him. Phil, after the doors have blown and we’ve gone in, you and George, and this,’ he indicates van Heuvelen, ‘wait here, when the coast is clear we will come and get you. I don’t want anyone getting split up, we all go together and we’re going in through a window which Sam is sorting out for us.’

‘All right, everyone, just chant along with me and I think this should work,’ says Arabella. She, Rupert, Jo and Michael are on the flat roof of the mosque’s accommodation block, gathered around the small obelisk, in the last minutes of dusk.

‘Should it be that colour?’ asks Rupert doubtfully, squinting out at the setting sun. It has a brownish and rather sickly hue.

‘Probably just pollution,’ says Michael, tipping his hat back on his head and rolling up his sleeves. ‘We’re looking at it across the city.’ He is interested to see exactly what this spell ritual entails. Will it tap into the same power source as his necromantic magic?

Arabella passes out copies of the charging spell, and the operatives fall to dutiful chanting at her signal. Rupert at once recognizes some of the elements of the prayer as being similar to those used by Essawi at the Sphinx. This time, though, he is able to throw himself into the chant with a will, rather than warily holding back. A pleasing warmth seems to pervade him, but without the sinister overtones of Nefertiti’s influence that he felt on that occasion.

Jo chants along willingly, but she feels nothing particularly special or important. Something in her mind is keeping her distant and detached from the proceedings – checking over the events of the day, considering safety details, planning ahead – stopping her from immersing herself in the ritual. Is it fear? – fear of her memories of the Gulf, of the fates of her Army comrades?

Michael realizes what is happening – a form of induced mass hypnosis effect. The words, although he does not know their meanings, are powerful, pulling the consciousness down and raising up the unconscious, that dark realm where the powers dwell. He feels that he is entering a trance state not dissimilar to the place from where he works his magic, although the influences are different – he feels himself riding on a river of fire, surging up from the south, bringing warmth, prosperity and happiness to the land. He is impressed by the skills of those old priests.

Arabella is the only one looking at the obelisk, watching it gradually start to glow as the last rays of the sun paint its western face. Within minutes it is clear that the smooth limestone is definitely glowing, not as brightly as it had been when they captured it at Tell el-Amarna, but brightly enough to light up the faces of all four.

Eventually Arabella gauges that the obelisk is not going to get any brighter, and she brings the prayer to a close. The light slowly fades from the obelisk’s surface, but it seems to resonate with an inner power.

‘Well, I guess that worked – somehow.’ She wipes her forehead, still not easy with the notion that she has just conducted an ancient Egyptian magical ritual. What would her colleagues at Cambridge say? ‘Come on, let’s go back down – the others should be back soon.’

At exactly that point, there is a muffled explosion to the north of the city.

 ‘Jesus Christ! You were only meant to blow the bloody doors off!’ chokes Donald, spluttering in the immense cloud of dust and debris which has billowed over the operatives’ position. The entire eastern end of the warehouse has just collapsed into rubble.

‘Hmm, yes,’ says George, scratching his beard. ‘Rather puzzling. That quantity of explosive should have had a rather smaller effect. I can only guess that the wall must have been under considerable inner tension, which made it collapse when the support the doors gave was taken away.’ He had backed the lorry against the doors and run away, in true suicide bomber style, but he had not been expecting anything quite this spectacular. Two large Dobermans have also emerged, and are running around barking excitedly.

From the rubble stagger various battered thugs, but they do not see the operatives, being primarily concerned with repairing their own injuries.

‘We’d better get in there and rescue Mahmoud, if he’s still alive,’ says Phil.

‘OK, Sam, go and get rid of the dogs, we’ll give you five minutes and then we’re up. John you go clockwise round the warehouse, I’ll go anti, we’ll meet in the middle somewhere.’

‘As far as the Sphinx goes,’ says Arabella, ‘it’s obvious that Essawi is worried that we could actually stop him, but the big question is how? It should be possible to drain the Sphinx with the spell from the obelisk, but actually destroying the power source would involve locating it. Time is getting very short and it’s very obvious that something has to be done.’ She looks around for suggestions. ‘If we can get the counter-ritual, then stopping Essawi’s immediate plans is possible – long-term it could take far longer to destroy the power source, but it would be most useful if Essawi could be taken out of the picture.

‘What if we passed information to the Islamic Brotherhood that Essawi was working to overthrow their religion and replace it with his own? Could that destroy, or at least mess up, his alliance with them?’

‘Worth a try!’ says Rupert supportively. ‘I can just see those fanatical Muslim types getting rather irate if they think their dear friend Essawi is playing them for fools. Maybe one of us should try and make contact with them – how about you, Michael, you’re of the same sort of obsessive, narrow mindset, you should get along like a house on fire.’

Michael ignores him.

‘But I still don’t see,’ continues Rupert ‘what we have to do with this damn obelisk. At the present moment I feel like shoving it so far up Essawi’s bottom that it wouldn’t get any sunlight unless he opened his mouth.’

‘I think I can use it to drain the power away from the Sphinx and so from Essawi’s ritual,’ says Arabella, ‘although that would probably work better if it wasn’t just me doing it.’

‘You’ll need protection, anyway, if you’re in a trance,’ says Jo practically.

‘The question is what do we do about the Sphinx. I don’t like the idea of just waiting around to see what happens.’

‘Do you know any ancient Egyptian spells for opening doors, or revealing hidden things, or shifting blocks of stone about, or anything like that?’ suggests Michael.

‘No… but I guess I could try and research some overnight. And the power from the obelisk might help with that, too.’

‘If Essawi’s mob are chanting away, there’ll be a lot of raw power slopping around that Sphinx,’ says Michael. ‘I might be able to channel some of it myself – to help you. Or to harm them.’ The way he says it indicates that he thinks the latter option has greater potential, or at least will be more enjoyable.

‘I think I’d better not join the cult for the ritual,’ muses Rupert. ‘It seems rather likely that they already know about my link with you lot. That attack on the sweet shop was a sort of clue, don’t you think?’

‘Well, even if your cover’s blown now, you did very well to find out what you did,’ says Arabella warmly. She blushes slightly as Michael raises an eyebrow at her.

From Phil’s vantage, it is not at all apparent what Sam does with the dogs: she disappears into the undergrowth, their ears prick up, they bound over towards her, and they do not emerge.

Five minutes pass, and Donald says ‘Right John, we’re up – remember, no noise.’ He bares a very nasty-looking knife, and he and John lope towards the warehouse, the dust of which is still settling.

Another five minutes pass, and John reappears at the corner of the warehouse, his arm beckoning.

‘That’s the sign,’ says George. ‘Shall we?’

Phil looks rather nervously across. ‘I guess so…’

Behind George – the old fellow seems to be in his element – and the haughty van Heuvelen, he trails across the concrete apron. John gathers them together at the demolished corner. Nearby is the body of a guard, stabbed in the back. ‘Donald,’ says John quietly. ‘Have a look at this, George – what d’you make of it?’

He gestures at a mess of ironwork that is tangled among the ruins of the brick end wall – beams, girders and what looks curiously like a giant collapsed birdcage.

‘It looks as though this was suspended from the inside of the wall,’ muses George. ‘It must weigh a fair amount – perhaps that was what caused the wall to collapse.’

‘But what was it for?’ wonders Phil.

‘Have a look here,’ says John. Bending close, he points out symbols carved into the ironwork. Egyptian hieroglyphs.

‘An invocation to Khnum, the Watcher over the Threshold, to consign the prisoner’s ka to Ammit Soul-Eater,’ explains van Heuvelen. He raises his eyebrows. ‘An effective and unusual magic. I would consider it fortunate that we did not enter via these doors while this device was in place.’

‘What would have happened?’ asks John curiously.

‘Our souls would have been chewed for an eternity of torment,’ says van Heuvelen. ‘After the cage had trapped us.’ He folds his arms across his chest. ‘It was a magic used in my time, by the pharaoh Sneferu at his tomb. To protect it against intruders.’

‘What, some sort of Heath-Robinson tripwire affair?’ asks George.

Van Heuvelen regards him coldly. ‘These magics are more sophisticated than your puny peasant minds could comprehend.’

There is the sound of a gunshot from within what remains of the building. ‘Come on, let’s get moving,’ says John sharply.

The western end of the warehouse is still reasonably intact, thanks to internal cross-bracing about halfway along. The operatives find Donald crouched behind a stack of crates, sighting at a gantry that runs across the upper far end towards a small Portakabin-style office, raised about fifteen feet off the ground. The whole of the interior is stuffed with crates, boxes, casks, bales and all manner of merchandise, packed so tightly that there is barely room for a fork-lift to navigate between them.

The sad remains of the truck they saw arrive can now be seen squashed under the fallen rubble. ‘Pity, I wanted a look in that,’ says Donald calmly.

‘Let’s not get distracted by all this – I’m sure it’s just a store for smuggled goods,’ says Phil. ‘Of interest  the Egyptian Customs authorities maybe, but not to us –we’re only here for the boy, then we’re out.’

Donald nods.

‘Though it might be a good idea if one of you pair’ – Phil indicates John and Donald – ‘grab a guard for questioning. Anything they can tell us about security at the ceremony would be helpful for tomorrow.’

‘If we get anywhere near a live one,’ says John. He flattens himself against the corner, as a brief rattle of automatic fire comes from above. ‘I don’t know if there’s more than one guy up there.’

‘He thinks he’s got us pinned down, but in fact we have him pinned down,’ puffs George.

‘Well, we can’t hang about, he might have radioed for support,’ says John. ‘Any of that dynamite left, George?’

‘A few sticks, yes.’

‘Good. How about rolling some under the legs of that office?’

‘What about Mahmoud? If he’s in there, it’ll finish him,’ says Phil.

‘He must be in there, there’s nowhere else,’ says Donald.

‘Well, what can we do, then? – we can’t storm the staircase,’ points out John. ‘He’d get one of us for sure, he’s got a nice little killing-ground there. We could push up these crates and advance under cover, but they’re only bottles and boxes – they won’t stand up to sustained fire.’

‘Hell! Let me think.’ Donald grinds his teeth furiously

‘English!’ The shout comes from the office above. ‘Hey, English man!’

The operatives glance at each other.

‘English! We speak!’

George clears his throat nervously. ‘Er, very well – what do you want to say?’

‘You think you very clever, English man, but I have what you want here, your little boy, yes?’

‘You’d better not have hurt him,’ snarls Donald.

‘He very well, very fine,’ comes the mocking voice. It is followed by a pained shriek in a young boy’s voice.

‘Mahmoud! You bastards! I’m going after him!’ Donald starts to leap to his feet, but John drags him down.

‘Don’t be so bloody stupid! He’s trying to draw you out!’

‘Now, English, you have us in a clever position, I admit. But now I will come out and go away, and I will take your little boy with me until I am in my car and safe – yes? Then you have him back.’

‘No deals! You let him go now, and we’ll think about sparing your miserable life!’

‘Are you Ali Ramzy?’ Phil calls up. He has wandered off a little way among the crates, and in disregard of his own advice is poking through those that have come open. ‘Alcohol, cigarettes, perfume – nice little business you have here. Antiquities, too! – nice statue of Sekhmet, is it?’ He pockets the documentation that is attached to the side of the crate.

‘And I want to keep it. It is not doing you harm, is it? –you want the boy back, I want to live. You and I are not enemies.’

‘Like hell we’re not,’ Donald spits.

George shushes him. ‘We came here to get Mahmoud back, remember? What do we care what happens to Ramzy? Even if he was to get away to Essawi, what harm could he do?’

‘I am coming down the stairs now, English. Be very calm and careful now…’

The door of the office swings open, and a shape emerges through it – Donald aims swiftly, then puts his gun up with a hiss when he sees it is the trussed body of Mahmoud. Behind it emerges Ramzy, who is a small enough man that no significant proportion of him can be seen to aim at – he is moving Mahmoud about in front of him, to aid this effect. ‘No shooting, or boy will die!’ As he emerges onto the gantry, the operatives can see he has a gun at Mahmoud’s neck.

‘Stay back!’ warns Ramzy, as he starts to descend the stairs.

John, with a nod to Donald, melts silently back into the maze of boxes, with the aim of circling round behind Ramzy’s position as he reaches the bottom of the stairs.

As Ramzy reaches the landing, though, he is leapt on from above by Sam, who has presumably been hidden among the rafters all this time, although none of the operatives saw her.

Ramzy’s gun goes off, and there is a dreadful scream.

Donald  and Phil dash across the floor, Phil just in time to catch Mahmoud as he drops over the edge of the stairway.

John charges up the stairs two at a time, but by the time he reaches the landing, Ramzy is already dead, his face red, suffused with blood, his eyes bulging in horror. Sam pulls her knife from his shoulder, and his body collapses in on itself slightly, as though air had vented from it.

‘Jesus! What did you do to him?’ asks an amazed and horrified John.

Sam shrugs, wiping the knife and replacing it in its sheath. The inscribed bracelet hangs slick and heavy on her, pulsing deeply, its symbols glowing red.

Donald gently unties Mahmoud – the gunshot missed – and the first thing he does is check the boy’s forehead. Thankfully, it is clear of the mark of Nefertiti. He looks down at Mahmoud and says, ‘Sorry, you know I have to do that.’

The terrified Mahmoud can do little more than whimper. It does not seem to have quite sunk in yet that his long ordeal is at last over.

Donald bends over him, his voice choked. Are those tears running down his cheeks? wonders an amazed Phil. If so, Donald is trying hard to keep his face averted from his fellows. ‘It’s damn good to see you, I thought I’d lost you. If we make it out of here I’ll make sure you’re looked after. I’ve got a proposal for you, but we need to get out of this place first.’

‘Come on, let’s get moving,’ says John, giving Sam one last puzzled look. ‘I can hear sirens.’

Donald straightens up. ‘OK then – but let’s use the last of the dynamite to blow this dump up, shall we?’ He grins mirthlessly. ‘Waste not, want not.’

Back at the mosque, the operatives are reunited once more. Donald has checked Mahmoud over thoroughly – he seems to have suffered no serious harm. Rope burns, bruises and small cuts are the worst of it.

‘OK, do we have a plan for tomorrow, then?’ asks John.

‘We have some options, anyway,’ says Arabella. ‘We can still try and approach the Islamic Brotherhood. They might be the best way of dealing with Ramzy’s thugs, if they’re bodyguarding the ceremony – assuming there are still some left, and they’ll still work for Essawi now their boss is dead.’

‘There might be police there too, and it looks like Essawi’s got some clout with them, so the more mob-handed we are, the better,’ says Donald.

‘As for countering Essawi’s magic, we have a plan to use the obelisk, but really the more forces we can get working against it, the better,’ says Arabella. ‘Having an Islamic magical or religious power working for us would be helpful – that must be quite strong, in these parts.’

‘And then we try to get into the Sphinx?’

‘The Sphinx is a big unknown. I don’t think it’s going to come to life and start eating people, like van Heuvelen thought, but you never know…’

She gestures weakly at the Dutchman, who is looking at Jo puzzledly. ‘Where is Hetepheres, my companion in woe and vengeance? She is no longer in this woman’s body.’

‘Er, no. She had to leave,’ says Arabella rather apologetically.

‘Yes, it was a terrible shame, but there you are,’ puts in Rupert. ‘The accommodation in Jo’s brain was just too cramped. She asked us to give you her love, though.’

Van Heuvelen nods. ‘It is just as well, in some ways. She was a haughty and proud queen. Now she is gone, at least I can be Overlord of the Two Kingdoms in my own right, without having to share the power with another, once the witch is defeated. But it is unfortunate too, for she was a powerful sorceress herself and could have been of much use in this magical battle ahead of us.’

The operatives glance at each other. ‘Well, you’ll just have to make do with me instead,’ says Jo rather briskly.

‘We should get some sleep,’ says George. ‘Plenty to do in the morning.’

The river is high, the rice stems rising gracefully from it, the cattle drinking at the water’s edge. The sun gazes down on the land, caressing it with warm, life-giving hands. A woman walks along the face of the river, gigantic, beautiful, bright, loving. Beneath her feet, where they touch the sun-warmed water, flowers bloom, lilies, crocus, papyrus. Bees hum nearby. The land, the woman, the river, the sun, somehow they are one. Before she came, there was nothing here but sand and dead water flowing to the sea. Her spirit breathed life, health, warmth, happiness into the land and its people, made them great. If she goes, the life will go too, and the land will once again be barren and desert. Is this not a tragic prospect? Elsewhere in the world, a great war is being fought, between the woman’s brothers and sisters, and the humans whom they have tried to enslave. But here, in the Two Kingdoms, there is no war, and she has no part of the quarrel – all she wishes is to be left in peace with her beloved people.

The dream fades, as dawn’s light streams in through the slatted windows of the chamber. One by one, the operatives wake from the vision they have all been sent. Today is the day they must decide and act.

7 am, Wednesday 11th August 1999

The mosque of Ibn Tulun

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