Forced Perspectives – Snippet 12

CHAPTER THREE: Is Supergirl Thirsty?

Lateef Fakhouri steered his rented Nissan around the curled onramp onto the northbound 405 freeway, and he was troubled by the way he had handled the pair of fugitives. He had dropped them off at the Delta departures terminal, but he had very little confidence — none, in fact — that they would actually buy tickets and fly to some distant city. He really should have detained them, somehow.

His present posting with the Ministry of Antiquities was temporary; ordinarily he was employed as a clerk in the research division of the General Intelligence Directorate, in a branch office in Lazhogli Square in Cairo, and his duties until recently had consisted mainly of cross-referencing reports of illegal tunnels between Sinai and Gaza. But while tracing the origins of some wooden ushabti statues looted from a tomb in Saqqara, he had come across a disturbing, decades-old file — it was marked as property of the State Security Investigations Service, which had been shut down shortly after the 2011 revolution. The SSI had purged most of its records in the turbulent days before its official dissolution, but this file, labeled Austria, 1855, had somehow escaped the hasty shredding of files.

Some of the papers in the file had been very old, having to do with the gift of a number of Pharaonic antiquities to Archduke Maximilian of Austria in 1855; those items had eventually found their way to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, but notes in the SSI file indicated that one particular item, designated Ba: World Soul: Restricted, had disappeared between the initial indexing and a later inventory conducted in 1862. The item was described as a fired clay panel of Third Dynasty hieroglyphics, four or five thousand years old. A report dated 1922, badly translated from the French, indicated that the artifact had been destroyed in Paris, but noted — with evident disapproval — that a Norwegian Egyptologist had photographed it beforehand.

Lateef Fakhouri had been ready to consign the file to the vast records archive at Heliopolis when he noticed newer pages on blue-lined notebook paper tucked into a pocket at the back of the file. These proved to be handwritten notes made by the assembler of the file, an SSI agent named Khalid Boutros, who had died in the 1990s.

According to these notes, Boutros had become concerned about the Norwegian Egyptologist’s photograph of the lost artifact after viewing some — Fakhouri had had to read the words twice — some coloring books published in Los Angeles in 1966. A page cut from one of the coloring books was paper-clipped to Boutros’s notes; printed on the page was a complicated stylized design, and in the margin someone had written, in blurred and faded ball-point ink, Acid test, Cinema Theater, Hollywood, February 25 ’66.

From the description in the 1855 transfer index, the SSI agent Khalid Boutros had known that the clay panel of hieroglyphs had originally been taken from a particular tomb in Saqquara, the ancient necropolis twenty miles south of Cairo, and he had driven out there in 1967. According to his notes, Boutros had spent two days picking his way among the weathered walls and tumbled stones of the necropolis until, in a sand-clogged corridor near the pyramid of Djoser, he had found the recessed rectangular patch that the clay panel had once occupied. It was high up on a shadowed wall, and Boutros had piled up stones to reach the spot. A corner of the missing panel had still been clinging to the wall, and from the state of that fragment Boutros had somehow come to conclusions that impelled him to fly to Los Angeles.

The only notes which might have referred to that trip, and which apparently concluded the file, were a few words scrawled on the back of the last sheet of lined paper: Chronic egregore, neutralized by Nu hieroglyph, and below that, Saqqara fragment inert, as of 31/10/68. In Christian cultures, 31/10 was All Hallow’s Eve — Halloween.

And behind the last page of notes was a photograph of a hieroglyph depicting three pots, three wavy lines, and what appeared to be a bracket laid on its side like a table. On the back of the photograph someone, presumably Khalid Boutros, had scrawled NU.

Fakhouri had looked up the word “egregore,” and found that it was used in Eliphas Levy’s book Le Grand Arcane, posthumously published in 1868, to describe ancient quasi-angelic beings dangerous to mankind; though in the writings of the later Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the term referred to a kind of group-mind, arising from a number of strongly aligned individual human minds but existing independent of them, autonomous — a new and superior category of being.

For a week Fakhouri had brooded on the enigmatic old file, and then he had done two things.

First, he had put an aluminum ladder in the back of his car and driven south to the ruins of Saqqara, and, following Khalid Boutros’s old account, had found the section of wall from which the ancient panel had been taken. He had to roll aside the stones Boutros had stacked there fifty years earlier in order to set up his ladder. Crouched with a flashlight at the top of it, Fakhouri had seen the fragment of fired clay that remained on the wall, as Boutros had described; but when he touched it, his hand sprang away. It was vibrating, and as hot as a pan over a high flame. Anything but “inert.”

Then, back in his office, Fakhouri had put through an official research request for any recently published American coloring books, especially any that might originate in or around the city of Los Angeles. The request must have struck the consulate and embassy staffs as peculiar, but there had been no indignant replies.

While waiting for results, he had dug out some research volumes on the gods of ancient Egypt, and found that Ba, represented in hieroglyphs by a hawk with a man’s head, wasn’t a specific god, but was a “world soul” — something analogous to a magnetic field or carrier wave — that defined, and even permitted the existence of, gods. And Nu, he learned, was the oldest of the ancient Egyptian gods, and was likewise more of a force than a person — it embodied profound absence, lack of form, the ultimate welcoming void. It was represented by the sea.

And when a bundle of new coloring books had eventually been delivered to his office, he’d found in several of them the same intricate, stylized pattern that Khalid Boutros had found in the coloring book from 1966. These new coloring books, in both English and Spanish, were apparently aimed at adults, consisting mainly of diagrams of people sitting yoga-style or standing with spread arms and rays emanating out of their heads, but the mysterious pattern occupied the first and last pages. These coloring books had been printed in 2017 by a company — ChakraSys Inc. — that was located in Los Angeles.

Fakhouri had noticed that the many curved and straight lines in the center of the repeated pattern formed the profile outline of a hawk with a spike-bearded human head.

After he had put all the flimsy booklets away in a desk drawer, he had tried to recall the profile outline — and it seemed to him that it had differed, in some lines, from the illustrations of the Ba hieroglyph he had seen in the reference books. And he was obscurely glad that he had not stared at it for more than a few seconds.

The patchwork data he had assembled so far was troubling:

A variant depiction of Ba, the World Soul, on a hieroglyph panel — restricted, eventually destroyed, but photographed some time before 1922 — appearing decades later in coloring books in California, in connection with some enterprise — some egregore? — that Boutros had believed he had stopped in October of ’68 by somehow using the contrary Nu hieroglyph. And Boutros had confirmed the closure of the affair to his own satisfaction by again visiting the wall in Saqqara from which the panel had originally been taken, and finding the remaining fragment of it reassuringly “inert.”

Saqqara fragment inert, as of 31/10/68

Boutros had stopped it then, at any rate.

But when Fakhouri had recently touched the fragment on the wall in Saqqara, it was hot, and vibrating — no longer describable as inert. And now the image-concealing pattern was again appearing in coloring books printed in Los Angeles. Whatever phenomenon it was that old Khalid Boutros had discovered and stymied in 1968 — Ba: World Soul: Restricted — Chronic egregore — it was evidently happening again.

Nobody in the General Intelligence Directorate was likely to take these vague and outlandish suspicions seriously, so Fakhouri had told his chief that he had discovered some possible irregularities in the “King Tut: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh” exhibit at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, and requested a temporary transfer to the Ministry of Antiquities, which had organized the exhibition. The transfer had been approved by both agencies, and Fakhouri had been assigned to the Los Angeles Egyptian Consulate.

And he had begun his investigation by tracing the source of the new coloring books — ChakraSys Publications.