The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Palace Of Wisdom
'Insect repellent, suntan lotion, water purification tablets, nail varnish remover...' Ella carefully crams each item into her backpack, topping the ensemble with a battered straw hat that she normally only wears when gardening. Down the side of the pack she straps her repaired ice axe. 'Here we go again, old friend,' she murmurs as she briefly hefts it. Also on the outside go a hammock and a coil of climbing rope: and, finally, in the top pocket, her portable witch's kit. 'Right then.' Into the back of the Landrover goes the backpack, and off back to the big city Edinburgh goes Ella, to conduct some research before flying on to Heathrow.
'Don't worry, darling, I'll be back soon,' promises Robert, blowing a kiss as he clambers into the taxi. But his mind is already racing ahead, thinking about Ella Wallace. He is going to be playing the role of her boyfriend in Kampuchea - he wonders what she looks like. Perhaps it may turn out to be more than just a role.
I'm planning to go as a tourist, intrigued by all the talk of miracles. Tourist probably isn't the right word, though... I'm thinking of posing as an interested party, who knows his stuff about the subject... which means doing some reading! If it's alright with you and Robert, I'll admit to knowing him, having met at some conference linked with his writing, but I don't know you. I'll be taking my laptop, so I can converse with you that way.
Tell me if you find anything out about the Dai-Mitsu conglomerate. I'm a bit loath to go hacking around in their system if they're dangerous, whereas you're much less likely to get caught.
'Hello, is that the Theravada Center? Great, hi there. I understand you're affiliated with the temple of the Buddha of the Tooth at Angkor Wat, is that right? Great - you're just the guys I need to speak to.' Nora idly taps her pen against her teeth as the monk gabbles enthusiastically at her. 'Yes, that's right, I want to make a donation. A very large donation. And I want to make it to your people in person - at Angkor Wat. Will that be OK?' She is rather proud of her American accent: she once played Blanche Dubois, in her finishing school's production of A Streetcar Named Desire, and thought she had deserved better reviews.
Finishing the call, she hangs up and inspects herself in the mirror. It will take a little while to get used to the severely-cut black hair, and the maroon lipstick still looks odd. But as long as it fools the Conspiracy... With the promise of donations and favourable articles, she has managed to secure a meeting with the temple's acting High Lama in Phnom Penh later in the week. It will be safer not to acknowledge the other operatives at all - the 'loonies', as she affectionately thinks of them - and to travel separately from them, she thinks to herself.
'Very good, then I'll meet with you on Tuesday,' says Greg. 'We've been wanting an office out in your part of the world for a little while now: if you can show me a few suitable sites, according to the requirements I faxed you, I think it should be a straightforward matter to organize the funding. Acorn Productions (Phnom Penh) could be just a few months away from realization! And perhaps you could give me pointers at that meeting as to who the potential clients might be. Local businesses who want really slick, stylish advertising - for those satellites that cover the whole South-East Asian region. I'll bring some videos of our work - what standard do you use in Kampuchea? PAL? Right then, Tuesday morning it is.'
As he hangs up he muses that such a business inquiry could well be genuine. He still has no clear idea of where SITU gets its funding from, but Acorn Productions certainly has the potential to be a useful earner. And, more to the point, it will give him a good cover story for being out in Phnom Penh from the weekend, touting for business and also filming at Angkor Wat for a proposed documentary. He is uncomfortably aware that he has probably the highest profile of SITU's operatives. Moreover he is known by the Enemy, and is cognizant that he may be entering great danger here; but, then again, they could decide to kill him at almost any time, anywhere in the world he might be.
'I'm sorry, Operative Masterson, but we can't breach SITU security by letting you see a report on the Norway mission.'
'But surely you can see the benefit of us not involved knowing what went on?' exclaims Daniel frustratedly.
'I'm afraid that you'll have to approach Operatives Blayne, McShane, Wallace and Wentworth for a briefing: it will be their judgement how much to tell you and Operatives Loki and Flint. This is our standard procedure, I'm afraid, Operative Masterson, and I'm sure you can see why it's necessary.'
Well, no, not really, thinks Daniel as he hangs up. Let's hope that the other four are a bit more helpful.
The last thing he does before leaving is to telephone Belle-Marie. 'No, listen, I'll be fine. Don't you worry about it. I'll bring you back something nice... I don't know, a souvenir tooth or something. Miss you too. Take care. Love you.'
Iain has flown over from the USA, and has two hours' waiting time at Heathrow for the British operatives to arrive. Wandering about the transit lounge, he spots Greg reading in one of the restaurants. He strolls over and sits in a seat near him. 'Good morning Mr Wentworth, and how are you?' he says in a low voice. 'It's good to see you again.'
'And you,' replies Greg softly, shaking his hand with some warmth.
The two men spend a little time catching up: Greg fills Iain in on the way that Acorn Productions has developed, and Iain describes his impressions of Portland, Oregon, where he now lives and works. After a little while they move on to the matter in hand. 'I was thinking that we could all go in somewhat independently, as maybe the bad guys are looking out for a group of SITU bods,' suggests Iain. 'Maybe you could use the programme cover to move around interviewing people.'
'That's what I was planning,' nods Greg.
'That would let you have contact with the rest of us without drawing too much attention to yourself or us. I'm intending to go in as an independent traveller trying to soak up some of the spiritual atmosphere of the place. We could probably get away with a small team meeting before we get on the plane once the others are here.'
Ella is the first through the passport control into the airside, and she finds Iain and Greg still in the restaurant, chewing on a couple of beers. She hugs them both. 'Heard anything from Nora?'
'Not a word.'
'Oh, well - I expect she'll get in touch when she feels like it!'
As they exchange news, a tall, dark-haired man looking to be in his late twenties, wearing a black T-shirt and black jeans, approaches. 'Acorn Productions? I'm Daniel Masterson.' The three look up, and Daniel sees a chunky man of medium height, wearing a Gore-Tex jacket and camouflage trousers, with short greying black hair; a tall, slim, tanned, middle-aged man in an expensive-looking suit; and a slight woman of about his own age, wearing black jeans and platform boots, her fingernails painted lime green, and a mass of red hair falling loose down her back.
'How did you know?' asks Ella, surprised.
'I saw his picture on the Web.' Daniel points at Greg. 'Not too tricky!' He pulls a chair over and sits down. 'So - what have we got so far?'
They have barely started discussion when Robert and Loki appear. Robert is a few years younger than Greg perhaps, tall, slender and handsome in a rather dashing way, his eyes sparkling with mischief. He treats Ella to a specially warm smile. Loki is by some way the smallest of the group, only a few inches over five foot, and he is extremely pale and fragile-looking - the product of far too many hours hunched in front of a computer screen. He has a self-confidence about him, though, and the scar on his upper lip lends a firmness to his gaze. 'I'm going by the name of Smith on this mission,' he says, not introducing himself in any more detail.
'And I too am using a pseudonym,' says Robert. 'I'm Bob Locke - Flint-Locke, do you see?'
Ella raises her eyebrows. 'So, let me get this straight. You and I are posing as a couple, right? And Daniel, you know us both. Greg, you're here on work, with Acorn, and Iain, you're independent? Loki - Mr Smith?'
'I'll be independent too,' says Loki. 'Might see if I can scout up a little business while I'm out here, too.'
'Perhaps you could investigate the zaibatsu angle, then,' says Ella. 'You could wait in Phnom Penh until you've made contact with Dai-Mitsu, and get some kind of official tour. And you could hire your own guide and translator - one who speaks Japanese as well. You, too, Greg.'
'I did a little research into Dai-Mitsu,' says Robert, clicking his fingers to the waiter. 'I found that they have quite a heavy programme of investment in universities and other scholarly bodies - here, and in Europe, as well as in the Far East. They fund a chair at Manchester University, where I'm based, for example. We might be able to come up with an angle based on that.'
'I had a look at their computer setup,' says Loki. He pats the portable by his side. 'It's very extensive, and very heavily ramified and hierarchized. It'll be a lot of work to get into there. I hope the Kampuchean phone system's reliable.'
'What about mobile phones? Will they work in Kampuchea?' asks Ella hopefully.
'Not a chance,' says Iain. 'We could try walkie-talkies, they'll be some use over short range at least.'
A round of teas and coffees appears, and the team share their research on Angkor.
'This King Busan seems to have been quite a guy,' says Daniel. 'He conquered and enslaved the Mons people of Daravati, whoever they were.'
'I think that was mostly the doing of his nephew Chesan,' corrects Robert. 'A rather nasty piece of work, according to the records the Vietnamese were keeping at that time.'
'Was that before the Buddhists took the temple over from the Hindus, or after?' muses Ella.
'After,' says Robert. 'They dedicated the temple when they got hold of the Tooth - it's apparently the historical Buddha's actual incisor. A very holy relic. People used to make pilgrimage to it from all over the peninsula. And the Kongwai Lama was the most senior lama at that time, responsible for exhibiting the Tooth at the Buddha's chief festivals. Since then another lama called the Senzo Lama has assumed more active leadership, probably because the Kongwai Lama seems to spend much of his time 'out of body' as they rather charmingly say. Meaning 'dead'.'
During the first leg of the flight, the two groups of three sit together: Robert tries to sit by Ella 'just to start getting to know each other', but she assures him crisply that there will be time enough for that sort of thing when they have to assume their cover for real. Instead, she and Iain learn from Greg what he has found out about James Bowater apparently assuming Uriah's identity.
'I never liked that smarmy bastard!' exclaims Ella furiously.
'I asked SITU to pass the news on to Anna Keizinger, but apparently she didn't take it very well,' says Greg ruefully. 'She's not doing badly in general, Swahn said - doing some work as a translator of technical manuals - but he thinks it'll take a little more time yet before she gets over what happened.'
'Her and me both,' mutters Ella, her face stony. She can still remember vividly the look in Uriah's eyes as the creature with his face fell to its final death. The thought that James Bowater is despoiling his memory is more than she can comfortably bear.
Meanwhile, Robert is making the best of his rebuff and chatting with Daniel and Loki. 'So, Daniel, how is that charming young lady of yours? I trust she's recovered from her ordeal by now?'
'Oh, yes, she's fine now,' says Daniel a trifle uneasily. He does not really want to discuss what Belle-Marie is at present doing. 'How about yourself - how's the rune wizardry coming along?'
'I've not kept it up,' smiles Robert.
'How you two can joke about that...!' exclaims Loki, shaking his head in disbelief.
'Well, this mission should be a picnic by comparison,' says Daniel. 'I've been doing some reading into Buddhist miracles, hauntings and so on, and they seem quite friendly. People's lives being saved by helpful spirits, warnings of storms approaching, messages about buried treasure: and lots of cures. The Tooth itself is incredibly powerful at healing, if all these stories are true.'
The plane starts to descend towards Charles de Gaulle airport, the lights of the city spread out below them. Strings of lamps along the banks of the Seine are clearly discernible.
'Paris,' Greg declares to his neighbours. 'I get to Paris, and it's to change planes.'
'That reminds me,' says Ella slightly quickly, 'when we get to Kampuchea, I speak a little French - enough to order a meal, or get directions.'
'You seem a little nervous, if you don't mind me saying,' says Greg, turning towards her.
'A bit apprehensive, maybe,' says Ella. 'About the political turmoil, and possibility of bandits lurking behind every bush.' She swallows and adds brightly 'But I'm very much looking forward to the cuisine. I love South-East Asian cooking.'
Meanwhile, Nora is already in Phnom Penh, having flown out the previous day. She spends some time resting, recovering from jetlag and acclimatizing herself to the tropical moistness and warmth, and by evening feels up to strolling out into the city. It is a rather beautiful place, in the centre at least: while driving in from the airport she saw suburbs of brutalist concrete towers, but the administrative and tourist district is largely unchanged since the days of French colonial rule. For a country reputedly in the grip of all but civil war, there is a rather tranquil atmosphere. Uniformed men with guns stand on most street corners, but they give the impression of being police rather than army.
She has arranged to meet a journalist named John Pinkler for diner, an old hand in these parts, who covered the Vietnam war in his youth, and the killing fields in Pol Pot's time, but now fills in time as a freelancer for Crab. He is a fellow-Australian, but if he sees through Nora's assumed accent he is too polite to say so. 'The people here are as sick of struggle as Westerners are of hearing about it,' he says, brandishing a huge cigar. 'They can see their neighbours - Thailand, Vietnam, even Laos - growing more and more prosperous. Do you know how big the tourist industry is in Vietnam? Huge. It's got a thousand miles of unspoilt beaches, you know. And the Kampucheans want some of that action. They want to be a tiger too.'
'Does that mean they're abandoning spiritual values?' asks Nora. 'I'm here to meet with Buddhist leaders - are they losing worshippers?'
'They sure are, girl. Some of the lamas are getting pretty desperate. Matter of fact, that's what I think is behind all these miracles and so on. Bums on seats, that's what they're after - bums on seats. And there's nothing like a good miracle to bring that about.'
The night wears on, the great jetliner droning on through the sky, and the operatives mostly sleep. Iain tries to read his book on Buddhism, but it is not really his cup of tea: too abstract and other-worldly, seeming to bear little relationship to actual bodily experience.
The stop in Bahrain, to refuel, is a brief one, and the one in Lahore just an hour. The passengers huddle sleepily around the transit lounge, over which early morning sun is spreading reddish fingers.
'Best get into our roles, I think,' says Robert.
'Loki, are you OK to act as central information repository?' asks Daniel. 'If all the separate groups of us can get what we learn to you...'
'That might not be too easy, if we can't get to phone points,' says Loki.
Ella, playing the wide-eyed tourist, glances around at the other passengers. They look like a mix of holiday-makers and business types, Europeans and Asians; almost an archetype of intercontinental travel. Her eye is caught by a group of Japanese businessmen, who for one paranoid moment she thinks are peering at Greg where he sits alone. But no, they seem harmless enough: probably just admiring the cut of his suit.
The call comes to board and, many of them still wrapped in blankets, the passengers shuffle back through the gate.
Daniel is in a drowsy, half-dreamlike state shortly after take-off, vaguely aware of people occasionally moving up and down the aisle to his left, to get to the toilet. The SITU team are all right at the back of the aircraft, just in front of the galley area. The overhead lights glow gently, and the sun's rays pierce the starboard set of portholes.
Iain, who has woken early, is just about to head to the toilet to brush his teeth when there is a terrific noise - a low crump and clatter from the hold area below, at once followed by the shriek of tearing metal.
All at once the entire fuselage fills with the noise of howling wind.
The emergency panels pop open, and oxygen masks clatter out of them.
All the seatbelt and smoking lights go on, the emergency lamps on the floorway light, and there is a relentless, barely audible, 'ping... ping... ping...' noise.
The plane loses height rapidly, twisting as it falls, and ill-stowed luggage from the overhead lockers starts to tumble about the cabin, as do those passengers who were unfortunate enough to be standing.
The co-pilot's voice can only faintly be heard above the shriek of the air, the screams and cries of the passengers, the bursts of sparks signalling electrical damage, and the tearing and popping of tortured metal '... please assume emergency positions... repeat, assume emergency positions... do not panic...'
So this is it, thinks Greg to himself, his mind clear. I'm going to die. He holds the arms of his chair firmly, bracing himself . The image of his dead wife's face comes sharply to his mind and he feels a sharp pain in his heart.
Loki, fascinated with horror, can see daylight through a huge rent which has appeared just behind the port wing. Below, white peaks glisten, looking impossibly sharp. The high Himalaya.
Goddess, preserve your daughter, chants Ella to herself, over and over, like a mantra. Beloved Isis, mother of all, the strong one. Goddess, preserve your daughter.
The aeroplane seems to level out, and the terrible noise lessens slightly. Daniel realizes that he has his knuckle crammed in his mouth.
The shoulder of a mountain races past the portholes.
Then there is an almighty crash, the cabin turns over itself, and all is black.
Nora returns with John Pinkler from buying a large knife and a small handgun. 'Don't worry, they're not likely to search you,' he says reassuringly. 'And if they do, fifty dollars usually does the trick.'
'I was thinking about getting some extra protection, too,' says Nora musingly. Her brother, who is in the Australian navy, has given her the number of a contact who runs an investigation agency, who might be able to provide a bodyguard.
'So, the best way to Angkor's by train, see?' says Pinkler, spreading a map out. They are in the café of Nora's hotel, the Hilton.
'Right, I'm with you. These roads aren't any good, then?'
'Not at this time of year - floods recently. The surface gets washed away. They're building new, but...'
A radio is murmuring away in the background, the English language station, and Nora has half an ear tuned to it. '... Second Prime Minister Hun Sen this morning opened the new Khaipong Bridge, the largest suspension bridge in Kampuchea. In overseas news today, an Air France airliner bound for Phnom Penh was missing this morning over the Nepal-Tibet border, feared crashed. Over 600 people were aboard, many of them Kampuchean, many Westerners. The Chinese and Nepali rescue services are already scouring the mountains for the wreckage. More news on this story as it develops...'
'Jesus Christ!' exclaims Nora, turning very pale and sitting down hard.
'Yeah, pretty nasty crash, eh?' says Pinkler. Then he sees her face. 'Listen, you all right, love?'
Iain is very cold. He is in a dark place, a place of cold and pain. He can feel wet all over him, he does not know from what.
He feels a feather of warmth across his face, and slowly, with great effort, opens his eyes. He shuts them again immediately against the bright light, and takes a sharp breath. Edging them open again slowly, he can see nothing but dazzle.
He is still strapped in his seat, somewhere high - the air is thin and chilly, but the sunlight is warm. The seat is tipped at an awkward angle. To the side is the sheer white face of a snow-covered mountain. He seems to be in a high meadow.
Ella and Greg are still strapped in alongside him, as are the three other operatives across what remains of the aisle. Two further rows of seats are more or less intact, but in front of that the cabin ends, torn away as though by a giant hand.
Iain slowly and painfully releases himself and staggers free of the wreckage. He crouches, surveying the scene. The tailplane, with the galley and these three rows of seats, lies half on its side in the meadow. Across the meadow is a large heap of burning debris which looks as though it might have been one of the wings. There is no sign of the rest of the plane, but there is a huge scar on the mountainside.
Iain sets to rousing the others.
'I'm afraid we can't yet confirm the names of the passengers, mam'selle. Please be patient with us.' The Air France official sounds terribly harried, and Nora fights to restrain her impatience. 'We will publish the list just as soon as we are able, mam'selle.'
'Come on,' says Pinkler, uncomfortably patting her on the shoulder. 'They're doing their best. It's always like this after an accident.'
'Accident...?' whispers Nora.
There are fourteen survivors gathered in the high meadow - the six operatives, a stewardess, and seven other passengers. This rearmost section of the plane is all but intact, but nothing before it seems to have been preserved at all.
'The wing must have hit that wall first,' says Loki, who is remarkably chirpy considering. 'That spun the plane round, and the stress or something must have broken the tail off - we were bloody lucky.'
'You don't have to tell us that!' exclaims Robert.
As for the rest of the plane, no-one has yet dared to venture to the lip of the meadow to see what has happened to it, but a long plume of smoke can be seen rising from the valley below. 'Poor sods, never had a chance,' murmurs Iain.
None of the injuries are serious. The stewardess has her left arm broken in two places, and one of the Kampuchean passengers also has a broken wrist. Apart from that, cuts, bruises and above all shock are testament to the sturdiness of Boeing's construction.
Across the far side of the meadow, half a dozen goats are grazing, seemingly unperturbed by the recent events. They crop the grass, bleating occasionally, the bells around their necks chiming pleasantly.
'Hold on a minute,' says Ella. 'Goats - bells. That must mean there's people around here somewhere!'