The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Palace Of Wisdom
Monday 16th November 1998
'Well it looks like we're really in the shit here!' Iain makes his bid for the position of I/C Stating The Obvious. 'The first thing we need to do is treat any injuries. Does anyone here have any first aid training?'
'Great Goddess, I don't believe we came out of that alive!' Ella has started to get over her initial shock, and is busily splinting the stewardess's arm. She hopes that generally trying to be efficient will give her something to take her mind off this brush with death.
'Are you all right, darling?' Robert asks Ella solicitously, laying a hand against her cheek. When she looks up at him in surprise, he winks to signify his belief that it is important to remain in character.
Greg, standing nearby, clears his throat meaningly. 'Right, everyone. We need to take an account of what supplies we have on hand, how much food and pure water we have available - and whether or not we have a common language. Or if at least every one of the survivors shares a common language with another, so we can communicate through a translation chain.'
Daniel has already started making his way around the survivors, asking them gently what languages they speak and whether they have any medical knowledge. He establishes that the following people are present, apart from the six operatives:
* Marie-Claude Duval, French, stewardess (broken arm);
* Tranh Noc Lo, Kampuchean, (broken wrist), diplomat;
* Vingat Noc Lo, Kampuchean, wife of the above, housewife;
* Khem Noc Lo, Kampuchean, son of the above, schoolchild;
* Maurice Perez, French, marketing executive;
* Paulette Bondu, French, travelling with the above, sales executive;
* Sarah Martin, British, holidaymaking student;
* Arnold Terwilliger, American, mining engineer.
All speak English, although Ms Noc Lo's is a little shaky. Fortunately, none of them have any particularly unusual dietary needs or health requirements, Greg is able to establish.
Daniel breaks out some fresh water from the galley, and all fourteen sit round in a huddle. The euphoria of survival is now wearing off, and several people are shivering: the effects of shock, thinks Ella. She grabs an armful of grey woollen blankets from one of the gaping overhead lockers, and drapes them around everyone's shoulders.
'What... what are we going to do?' inquires Perez nervously.
'Well, things could be a lot worse,' says Greg cheerily. He ticks off on his finger. 'We have enough preserved food and water to last us for weeks. And we even have plenty of liquor, from the duty-free trolley. We have a good number of blankets, and quite an assortment of clothing. It doesn't look like any of our own luggage is up here with us - although a more detailed search when we're feeling stronger might reveal something - but there's enough of other people's that none of us need worry about spare clothing.'
'It's not as though the owners are in much of a state to complain about it,' mutters Loki to himself, huddled in his blanket.
'And we've got pretty much all of our carry-on luggage,' continues Greg, glaring at him.
'Including my ice axe!' Ella exclaims, swishing it through the air experimentally. The others look at her with some alarm.
Iain, snuggled into his Gore-Tex jacket, digs out his small GPS unit. 'This won't actually help us find out where we are, but if we move anywhere it'll help us get back here if we need to.' he says as he programs in their current location as a start point. He then carefully removes the hard drive from his laptop and puts it in his rucksack. 'It's probably best if the stewardess and a couple of others stay here and recover as much food and water as possible from the galley, whilst the rest of us search the wreckage for other survivors and anything useful we can recover from the baggage.'
'There's always a slight chance of survivors,' says Daniel doubtfully.
'Or at least there might be radio equipment or its makings,' suggests Greg, who has found a piece of stout beading to use as a staff. 'And we need another expedition, too: in search of the people who put the bells on those goats.' He glances around the group, leaning picturesquely on his staff. 'Another plan might be to array the most reflective debris across the grass of the meadow in a pattern which will spell out SOS to any aerial observation.' He does not state his reservation, which is that if the plane was brought down by enemy attack they might be looking to see if there is anyone that they need to finish off. Since the alternative might mean never getting out, he will advocate efforts to make it clear that there are survivors who need to be rescued.
'That's right - well, at least that's what I'm assuming, right? They were definitely on that flight, and it went down in the mountains,' says Nora crisply into the phone. She has gathered her wits quickly. 'Why don't you get some investigators together to check it out? Was it really an accident?'
'Good God, Nora, I wish we could,' says Andre Swahn, sounding rather desperate and miserable. 'We just don't have access to that sort of expertise at short notice. In time we can get some people into Tibet, or into Nepal, wherever the air crash investigation's going to be operating from, but most probably you over there in Phnom Penh are our best-placed operative.'
'Right. Well, OK then - but despite the 'accident', I want to stay on this current case, right? I was planning to act independently anyway.'
'OK, if you want - whatever. But be very, very careful, OK? If it wasn't an accident, that could mean all sorts of things. We have to assume they knew what the others were heading to Phnom Penh for, so they might be looking for you as well.'
Swahn sounds out of his depth, thinks Nora to herself with mingled surprise and perturbation. 'Don't you worry, I can look after myself - I've already got some measures in place. But I guess you're going to send out some more agents to team up with me, right?' I'd sooner not be lumbered with more weirdos from SITU, to be honest, she muses. 'No more than two or three experienced agents from the Flying Squad. And they should travel by separate routes and wait for me to contact them.'
Swahn pauses before replying. 'Er, Nora, I'm afraid that's not going to be possible. We just don't have anyone spare at the moment. All the Flying Squad people are emplaced right now. I'm afraid you're by yourself.'
Nora sighs heavily and theatrically, disguising her relief. 'Well, just wire me some cash, then. I need to make a down payment on my donation to the temple. My contact here says a thousand dollars should do for starters.'
'No problem!' says Swahn brightly, clearly glad finally to be able to be of some use to her.
As Nora leaves the phone booth she pushes her sunglasses firmly back onto her face, feeling almost light-hearted. I guess I get to use the lost operatives' expense accounts, too, she thinks to herself, giving a little skip.
'So what do you think happened?' Robert asks the stewardess Marie-Claude Duval, who is as comfortable as one can be with a broken arm: they and the other less mobile types have stayed up on the meadow while Daniel, Iain and Arnold Terwilliger clamber down towards the remainder of the wreckage.
'I do not know... it was like an explosion, no? Like a very big boom.'
'A bomb, you think, then? Or might it have been fuel exploding?'
'Not in that location, Monsieur Locke. The fuel, it lives in the wings only. Underneath, in the hold - baggages, and that is all.'
'But how could a bomb have come aboard? I thought that modern airport security...' muses Robert.
Marie-Claude sighs expressively. 'The stop at Lahore... who knows? Lahore is not like Paris or London.'
'Did anyone get on or off at that stop?' asks Ella.
'Yes, indeed, many people. Fifty, I think.'
'But anyone unexpected - perhaps someone who'd booked through, but then didn't get back on at Lahore?'
Marie-Claude frowns. 'Not that I know of. But it might have been. Usually the airport would hold the plane until this person could be found - or take their baggages off the plane. But this did not happen. Maybe a bribe...'
Robert nods glumly, then whistles to the young Noc Lo boy. 'I say - don't just wander off like that, sonny! Wait until the others come back, and then we can make an organized expedition. The last thing we want is people just wandering about the place at random.' He shakes his finger sternly, and the boy scrambles down off the heap of boulders he has been scaling.
Marie-Claude gazes at Robert in admiration. Ella sighs, under her breath.
Meanwhile, the more active group are having a hard time of it descending the cliff. 'Look, guys, this is hopeless,' says Terwilliger. They are not even a quarter of the way down to the wreckage, and have had to spread out diagonally more then Iain is happy with. 'Without proper equipment...'
'Mm, I think you're right,' says Iain. 'Let's head back up and see if we can find those goatherders. They might know a safer way round into this valley.'
Daniel, shading his eyes and peering down at the ugly black scar the body of the jet has made, several hundred feet below - smoke is still pouring from it, and not much more than scraps of twisted metal can be seen - says 'I don't know what you two think, but I reckon our chances of getting anything useful from what's left down there are pretty remote in any case. It looks pretty much trashed!'
Iain sighs, nodding, and experimentally pulls out his mobile phone. It shows zero signal strength. 'You never know,' he shrugs, putting it back in his pocket. 'Come on, let's get back up top: we need to organize shelter. It'll be dark soon.'
'What happened to the goats?'
'They wandered off up that way - I thought we'd better wait for you three to return before trying to follow them,' says Greg.
'Let's do that in the morning,' says Iain firmly. 'Most of these people are in no shape for a trek across the mountainside just now. We'll have some food and some rest, and the remains of the fuselage can keep the wind off us.'
'It'll be just like home!' says Ella enthusiastically, trying to rouse the spirits of the despondent survivors.
'Your home, maybe,' says Daniel. He bends close, excluding the non-operatives. 'I'm sure a search party will appear sooner or later... but if this wasn't an accident, then do we really want to be left up in the mountains, with the possibility of no-one knowing that we survived the crash in the first place? I might just be paranoid. but I'm sure they wouldn't bother checking burnt remains for bullet holes after a major plane crash. I'd like to know if anyone else is as suspicious of everything at the moment.'
Ella nods. 'I'd say we can trust the stewardess, but no-one else.'
The next morning, Nora rises early to seek out the Starlight Investigation Agency. 'Hi - I believe you guys know Keith McShane? He's a friend of mine.'
Chen Liu, the small Chinese man who seems to be the agency's only permanent member of staff, grins broadly. 'Keith! He and me split many bottles. How is the old goat?'
'Er, not bad at all, last time I saw him,' says Nora warily. 'But I want you to keep his name quiet, all right? Don't want people to link me with him.'
'Your desire is my command, lady,' says Chen cheerily. 'Now, what you need?'
'Two bodyguards - trustworthy. They need to be able to work here in the city, and also up in Angkor. And also I want you to investigate that area generally - for people, places, possible targets for intimidation or bribery - including local police and army and officials -'
Chen holds up his hands pleadingly. 'Hold on, lady! This is a big job you're talking about! Bodyguards, no trouble, I got two good men, local men right here can do. But the other - sounds like many days on phone -'
'Look, money's no object,' says Nora.
'Well, OK, I do what I can - but will take time. These Kampuchean guys are pretty close-mouthed, you know. Especially army. They run the place really - you best be careful with them!'
By dawn the fire Iain painstakingly constructed has long since burned out, and it is rather chilly. Greg has been unable to sleep well, and he sits hunched up, staring out across the valley where the remainder of the airliner still burns below. I need to make a special effort to get to know the other three, he thinks to himself. It's natural that the two trios of longstanding partners will tend to interact among themselves - and if there is a surviving enemy with us, that might be a good thing, because that enemy might not realize that the other three are SITU people too. But there is the potential here for a long-term problem if the two trios don't get along well, and I don't intend to let that happen.
He glances over to where Robert is lying protectively next to Ella, one arm thrown across her, and a difficult-to-read expression passes across his face.
By the time everyone is woken, breakfasted and made ready for the off, Ella feels she has a handle on the personalities of the other survivors. Duval is much more cheerful now that she feels Robert and Greg have taken charge, and she seems fairly resourceful if a little lacking in real confidence under her stewardess's veneer. The young Kampuchean family have been very quiet, the parents just watching everything and everyone, responding politely. The husband is the cultural attaché at the Kampuchean embassy in Lahore: they were returning home for a family holiday. The son, who must be twelve or so, is very energetic, forever dashing about and poking at things, and seems to think the whole thing is a great adventure.
The two French - Ella is not sure, but she thinks they may be or have been a couple, there seems to be a good deal of understanding between them - have not been terribly helpful. Perez, who is around forty, is a real moaner: and Bondu, the same sort of age (although it's difficult to tell with Frenchwomen, muses Ella) seems to still be in partial shock, huddling nervously and jumping at every noise. They both work for the French cosmetics company, Usine de Giverny, and were on a visit to the business's Kampuchean agency.
Arnold Terwilliger has been quite a find, he seems to be cheerful, resourceful willing and helpful. He is around 30 and works for Robinson Hogg Deep Mining and Aggregates, a British firm. He was heading to Kampuchea to advise a coal-mining client of his firm's. The last survivor, Sarah Martin, has kept pretty much to herself: Ella immediately classed her as 'posh student'. She is at Oxford, studying for a doctorate in some sort of agricultural economics. She has long, sun-bleached straight hair, and is rather beautiful.
'OK, everyone, pick up your stuff!' calls Daniel. 'In line!'
'And make sure you've all got good warm walking clothes and shoes,' says Greg, thinking of the damage his own handmade leather shoes are going to take traipsing over these icy rocks. 'We don't know how long this trek is going to be.'
With a mixture of grumbles and smiles, the 14 survivors rise to their feet and set off along the path the goats were seen to take the previous night.
'So you're just going to carry on, never mind your mate getting killed in the air crash?' asks John Pinkler in surprise. Nora has told him that the husband of a friend of hers was on the jet, in the Acorn Productions team. 'Good on you, mate - it's what they would have wanted!' He punches Nora lightly on the upper arm. She manages to suppress her combat reflexes.
'Yes, well, probably - but I've got a job to do, in any case. There's some serious stuff going on here that I want to get to the bottom of.' She has guessed that this is the best way to appeal to him. 'But I am going to have some trouble working alone - don't suppose you've got any free time to help out, asking a few questions, that sort of thing?' She smiles winningly across the café table at him.
'Thought you'd never ask, girl! I'd be right pleased to be your partner on this. Let's drink to that!' They smash their glasses together enthusiastically and drink deeply. 'OK, where do we start?'
Nora bites her lip, wondering how much she should tell him: clearly the more he knows about Dai-Mitsu and so on, the more useful he could be: and as an intelligent fellow he will probably realize before very long that she is interested in more than just the miracles and hauntings. Or perhaps she should just leave him here to keep up with news of the air crash. It depends how much she can trust him - and at the moment she really has no idea. He seems a decent enough sort, but...
There has been little further news on the crash, and it is a very long way away from here - two thousand miles and four countries. To visit it would not be practical, although if the wreckage is eventually recovered to Lhasa or Katmandu it might be more doable. 'Well, I'm going to head out to Angkor shortly - fancy coming along for the ride? But first I need to know who the important people there are.'
'Right, that's easy.' Pinkler counts on his fingers. 'There's the Senzo Lama, of the Temple of the Tooth - that's the biggest temple. He's got what you might call spiritual authority over the area. But the real boss is the military commander, guy named General Min. Very tough fellow, very experienced: he was close in with the Second Prime Minister, Hun Sen, during the war.'
'I was wondering about that,' says Nora. 'How come that guy's on the news all the time, if he's only the second prime minister? What about the first one? And what about the king?'
'Well, there was a sort of a quiet coup last year. King Sihanouk is still theoretically in charge, and his son Prince Ranariddh - who's the First Prime Minister - is supposed to be sharing power with Hun Sen, but he's actually fled the country now. Hun Sen basically runs the show - and he's supported by the Vietnamese, they've got the biggest army in the region of course. Not a bad fellow, Hun Sen, as your military dictators go - the Yanks hate him of course, so he can't be too bad! - no offence! - and he was fighting Pol Pot back when the West were busy supporting him.' He spits into the corner of the room as he mentions the name of the late unlamented dictator. 'Anyway, I know a guy on General Min's staff, a Major Themat, who might be able to help you out up there.' He regards her levelly. 'If I was you I'd try and cover up that Yank accent of yours, though. Not very popular around the Army types here. You could try going for something like an Australian one instead, if you can manage that.'
The path leads on for the best part of a mile, fairly taxing walking but not dangerous. The weather is fine and bright, although rather chilly, and the wind gusts sportively around the buttresses of ice-draped rock that project into the path.
Tranh Noc Lo, despite Iain's imprecations, keeps skipping off ahead, and the others hear him exclaim excitedly as he rounds the shoulder of the mountain.
'What is it?' calls Daniel. He is answered by the tinkling of bells.
Around the corner is the same small herd of goats, about thirty or so, and at their rear is a young teenage girl. She is staring at Tranh in fascination, mouth open. He scurries back to his parents as Greg, subtly shouldering his way forward, approaches the girl, hands open and outstretched.
She stares even more widely at him, pointing at his face, and says stumblingly 'Ingrish?'
'English? You speak English?' replies Greg in surprise.
'Yes - aye. I speaks Ingrish well.' Robert frowns, trying to assess her accent. It sounds like a curious mix of Cockney together with whatever the local tongue must be. And although she looks Nepali, might there perhaps be a trace of Caucasian in her features?
'Parlez-vous Francais?' tries Perez speculatively, but he is met with a blank look.
'You came in the great metal bird - yes? There was a big old fire. We saw.' She smiles relievedly, glancing around the group. 'Many Ingrish! That's good. My name is Mary. In the name of the Great Architect.' She quickly sketches a sign in the air before her as she says this. 'You must come to our town - get help, food. You must meet my uncle George.'
'Er, we'd like that very much indeed,' says Greg, feeling, unusually, somewhat out of his depth.
Glancing at each other in puzzlement, the group follow Mary around the path - she seems happy to leave the goats to their own devices. She seems extremely fit and healthy, and the thin air is not discommoding her at all - unlike the unfit operatives.
They walk on for only five minutes more, when the path goes over a saddle and revealed below is another valley. Iain gasps in amazement as he looks down.
The valley is about two miles long and a mile wide. A decent-sized stream runs down its length, being fed from both sides. At the edges are fields, with various crops growing. The near end is filled with forty or so round huts, stone walled and roofed with turf, and very uniform in their construction. The centre holds a much larger building to the same basic plan, made of four such circles each joining onto a fifth, central one. At the far end of the valley is a collection of ruined buildings, of massive stone, mostly too tumbled to reveal their original shape or function - but even from this distance it is clear that their columns and blocks are highly carved. Ella, frowning and squinting at them, is reminded of nothing so much as the ruins of the Forum of Rome.
Working in the fields and wandering around the village are a half-dozen or so people, dressed, like Mary, in simple brown robes.
Mary turns, beaming. 'Our town! You must come down and meet everyone!'
'Hello? Yes, that's right. I spoke with your people in London - at the Theravada Centre. Yes, that's right. A donation - yes. Well, could we perhaps meet up some time over the next few days? I'm in Phnom Penh all week, so... later today? Well, that would be fantastic, yes, thanks ever so much, that'd be great. I'm really looking forward to it. No, I'm afraid I can't give you my name... I know, it sounds a bit odd, but my husband... it's a bit complicated. Oh yes, the money's definitely mine to dispose of - at least, it will be soon - and I can give you a down payment right now this week, in cash, if you like. But... no name, that's right. OK then, I'll meet you at the Theravada temple here in Phnom Penh at four this afternoon. Bye now.'
Nora hangs up, biting her lip. She does not think that the priest to whom she spoke, the head of the temple here in the capital, is likely to be prepared to credit her incognito, despite her protests. When a matter of business and a large sum of money is in the question, anonymity is going to be a liability, from his point of view: he is likely to want to check up on whether she is genuine, if only because of the risk that the money might be from some disreputable source. She will have to come up with a better story if she is to win his trust at this afternoon's meeting.