The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
A Shattered Visage Lies
Message received by all operatives in April 2000
After our tremendous successes of 1999, I think we can be justified in congratulating ourselves on having broken the power of the Ylids. With the destruction of Yashimoto and The Master, our two most capable adversaries, we have ensured that never again can these monstrous beings present a coordinated threat to the happiness of humanity. Of course, we must not be too complacent. A little pride in a task well done is no doubt appropriate, but we must bear in mind that there are still a number of Ylids left alive, and being spiteful creatures they will probably continue to attempt to make life difficult for SITU operatives. But we will gradually dispose of them: we are now, effectively, moving into what can be considered a mopping-up phase. Each of you can expect odd missions here and there as one Ylid or another decides to cause trouble: but now that we have the upper hand, you may be sure that none of them will do so more than once! In the meantime, enjoy some well-earned free time.
From: Geoff Blaize
To: Operatives: Graham Drummond, Kassandra
To: Agents: Heather Montrose, Yuri Belnakov
To: Executives: Lady Judith Larch, Dexter Owara, Madeleine Hook
Mission Objective: To ascertain whether Yashimoto has survived the recent events in Japan, and if so to neutralise him on a more permanent basis.
Until recently, we believed that the Ylid Yashimoto had been killed when an extremely large ritual of his devising was subverted in a highly efficient manner by a group of SITU operatives.
The executive Madeleine Hook was a member of this group, and will be able to provide a briefing on the details of the Japanese mission. The subversion of the ritual resulted in a considerable degree of psychic and geological disruption, and the apparent submergence of the Ylid beneath a considerable amount of molten rock.
However, recently a number of facts have come to our attention, which may indicate that he has survived. Given Yashimoto’s key role in organising the other Ylids, it is imperative that this matter is rigorously investigated.
In early February of this year, two local women walking along a highway some miles from the centre of this disruption noticed a man of singular appearance some distance down the road. From their description, it seems that the man’s clothes were burned to cinders. His skin also seems to have been severely charred, so much so that its natural colour could not be determined. His gait, however, appeared to be that of a healthy man, not of one suffering the pain of the injuries he manifested. This discrepancy alarmed the women, who decided to hide and watch him as he passed, rather than following their first instinct and approaching him to offer help.
The man was apparently tall, with a fairly athletic build and stride. As the witnesses observed, a long, black car approached from behind the solitary walker, and halting as it drew level with him. One of the car doors opened and the injured man climbed into the car without apparent hesitation, after which the car drove on. Fortunately one of the two women had the presence of mind to note the number plate of the car.
The two witnesses, Nara Nitta and Chichii Naka, told a number of people of this incident, and the story eventually reached the ears of one of our newly established Japanese allies. After approaching the two women to clarify details of the incident, he communicated the matter to SITU.
Using the registration number, it was possible to trace the car, which was found to be the property of one Okada Tokutaro, a diplomat with a promising career in international relations.
Tokutaro is 30 years old, is unmarried and has no children. He owns several small apartments, one in Kyoto, one in Tokyo, and one on the outskirts of Brussels.
Okada Tokutaro was born in 1970, the son of a prominent employee of the Kozuki software empire. Since Tokutaro’s father was usually employed in a ‘trouble-shooting’ capacity, he was required to move with his family to a number of different companies, to work in Kozuki’s foreign branches. Between 1979 and 1989 the Tokutaro family had lived in Paris, London and Los Angeles. Okada Tokutaro appears to have maintained a consistently solid academic record despite the patchwork nature of his education, and succeeded in winning a place at the University of Bonn, where he studied economics.
Immediately after his graduation, he embarked upon a career in the Japanese foreign office, abetted by his multi-lingual abilities, and has succeeded in acquiring a level of eminence and responsibility unusual for one his age. We are not aware of all his activities, but to judge from the flights booked in his name over the last six years he has spent a great deal of time travelling to Europe, usually to negotiate with foreign industrialists. His record for reliability and energy appears to be almost without blemish, aside from a space of two months in 1994 when he suffered a period of physical collapse, probably caused by overwork.
His activities over the last year appear to have altered their pattern, as shown below.
- 4th March: Took a flight to Delhi, apparently on official business – nature unknown. Returned to Karachi on 17th March.
- 20th March Attended an archaeology convention in Montreal. It appears that he was acting as an intermediary in some delicate negotiations regarding export of national treasures.
- 19th April: Flew to Calcutta, reason for visit unknown. Three weeks later he returned to Japan taking a flight from the airport in Delhi
- 3rd May: Arrived in New Delhi once again, apparently to engage in some negotiations with the emerging Indian software houses. Returned to Kyoto on 6th July.
- 10th-15th July: Attended international conference in Leichtenstein dedicated to discussing ecological issues.
- 2nd September: Flew once more from Karachi to New Delhi, ostensibly to continue the negotiations with the aforementioned software companies. Flew back to Karachi on 28th October.
As can been seen from this list, all but two of Tokutaro’s recent assignments have taken him to India. This is of interest, since until this year he had almost invariably acted as an emissary in Europe or in the United States. It is our suspicion that he has been endeavouring to acquire assignments which will take him to India, for reasons of his own.
After considerable difficulty, SITU succeeded in acquiring details of recent transactions made using one of Tokutaro’s many credit cards. About a month ago, Tokutaro used this card to reserve a seat on a flight from Karachi to Delhi, due to arrive on 22nd December. He also booked two compartments on the famous ‘Palace on Wheels,’ popularly known as the Indian Orient Express. The tickets are valid for the tour which starts on the evening of 22nd December, and ends on the 28th December. Since he is travelling alone to India, we suspect that he may be meeting and escorting another individual on this train. Given the cost of this train and the fact that he does not appear to have any romantic connections, it is our suspicion that the individual he is meeting is of considerable importance.
The Palace on Wheels:
This luxurious, air-conditioned train provides a week-long tour of the major cities of Rajasthan. Accomodation is provided upon the train, and most meals and entertainment are provided with the tour. Originally this train was comprised of coaches which dated from the time of the maharajahs, but these were replaced in 1993 by modern coaches. The itinerary follows.
Departs Delhi Cantonment station at 22.45.
Arrives at Jaipur at 08.30.
Lunch at the Rambagh Palace at 12.00.
Departs Jaipur at 22.10
Arrives at Chittaurgarh at 07.30
Departs Chittaurgarh at 12.00
Arrives Udaipur at 15.30
Departs Udaipur at 22.00
Arrives Sawai Madhopur at 06.30
Departs Sawai Madhopur at 12.30
Arrives at Jaisalmer at 09.00
Departs Jaisalmer at 23.30
Arrives at Jodhpur at 09.00
Departs Jodhpur at 15.45
Arrives at Bharatpur at 07.15
Departs Bharatpur at 12.30
Arrives at Agra at 14.30
Departs Agra at 20.00
Arrives at Delhi Cantonment station at 07.30
Cover and Travel Arrangements:
Please find enclosed your plane tickets for the flight to Delhi from Gatwick, via Dubai. As you can see, you will be arriving in New Delhi airport at 01.25 on the morning of the 22nd. You have been provided with reservations at the Alka hotel in order to recuperate for a few hours after the journey. Tokutaro’s flight will be arriving in Delhi at 08.50. We apologise for the short notice, but this has sadly been unavoidable.
Three double compartments and one single compartment have been reserved for you on the Palace on Wheels. Your cover story will be that you have each won a place on this tour through a competition launched by the crossword magazine, “Cluemaster.”
Note – it is of critical importance that Tokutaro does not feel himself under threat. If it emerges that he is indeed working for Yashimoto, and is currently instrumental in setting up a new power base for the Ylid in India, then he may have means of effecting instantaneous communication with his master. If he suspects that he is being followed by our agents, it is possible that he will cancel the projected meeting.
A Shattered Visage Lies
My lord, you may have seen before this, by the maps of Asia, how great every way is the extent of the empire of the Great Mogul, which is commonly called India or Indostan. I have not measured mathematically; but to speak of it according to the ordinary journeys of the country, after the rate of three month’s march, traversing from the frontiers of the kingdom of Golconda as far as beyond Kazni near Kandahar, which is the first town of Persia, I cannot but persuade myself otherwise but that it is at least five times as far as from Paris to Lyons, – that is, about five hundred common leagues.
Lady Judith Larch closes Francois Bernier’s Account of India and the Great Moghul for an instant, and once again considers trying to sleep. The five hour wait in Dubai has taken its toll upon both her stamina and her supply of reading material. Carefully, she eases an elegant pair of shoes from her feet, and lets her head recline. Even as she tries to let herself drift into sleep, however, she is distracted by the knot of apprehension in her stomach, and the faint sound of voices further down the plane.
“So you’re a dancer?”
Kassandra seems to have acquired the undivided attention of the young German tourist whom chance has placed in the seat beside her. She nods, smiling archly at her companion from beneath a long wave of red hair.
“Well, I suppose I could have guessed from your…” The young German waves a slightly vague hand towards Kassandra’s lithe figure, its shapeliness exaggerated by her short skirt and tight crimson top. “… I mean, you look very… athletic.”
“I must look a mess. Wasn’t it stifling in the airport? My clothes are just about sticking to me…” Kassandra hooks one long finger into the neck of her top and holds it away from her flesh, as if to let the air circulate behind it. The young man’s gaze and jaw drop simultaneously, and it is a minute or two before he can recover either.
Yuri Belnakov watches the lights of Dubai recede below him. The nocturnal city below him is an Arabian Nights trove now, pale sapphires and soft rubies glowing among the slender chains of silver and gold. Over the next ten minutes it dwindles to an ornate embroidery in shining thread upon black cloth.
Remembering the landscape glimpsed through the clouds earlier that afternoon, Yuri knows that this fairytale panorama is an illusion. The golden threads are broad and dusty roads, and the velvet darkness of the landscape hides a stark and sun-baked wilderness, cracked like a parched mud flat. Yuri himself emanates something akin to the land that stretches beneath him, expansive and inexpressive, with a bland and inscrutable strength. He is well over six foot, and solidly built. His light brown hair is receding slightly. As his grey eyes continue to rest on the vanishing traces of Dubai, he gently drums the fingers of one hand upon the magazine at his elbow, the rhythm broken due to the absence of his thumb and the top joint of his ring finger.
Maddy Hook’s tiredness has been forgotten in her fascination with the in-flight entertainment. Little television screens are set into the back of each seat for the personal use of the person seated behind, and several of the available channels offer Indian pop music. The music itself is a strange amalgam of eastern and western influences, as is the dancing in the videos, which seems to combine loose western jumps and gestures with elegant turns of the wrist, and stylised head motions. Maddy is singing under her breath a little as she imitates one or two of the hand motions, earning herself strange looks from some of the other passengers.
To be fair, Maddy’s appearance would probably have resulted in these curious glances in any case. Her latest experimentation with dyes has been less fortuitous than most, and her spiked hair is currently a vivid shade of pineapple. Some delicate and tastefully coloured silks are gathered like a sarong over a pair of army cut-offs and a worn-looking T-shirt. A cluster of assorted beads and pendants cluster and tinkle about her chest and wrists.
There is nothing to show the casual observer that Dexter Owara is anything other than at peace with the world. The ample Scots-Nigerian has settled into his seat with every appearance of contentment, his extender belt strapped around his considerable midriff. An affable comment has already been used to win a genuine laugh from one of the trim, lacquered stewardesses.
Once he would have chatted with her, perhaps talked about himself and even offered her one of his handbills for his Elvis impersonation act. Now he feels strangely reluctant, although he smiles at the girl each time she clips past. Perhaps it is just his sleeplessness playing upon his nerves. Perhaps it is just that experience has taught him to look for the enemy in the most innocent of guises. Once again, he feels annoyed that SITU were unable to arrange for him to take some of his guns to India with him.
Graham Drummond, bored by the magazine provided in the seat pocket, has started unobtrusively observing his fellow passengers. His attention is quickly attracted by the delicate bone structure of the girl across the aisle, who appears to be in the process of trying to sleep. She is a little under average height and of delicate build, her slender face framed by black hair with highlights in a range of different colours. Her complexion is somewhat dusky, leaving him at a loss to guess her nationality, but her clothes are dark, so that her face still stands out sharply against them. He has just started to sketch her in pen on the back of the magazine, when she opens her eyes and his gaze is met by a challenging and hostile brown stare.
Heather Montrose, who has been trying to ignore the gaze of the man across the aisle for several minutes, feels some satisfaction as she sees his eyes drop in confusion. It is hard to guess his age, the lower part of his face being concealed beneath a thriving, brown beard. There is a touch of grey in the hairs about his cheeks, but Heather guesses that he cannot be much older than thirty. His loose, curly, brown hair is currently acting as an admirable shield for his eyes as he makes a show of rummaging through his pockets, avoiding her gaze. A pair of reading glasses protrude from the top pocket of his red shirt, and his mock-leather waistcoat hangs slack and unbuttoned.
Airports are their own country, and tend to be more like one another than the nations in which they are geographically situated. They appear to exist outside place and time, in a dayless, nightless world of their own, which always makes them seem somewhat unreal, particularly to those in an advanced state of jetlag.
Heather finds herself wandering in just such a dazed state when she feels a gentle touch on her shoulder, and turns to see Judith, who gives her a quick air kiss on each cheek. Heather notes that, despite the rigours of the journey, Judith is still immaculately turned out, her wavy chestnut hair still unruffled, the elegant and feminine cut of her clothes still unruffled.
“Heather? I didn’t recognise you at first. You look… you look very nice indeed.” Judith casts an approving eye over Heather, whose clothes are certainly considerably smarter than those she wore of old. “The glasses…”
“I still wear them sometimes, but I’m trying out contacts right now.” Her eyes start to itch as she thinks about it.
“They suit you. And your hair is less…”
“Yes. I toned down the colours for my new job.” As they wait in the passport queue, Heather tells Judith about her work for an IT department in Devon. “And I did finally give up smoking, though I was thinking of taking it up again if Nate was going to be here. Seeing as he’s not, though, it’s hardly worth it.”
“I think that’s us.” Judith points over her shoulder at a white-clad man standing patiently by the exit, holding a piece of card with the word “Cluemaster” written on it.
One by one the group assemble by his side, and are led out through the main entrance. Judith finds that two or three men move in confidently and swiftly to help her with her luggage, brooking no protest. Outside they deposit the luggage again and wait to be tipped, leaving her to struggle with a wallet full of unfamiliar notes.
On either side of the entrance, long mats extend. Dozens of men and women are seated on this mat, some apparently waiting, others clearly begging, frail limbs extending from tattered clothing. The road ahead is flanked by a row of trees, all of which seem to be writhing with activity. The foliage shakes with the vibration of pale wings, and greyish bodies can be glimpsed whirring from tree to tree. As the group near the road, the sound of screaming, like that of a startled flock of birds, becomes first distinct and finally almost deafening. With a shock, the new arrivals realise that the trees are thick with bats, each about the size of a pigeon.
Brief introductions take place inside the minibus that awaits them. Kassandra introduces herself as “a friend of Nathan”, in response to which Judith gives her a glance of curiosity, combined with something else.
The drive is uneventful, more than one of the party dozing before its termination. When they reach the Hotel Alka, their driver helps to carry their luggage into the foyer, and then leaves without further comment. The group find themselves standing in a huddle in the centre of a carpet patterned with a giant tiger’s head, in the harsh, yellow glare of the electric ‘chandelier’ overhead.
“We have a few hours before we need to rise again,” Yuri says in an undertone, “and we will all need some sleep. But perhaps first we should run through the events in Japan.” He looks questioningly at Maddy.
December 22nd, 4am
The Hotel Alka, New Delhi