The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
A Shattered Visage Lies
As the stranger starts the engine of the scooter, Dexter throws his energy into one last sprint. As the large Scotsman bears down on him, the stranger in the turban casts a quick and apprehensive glance over his shoulder, and pulls away, engine roaring. Dexter keeps up his pace until the scooter picks up speed, and then is forced to slow and catch his breath.
A wide grin splits Kassandra’s face.
“Let’s show Dexter how it’s done, shall we?” Before Heather has time to respond, Kass gives vent to a wild whoop, revs the engine of her Honda and lets out the clutch. The next moment Kass’s bike has launched itself down the hill, its front wheel raised in a dramatic wheelie. Heather needs only a fraction of a second to react, and she is also soon in pursuit of the scooter, albeit in a manner that owes more to sanity than that of her companion.
Kass slides to a halt next to Dexter.
“Care for a ride, Mister?”
Dexter has halted on the kerb, half-doubled, his hands resting on his knees as he recovers his breath. He takes a look at the precarious pillion seat which Kass is patting in an inviting fashion, shakes his head, and waves her onwards.
Further down the street, the scooter cleaves neatly between a parked truck and a wayside melon seller, and takes a sharp right turn. Heather chooses to follow the same path, wincing as her bike veers onto the vendor’s spread mat, and she hears beneath her the faint pulpy sound of her front wheel splitting the spread melon-flesh. Behind her she hears a series of angry cries, and the rising roar of the other motorcycle engine as Kass starts to recover the lost distance.
“Thank you… for your try to help… very kind.” The young man who had been so rudely displaced from his seat on the scooter has helped up his young female passenger, and is now eager to thank Dexter for his heroic attempt at preventing the theft.
“Did you get a look at him?” asks Dexter, finding his breath again.
“Not good look, no… he was not old. Quite young.” The young man speaks quickly with the woman in the white sequinned sari, and she utters a few words in an undertone, and raises her hand to touch her forehead. “Ah. My wife, she says she thinks he had a little blood on his forehead. Running down, from here. As if he had been struck to the head.”
“I see. Thanks. I’ll find out if anyone inside saw anything.” Dexter jogs back through the main gate to the Amber Fort, with thoughts of the other man he had seen fleeing the Sheesh Mahal.
He quickly succeeds in finding Yuri in the courtyard, and establishes that the Russian did not witness the tall man’s exodus from the Jai Mandir temple.
“He definitely left the temple by that archway – if he didn’t come this way he must have cut across the grass and into one of those buildings. Yuri, you keep an eye on our Japanese friend, and I’ll try and track down our mugging victim.”
Yuri assents phlegmatically, and as Dexter walks quickly off in the direction of the main building, he turns his attention to the distant figures of Tokutaro and Graham.
“Would you be so kind?” Graham, who has been surreptitiously observing Dexter and Yuri’s exchange from across the courtyard, becomes aware that Tokutaro is proffering his camera. “I would like to have a picture of myself within the Amber Fort – if you have no objection…”
Graham assents readily, and contrives to position his companion with his back to the two distant SITU agents. He even has the presence of mind to angle the camera so that Yuri and Dexter are hidden behind the figure of Tokutaro – he is not sure that they would appreciate appearing in the holiday snaps of a suspected Ylid agent.
Not for the first time Graham is grateful that Tokutaro does not appear to be the most observant of individuals. Unlike his new friend, Graham at least has strong suspicions that something untoward has occurred in the temple behind them. The faint crunch of frosting glass and the patter of running feet have not escaped his sharp ears. Only the fear of drawing Tokutaro’s attention to his colleagues has deterred him from commenting upon it.
It is with some relief that he sees both Dexter and Yuri alive and well. Nonetheless, Dexter’s body language conveys a sense of urgency, and Graham senses violence like a scent on the breeze.
“If the map is to be credited, this stairway should lead to the Diwan-i-Am…” Graham allows himself to be led up a great stairway, listening with some real interest to the other man’s account of the historical peculiarities of their surroundings. “Ah, and along here is something which I think may interest you.”
Graham follows his self-appointed guide up a narrow stairway and through a slender arch. The little temple in which he finds himself shows some signs of neglect and deterioration, but some attractive inlaid panels still remain. The largest depicts a female figure apparently engaged in trampling a smaller, male figure underfoot. The goddess’s face is jet black and mask-like, and a row of skulls adorn her belt.
“What do you think? The Sila Devi temple is supposed to be in better condition, but I thought you might find the atmosphere of this one more… appealing.” Turning in some surprise to glance at his companion, Graham is unnerved to find that Tokutaro is regarding him with a focussed and anticipative gaze.
“The goddess Kali…?” Graham guesses, gesturing towards the picture.
“Yes, the goddess dancing on the body of her husband, Shiva. He lay down and allowed her to vent her rage upon him until she calmed herself. The rage of a goddess like that would be a terrible and a beautiful thing to witness, I think – one almost envies him.” Behind his circular spectacles Tokutaro’s eyes flick quickly to Graham’s face, and again the SITU agent has the uncomfortable sense that something is expected of him.
Bit of a change from the Devon roads, Heather reflects grimly, as she cuts a crazy zig-zag through the afternoon traffic. She is half-deafened by the sound of horns, and around her the roadway quivers with exhaust fumes. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of her break-neck chase is that she appears to be in no way the most reckless driver on the road.
The scooter tilts sharply as it takes a left down an almost invisible sidestreet. Heather turns sharply and follows, leaning her bike almost to toppling as she takes the corner. A series of faded movie posters flutter as she slices down the alleyway, and a pair of half-starved cats abandon their litter meal.
Leaving the alleyway, she finds herself suddenly in a broad street crowded with auto-rickshaws, heavy trucks, rust-touched buses and faded-chic automobiles.
The man on the scooter darts briefly onto the crowded pavement, scattering a small group of beggars, undertakes a slow-moving cart laden almost to the ground with dusty boxes, and then arcs sharply back onto the road some way ahead.
“Try to keep him in sight!” calls Kass, who has now almost caught up with Heather. She too has decided to take to the pavement, and is standing up on the pegs as she tries to make out the location of the scooter. Her progress appears to be causing a certain amount of confusion, as beggars, vendors and tourists throw themselves out of her path. One fruit-seller stumbles from the kerb in his haste to evade her, spilling his basket of pomegranates among the thrash of panic-stricken feet.
Heather nods, and swings right to overtake the cart that impedes her view. She veers neatly past the dusty flanks of oxen, and flits across the path of a smaller motorbike with a machine-gun rattle for an engine, upon which three children of diminishing height ride pillion.
“There! He’s taking a right!” calls out Kassandra suddenly, having glimpsed the scooter through a break in the traffic. With a twist of the throttle she sends the bike leaping from the pavement into the thick of the traffic, the aggressive growl of the big engine matched by that from her own throat.
Kass’s words are lost in the din of the traffic, but Heather guesses at the reason for her sudden thrust into the road, and follows the line of Kass’s gaze. Sure enough, the gleaming white frame of the scooter is vanishing through a broad and ornamented archway, the rider’s clothes a-flap, a loose strand of his turban flicking like a serpent’s tongue.
“He’s heading into the old city!”
Heaving the great handlebars to and fro, Kass succeeds in forcing a path through the traffic. There is a hairy moment when she finds herself on a collision course with an auto-rickshaw, but at the last moment the driver clearly realises that the red-headed madwoman on the motorbike has no intention of yielding the road to him, and he swerves to avoid her, rattling flanks with another rickshaw.
Roaring through the great archway in the old city walls, she finds herself almost abreast of Heather’s vehicle. Here the streets are still busy but broader, and they make more rapid progress as they sweep through the sunset pink streets, past the glittering bazaars.
“Ooh!” Maddy peers across at the figure of the actress. “D’you reckon she looks, um, like an Ylid?”
If so, reflects Lady Judith, she resembles an Ylid with exquisite taste and a not inconsiderable expense budget. Beneath her dark, Western-style coat Bina Ajanta wears a sari in a deep, rich red silk, hemmed and intricately patterned in gold. The sumptuous colour contrasts superbly with the smoothly luminous skin of her face and throat, and her mouth is painted the same vivid, royal hue. Above her dark glasses a tiny leaf-shaped bindi glitters crimson and gold. A red stone winks sombrely from the ring on her white gloved hand as she examines the jewellery on the stall before her.
Lady Judith watches Maddy’s fingers nervously fiddling with her silver gloves, and recalls the sigil branded into the girl’s palm.
““D’you want to, uh, speak to her before I, like, do my gushy fan thing?” Maddy whispers to Lady Judith. “Oh yeah, but could you try to get a bit of her, like, hair or something?”
“I think that she might take it amiss if I initiate our acquaintance by pulling out her hair, Maddy dear,” murmurs Judith, before donning one of her most charming smiles and approaching the actress.
“Excuse me? I believe we are co-passengers – on the Palace on Wheels?” Remembering with a faint shadow of resentment the way in which the entire train had been made to dance attendance upon Miss Ajanta’s whim, Lady Judith cannot bring herself to take up the role of ‘gushy fan,’ and finds herself adopting a pleasant but relatively self-confident tone.
“That is right, yes.” The actress’s voice is surprisingly soft and childlike, despite the cool composure of the tone. Behind the dark lenses, Judith can dimly make out the flicker of the other woman’s eyelids as she takes in the English woman’s perfectly presented form and composure of manner. One of the white gloves strays to a slender ear-ring as if to adjust its angle. Judith recognises the nervousness in that tiny gesture. Fame may have come to Bina Ajanta, but the young woman evidently still lacks confidence in her ability to outshine an opponent.
“Bina Ajanta?” Maddy has lost patience with pretending to search through the bazaar stalls, and has approached the pair with all the subtlety of a puppy. “I looove your struff – ‘specially the, y’know, singing and dancing bits! Like, wow! Your smile’s much, umm, rainier in real life…” The actress’s indulgent, crimson smile wavers slightly upon receiving this information, but does not fade. Maddy’s words trail off, then she glances down at the pearl-eyed bird in the Bina’s hand.
“Oh, and that’s like, beautiful! You haven’t seen any, uhh, elephanty ones, though? I, um, collect them.” The woman in the red sari gives a half-smile, and shakes her head slightly, half turning to cast a glance across the bazaar. It is unclear from her body language whether this shake of her head is a simple negative, or intended to end the conversation.
“Well… uhh, maybe I’ll see you again on the Wheely Palace Train? Oh – hold on.” Maddy has glimpsed a single hair lying upon the sleeve of the actress’s coat. “Ooh, let me.” Before Miss Ajanta can react, Maddy has reached out, delicately caught it between two fingers, and flicked it clear of the sleeve. Unfortunately it proves not to be a stray hair, as she had imagined, but one still attached to its owner’s head. The young actress almost succeeds in suppressing her squeak of surprise as it is plucked from her scalp.
Observing this, Lady Judith closes her eyes for a brief, pained instant.
Perhaps fortunately, the slightly uncomfortable silence is broken by a disturbance in the direction of the roadway. As the three women turn, they glimpse a single scooter carving a perilous route through the milling shoppers, clipping a trestle table in passing and tumbling a display of brassware across the pavement in a gleaming cascade. After the briefest interval a heavy motorbike bullets along the same route, a slight and athletic form crouched over the bars. An instant later another bike flashes past, the leatherclad rider’s red hair flickering like flame.
Maddy tugs at Lady Judith’s sleeve. “Wasn’t that…?”
“Yes, Maddy dear, I rather think it was.”
Ahead of them, Heather and Kass suddenly see the ruined city walls loom again. Slipping through the crumbling gate, they find themselves heading west out of the old quarter into a shabbier, more modern-looking thoroughfare.
“He took a left…” Heather’s voice is just audible.
“Okay, you follow him, I’ll take the left after that and try to cut him off.”
The two motorbikes diverge, Heather in pursuit of the elusive scooter-thief, Kass once more taking to the pavement amid screams and scattered shopping bags.
Heather glimpses a street sign reading “Kantichandra Marg” as she races past it. Ahead, the man in the dun turban turns his head briefly to flash an assessing glance at his one remaining pursuer, then swings sharply to take another left, so that he is doubling back on his previous route. Cunning bastard, reflects Heather as she sweeps after him, ducking the wing mirror of a juddering truck. The scooter next takes a right, and Heather finds herself on a busy central thoroughfare, with signs indicating that the railway station lies ahead.
Meanwhile, Kass has taken two left turns and has found herself on the Kantichandra Marg, with no sign of either Heather or the mysterious fugitive. After waiting an instant to see whether they might yet arrive, she curses briefly, and takes the western road.
Heather is watching the scooter rider’s approach to a roundabout, trying to gauge from his body language which way he intends to swing, when she suddenly notices Kass approaching the same roundabout from one of the other turnings. Kass catches sight of her at about the same time. Swiftly assessing the situation, Kass moves to intercept the scooter, travelling anti-clockwise around the roundabout along the pavement.
The man in the turban clearly does not observe her until the last moment. His swerve is abrupt and ill-judged, and the scooter crashes onto its side, carried forward along the road by its own momentum. As it topples, the rider flings himself clear. For a moment he is invisible between the wheels of the passing cars, and it seems certain that he has been crushed, but when a space in the traffic appears there is no sign of his stricken body. Looking up, the pursuers glimpse a grey turban bobbing away at speed beyond the dense press of the onlookers.
Dismounting, Heather makes liberal use of her elbows, and succeeds in forcing a path through the crowd in time to see the fugitive sprint into a narrow alleyway.
Taking the same turning, she discovers the alley to be a dead end, little more than a refuge for discarded boxes and rusted bicycle parts. She clambers across the debris, then jumps, catches hold of the top of the wall, and pulls herself up onto it.
She finds herself gazing down onto a railway platform. Crumpled in a rubbish bin below lie a loose, shabby shirt and the unravelled coils of a dun grey turban. A little further down the platform she can see the foremost carriages of the Palace on Wheels.
Back on the ‘luxury coach’ provided to transport passengers back from the Amber Fort to the Palace on Wheels, Dexter sits alone, quietly assessing the other travellers. Only a handful are tall enough to have been the man attacked in the Sheesh Mahal. Max Bucher has the requisite height, and probably enough muscle tone to heave a smaller man over his shoulder. There are a couple of Frenchmen near the front of the coach, both of which have the right build. There is also a tall, gaunt Japanese man in his forties, whom Dexter can only assume to be Rashino. The Danish woman is conducting a conversation in her own language with another tall man. He has dust-coloured hair and indeterminate eyebrows, and appears to be suffering a little from over-exertion, periodically resorting to an asthma inhaler.
In searching the Amber Fort, Dexter had stumbled upon several tourist groups, but none including an individual of the correct build. The only other find yielded by his search is currently folded away in his jacket pocket.
“Ohhh well.” Despite Bina Ajanta’s rather hurried excuses and departure, Maddy does not seem too discouraged by the outcome of the interview.
As they proceed along the street, Lady Judith brings the subject back to the abandoned subject of Rob, the agent who had died in the fight against Yashimoto. Through Maddy’s somewhat eccentric, stream-of-consciousness remarks, she starts to build up her picture of the dead man. Robert Montague Flint appears to have combined a strong intellect with a great deal of personal charm. From the SITU reports Lady Judith recalls that Flint was described as an anthropologist, a journalist and the ‘reincarnation of Alexander the Great.’ To gauge from Maddy’s recollections he appears also to have been kindly, mischievous and possessed of a strong sense of humour, which might have accounted for his rapport with the curious Miss Hook.
“And he was, like, really good looking, yeah? Kind of like Pierce Brosnan.” Maddy gives Lady Judith a quick sideways glance. “By the way, what was that, like, stuff about that other agent guy who recommended Kass? When she said his name you went all, like, squiggly.”
Lady Judith is vexed to find herself flushing, although this is largely due to confusion at the accusation of ‘squiggliness.’
“Are you referring to Nathan Garston? We worked together on our Welsh mission and then again in France – I would consider him a friend. I was a little… surprised at Kassandra claiming an acquaintance, since she did not strike me as the sort with which he would usually mingle. And I am sure I don’t know what you mean by squiggly,” she adds, a little sharply.
A little before six the group meet back in Judith and Heather’s room. Heather and Kass have changed out of their dust-trammelled clothes.
Maddy listens with interest to Dexter’s account of the fight in the Sheesh Mahal. “Was the little turbanny man trying to, like, strangle the big one? Only, that was a thing Kali’s Thuggee people did, with a, y’know, silk scarf?”
“Like this one, you mean?” Dexter reaches laconically into his pocket and draws out a length of shimmering white fabric. “I found this when I went back to the Sheesh Mahal, lying next to a broken mirror. Must have been dropped in the fight.”
Heather and Kass recount the details of the chase through the streets of Jaipur. “Whoever he was, he climbed into the rail station. Maybe he just wanted to be able to jump on a train and make his escape. Or maybe he just jumped onto this one.”
“Well,” comments Yuri, “we know he was injured. That might make him easier to spot. I suggest we keep an eye out for any of our fellow passengers who have sustained a head injury recently, or who are keeping to their cabins.”
“We also need to get hold of the original accommodation plan,” comments Dexter. “Aside from anything else, I’d like to know who owns that ring you found, Yuri.” The other members of the group lean forward as Yuri produces the ring for their examination. Maddy pounces upon it, and holds it to the light and squints at it for a few moments.
“There’s a lot of stuff about gemstones in, like, all the Ayurvedic websites.” She shrugs. “But this doesn’t look like an emerald. D’you think that’s what, uhh, hessonite looks like?” No one appears to be an authority on the appearance of hessonite.
“Do you think you could, like, just stop, like, using the word ‘like’ every couple of words?” snaps Heather a little impatiently. She is still combing the stubborn traces of the street dust out of her hair
Yuri contemplates for a moment. “There were several cases in our cabin when we claimed it, do you remember, Dexter? If I recall correctly, they were a matching set in dark blue leather. However, I recall that the luggage was divided, some placed against one bed, some against the other. I also think that there was a slim, black handbag with an ornamental clasp lying on one of the beds – a woman’s bag. I suspect that the previous occupants of our room may have been a couple.”
“So how are we doing with getting to know the other folks on the train?” asks Dexter. “What about this other Japanese gent?”
Graham explains that he will probably be seated next to Rashino at dinner, and offers in the meanwhile to keep close to Tokutaro. “After all, if he’s going to meet his contact, presumably he’ll take pains to get rid of me, so we’ll know something is happening. Right now, he’s freshening up in his cabin. And taking his allergy pills.”
There is a pause before Heather voices the thought in more than one mind.
“He doesn’t look much like a super-powered agent of evil, does he?”
“Not much. But we’ll have to have a fight with the Ylids sometime.” Maddy peers at the other members of the group. “I know we will, I can feel it in my socks. So… so we need to be prepared. Magically.” Drawing out a paper bag of pomegranates, she tosses one fruit to each member of the group. Dexter stares at his gift with undisguised incredulity.
“What’s this meant to give us, a vitamin boost?”
“Well, I’m still sending an anti-Yashimoto sigil around the, um, Internet. It’s encoded in Mr Sandman’s haiku virus – or I s’pose, worm – powered by people getting cranky. It’s the thingy on, like, the palm of my hand, yeah? But we’ll need stuff against the other Ylid – if it’s, y’know, there. So we’re making Chaospheres!” She grins. “Look, you just spend a few minutes each day meditating and letting all the bad ch’i flow out of you into the fruit. And putting it under your pillow, y’know, like a dream catcher, that helps.”
“Nothing like having a rotting, squishy fruit under your pillow to help you build up crankiness.” Dexter gives a short laugh, and tosses his pomegranate back to Maddy. “Maybe later – if I’m peckish.”
The road to the Nabargarh Fort zig-zags up a sheer ridge, and even the Palace on Wheels’sluxury coach labours a little. At the crest of the hill gleams the long, floodlit façade of the fort, starkly regular in its crenellations, and tiered like a cake.
The coach reaches the summit, and in the valley below Jaipur is suddenly spread to the passengers’ gaze, like a rich carpet unrolled by an eager vendor. The guests are led into a long, low building whose large windows offer splendid views across the evening city.
With a conspiratorial smile, Dipak leads Graham to his seat next to Okada Tokutaro. Glancing to his left, Graham sees that the seat on his other side is already occupied.
For all their shared nationality, Rashino provides the starkest possible contrast with Tokutaro. He is somewhat over six foot in height, and whip-slender. His forehead is high, and unblemished by any trace of expression or sentiment. Two long parallel grooves descend from cheekbone to chin on either side of his mouth, like humourless dimples.
Encouraged by his previous successes, Graham ventures to bid this new acquaintance a good evening. Rashino lowers the water from which he has been drinking, and treats Graham to a formal bow and a speculative stare.
“We were just conversing before you arrived,” intervenes Tokutaro. “This is Mr Graham Drummond from England – we have been enjoying many pleasant conversations together. Mr Rashino is a legal consultant for a major shipping firm.”
“Our friend here makes my job sound more impressive than it is – I am a small cog in a large machine, that is all,” remarks Rashino, drily. Graham makes a few gallant attempts at small talk, but the tall man’s responses are civil but minimalist.
“By the way,” Graham adds, turning again to Tokutaro, “I was wondering – will you be staying on the train for the whole tour, or will you be disembarking early?” The little diplomat’s glass rattles against the table as he sets it down unsteadily.
“Disembarking early?” The large eyes behind the round lenses blink rapidly.
“Yes – it’s just that I have been rather enjoying our conversations – I would be rather disappointed if I had to complete the tour without your company.”
“You… you will be staying with the train for the whole tour? All the way back to New Delhi?”
“Well, um, yes.”
Tokutaro lowers his eyes and rolls his glass between his hands. For an instant, he seems to be fighting to suppress a medley of emotions – disappointment, frustration, perhaps even a little desperation.
On Graham’s left, Rashino is ostensibly occupied in surveying the menu. However, Graham notes surreptitiously that the tall man’s eyes appear to be resting on a single point on the page, rather than flitting from line to line, almost as if he were making a pretence of surveying the menu while his attention was elsewhere.
Evidently becoming aware of Graham’s scrutiny, Rashino at length lowers his menu and glances around him, apparently in search of someone to take his order. As he scans the room, his gaze suddenly freezes, and the skin across his forehead becomes taut.
He appears to be staring across the room at a table where Maddy is talking animatedly with Max Bucher.
“Yeah, and anyway, I won this trip on a, like, crossword thing, yeah?” As she chats, Maddy’s mind is half occupied with the doodles which she is executing upon the napkin with her orange marker pen. Eyes, mouth, lo-o-ong long tongue trailing out of mouth… the pen falls from her fingers, and she reflexively clutches her right hand into a fist, shocked by a sudden pain her palm. After a few moments the icy throbbing ebbs, but a clinging sense of unease remains.
“What do you mean, ‘what’s a haggis?’ It says here you supply ‘international cuisine.’” Dexter stabs a broad finger at the menu. “How can you call it international if you don’t have haggis?”
Sherry places a soothing hand on his arm. “Easy, tiger.” Her hand continues to rest on Dexter’s sleeve even after the waiter has withdrawn. “So go on with what you were telling me – you started running after this guy?” Dexter has given her a somewhat modified account of the scooter theft. “You’re quite the hero, Dex!” She gives him a playful nudge in the ribs with two knuckles. “Wish I’d been there. I could do with a little excitement.”
“Well, this is the ‘Indian Orient Express’ isn’t it?” Dexter chuckles. “We should be due for a few murders any day now.”
“Did you ever see ‘The Man who Knew Too Much’? Hey, promise me, Dex, if any guy staggers to you with a knife sticking out his back, and tells you some spy-stuff with his dying breath, you’ll share it with me, right? Don’t go keeping it all to yourself.”
“It’s a deal. OK, Sherry, you’ve seen all the right films – who do you think’s going to turn out to be an enemy spy before we hit Delhi?”
Sherry cups her chin in her hand and surveys the room, dipping her head a little to sip from her wineglass. “OK. Nice, homely, elderly Indian couple, two o’clock. In ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ it’s the nice homely middle-aged couple who are the evil spies, after all. Apart from them – tall Japanese guy on the end table, six o’clock. He’s not real social, and I seen him hanging about on the platform in the evenings trying to peer into other people’s carriages, which is kinda weird. Then there’s the red-head at eight o’clock – no, not the biker chick, the classy number a few seats down. She is just so Agatha Christie. Probably not a spy – maybe just smuggling diamonds, or embarking on a bigamous marriage.” Dexter tries not to smile as Lady Judith is cast in this unusual light. “And then check out the mysterious Russian, eleven o’clock.” Dexter casts his eyes as directed, and finds himself gazing at Yuri Belnakov. “He’s got some fingers missing, you notice that? That’s a guy with a past. But I don’t reckon he’s the villain of the piece.” Sherry shrugs. “The taciturn Russian is always a red herring…”
While ostensibly doodling in the margins of his guidebook, Yuri Belnakov is actually surreptitiously noting the arrival of each passenger. So far none appear to be displaying any obvious head injuries, but Yuri is careful to make notes of any individual whose head dress or hair style might hide a cut or bruise. All of the attendants and one or two of the guests wear turbans, which might well conceal an injury around the hairline. One of the two Frenchmen is wearing a sweatband, and several other men are sporting thick fringes.
One or two of the passengers have failed to attend the evening meal. Bina Ajanta is absent. The Danish woman and her male escort do not seem to have made an appearance. The young Shekar couple are also missing, although given their honeymoon status their eagerness to keep to their cabin is perhaps explicable.
After a meal which even the haggis-deprived Dexter must admit is excellent, the passengers are conveyed back to the station by coach.
Five minutes or so after Maddy and Kassandra have returned to their coupe, they hear a faint knock at the door. Maddy opens it to find Graham standing in the corridor, gripping the handle of a duty-free carrier bag in both hands. He seems a little unnerved to see that Kass is also present, dressed in a rather negligible negligee.
“Ah… you’re, um, busy talking. Um… sorry to bother you.” He retreats, leaving the two women to exchange glances.
“So – do you think it’s you he’d like to get alone or me?” Kass smiles, arching an eyebrow. She settles herself next to window, where she can see the red star of a lit cigarette hovering above the platform. The blond man who had been filming her the day before appears to be enjoying a quiet cigarette in the evening air.
Maddy, meanwhile, has been busy fishing her cards from her knapsack.
“Okay. Kass, I can do try to do your cards if you like. You need to, like, ask them a question, though, yeah?”
“Alright.” Kass shrugs. “Let’s start with, ‘what does the near future have in store for me?’” After a dramatic pause, Maddy deals three cards – a Jigglypuff Pokemon card, the Lovers inverted, and the Hanged Man. “Oh yes, that’s what I like to see,” Kass comments, lightly touching the middle card with her forefinger.
“Right, I’ll have a think about that. But, Kass, in return you got to lend me some of your, like, orgone for my Christmas Eve ritual.”
“Hey Maddy, what the hell is orgone, anyway?”
“It’s kind of life-sex energy… Wilhelm Reich used to collect it and use it to, like, bust clouds and stuff… so I thought if you were going to…”
“Right. How close do you need to be to tap it?”
“I guess the closer the better. I guess I could stand outside the door or something.” As if responding to a cue, there is another timorous knock at the door. Once again, it opens to reveal Graham, still gripping his carrier bag.
“Ah. Um. Sorry, knocked on the wrong… um. Sorry again.” He retreats, and Maddy closes the door.
“Looks like I’m cramping your social life.” Kass grins and stretches. “Talking of which, I think I might go and do a little socialising myself.” Outside the red star has been tossed away, striking a brief spark as it strikes the platform. The blond man is strolling back to his carriage.
A little after Kass has slipped out of the door, still in a state of startling dishabille, there is yet another faint knock. Graham seems relieved to sees that Maddy is now alone.
“Um, hello. I’m afraid I have some bad news.”
“Oh! Excuse me!” Having ‘accidentally’ encountered the young blond man in the corridor of her carriage, Kass makes a somewhat feeble attempt to draw her dressing gown around her. “Wait – didn’t we meet this morning? On the platform?”
“Yes – that is right.” He has the faintest trace of a German accent. “You… you did not mind me filming, I hope?” Twenty-two, maybe twenty-three years old, Kass guesses. A soft dappling of freckles have settled upon his forehead, nose and cheekbones, and his teeth are very white.
“Not at all – in fact, do you think I could have a copy of the tape? The guys at the gym at home would just freak if they saw me strutting my stuff out here.” Apologetically, he explains that he has only the single tape, and is unsure how to copy it. He also currently lacks the facilities to play it back.
“But… I am keeping you? You are going somewhere?”
“Well, I’d just about emptied my minibar, so I was going to try and run down some more drinks, and maybe grab myself a little evening snack from the kitchen…”
“Well… my minibar is still plentifully supplied – if there is anything in it you would like…”
Five minutes later, Kassandra is seated inside his cabin, listening to an account of his life while they sip Manhattans. He introduces himself as Erich Schranke, and explains that he is currently studying for a doctorate in physics at Cambridge. His fare for the Palace on Wheels tour has been paid for by his father, who to judge by Erich’s oblique comments is a man of considerable means.
“He thinks I should see the world,” Erich remarks, somewhat coolly. “But he will not hear of me travelling by backpack, or even by an ordinary train. I should see the world only through a golden frame…”
By the time Kass returns to her cabin, the train is once more in motion.
“You still up? Just been talking to Blondie. He didn’t know what orgone was either, but I dropped some hints and now he’s all set to help me generate some. Maddy? Maddy – what’s wrong?”
“Look.” Pale and subdued, Maddy raises an arm to show the mutilated Ganesh doll loosely cradled in her elbow. “This is a direct attack against the Elephanty One – and me. Someone’s gonna, like, pay.” Sympathetically, Kass pours out a strong dose of gin and cherryade, and after a few sips Maddy resumes some of her colour. “Ganesh isn’t, like, hurt – but I’ll have to get another icon, yeah? I’m gonna use some, uhh, haruspicy to find out who did it, though.”
Kass watches as the younger woman lights three yellow candles, and places them around her. The Babar elephant is laid in the centre, its belly slit with a Swiss Army knife, and its stuffing sprinkled in a crude circle. Kass declines Maddy’s invitation to join her in her improvised ‘Peacock Dance’ and ‘Elephant Dance,’ but watches Maddy’s motions become increasingly frenetic and trance-like. Eventually she becomes aware that Maddy’s lips are in motion, and that a series of faint, unintelligible syllables are spilling from her mouth.
Eventually, Maddy collapses to the floor, her head upon a pillow which she has sensibly placed within the circle, and murmurs something under her breath. A few minutes later, hearing the unmistakable sounds of snoring issuing from the floor, Kass reaches out and turns out the light.
By way of experiment, Graham has decided to try and sleep without the assistance of Lady Judith’s lavender. The resulting sleep is not as profound as that on the first night, but he rises feeling relatively refreshed, to find that the train has already halted at Chittaurgarh.
Appearing in the dining car for his breakfast ‘shift,’ he encounters Lady Judith in the process of leaving the table, and embarks on a flustered but sincere thanks for her kindness. “It definitely does seem to have some effect,” he is finishing, when an attendant behind him politely clears his throat.
“Lady Judith Larch? This phone message was left at the Chittaurgarh station.” Judith quickly reads the piece of paper placed in her hand.
“It’s from Jake Hobart – he wants me to phone him.”
Half an hour later, Dexter and Yuri have replaced Graham in the dining car.
“I do not believe that shouting at the waiters will do any good,” Yuri remarks mildly, interrupting a tirade on the merits of Scotch cuisine.
“But none of them seems to know what haggis is! Haggis, for God’s sake! What kind of a country is this?” Dexter remains vocal on the subject throughout the meal, and is barely cooling as they return to their cabin.
Their cabin door is ajar. Within the clothes have been ripped from the beds, the pillows slashed, and the contents of cases and bags strewn across the floor.
“I’ll get the others,” Yuri says quietly.
9.30am 24th December
All on the Palace on Wheels, in their respective cabins.
Maddy Hook: Graham visits you, bringing you the remains of Ganesh in a duty free carrier bag, and explains in a stumbling fashion that it was found in his room. He can evidently see that you are distressed by this discovery, and seems a little embarrassed and daunted by the whole situation. To cover the awkward silence, he launches into a story about some teddy bears which a friend of his had decapitated as part of an art project. Graham had succeeded in salvaging one of them, and sewing it together – apparently it is now sitting in his study at home wearing a comic relief red nose, and an ewok outfit designed to hide the fact that the head sits at an unusual angle upon its shoulder. The story is a little rambling and disconnected, but seems to be genuinely well-intentioned.
When you perform the haruspicy ritual to discover who has been responsible for damaging Ganesh, at the height of your glossolalia an image flashes into your mind. You have the vague impression of someone standing on the edge of a broad, flat expanse of water, and singing. Something within the water is responding and rising towards the sound, something colossal and ancient.
Graham Drummond: You place the remains of Ganesh in a carrier bag – you can find no other fragments of the doll lying around your room. You visit Maddy’s room, and eventually succeed in catching her alone. She seems very shocked and distressed by the fate of Ganesh, so you launch into the story of the headless teddy bear to try and cover the embarrassing silence. When you leave her, she is still sitting on the floor with one hand covering her mouth, looking pale and stricken.