The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
A Shattered Visage Lies
Heather casts another glance over her shoulder at the dozen figures pushing their way through the crowds.
“I suppose they couldn’t be friendly?” Heather’s voice carries less than total conviction. Yuri raises an eyebrow at her remark. “I’m not saying it’s likely, I’m just saying that last time we ran into one of these people he wasn’t actually attacking us.”
“No, I seem to remember that last time you and Miss de Sade went to some effort to pursue him.”
“Well. Yes. Well, it’s still just possible that they’re after someone else. Or that they want to talk.”
“Perhaps your eyes are sharper than mine, but I see no evidence that they are interested in conversation.” A quick glance over his shoulder has shown Yuri one of the pursuing strangers fiddling with a familiar-looking green-stoned ring and pulling from its depths a taut and gleaming wire. “And I do not think they are friendly.”
“No.” Heather mutters. “No, actually, neither do I. Let’s pick up the pace and try to get to the others, and then get them away from that doorway – they’re begging to get cornered there. And most important, let’s stick together – the last thing we want in this crowd is…” Heather trails off, as she casts her eyes about her. “Oh, bloody hell, where’s Kass gone?”
Tweaking a shawl from around the shoulders of one of the awe-struck watchers, Kass has thrown it over her head and ducked down out of easy view. Tying the shawl around her head so that the vivid hue of her hair is concealed, she slips, still half-crouched, through the rapt crowd towards the side of the street.
Resisting the urge to raise her head and steal a look at the strangers in the ragged turbans, she slips into the nearest doorway, turns the door handle and slips into the building without preamble.
Kass steps into a space thick with spiced supper smells and the incoherent voice-mosaic of family debate, familiar despite the strangeness of the language. A small child in a primrose-coloured dress leans against the banister, staring at the intruder with all the force of her three-year-old shamelessness. A middle-aged woman in a peacock green sari steps into the hall, moves to scoop up the child like a doll, and then pauses as she sees Kass’s black-clad figure standing by the door.
“Your bathroom? Upstairs?” Kass gives a Cheshire cat grin. “Thank you. Only two minutes.” Before her hostess has had time to react, Kass has placed a sizeable fold of notes on the table by the door, and has sprinted up the stairs.
“Eh-oh,” Maddy mutters. “Those kites look na-a-asty…” She quickly tugs her bottle of Bombay Sapphire out of her rucksack, and takes a long swig from it. “Altered states,” she says by way of explanation. “Helps at times like, uh, these. Anyone see a, like, sheltered place to do an attack ritual?”
Graham glances around reflexively before reflecting that he has very little idea what an attack ritual would demand from a location.
“Well, right now let’s find somewhere a little less obvious – we can be seen right down the street from here,” he remarks.
“Perhaps it’s not too late to get into the tourist office?” Judith trips quickly up the steps to the door. “It does look awfully dark in there. Yes, the door’s locked. Let’s see if there’s a caretaker.” She raps sharply at the window, then stoops to call through the letterbox. “Excuse me! Tourists under threat out here! No, I’m afraid the office seems quite empty.”
“Let’s try round here, yeah?” Maddy wipes the gin off her nose, and sets off at a trot around the side of the building into a narrow alleyway. “I think I need to find somewhere high up, where I can see things.” The alleyway ends in an iron lattice gate. Maddy examines it, then looks up at the wall of the tourist office it adjoins. “Uh, cover me, yeah?”
Graham and Judith exchange glances as they wonder how they are supposed to cover her, and with what. Meanwhile, Maddy sets about scaling the gate, and eventually clambers onto the roof of the tourist office and disappears from sight.
“Jesus, you mean they’re following us, you mean they’re some kind of…” Sherry sneaks a quick glance over her shoulder as she is guided along by Dexter.
“Stay low, and keep out of the way.” Dexter is slowing his pace. “But don’t go too far away.” He releases her arm, and stoops to scoop up a trailing spool of kite wire, clearly severed from one of the ‘defeated’ kites.
“You’re… you’re going to take them on? Hey, Dex, I’ve seen what happens in the Moonraker festival scene. The guy lives, the girl doesn’t…” Sherry’s voice at his ear is breathless, excited, but for the first time betrays traces of fear.
“Trust me.” As he quickly fashions a length of the wire into a noose, Dexter feels his fingers tingle and too late remembers the ground glass that covers the wire. Well, too late to worry about that.
There is something eerie about the contrast between the stealthy, implacable progress of the two men in the off-white turbans, and the innocent, rapt buoyancy of the crowd through which they move. Both men move with panther-like care and patience. Sensing that someone is attempting to pass, one father obligingly moves the toddler he carries aloft from one shoulder to the other, without lowering his eyes from the kite-battle overhead.
As Dexter turns to face the strangers, they slow, exchange a single glance, and then one moves away from his companion, as if to flank the large Scotsman. The patient, expressionless circling suddenly reminds Dexter of the co-operation of wolves when facing a large animal of uncertain temper. When fighting a buffalo, he recalls, the wolves separate it from the rest of its herd, and then circle around it so it doesn’t know which way to face, never letting it rest, and taking it in turns to attack…
A grey-white flicker in his peripheral vision. The man who had moved to flank him has lunged forward. Dexter instinctively jumps back, and then flings out his noose. The other man steps back sharply, and the noose falls slackly to Dexter’s feet. Almost immediately Dexter feels the soft touch of breath on his ear, and knows that the other assailant has moved in close behind him. He is suddenly aware that he can feel knuckles clenched under each side of his jawbone, and a cold line of white pain across his throat.
As he tugs in vain against the hands that grip the garrotte, he sees Sherry lunge suddenly from the wings, swinging a lump of concrete at the head of his visible attacker. The attack is blocked effortlessly, and after a brutal blow to the jaw Sherry crumples to the ground.
Above Dexter, the stars are throbbing and bursting. As he watches helplessly, Rina Shekar steps out from behind the man who has struck Sherry, and stoops beside the American woman. Rina glances at Dexter, and gifts him with the flicker of a smile. Then she draws a slim, agate-hilted knife, which she lays against Sherry’s cheek. Without taking her eyes off Dexter, she then begins to draw the blade gently, almost lovingly, along the underside of Sherry’s chin.
“Yes – I can see Graham – he’s just put his head around the side of that alleyway.”
“Where?” Yuri half-ducks as a kite-wire swings wildly towards his head.
“He’s ducked back out of sight again now – I think he just wanted us to know where they were. Let’s head over and join them.”
“Bear in mind that these gentlemen may have friends down side-streets and alleyways. Perhaps you had better keep an eye out to the left, and I will watch to the right.”
Heather gives a nod of assent, and waves an impatient arm to bat away the smiling paper lion head that dives at her face. The next instant she has gripped Yuri by the arm. “Yuri! Down that street! Dexter and Sherry!”
“They’ve stopped.” Graham risks another quick peep around the side of the alleyway. “Wait – Heather’s started making for a side-street over there… Yuri’s still coming this way. He seems to be trying to mouth something to me – he’s having trouble getting through the crowd.” Graham steals a glance at Judith behind him. “I, er, I think I’m going to have to get closer to hear what he’s trying to say. Um… perhaps you’d better stay here and, um, keep watch, and er, and er…” he trails off, and Maddy’s phrase comes unbidden to mind, “and, er, cover me.”
Yuri’s customarily inscrutable countenance shows some sign of relief as Graham approaches. The Russian points after Heather and shouts something. Graham shakes his head and shrugs to indicate that he has not heard. Yuri raises his left hand, in which is gripped a small object which gleams as if made of metal. Again his words are lost amid the general hubbub.
“What? I can’t hear. Bring the what?”
Yuri mouths the same cryptic sentence, then draws back his hand, and throws the tiny metal object over the heads of the crowd. Graham reflexively catches it, then sees Yuri turn and push through the crowd after the disappearing figure of Heather.
Staring down into his hand, Graham finds that he is holding the key to the Land Rover.
“Bring the Land Rover. Oh. Oh dear.”
Judith is waiting in some consternation near the mouth of the alleyway.
“I need to, er, get the Land Rover,” explains Graham, trying to suppress any tremulousness in his voice. He is all too keenly aware that further assassins might be lurking in the streets between the tourist office and the Land Rover, and as the thought crosses his mind he quickly resolves to leave Lady Judith somewhere as safe as possible and brave the journey alone. “Can you – can you climb up this gate and get onto the roof? Someone should stay with Maddy and watch her while she’s distracted.” Judith looks doubtfully at the trellis, but nods. “It’s probably more defensible – higher ground, you see. And if you need to get the crowd’s attention, you’ll stand a better chance up there. After all, everyone in the street is looking up.”
Damn. Everyone’s looking up…
Crouched upon the sill of the upstairs window, Kass surveys the crowd in the street below. At present she is a part of the shadows, concealed by her dark clothes, even her face now muffled in her stolen shawl. She is very aware, however, that her jump will have to be exceedingly well-timed to avoid being noticed by any of the crowd gathered below.
Furthermore, the nearest of the turbaned men has not obliged her by drawing close to the wall, but instead seems intent on pushing straight along the street in pursuit of Heather and Yuri. Assessing his distance, Kass calculates that he will pass by several yards from the wall.
One quick leap, she tells herself. One quick leap and an elbow-jab to the temple, and he’s mine… One quick leap onto a moving target in the thick of a jostling crowd…
A faint hiss in the air above her reminds her of the kite wires that throng the air over the crowd. In the main they are near-invisible, occasionally catching the light to criss-cross the scene with luminous lines, like scratches on an old film. Here and there, where the wires strive one against the other, a faint rain of powdered glass can be glimpsed, gleaming like jewelled dust.
The man in the dun-coloured turban is drawing level. There is no time for further consideration. Pushing off from the wall as hard as she can, Kass leaps over the heads of the crowd. Even as she does so, she hears a sharp cry, and looking down sees the pale and startled face of a young mother staring back at her.
At the sound of the woman’s shriek, the head of the turbaned man snaps sharply around, and his eyes widen as he sees Kass’s lithe figure descending towards him. He steps aside with a grace and speed which she cannot help but admire. As she falls, one of the invisible kite wires briefly kisses her upper arm with a coldness like water as it cuts into her skin. Then she is landing heavily, her thrust with her elbow inches short of her opponent’s face.
Finding herself badly off-balance, Kass allows herself to drop into a crouch to soak the violence of her descent, and decides quickly to exploit her position by sweeping her opponent’s legs from beneath him. He reads her intention, however, and leaps the horizontal swing of her leg. Nice little mover, she reflects, her slight consternation tempered by a certain fierce pleasure in encountering a challenge.
The initiative is now his, and he responds with a swift and deft kick to the kidneys that sends Kass sprawling on her front. Only the nearest members of the crowd are aware of the vicious fight taking place in their midst, but they seem to be taking pains to clear a space. As Kass tries to roll from her prone position, she feels a foot placed heavily upon the small of her back, knocking her to the ground again. As she recalls the green-stoned ring, Kass raises one hand to her throat, just as the garrotte is being passed over her head.
The wire is inches from her throat, held away from it only by her intervening forearm. As she struggles to free herself, Kass feels a sharp pain as the wire starts to cut through her leather glove and into the flesh of her arm.
Out of breath and shaking, Graham unlocks the door to the Land Rover, and heaves himself up into the driver seat.
Right. Right. Calm. What did Sandy always say about ‘cockpit drill’? Ah, adjust seat, check mirrors, ah, seat belt, um, hand-brake. Um.
The Land Rover roars, lurches, and stalls.
Oh yes. Gear stick.
By the time that Judith has joined her, Maddy is seated in the middle of a large circle of red tikka powder. Three lines of tikka powder are also streaked across Maddy’s forehead, but Judith is uncertain whether to attribute this to deep symbolism or carelessness.
In front of her are scattered a curious assortment of objects, including a skein of white wool, the ‘orgone’ matchbox, her silver locket, her Swiss army knife, and the wooden elephant from Heather, which now appears to have had one of its tusks broken off at the root.
Maddy seems quite unaware of Judith’s approach, her attention utterly focussed upon cutting a length of the white wool with her ‘Swiss Army athame.’ This length of wool is carefully drawn through the orgone box, then carefully bound around the silver locket.
“Sex binds Death,” she mutters under her breath. The next instant she utters a small gasp, and Judith glances around to see that Maddy is digging the blade of her Swiss army knife into the sigil brand in her palm, carving along its lines and re-opening the wound. Her bloody palm is then carefully laid against the flank of wooden elephant, so that the pattern is smudgily transferred to the wood. “Blood is stronger than Fire or Death.” Raising the bloodied ornament in one fist, Maddy brings it down against the swaddled locket, again, again, again.
Staggering to her feet, Maddy moves to the edge of the roof. Worried by the unfocussed expression in her eyes, Judith follows, in case Maddy needs to be pulled back from the drop.
“Ganesh, Breaker of Obstacles, Son of Gentle, Terrible Shiva,” whispers Maddy, “protect us – show us the path.” Drawing back her arm, she flings first the locket, then the blood-covered elephant as hard as she can. Almost immediately she loses track of them in the darkness. Frowning, she focuses all her concentration on the ‘eye of Shiva’ which she has painted on her forehead, and sees…
Maddy sees a soft, vast darkness stretching out a dozen slender, shapeless arms, each undulating gently like the feelers of an anemone swayed by a summer tide. She sees the stifled locket arc towards its heart, trailing white wool and orgone like the tail of a tiny comet. The little locket impacts and from it rises a faint and glittering cloud, like sun-struck dust, or powdered glass catching the light. As it does so, the sinuous arms of shadow flinch and recede for a critical instant, and the great anemone clenches inwards like a fist. The next moment the arms spill forwards across the street, seeping relentlessly towards the tourist office.
Judith sees a sky blue kite painted with the head of a smiling elephant fall from the sky, and tangle with a string of coloured bulbs that loop along the front of a roof guttering. There is a brief pause while the kite thrashes, then the wire from which the bulbs abruptly comes loose from its moorings. The string of bulbs is pulled clear of the wall by the striving of the kite, then disentangles from the kite string, and swings back against the brickwork. There are a number of teeth-tingling cracks as bulbs explode, showering the crowd with glass. Most of the crowd are disquieted, alarmed, but unhurt. However, Judith sees several of the turbaned strangers suddenly double up, covering their faces.
Kass feels the tension on the wire slacken for a brief instant, and exploits the moment to pull the garrotte back over her head. Before her attacker can recover his stranglehold, she has launched herself forwards on hands and knees through the legs of the crowd.
Just as his vision is darkening, and the cries of the crowd are drowning in the beating of his own pulse, Dexter feels the garrotte loosen. Half-turning, he aims a vigorous elbow into his attacker’s gut.
Heather and Yuri arrive in time to see Dexter take two steps towards the fallen figure of Sherry, and then stumble and fall to one knee. The man that he has elbowed in the stomach has backed a few paces, half-doubled, a shining wire hanging loose from the ring on his hand. The other turbaned man still has his hands raised to cover his face. There is no sign of Rina Shekar. Before the two attackers can recover, Yuri scoops up Sherry, and Heather runs to support Dexter. Dexter’s eyes are still wide, angry and unfocussed but Heather insists on dragging him from the scene.
Graham, gritting his teeth as he steers the Land Rover insistently through the slow-yielding crowd, draws up by the tourist office, and is relieved to see Lady Judith emerge from the alleyway, supporting Maddy. After a few moments, Kass erupts suddenly from the edge of the crowd, dusts her knees and sprints for the Land Rover. A minute later Yuri appears, carrying Sherry over one shoulder, and followed by Heather, supporting a semi-conscious Dexter.
“Where are we driving?” asks Yuri, who has taken over the role of driver, to Graham’s relief.
“Lothal.” Kass is examining a deep cut in her forearm. “Let’s get to Lothal as quickly as possible.”
“Water beats Air, Water beats Fire, Water beats Earth, Water bebutigelatamefemumopatakakolafah…”
Heather glances over her shoulder at Maddy with some concern. “Is that magic or shock?”
“I’m not sure.” Judith still had her arm around Maddy, who seems inclined to loll. “She performed some sort of ritual up on the roof of the tourist office, and just after it finished, she gave a gasp and went limp.”
“She’s seen me…” It is little more than a whisper. Emerging suddenly from her torpor, Maddy raises a fist, in which is clenched her Swiss Army athame, the blood still drying on the open blade. Even in the Land Rover she is still surrounded by kite wires, she realises suddenly. Thin strands of shadow that whirr and hiss about her head… she lashes out at them with her blade.
“Shit! Someone keep that deranged pixie under control! She almost had my eye out.” Dexter’s voice is an angry croak, his throat painfully bruised. In his lap he carefully supports Sherry’s unconscious form. Her face, throat and blouse are awash with blood.
“What about the hired car – the bikes…”
“No! We go. We just go.”
It is a little after midnight when the Land Rover reaches the Lothal district. One small hotel is fortunately still open. Judith and Graham approach the reception, and book four double rooms. The unconscious Sherry is wrapped in Dexter’s coat so that she can be smuggled into the hotel without her bloodied state drawing attention.
Once in the privacy of the hotel rooms, there is a chance to examine Sherry more closely.
“She’s lost some blood, but the knife appears to have missed the wind-pipe, and the major veins and arteries.” Yuri sighs.
“That Shekar bitch,” Dexter croaks. “It was as if she was wasn’t trying to kill, just to mutilate… and she wanted me to see…” He sits heavily on the bed next to Sherry, and covers her long brown hand with one of his.
“Did you see where Rina went?” Dexter shakes his head, and Heather continues. “If she attacked Sherry, then that confirms what I suspected anyway – her appearance in Ahmedabad wasn’t a coincidence. My guess is that when she spotted us she ran right back to report, and released her turbaned friends on us. She was wearing one of those green-stoned rings, and I’d bet my lunch money on it holding one of those garrotte wires. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Rina Shekar just happens to be in Ahmedabad at the same time as Bina Ajanta. In fact, here’s a weird idea – have they ever been seen in the same place at the same time?” After a minute or so of puzzled reflection, the party do succeed in recalling occasions when Bina Ajanta and Rina Shekar have been seen in the same place, and are able to conclude that they are not in fact the same person. “Well, just a thought. Did anyone see Mr Shekar out there?”
“Possibly.” Yuri shrugs. “Mr Shekar’s face might have been behind any of those kerchiefs for all we know.”
“I’ll kill them,” mutters Dexter. “I’ll kill them all.” In his head he imagines Sherry laughing at his vehemence, and saying, ‘Easy, tiger.’ Still, silent and robbed of her laugh, she seems shrunken, vulnerable.
“We need to decide whether to take her to a hospital,” Yuri says, gently.
“So they can find her? They have connections everywhere, don’t they? They know she’s with us now – if we leave her in the hospital she’s a sitting duck. She’s safest if she’s with us.”
“Dexter, none of us are doctors…”
“I know – but whenever I try to leave her anywhere it turns out to be a mistake. First I abandon her on the train without explanation, and she wanders up to her neck in our filthy business. Then this evening… I should have stayed with her, got her to safety. Instead I tried to leave her by the wall, and face those… dun-coloured maniacs. This – this is my fault…”
There is an uncomfortable silence.
“She wanted her money’s worth,” Heather mutters under her breath. “Perhaps when she wakes she’ll decide she got more than she paid for.” She pinches the bridge of her nose, and thinks longingly about the cigarettes in her case.
While Dexter watches over Sherry, the others tactfully move to another room to continue their discussion.
“Let’s have another look at those things of Rashino’s.”
“Does anyone know if amber is mineral found locally?” Judith is holding the piece of amber up to the light.
“I would guess so. I’ve seen it being used as inlaid ornamentation in several of the older buildings, haven’t you?”
“Water.” The single word draws the group’s attention to Maddy, who has been sitting in a state of apparent catatonia since the arrival at the hotel. Judith takes a few steps towards the bathroom to fetch a glass before Maddy’s next words make it clear that this is not a request for water. “Didn’t the Ancients think amber gave you control over water and, uh, storms and stuff – y’know, because it could float? Lots and lots of water, like Shiva’s lake in Yuri’s dream… “
“Shiva’s lake?” Yuri’s brow furrows.
“Yes – that was Shiva in your dream-car, yeah?”
“No – I do not think so.” Yuri frowns as he reflects. “I do not know why I am so sure, but I do not believe that the passenger in the dream-car was a god. Somehow I felt that it was a man sitting next to me, although there was something godly about him.”
“But the, uh, bright light from his forehead – Shiva has a third eye…”
“Yes, I know. But the circle of light on his forehead was not an eye. It was something else…. I do not know what.” Yuri sighs and shakes his head.
“Then there’s this…” Maddy takes up the stiletto from the pile of Rashino’s possessions, and lifts it to her ‘third eye,’ now little more than a reddish smudge across her forehead. “I don’t know… I’m tired. This just looks kind of, y’know, icky…” She slumps back into her chair, and Heather takes the stiletto from her unresisting hand.
Heather studies the stiletto, weighs it in her hand once again, and then on impulse holds it up to the light. “Hold on – I think this thing is hollow. I can just about make out a lighter patch in the middle of the hilt, like there’s a cavity inside… with some kind of liquid inside. What’s the betting it’s something nasty?” She places the stiletto back down next to the piece of amber. “Anyway, Maddy’s right, everything does seem to point to the ‘water’ theme. Probably worth looking into this harbour in Lothal. Though at the moment everyone and their cat seems to be in Ahmedabad – perhaps we should have stayed there.” She casts a quick glance around the room at her shaken and slightly bloodied companions. “Or then again, maybe not,” she mutters.
“I’d like to try and approach Dr Massey,” Judith announces, and she goes on to describe her findings at the museum, including an account of the unicorn seal.
Graham listens with interest, and then ventures to clear his throat.
“Um… could I have another look at the green automatic writing?” The paper is passed to him. “Something has just struck me. What we’ve been thinking is a church steeple or, um, a minaret could, if you look it properly, um, be a unicorn. You see here is the head, nose this end and ears here, this makes this spike the horn and, um, the rest of the squiggle is a sort of body…” Judith peers over his shoulder, her eyes widening with excitement.
“Why, Graham, how clever of you!” She reaches for her new book, and flicks to the page which contains a picture of a unicorn seal. “I believe you are right – look how the outlines match! However did you manage to guess?”
“I guess it’s all those years teaching, um, fifth formers – you have to use a great deal of imagination to understand what passes for art in their minds…”
First thing in the morning, Heather puts a call through to Geoff Blaize.
“Agent Montrose – good to hear from you again. We’ve been looking into Rashino Watawa for you. As far as we can tell he, his ostensible occupation was as a consultant for a major shipping firm. However, we’ve traced some leads, and he’s a known associate of some individuals whom we strongly suspect of having connections to Yashimoto. His company often hired him out as a consultant, and he’s been involved with a number of concerns which we’ve previously considered might be fronts for Yashimoto’s activities. It’s early to say, but our best guess is that this Rashino sometimes acted as a trouble-shooter for the Ylid.
“We haven’t found out all that much more about him, except that he won a few martial arts tournaments between the ages of sixteen and twenty – which suggests a degree of physical competence on the part of his murderer.
“We’ve had less luck in tracking down Rina and Rajiv Shekar. The names are not particularly unusual, but so far we’ve drawn a blank and we’re starting to suspect that they may be aliases.”
“Interesting. I was wondering – could you also run a check on a woman called Leda Piers? Apparently she’s a research assistant for an archaeologist called Dr Marcus Massey.”
“Dr Marcus Massey… wait – I believe we have some files on that individual. The name is definitely familiar. Yes, I believe one of our teams encountered him on Froson island in Sweden, and unless I’m mistaken Miss Piers was with him then. I believe the team in question were Daniel Masterson, Mal Harris, Harriet Shen, Loki, Michael Stockton and Robert Montague Flint. I’ll try and get full details of the mission to you as soon as possible.
“We ran a check on Dr Massey at the time, and he seems bona fide. He seems to be something of a wild card as far as the academic establishment are concerned. He turns out a lot of good, solid, unobjectionable papers, and then occasionally will come out with a theory that sets the whole of his field into uproar. I am not sure we have much on Leda Piers herself, but we can see what we can turn up.”
“Thanks. Oh, I think Maddy wants to talk to you too.” Heather passes the phone to Maddy.
“Me again! I haven’t, like, emailed the other Alexander people yet; we’ve been busy, uh, with kites and stuff.”
“I’m sorry? Kites?”
“Yeah. Anyway, I was reading this stuff on, like, Lemuria, yeah? How it was in between India and Australia before it, like, sank. Well, um, d’you reckon it’s, like, coincidence that Yashimoto’s doing stuff in both continents at the same time? Is he trying to, like, raise it again – like R’lyeh, where Cthulhu sleeps?”
“Well, executive Hook, that’s an, er, very interesting theory. You can be sure that we will give it all due consideration.” Blaize sounds more than a little baffled. “In the meanwhile, if you are still interested in learning more about Alexander, I’ve looked through the reports submitted by the surviving members of the team that stumbled upon the settlement at Firis.
“It seems that the inhabitants had been waiting for the return of Alexander, or Iskander as they called him. When our people chanced upon their settlement, the populace came to the conclusion that Agent Flint was in fact the reincarnation of Alexander, and decided that he was to marry a woman who had been set aside for him. Although ostensibly friendly, the people of the village were quite… insistent. When agent Loki tried to mend the radio and contact the outside world, he was ambushed and knocked out – he’s still in a coma. A grand ritual was designed to summon the spirit of Alexander into Flint, and by reports was well on the way to succeeding when the rest of the team succeeded in interrupting it. During the escape, Ella Wallace gave her life to allow the others to get away…”
Judith’s new book includes a telephone number for the tourist office at Lothal. Calling this office, she persuades the receptionist to provide her with the number for the archaeological team.
“Hello, Dr Massey’s phone.” A female voice, crisp and efficient, but with an edge of weariness to it. By being courteously persistent, Judith succeeds in persuading the other speaker to put her through to Dr Massey himself.
“Hello, Dr Massey? I’m sorry to bother you, but I write a journal for a small historical society in Sussex. We’ve been fascinated by rumours of some of the advances you’ve been making in deciphering the Indus Valley scripts. I was quite disappointed to have missed your talk in Montreal, but when I heard that you’d been making more discoveries in Lothal, I took the liberty of coming to Gujarat. I know this is a bit presumptuous, but if you might be willing to grant an interview…”
“Well, goodness, this is all very flattering.” Massey’s voice has an almost boyish warmth. “I’m sure I’m not an interesting enough conversationalist to merit people making journeys across subcontinents to see me. Do I understand that you’re already in Gujarat?”
“Yes… in fact I’m in Lothal. I arrived last night.”
“Well, then, don’t let’s stand on ceremony. Do feel free to drop by today, I’ll get Leda to knock us up some lunch. I’ll send someone to pick you up from wherever you’re staying…”
Taking an early morning stroll amid the scattering of shops that surround the hotel, Dexter pauses with the unaccountable sense that he is being observed.
Across the road, behind a set of wrought iron railings, a young man is standing. Catching Dexter’s eye, he raises one hand in a wave.
Feeling in his pocket for his knife, Dexter strolls over, managing to maintain an easy, rolling stride even while wild and angry surmises boil in his mind. The stranger is slight of build. He wears jeans, T-shirt and a large woollen hat which gives him a slightly ‘trainspotter-ish’ appearance.
“Do I know you?”
“I know you,” the young man says, with a smile. Dexter’s eyes narrow – there is a haunting sense of familiarity about the young man, as if he has a family resemblance to a better known face. His face is angular, and he has a strange air of knowing diffidence.
“You want to give me a clue, or do you just get a kick out of being cryptic?”
“Yes, Mr Owara, I’ll give you a clue. The clue is ‘Zelmane.’”
“Very funny, matey.” Dexter’s nonchalant stroll has brought him close to the other man, and now there is only a yard of distance and the iron railings between them. Without warning, Dexter makes a lunge through the fence for the stranger’s lapel, but the other man leaps back out of reach, and then turns and sprints from sight with surprising agility.
After a brief tour of the local shops, Judith returns supplied with several bars of chocolate which she presents to Graham, causing him to blush with gratitude.
It is decided that Judith and Graham will visit Dr Massey, and that the other members of the group will perform a quick tour of the remains of the ancient city remains, including the harbour.
A little after twelve, an expensive but dusty-looking jeep draws up, and sounds a staccato double tap on the horn, like a cleared throat. When Judith and Graham descend the hotel steps, they find a man in his twenties seated in the driver’s seat, sunning himself. As they approach, he lazily passes his cigarette to his left hand, and extends his right to be shaken.
“Sorry I’m late. Our punctuality always goes to pot a few weeks into a dig. I’m Luke Pearl – please do get in. If any of that stuff’s in your way, please feel free to throw it into the back.” In the front seat, Judith has ample opportunity to study the driver. Pearl has a rather charming air of lazy good humour which is belied by a certain intense quality in his eyes which manifests itself whenever his guard is down. Well, she reflects, a good archaeologist probably needs a slightly obsessive streak – that and a high boredom threshold.
“We’re all camped out by the new site – it’s all a bit scout camp, so you’ll have to excuse us. Things are better now that we’ve got decent funding, but with the exception of Leda Piers most people on this project couldn’t organise their way out of a carrier bag.”
“Leda Piers is Dr Massey’s assistant, is that right? So she has a big part in organising things here?”
“Oh yes. We’d all be lost without her.” Judith detects something a little too smooth, a little too nonchalant in Pearl’s voice. She glances sideways at him, but he is staring ahead with a focussed light in his eyes.
“So glad you made it, do come in.” Dr Massey is a middle-aged man with a broad face as bright and open as a buttercup. His sandy hair is slightly flecked with grey, but there is a guilelessness in his manner which is oddly youthful. “We’ve got some local fare, but I was thinking that if you’ve been out here for a while, you might be missing English food, so we’ve knocked together some sandwiches as well.
“Do sit down. Oh wait – probably not on the pot fragments. Sorry – suppose the chair’s not the best place for them really. Leda? I seem to have left part of the Vedic period on the chair – could you put it somewhere more sensible?” Leda Piers proves to be a woman in her early twenties, with short black hair tied out of the way into a ponytail, and a pair of intelligent, jet-black eyes.
“Now – do you have a list of questions?”
“Well, I wonder if you could tell me more about the Indus Valley civilisations, just for an overview. You see, we have a readership with varying amounts of knowledge, and I’d like to get this in your own words.”
“Certainly. Well, as I’m sure you know, we’ve found evidence of an impressive civilisation dating back to about 2500 BC. The two most impressive sites are at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, both in modern Sind, in Pakistan. As you may or may not know, I’ve spent some time working at Mohenjo-Daro myself – fascinating place. They were discovered by Ernest Mackay’s expedition in the late twenties and early thirties. At its height this empire – well, I’ll show you.” Massey pulls a map from below a set of other papers, which slide gracefully from the table and cascade unheeded onto the floor. “It probably reached all the way from here, near the present borders of Iran and Afghanistan, to Kashmir, Delhi and the land we’re standing on now.
“This civilisation was really rather impressive. Their settlements were carefully planned on a grid system, skilfully irrigated, with a complex system of covered drains, and a certain level of literacy. Cities built with baked bricks of uniform size. They seem to have been keen traders too. Most of their cities are divided between a section inhabited by the ruling class, and the commercial section or lower city. There’s some evidence that the cities were theocracies, and that the ruling class was in fact a priesthood.”
“So what deities did they worship?”
“Well, this seemed to vary a little from place to place. In many sites, and certainly in Mohenjo-daro, there’s evidence of worship of some form of horned god, possibly a form of proto-Shiva. This seems to have been their most important god. However, there are also a number of religious figurines which are clearly female – a goddess. Maybe a mother goddess or manifestation of the feminine principle. It seems likely that the goddess was worshipped by the common people, while the ruling priesthood may have been dedicated to the horned god. That’s my belief, anyway. There’s no evidence of conflict between the followers of these deities. It also seems that the people of this civilisation may have revered the peepal tree, and there may have been some phallic worship as well.”
“So what can you tell me about any rituals they might have performed?”
“Well, it’s probable that there was some ritual sacrifice of animals, such as wild cattle.”
“And you say there were no religious conflicts between the different religions? Were there any other kinds of battle in the region?”
“Well, while this civilisation thrived it doesn’t seem so. Aside from its size and level of advancement, one of the most impressive things about this civilisation was its stability. This civilisation thrived for about a thousand years.”
“So what happened to it?”
“Well, it ran into trouble in about 1900 BC. Our best guess is that there were some tectonic shifts which resulted in a number of floods in the Sind, Saurashtra and southern Gujarat. Then the Aryan tribes swept in, and that was that. The Indus civilisation was based around agriculture and trade, and had little in the way of an army. They were no match for the Aryans’ chariots, and culture based around Indra, the god of war.” Massey sighs.
“I hear that you’ve found a unicorn seal, like the ones found in Mohenjo-Daro,” comments Judith.
“Mm? Oh yes.” Massey visibly cheers. “Yes, lots of them. Enough for everyone.”
“Ah, well, this must go no further, but we’ve had a bit of trouble with two sets of backers – at first they were both enthusiastic, but then they started squabbling about whose museum would display the artefacts. But we’ve found lots of merchants’ seals in very fine condition, so hopefully we can please them both. Of course, Mackay found about 400 seals in Mohenjo-Daro, but we’ve managed to come up with about 120 in this last dig, which I think is pretty impressive. And about twenty of those seem to be ‘unicorn’ seals.
“You know, of course, that individual merchants or merchant families would probably each have their own seal – they’re made of baked steatite and used to mark the clay tags for trade bundles. Well, Lothal was a very important trading post, not to mention the home of a thriving bead-making community. The unicorn seal is interesting because it suggests to me that either one of the Mohenjo-Daro merchant families had a branch in Lothal, or that there was some emigration from Mohenjo-Daro. I’d date the seals at about the time the Indus civilisation collapsed, so I’d be interested to know about people’s movements at that time…”
“Well… it’s big. And oblong.” Heather peers over her sunglasses at the famed Lothal dockyard, and tries to feel impressed. Sadly, all that meets her eye is a rectangular indentation in the sun-baked brownish earth. “So this is the harbour or reservoir, is it?”
Behind her aviator shades, Maddy regards the great expanse with a sense of frustration and disappointment. She tries to imagine it brimming with water, tries to sense the latent liquid energy of it… and fails. The river has moved, the water has departed, the place belongs to history, to the dead.
Kass glances up as Maddy shakes herself and starts to stride through the dust.
“Where are you off to, Maddy?”
Maddy pauses while she tries to explain her own impulse.
“Going to find the river. There’s a presence here, I know it. It’s like I’ve been moving towards it every step since I came to India – and it’s like it’s been waiting for me. And I know it’s by water. I’m going to find the river.”
“Sorry, I must take this call – oh dear, this feels terribly rude. Leda, would you mind showing our new friends around the site?”
When Massey has left the room, Leda meets Judith’s eye, and gives a small, apologetic smile and shrug.
“Dr Massey is always greatly in demand, and can never say no to anyone. I fear that our finds won’t be much to look at – we’ve not had time to clean most of them, and our labels are in shorthand, but I’ll give you a quick look at some of the latest odds and ends.”
Leda leads Judith and Graham out of the makeshift hut in which Massey seems to be living, pausing only to accept a plastic cup of tea from Luke Pearl with a smile.
“Well, these last few weeks we’ve been delving over here. The red marker indicates the layer at which the Vedic period starts. If you look a little lower, you can see that we’re just unearthing what looks like the brickwork of another street…” Leda glances around to make sure that her charges are following her, and pauses. Her expression becomes anxious, then stony, then panicky.
Both Graham and Judith are staring at her open-mouthed.
“Is something wrong?” she snaps, but there is a falseness in her brisk tone, a stifled fearfulness.
Leda Piers has changed. Not a detail of her face, her dress or her manner is altered, but she is suddenly another being. The sunlight does not shine upon her as it does upon her fellow mortals, but cloaks her and lays about her in the dust like a subservient courtier. There is suddenly something musical and masterful about her tiniest gesture. The world around her pales, and she is suddenly almost painfully focal.
She is a goddess, a goddess irresolute, her luminous obsidian eyes clouded with confusion and growing panic.
“What is it?” She takes a step forward, and both Judith and Graham fight an impulse to flee or fall to their knees. “Talk to me! Please, for God’s sake, somebody tell me what’s happening!”
Another second, and the strangeness passes. The two SITU agents are facing an ordinary and slightly shaken young woman, gripping a plastic cup of pallid tea.
Leda sits heavily on a low wall next to the recent excavation.
“It happened again, didn’t it? I could go on for a week pretending that I’m just having fits of sunstroke, but that isn’t it, is it?” Leda removes her hands from in front of her face, and looks a challenge through her fringe. “No-one on this damn site will talk to me about this – I think they’re too scared of me – they’re all being terribly British and pretending it isn’t happening. But I need to know. I need to know what’s happening to me.”
A broad, slow, easy flow, sleek as the gleam in a humorously narrowed eye. Moulded by a gentle breeze the water reshapes and flexes, like muscles in motion under skin. On either bank the rushes strive to hush one another with dry, papery tongues. Like a child skimming flat stones across the water, the late afternoon sun is playing games with coins of liquid gold, watching them chase each other from bank to bank.
It might almost be summer. All it needs is a throng of midges, and the scent of baked earth gasping in the cool of evening. However, the smell of the air is cool, crisp and expectant, and the midge’s ballroom is empty. It is December.
It’s here, thinks Maddy. This is where it happens. Too late, she feels a weakness at her knees, and a temptation to flee.
“Well – do we go further, or do we wait for something to come to us?” Heather is standing by Maddy’s side.
The ensuing silence is broken by the most incongruous of sounds, a click of ice against ice, and then the faint pad of approaching footsteps.
“Take cover! Everyone!” Heather is peering down the pathway towards the source of the noise. The only available cover is supplied by the tall and lush rushes that flank the river. Dexter, who has been somewhat absorbed in his own thoughts briefly places an uncharitable construction upon Kass’s sudden determination to drag him into the undergrowth, but the next moment he too perceives the figure approaching, and joins the rest of the group on his belly among the rushes.
There is a brief pause while the footsteps grow louder, and then Okada Tokutaro trots by, carrying an ice-bucket containing a bottle of wine.
Stealthily, keeping a distance so that they will not be overheard, the SITU agents raise themselves to their hands and knees, and set about moving through the rushes after the disappearing diplomat.
Tokutaro comes to a halt next to a large tree, and for a moment it seems that he has simply halted to recover his breath. However, he bows a short greeting in the direction of the tree trunk, and the watching agents become aware that around the side of the tree is visible a hand and part of a forearm. Clearly someone has chosen this shaded spot to admire the scenery to its full advantage. Tokutaro uncorks the bottle, pours into a glass, and places the glass in the hand.
“Well?” Somewhat to the eavesdroppers’ surprise, the question is in English, and without a trace of a foreign accent.
“Sir, the lady has now had time to relax and refresh herself, and has devoted some time to the matter in hand. She reiterates that it is difficult to divine the item’s location while she is so distant.”
“That is a problem of the lady’s own making. I cannot be held to account for the fact that the land of this place is hostile to her – she has only herself to blame for that. She should bear in mind that if I were not interfering on her behalf, she could not even come as close as this to this place.” There is a pause, and then a rather pleasant chuckle. “And I do not think that she would particularly care to visit this place while I was still here. That could be inconvenient.”
“I rather think she hopes that you might retire to a safe distance, sir, and permit her to approach Lothal,” opines Tokutaro, eyes lowered.
“I am sure she does. That way she would be free to recover the item and vanish with it. I do not for a moment believe that she would turn down an opportunity to recover her old power. No, I do not think such an arrangement would be acceptable. But she has provided any further information?”
“Yes, sir. She is now quite certain that the disc reached Lothal, and has not yet left it – she is certain that it was located in the part of the city currently being excavated. It is her opinion that it is no longer buried, and that it is now among the items which have been returned to the light of day.”
“I see. Is that all?”
“Yes sir, although she expects to be able to send further word within hours.”
“Good. Okada, I was enjoying a very pleasant moment by this river, but I see that I shall have to curtail my enjoyment of this scene. Do you know why?”
“Because, my poor, loyal, foolish friend, you have allowed yourself to be followed again.”
There is a faint scrape of a chair moving against the earth floor of the path, and the man seated beyond the tree rises to his feet and walks into view.
Even at this distance and with his face hidden by shadow from the overhanging, there is a vivid sense of an intense physical presence. It seems less an observed quality than a palpable force, like a strong wind. Indeed, as he stands the surface of the river does ripple violently as if he were emitting a tide of charisma so strong that it dragged the water with it. The rushes, similarly, ripple and flatten, exposing the hidden SITU agents.
The stranger beneath the tree is tall, broad-shouldered and erect of posture. He appears to be dressed in some long robe of crimson silk, half-way between a dressing-gown and a mandarin’s robe. The robe ends in a long train, and is tied in at the waist with a gold cord.
He strides from beneath the tree and the light of low sun falls upon his face. He is Caucasian, appears to be in his thirties, and is quite strikingly good-looking. His hair is dark, with a touch of grey. Every motion, every nuance of expression speaks of colossal personal energy, and a cold but splendid arrogance.
“Rob?” Exposed by the flattened reeds, Maddy gets shakily to her feet. “Rob?”
The man halts as he sees her, lips parted. The arrogant light dies behind his eyes, and suddenly another face appears to be trying to push its way to the surface – a face full of doubt, tenderness and confusion.
“Rob!” Maddy’s cry is at once joyful and uncertain. “You, er, you remember me, right?”
The man’s face is in motion once more, and like a cruel dawn, the vaunting, callous light of the first face returns.
“Oh yes,” the stranger with the face of Robert Montague Flint replies, softly. “I remember you now. I had paid very little attention to the memories of my vessel, but I now see this was a mistake. What an interesting little organisation you and he belonged to! Thank you for drawing my attention to such a pressing matter. Perhaps you will find it gratifying to know that you have given me all the information I need to destroy your organisation.”
The heavy and mesmerising silence that ensues is broken by Dexter emitting a deep and resonant roar, and breaking from the rushes with an ornamental dagger raised. Despite his portly build and the tinyness of his weapon, there is for the moment nothing ludicrous in him – he is all avenger, face transformed by pure and absolute rage.
The stranger’s eyebrows raise slightly as the formidable figure of the Scotsman bears down on him, but he remains motionless. At the last moment, he reaches forward, snatches Dexter near the collarbone, and flings him aside without apparent effort. Winded, Dexter suddenly finds himself on his back among the rushes, his dagger a foot from his hand.
“I often have a respect for those who stubbornly disregard their own limitations, but I hope no-one else is planning to try something like that…”
5pm, 27th December 2000
At the archaeological site – Judith and Graham
By the Saurashtra river – Heather, Maddy, Yuri, Kass and Dexter
MADDY: This is just to give you more details on the repercussions of the attack ritual. Maddy is in little doubt that Kali noticed her and struck back. From time to time at night, Maddy may ‘see’ strands of shadow around her, taut like kite-strings. She feels a reluctance to touch these, since she has an instinctive hunch that they will either hurt her or alert someone to her location, like a trip-wire.
KASS: You approach Dexter and deliver your cryptic message. If you hadn’t guessed, the man in the woollen hat was you. Dex’s face is an absolute picture.