The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
A Shattered Visage Lies
Five foot two of sublimity dominates the room, wielding a blue china teapot from which steam curls like incense. On the table a matching blue plate has appeared. While Leda is busy with the mugs, tiny brown beads skim around the surface of the plate like droplets of liquid on a griddle, before settling, swelling, and blossoming into macaroons.
…what kind of goddess makes everyone hot drinks and forces them to play nicely?
“A mother goddess…” breathes Maddy softly, her eyes widening. While most of the group hesitate by the door, she advances towards the little table where Dexter and Kass sit stiffly. Watching Leda raptly, Maddy drops into a chair beside them. “Five, uh, sugars please.” She holds out her hands trustingly for the cup and saucer, and sips at the pallid, sugary contents. “Are you, uh, Parvati?”
Leda pauses, and pushes a stray strand of black hair behind her ear. Even this trivial gesture somehow manages to appear graceful, momentous and symbolic.
“No-o-o,” she says slowly, but not unkindly, before returning her attention to the tea.
“Who, then? Are you the, like, thingummy… indigenous goddess?”
“Doesn’t matter who the fuck she is,” Dexter hisses, almost apoplectic with suppressed fury. “I’m not drinking her damn tea!” To his rage, he sees his own hand, which dwarfs the delicate cup that it grips, drawing near to his own face. When the cup moves to his mouth, he takes a mouthful, only to spit it in a liberal spray across the table before him.
“I’ll get a cloth,” says the goddess, with a tone that somehow combines the simple kindness of a martyr saint, and the long-suffering resignation of a supply teacher. As soon as her back is turned, however, the fine spray of tea across the table’s surface trembles and starts to evaporate, leaving the table quite clean.
Maddy gives Dexter a pointed, urgent glance.
“Look, I don’t think she’s an Ylid!” Maddy whispers. “There are non-human thingies that, like, aren’t Ylids – SITU’s met them, like, loads of times. The voodoo ones helped Doctor Culver to, like, beat the Master in Whitby: and I helped the Buddha beat Yashimoto in Japan. This lady’s a goddess; I think Kali’s stolen one of her, like, aspects. She might help us beat her and Alexander.”
“So – ready to sit in the lap of another all-powerful already, are you?” Dexter’s jaw is trembling with rage and dripping with tea, but he matches Maddy’s quiet tone. “Sounds to me like just another super-being infesting mankind. And if your ‘Fluffy-Pink-Ylid-Type-Thing’ is so damn wonderful and powerful, how did Kali manage to steal some of her power? And why doesn’t she have this artefact everyone wants already?”
“I don’t know.” Maddy gives a shrug. “But shall we, like, talk to her? It’d make a change from, like, trying to stab her? Pointlessly.” The look she gives Dexter is decidedly pointed.
Over by the door, Graham has relaxed very slightly, although he is still taking care to stand slightly in front of Judith, so that he can cover her flight to the door if necessary.
“Well,” he says quietly, “at least she doesn’t seem to be too great a danger in her current form.” He glances over his shoulder at Judith, Heather and Yuri, and for the first time becomes aware that Heather is nowhere to be seen. Clearly she has taken the opportunity to slip silently from the room.
Leda returns with a cloth that no one remembers having seen before, and makes a few desultory dabs at the by now spotless table. Maddy’s eyes take on the wide, childishly trusting expression once more.
“Why’s it taken so long before you could, y’know, manifest? Has Kali been stopping you? Or Alexander? Oh – wait.” Maddy suddenly reaches down for her rucksack, and rummages inside, eventually drawing out a crumpled garland of threaded jasmine blossoms. Some of the dried, papery blooms tear free as they are tugged hastily from the bag, and tumble to land on Leda’s well-polished, flat-soled shoes.
“They’re very… pretty.” The goddess in the black ponytail reaches out and takes the garland. “Did you… did you plait these yourself?”
“They’re, uhh, offerings, yeah?” Maddy smiles a little uncertainly, then beams. “Aaanyway, we’re a bit confused about what’s, like, going on. We know that Alexander’s been reborn an’ him and Kali are supposed to be doing this, like, deal, but he’s double-crossing her. They both want this disc which will make them, like, super-duper powerful.”
“Aha. Mm.” Leda’s eyes are quite wide now, with a startled light in them. As Maddy stoops her head to sip from her tea again, Leda makes eye contact with Judith across the room, and silently mouths the words, ‘is she on drugs?’
“So,” Maddy reaches for one of the mysterious macaroons, to Dexter’s disgust, “can you tell us more about what’s going on? I know in some places in the world, the Ylids took power from, like the gods and things that were meant to be there. Did that, uh, happen with you? Like, how?”
“Alright.” Leda gives a long sigh. “Alright.” She walks to an armchair by the window and seats herself, and immediately the chair takes on a throne-like aspect. Behind her the curtains dispose themselves so that their creases splay away from her in different directions, as if she were the sun in a child’s picture, surrounded by linear rays. “Before we go any further, there is one thing that you all need to know.” The moment hangs in potency, and all have a sense that something of significance is about to be imparted. “There is something you all need to understand and believe, and it is this – I really, honestly do not have the slightest idea what any of you are talking about.”
Swathed in the sari which she has snatched from Maddy’s room, Heather slips out onto the street. Her dusky complexion, dark hair, and natural gift for unobtrusiveness helps her to blend into the late night crowd to a degree, although she notices the occasional head turn to watch as she passes. She has already noticed the scarcity of Europeans in the region, and suspects that her disguise might be more apparent if it were not for the darkness of the street.
Where now? Back to the site at Lothal for a last look around? The sari disguise is perhaps enough to let her pass down a nocturnal street undetected, but if she tried to walk into a site cordoned off by the police as a homicide scene, she might receive more than a casual glance.
As she is about to turn the corner, her sharp eyes pick out the figure of a man standing in the shade of a doorway, apparently reading a newspaper, but keeping a surreptitious eye upon the hotel where the party are staying. She watches him for a few moments, but he does not glance in her direction. Either he is not watching for her, or her disguise has been adequate to avoid drawing his attention. After a while, when he thinks he is unobserved, he slips a radio from his pocket, and speaks a few brief words into it.
A few moments later, from around the corner of the street, Heather sees three men approaching. They wear sandy-coloured uniforms, and plum-brown military berets. The long guns in their hands they do not so much carry as brandish. Their appearance suggests members of a military force, but Heather recalls seeing men in similar uniforms at stations, on trains, in front of government buildings, and recognises them as police.
“But that’s impossible! How can she possibly not know?”
Leda’s attention has been drawn to Sherry’s injuries, and she has insisted on taking the American woman aside to examine the cuts and make sure they are not going septic. This has allowed for furious debate in undertone on the other side of the room.
“Well,” remarks Judith, “when we first saw her having one of her… turns, she did seem confused – and she did keep asking us what we could see happening to her. I don’t believe we ever got around to telling her.”
“You mean… no one’s told her? And she hasn’t noticed? I don’t believe a word of it… you saw – the curtains – the macaroons! I mean, look right there! Look-look-look! The wall-hangings, they’re ironing themselves!”
“Maybe it wasn’t this bad back at the site,” suggests Graham. “It certainly wasn’t this, ah, pronounced last time she changed. Perhaps it’s, um, intensifying.”
“Alright,” Kass holds up a hand. “Supposing Leda really doesn’t know what’s going on, and supposing the Leda personality is the one that’s been talking to us all the time – that doesn’t rule out the possibility that some goddess is spending time sitting in her head and peeping out through her eyes.”
“Perhaps, but, ah, which goddess? Macaroons do not seem very Kali.”
“I think your friend Luke Pearl should be able to help us with that,” murmurs Kass. “Graham, didn’t you say that you saw him looking at Leda with worship, or something? It sounds like he at least must be some kind of devotee, which means he must have a clue what goddess is sitting in her head.”
“Yes, he did look at her that way,” Graham says, quietly and carefully. “But it wasn’t when she had ‘changed,’ – it was just a minute or two before, when he was giving her a plastic mug of tea.” He casts his mind back to Pearl’s quick glance of quiet, helpless adoration. “At the time it didn’t strike me as the look of a devotee or a cultist. I mean, um, perhaps he is, perhaps he does worship Kali, or Parvati, or something else manifesting in Leda Piers. But… perhaps he just worships Leda Piers…”
The group cast surreptitious glances across the room at Leda, who is tilting Sherry’s head back and examining the cut down the side of her face. Once again, despite her small stature, Leda has something firm and motherly in her aspect, not least because Maddy has moved over to sit near her feet, and is watching her like a child waiting for the next part of a bed-time story.
“I agree, though,” Graham adds, still in an undertone, “we do have to find Luke Pearl. I think there’s very little doubt that he has taken the nine remaining unicorn seals, a bundle of other artefacts, maybe including the disc, and made a ‘getaway.’ I’m quite certain that the note in Leda’s room signed ‘L.P.’ was actually from him – it’s just a coincidence that Luke and Leda happen to have the same initials.” He gives the others a moment to digest this idea.
“So the note was…”
“To Leda, yes. Which suggests that she knows how to get in touch with Luke. When we’re sure that she is in a ‘Leda personality,’ we probably ought to ask her about that. I think our first aim should be to hunt down Luke, and the artefacts he’s taken with him. If we don’t, someone else will, and I’m not sure I wish that on him even if he does come from Hull.” Seeing Judith’s questioning glance, Graham shrugs slightly. “I come from Grimsby,” he says, by way of explanation.
The group in quiet conference are startled at this point by the ringing of the phone by the bed. Judith reaches it first.
“Hello – this is Heather. You lot all need to move out now. No packing, no delay, now. I’m calling you from a phone in a restaurant a little way down the road from the hotel, and from where I’m standing I can see six, no seven different policemen taking up positions on the street, and they are seriously armed. Don’t go to the window or they’ll see you – just get out of there. Is Leda normal yet?”
“Er…” Judith looks across the room to where Sherry’s soiled and discarded bandages are busy cleaning and smoothing themselves for re-use as they lie on the table. “I think I can safely answer that with a ‘no.’”
“Then you’ll have to reason with her. Remember – she’s wanted by the police too.” There is a click as Heather hangs up.
“Oh dear. The police are outside and closing in.”
“If they find us, it’s game over,” Dexter mutters grimly. “Of course, we could tell them the truth then plead insanity.”
“If anyone could convince them we were insane it would be you, Dexy-legs,” whispers Kass with a small smile. “Show them your body-packing skills.”
“Lay off, Ladyboy.”
“We could find out if there is a back way to the hotel,” suggests Graham, “and then find new hotels – but this time not en masse, it attracts too much attention.”
“But what about her? Will she let us go?”
Judith clears her throat.
“Leda? I do hate to be rude, but I’m afraid that we all have to leave right now with a certain amount of dispatch.”
“Why the hurry?” Leda has finished dabbing disinfectant on Sherry’s cut, which somehow now appears rather smaller and shallower than before.
“The police are outside.” Dexter takes the plunge. “There was an incident at the site last night, and the police are under the mistaken impression that we were responsible. Oh, and they think you were too. Your friend Luke Pearl pulled a fast one and skipped town with a van full of antiquities, and now the police think you were involved.”
“Luke? I can’t believe that.” Leda seems genuinely aghast.
“Well, maybe he has an explanation, but right now he’s the only one that can clear any of us, so I suggest you help us find him before the police find us,” declares Dexter.
“I cannot believe that Luke… this must be some sort of silly misunderstanding.”
“If we find him, no doubt the misunderstanding will be cleared in no time,” suggests Yuri.
“Yes, a few words will sort everything out. Let’s go.” Leda draws herself up, and strides towards the door, and the others feel themselves dragged along in her wake like leaves in a current. They pull away quickly to snatch at rucksacks and suitcases, then follow her down the narrow stairway. At the bottom of the stairway Leda strides into the front lobby.
“What – that door opens onto the main street! We need to find another exit!”
“Don’t be absurd,” the goddess says curtly. “I’m going right out to talk to the police. We’ll have this silly business cleared up in no time.” And with that she strides out through the door, the crowds in the street parting before her like the Red Sea.
Heather is not a little surprised to see the short figure of Leda emerge alone from the front entrance of the hotel. She is struck by the way in which the eye is immediately drawn to the young research assistant, as if to a blot of scarlet on a monochrome photograph. And yet… it is not just that she stands out from her background – the street about her seems to be designed with her in mind as a focal point. She is the golden heart of a daisy and wears the world as petals.
Leda halts in the middle of the street – a lunatic act for any lesser mortal – and looks around her while the auto-rickshaws give her a generous berth, or slow to observe her. Heather sees her raise and wave a rolled newspaper to get the attention of the various gatherings of armed police in the street, quite unnecessarily, since almost every eye in the street is already fixed upon her. Leda beckons, and the policemen close in.
To say that a conversation ensues would be to overlook the fact that the term usually suggests contribution from more than one participant. The role of the policemen during this confrontation appears to involve doing little more than nod.
Under cover of this distraction, Heather glimpses her colleagues gingerly slipping from a side-door, cases in hand, and heading for a nearby alley.
By the time Leda’s conversation with the police has finished, Heather has rejoined the rest of the group. It is hard to lose sight of their erstwhile prisoner, and it is an easy matter to head her off and meet up with her once out of the sight of the policemen. Leda does not seem remotely daunted at seeing them again.
“Well, that was fairly straightforward. As I thought, all it needed was a few quick words to sort everything out.”
“I’m so glad,” says Judith, without conviction. “Shall we move along quickly before it wears off?”
“Before what wears off?”
“The, like, Jedi mind trick.” Maddy grins, and makes a sideways pass with her hand. “‘These are not the Europeans you’re looking for,’” she murmurs, in an unrecognisable attempt at an Alec Guinness voice.
“I am sure that the police believed every word you said,” Judith cuts in, quickly. “Right now I am not sure they can actually remember what you said, but I have no doubt that while you were speaking they believed everything. Leda – I know that we may have sacrificed your trust a little by hitting you on the head and tying you to a chair, but you did once ask us to tell you what was happening to you. If you still want to know, I really think you should come with us so we can discuss the whole thing in the Land Rover…”
A few minutes later, Graham is struggling with the map while beside him Yuri steers the Land Rover through along the narrow night road.
“I think that we could do worse than to head straight to Bogodra,” recommends Graham. “It’s still close enough to Lothal, but not quite, ah, under the noses of the police. Take the next left.”
Behind him, it sounds as if the ‘explanation’ is not going well. Facing the massed hordes of Rina Shekar’s thuggees proves as nothing compared to the task of persuading Leda Piers to accept an anti-rationalist premise. The situation is in no way helped by the fact that, from time to time certain members of the group, notably Maddy and Kass, suddenly find themselves wanting to agree wholeheartedly with whatever Leda happens to be saying.
“If you don’t mind me asking, are you all part of some cult? Did they make you smoke anything during the initiation ceremony? And who are Kali and Alexander – are these code names?”
“Look, you’re a frigging Ylid-wannabe super-being, and don’t try to pretend you don’t know!” Dexter’s voice.
“I wasn’t going to put it quite like that.” Judith’s voice, quiet, conciliating. “Another way of looking at it is that you are becoming the centre for some… unexplained phenomena, possibly because something is choosing to manifest in you. It’s that that people react to when you change – you become more awe-inspiring, more…”
“…like a goddess, yeah?” Maddy’s voice.
“I wish you would not keep using that word.” Leda’s tone is curt, but she has developed an edge of kindness when speaking to Maddy, presumably won over by the other woman’s bright-eyed and unquestioning admiration. “But enough about my condition – I need to know what has been happening back at the site that has brought the police out in force…”
There seems little point in hiding the facts from Leda, so the murder of Jack Porter, the theft of the artefacts and the demolition of the unicorn seals is described, albeit drawing something of a veil over the SITU group’s role in the thefts, deaths and general destruction. It is with difficulty that Leda is dissuaded from returning to the site immediately, and she is only placated when the group agree that she should be allowed to make a call to Dr Massey as soon as a hotel is found.
Following Graham’s suggestion, it is decided that the party will divide. Graham, Judith, Kass and Maddy will hire rooms in Bogodra. Yuri, Dexter, Heather, Sherry and Leda will drive on, find a hotel in another nearby settlement, and then await a call on Leda’s mobile phone the next morning.
It is nearly one o’clock when the Land Rover reaches Bogodra. Since the group are aware that the police may be looking for the Land Rover Discovery, Graham, Judith, Kass and Maddy are dropped on the outskirts, and stroll along the road-side with their luggage, waiting to hail a roaming taxi or auto-rickshaw.
After a mere ten minutes, they have the good fortune to be passed by a taxi which slows in response to the sight of laden and presumably affluent foreigners. The driver speaks good English, and is more than willing to recommend a hotel which would still be accepting guests at that time of night. He is also willing to offer a bargain price for tours of Lothal or the mosques of Dholka the next day, and is with difficulty dissuaded.
The hotel proves to be a flat-roofed building which appears to have been squashed to half of its natural width by the shouldering of its larger neighbours. The door is dark, and the building appears to be shut until the taxi driver bangs heavily upon the door, and lights start appearing on the upper floor. The elderly woman who answers engages in conversation with the driver in Hindi for some time, then greets her guests with remarkable civility considering that they have apparently roused her from her bed. In addition to arranging rooms for the group, she is keen to know whether they have eaten, and upon hearing that they have not, insists on providing them with bowls of undhyoo, a slightly spiced dish comprised of roasted potatoes, beans, aubergines and sweet potatoes.
Their hostess is clearly doing her best to construe charitably the fact that Graham appears to have arrived accompanied by no less than three women. She eventually comes to the conclusion that Judith is Graham’s spouse, and seems further confused when each of the four asks for a separate room. Graham flushes an uncomfortable pink and has scarcely recovered his ability to speak by the time he reaches his bedroom door.
“Judith?” he asks hesitantly, as Lady Judith is on the verge of disappearing into her room. He gives a quick glance along the corridor, to make sure that the other two have indeed vanished into their own rooms. “I just, um, just, um, wanted to put your mind at rest… I mean, those things that Maddy – I mean, that Marilyn said. Earlier. Were not, um, true, that is. That is, I don’t mean to say that I don’t… I mean, in the very highest regard, that is to say with the very highest respect… but not in the way that… that Marilyn was implying. If you see what I mean…” He tails off, his face scarlet, having failed to risk eye contact throughout. “So I… just thought I would reassure you…”
“Thank you, Graham – but I know that Marilyn was only lashing out to try and make us all as uncomfortable as possible.” Lady Judith’s voice is kindly but weary, and Graham finally hazards a glance at her face. “Please – do not worry about it at all – good night, Graham.” She gives him a tired, thin but affectionate smile, and closes her door before her.
While he is still standing in the hallway, wondering if he has succeeded in making his meaning clear, Kass’ door opens, and she appears, already dressed in a black-lace dressing gown.
“Graham, do you know if there’s a shower in this place? I’m just about ready to wash this damn day out of my system.” Kass’s robe is, as usual, hanging negligently open at the neck in a rather revealing fashion. Kass suddenly seems to become aware of this, and a tiny, uncharacteristic expression of self-consciousness passes across her face. Her hand makes a slight involuntary movement, as if moving to gather the robe closed about her throat, then halts. Graham recalls that he and Judith are not the only people with reason to feel self-conscious after Marilyn’s outburst.
“Um – Kass?” he begins impulsively. “Can I have a quick word?”
“Sure.” Kass reaches up and pushes back her hair, her composure recovered. “Come slip into my boudoir, and anything else you fancy.” Graham accepts her offer, and waits until she has closed the door behind them.
“I was… well, I was thinking about Marilyn’s little fit of, um, outspokenness. I, um, just wanted to say you don’t have to go through all this alone.” Graham glances quickly at Kass to try and gauge whether the subject is too sensitive to be raised. Her lips are slightly pursed and her eyebrows a little raised, but she seems interested rather than offended. “I mean… that while I can’t possibly know what you have gone through, I know what everyone else is thinking, but don’t count me among them.
“There’s a man back home, his name is Chris. I can’t recall how long I’ve know him, but it’s been a long time. He went through it all, without telling us a thing, that was until three years ago. I must confess I don’t fully understand it all, I just know it was a matter of genetics, what he calls 47 XXY and the text books call intersex.”
“Perhaps you should introduce us – I’m kinda inta sex myself. Ha ha. No, go on.”
“Well,” Graham tries to re-gather his thoughts. “For Chris ‘intersex’ meant a bilateral mastectomy at the age of nineteen, and monthly abdominal cramps. You see, he has the full internal works, ovaries, uterus, though the vagina is closed off – which is why he went through the first eighteen years of his life without knowing, it took an ultrasound scan to show it all up.
“Now he’s off around the world putting on art exhibitions, and making speeches trying to let more people know about intersex – I get e-mail from all over the place, he’s put me on a mailing list.” Graham takes a deep breath. “Despite all what happened to him, he is still Chris, and that I guess is what I’m trying to say – you’ll always be Kass.”
“Thanks, sweetie.” Kass gives one of her feline smiles, and leaning forward plants a kiss on Graham’s cheek.
As Graham leaves for a well-deserved rest, Kass’s search for a shower is again thwarted. This time she is intercepted by Maddy who has been waiting outside her door, chewing her fingertips and wearing an expression of apprehension and distress.
“Kass… um, can I, like, talk to you?”
“Come right on in.” Kass manages to suppress even the faintest trace of resignation, although she does give a quick glance up and down the corridor before shutting the door to see whether there are any more people in the queue.
“Um… I’m so sorry for what Marilyn said. It’s not a, y’know, noticeable penis or anything. Oh!” Maddy claps her hands over her mouth and flushes. “That sounds, like, terrible! I mean, not that it’s not… y’know, big an’ stuff, but… oh poo!” By now Maddy’s face is bright scarlet. “Y’know what I, uh, mean.”
“I think I have some idea,” says Kass, who is working hard to stifle her mirth.
“You’re still a woman, no matter what the, uh, Moon ritual says.” Maddy smiles, shyly.
“Yeah, what does that damn Feminine Principle Goddess or whatever know about anything anyway.” Kass laughs out loud. “Don’t worry about it – if nothing else, this little revelation gives me more opportunities to tease Dexter.”
“Uh, yeah. Um, Kass? Were you that, uh, Zelmane guy who freaked Dexter?”
Kass gives an arch, mischievous smile and does not answer.
“We might as well stop here.” Yuri pulls of the road, and carefully manoeuvres the Land Rover into the shade of a group of trees. “If we are to avoid drawing attention to ourselves, I do not see how we can check into a hotel while Miss Piers is in her… transformed state.” He looses his seatbelt and glances over his shoulder. “Is there any change?”
“I don’t think so.” Heather is keeping watch over the sleeping Leda. “Even now she’s still sort of glowing, like a saint in sensible shoes. And I can’t help noticing that Graham’s map’s spread itself out, and is re-folding itself properly on the back seat.”
“How awe-inspiring could she be with a bag over her head?” Dexter suggests hopefully. “Or we could roll her in a carpet or something?”
“No, Yuri’s right,” declares Heather. “We can’t risk trying to smuggle a full-blown goddess into a hotel – even if it is a goddess of brisk common sense and the desire to organise everyone’s lives. Right now, the police seem to be tracking us for multiple homicide. Which also means that we ought to make some serious effort at disguising ourselves, and the more distinctive members of the group should probably keep a low profile.” Heather herself is still wearing the borrowed sari.
“I think she’s talking about us,” Sherry mutters in a low voice to Dexter, who is seated beside her. Certainly, it is rather hard to hide the gleaming white bandage which swathes her cheek and chin, and Dexter is a singular figure even without the vivid purplish line from the thuggee’s wire across his throat.
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that,” Dexter answers, sotto voce. “Look, Sherry, I know we’ve had this discussion before, but I’m going to ask you again to get out of the country, just for a while, just till we get this sorted out. If you won’t do it to save your own skin… then do it as a favour to me. Right now your safety is just another thing to worry about at a time when I have to keep my head clear to have a hope of staying alive – do you see?”
Sherry gives a long sigh, and rests her head on Dexter’s shoulder.
“The police’ll pick me up at the airport, you know?” she says. “They’re probably on the lookout for me too.”
“Then you tell them that you’ve been playing detective and looking for the missing persons, but that you didn’t find us, and got bored and decided to go home.”
“OK, OK… but,” she stabs at his chest with a long, tanned finger, “your part of the deal is, you come back from this alive, you got that?”
“It’s a deal.” There is a pause for a minute or two, while the group make themselves as comfortable beneath their coats as they can.
Heather looks back over her shoulder at Dexter and Sherry. “Oh, Yuri, I forgot to tell you. I phoned SITU – they’d had someone check up on Sherry. She seems to be innocent – just a tourist, like she said.” That news will relieve Dexter. Maybe he and the American will be able to find happiness together after all? “You know, I wish we’d got further interpreting your dreams, Yuri,” she continues. “The one in the Land Rover, and then last night’s vision of Luke Pearl with his amazing glowing head. The big question is, why do they keep being sent to you? You seem to be some sort of conduit for them – I wonder why you in particular? Yuri – you’re probably best at guessing the answers to this than anyone. You’re always having a conversation with someone in these dreams, right? Maybe next time you could try and draw him out – get him to tell you why you’ve been chosen, and why you’re getting these visions…”
Within the Land Rover the air is warm and intimate, the skin of the silence brushed by the velvety sound of sleepers’ breath. As Yuri lets his senses settle, the other sleepers in the darkness seem to unite their breathing into a single rhythm, a long hush and hiss that washes forth and back like a soft-bristled broom or a low and lazy wave…
…and now amid the long sea-breaths he can hear pale crescents of sound ache from the throats of water-birds. He can hear the tug of the wave shiver the shingle. There is a stinging freshness to the air against his face, and there is sunlight behind his closed eyes. He opens his eyes.
A large boat with a single square sail is negotiating the narrow aperture into the great, rectangular dock of Lothal. Its crew are shadowy, and although the ship is mirrored in the glassy surface of the water, the nebulous figures aboard find no reflection. Faint shapes flit across the wharf, carrying baskets of agate to the great warehouse, busying themselves with ropes on the water’s edge.
“So why do these visions come to me?”
Yuri’s companion does not answer for a few moments, then he raises an arm and points out across the dock.
“You see how it is – the lock gates close between the harbour and the river. Without, all is current and tide, within all is stillness and contemplation. The busy water, the noisy water, has a surface too troubled to take an impression. The still water, the silent water, has learnt to reflect. It is in such water and upon such souls that the shapes of Lothal can cast their images. Do you understand?”
“I believe so,” Yuri says carefully.
“Besides this, you have an understanding of the land – you seek to share its memories and to understand its will.” Yuri stands with his head on one side for a moment or two, contemplating this unusual description of seismology.
“So – you speak for the land?”
The other man says a single word, which Yuri instinctively understands as both an affirmative and a negative.
“We are memories, nothing more, reflections.” A disc of pure light blazes from the forehead of Yuri’s companion, between the two delicately curling antlers. The speaking voice has deepened, darkened, and there is a soft rasp in it like the chafing of ripe wheat, or the whetting of knives for a feast-time slaughter. For all the familiarity of the words, there is little human in that voice. “We remember prosperity and trust.”
“The prosperity of Lothal?”
“Of Lothal, and before that of the cities you know as Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, and others whose names have been lost. And trust of… the Good Mother as she seemed then. She and I took the power from the very stuff of our souls and bound it, so that our priests might wield it, and provide us with beings of thought to serve along side us and under us, woven from the faith of our people and shaped by the mind of the priest.”
The speaker has altered again. Still the disc of radiance sears from his face, but now his voice is lighter and more human. The horns still rise from his head, but now they are unmistakeably a part of a head-dress. A narrow ribbon is bound around the man’s temples, tying the blazing disc into place. A finely combed beard is trimmed about his cheeks and chin. A stiff patterned sash slants across his chest, looping over one shoulder and under the opposite armpit. As he speaks, Yuri has the giddying impression that the face and figure are in continual flux, the voice ever changing in pitch, timbre and cadence, as if he were seeing dozens of men in the same garb in sequence, with a smooth transition between each and the next.
“And we remember betrayal.”
Yuri suddenly remembers Alexander’s words… the lady has something of a history of treachery… treachery so black that this place has remembered it for thousands of years…
“Betrayal by the Good Mother? By… Kali?”
“Yes.” Without warning the searing white circle is extinguished, and when his eyes adjust, Yuri is able to see the face of his companion. Beneath his tan the priest has a bluish pallor, and his eyes are as glassy and lifeless as the dockland waters. The faint purple crease of a garrotte-bruise is visible across his throat. “When an enemy’s power struck at us, and sent floods to ravage our cities, she secretly sought to treat with the enemy and betrayed us. Most of the priesthood died in a single night, while her murderers sought the disc, but I lived long enough to cheat her of her prize. In my last hours I found a hiding place for the talisman, one that would send it on its way to Lothal. I hoped that I might succeed in fleeing Mohenjo-daro and reach Lothal to reclaim the disc.
“I never reached Lothal. But it did.” The priest-king’s long white robes ripple softly, and he turns his dead face away to stare sightlessly towards the wharf, where dimly visible priests in white robes struggle with translucent assailants. The skies darken above them, and the steady rush and recede of the distant water fractures, becomes a mosaic of sighs, and then settles into the sound of five or so sleepers gently breathing. Beyond Yuri’s closed eyelids is darkness. He opens his eyes and finds himself back in the Land Rover.
The group in the Land Rover are woken in the mid-morning by the ringing of Leda’s mobile phone. The caller is Graham, who is able to report that his half of the team have seen no sign of the police.
“How is Leda? Does she seem to have changed back yet?”
Heather glances out through the side-window. Outside Leda Piers, still heavy-lidded with sleep, is stretching her limbs.
“Yes, I think so.” This morning the young research assistant seems to have dwindled into mere mortal indomitability. Quick arrangements are made for the two halves of the team to meet, then Heather ends the call and returns the phone to Leda.
Heather, Dexter, Sherry and Yuri are then forced to wait while Leda calls Marcus Massey, and engages in an interminable conversation in which she seems determined to extract a minute report of the situation at the site, and to advise him on everything up to the colour of his socks.
“…alright, what about the weights and measures? Intact – good.” Leda is pacing up and down, the mobile phone held to one ear, a finger in the other ear to cut out the sound of occasional traffic. “No, don’t let anyone take anything else away, not even the backers… did they show you any identification? … so what did they say? …no, don’t talk to them, they’re obviously journalists… What? I see. When was this? Well, don’t go yourself, send Patterson, and tell him to get another bottle of your bilious pills while he’s in town. Yes, I know exactly the ones you mean, you filed them in your mauve folder under S. Oh, and don’t let Sonia become hysterical, keep her busy. Get her to catalogue the Red Ware pottery and find out what’s missing.
“No. Yes. It might be best to ask Wain Cargy. Yes, you do know him, he’s your lawyer. Of course – do you have a pen? And paper? Right, here’s his number…”
“Do you think we’re going to lose her to her maternal instinct?” asks Yuri quietly. “I wonder if she can resist the distressed call of her ‘young.’”
“Well, we’ve taken her prisoner before while she’s been out of ‘goddess’ mode,” mutters Dexter. “Maybe we can do it again.”
“What?” Leda is frowning, as she listens to the faint and tiny voice of Dr Massey. “Can you remember exactly what he said? Did he ask anything else? I see.” She glances up at the foursome grouped around the Land Rover. “No, I won’t be returning just yet. It might be best if you didn’t mention to anyone that I’d called you either. Yes, I’ll call this evening and again tomorrow. Yes. I’ll be back very soon. Yes, everything’s under control. Yes.”
There is a short pause.
“It’s Bedlam back at the site, of course,” Leda says slowly. “The police are trying to impound everything, journalists are trying to infiltrate with all the subtlety of an elephant, and accusations are flying left and right. The English backers haven’t as much as phoned – which doesn’t surprise me if they did put Luke up to diverting some of the artefacts, the way Fisk has been implying.
“The backers represented by Okada Tokutaro phoned this morning, however. Apparently they asked a lot of questions about the items that have been ‘diverted’ over the last few weeks, but they also seemed obsessed with knowing what objects were destroyed the night before last. They seemed to have a preconception that it wasn’t an act of random vandalism, and they made Dr Massey catalogue exactly what was destroyed or went missing the night before last. And so of course he told them about the unicorn seals – after all, we’ve lost all of them. We think about ten were ‘diverted’ earlier, and the rest destroyed during the break-in.
“When Dr Massey mentioned the current suspicions regarding Luke, then the backers’ man immediately asked whether he might have had the opportunity to steal the missing unicorn seals, and of course Dr Massey had to admit that he had. Then the questions started to get stranger – Dr Massey was asked if Luke had seemed at all different over the last week or so. And the last question was whether Luke was a religious man – apparently the questioner sounded quite relieved to hear that Luke’s an atheist.
“Don’t you think that’s an odd sort of question to ask? I think that’s a very odd kind of question. I’m not saying that I’m lending credence to your version of events, but it does sound like we’re not the only people trying to trace Luke Pearl and… I’d feel happier about things if we got there first.”
At noon, both halves of the team meet as arranged a mile or so outside Bogodra.
“Any luck getting in touch with Luke Pearl?”
“Not yet. You were right, Graham – Leda has a mobile phone number for him. But so far it seems that either it’s turned off, or we’re just not getting a signal through. We’re going to try and find a high place or a landline and try again.”
“In the mean time, we need to drive Sherry to Surendranagar,” explains Dexter. “Sherry, my advice is to get a train to Mehsana, and then keep travelling north up through Rajasthan until you get to Delhi and can grab a flight. It’s a long trip, but it skirts around Ahmedabad, which as we know is suffering from a thuggee-infestation.”
The station at Surendranagar proves to be small and unpretentious, and as the SITU team arrive a train is departing, over-loaded with exuberant children, some cheerfully and recklessly hanging out through the open doors. The train to Mehsana is waiting by the other platform. A pleasant breeze stirs the warmth of the early afternoon air, and the great ceiling fans in the waiting rooms are motionless. On the platform a dog the colour of wheat-flour scratches shamelessly at one twitching flank.
Sherry is wearing a head-scarf tied under her chin to hide her bandages, and has her sunglasses perched on her nose once more.
“I could still stay,” she says, suddenly. “Do you want me to stay, Dex?”
“If we talk about this, you’ll miss your train.”
“Yeah.” Sherry brushes one knuckle across her cheek, and adjusts her headscarf. She turns and climbs into the train, and a few moments later appears in one of the carriages.
Dexter takes a few paces backwards as the train’s engine starts. The doors are still open, and a number of people are making the most of this last minute opportunity to board, abandon, or make their goodbyes. Aware of this activity in his peripheral vision, he is filled with a sudden sense of unease. For a moment he cannot explain it, and then he becomes aware that one of the figures he has seen slipping onto the train out of the corner of his eye is subtly familiar.
Sherry is smiling at him. She has tipped her sunglasses down her nose, and is stealthily waving at him as the train judders slowly into motion.
Through another window a couple of carriages down, Dexter glimpses the face of Rajiv Shekar, who is stonily, steadily, making his way along the train.
Sherry notes Dexter’s change of expression and her smile fades. She watches slightly aghast and confused as he breaks into a run, and sprints alongside the train as it gathers speed, but it is clear from her expression that she cannot understand the words that he is trying to mouth.
Dexter makes a desperate grab at one of the doors as it swings shut, and for a moment his fingers almost close on the handle, then the train picks up momentum and he is left gasping for breath at the end of the platform.
Back by the Land Rover, Maddy is still typing furiously away at her laptop, re-creating from scratch the sigil against Ylids, and in particular Alexander.
“It’s a, like, pre-Millennium bug,” she announces happily to no-one in particular. It seems to be progressing well, although she is still finding it hard to concentrate. It is almost as if in the wake of Marilyn’s demise a part of her mind was ‘sore,’ like a raw place or an incision left after an operation.
“Could you give these the once over with Maddy-vision?” Kass is examining the artefacts which the team had stolen from the site. “Just in case it turns out that this disc or whatever really is in our hands.”
Maddy yawns, glad of a break, and starts turning over in her hands the pieces of pottery, the statuette, the unicorn seal, the little stone tablet.
“No… it’s just all sort of like, browny-earthy. Like really muffled voices under lots of dust, but just people voices. Time’s made it all a bit unclear and blobby like melted chocolate…”
“Oh for crying out loud!” Heather, cross-legged on the grass, glares at Maddy through a haze of cigarette smoke. “Do you have to babytalk everything?” Maddy’s mouth tightens.
“Heather, I, uh, I’m the most senior agent here.” Maddy’s tone has suddenly become utterly serious. “Remember that.”
“Well, you’ll have to act very differently before I can hear you say that without laughing.” Heather’s gaze is icy and undaunted.
“I’ve been in more, like, Ylid situations than you, so even if you. So, uh, even if you don’t like the way I, like, talk, I deserve some respect.”
“Respect?” Heather gets to her feet. “Look, I don’t care how senior you think you are, coming on this trip without telling any of us that you pretty much had a split personality was bloody irresponsible. I mean, our lives are on the bloody line, we’re trying to build trust, and you don’t even mention sodding Marilyn riding in your sodding side-car. If you had, maybe we’d have been a bit more understanding about the whole thing. And then you’re surprised when people have trouble trusting you…”
Heather is brought up short when Maddy, who has been fishing in her rucksack with an expression of concentration, abruptly produces a Polaroid camera, and snaps it under Heather’s nose. Maddy then moves away in something between a saunter and skip, with an expression of satisfaction.
“Come back Marilyn, all is forgiven.” Heather sighs and gives a small gritty smile. “D’you think maybe we killed the wrong personality?”
The icy tension is dissipated by Dexter’s breathless return to the group.
“Bastards,” he says, when he has recovered his breath. “The bastards were watching the stations…”
Repeated attempts are made to call Sherry’s mobile phone, but in vain. It appears to have been turned off. On Judith’s suggestion they phone the station at Mehsana, and ask for a cryptic message asking Sherry to phone them to be announced over the loudspeaker, but the hours pass and they hear nothing from her.
“Alright,” Yuri says after a while. “Kali’s people know we’re still in the area, and the police are bound to be looking around here as well. We can’t safely go back to Lothal, and it’s possible that there’s nothing to return for. I think we have no choice but to move further out and try to throw everyone off the scent.”
“Alright,” agrees Judith. “Let’s settle with our hotel and go.”
“Hold on.” Leda has her phone to her ear. “It’s ringing. Luke? Luke, this is Leda – what on earth is going on? No, I know – you might say your note didn’t get to me straight away… well, not any more… hadn’t you heard? Multiple homicide, theft, vandalism… yes, I’m absolutely fine… totally unscratched – yes… yes… yes – actually I wasn’t even there at the time. So where the hell did you vanish to? What? What the hell are you doing in Goa?
“I see. Well, where can we talk? Mm. Well, it sounds like I’d better, doesn’t it? But I want to make it clear, I’m not happy and you’ve got quite a lot of explaining to do as far as I’m concerned.” She hangs up.
“He’s in Goa – and he wants me to join him there. He says he’ll explain everything when I get there. He says he’ll meet me there tomorrow evening at Old Goa…”
During the drive back to the hotel, Leda busies herself phoning rail stations and tourist agencies for the best and quickest means of reaching Goa.
When Judith, Graham, Maddy and Kass walk into the hotel lobby, their friendly, elderly hostess bustles out to meet them.
“Your lady friend, she comes to find you. She is in the dining room waiting for you.”
“Little Sherry come home, bringing her tail behind her?” wonders Kass as they wander to the dining room.
The woman who awaits them stands as they enter. As they recognise her, both Judith and Graham reflexively reach out a restraining arm to prevent Kass from bounding forward.
“I was becoming worried that you might mean to leave without paying your bill,” Rina Shekar says pleasantly. “I have been sent by my mistress with a proposition. We have a common aim, and a common enemy. We are also providing hospitality to a friend of yours… why do we not go out and join your colleagues so we can discuss this?”
7pm 30th December
Everyone is in Bogodra