The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
A Shattered Visage Lies
“We have a common aim, and a common enemy. We are also providing hospitality to a friend of yours…” Rina Shekar crosses her legs, and one slender foot taps against the table leg while she waits for a response. Her slippers are white, and decorated in whorls of gold. She is clad in the same white suit trimmed with gold that she had worn on the streets of Ahmedabad.
“You, uh, y’mean Sherry, yeah?”
“The American woman, yes.” There is a china cup of tea by Rina’s hand. She is suspending her spoon over it, allowing the last drips to slide off it onto the cup rim. The landlady has a great cauldron in the nearby kitchen, full of tea leaves and milk and sugar, which she keeps boiling incessantly until the tea is reduced to an offensive sweetness. The dining room is full of the autumnal smell of damp tea leaves.
“How do we know you haven’t, like, strangled her already? Every time we meet your guys you’re, like, trying to kill us.”
“We had no argument with you to begin with, you know. Your friend here,” she throws a glance at Kass, “initiated hostilities, by chasing my husband through the streets of Jaipur – he might have been killed during the scooter crash. Even then we made no effort to attack you until we discovered that you had pursued our Lady to Ahmedabad.”
“You need to get your story straight with your goddess, honey.” Kass’s voice is lazy as ever, but there is a slight flatness to her vowels, as if she is trying to hide some tension. “Just before we left the train, some shadowy little truckload of nightmare decided to hit me right in the psyche and bowled me cold – it had a go at Maddy too.”
“Yeah, and your, um, ‘mistress’ is famous for being all, like, treacheryness. Lothal still doesn’t trust her. Why should we?”
“Because you have no choice. Because you lack the courage to accept blood on your hands. If you kill, you are always trying to find a way to say, this person was evil, or, I had to act in such a way. But to coolly take responsibility for the death of an innocent… I do not think any of you will make that decision.” Her smile is pleasant, and thus infinitely appalling. How old is she? Twenty-four? Twenty-three? The air is suffused with offensive sweetness, and the chill smell of old evils wrapped in the damp lace of decorum…
“You haven’t answered the question.” Graham speaks up for the first time. “What promise have we that our co-operation will achieve the safe return of Sherry?”
Rina gives a slight sigh, and lays her spoon in the saucer next to the cup.
“This part of the conversation is inevitable, I suppose. Very well, I shall wait while you vent your spleen, and express your doubts, and then when you are ready we shall discuss terms.” Rina folds her arms. “But I hope you will not take too long. The enemy has a head start of us.”
“You mean Alexander? But your mistress was, y’know, working with him, like, seconds ago. He’s probably back in Delhi by now with her disc…” Maddy stops suddenly, and claps a hand over her mouth. Her sharp eyes note a slight ripple of a bloody hue slide across the other woman’s aura.
“I honestly doubt that she’ll be found alive, whether we help you or not.” Graham’s voice is uncharacteristically cold and hard. “I’ve seen nothing of your actions thus far to suggest compassion is in your heart. I for one am not going to jump through hoops or perform little tricks to satisfy your twisted needs only to end up with a cheese wire tie. I don’t know who you think you are, or who you think you represent, but you are nothing other than a bully, and a pretty poor one at that. Throughout this whole ordeal you have been dogging our progress, always one step behind us, on the train, in temples, at kite festivals, and archaeological digs you have always been there, never before us, never making that intuitive step,” he raises a hand to tap at the side of his head, “always following orders, following us.”
“You are trying to anger me.” I rather think I am succeeding, Graham thinks to himself, feeling her gaze like a blade edge against his skin. Come on Kass, I have her attention… come on, now is the time… “Must we rant like children? You know as well as I do that we have no choice but to work together.”
“You are quite wrong, Mrs Shekar,” Judith replies, in a chill, formal tone. “Unlike you, we reserve the right to question the orders we are given, whoever gives them. You have presumed to consider our decisions inevitable – that is as unwise as it is insulting. You will find we have the power to surprise you.”
“For example, I think Kass would like to show you some tricks of her own,” remarks Graham.
Rina glances at Graham’s flushed and set countenance, at the cat-like tensing of Kass, at Judith’s cold, pale determination, and the Swiss army knife that has slid into Maddy’s hand. In the silence, her laughter is jarringly loud.
“This posturing is absurd.” She folds her napkin neatly and lays it aside. “This is a public dining room – which is why I chose it for this interview. None of you are going to do anything here.”
Afterwards, it is hard to be sure which of the SITU agents moves first.
“Isn’t that our pixie?” The agents waiting in the Land Rover have seen Maddy burst from the front door of the hotel, cast a glassy glance to and fro, and then scamper to crouch beside the road.
By the time Heather has reached her side, Maddy is crouching in the dirt of the ditch, murmuring under her breath. Her Swiss Army blade is bloodied, and dark spots are spreading in the palms of her gloves, like stigmata. Her sandals have been discarded in her run.
“What’s happened!” Without ceremony, Heather grasps the other woman by the shoulders. Maddy looks up, and focuses her eyes upon a point half a mile beyond Heather’s head.
“Rina… in the dining room… need to call on the earth against her…”
“It’s the Shekar bitch!” Heather yells across to the Land Rover. “Someone stay and look after Leda!” She turns and sprints in through the door of the hotel.
With her forefinger, Maddy starts to etch the twisted butterfly of Lorenz into the dust. A few spots of blood fall from her palms onto the pattern.
“The earth hates you. It hates you…” The very land around Lothal hates Kali’s people, and as Maddy closes her eyes, she seeks to open herself up to that hatred. She is surprised at how quickly she feels its animosity surge through her, at how potent it is. But that is not the only surprise…
Hatred flows between her toes like water, and soaks into her gloves as she snatches fistfuls of dust. It floods from her foot-soles and skin of her palms, washing away her sense of her own skin and flesh and bones… she seems to lie on her back now, potent and inert, watching suns and moons chasing each other across a flickering sky like courting butterflies. Her bones are rocks, and a stem of wheat thrusts from every pore. Every monsoon pumps water through her river-veins like a heart-beat.
And set deep in the reddish earth lie the broken fragments of a mind. The mind itself is all but dead, but the shards send waves of pain and rage through the land, like fragments of a shattered tooth hidden within the gum. Deeper than the dust, deeper than the dormant seeds, deeper than the gleaming strata of beads and broken pottery that is Old Lothal, the mind shards hang suspended in the eternal dark of the living earth, like the shattered remains of an enormous mask. The mask has two colossal spiralling horns, now fractured along their length, and the face is the face of an Ylid.
It is too late to close her mind to the wash of ancient bitterness, so she allows herself to remain a conduit, and tries to direct it towards the poisoned speck of Kali’s power which is Rina Shekar…
The retaliatory blow is shockingly prompt. Tentacles of shadow lash at her mind, and she loses all mental control. Now she is just a battlefield where the hiss of wind-swept wheat meets the hiss of razor-edged kite wires, where the angry-red dust of the soil meets the fine ash of the crematorium. Two giants with broken faces dance and wrestle in an ancient darkness, their many arms enmeshed. The female’s eyes are still alive with fire while the male’s sockets are empty of all but darkness, but his shell still fights on, animated by hatred, the last impulse of his dead mind.
Neither have a single thought for the human vessel in which their storm rages.
“She’s going into convulsions – I’ve got to have a look at her.” Leda casts a furious glance at Yuri, who has placed a firm, restraining hand on her arm.
Maddy has fallen onto her back, and tremors are running through her frame. Her sightless eyes flicker from side to side, as if she were observing the rapid progress of something across the sky. A tiny thread of blood can be seen trickling from one ear. The hand gripping her Swiss army athame is white-knuckled, and blood from her punctured palm oozes over the handle.
As Heather throws open the door of the little hotel, she hears a wail rising. The old hostess of the hotel stands at the foot of the stairs, fingers clenched in her head-scarf, her mouth a long oval of distress. She has no words for what is happening, only that chilling, all-too-human wail.
Heather pushes past her into the dining room, and immediately doubles up as her mouth and throat fill up with a fine and bitter powder. She covers her face instinctively, but she soon realises that she is not breathing it in, it is welling up in her mouth even when her lips are tightly closed, and threatening to choke her.
Graham is leaning against a wall and gasping out great, grey clouds with every breath. Judith’s eyes are streaming, and the same fine grey ash trickles from her mouth, but she has a chair swept back for an attacking swing. Kass who is standing on the table to wrestle Rina is worse afflicted, ash spilling from her mouth and nose as if she were disintegrating from within.
Rina has shed her genteel restraint like a dead skin, and her eyes are bright with venomous purpose, like those of a cobra. Although shorter and apparently less muscular than her red-headed, leather-clad opponent, Rina seems unafraid, as gleaming and impersonal as the garrotte wire which swings loose from her ring. Her knife is inches from Kass’s face, a last minute block having prevented it from striking home. Her other arm is entangled with that of Kass, snaking and twisting for a better hold.
As Heather watches, Judith swings her chair, striking Rina amidships, and knocking her sideways. Rina gasps as she unbalances. She snatches at Kass’s collar, and pulls her over with her as she topples from the table-top.
Emptying her mouth of the foul-tasting ash in one great gasp, Heather runs forward and vaults the table. Rina has wrested herself from Kass’s grasp, and stands panting with her back against wall to watch as Kass rolls to her feet. Drawing in a hiss of breath, Rina raises her arms in soft curve, with the grace of a dancer. Behind her, her shadow raises its arms in the same fluid motion… but slightly more slowly. Then it repeats the action with another set of arms, and another. The shadow arms flow and shift bonelessly like weed in an off-white wallpaper sea. And suddenly… suddenly it is hard to see where Rina’s real arms are, and to be sure of how many knives she is holding…
Kass is now choking almost uncontrollably, the skin of her face as pale as the ash that pours between the fingers against her mouth. Down her chest, her black biker leathers are white with powder. Against the far wall, Graham has fallen to his knees.
An audible sigh ripples through the room, stirring the tablecloths, and in every corner the shadows snake.
Heather snatches up the metal tea-tray, and swings it so that its burden of crockery flies towards the young thuggee’s head. Rina draws herself down sharply, and above her head three cups shatter, leaving brown stars of tea to bleed down the wallpaper. Holding the tray before her as a shield against the knife, Heather leaps forward and makes a grab for the wrist of the knife-hand.
There is a cold beauty in the pattern which the knife-point carves in the air, like the path of a silver swallowtail. Only Heather’s reflexes save her – at the last moment she raises the tray before her face, and winces at the squeak of metal on metal. Heather steps sharply back, just as Kass makes a similar quick dive, strike, and withdrawal on Rina’s other side, also with a lack of success.
A smile spreads across Rina’s face, then fades. Her eyes widen. Her chin wobbles a little, then her lips part and she chokes out a tiny cloud of red-brown dust, coloured like the earth of the Mound of the Dead.
While Rina still wears a perplexed, unfocussed look in her eyes, Judith, who has been dragging the tablecloth from the table, steps forward and flings it over Rina’s head. As one, Heather and Kass bound forward, bearing the smothered figure to the ground.
A knife-blade strikes up through the cloth between them, slashes through the fabric a few inches, then withdraws, and stabs up again somewhere quite different, narrowly missing Kass’s knee. The struggling mass under the cloth seems larger than a single human figure, its limbs too sinuous… and numerous…
“I’ve got her wrist! Someone – the knife!” The blade has stabbed up again, next to Heather’s knee, and through the cloth she is now gripping at a wrist… she assumes it is a wrist. Kass lunges to her assistance, feels for the pressure point and squeezes hard. The hidden grip on the hilt slackens, and Heather is able to pull the dagger out through the rent in the cloth.
The struggling of whatever lies under the tablecloth becomes more frenzied, and from it issues a terrible rasping, choking sound. While Judith, Heather and Kass struggle to restrain it, it thrashes, heaves once, and then subsides into stillness.
Heather hesitantly pulls back the cloth, then relaxes a little.
“Let’s get out of here.”
There is a thin and horrible scream. The old hotel owner stands in the doorway, staring at the three women who kneel upon the dead body of Rina Shekar.
By the time Dexter reaches the door of the hotel, two young men are thundering down the stairs to answer the cries of the old landlady.
Judith and Graham are in the hallway, supporting one another, and Kass and Heather are taking up the rear.
“Everyone to the Land Rover!” Heather grimaces, and spits out a mouthful of damp ash as she pushes out onto the street.
“Is that Maddy? What’s happening to her?”
“Later! Let’s grab her and go!”
Dexter casts a glance up and down Maddy’s rigid, trembling form, then stoops, and heaves her over one shoulder. Instantly she emits a shriek and becomes galvanised, skinny fists striking wildly at the air.
…without warning her contact with the earth has been broken, and now she is only connected to the hissing, sighing darkness… she has been lifted from the earth, into air thick with hissing wires…
“Quick, lay her along the seat – oh, pissing hell, someone get that Swiss army knife away from her…”
The Land Rover pulls away with a screech of tyres.
“What on earth is going on?” No one is ready with an answer to Leda’s question.
“I think Maddy must have cut herself with her knife before we got it away from her – there’s blood along the back of her arm.” Kass is doing her part to try and restrain the other woman’s flailing limbs. As she watches, she notices another shallow cut across the back of Maddy’s hand… and then… “Shit! Guys, I just saw a cut appearing along Maddy’s leg – they’re just appearing all over her – does anyone know what the hell she was trying to do with that ritual?”
“Christ.” Heather leans over the back of her seat. “She was staring at the dirt – and muttering something calling the earth against Rina…’”
“Wait – Rina was coughing up earth…” whispers Judith. The image of Rina Shekar’s dead face flashes before her eyes, the nose and mouth full of red dust. “And then when Dexter… Yuri, stop the Land Rover!” Yuri glances over his shoulder quizzically, but obeys. “I think we need to get her out, close to the soil.”
When Maddy has been laid upon the ground, her convulsions subside, although she still stares skyward, her eyes flitting from side to side.
“Just a moment.” Judith searches around in her luggage, and digs out the little statuette of the priest king. “We know the thuggees were afraid of the priest king, and this was made of clay from Lothal…” Gingerly, she places it in Maddy’s hands.
Maddy’s hands close around it, and then her eye-lids droop. She curls into a ball, cuddling the little statue like a teddy bear, and her breathing gradually settles. After a few minutes she opens her eyes and looks up at her friends.
“Rina?” she asks.
Kass glances at Heather and Judith, then back at Maddy.
“Our feminine principle kicked her feminine principle’s butt,” she summarises.
“Dexter… Sherry’s almost certainly dead, you know that?”
“Yes, I know.” Dexter stares stonily out of the window of the Land Rover at the scrolling landscape. “Even if they haven’t killed her yet, I know they would have done sooner or later.”
“We can’t, like, base everything on one woman, ‘cos if the Ylids do their ritual thing everyone dies. We all have to make sacrifices – I did.”
“I know.” Dexter turns and silences Maddy with a glare, then returns his attention to the window. Yuri allows a few tactful moments of silence before addressing the others.
“The question is what we do now. As we have found out to our cost, Kali’s people are watching the stations. They are probably certain that we will have to abandon the Land Rover soon. Unfortunately, they are correct – it is far too easy to identify.” Yuri glances in the rear view mirror to make sure that Leda Piers is still asleep. One of the side-effects of her periodic attacks of godhood is that, when not actively engaged in some project, she appears prone to fatigue. “We will have been seen driving away from the hotel this evening – the police will be combing the area for this vehicle within the hour.”
“Leda has been making calls to find out about flights and trains to Goa,” remarks Graham. “From what she was saying, by far the quickest way to do things would be to take a train to Bombay, then catch a flight to Vasco da Gama. The problem is, of course, that the police will probably have our descriptions, and while we might have a chance of slipping through a railway station unnoticed, that would be a lot harder in an airport. In addition, well, they might ask to see our passports, in which case we would run into, ah, problems.” He casts a glance in Maddy’s direction.
“Well, the trains then?”
“The best bet seems to be to catch a train to Bombay, and then a bus to Panjim. The buses from Panjim to Old Goa are fairly regular. Even so, we’re going to be cutting things pretty fine. Even if we bypass Ahmedabad and join the train at Anand instead, we still have a seven hour train journey. The bus journey to Panjim is likely to take,” Graham consults his notes, “another thirteen hours or so. We’ll be lucky to reach Old Goa before, ah, six or seven tomorrow evening.”
“We need to get there quick as possible, yeah? It’s, like, important that Leda gets together with Luke. He knows how to, like, develop the goddess. And he’s prob’ly got the disc they’re all after.”
“Yes, this disc of power.” Judith glances at her companions. “Thanks to Yuri’s dream, we now know that the priest king hid it somewhere at Mohenjo-daro, and that it then found its way to Lothal. Given what Heather saw at the Mound of the Dead, I was almost wondering if it might still be buried near there, but the area has been so widely excavated, I cannot see why it has not been dug up yet…”
Kass’s eyes widen, and she starts to grin.
“Judith – that’s it. It was dug up, but no one realised. You hit the nail on the head – it did come to Lothal in one of the trading boats. Clever bastard – he knew they’d never think of it. Maybe Kali’s people even searched the boats, looked through the bundles of goods – and never thought to look at what was holding the bundles together…”
“It’d be a pretty cool way to get the disc to Lothal, yeah?” Maddy catches Kass’s eye, and grins. “Y’know, bake it into a merchant’s seal. Judith, can we look at your unicorn seal thingy?”
With a certain apprehension, Judith takes out her stolen seal, and hands it across to Kass, who taps it, weighs it in her hand, and studies it carefully.
“Hard to say. Doesn’t seem too heavy.” She passes it across to Maddy.
“Rina’s thuggees smashed, like, loads of seals and didn’t find it. Luke’s probably got it, but maybe, just maybe…” Somewhat to the concern of the others, Maddy produces a battered Blue Peter badge and starts working at the cracks in the steatite with the pin. Before they can protest, she has lost patience and rapped it sharply against the wall of the Land Rover. A moment later, she is stirring the clay fragments in her palm with a forlorn expression. “Tt. That happens with all my, uh, scratch cards too.”
Kass still has her shoulders raised in a wince.
“Kiddo, this is just a thought, but we don’t know what the disc’s made of, right? We don’t know how easily it breaks. So maybe we should be a bit careful about just smashing all the seals? I don’t know if discs of cosmic power work less well when they’re in two bits, or have a Blue Peter badge stuck through them… but it would be an embarrassing way to lose the battle for humanity.”
“The Ladyboy has a point,” mutters Dexter, rousing himself to rejoin the conversation.
“There’s no need for that,” Graham says, coolly but firmly, drawing himself up in his seat.
“What?” Dexter stares at him.
“I said there’s no call to talk to her like that.”
“What is this – are you being chivalrous or something? Her? That’s a him! That Is A Bloke. What’s wrong with you, did you miss an episode?”
Lady Judith clears her throat.
“There is another question, and that is what we should do with the disc if and when we find it.”
“Give it to Leda,” Kass says promptly. Maddy nods in agreement.
“I got this, like, theory, yeah? It’s all really confusing – and it, uh, predates Hindu mythology. There was a, like, female Earth Principle or something – a Mother Goddess – and a Male Principle, the priesty guy with the horny headdress in Yuri’s dreams.” She rubs at her temple as she remembers the great shattered Ylid mind buried deep in the earth. It jars somewhat with her idea of the Male Principle, but she shrugs and continues. “Something happened, like, looong ago to make them, uh, fight. Maybe the Ylid calling herself,um ‘kay ay el aye’ managed to steal an aspect of the Good Goddess and, uh, do stuff with it. The land – and all the dead male priesty guys – won’t forgive her. Anyway, I think Leda’s a reincarnation of the Good Goddess – even if she, uh, doesn’t know it yet. So she should have the disc – she’ll know what to do with it when we get to Goa, I can feel it.”
“I’m not so sure,” Judith opines. “The little statue of the priest king has a tiny disc attached to his forehead. In Yuri’s dreams, too, he meets someone with a disc of light set in their forehead. I think someone is supposed to wear the disc on their head – someone of a strong mind. I suspect this should be Luke Pearl, under the influence of the Priest King – perhaps it will be clearer when we find him.”
“As long as we find him before anyone else does,” Heather mutters darkly. “Sounds like Alexander’s already on the lookout for him, and it won’t be long before Kali’s people hear the rumours about his disappearance.”
“Right now we have one advantage over both Alexander and Kali,” adds Yuri. “We know where Luke Pearl is – or will be tomorrow evening. Their advantage is that either can probably cross the country faster than us. If Alexander is funding the archaeological dig, then he clearly has access to money. He may have a private jet of his own – and failing this he can no doubt catch a plane using the name and passport of Robert Montague Flint. Kali may not even need to move her people. We have no idea how widespread her organisation is. She may already have agents in Goa. If either of our Ylids succeed in tracing Luke Pearl through their own means, we may find ourselves with a race on our hands…”
An insomniac wind is stirring the dust along the platforms at Anand. At Graham’s suggestion, the party have broken up into smaller groups, since they can be easily identified en masse.
“We’re in business.” Heather appears at Judith’s shoulder, still in her borrowed sari. “Leda’s collected our tickets from the station office. It seems that for these trains you only get to buy a ticket which puts you on a sort of waiting list, and only a few of these tickets are confirmed valid. Well, we booked ours late so they’re not valid, but Leda managed to talk them into confirming four of them anyway.”
“Ah – so she used her… powers?”
“No, I think she’s still human at the moment. She didn’t seem divine or anything – just really, really bossy.”
“That, um, that still leaves us short four tickets,” Graham points out.
“Yes. But apparently after this station the train stops at Ankleshwar, and then doesn’t stop until Bombay. So we slip on, hide from the ticket collector until we’re past Ankleshwar… and then do the big-eyed tourist bit and pretend we thought our tickets were valid…”
The valid tickets are taken by Leda (since the tickets are booked in her name), Maddy (who refuses to leave the side of her mother goddess), Kass and Judith (at the insistence of Graham).
The ticket collector is stony-faced when he hears the others’ story, but remains polite. He manages to find a vacant seat for Heather next to a group of other women, but the three men are given spaces between cars where they can crouch among their luggage. Yuri and Graham sit within sight of Heather, and Dexter is led further down the train.
Graham pulls back to let three uniformed policemen shoulder past, and regards their rifles with trepidation. He suspects that even if he were doing nothing but sneaking aboard a train without a valid ticket, he would find their appearance daunting. As things stand… wanted for multiple homicide, breaking and entering, vandalism, assault, kidnapping… he tries not to catch Yuri’s eye.
Yuri casts a quick, inscrutable glance at the faces of the policemen. Their posture is slightly lethargic, and their expressions lack urgency – clearly such patrols are routine.
“So I just grab a handful?” Kass reaches into Maddy’s velvet bag of scrabble tiles. “Why am I doing this again?”
“Well, uh, you’re, like, a mixture of male and female energies, Kass. That’s what this is about. I need a Power Word, yeah? Like, uh, ‘abracadabra’ or ‘amen’ or ‘gouranga’ but, like, mine. A Chaos Word. To activate me.”
“OK, let’s see. Do you feel at all activated by ‘TIIQLZUP’? Alright, what about ‘LGYCFED’?”
“TIIQLZUP. Tee-quil-zup.” Maddy frowns.
“You’re probably not doing her any favours encouraging her,” Leda tells Kass firmly, but not unkindly. “The more Maddy relies upon so-called psychic strategies, the longer it will be before she starts looking for practical answers to life’s problems.” Maddy just beams at her, and then lowers her head and continues studying the scrabble tiles.
“How are you bearing up?” Kass notices that Judith, seated beside her, is looking rather serious and withdrawn. “I don’t know about you, but I still have the taste of ash in my mouth…”
“I was just wondering – even if the world does survive, will we ever be able to go back to our lives? I was thinking about my house, my friends, and I was thinking about…” The long lashes drop before Lady Judith’s beautiful green eyes. “Kass, you are a friend of Nathan Garston. I was wondering – if we do manage to return to England without being arrested for mass murder, do you think he would object to a visit from me?”
For the briefest moment Kass’s competitive spirit is piqued, but then her better nature sweeps to an easy victory.
“He’d be mad to object. No, sugar, I don’t think he’d object at all.”
Stopping occasionally to yawn, Heather flicks through a tourist guide to Goa, bought from the station.
…Goa has been one of India’s most famous and irresistible locations since the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama sailed down the Malabar coast in 1498. He founded a fort at Cochin twelve years later, and the region became a Portuguese colony, which it remained until 1961. Goa is famed for its palm-fringed beaches, its relaxed atmosphere, and its place on the hippy trail…
…once a great capital, Old Goa (Velha Goa) was largely deserted as a consequence of the ravages of malaria and cholera epidemics. Although much of the city is now lost, there remain a number of striking churches and convents in the Counter Reformation style…
Dexter has been placed at the far end of the train, near the driver’s car. Grimly, he leans his bulk against the wall of the carriage, and thinks resentfully of the seats. He has no objection to Graham’s chivalrous impulses, but he finds the art teacher’s current determination to extend these impulses to Kass entirely incomprehensible.
With a sense of annoyance and a keen sense of the ridiculous, he recalls the little man drawing himself up, as if preparing to throw a glove in Dexter’s face.
“That was no way to treat a lady.” Dexter blinks. The voice has sounded from outside his head. Someone right next to him has spoken. He looks up into a familiar face.
“No way at all,” adds Rajiv Shekar.
Enviously, Graham notes that Yuri has managed to slip into sleep, despite the fact that the Russian is propped in a sitting position against the rattling wall. He glances at his watch, and notes that it is now nearly one-thirty. The worst thing, he reflects, about being unable to sleep in a moving vehicle, is the way one dips briefly into sleep and is then jerked out, over and over. Even as he reflects upon this, his head is drooping a little, and for a second his mind lowers into the warm water of sleep, and dreams reach up like mermaids to tangle their fingers in his hair…
…and he is standing on the Mound of the Dead in the brightest of sunlight, without a hint of shadow trailing from his feet. The thuggee standing before him politely pulls his kerchief away from his face to ask for Graham’s ticket. This is not valid, says the thuggee, see how badly drawn it is, a child of five could draw a better ticket. There is nothing for it but to put you under the train as a sacrifice to the goddess…
Graham jerks awake.
At three-fifteen in the morning, some quarter of an hour late, the train draws into Bombay. Rousing themselves with a queasy and sleepless sense of unreality, the SITU agents amass on the platform. After a minute or two, their irritation at the non-appearance of Dexter turns into concern. Leda interrogates the ticket collector, and the group chase alongside the carriages looking in through each window, but the burly Scots-Nigerian is nowhere to be seen.
“Perhaps he’s already heading to the bus station?”
Heather looks at her watch.
“I think we have to assume he is – there’s no way he can still be on this train. Our bus heads out in about twelve minutes, and if we’re not on it we won’t make Old Goa before midnight.”
The State Transport bus terminal turns out to be just opposite the rail station. Despite the hour, there are several buses running engines, and a not inconsiderable crowd. There seems to be no main noticeboard, and the obvious information kiosks appear to be shut.
“How much time do we have?”
“Six minutes. Wait, is it this one? Look on the map for Arjuna.”
“The lady there says it’s this one, but I don’t think her English is very good.”
“Please? You need assistance?”
“Oh, thank goodness.” Judith gives the new arrival as bright a smile as she can manage. A uniformed train official has seldom been such a welcome sight. “We’re looking for the bus to Bombay…”
“Bombay? Ah, leaving now, best run quickly, buy tickets on the bus.” The young official obligingly snatches up one of Judith’s cases, and the group scamper after their rescuer to the farthest side of the bus station.
“No wonder we didn’t see it – it’s parked around the side of the building.” The bus is fairly small, and there are some nine or ten passengers seated on the bus, some sleeping, some reading, some staring out at the amber-lit street.
The rail official heaves Judith’s bag onto the bus, and extends a hand to help Judith onto the bus. She is reaching to take his hand when Graham suddenly takes hold of her shoulder and pulls her back.
He has just realised that the rail official has the same face as the thuggee in his dream.
The young rail official stares at him astonished. The look of surprise ebbs away, and for a while he has no expression at all. Then his eyes harden and brighten, and take on a jewelled venom like those of Rina Shekar. Every passenger on the bus is rising from their seats, silent as death and cobra-eyed.
As they turn to run, Graham and Judith are close enough to hear the twin hisses of two garrotte wires being released and pulled taut.
“Shit!” At the head of the fleeing group, Heather glances across at the station clock, and sees that it is three-thirty – they are out of time. She hears a bus’s engine roar into life, and sees one start to pull away. She veers to pursue it, and before it can gather speed is running alongside it, beating against its metal flank with her fist, and calling out to the driver. At first he seems inclined to ignore her, but when he realises that the mad European woman has taken hold of the door and will not release it until he is dragging her along the ground, he slows a little and opens the door.
Heather leaps aboard, closely followed by Kass, then Maddy, then Yuri with Leda in tow, then Judith and Graham.
“Bombay? Seven tickets please. Seven.” As the bus picks up speed again, a small gaggle of men and women who had been racing through the crowd come to a halt. Among them stand a uniformed rail official, a young woman with western slacks and a red comb in her hair, a young man in a cream-coloured winter coat, with a walkman in the pocket, a middle-aged woman with motherly hips and a fuchsia-painted mouth… they watch the departure with eyes like stones.
“Who on earth were they?” Leda cranes her head around to peer at the bus station as it disappears behind them.
“Followers of Kali,” Yuri explains quietly. “Thuggees.”
“But that’s ridiculous! The cult of thuggee was wiped out during the nineteenth century…” Leda’s voice tends to carry, and is easily audible to the members of the group sitting in other parts of the bus.
“Do you think she can really be as oblivious as she claims?” Judith murmurs to Graham. “I still wonder whether she may know more than she says. Whenever the goddess appears, the obvious personality still seems to be Leda – I wonder whether she may be keeping a lid upon the Goddess.”
“Do you think Maddy is right, and maybe Luke can help peel off the lid?” asks Graham.
“Perhaps. In any case, I do not think I will be returning to ‘the way of the chair leg.’ I think perhaps we are already lucky to have knocked out a goddess without sustaining any ill effects…”
By seven the sky is lightening, and by mid-morning it has turned an attractive powder-blue. The landscape is still rugged, and beyond the low-lying, modern architecture can be seen ranges of flat-topped hills, and behind them the vast Western Ghats, studded with ancient fortifications and modern hill stations. By midday, the sky is a smiling blue, and the number of palms among the other trees has increased sharply. By twelve-thirty the bus has passed into Goa.
At one o’clock, the passengers are released briefly at Pernem so that they can eat and attend to the requirements of nature. The return to her beloved Goa seems to have returned Maddy to her usual skittishness.
“An’ there’ll be a, like, massive party on the beach and it’ll be really cool!” Her mood is only a little dampened when it is pointed out that Old Goa does not lie close to a beach.
Yuri takes this opportunity to telephone SITU and inform Geoff Blaize of the disappearance of Dexter.
“And you say there were a unit of Kali’s people waiting for you in Bombay? I think you are right – they must have been watching the station at Anand, and then contacted one of their cells in Bombay. I daresay that soon the authorities will find the strangled bodies of the real driver, conductor and passengers of that bus they wanted you to catch. And, I am sorry to say, I expect they will also find the body of Executive Owara.” Geoff Blaize sounds hoarse and harassed. “We have no time now for sentiment or self-deception – your mission is all-important. Your colleague may be alive, Agent Belnakov, but I advise against holding out much hope.”
There are five little toe-nails, each painted in an exquisite shade of mother-of-pearl. They gleam against the brown skin of the foot, like exotic shells on rich, damp sand. They peep from beneath a hem of vivid, shimmering peacock-green, embroidery dripping from it like golden foam. Around the slender ankle hangs a chain of little silver bells, like the ones which Kass had worn for her fire-dance.
Dexter is lying on his face, with a mouth full of carpet fluff. He tries to rise, and manages to flop his torso up and down, like a walrus. Handcuffs bite into his fleshy wrists. A swollen bruise on his upper arm brings back the memory of a needle-prick, and a sickly oblivion.
There is a roar that is not in his head, and even when the throbbing in his head ceases, the throbbing of the floor does not.
“We’re on a train.”
“I like trains.” Bina Ajanta’s voice is soft and child-like as ever. “I would like nothing better than to have a train which moved around and around the same track and never needed to stop.” She is seated in a black and crimson chair, dotted with tiny mirrors. Her white gloved hands pick over a plate of spherical Indian desserts, some bright pink, some a startling yellow, lurid fruits of some false sugar tree. “Everyone loves trains – have you seen how people clamber into them, and onto them, and hang out through doors, or to the outside of windows? Have you any idea how many people fall off or under trains?” She chooses a globe the colour of mustardseed, and bites into it with her perfect teeth. The flesh within is soft and snow-white. “And tracks like teeth, running grins all over India and beyond…” Although she is indoors, she is still wearing her dark glasses.
‘“So, I expect you wonder why I’ve brought you here.”‘ Dexter gives a harsh laugh as the young actress stares at him. “Just prompting you.”
“You are going to help me find something that belongs to me. If you do, I may even forgive you and your foolish friends for killing my agents. If not, you will pray for death a thousand times and try to choke yourself with your own tongue.”
“You’re not really selling this to me, you know.” Dexter clenches his teeth against a maddening sweetness in the air, a perfume like coconut, and wine, and the roses on the breath of dying saints.
“Perhaps you would rather I saved such a fate for your American concubine instead,” Bina suggests. Could Sherry still be alive? No, answers every cynical fibre in his being. No, answers his internal voice of disillusionment and despair. And yet… Dexter remains silent. “That is better. Now I shall ask questions and you will answer.”
“You’re after the disc, right? Does this strike you as humorous at all – you’re a goddess, and this disc is supposed to be yours, but you’re so stumped finding it you need me to help you? That’s a pretty sad kind of godhood.”
“Every insolent word you speak will be repaid a hundredfold upon the hide of your woman,” Bina says, coolly.
“Oh, don’t get any ideas along those lines. You make Sherry suffer, and you can count me out of the deal. You see, I’ve got this funny idea that when this is all over you’re going to kill her anyway. I’ve heard a lot about the way you do things – in fact, someone I know has a theory about you. They think once upon a time in India, long long ago, there was a good goddess, a Female Principle, and one day you slipped in and stole her power. That’s it, isn’t it? That’s why you have to keep cutting deals – you’re a runt goddess, strutting about in a borrowed cloak…”
“Your friend is partly right, but their understanding is flawed. It is true that, long before the birth of all the petty gilded postcard gods, there was a great civilisation that flourished with the Indus valley at its heart. It was larger than the domains of Egypt and the Syrian expanses, and was strong and stable for a thousand years. Its people built two mighty cities, which those of your time remember as Harappa and Mohenjo-daro.
“And how did this happen? When others were still grubbing for food in villages, or learning banditry and martial tricks, why did this civilisation flourish and grow year by year like a mighty tree? Over it stood two gods, one male, one female. They were as brother and sister, creatures of the same kind, and for a long while they worked together. Between them they fashioned a thing of power, an amulet to be worn by the head of the priesthood. But the male god was weak of mind, and when a time of trouble came he could not adapt quickly enough and see what had to be done. He was stubborn, and he was blind, and he died.
“The Great Goddess of that age has been robbed of her power indeed, robbed by those same priests that hid the amulet from her. That Great Goddess was… myself.”
“So you put most of your power in something and then lost it? No, wait – you knew where it was but you couldn’t get there, because the land still remembered you and hated your guts. And… Alexander needed you to help him find it, because you had a connection to it and he didn’t, right? But you had to get close to sense it… and then just as you were ready to grab it someone snatches it from under your nose.”
“You know where it is. Tell me where it is.” There is a faint trill of ankle bells as Bina stands.
Dexter stares across the carpet for a moment, calculating a risk.
“Goa. It’s in Goa.”
The bus journey from Panjim takes scarcely more than half an hour, and a little after six in the afternoon, the group find themselves in Velha Goa.
The guidebooks has spoken of the erstwhile capital as deserted and much changed by time, but the visitors are not prepared to find it less than a ghost town. The thriving streets, the villas, the trading stalls, the piazzas, all of these have succumbed before the tide of softly waving palms, the incessant smile of sky, the gently insistent breeze. The lush of gentle jungle has closed in, and the Portuguese have left no trace but churches and cannons. Some of the churches are flanked by flat, green lawns, and others nestle among the tropical trees.
“You wouldn’t know it, but before the Portuguese got here this was the capital of the Adil Shah dynasty,” Leda remarks. “All that is left now is that.” She gestures at a square archway fashioned from some blue-grey stone, at the top of a set of steps. “The archway to the great palace of the last Indian ruler of Goa.” She casts a disapproving glance at the stately churches that surround them. “Vandals,” she mutters under her breath.
“Where did you arrange to meet Luke?” asks Heather.
“The green in front of the old Augustinian monastery. I’d better hurry – he knows I’m never late, and he might worry if I’m not there.” Leda casts a glance over the rest of the group, as if seeing them for the first time. “I think it’s best if I approach him alone.”
The sun is setting behind the trees when the group reach the monastery. One broken tower of prodigious height rises above the ruins, creeper muffling its angles, slender arched windows letting through the sky. About the building’s base a fierce joy of flowering plants tumble and battle. Head bowed, a stone angel grips a tiny man in stiff and stunted arms.
The thick bushes offer many hiding places, and in accordance with Leda’s wishes, the SITU agents set about secreting themselves.
After some ten minutes, there comes the clip of steps along the concrete walkway. Luke Pearl is dressed in the same casual style as before, but Judith notices that his clothes seem to have been newly pressed. He has also clearly just shaved, and his hair shows signs of vigorous combing.
He catches sight of Leda, and his face lights up. As if this spark has ignited the entire panorama, the horizon flushes anew, and a rich, golden light gleams from every leaf, the diamond wing of every hovering insect. Around Leda the bushes are bursting helplessly into flower, spilling petals of cream and crimson around her feet. The creeper tightens its embrace upon the tower, until the bricks shift and weep crumbs of masonry down its face. Leda smiles in return… and suddenly she is the centre of the universe, the sun that blushes the brickwork and plucks colour from the flowers.
Neither Luke nor Leda appear to notice any of this in the slightest.
“I’m so glad you came. I was afraid you wouldn’t.”
“Well, I had half a mind to send the police instead. Luke, what kind of a mess have you got yourself into?”
Luke Pearl bites his upper lip and studies the skyline for a moment or two.
“I did want to talk to you about it, many times. In the end, I decided I couldn’t leave without telling you, but… things got out of hand.”
“Come on, let’s sit down.” The Leda-goddess’ tone combines good-humour with a touch of weariness. She squats upon a stone slab, and after a pause Luke sits down next to her. “Now, out with it.”
“Well… as you know, I owe everything to the Institute – without their funding, I’d still be sitting at square one.” Luke wets his lips and gave Leda a nervous glance. “Everything was fine at Mohenjo-daro, remember? When we were just being backed by the Institute – we got resources, they got first dibs on items for their blessed museum. Now, I’ve said from the first that there was something not right about these Japanese backers that dragged us off to Lothal…”
“But the real point was that the Institute no longer had first dibs, didn’t like it, and bullied you into stealing interesting artefacts for them,” suggests Leda, gently. “That’s it, isn’t it?”
“It was my decision.” Luke sounds a little defiant. “I’m not blaming anyone else for it. Anyway, the original plan was that I should just amass samples of all the interesting finds, leave them with a contact, and then go back to England. This was the plan – but a couple of days ago, I realised that someone else had started stealing things from the site. One of the statues of the priest figures was missing, and so was one of the tablets. I got the idea in my head that someone had noticed what I was doing and was competing – so I panicked and decided I had to get out.
“You were out that day. I waited as long as I dared for you to get back, but when you didn’t show up I left a note in your room, and just left.”
“So – you’ve dropped off all our artefacts with this contact of yours, have you?”
“No. I… didn’t want to do anything irrevocable until I’d talked to you. They’re all safe at the hotel.”
“Well – what was it you so much wanted to say to me?”
Luke stares at his hands, up at the top of the monastery tower, then back in his palms. It does not seem to help him greatly.
“You… you ought to come back to England with me,” he tells his hands. “You say yourself you haven’t been feeling well… and I’ve been getting more of those headaches…”
“Luke, you know perfectly well that I can’t abandon Dr Massey.”
“Are you in love with him?” The question seems to startle the speaker as much as the listener, and there is no mistaking the tone of jealousy and hurt. Luke flushes instantly and stares at his palms with a passionate rage.
“That’s a ridiculous question!” Leda for the first time looks quite flustered. “Of course I’m not.” She frowns a little, as if considering the matter. “No,” she adds, with greater certainty. “I’m not.” Luke beams delightedly, and behind the couple some twenty or so large blue and gold butterflies burst from the undergrowth. One of them circles Leda’s head, then flies down to settle upon her hand. She looks a little startled, and seems to become aware for the first time that the world around her is not behaving entirely normally. “Luke,” she says in a rather different voice, “there’s something else I was going to ask about. These… dizzy spells I’ve been having – why didn’t you tell me how they were changing me? Do you know what’s happening to me? Luke, I talked with some people, and they thought you might know something about it.”
“Mm? You haven’t been changing, you’re just reacting to the stress of carrying everyone you know all the time.” Luke frowns a little as he registers the rest of her remark. “Talked with some people? What people?”
“Mr Pearl.” Yuri raises himself up from cover, one hand raised to shield his eyes. “I am afraid you are not telling the truth. You know very well what is happening to the young lady – you are the cause of it. You have possession of the disc.”
“Disc? What disc?”
“Mr Pearl, I can see it by looking at you. You have a circular place here,” Yuri touches the middle of his own forehead, “and light is pouring from it.” The others can see nothing peculiar about Luke’s forehead, but Yuri’s face is strangely lit, as if he were facing into a bright light.
“Well, it has been feeling a lot like that recently,” Luke managed a wry grin, “but those are just migraines…”
Just migraines? Even while Luke winces a smile, Yuri can see the power and light blazing from his temples, soaking into the earth like rain… and flowing into Leda until she glows like the moon.
“I am not surprised that you have suffered headaches. The source of the power is in your head – how can you not know that? How can you not sense it?”
“Who are you? What are you talking about?”
“Come on, honey.” Kass stands. “We’re running out of time for games.” A knee in the right place is worth a thousand words, she reflects. If necessary, she is ready to step up the interrogation. One by one, the others emerge from their hiding places.
“At the moment we’re not sure whether to count you among the, ah, good guys or bad guys,” Graham declares rather coldly. “You don’t have much time left to convince us one way or the other.” He finds himself burning with a dislike of Pearl – his studied nonchalance, his irritating pink-skinned good looks. Not to mention the fact that he comes from Hull.
“What?” Luke’s face is a picture of absolute perplexity. As he utters the word, the quality of the light changes and reddens. Glancing around, the group realise that somehow the setting sun has melted across the horizon, spilling along its surface until it completes the ring. There is now a rich flame of sunset in every direction.
“Alexander…” whispers Maddy, and she turns to Luke, her face white. “He’s coming, he’s here – we need you to, like, develop the goddess?”
“I’m afraid it really is rather urgent,” explains Judith.
“Oh God.” Heather has been watching developments in silence, and staring at Luke Pearl’s face. “You really have no idea what we’re talking about either, have you?”
“No. What does it all mean?”
“This is what it means. We’re up shit creek. We thought you had the paddle. But by the sounds of things… you hadn’t even noticed you were in a boat…”
The windows of the chapel of St Anthony glimmer gold briefly and then dull. Then the windows of the Covenant of St Monica are aflame for an instant as the man robed in sunlight passes. The light flows about him like water, sometimes thinning to show a glimpse of his chest or arms, sometimes textured like embroidered silk. It is liquid gold, it is angry black-red, it is blue-white like the ache of desert sand on the eye, it is snow-blindness. The sun-wearer strolls rather than strides, his pace suggesting an abundance of leisure. His robe drags a long train along the ground, and behind him grass steams, and trees fizz and smoke. When the light of his clothes fades enough for his image to be more than a blot on the retina, it is possible to see that he is a strikingly attractive man of Caucasian extraction.
He comes to a halt before the monastery, and stares at Leda and Luke who stand waiting for him. Both have one hand stealthily extended towards the other, as if each were planning to push the other behind themselves in an emergency. Graham and Judith flank the young pair, unlikely bodyguards. Maddy crouches among the flowering bushes, her narrow jaw tight with hatred. Yuri stands protectively over her, arms folded.
“Interesting,” says Alexander.
“Do you think he saw us?” Heather pants as she and Kass struggle through the undergrowth on their stomachs.
“No – I reckon he only had eyes for Leda – he didn’t cast a glance at little us.” Carefully, they stand, pulling away the vines from their knees. “Oh, crap. But they have.”
Barely three yards away, a dun-coloured turban surfaces above the greenery, and a thuggee stands, a few petals lingering in the folds of the kerchief. Not far away another is rising to its feet, and behind them they can hear further rustling…
“So one of you does have the disc,” Alexander remarks pleasantly, “and is trying to learn how to use it. I assume that it’s you.” He smiles at Leda.
“Professor Montague Flint?” Leda frowns. “What are you doing here? And why are you… why are you on fire?”
“Oh, I don’t think we quite got around to briefing you on that,” whispers Judith. “That’s Alexander the Great.”
“I don’t care who he is – he’s lighting fires right next to national monuments of considerable historic value. That simply is not acceptable.”
“Do I understand that you intend to do something about it?” Alexander seems to find the possibility delightfully amusing.
“Certainly.” Leda folds her arms. “If necessary, I shall call the curators.” She’s actually mad, Graham decides in the safety of his own head. She may be playing with a nice, crisp, clean deck, but there are definitely cards missing. Sometimes self-possession is just not a sane response.
“Where is the disc, Miss Piers?” Alexander’s tone is still good-humoured, but it has a hint of firmness, as if he were a parent gently signalling to a child that a joke is over.
“I don’t have it.”
“If we lead them to the hotel, they’ll corner us,” gasps Heather. “Maybe they’re even hanging back to find out where we’re going…”
Kass casts a glance over her shoulder at the five racing thuggees.
“That’s hanging back?”
Heather and Kass are setting a new world record for a cross-cemetery sprint while pursued by knife-wielding maniacs. The extraordinary agility of both is serving them well, but they have been running uphill for some time now, and Heather notices that Kass is starting to get out of breath.
“I don’t know how long we can keep ahead of them,” mutters Heather.
“You know the old joke? You don’t need to outrun the tiger, you just need to outrun me.” Kass’s grin is wide and a little mad. “I have a plan…”
…of course, she has people on the ground, and she could find out which bus the others got on – she probably knew that they were heading to Goa before she asked me… but she didn’t know where…
Dexter allows his head to loll forward, so that his captors will think he is still unconscious. Through his half-closed lids, he can see through the narrow door into the cockpit of Bina Ajanta’s private plane.
There is blood running down his face – somehow he objects more to its tickle against his skin than the actual pain of the injuries to his head. The rivulet strokes his cheek like a fingertip, and he has a sudden vivid memory of red blood spotting the very long fingers of snow-white gloves, and Bina’s blood-red mouth pulling into a childish shape as she admired it. He can see her in his peripheral vision, sitting far forwards, her gloved hands gripping the arm rests as she concentrates.
The torture he scarcely remembers. The pain had happened outside some black and crimson shell of rage which kept him safe. His hidden purpose had given him strength.
It was the timing, the timing had been critical. He had known that he must hold out until the others had had time to reach Old Goa. Then it would not be enough to send her people into Old Goa to search – Kali would be gripped with terror of losing her precious disc, and would have to make all speed to Goa, to try and sense the disc’s location. And she would have to get close.
Dexter has no gods he is willing to trust with a prayer, but he offers a fervent hope to the universe that Alexander has already made his way to Velha Goa. If he has not… then perhaps he can only hope that Leda is an Ylid after all…
Both Heather and Kass cannon into the majestic Cathedral of the Bom Jesu.
“There’s probably another way out of here. Go for it, girl – I’ll hold them as long as I can.”
Heather gives a curt nod, and sprints down the aisle. A few moments later, there is a sound of breaking glass – clearly she has chosen to make her own exit.
The mixture of reddish bricks and Counter-Reformation excess gives the inside of the cathedral a curious look. The extravagant gold decoration combined with the pinkish stone recalls the colour of a Hindu temple, as if despite themselves the Portuguese had fashioned a place of worship suited to the setting. It is also a little like standing inside an enormous, angular Christmas cracker.
Kass snatches up a weighty gilded candlestick, and takes up a place behind the door. As the first thuggee bursts into the cathedral, she swings it at his head, and feels a satisfying impact. He crumples, tumbles, and rises no more. The second trips over him and sprawls. Kass flings her weapon in the direction of his head, and without waiting for her other pursuers to enter, sprints towards the tower stairs. Perhaps they’ll think they’ve got us both cornered in the tower, she hopes…
“Then,” Alexander says, gently, “I shall kill your friends one by one until you tell me who does have it.”
“I cannot allow you to do that.” Leda’s voice is maintaining a tone of unreasoning and peculiarly British self-confidence. It appears to baffle Alexander – still he hesitates. Graham exchanges a glance with Judith, and they each gently take Luke by the arm, and start leading him backwards, away from Leda. He tugs his arms free, and directs a look of outrage at them. The fervent glance which he directs at Leda at once relieves Graham of any anxiety that Pearl is likely to pursue Judith, and decides his own course of action.
“Pearl,” he whispers, “I think you have put Miss Piers in enough danger already. If you do not work with us, this man is going to kill her…” Stumblingly, Luke allows himself to be dragged away.
Maddy’s Power Word buzzes in her ears. A pale green winged insect crawls onto her thigh, and speaks the power word with the voice of an old man. Somewhere it is sung by hidden birds with soft, human mouths. There is nothing in Maddy’s universe except the Word, and her hatred for the man clad in flame.
…of course, the problem is, though they haven’t cornered Heather, they’ve got me like a rat in a trap.
Let’s hope they have services here, and keep buying new bell-ropes, thinks Kass. She leaps from the tower room doorway, and catches the rope, letting it slide through her hands so she can slither down. As she does so, she sees another pair of thuggees waiting below her. She tries to slow her descent, and as the skin is scraped from her hands, flails with her leg to hook the rope around it. She completes the manoeuvre, but she is moving too fast, and the rope jerks from her hands.
As she swings giddily, up-side down, the rope tangled about one leg, her head strikes the stone wall. Her mind is blinded by the blow – the cathedral is dancing, and all the saints are up-side down. She hangs in the Between Place, where everything rocks and nothing is certain, where no one has a single name. But, she wonders, why am I crying? Why do my tears run upwards, and why are they so red?
The three thuggees at the top of the tower stare down at the woman who swings slowly from the rope, blood running over her face. They turn away, leaving her to bleed to death, and soon the pad of their bare feet can be heard running down the stone stairs.
Heather sprints up the narrow stairs of the little hotel, and fishes out Luke Pearl’s keys before realising that the door is open, the lock forced.
A man can be seen throwing the contents of Luke Pearl’s suitcase upon the bed. He wears a smartly tailored suit, and a green-stoned ring on his left hand. Someone else, to judge by the clatter of bottles, is searching the bathroom cabinet.
…I bet the stupid bastard used some really transparent alias on the hotel register…
Just visible beneath the coverlet, Heather can see the handle of a slim brown valise – matching a description that Pearl had given her. Taking a deep breath she dives forwards into the room, snatches at the handle, and has leapt back out of the room before the two men have had time to realise what is happening.
Outside the Augustinian monastery, something changes in the quality of the air. Leda suddenly collapses back into mortality. Yuri is aware that the blazing light in Luke Pearl’s forehead has abruptly vanished. There is now only one source of light and power in the little glade, and that is the man dressed in sunlight.
“Well, now, it would seem that the situation has changed,” murmurs Alexander. “It was an impressive little demonstration of its kind, but the disc is beyond the power of your tiny minds to wield effectively. When I have it, the world will see how a God wields power – an entire hemisphere will see the sky blush red as wine as flames consume the island of Nauru.” He raises his hand, and the SITU agents expect to see him imperiously beckon his rain of golden lava upon them once more. Instead, they see his hand pause mid gesture, as shock, anger and a trace of panic race in turn across his face.
In the distance, everyone suddenly realises that they can hear the sound of a plane’s engine.
“It is still in the seal,” whispers Bina Ajanta. “It is in motion…” She is paying no attention to him, so Dexter risks a glance first at her, then at the slumped body of the American woman in the across the aisle.
Sherry has no colour in her face. Dead? Clearly dead. Just a sprawled doll now, a toy for Kali’s people to tease him with. He looks for a garotte crease along her throat, but he cannot see past her bandages.
“Wait – he can’t be!” Bina suddenly stiffens. “Stop! Turn! Do something!” Despite his cracked teeth, Dexter manages a smile. There’s no braking in mid air, lady. That’s the whole point. By the time you realised it was always going to be too late… Bina gives a slender, ice-cold whimper, at once alien and child-like.
…and Sherry stirs, and opens baffled, glassy eyes.
Out of the corner of his eye, Dexter can see a storm front racing to meet the plan – a blinding, thrashing wall of unholy gold, as high as six cathedrals.
“Hush, pet.” He turns his brightest, best smile towards Sherry. “It’s going to be alright,” he lies.
He has just time to see her look of fear change to trusting acceptance before the needles of lava tear the plane apart like a paper toy.
Heather takes her pursuers as wide a circuit as she dares, and finally sees them fall back, the last of them leaning against a great cannon to recover his breath.
She sprints back to join the others, and finds that Graham has pulled back from the rest of the group to keep an eye out for her. Alexander is still staring at the distant plane, around which the sky is flushing an angry gold.
Graham and Heather duck among the foliage, and fling open the valise. Heather glares down at nine unicorn seals.
“Screw subtlety. Grab a rock.” They suit words to actions, and begin smashing the seals. The sixth cracks dully, and a whiter stone shows through. It takes a moment for Graham to pull the disc free from the surrounding steatite…
They both look up, obeying the same instinct. The distant plane is a speck of searing light, bubbling black smoke. As they watch, there is a soft sound of explosion, like a gasp played backwards. The plane flares briefly, and then disintegrates. The golden storm-cloud ebbs back into the tapestry of sunset, and motes of blackened debris fall from the sky. There is a moment’s pause, and then Alexander turns his head very slowly to face Graham and Heather, his eye sockets gleaming pools of sun. The will starts to drain from their spirits, and the colour from their vision, when Maddy stands suddenly and screams.
It is a single word, but each syllable seems to take a day. There are different consonants, but her face does not seem to move to shape them – her face is stretched in a scream, and the word pours from her open mouth in a torrent of sound.
As Alexander struggles with the tide of sound, Graham runs as best he can to Luke Pearl’s side.
“Put this on!”
“Just do it!”
“Are you mad!”
Judith turns to Luke Pearl and… for a moment she is the centre of the universe. Impossibly pure, impossibly fragile, a fairytale queen…
“Put It On At Once,” she says with impossible majesty, “You Silly Little Man.” Cowed, Luke takes it and holds it to his head, where it seems to cling and lodge. He gives a sharp cry, and falls to the ground.
Judith gasps as she returns to her usual aspect, and then gasps again as Graham grabs her around the middle and pulls her to the turf.
Alexander’s face is locked in a snarl, and he is fighting towards Luke Pearl, as if against a wind.
“I cannot allow you,” the sky and trees and earth say with Leda’s voice, “to do that.” The wind is gathering, and there is a sudden creaking of stone against stone. In the instant before he throws himself down and covers his face, Yuri sees the stone angel cast aside its burden and reach across its torso as if for a sword. Then there is light which burns first red, then yellow, then blue behind their lids, light so bright that they can almost hear it.
None of them dare to move or open their eyes for ten minutes. When they do, they find themselves in a deep blue evening. Luke wakes groggily, his forehead singed and smeared with ash, all that remains of the disc.
“What happened to Alexander?” There is no sign of the Ylid.
“I think… I think I called the curators,” whispers Leda.
“They’ve checked the dental records.” Yuri’s face is impassive as ever, but there is an extra touch of heaviness in his tone. “I am afraid it is confirmed – Dexter and Sherry were among the bodies in the plane. Of course, all that interests the papers is the death of Bina Ajanta.”
Overnight, Old Goa has become a shrine of a peculiarly secular sort. Movie fans in their hundreds have come to lay flowers of tribute in the trees, across the grass. Judith, Graham, Yuri and Heather watch as three or four children play before the Bom Jesu, pelting each other with white and orange carnation heads.
“Any news on Kass?”
“She hasn’t come around yet, but the doctors are hopeful that it won’t be much longer,” Heather reports. “She took a nasty knock to the head, though – it’ll take time to find out whether it’ll have any lasting effects.”
“What about Maddy?” asks Judith.
“No news at all – she seems to have disappeared completely. There was a possible sighting of her in Panjim… but I wonder if that Power Word of hers might have burnt her up completely.” Heather frowns as an insect taps at her cheek, and irritably bats at it with the hand holding her cigarette. Her tobacco craving seems to have asserted its hold with a vengeance.
There will be time for jubilation and grief later. For now, there is only silence, and sunlight, and a sense of thoughts echoing in empty rooms.
Judith gives an elegant turn of her wrist, and looks at her watch.
“We will miss our bus.” They rise and walk back to the bus stop, but at the last moment Graham holds back.
“I think I’ll stay here for a little while.”
His figure is tiny among the momentous churches, these grandiose declarations of Faith and Empire. He wanders into the Bom Jesu for a brief while, gazing at the gilded statue of Ignatius Loyola, spreading his arms as if in benediction over a city that no longer exists. The gleaming figure suddenly reminds him of Alexander, striding through Old Goa, confident that an empire that was no longer his was waiting for him to reclaim it. Graham recalls the ramshackle gateway of the palace of Adil Shah, and wonders how many cities lie on this very spot, each in its day imagined to be eternal. Perhaps their fragments lie in layers deep within the earth, one above the other like coverlets, right down to the relics of cities of the age of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa… He finds himself quoting Shelley’s Ozymandias to himself…
“I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed
And on the pedestal these words appear –
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’“
Graham’s mind is full of shattered visages, fragmented faces. Robert Montague Flint’s face surfacing through that of Alexander. Marilyn fighting against Maddy. Kass’s countenance for a brief moment replaced with another face, male, uncertain. Leda the mortal, Leda the goddess. And Judith – he wonders how she might have changed in her appearance to the others for the brief moment in which he held the disc?
As he climbs the stairs of the tower, he remembers Luke Pearl supported by Leda’s arms, his face pale as he surveyed the singed devastation around him.
“Look at all this – did I do that?”
…Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair…
Graham reaches the top of the tower, and watches the thread of road where a tiny bus is taking Lady Judith back to Panjim.
Cross-legged on the sand, someone without a name takes another bite of watermelon and sifts through the contents of her rucksack. She has a feeling that a lot of things fell out while she was running from, y’know, whatever it was.
Still, she continues to lay out the cards around her, frowning at the feather-touch of the memories they almost evoke.
“I know you,” she says quietly, touching one card. It depicts a man, his face bland with either pain or ecstasy, hanging upside-down from a tree by one leg. “You’re a, like, friend…”
The memory does not return. She shrugs, packs the cards back into her rucksack, and grins into the sun. There seems to be a party taking place further down the beach…
Kass hangs suspended in light, hair rising up in a comet trail towards the Up that is Down. She is falling into the sky, tethered only by the leg, like a kite or a helium balloon. Up here it is so much easier to hear what the stars are saying. Something nestles in the cave of her ear and speaks so fast that the words slip into her mind without her feeling them.
“You will be returning to your body and your name soon,” says the Eagle-headed man whom she senses but never sees. “But first there is much that you can be taught… you have the essence of both principles in your soul…”