The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness

The Palace Of Wisdom

Midnight,18th November 1998

Ella holds her tattered shirt tightly about her. 'I don't think any more can be achieved through the Goddess for the time being. I get the feeling it would only lead to my soul being lost.'

Robert smiles wanly. 'Well, I suppose we might as well get some sleep, then. Unless you have any better ideas.'

'Well, I think that we need to go back to the skeletons ourselves without Mary or anyone, and get a closer look at the metal and things.'

'What, now? In the middle of the night?' asks Robert nervously.

'There... that should do it!' Nora squirms her way back in through the car window, pulling the long-lensed camera after her. 'Get that blown up and faxed back to base, and Kawanagi-san'll come to life in glorious Technicolor.'

'Nice work, sheila!' enthuses John Pinkler. 'You dead sure that was him, though?'

'Black Lexus - check. Scary bodyguard - and I got a pic of him, too - check. That creepy Hatamura guy fawning around him - check.' Nora counts on her fingers. 'That's him all right.'

'Well, I guess it's time for you to head back to the Wat and get ready for this whirlybird jaunt,' says Pinkler, putting the car into motion away from the Shining Heights construction site.

'And you keep an eye on - what I said earlier, eh?' Nora reminds him. She has confided her suspicion of the mute bodyguards to him, although what sort of coincidence it could be for Ylids to have infiltrated Mr Chen's organization she cannot guess. Perhaps they are just the strong, silent types, but better to have Pinkler watching them in any case. And it might keep him out of trouble, too.

Back at the communal hut Greg is on watch, lying still but in reality staring out keenly into the night. All the other survivors are present, and he can hear muttered endearments coming from the area of floor occupied by Paulette Bondu and Arnold Terwilliger. But wait - where is Maurice Perez? Peering through slitted eyes, Greg can see that Perez is kneeling near the door, gazing in the direction of his companion and her new swain. The moonlight catches Perezs face, and Greg sees him smile with a secret satisfaction. Then he quietly rises and slips out through the doorway.

Greg, intrigued, crawls across and peers out after Perez. He sees the Frenchman stride confidently down into the middle of the village, and approach the large central hut. A figure detaches itself from the shadows around it and comes to meet him.

Greg rises and takes the opportunity of a cloud passing the moon to dart (rather ineptly) to a nearer vantage. He can see now that the man Perez is talking to is Charles.

The conversation breaks off, and Perez starts to return to the hut. Greg attempts to melt into the shadows as the Frenchman approaches his position, but fortunately for him at this point Ella and Robert appear.

Perez greets them cheerily. 'You have been enjoying a midnight assignation? It is very sad that you are to be married like this so soon, my friend Bob. To take you away from such a fine woman -' he gestures at Ella expressively, and she, frowning, holds her shirt tighter about herself.

'Well, you know, duty is duty,' says Robert calmly. 'Noblesse oblige and all that.'

'Well, my dear, I know how sad it must be to lose such a fine man, but if you are in need of consolation afterwards...' Perez smiles and nods to Ella before sauntering back towards the hut.

'He seems to have got over being dumped pretty quickly,' says Ella, looking after him in faint distaste.

Greg strides up and tells them what he has seen.

'Perez in cahoots with Charles? Doesn't surprise me. I've never liked that man,' says Robert firmly. 'Either of them.'

'But for what purpose?' muses Greg.

'Perez is a Freemason, right?' says Ella. 'It must be something to do with this Iskander business, then. He's probably keen for it all to go smoothly.'

'Do you think he's the bad guy, then? - who crashed the plane? It seems a bit far-fetched. We were all incredibly lucky to survive, and as for landing in exactly the right valley...' says Robert.

'No, no, I don't think so. At least... it might be, I suppose, but it seems pretty unlikely. And the idea that Freemasonry is this big international conspiracy... it's such a cliché. Real life doesn't work like that.'

'I'm not so sure,' says Greg. 'We know for certain that there is a big international conspiracy of some sort. Maybe Freemasonry is just one of its guises, or one of its front organizations.'

'Hmm, I don't know... it just doesn't seem very satisfactory.' Ella, shrugging, starts to walk back towards the hut. She turns back to the two men. 'We need to try and open the tomb to discover what's inside. And it needs to be during dead of night. But Iain's said that it's too big for us to do it by ourselves - we'll need to get help from one of the other passengers. Which one can we trust?'

The next morning, the operatives gather to discuss plans, apart from Iain who is having a lie-in.

'Ella, is there any chance of you counteracting the effects of whatever was done to Robert and myself?' inquires Greg.

'Maybe,' says Ella. 'I don't want to try to contact the Goddess again unless I absolutely have to, but maybe I could try and whip up something. After all, it was me who made the drug in the first place, it looks like. But I'll have to do it without help from Mary's Nan, I should think.'

'Maybe if someone were to sneak into George's place, they could find out more?' suggests Robert.

No-one looks very keen.

'I thought of a way of helping you out, Robert,' says Ella. 'Of your "performance" difficulties, if you're nervous.'

Robert grits his teeth annoyedly. 'What d'you mean?'

'Well, perhaps we could cause some sort of diversion, and draw people away. Then you could do the business while everyone's back's turned.' She breaks off into a fit of laughter while Robert scowls.

'What sort of thing' asks Daniel interestedly.

'Well, I could come up with something flammable, or maybe we could rescue something from the aeroplane.'

'No way we can get down to that safely,' says Daniel.

'Well, anyway.'

'Actually I'm still rather hoping it won't come to that,' says Robert stiffly.

'Well, we haven't got long, you know. The wedding's tomorrow noon, isn't it?' says Greg. 'But perhaps even sooner than that, we've got to get out of here! If the Chinese Army is on its way, I agree with Daniel - we don't want to be here when they arrive.'

'Our lives are in danger,' adds Daniel sombrely.

'Yes, we should start gathering equipment and supplies for the journey out of the valley - in case we have to do it on our own without guides. We can stash it in one of the abandoned huts,' says Ella. 'But if we want to just sneak away, we'll have to have a pretty good distraction, or the villagers will just grab us - or Robert, at least. I don't suppose they'd be so bothered about the rest of us skipping out.'

Robert looks a little pale. 'Don't worry, we won't abandon you,' says Ella, kindly for once. 'Probably.'

Robert makes an effort to change the subject. 'Anyway, I'm intrigued by that metal thing I saw glinting in among the bones. I want to see it and try and work out what it is. Anyone else up for coming to see the bones again? I'm not going on my own and I don't want any of the villagers with us but if we can get up there I want a bloody good rummage around.'

'Right then, we all ready to head off?' Nora is dressed practically yet stylishly, anxious to appear at her best for the benefit of the video camera one of the bonzes is carrying. The intention is to capture the discovery of the Kongwai Lama for posterity.

'We are waiting for the gentleman from Dai-Mitsu, Mrs Williams,' says the other, older monk, bowing his head politely. It had been he who had told her earlier that there was no chance of her seeing the Tooth today, but that it would be on public display tomorrow during the investiture.

At that moment a black Lexus rolls smoothly up into the temple forecourt, where the small helicopter is waiting patiently, its rotors drooping quietly, and from it emerge the two men she photographed earlier in the day. Kawanagi is small and slender, about the same age as Nora is herself, with untidy hair and an agitated, energetic demeanour. The bodyguard is much larger, with a shaven head and a pudgy round face, and the end of his left little finger is missing. His face is expressionless.

The bonze makes introductions, and Kawanagi speaks in Japanese to the bodyguard, who seems surprised that he is not to be allowed on the flight.

Finally all board the helicopter, their knees clashing awkwardly - the monks have very bony knees. Nora dons her sunglasses to veil her eyes as she exchanges pleasantries with Kawanagi, who speaks very good English.

'Do you know anything about this new Lama, Mrs Williams?'

'I've heard a few stories, Mr Kawanagi,' she replies politely. And no thanks to SITU, they had been clueless as usual. 'Apparently in the fifteenth century he was able to end a drought with his prayer. And he cures people of sickness as well.'

'Yes, indeed. And perhaps more interestingly in this present day, his incarnation in flesh is usually associated with prosperity for the Khmer people. No coincidence, then, that he is returning now, when the economy of this nation is doing so well. The consortium I represent is investing heavily here, as are many others."

Nora eyes him nervously from behind her glasses to judge whether there is any hidden meaning involved in this statement, but can come to no firm conclusion one way or the other.

Robert, Ella and Daniel wait until no-one appears to be looking, and then dart onto the beginning of the path that leads up around the shoulder of the mountain. Ella leads the way, tracing faithfully the route along which Mary led them the previous day.

They emerge onto the shelf in light snow, the first since they arrived in Firis, dusting down over the scrubby plants that cling to the rock, and smoothing the outlines of the harsh black scar of the crashed plane in the valley below. A few desultory carrion birds are circling gently over the wreckage, and Robert shudders.

Trying not to disturb the skeletons unduly, Robert starts to move them aside, Ella stowing them carefully while Daniel keeps a watch out over the approach. They seem to be pretty unremarkable, and the trimmings attached to them are much what he would have expected from an ancestor-worship cult in this part of the world. Their exposure, and what he has heard about their methods of dealing with malefactors, leads him to suspect that they perhaps used to identify the great vultures with the spirits of their ancestors, watching over the tribe as long as they were properly fed. No doubt Alexander, when he had come to the valley, had done his best to drive such primitive notions from their heads. The metallic object is at the back, in the last (and oldest) row of skeletons. It too is a human skeleton, rather taller than the others, and all its joints are made of the shiny silvery metal - possibly titanium steel or something like that, precisely machined to shape - and there are wire ropes of the same substance taking the place of ligaments. A bionic man? muses Robert to himself.

'That's pretty odd,' says Ella. 'I may not be an archaeologist but I don't think they did artificial replacement of joints in the whatever millennium BC.'

'They don't do artificial replacements of vertebrae even now,' says Robert quietly. 'Look!' The whole spine is made of the metal, beautifully articulated. 'And the way the natural bones join onto the metal is so smooth...'

'Are they natural bone, those bits? They look the same colour as the ordinary bones of these others...' Ella peers closely.

'Maybe. Or maybe it was grown onto the metal, or something.' Taking out his pen-knife, Robert scrapes a small shaving from the femur. 'If we ever get back to civilization, SITU'll have a lab that can tell us.'

As they walk slowly back down the path, thoughts heavy with what they have seen, Daniel articulates what everyone is thinking. 'That thing - the way they put it up there with the other ancestors. It's like they thought of it as basically the same thing as the others, basically a person. Alive. Some sort of cyborg. In prehistory.'

'It's rather odd, really, isn't it?' says Robert cheerfully. At least his mind has been taken away from his forthcoming ordeal.

'Hekkhme, I thought you ought to know. The accident our friend suffered - it wasn't an accident. Someone tried to bash his skull in with a rock,' says Greg. 'And they smashed up the radio he was building - a device to allow us to contact the outside world.'

The young priest looks shocked. 'This is terrible! Surely none of our people would do such a thing?'

'Well, maybe it was one of the crash survivors. Can you come with me a moment?'

Hekkhme still looks pale as they reach the location of the assault, to find Iain carefully examining the footprints. He has made sketches of the important ones, which are now starting to fill with snow. 'Here's the shod ones, do you see? They look like dressy shoes, not boots. Not much tread, and light imprints. But not as big as yours, Greg. Who's smaller than you out of the others?'

'Arnold Terwilliger wears boots,' says Greg. 'So it could be Perez or Mr Noc Lo. They're both fairly small.'

'And here, look, here's the prints of one of the villagers.' Iain shows Hekkhme. 'We can't tell which of the two attacked our friend Mr Smith, but they were both around here, and if it wasn't this man who did the attack he was certainly up here afterwards, and he didn't come and tell us or anything.'

Hekkhme holds the piece of paper, looking very worried. The feet are clearly quite a bit bigger than his own, and the big to is more splayed. He presses his lips together.

'Who might want to do such a thing?' asks Greg gently. 'I heard something earlier - the other day. Sounded like someone being bashed. At the back of George's hut. I was worried it might be you, actually.'

'No, that was - oh, dear,' says Hekkhme. 'I am so sorry about what happened to your friend. I - I really do not believe one of us would do such a thing. Especially not this man.' He waves the piece of paper absently.

'Why not him? Who is it, do you think?' presses Iain.

'These are the feet of my senior priest, Lulan. He is a very holy man indeed. And very concerned that these important matters should go well. The future of our people depends on it, you know this.' He twists his hands together rather wretchedly.

'I'm sure Lulan meant for the best,' says Greg, with a look at Iain. 'And Mr Smith will be well in a few days, we think. Maybe it was the other man who carried out the attack, as you say. But what about the struggle in George's house?'

Hekkhme looks at his toes. 'That was a minor difficulty which needed to be smoothed out. Just to make sure that all went well. There is a young man who... Roxana is a very beautiful girl, you know this. And she did not know that the Iskander was coming here at this time, of course. So... young men and young women are what they are...'

'They "formed an attachment"?' asks Iain.

'Yes, indeed. Not a serious one, of course, oh no. But George and Charles thought it was best to make sure that this young man, his name is Andrew, was out of the way until after the wedding. Not that he would cause trouble, of course, he is a dutiful man and would act as he was ordered. But one cannot be too careful in these matters.' Hekkhme pauses, then adds 'And he will be well in a few days, like your friend.'

'Hi Sarah. I'd like to have a word if you've got a few minutes.'

The English girl glances up at Iain. 'Oh - right. yes, sure. Sit down here.' She is shelling peas and casting the shells into the river, oblivious to the light snow that is still floating down. The sky has a yellowish tinge.

'Daniel had a word with me earlier and told me about a dream you had. He said that your old boyfriend's spirit came to you saying that you could get help from an ex-forces guy. Well, I spent some time in the Gulf and was wondering whether you'd like to chat about a few things?'

'Erm, yes, that's right.' She looks distinctly embarrassed. 'It sounds really stupid now. I thought it sounded pretty stupid when I told Daniel, but it's ten times worse now. Are you married?' she adds suddenly.

'Engaged,' says Iain, wondering what that has to do with anything.


She is silent, so Iain says 'So... your boyfriend, did he serve in the Gulf at all?'

'No, he was on the base most of the time. One base or another. He was trained as a lawyer as well as being a pilot, and they used to keep him indoors a lot.' She smiles. 'He hated that.'

'I had some pretty weird experiences out in the Gulf,' says Iain conversationally. 'Like you say, it sounds strange talking about it like this. But it's a serious business. My mates are dying over it.' He tells her the story, and she listens fascinated.

'God, that's so sinister. Like the X-Files or something. Wow, so do you think it's the CIA or whoever who're bumping off your friends?'

'Maybe. Or maybe something else. Some other conspiracy.' Iain grins self-consciously. 'It's impossible to talk about this stuff without sounding like a crackpot, isn't it? We'll be wondering who shot Kennedy next.'

'Well, look, my dream may not have been as weird as that, but it's definitely in the same weirdness league. Jack was as real to me as you are now. And his hands felt just as real.' She takes Iain's hands in hers to illustrate, releasing them almost immediately. 'He was dead set that you - I'm sure now that it was you he meant - should avenge him on the people who'd killed him. Only it wasn't the gangsters he meant, the guys who burnt down the house, Branston Hall it was called, the guys who shot him. He seemed to be meaning that there was someone else involved, someone big and powerful and sinister. He was a real conspiracy man, Jack, I always used to tease him, say it was because he was American. Just a little while before he died he'd joined up with some crazy group for investigating unexplained things.' She laughs. 'Anyway, that's the story, I've told you now. Quite what you're supposed to do about it from stuck out here, I've got no idea!'

Iain pauses to mull this over. 'What about the other guys in his unit - are you in touch with any of them? Do you think you've been watched yourself, at all?'

'Don't think so! Not that I've noticed. And I don't know any of the others, sorry. They'd all be back in the States, I expect.'

'According to the readings, the village where the Kongwai Lama is born is close ahead now!' says the older monk excitedly.

The other monk is leaning out of the window, filming the silver thread of the Mekong as it winds its way through the dense, dark trees.

'That's great!' says Nora sincerely. She has been subject to Kawanagi's gently probing questions for the last two hours, and has been struggling to keep her story intact without giving anything away. Whenever she has tried to turn the topic of conversation away from herself, he has expertly brought it back. And there is something very compelling about his voice and gaze: it makes her feel like a young girl caught in disobedience by a stern schoolmaster. What a creep, she thinks. To her relief, the direction they have been going is completely different to that of the site of her colleagues' tragic accident, as well as being an awful lot closer.

'There!' The trees clear to reveal a village, and the younger monk, hanging precariously from the window, turns the camera towards it.

'How're you feeling, mate?' asks Daniel, wiping the damp cloth across Loki's forehead.

The young hacker merely moans and shifts slightly, not waking.

Daniel straightens up and looks across Loki's body at Robert. 'I guess we're not going to find out who attacked him, or why. Or if he'd got anywhere with the transmission. The only reason I can think of is they wanted to keep us all here, especially you.'

Robert nods.

Daniel leans close to him. 'Listen, Robert, we've been through a lot together, you, me and him. You're the only one I know well enough to talk to like this. What do you think they're actually going to do? Remember in Sweden, it was you who had something to do with the spirit of that ancient warrior that possessed Dubois, summoning it... performing magic. I was thinking, do you think that you have power in you? And maybe that's what George can see in you?'

'Maybe,' says Robert dubiously, although the idea is not an unflattering one. 'Don't you think that it could have been any of us who did that, though? Well, not you, you were tied up in the bottom of the boat.'

'Don't remind me.' Daniel can still clearly remember the choking chill of the water forcing into his lungs, his wrists futilely struggling against their bonds.

'But Mal could have. I don't know, though, perhaps you're right. It seems more likely than me really being the reincarnation of Alexander the Great.'

'What about that Victorian army bloke, though, five generations ago or whatever it was? He certainly looked like you in that photo. And you said you had some family you weren't sure what had happened to them, back then.'

'Oh I don't know,' Robert sighs. 'Anyway, I suppose they're expecting the spirit of Iskander to enter me, at the ceremony, and me to become a god in human form, or something like that. And maybe it will: I'm not going to say it's impossible, not after what we saw with that warrior. Or it might all go horribly wrong, and then they'll get very annoyed.'

The cloud is now solid above the valley, and the snow is getting heavier, with a distinct chill in the air. The locals seem impervious to it, but the crash survivors are huddling together and complaining.

'How are things with you all?' Greg asks the Noc Lo family politely. 'I guess we'll be out of here soon enough, one way or another.'

Young Khem's face falls, as he is rather enjoying himself in Firis, but his mother looks very relieved at Greg's reassuring words. It looks as though she and her husband have not actually stirred from the place they first sat on arriving in the village, staring dead ahead with worried expressions, although presumably they must have done so at some point or other. 'We greatly look forward to resuming our lives,' says Tranh Noc Lo gravely.

Greg, peering surreptitiously at his feet, sees that his feet are very narrow, much more so than the tracing Iain made.

Marie-Claude Duval, still nursing her broken arm, is sitting in the doorway staring out at the snow that drifts down, but gladly moves up to make room for Greg, perhaps grateful that someone is being bothered to talk to her at last. 'This is very romantic, no? I always cry at weddings. When my friend Beatrice was married, I was the, what do you say, the maid of honour.'

'I suppose that Roxana's family will be supplying the bridesmaids for her tomorrow. But I wonder if Robert will be allowed to choose his best man?' muses Greg.

'He is very lucky, to be able to stay here, with these so charming people. I envy him,' she sighs. 'In a month I will be in Reims again, and he will still be here, married and happy. It is like Paradise here, isn't it?'

'Roxana, talk to me. I need to know more about what's going on here.'

Roxana, putting a finger to her lips and glancing about nervously, beckons Robert into the lee of the hut. She seems unsurprised to see him making his visit more noticeable this time. 'Iskander! You must not be here before we are married!'

'I'm not going to do anything I shouldn't,' protests Robert, although he has o keep his eyes firmly averted if he is to lend real meaning to the statement. Cricket records, he thinks, desperately trying to ignore the tension in his loins. Jack Hobbs, 197 first-class centuries. Patsy Hendren, 170. Wally Hammond, 167. 'I can tell that there's some sort of politics going on here. Now who is really in charge? Is it George? I don't think so.'

'Iskander, after tomorrow it will be you. That is all that matters. Everyone wants that to happen as it was said in the time before.'

'Will it, though? I get the feeling the real power will be elsewhere. With Charles? With Hekkhme? With Lulan? With your Nan?' Cyril Mead, 153. Geoff Boycott, 151.

'What will it matter to us? We will have each other.' She presses her upper arms against her sides, pushing her bosom forward and up.

Herbert Sutcliffe! 149! Frank... Frank Woolley... With a great cry of anguish, Robert turns and flees away, pursued only by Roxana's tinkling laughter.

'What's she saying?' Nora hisses to the helicopter pilot, who is standing with her and Kawanagi, arms folded, watching the two monks arguing with a young woman.

He looks blank, but Kawanagi smoothly interposes, 'She is saying that she does not wish to give her new baby up to the monks. They are saying that she has to, that the baby is the Lama. She is upset.'

'I'm not surprised!' mutters Nora. The rest of the villagers are gathered in a semi-circle behind the young mother, who must be a pretty tough nut if she is up and about the same day as giving birth. All wear smocks and have vaguely sullen expressions. The younger monk raises the camera to film them, barking a command, and they reluctantly shuffle together and attempt to smile.

'Now the monk is saying that he will inspect the child to see if the markings are as predicted: a star in the left hand, a crescent on the left shoulder, eyes with green in their brown,' Kawanagi continues translating.

'But all newborn babies have blue eyes, don't they?' puzzles Nora.

The villagers mutter amongst themselves, looking at the monks fearfully, and part, leaving the way clear to the hut they are guarding. The young mother's shoulders slump in defeat.

'It seems that these markings are indeed present,' observes Kawanagi.

The baby is brought out, and the older monk after briefly inspecting it, holding it up for the camera, wraps it in a golden silk cloth. It hangs peacefully in his hands, simply staring ahead of itself, and Nora sees with disquiet that its eyes are indeed brown. The mother starts to cry, but none of the villagers move to comfort her.

'What about the father?' she asks.

'It is not known who he is,' Kawanagi says crisply.

'Did you hear that?' says Daniel anxiously.

Ella strains her hearing over the rattle of the carpenters at work on the wedding platform. 'I think so,' she says uncertainly. 'A sort of faint rattling noise? In the sky?'

'Mm. I was wondering if it might be a helicopter,' Daniel says grimly.

'Well, they won't be able to see anything through this cloud. And if it keeps on snowing like this, then the wreck'll be covered up before too long, as well,' says Ella.

'George,' cries a dishevelled Robert, bursting into the central hut to find the old man sitting cross-legged by the fire, 'I want you to tell me what's going on! You don't seem entirely in control! Who are the real powers here!'

George looks up at him mildly. 'Iskander, calm yourself. You will waste your energies, and it is vital to keep them intact for your wedding. The energy must flow strongly from you.'

'Old George speaks wisdom, as always,' says Charles, emerging from the darkness in that spooky way that he has. 'As for who is in control, we all are, and we all want what is best, for you and for our people, and we all contribute as we can. George provides wisdom. I provide service. The priests provide the divine smoothing. We each do as we can, to make sure all is well tomorrow. You need not fear, Iskander. Nothing can go wrong.'

Ella, pressed against the back of the hut with her ear to a small hole, hears Charles return from the front. He speaks sharply to the older priest Lulan. 'The Iskander is fretful! Has he been seeing Roxana?'

'Yes, but even the hunger for her does not seem to quiet him. I think we should drug him. There are still things that can go wrong if he does not cooperate.'

'I will ask our friend among the foreigners to put something into his food. Nan can quickly make something. It will make him tractable.'

'But remember, it must not affect his [and here Lulan uses a native word at whose meaning Ella can only guess] at the ceremony tomorrow.'

'She will know what is safe. Perhaps we should ask our friend to drug all of our other visitors in this way, not just the Iskander. Then we can be sure none of them will cause trouble, and all will go to plan.'

Back aboard the helicopter, Nora cannot but feel that the whole episode has been rather anticlimactic, and furthermore that the video the young monk has been shooting will be absolutely dreadful. 'What next?' she asks.

'We fly back to Angkor!' exclaims the other monk, folding back the cloth to reveal the baby's face.

It gazes up at Nora, and she has the most curious feeling that it is a wise being, regarding her and seeing the truth about her, its hazel eyes deep and mysterious. Its expression is not at all like that of an ordinary baby.

Kawanagi bends forward, and the baby transfers its gaze to him, blinking slowly. He speaks to it in Japanese, and it opens its mouth as though to blow a bubble.

Kawanagi's eyes widen in shock, and he clutches at his forehead. His legs twitch uncontrollably.

The monks glance at each other in surprise. 'Is everything...' one of them starts to ask.

The baby blinks again, still staring at Kawanagi, and he coughs, specks of blood coming out of his mouth, his eyes bulging. He grabs for the baby and attempts to snatch it from the older monk.

The monk, shocked and surprised, loses his grip, but the younger one is quicker and grabs one of the baby's legs. Nora, quicker yet, has grabbed the other one, and the baby is now suspended between them and Kawanagi. It still makes no sound.

The older monk, cursing, flings the gold cloth towards Kawanagi, who before it reaches him puts his hand inside his jacket, pulls out a small, slim black automatic, and shoots the younger monk twice through the forehead.

The noise is appallingly loud in the cramped confines of the cabin, and the pilot's voice can now be heard shrieking in terror. The rotor note changes and the helicopter starts to dive towards the trees. The video camera tumbles through the window.

The gold cloth drapes itself over Kawanagi's gun hand, and he shakes it aside irritably, but Nora seizes the time to grab the baby with both hands and wrest it away from him. Then she sees that the gun is swinging round towards her. Kawanagi's face is contorted with pain, and bloody foam is dripping from his lips. The baby is still placidly holding his gaze.

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