The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Sign of the Dragon
11 am, August 13th 1999
“That is the first and last time I fly economy class,” Robert Turing says aloud. Twenty-four hours sitting with his knees pressed against his ears, and as for the food… He decides not to think about the food. The secret identity thing didn’t help matters either. It might be all very exciting, and necessary from SITU’s point of view, but how on earth is one supposed to get an upgrade to first class when the name on the ticket doesn’t match the credit card? And, talking of credit cards, how is he going to explain the next bill to his accountant?
He reaches the customs desk and hands his passport over, nodding his thanks to the official on duty. The familiar surroundings of Narita airport chase the last of the old nightmare from his mind. Easily tall enough to see over the heads of just about everyone in the arrivals area, he looks around for his partners in crime. A small group of people – four men, two women – are waiting by the exit leading down to the trains. All of them look normal, Robert notes with relief.
Smiling, he strides over.
“Du-duuh, it’s ea-sy when you’re biiig in Ja-paaan…” Maddy sings to herself.
Joe shifts from foot to foot uneasily. Alien races and conspiracy theories. It’s got to be some kind of joke, hasn’t it? Yet here he is in Japan. He glances at the others. “Let’s get to the hotel and freshen up,” he suggests. “Then we can see if they serve good espresso around here.”
Nora shakes her head in disgust. On with the misery, she thinks. Back with a bunch of weirdoes like Maddy and the Italian idiot who can only think of his stomach, stuck in Japan. So close to home, and yet, as she looks around at the notices and advertisements, all in Japanese characters, so far away it makes her feel homesick already. At least she’s had time to improve her martial arts, and the people at the Angkor temple helped her resolve some of her confusion over the events of the last missions. Otherwise, she’s not sure she’d be in any fit state to be here now.
Daniel glances at her once then shrugs and picks up his bag. “Yes, let’s go.”
“Isn’t there supposed to be one other person we’re meeting?” Greg asks.
Robert Turing arrives at that moment. “That’s right. Me.” He holds out his hand. “I’m… ah… James Ferguson, yes that’s right. I take it you are the holiday group I’m supposed to meet here?”
Nora groans. He might as well be wearing a false moustache and a T shirt proclaiming ‘I’m a spy’ she thinks. She shakes his hand reluctantly, relieved when he moves on to Maddy.
“Hello, howdoyoudo, pleased to meet you, terrific sari – orange is such vibrant colour, don’t you think?”
She stares back at him, slightly bemused, for once in her life lost for words. “Uh, I’ve got Japanese clothes in my bag,” she stammers at last. “The sari was just for, y’know, the plane.” She stops when she realises he’s turned away from her and is beaming at Greg and Robert Flint.
“Hello, I’m Ro… James.” He looks at Greg hard. “I say, don’t I know you from somewhere?”
The senator-in-disguise ducks his head. “I’m a lawyer, maybe you’ve seen me on TV.”
Sensing that this conversation can go on all day, Robert Flint takes his suitcase in his hand and starts determinedly for the trains. “Coming?” he asks over his shoulder. The others follow, Turing still chattering long past the point anyone is paying attention to him.
On the train into central Tokyo, Joe settles himself next to Robert Flint. “What do you think of our briefing,” he asks nervously. “I mean, it’s all a bit of a joke, I think.”
Flint flicks him a brief glance. “I wish it was.” Taking pity on him, he adds,” You’re new at this, aren’t you? It must be getting serious if SITU is throwing people in at the deep end now. When I started with them, they didn’t even tell new operatives that Ylids existed.”
“You mean they do?” Joe looks disbelieving. Flint claps him on the shoulder sympathetically.
“Tell you what, for now just act as if you think they do. That’ll give you the best chance at understanding what’s going on. And at the very least it’ll keep you alive longer, which can’t be a bad thing.”
The hotel is a short taxi-ride from the station in the Kudanshita area of Tokyo, overlooking the grounds of the Imperial Palace. Even Turing proclaims himself satisfied, once he’s upgraded his room to a luxury suite.
Maddy heads straight for the shower and the others follow her example. When they meet up again an hour later everyone is looking considerably better. Robert Turing, still in his dark suit and silk shirt, is almost – but not quite – as imposing a figure as Greg. Maddy has changed into a high-collared silk dress with a tight skirt. The long sleeves cover most of her henna tattoos and she has taken off some of her jewellery.
“Did you know there are machines outside in the street where you can buy beer and cigarettes?” she says excitedly. “And coffee too?”
“Any girls’ knickers?” Daniel asks. Maddy looks at him oddly and he grins back. “Uh, I heard there were vending machines selling them, I wondered if it was true or not.”
“You get them in some places,” Nora says calmly. “I hope you found the litter bin at the back of the vending machine, Maddy. Throwing empty cans on the ground is not done over here.” She looks around, her gaze dwelling particularly on Maddy, Joe and Turing. “And while I’m on the subject, we all should make an effort to tone down our behaviour in public. Being foreign, we’ll be drawing enough attention to ourselves as it is.” She frowns, running through a mental checklist. “If you don’t know how to use chopsticks you’d better learn fast, you bow when you meet someone, always take your shoes off when going indoors, the public baths are for sitting in, not for swimming, the…”
Flint breaks in. “This is all very interesting, but I think our priority should be to get to know each other. I know that on my last mission we didn’t know enough about each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and that was a real problem.” When everyone is silent, he says, “All right, I’ll start. My name’s Robert Flint – Robert Montague Flint if you want it in full. I live in Manchester, Great Britain. I’m involved in anthropological studies at Manchester uni, and I’m a journalist part-time as well. No wife, no kids – none that I know of,” he adds with a smile. “Will that do?” He looks at the others expectantly.
Maddy opens her mouth to speak but Turing beats her to it. “I’m Robert Turning, though I’m travelling as James Ferguson so you’d better call me James. I’m an antiques dealer.” He produces a business card and waves it around for the group to see. “I’ve traveled all over the world, so I’ve been in Tokyo before several times. Personally, I’d have chosen to come in autumn, much nicer then. I suppose SITU couldn’t wait that long.”
“So you’re rich,” Daniel mutters. “So what. What do you know about Ylids?”
“Yuhlids? Eyelids?” Absolutely nothing, I’m afraid.” He looks at Daniel with interest. “You’ve been on one of these jaunts before, I take it?”
Daniel looks back sourly. “If you count crashing into a mountain top and spending the next week trying to stop people killing you as a jaunt, then yes. Or being kidnapped by a madman and thrown into a lake as a sacrifice for some underwater monster. I’d say the Ylid are real, and dangerous. Ask her.” He jerks his head in Nora’s direction.
She doesn’t look too pleased at the attention. “Yes to everything he said,” she responds. “For those of you who are interested, I’m a journalist. I’ve spent a fair bit of time in Japan. I can speak enough of the language to get by, but please don’t ask me to read anything more complicated than road signs. There are several thousand characters in their writing system. I know about five hundred of them. What I do know is we’re going to be breaking all sorts of cultural rules all the time.” Again her gaze drifts to Maddy.
The girl stiffens. “I don’t know why you keep looking at me. I know about Japan. I’ve been, like, reading about all that on the Net…” She gestures vaguely towards her ‘personalised’ laptop. “That’s why I changed clothes so I’d y’know, blend in a bit more, and then I thought I’d just have a wonder about this Hakone area just to, like, pick up on the vibe, yeah? There’s a thingy to take you there called the Romance Car Train and that sounds cool!” Looking at Turing she smiles broadly and collects her thoughts together with a visible effort. “Anyway. I was at Oxford before I got amnesia so I bet I’m as clever as the rest of you. And I can do magicky things – real magic, not making coins disappear.” She frowns, suddenly thoughtful. “Shinto an’ origami are, like, linked.” she says. “And remember that origami dragon thing that the ninja did that breathed real fire? The big Ylid man must be, like, part of the Shinto thing…” she looks sideways at Nora and then at Joe, her eyes daring him to disagree.
He doesn’t: he just looks more worried than ever. He pulls himself together quickly, realising the attention of the group is on him.
“Joe Maranello,” he introduces himself with a flourish. “Stage magician. You might have seen my show on television – ‘The Masked Magician.’“
“I have,” Flint says. “Weren’t you the one thrown out of the Magic Circle for telling people how you did your tricks?”
Joe flushes slightly. “Only some of them. The reason I’m here is because I’m interested in the whole magic scene and it seems to me there are things in the world that can’t be explained.” He laughs nervously. “I must say, I wasn’t expecting to be fighting alien creatures when I signed up.”
“Someone’s got to do it.” Greg is the last to speak. He smiles round at the group. “My name is Anthony Marwood, I’m a lawyer from Sacramento, USA. I’ve visited Japan before on business, but I’ve lost touch with my old contacts here. Turing, Nora, I presume you know at least some people; you’ve both been here before.”
Both of them nod.
“I’ve already phoned around my old friends,” Nora says. “There’s a couple that live in the Shinjuku suburb that I’ll be dropping in to see while we’re here.”
There is silence for a moment. “Well,” ‘Anthony Marwood’ says at last. “The first thing will be to see this Miyage person, I suppose. Have you phoned him yet, Nora?”
She shakes her head. “I’ll do that next.”
“Good.” He checks his watch. “By my reckoning it’s time for lunch. Shall we try the hotel restaurant?”
Maddy orders raw fish and promptly loses her appetite when she sees what it looks like. Turing has a plate of sushi in front of him and talks into his mobile phone most of the time as he eats, ignoring Nora’s frown of disapproval.
“We can see Miyage at seven this evening,” she says, sitting down.
Turing waves his chopsticks in her direction. “OK. How about you and Anthony go and see him, and the rest of us will see you in the bar later?”
“He wants to see us all.” She exchanges a few words of Japanese with the waiter who appears and turns back to the others. “He said if he’s going to work with us he wants to know who we are.”
“Sounds fair,” Daniel shrugs. “It gives us the afternoon free, anyway.”
Agreeing to meet back at the hotel in the evening, the group splits.
Flint looks up the number of the Tokyo university and manages to get through to someone who speaks English. “I’m on an extended holiday,” he explains, “and I wanted to combine it with a bit of research. I wondered if I could make use of your libraries. And can you recommend a translator? Oh, and by the way, I’d appreciate it if you kept it quiet that I was here. I’m sort of avoiding a certain female student’s father at the moment.” He pauses and laughs. “Yes, unfortunately he’s our head of department. Wasn’t too happy when he found out about his daughter and me, if you know what I mean… Thanks. I knew you’d understand. Maybe I’ll come by the library tomorrow morning then.”
He puts the phone back on his hook and lies flat on the bed, staring up at the ceiling, his eyes creased into a frown.
Daniel and some of the others hire the services of a tourist guide for the afternoon and walk around in the blistering heat. Apart from the palace gardens behind the hotel there is very little growing and what there is has been baked brown by the sun. Everywhere they look there seems to be another temple. The places are as numerous as English churches and a lot more noticeable. Most of them have souvenir shops lining the roads around them. The mixed scents of frying fish and heavy incense cloy the air.
“Where are the geisha houses,” Daniel asks the tour guide in a whisper. She looks at him, feigning shock, and then smiles.
“In Tokyo, here and there. I can arrange for you to go if you like. Very popular with tourists.”
“I’m sure they are,” Joe murmurs, catching up. “What’s that place over there?”
“A department store. We have many. Would you like to see?”
Back in the hotel, Robert Turing has finished with the English language newspaper and is reading through a selection of tourist guides on the Hakone area. The Romance Car train runs directly there, he notes with relief. The most popular tour includes a mountain train and then a cable car ride over Boiling Hell Valley. The prospect sounds quite exciting.
In Tokyo itself, there are exhibitions on at the National Museum and at the Nezu museum of art. Robert flicks through the information and levers himself off the bed. Might as well take a look, he thinks. But one more quick bit of reading first. He switches on his laptop computer, searches for references to Anthony Marwood, then Sacramento, and finally USA.
Just as he’s about to give up, he finds what he’s looking for by pure fluke. A photograph of Marwood and the caption underneath ‘Senator Greg Wentworth defeated.’
Senator Wentworth, the article says, was forced out of office in a storm of allegations ranging from sexual harassment to involvement in organised crime. Always protesting his innocence, the senator has nevertheless dropped out of political life and is presumed guilty as charged.
Turing reads the information through twice then carefully deletes all reference to it and closes the computer.
Maddy has decided that she likes Tokyo. A pity she hasn’t seen Fuji yet, but the girl in the tourist office assured her she’d be able to see the mountain from the train to Hakone. Lifting her smog mask from time to time to draw in deep breaths of the overheated air, she wanders between shops and temples. Every so often she stops, glances around, and scrawls a set of purple marks onto an available surface.
Her new sigil draws its power from dangerous situations. Judging by the clean state of the buildings, being caught drawing graffiti in Japan will probably be dangerous enough for now.
“What I’m really worried about is the dubhium serum,” Flint says. “I really don’t like the idea of carting something around that can give Yashimoto a major advantage over other Ylids. Unless there’s another Ylid here who’d be on our side. And another thing, what effect will that stuff have on an ordinary human?”
He looks around hopefully. Nora and Greg both shake their heads.
Flint sighs. “Well, does anyone at least know how we identify an Ylid?”
“Wait for someone to kill you and that’ll be him,” Daniel says sourly.
It is five minutes before seven. The temple, only a short walk from the hotel, is in sight. Nora leads the way in, introducing herself to a shaven-headed man kneeling before an iron incense burner. Moments later, he is ushering them inside.
“Come in,” a voice greets them in perfect English. “I am Mosaku Miyage. Please excuse my English. It is very poor, I know.”
The room the go into is simply furnished. Tatami matting covers the floor; a low table bears a selection of small bowls. A small, gold statue of the buddha is set into a recess in one wall. The man who has spoken is kneeling before it. He stands up and turns as the group files in.
They stare at him in surprise. He is about fifty, just a stubble of white hair showing against his bare scalp. His traditional yellow robe is hanging open and underneath it he is wearing jeans. He looks Daniel in the eyes. “Even the reverse side has a reverse side,” he intones and laughs. “I’m sorry. You look as if you expected me to say something inscrutable for your benefit. You are all welcome here. And you,” he says, turning on Joe, “don’t believe in any of this. Your own illusions have stopped you seeing the truth. Maybe you will find it out before you leave.”
Flint steps forward eagerly, remembering just in time to kick his shoes off. “Blaize said we can trust you,” he says. “I’m willing to go along with that. Just tell us how we can help.”
Miyage bows. “I believe I am supposed to be helping you, not the other way round. Our religion is under great threat from this Yashimoto. If he succeeds I fear we will be outlawed and all the people of Japan will suffer for it.” He pauses and sighs. “Only last week thieves broke into this temple. Some of our possessions were destroyed, others stolen.” He holds up his hands, forestalling any interruption. “It doesn’t matter. It is not important. What is important is that you stop Yashimoto before his plans come to fruition.”
“Then what help can you offer,” asks Nora.
He looks at her steadily. “You have martial arts training, don’t you? Attack me now.”
She pauses, suspicious then shrugs and throws a punch. Miyage doesn’t appear to move but Nora finds herself blinking up at the ceiling.
Miyage offers her his hand and pulls her to her feet. “When you need help of this sort,” he says, “I can send you a hundred men, all experts. Also, this.” He unloops a string of wooden beads from his neck and hands them to Maddy. “I think you, child, know what these are,” he smiles. “They carry the protection of the Buddha. Open your mind to him and he will show you what to do. As for the rest of it…” He walks to the door and calls out sharply. A young man appears at a run.
“This is Mahmu, my student,” Miyage says, introducing him to the group. “His English is as bad as mine but he can manage if you are patient with him. If you wish it, I will send him with you as your guide and to help you in any way he can as the need arises. And, believe me, the need will arise. You are fighting dangerous enemies.”
You try to pick Nora’s pocket. You almost succeed once but she turns round and glares at you. The look in her eyes is so dangerous you consider drawing a sigil on her forehead.
You manage to visit a detective agency during the afternoon. They tell you that Miyage has been in charge of the Kudanshita temple for ten years. He has lived there for a good deal longer. His record is impeccable – just a minor incident some years ago when two of his monks decided to teach a would-be pickpocket a lesson and left him needing treatment for a broken arm.
For a fee, they arrange to do some more background research and agree to have a pair of bodyguards meet you the next day. There’s no such thing as a local motorcycle gang. The agency offers to carry out surveillance work for you but politely decline to recommend anyone else.
Contacting a British journalist – a Mrs Sarah Anderson – you ask her to provide photos for your ‘story.’ She’s happy to oblige.
Maddy seems to be paying the contents of your handbag and pockets a good deal of attention. You’ve managed to stop her getting too close for now.