The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
A Shattered Visage Lies
“You see?” Dexter snatches up a fistful of pillow stuffing, and shakes it in front of Yuri’s nose. “This is what happens when you forget to barricade your door!” The big Scotsman turns abruptly on his heel and storms into the corridor, colliding with Dipak who is making his way along the corridor with an ice-bucket of champagne. The young attendant has scarcely recovered his balance when Dexter seizes his shoulder and compels him into the ravaged cabin. “Look at this! Do you know anything about this?”
“Dexter…” Yuri says quietly, placing a hand on Dexter’s shoulder. His restraining touch is shaken off abruptly.
“No, I want an answer from him. He was sneaking past our door – he’s always sneaking up and down the corridors.”
Yuri decides to fetch the others in the hope that they will have a chance to examine the carriage before Dexter’s raised tones attract the attention of the entire train.
“Mr Owara, I can assure you… I don’t know anything about this. We’ve never had anything like this before.”
“When was the last time you came down this corridor, eh? Are you telling me you didn’t notice the cabin door was open? You must have seen something, don’t tell me you didn’t.” A vigorous shove propels Dipak against the wall. “Who else is around here? Someone knows something about this.”
The large Scotsman strides into the corridor once more, and then raps sharply on the door of the berth to his left. There is a pause, before an angular-faced young man opens the door, his free hand still busy towelling his wet hair. He has clearly not been deaf to Dexter’s raised tones, and he wears an expression of combined curiosity and apprehension.
“Have you seen anyone coming into my berth? My berth – this one – here? Anyone coming in and out?” The young man stares at the open door of the berth blankly, following the direction of Dexter’s pointing finger. “Have you seen anyone? Heard anything? Yes? No?”
“Paul, qu’est ce que c’est passe?” Another man’s voice from within the berth.
“Je sais pas. Un instant. Um… speak French? You speak French?”
“Oh, for the love of Christ. Dipak, you talk to them.” Dexter moves back along the corridor and bangs on the door of the next berth along. A slightly startled-looking Okada Tokutaro arrives at the door in a spotless, lamb-white dressing gown. “Oh. Not much point asking you, is there?” Dexter snarls under his breath and moves on to knock on the door of the next berth, leaving the smaller man looking highly intimidated and not a little baffled. “Hullo? Hullo, anyone in there? Dipak – hey! What are you doing? Who are you talking to? What are you telling them?” Dipak pauses in consternation, a mobile phone still raised to his ear.
“Mr Owara, I am just reporting this… incident. We will have people down here to look into this matter as soon as possible. There will be recompense for any items lost or damaged, I assure you…”
Meanwhile, Yuri has succeeded in rounding up Judith, Heather, Kass and Maddy, and informing them of what has happened.
“And you say that Dexter isn’t taking it well?” asks Judith.
“I believe that I can say that without fear of exaggeration,” Yuri remarks drily. “In fact I would suggest we hurry back to make sure that he does not attempt to batter truths out of any passing waiters.”
“Was anything taken, do you know?” Heather enquires. “Did it look like a standard robbery, or were they looking for something?”
“The room was torn apart.” Yuri shrugs. “They were looking for something. If they were thieves, why not throw things into a case and walk out? They were hunting for something small enough to be in the lining of a suitcase, or inside a book binding.”
“Like, for example, that ring?” asks Heather.
“Do you still have it?”
Yuri smiles and pats his top shirt pocket.
“Good job.” Heather glances down the corridor. “Well, looks like Dipak’s run off to report. If we’re going to get a look at the scene of the crime this’ll probably be the best chance we get. We might want to start sorting through and tidying things up to see if anything really is missing.”
At the door, all the operatives pause, somewhat taken aback by the comprehensive nature of the destruction wrought within.
“Ohhh…” Maddy drops to her knees and peers under each of the beds in turn, but masked assailants fail to leap to her eye. “How did they, ah, get in?”
“Well, the lock wasn’t broken in. I would guess either someone had a spare key, or the lock was picked.” Yuri stoops to peer at the lock of the open door. “Probably the latter, I think. There are one or two scratches around the lock.”
“Pretty bloody thorough, weren’t they?” Heather stirs the mess with her foot. “Looks like they even took apart an electric razor here.”
Maddy is on her hands and knees, examining the wreckage for any trace of the intruders, a stray hair, a fragment of cloth. However, the intruders have ungraciously omitted to leave such clues.
Lady Judith examines the rent fabric of the pillow. The slash is clean, suggesting the use of a highly sharpened blade.
“Yuri, you may wish to place that ring in a very safe place,” she says, with a slight shudder.
Half an hour later, when Graham has returned from breakfast and been apprised of developments, the group meet in the berth belonging to Heather and Lady Judith. Dexter has calmed a little, but is still inclined to glower.
“So. The ring, then. Yuri, can I have a look at it again?” Yuri fishes the ring out of his top pocket, and passes it to Heather.
“Yeah, and afterwards, can I borrow the ring and, um, the scarf? I want to do a, like, Christmas Eve divination thingy to answer some of our, like, questions.” Maddy pauses, and gives Heather a pointed look. “Like,” she adds, defiantly. Dexter wordlessly pulls the white silk scarf out of his jacket pocket, and tosses it to her.
“I suppose we need to take steps to find out who owns the navy suitcases and handbag Yuri found in his compartment,” suggests Judith. “That might reveal the owner of the ring.”
“And the best way of doing that is to find the old accommodation layout, and see who was given our berth,” scowls Dexter. “I’ve decided – I’m going to get hold of that bloody list if I have to knock heads together. Yuri? Are you with me on this?” He receives a nod of assent from the Russian. “And Judy, we could use your help. You’ve got a way with the management on this train.”
“Could Tokutaro have been involved in the break-in?” asks Yuri after a moment’s reflection. “Dexter, you said he was in his room. He had the opportunity alright.”
“Yeah, but I guess the bloke looked pretty confused,” Dexter concedes grudgingly.
“He does that a lot, doesn’t he?” remarks Heather. “I mean, are we sure we’re not following the wrong guy here? Graham, managed to get any more out of him?”
Graham obligingly recounts his conversations with Tokutaro in the temple of Kali, and at the Nabargarh Fort.
“Mm. Look, could Tokutaro be a red herring, after all? Just a Kali follower rather than an Ylid servant? I mean, to me it sounds like when he was talking about Kali he was giving you prompts, Graham, and waiting for some kind of response. Sounds like maybe he’s mistaken you for whatever contact he’s meant to be meeting here.”
“Well, if he did think that it’s possible he doesn’t any more,” Graham murmurs. “After the conversation in the temple, that is.”
“Well, it may not be too late for you to start playing along as his contact,” opines Dexter. “I say you have a go at bluffing your way into his confidence.”
“Or failing that another one of us could start showing an interest in Kali,” suggests Heather. “I’ll have a look on the Internet and see what I can dig up about her.”
“Yeah, and there’s lots of Kali-type stuff here, and ’specially in Udaipur. There’s even a place called, uh, Matabari there – ‘Kali’s House.’ Graham, you could, like, see if Tofu’s all excited about going there. Y’know, I think Yash is doing something like what the vampirey Ylid did when he got, uhh, hurt at Whitby. He tried to, like, heal himself by turning into King Thingummy in that Mystery Play with the Grail and stuff. I think Yash’s gonna try and be, like, Shiva ’cause Shiva got reborn too. I think he wants to deal an Tofuthingy’s the, y’know, matchmaker. Like, uh, Cilla Black…” Maddy begins humming an almost but not quite unrecognisable rendition of the Blind Date theme tune.
“Did anyone understand a word of that?” Dexter stares at Maddy for a few moments, then shakes his head in disbelief.
“Does anyone have any idea where Rashino fits into all this?” asks Heather. “We’ve got information that he’s been snooping around people’s cabins.”
“Yes,” agrees Judith. “I suspect we had better find out which berth is his, and then watch out for him.”
“I reckon Rashino’s Yashimoto in disguise – he did that thing with my sigil where it hurt like, uh, Harry Potter’s scar. He knows who I am now, anyway.” Maddy shrugs.
“Whatever. Heather, have you finished with that ring?”
“Pretty much.” Heather has it raised to eye level, and is paying particular attention to the stone. “I was just trying to work out if the stone is jade – I think it might be. Jade has particular significance in Japan, doesn’t it? Setting’s a little loose, too. I wasn’t sure if it was a man’s ring or a woman’s. It might be a man’s ring, but I think it’s a…” Her tone of voice changes abruptly. “… a case for a garrotting wire.”
In one hand, Heather holds the ring, suddenly bereft of its stone. Between the finger and thumb of the other hand, she grips the oval of jade. Between them is stretched taut a gleaming strand of wire. She glances at her companions and raises an eyebrow.
“Jake? Hello, yes – I’m at Chittaurgarh.” Lady Judith pauses to wave a rather insistent pedlar away from the station office, and then returns her attention to the telephone. “I received your message – has anything else come up?”
“Well, I kept thinking about our conversation, so I thought I’d look into the Montreal conference a little further, talk to one or two people who were there and see if there was any gossip flying around. There was a little, not much. Apparently towards the latter end of his lecture Professor Swathe faced a barrage of questions from Professor Markham that was little less than heckling, but it’s no secret that they’ve been rivals for years – Markham’s out to sell his latest book at the moment, and he doesn’t want Swathe stealing his thunder. Well, the only other big story was about Marcus Massey’s group.”
“Was he the one giving a lecture on the Indus Valley?”
“That’s right. Well, it was pretty commonly known that the paper he was presenting at the conference was designed to drum up interest and funding for his own archaeological project down at Mohenjo-daro. He had a series of other lectures and talks booked for the rest of this year, all for the same purpose. From what I hear, he’s now cancelled the whole tour – the word is that someone must have approached him at the Montreal conference and offered him all the funding he needed. The funny thing is, he hasn’t made his sponsors public…”
While Dexter remains aboard the train to supervise the attendants’ attempts to return some semblance of order to his berth, the other members of the team decide to venture out to Chittaurgarh.
Heather and Kass claim their hired motorbikes, and put them through their paces along the wide, dusty roads weaving across the plains that surround the hill fort of Chittaurgarh. The fort itself is carved from the same toffee-gold rock as the plateau on which it stands, and is ringed with protective walls that almost hide it from the plain-vantage. A few turrets and towers peer above the walls, but it is almost possible to mistake them for freaks of the rock formation. Scimitar-like, a gleam of river divides the city which sprawls below the fort.
At a distance from the city the two women halt to admire the view, noting the steep road up the fort along which the brightly coloured stream of tourists flow sluggishly.
“This rides a bit tame after Jaipur.” Kass grins at her companion. “I enjoyed that – even if we didn’t catch the guy.”
“Yes. If – if it was a guy. Kass, do you think we just jumped to the obvious conclusion there? Do you think it might have been a woman on that scooter?”
Kass hesitates, and turns to knock some of the dust from her coat.
“I don’t think so,” she says after a pause. “But it could be. Life’s full of surprises like that.”
Lady Judith and Maddy spend a short interval browsing through the town centre in search of books and Bollywood magazines before they are ready to face the sharp climb to the fort itself.
“It’s really weird to think of all those thousands of women doing, like, johar – y’know, burning themselves – here,” remarks Maddy, as the pair pause by the third of the six great gateways that interrupt their route.
Lady Judith glances down at her guidebook.
…no less than three times the city of Chittaurgarh suffered a devastating onslaught by a superior foe, and each time the people chose to declare jauhar rather than surrender. In saffron robes the men rode out to die, while the women threw themselves and their children into an enormous funeral pyre. The first of these attacks was by the Delhi Sultan Ala-ud-din-Khalji. According to some accounts, he was allowed a glimpse of the ruler’s beautiful wife, Padmini, in a mirror. The Sultan besieged Chittaurgarh, and offered to withdraw only if he was granted Padmini. Ultimately, Padmini was among those who threw herself to the flames…
“Maybe that’s why they liked Kali – ’cause she, like, got her own back on the men.”
Yuri, meanwhile, has already reached the fort, and begun climbing the narrow stairs of the Jaya Stambh, the Tower of Victory. At the top he enters a domed room, where a number of long apertures let in the warm, blue morning light, and look down upon the fort.
Through one such window, a softly shining reservoir throws back a dim reflection of the ruined walls. On the bank walks a solitary figure, flowering vividly against the sombre golds of the stone and the silvered blue of the water. Bina Ajanta’s face can not be seen from this distance. Her walk has a trance-like grace, and in the wind her crimson sari flickers about her like flame.
Leaning against the wall of Queen Padmini’s palace, Graham pauses to retrieve an emergency ration of chocolate from his pocket. It has become a little softened by the growing warmth of the morning, but still succeeds in comforting his mind.
Graham has grown so used to Okada Tokutaro taking pains to fall in with him that his sudden abandonment has somewhat taken him aback. To make matters worse, on at least two occasions, Graham has glimpsed a figure strongly resembling Tokutaro walking through the ruined fort and has waved to him, only to have the other man walk on quickly and disappear among the distant buildings.
Crumpling the chocolate wrapper and pushing it into his pocket, Graham sets off along the path towards the Suraj Pol gate, vaguely wondering how he is supposed to bluff his way into someone’s confidence when to all appearances they are actively avoiding him.
A little before noon, all passengers traipse back to the train. By the time lunch is served, the train is in motion again, and the hill fort is receding across the plains.
Graham is among the first to the dining car, and settles himself on an empty table, facing the door so that he will be able to see when Tokutaro arrives.
After some ten minutes, the little diplomat does indeed emerge, three new guidebooks tucked under one arm. Graham raises a hand to attract the other man’s attention as he walks past, but Tokutaro does not appear to see him, and instead walks further down the car to seat himself next to the Danish woman, who is sitting alone and watching the plains slide by.
While Graham is considering changing tables to join his friend, the imposing figure of Rashino stalks swiftly past, and then comes to a halt as the young Shekar couple move in from the opposite end of the carriage and claim the two remaining seats at Tokutaro’s table. Unlike a Western couple, the pair do not even hold hands, but their mutual absorption is obvious, and they seem quite unaware of the icy scrutiny they are receiving from Rashino.
The tall man turns, and after a moment’s reflection walks over to Graham’s table.
“These seats are taken?”
“No – no, um, please.” Graham gestures politely to the opposite seat, suppressing his apprehension.
“Thank you, Mr Drummond.” Rashino settles himself in the proffered seat, and to Graham’s alarm makes no pretence of consulting the menu, but instead begins an open scrutiny of Graham’s face. “You are not sitting next to Tokutaro Okada today. It is often a good thing to vary one’s companions in a trip of this sort – so as to meet as many people as possible. You have been spending considerable time with Tokutaro Okada.” He smiles, and the long creases that score his cheeks curve for an instant either side of his mouth, before returning to their original straightness as if the smile had never been.
“So – have you found your trip useful so far?”
“Ah, I am too used to the business world. Of course, this is just a holiday for you. You won the ticket in a crossword competition. That is right, is it not?” Perhaps it is a trick of the light from the window, but for an instant a muted silver gloss appears to shiver across the surface of Rashino’s pupils. For an instant Graham feels helplessly that his very thoughts must be clumsily palpable to that gaze, and suddenly feels a strong temptation to answer the other man honestly.
“I… I suppose, if I were being honest, I am here under false pretences.”
“Indeed?” Rashino does not sound particularly surprised.
Graham lowers his eyes, and recovers a little of his composure.
“Yes, I – I had never heard of the magazine before the prize envelope came through the door. I have my mother to blame for this. Since retiring she has taken to working in a charity shop and spends her days pricing up teddy bears or jigsaw puzzles, and filling in competitions in coffee table magazines that get left at the shop. She’s got it into her head that the more times she enters the more chance she has of winning, though to avoid getting caught out by the judges she enters under different names, mine included.
“I can’t tell you how many ‘Congratulations! You have won third prize in our spot-the-tea-cosy competition’ letters I get. I wouldn’t mind if the prizes were useful, but what am I supposed to do with a set of Queen Mother coasters, or a £25 gift voucher to be spent in the ladies’ department at M&S? Of course I should not complain, after all I won this trip – I tried to give it to Mum but she just said the travel would bring on her sciatica…” Graham trails off a little, and risks a quick flicker of a glance at Rashino’s face. To his relief, the other man is no longer staring into his face, but is gazing out across the assembled diners.
“You are very fortunate, Mr Drummond. I gather there were several other crossword winners. Four of them? Five? Six?”
“Something like that,” Graham murmurs vaguely. “I haven’t been mixing with them that much.”
“Am I right in thinking that they include that young lady with the hair of extraordinary colour?” Following Rashino’s gaze, Graham glimpses Maddy a few tables down, spooning up soup with one hand and leafing through her Lonely Planet guide with the other. Remembering that Maddy believes she has been ‘recognised’ by Rashino, Graham decides quickly to distance himself from her.
“I believe she is one of the winners, yes, though to be honest having seen her on the plane over here, I doubt she could write her own name, let alone win a crossword competition…”
“Is it just me, or does he look more nervous than usual?” Heather has chosen a seat which gives her an opportunity to survey Tokutaro unobtrusively past Lady Judith’s shoulder. The small diplomat is making a desultory attempt to read his new guidebooks, but he seems to lack his usual focus. Often his gaze drifts from the page, and he starts tearing his bread into confetti. “I wish we knew what he had planned. Is he going to try and sabotage the train, or just leave it? It sounded that way from that conversation with Graham. If he bails in Sawai Madhopur or Jaisalmer we’re in trouble – we don’t have transport booked for those stops.
“But it looks like he’s hyping himself up for something…”
“Dex, are you kidding me? Someone burglarised your berth? Oh my god – how come you get all this exciting stuff? No, sorry, it must be really rough getting all your stuff cut up and thrown around – but I tell you, this is real spy thriller stuff. So, Dex, what do you think? Was this just someone grabbing loose change and cameras, or where they ‘looking for something’?” Sherry waggles two fingers of each hand to mime quotation marks.
“Hard to say.” He looks into Sherry’s pleased and inquisitive face and decides to yield a little. “Could be.”
“OK, OK, let’s work this out.” Sherry smoothes a napkin, gets out a pen and starts jotting points while she speaks. “You try and foil a robbery, and the next day you get your room turned over. This thief, could he have slipped something in your pocket or bag? No? Bit of a long shot, I guess. It could be a revenge thing, but then the thief would have to be on the train…” Her face lights up with excitement.
“I guess we’d better start planning ahead. Tell you what, when the enemy spies break into my cabin and try to kill me, I’ll head over and hide in yours, shall I?”
“I guess you’d better.” Sherry smiles archly. “If it’s a matter of life or death.”
After lunch, Heather borrows Maddy’s tangerine laptop to surf the Internet for references to Kali.
…Kali is usually depicted with jet-black skin and dishevelled hair, naked but for a necklace of skulls or severed heads, and a girdle of dead men’s arms. She is often shown with four arms. One hand holds a bowl of wine and meat, one an axe or similar weapon, one a severed head and one makes the sign that means ‘Fear not.’ In some cases she is depicted as beautiful, though she is more often shown as frightful of visage, with a long, lolling tongue. Kali’s paramount place of worship is in the cremation ground, preferably at the dead of night, on a suitable day of the waning Moon. Her worshipper should ideally be naked, and address his prayers to her after the consumption of meat and wine. Her worshippers are customarily male, although some may be female…
…One account asserts that Kali was originally created during an epic battle between the goddess Durga and the throng of demons headed by two arch-demons, Shumbha and Nishumbha. Suffering under the assault, Durga finally lost her composure. Kali leapt fully formed from the brows of the angry goddess, and wrought bloody vengeance on the demon horde… in many legends she is the fiercest opponent of evil, but is untameable and if unchecked may threaten those she is summoned to protect…
…Kali is still most widely revered in Bengal, but some have speculated that Kali was originally the Goddess of the Vindhya Hills, conquered by the Aryans…
Lady Judith, meanwhile, busies herself with the Bollywood magazines she has bought at Chittaurgarh. It is not difficult to find articles relating to Bina Ajanta. Indeed one of the magazines is entirely devoted to the young actress, and she appears upon the front cover of another, holding a single lush, deep pink flower against her cheek.
Bina Ajanta is as yet unmarried, and had no known romantic entanglements. She is widely admired, and it is common knowledge that one of her co-stars in her last film was interested in continuing their on-screen romance behind the scenes. There are also rumours that a well-known politician has sent her countless letters, flowers and gifts, but there is no evidence that she has chosen to reciprocate. One regular visitor to the Indian pop charts has publicly declared that he would marry Bina immediately if she would have him, but despite excited speculation on the part of the fan magazine it seems that the actress has offered no response.
The larger magazine includes a short interview with the actress, in which she is asked about the trials and benefits of her new-found fame.
“…it is very strange. I feel I belong to so many people. I feel I am so many people. For a while I give myself to a new part, and after the film comes out everyone sees me as that person. Then I make myself anew. It is strange to be so many people, I can hardly remember who I am. That is why I need to be alone sometimes, so I have time to see my own face in the mirror, and not someone else. That is why my entourage follows me and protects me, otherwise the crowds would be with me everywhere…”
Having recovered a little from his unnerving encounter with Rashino, Graham calls upon Maddy’s berth to consult her about the relationship between Shiva and the goddess Kali. Perhaps because her youthful manner reminds him of his own students, he finds himself falling back into the role of teacher, and speaking in a more confident and authoritative manner than he had managed when Kass was present. Maddy’s monologues, as ever, sometimes wander from the point or veer into the obscure, and each time Graham kindly but firmly steers her back to point.
“Can I help you?” The slightly cool tone of the question is understandable given that Garbyal has just returned from lunch to discover Dexter and Yuri in the process of glancing over the papers in his small private office.
“Yes – you can.” Dexter straightens unabashed. “I’m looking for the original berth plan – the one that lists where people would have slept if you hadn’t had the bunch of us playing ‘musical cabins.’”
“I am sorry sir, we do not usually hand out such information.” Garbyal shrugs. “And in any case, as you say, the plan is not even accurate.”
“Look.” Dexter moves towards the chief attendant and looms over him, a not particularly difficult task given their difference in proportions. “Someone broke into my room earlier, and tore it apart looking for something which they didn’t find, to judge by the fact that nothing was missing. You know what that says to me? They got the wrong room. And why would they have done that? Because all the berths were switched around. So don’t you think we’d better find out who would have had my room so we can warn them?”
“We would also like to talk to them about compensation for the items that were destroyed in the break-in,” Yuri remarks quietly. “I have already had great difficulty persuading my friend here that he should not simply sue the train company for negligence.”
Convinced perhaps by the size of the two agents rather than by their arguments, Garbyal gives a muttered assent, and reaches for a filing cabinet key.
A moment later the accommodation plans are in Dexter’s hand. The burgled berth is listed under the name of Max Bucher.
Looking a little further down the list, Yuri notes that Tokutaro has originally been given the first berth in the Kota carriage. The next cabin along is listed as reserved for Bina Ajanta.
A little after half past three, the Palace on Wheels halts at the station of Udaipur.
Girded with the information he has received from Maddy and Heather, Graham sets off in search of the ‘House of Kali.’
After a ten minutes or so of braving crowded main streets and the exhausts of a hundred or so competing engines, he reaches the perimeter wall of the old city, and the drab, modern architecture yields to high, white-washed walls. Beyond these is visible the blue expanse of Lake Pichola, behind which a range of mountains rise, graceful and delicate with mist, like the fins of great fish slumbering just below the surface of the lake. In contrast with the stark plains surrounding Chittaurgarh, the lakeside is thick with trees and emerald splashes of parkland. Here and there across the surface of the lake, long, slender islands expose green-furred backs to the air, like large animals swimming against a current without advancing.
The spectacular aspect of the city does little to help Graham in his task of hunting down the Kali temple, and more than once he finds that he has been walking along half-stupefied by the vistas of intricate, ivory-coloured palaces and the lavish paintings displayed on the street stalls, and has missed his turning. He is all but ready to concede that he has lost his way, when he recognises one of the street signs from the map, and finds himself on the perimeter of the grounds of a small temple.
He is still trying to determine whether he has successfully found his way to the ‘House of Kali’ when he looks up from his guidebook map, and sees Okada Tokutaro approaching. Tokutaro recognises him at the same time, and pauses almost imperceptibly before continuing to advance.
“Mr Drummond – I did not think I would find any of my fellow passengers here.”
“Well, as you said before – this is the sort of place that I find ‘more appealing.’” Graham gestures vaguely in the direction of the temple, hoping intensely that he has found the right one. The eyes behind Tokutaro’s large round lenses hold a mixture of uncertainty, suspicion and unwilling hope.
“When we visited the last temple of Kali, I got the impression that… that it was not a subject of interest to you.”
“I am aware that I gave that impression. It was, um, a bit of an oversight on my part. And,” he continues, suddenly inspired, “in any case I often find myself a bit tongue-tied in one of the goddess’s holy places. You spoke of the beauty and terror of the rage of Kali? When I feel myself in her presence it always overwhelms me a little.”
“Yes, I understand.” Tokutaro nods enthusiastically. “I know just how it can be in their presence.”
“Even if one knew one would die at her hand, one would still ask to serve her, like the buffalo demon Mahisha before she cut off his head,” declares Graham, hoping he has pronounced the name right.
“Yes, that is exactly it.” Tokutaro’s face wears an almost pitiable expression of relief as he removes his spectacles and wipes them. When he places them back on his nose, his countenance has resumed its usual focussed, enthusiastic expression. Graham holds forth with as much ardency he can manage, making use of his newly acquired stores of knowledge about the myths of Kali, and sees the shadow of suspicion in Tokutaro’s eye gradually fade.
A streak-backed black-and-white squirrel spirals down a nearby tree and nibbles scraps yards from the pair, one eye watching them all the while. It feels faintly absurd to stand there under its button-black gaze and list a roll-call of demon generals, to speak of blood-drinking and sacrifice. He glances up at Tokutaro, neat, nervous and quick as the squirrel, the eyes magnified by the large lenses earnest and button-black. Tokutaro seems no less out of keeping with the black-and-crimson tales of Kali than does their new rodent admirer.
“We should talk further – but not in public. Perhaps if you could visit my berth after dinner, shall we say at about 2100 hours, Mr Drummond? That would still give us an adequate time margin, providing all appropriate arrangements are in place.” The little diplomat offers a questioning glance, so Graham answers it with a slightly perplexed nod. Tokutaro looks reassured. “Very well. Until this evening then.” The short diplomat gives a small formal bow and departs.
Lady Judith and Heather, meanwhile, are being shepherded along a jetty towards a boat which is due to depart on an hour long cruise about the lake.
“Oh, and it seems the boat stops at the Jag Mandir, where Shah Jehan held out while he was rebelling against his father. Apparently it has a beautiful view of the City Palace – doesn’t that sound nice?” Lowering her guide book, Judith casts a glance past Heather towards the real reason that she has suggested the lake trip. Flanked by a small crowd of autograph-seeking admirers, Bina Ajanta is being helped aboard the boat, having completely disregarded the queue along the jetty.
When the boat heaves somewhat unsteadily from its moorings, a gaggle of admirers still remain standing on the jetty. One or two call out to the actress, and even pull flowers from a nearby tree and cast them towards the actress. Most fall short, and the vessel eases out towards the lake leaving a wake of bobbing, beheaded blooms, like spots of pink and pale-gold foam.
The captain spends some five minutes or so dancing attendance upon the young actress, having a deckchair brought for her, then making a great show of examining it, judging it unworthy, and sending for a superior one. She remains expressionless while iced drinks are placed at her elbow, and waves away trays of refreshments with a tiny, weary gesture. When the captain leaves her side, she reclines in her deck-chair with the faintest air of relief. Bina Ajanta is now clad in a loose suit of deep fox-glove pink, with her mouth painted to match, and her eyes are, as ever, hidden behind her sunglasses. She does not react as Lady Judith sets up her own deckchair a foot away, and sits down beside her.
“Good afternoon, Miss Ajanta. We met in the bazaar in Jaipur, do you remember?” The lashes flutter dimly behind the shades and the dark, pink mouth tenses a little. For a moment, despite the other woman’s languorous glamour, Judith is suddenly reminded of the sulky taciturnity of an adolescent. “It seems we have been lucky with the weather again.”
“Yes, we do.” After a small silence it becomes clear that Miss Ajanta feels no need to contribute further to the flow of the conversation.
“I notice that you are having some trouble keeping your admirers at bay – that problem must occur a great deal. I was a little surprised that you seem to be without an entourage to deal with such things – or are you trying to travel incognito?”
“Incognito – I have no incognito. Magazines, posters, newspapers, everywhere I go I see a face that looks like mine. Everywhere I am recognised. It all has a price, you know? Everything must have a price.”
“But still you travel alone.”
The fox-glove coloured mouth curls into a strangely mirthless smile.
“Perhaps I am not as alone as you think.”
By six-thirty most of the passengers have returned to the Palace on Wheels, for the evening meal. After dinner, the SITU team meet for a quick conference in Heather and Judith’s cabin, and report their latest discoveries. Dexter has been following Bucher, while Yuri has been tailing Rashino. Bucher has been doing little but visit the art and crafts markets.
“Rashino’s been doing a whistle-stop tour of all the major tourist attractions, but not as if he takes any pleasure in it,” remarks Yuri. “A lot of the time he didn’t seem to be looking at the views or buildings at all – he was scanning the crowd as if he was looking for something.”
Graham recounts the conversation at his last meeting with Tokutaro.
“Sounds like something big is due to happen tonight. Someone had better keep an eye on him until your meeting with him,” suggests Heather.
“And if we can, we should try and prevent him talking to too many people alone. If the real contact gets in touch with Tokutaro, that will blow Graham’s cover,” Yuri points out. “I shall take care of this.”
“Someone ought to keep tabs on Rashino too,” says Heather.
“Well, according to nice Mr Garbyal, Mr Rashino is in the second berth of the Bundi carriage, if that helps,” Lady Judith remarks brightly. Dexter nods approvingly.
“I’ll keep an eye on Rashino,” he says.
“Right, and I need all the, like, females for my Christmas Eve ritual, ‘cause it’s divination and that’s like, Moon magic, yeah? In about two hours, OK? Oh, but first…” Maddy tugs Kass’s sleeve, winks heavily and leads her away in the direction of their berth.
“What’s the pomegranate pixie up to now?” mutters Dexter.
Back in their cabin, Maddy closes the door and grins widely at Kass.
“Now, I’m gonna make a special charm and an Orgone Chamber.” She removes a heart-shaped silver locket from around her neck, and removes a small coil of coarse white hair. After lighting a single white candle, she takes out Bina Ajanta’s autograph and scrawls a symbol on it which Kass recognises as identical to that singed into Maddy’s hand. Next, Maddy winds the autograph around a single match, binding it in place with the actress’s long, black hair. The resulting parcel is then slipped into the locket, which Maddy then replaces round her neck.
“It’s, like, a sort of early warning system,” she explains.
The Orgone chamber takes an even shorter time to create. Kass finds herself the proud possessor of one matchbox lined with the foil wrapper of a peanut packet.
“An Orgone Box!” Maddy pronounces, proudly. “Reich made these things in, like, all different sizes to, um, collect orgone, yeah? You only need, like, a little one but he used to, uh, sit inside his ones! Wasn’t that silly? Well, anyway, you need to open it like thi-i-is, and put it in view when you do the, like, sex thing. Try and, like, focus on it at the right moment, OK?” Maddy winks again.
“Oh, and Kass? I’ve thought about those cards. These three cards are, like, your Past, Present and Future, yeah? The Jigglypuff’s a Moon creature – the, um, Feminine Principle – it looks sweet and, like, cuddly and then bam! It attacks its enemies. That’s you, that is.
“The Lovers was upside-down. That means you’re feeling, like, trapped in a role – like, maybe you don’t want to be a Jigglypuff? Or maybe you’re stuck in a relationship that’s all, like oosy – in a not nice way. Maybe with, uh, that Nathan guy…” Maddy casts a shrewd, questioning glance at Kass but learns nothing from the other’s smile.
“The third card’s the coolest of all – well, I think so. The Hanged Man is, um, transition, a deliberate sacrifice of something, umm, bigger. Maybe you let go of being Jigglypuff so you can be, like, Wigglytuff.” Kass cannot help but be amused by the solemnity of Maddy’s nod.
“Thanks, Maddy. OK, I got a nice young man waiting and a matchbox to fill. Talking of roles, though…” Kass riffles through the clothes in her case, then draws out two or three slim garments and starts to grin.
In the corridor of his carriage, Graham passes Tokutaro by chance. They have scarcely exchanged a greeting when Kass stalks by in a tight, minimalist PVC top, an almost translucent black skirt and high boots.
“Ah, Graham, how naughty of you not to tell me you had such a handsome friend – I shall have to spank you for that.” She flashes an unabashed, predatory smile at Tokutaro, then strides on. Red-hot pins and needles of embarrassment wash from the centre of Graham’s forehead, down to the soles of his feet.
Tokutaro gestures vaguely at her retreating form, and looks to Graham with an incredulous question in his eyes. Graham shakes his head, opens his mouth, closes it again, and shrugs wordlessly.
About half an hour later, Dexter who is seated in the bar keeping an unobtrusive eye on Rashino, sees Sherry stagger through the door. His first thought is that she is suffering some kind of seizure, since her face is deep pink, and she seems to be having some trouble keeping her features in order. The next moment he realises that she is trying desperately not to laugh. When she sees him, she waves and approaches.
“Dex, if I don’t get this out, I’m just gonna bust, or suffocate. You know, it’s all your fault!” She gives him a playful, painless little punch on the arm. “You got me thinking spy thriller. Well, just now I was walking down the corridor, and I hear raised voices coming from one of the cabins. So I think, whoa, argument, and I slow down and listen – I’m not proud of that, but I do. And I recognise one of the voices, it’s that German student, Erich Schranke, I got talking with him yesterday.
“Then I listen a bit more, and I realise it’s not an argument. There’s some woman in there, and she’s talking about how she’s going to ‘educate him’ and telling him to be good, and jump through hoops for her and I don’t know what else. And he’s all, “oh, ja, Mistress Kassandra.” And he was just getting louder and louder – in the end I couldn’t stay any more – he would have heard me laughing. Oh, Jesus, there he is – I can’t look at him…”
Erich has indeed wandered into the bar, looking flushed, dazed and slightly bewildered. Sherry covers her face with both hands to suppress her giggles.
Looking past Erich, Dexter sees that Okada Tokutaro has also entered the bar. He sees Rashino put away his newspaper and stand, as if to approach Tokutaro, but the next instant Yuri moves to intercept him, laying a hand on his sleeve and apparently consulting his advice on some matter relating to the guidebook in his hand. Rashino’s long face flushes with irritation, and he casts occasional impatient glances past the Russian’s substantial figure towards the table where Tokutaro is settling oblivious.
When Kass arrives back at Maddy’s berth, the other female members of the team are already present, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm expressed on their countenances. The room is thick with the scent from three jasmine joss-sticks and an array of candles. A big circled triangle has been traced on the floor in sprinkled tikka powders. Within this shape are placed a fat white candle, and an array of brightly coloured Hindu postcards.
“Ganesh guards the doorway,” Maddy mutters, producing a small wooden elephant pendant and wrapping it around the door handle. “…and Snowdon watches the window.” She steps toward the window, and sprinkles a few short white hairs on the carpet before it. “OK! I’ve been soaking the ring in, um, etheric humour.” She nods towards the ring, suspended from a purple thread in a large glass, from which emanates the unmistakeable aroma of gin. “So we can, like, drink its wisdom.” The glass is passed around for each participant to take a sip. “If we’re really lucky, it might give us visions!”
Lady Judith, who has just taken a sip, glances at Maddy in some trepidation.
“Er… there isn’t anything… illegal in here, is there Maddy dear?” Maddy does not appear to hear.
Digging out a copy of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and a copy of Memoirs of a Geisha, she instructs each of the others to pick out three pages at random, cut them into pieces, and scatter them in the middle of the circle.
“Then we all sit within the circle, take it in turns to pass our hand through the candle flame, and then drop some of our blood on the ring!” Maddy beams happily.
Heather glares at her.
“That’s a joke, right?”
Unfortunately for any Sherry’s composure, Erich has chosen to come and sit at her table. She quickly excuses herself and leaves, taking care not to meet Dexter’s eye. Her pleasant and throaty laugh is briefly audible from the corridor.
Erich orders himself a series of fearsome drinks, downs them with startling velocity, and then slides haphazardly into bemused indiscretion. Within half an hour he has one arm around Dexter’s shoulder, and is incoherently trying to solicit his advice.
“So… if this woman, this fine woman, she… she does lots of things for you, yes, but she does not seem to want to…” The German waves one hand vaguely. “… you know, the whole thing… does that means she likes you less? Have I done something wrong?”
While trying to make sense of Erich’s ramblings, Dexter suddenly notices that Tokutaro has risen from his seat, and is making for the door. Rashino has also seen this, and appears to be making an effort to disengage himself from the conversation with Yuri. As he watches, Rashino suddenly pushes past the Russian and sprints from the bar.
Dexter makes to stand, but Erich is clinging to his sleeve.
“No, don’t go. S’is… is very important to me.”
In the end, Kass and Maddy volunteer blood for the ritual, and the others decline.
“Now for the good bit! We get to ask questions and the ring’ll like, tell us the answer. Like ouija, yeah? ’Cept this is, like, Chaos Magic, an’ the wisdom might come to us in, uhh, other ways. I dunno; I just make it up and it works. Sort of.” The white silk scarf has been threaded through the ring which is now suspended above the pile of book clippings. “The ring’ll swing towards a card, or a bit of book or even, like spell the answer. Shall I go first?” Maddy looks around and, receives no objection. “OK. Who is Yashimoto.”
The ring starts to swing.
“What does that say? ‘false – I can’t read the next bit.”
“OK – that’s ‘moon without’ on that piece.”
“What’s on that last bit? Turn it over. ‘Tongue.’”
‘“False moon without tongue.”‘ Everyone looks at Maddy, who shrugs.
“Do we have to keep kneeling in this circle, Maddy dear? It’s not very comfortable.”
“Let’s try it again.” The ring starts to swing
‘“Angry.” That bit reads “angry”‘
“Alright. It’s stopped over the little triangley bit. What does that say?”
“‘Of the moon.”‘
“Angry of the moon?”
Kassandra, who has been rubbing her temples, suddenly gives a faint gasp as a spasm of pain passes like electricity through her brain. At about the same time, the lights in the berth flicker slightly then dim. The dull red filament of the bulb is visible above them. Maddy feels a stealthy warmth emanating from the locket around her neck.
“Mr Drummond, do come in.” Tokutaro opens the door to let Graham into his berth. “All arrangements have been made in Udaipur, and at our final destination.”
“I suggest you review all your arrangements, and take care with whom you discuss them,” Rashino has caught the closing door and elbowed his way into the berth. “Mr Tokutaro, I do not know who you suppose this person to be, but I can inform you that you are greatly deceived in him.”
Tokutaro asks a quick question in Japanese, and does not look particularly impressed with Rashino’s answer.
“Oh dear.” The diplomat moves his guide books into his bag, and when he straightens again somehow he is holding a small, black gun in one hand. “I’m terribly sorry to be so rude, gentlemen, but I’m extremely confused, and I’m running out of time. So if you would be so good as to explain yourselves in explicit terms…”
The lights flicker, and then dim to a reddish twilight radiance.
Out in the corridor, Dexter catches up with Yuri. They have hardly a moment before the lights along the corridor dim, and they suddenly become aware of a noise, like an impossibly protracted sigh. Further along the corridors the lights are extinguishing utterly, one by one. A blackness is approaching, a blackness that snakes and sighs, and breathes inaudible words of malice. With all the haste of instinct, both throw open the door of the carriage sitting room, and throw themselves inside.
As the something passes along the corridor, the windows of the sitting room rattle, and the pictures jump on the walls.
Graham is aware of Rashino leaping towards Tokutaro with uncanny speed. He is aware of the door behind him opening violently. Then he is aware of nothing.
After five minutes of pitch blackness, the light come up with startling abruptness.
“Kass is unconscious – we’d better get the others.”
“Maddy? Are you alright?”
“She’s just dazed, I think she’ll be alright.”
Heather sprints to find the other members of the group, and finally bumps into Dexter and Yuri at the door to Tokutaro’s berth.
“I think the ritual went wrong. Kass is out for the count, Maddy looks like she’s drugged, and you won’t believe this, but I just passed Bina Ajanta’s room and everything’s cleared out of there – I think she’s gone.”
Heather’s glance falls into the room for the first time, and she takes in the unconscious body of Graham on the floor, the splintered table, the slashed curtains. On the bed lies a tall man, face upwards. It is Rashino, and she does not need to see the wire-fine purple crease around his throat to realise that he is quite dead.
24th December 2000
Dexter, Yuri, Graham and Heather are in Tokutaro’s berth.
Maddy, Judith and Kass are in Maddy and Kass’s berth.