The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
A Shattered Visage Lies
“Oooh!” gasps Maddy. “Dex’s got a stalker! Like, coool…” She turns to grin mischievously at Dexter.
“The lady does seem to find you somewhat, er, irrestible,” murmurs Judith, moving to join Yuri at the window. “I wonder how she found us? We had better find out what she’s up to – this seems like rather too much of a coincidence.”
“I could try and follow her.” Heather casts a glance down at the dusky skin of her arms. “I might stand a chance of blending in – if I could borrow a sari and something to cover my hair.”
“Or I could disguise myself and ‘bump into her,’” suggests Kass. Dexter stares at her incredulously
“Doesn’t disguise involve discretion and subtlety? Not really your field, is it?”
“Dexter, honey, I have hidden talents.” Kass bats her eyelids at him.
“Most of them aren’t very carefully hidden,” Dexter growls under his breath. “No, I’ll handle this.” He strides towards the door.
“Dexter?” Maddy’s voice halts him at the door. “Uh, didn’t Sherry have a mark on her finger – y’know, where she said she had a, like, wedding ring?” She shrugs. “I mean, the strangly ring’s probably Rashino’s, but…”
“I’ll bear it in mind.” Dexter’s expression clouds for an instant then, with a visible effort of will, he forces a laugh, and with one foot nudges at the papers by Maddy’s knee, covered in her ‘automatic writing.’ “Look at these scribbles – Maddy, didn’t you ever go to school?”
Yes, unmistakably Sherry, tanned and tireless, wisps of gold hair escaping from the confines of her cerise headscarf.
“So, you go make the call, you come back in ten minutes and tell me, yes?” Even if her appearance were better disguised, Dexter suspects that he would recognise Sherry’s voice, at once penetrating and husky. “Ten minutes, yes? Ten minutes. Yes. Good.” The taxi driver with whom she is speaking turns and walks away, and as he does so Sherry looks up to see Dexter.
“Dexter…” For a moment she seems utterly taken aback, then she takes a couple of steps forward, glances quickly about her, and then slides the sunglasses half an inch down her nose so that her eyes are visible over the top. “Dexter – it’s me.”
“I can see it’s you. Is that meant to be some kind of disguise or something?”
“Oh, so you’re in deep cover, are you? I mean look at you, you’re – hey, Dex, did you lose a fight with a cat or something recently?”
“What?” Dexter recalls the ‘butterfly’ scratches currently lining his hands and face. “Oh, that. It’s a long story.”
“Meaning it’s a short story which you don’t want to tell me,” Sherry quips sharply. “Well, that’s a good start. Dex, what happened – why did you jump off the train like that?”
“I could ask you the same question. Sherry, what the hell are you doing here?”
“Well, I guess that would be pretty obvious, now, wouldn’t it?” She gives a short, breathy bark of a laugh. “I guess I’m following you. I mean, we had a deal, didn’t we? You promised that if you started running into some spy stuff you’d share it with me, instead of keeping it all to yourself, right?” She pauses a moment, maintaining eye contact over her mirror-shades. “But… I guess you were neck-deep in this spy stuff right from the start, weren’t you, Dex? That’s it, isn’t it? The whole crossword thing was just a fairytale, wasn’t it?”
“Oh, and I’m the only one telling fairy tales, am I? Why are you really in India, Sherry, if that is your real name? Why are you really following me?” The volume of Dexter’s voice has raised a little, attracting the attention of some passers-by. One trader who had clearly been considering attempting to sell the couple slices of watermelon, seems to think better of it and edges past.
“What – you think I’m some kind of enemy agent?” Somewhat to Dexter’s surprise, Sherry gives him a smile of the purest amusement and glee. “Some kind of femme fatale? That’s really sweet, Dex – I kind of wish it was true. But you don’t get hands like these,” she spreads her hands in front of him, “by doing nothing except massage diplomats and poison cocktails. You get them keeping house for some ungrateful son-of-a-bitch for several years.”
Dexter casts an eye over the worn areas of her long, brown hands, and again notices the raw place at the base of the third finger. He touches it gently with the tip of his forefinger.
“So, where’s the ring now?”
“Making its way through the New York sewer system.” Sherry grins without remorse. Dexter smiles a little despite himself. “Well, why not? At first I was thinking of selling it, but then I realised at long last I could afford to make a gesture. After all, years of my life have gone down the can. My marriage, the life I thought we’d built, everything I’d taught myself to believe so I wouldn’t go crazy, all down the can. I’m through with wasting time – I’m out to grab what excitement I can while I’ve still got a pulse.”
“Fine – grab it somewhere else. You’ve got no idea what you’re getting into here.”
“No, but I’d like to find out.” Sherry catches at Dexter’s sleeve as he starts to move away. “C’mon, Dex – maybe I could be useful. I mean, I tracked you down, right?”
“Yes – how did you manage that?”
“Well, I talked to the head steward first thing this morning, and found out that about a dozen passengers, including you, had left the train during the night. One of the Japanese passengers was dead, they wouldn’t say how but it sounded like foul play, and Max Bucher was unconscious and being taken to hospital. Well, the police moved in and the train wasn’t going anywhere. For a moment there I thought the police were going to head straight out after the missing passengers, but then young Erich Schranke asks to have a private word with the officer in charge of the investigation, and when they come out of Schranke’s berth, the officer doesn’t seem to be in such a hurry any more.
“Well, they start asking us all questions, and after I’ve been asked the same set of questions three times I made up my mind to go and start finding some answers myself. So I grabbed some essentials, pushed them in this little bag, and pretended I needed to go and call my lawyer in the US – made a song and dance about the fact that I was being detained. So they let me off the train into the station house, and once I’m there I use their bathroom, change my clothes and just walk out confidently.” She shrugs.
“After that, I drop by the cab companies. I figure that if you wanted to move out of town really quickly, unless you had transport ready you’d have to jump onto another train or into a cab. The police could make a call and have you intercepted at the next station if you got on a train. So I decided to try the cabs – just asking if they’d given lifts to any foreigners. And, Dex? You’re kinda distinctive. Well, none of them report giving you a lift, but when I wave some notes at them one of them suddenly remembers seeing someone of your description with some other foreigners going into one of these hotels. That was the guy I was talking to when you arrived. I just sent him off to call the cab company again, and find out if you’d been sighted again, while I did a little snooping around the hotels. But… then you walked up.”
“Sounds very simple when you put it like that. Which means that if you can find me in a few hours, the police won’t take long either. Sherry, were you just asking about me, or did you ask about the other missing passengers?”
“Well, mainly you, but… well, I guess I asked after some of the other distinctive passengers. Like Bina Ajanta – I thought maybe you might be secretly bodyguarding her, or something. Yes – I guess I asked quite a few people about her.”
“Great. In that case, you’ve probably already put yourself in danger. Look, just get on a plane, will you? Get out of India and forget any of this ever happened.”
“Oh, so that’s the way the story goes, is it? Where you’re going I can’t follow, and so I’m getting on that plane and if I don’t I’ll regret it, soon and for the rest of my life? Well, little girls don’t work that way anymore, Dex. If you want to send me home, you’ll have to chloroform me and nail me into a crate, and even if you do I’ll be back here on the next flight…”
“How’s it going down there?”
“It looks like a confrontation.” Yuri has drawn the curtain so that a small opening offers him a view of the street. “Dexter is waving his arms a certain amount – there seem to be a number of people watching out of curiosity.”
“Does it, er, seem to be going well?”
Yuri shrugs laconically. “I can only assume so. He has not tried to push her over or pack her into a suitcase yet.”
“Perhaps I’d better get myself in some disguise,” mutters Heather. “If that woman walks off suddenly, we might want someone on her tail. Maddy, do you have a sari I can borrow?”
“That would seem to be unnecessary. They appear to be walking together into the hotel.” There is a short, icy pause.
“He’s not bringing her in here, is he?” As if in response to Heather’s question, they hear the faint sounds of steps on the staircase, and the muted but distinctive tones of Sherry’s voice. “Shit. Quick – hide the Mystic Meg workshop.” The map, the automatic writing and the locket are hastily secreted. Before any of the SITU agents can think of hiding themselves, however, the door opens and Dexter walks in, leading Sherry by the hand. His manner is a strange combination of briskness and resignation.
“Everyone, this is Sherry. Sherry… I think you know a lot of my friends.”
“Oh my god. Right down to the mysterious Russian. Sorry, sir, no offence.”
“Sherry will be travelling with us – just to stop her getting herself killed.”
“Won’t that be nice,” Lady Judith says, faintly.
“Indeed,” Yuri intercedes quickly. “Dexter, perhaps you could show our new companion to your room so she can freshen up a little, yes? Meanwhile, there was a matter I was hoping to discuss with you.”
After Dexter and Sherry have left the room, there is an uncomfortable silence, which persists until Dexter returns a couple of minutes later. Sensing the tension in the room, Dexter leans defiantly against the door, and folds his arms.
“Dexter, you’ve lost it,” Heather says at last. “You’ve really lost it. This isn’t a package tour – what are we supposed to do with your bloody girlfriend tagging along?”
“What was I supposed to do? Look, down in the street she made it pretty clear that she’s paid for her ticket to adventure and she’s bloody well going to get her money’s worth. I mean, we could ditch her here, but she’d just keep trying to track us, and getting herself tangled up in our business alone and unguarded.”
“She did manage a remarkably good job of finding us,” remarks Yuri. “Almost too good.”
“Well, that’s another thing, isn’t it?” mutters Dexter. “If she does turn out to be an enemy agent, isn’t it better to have her where we can keep an eye upon her, making sure she can’t report back?” He turns and places his hand on the door handle. “I’m going to check up on her now, make sure she’s OK… and to make sure she doesn’t use the phone.” He opens the door and leaves the room.
“Well, if nothing else, this new development does indicate that we are currently very easy to find,” remarks Yuri.
“Yes – we are likely to be in trouble the moment the authorities make a determined attempt to track us,” adds Graham.
“Agreed. We need to travel fast, and travel light. Oh, and I’m afraid that goes for you too, Judith.” Heather gives Lady Judith a meaningful look. “I suggest we leave some of our things here, and try to get Blaize to collect them.”
“So… the choices would seem to be either Ahmedabad or Lothal,” suggests Graham.
“Yes, unless Maddy’s magic writing can suggest anywhere else.” Kass pulls the sheets of automatic writing from their hiding place under the bed, frowns at them for a moment, then passes them to Maddy. “OK, Maddy, do your mystic thing. I can’t make head or tail of these.”
For a few moments, the group puzzle over the cryptic scrawls.
“Hmm – the spirits do seem to have a rather, ah, novel approach to spelling and punctuation, don’t they?” says Graham, raising his head to address a nervous smile to the assembled company.
“This bit on the red one – is that something about a ‘dangerous long journey?’” Heather traces a scribble with her fingertip. “Anyone else want to look at this green one? It’s Greek to me.”
“Wow,” mutters Maddy, examining the paper covered in green text. “Even I can’t read my writing on, like, that one. Unhappy lands… bell?”
“I think that bit reads ‘seal,’” Judith opines. “Maybe it’s telling us that we need to go to Lothal or Ahmedabad and look out for a seal of some sort. Or a bell. And that part on the fifth line… could it be the skyline for the town we’re seeking? It certainly looks something like a row of buildings.”
“Yeah, that squiggly bit kind of looks like a minaret or something.” Maddy discards the paper of green writing, and holds the red one at arms’ length while the group offer their theories about it. “Alright, so what have we got here? Me… memory… dangerous because… something… could kill… that looks like ‘Alexander’… very dangerous long journey… danger… can’t make out any of, like, that bit… cause him to destroy you… because? By a curse? …the end of the world… death… that’s, uh, ‘Alexander’ again… very dangerous with… is that ‘memory’? ‘Enemy’?
“Alexander the Great was a, like, rogue Ylid, wasn’t he? And I’m, like, sure I read stuff about him coming to the Indus Valley.” Maddy reaches for her laptop. “I’m gonna do some, um, surfing.”
“That may have to wait until later,” states Yuri. “Right now we should be considering our imminent departure.”
“I’ll go with that.” Dexter slips back into the room. “It’s OK,” he adds, in answer to a questioning glance from Yuri. “She’s in the bathroom, and I’ve unplugged the phone and taken it out of my room. There’s no mobile phone in her bag either – I checked. So – we’ll be heading to Ahmedabad, then?”
“Do we want to, like, head there on the bus?”
“Too risky.” Heather shakes her head. “We need to get hold of some transportation of our own. Kass and me already have motorbikes booked – but we need to beg, borrow or steal some kind of transport for the rest of you.”
“Well, looks like Sherry’s already hired a car. I’ll ride with her to keep an eye on her. Why don’t the rest of you just blag test drives from local dealerships under false names, then nick off with them? After all, we’re probably wanted for murder, what’s a couple of Range Rovers?”
“Ahaha. Ah – that was a joke, wasn’t it?” Graham glances at Dexter nervously, and sees little to reassure him. “Um, well, speaking for myself I, er, can’t legally drive. When I first went to Plymouth I decided to take lessons – after all it was about four miles from my digs to the college site. Not bad during the summer, Plymouth however has a wet season to rival the monsoons they get out here. As I did not fancy risking my life on a bike, I decided to take driving lessons with the BSM. Anyway, halfway through my tenth lesson, Sandy, the driving instructor, cancelled the whole thing, saying that I was a danger to other road users – never got as far as a driving test. Mind you, he did refund half the lesson…” Graham trails off.
“Don’t worry,” Kass says, smoothly. “I’ll take care of it. What are we talking here, four wheel drive? I fancy a Land Rover Discovery myself. If we’re making a trek of this, we’ll need camping gear, food and barrels of water too – can someone else take care of that?” Yuri gives a nod.
“Ah, Agent Montrose – good to hear from you again. Any further news?” Blaize listens while Heather asks that he collect the group’s excess baggage. “I’m sure something can be arranged.”
“There’s another matter. The man that died last night – his name was Rashino Watawa. Could you do some research into him?”
“We’ll see what we can do. Anything else?”
“Yes – there were a pair of newly weds that went missing from the train at the same time as Ajanta and Tokutaro – their names are Rajiv and Rina Shekar. Could you try and find out about them?”
“Shekar is quite a common name. Do you have any more details about them? No? Well, we’ll see what we can do – but remember, India is a nation with a population of about a billion…”
Maddy takes the phone next to speak with Blaize. “Hi! It’s Maddy again! I, uh, don’t think Kali’s gone to Varanasi anymore, or Calcutta. I did some, like, rituals an’ automatic writing an’stuff, an’ I reckon she’s north of Ahmedabad. There’s a well there – Adalaj Vav – an’ I think she’s maybe in there. But anyway, I need to ask you about, like Alexander the Great.”
“Alexander?” Blaize seems somewhat taken aback.
“He was an Ylid, yeah?”
“Yes, that’s right. But we have no record of him being active in the modern day. As far as we’re aware there are traces of his spirit remain in certain areas, but no longer a coherent and meaningful consciousness.”
“Was he a good Ylid or a bad Ylid?”
“Hard to say – after all we never had the opportunity to open negotiations with him. But by many accounts he was possessed of a rather violent temper and arrogant temperament.”
“D’you know anything else about him?”
“A certain amount of information was retrieved by one of our teams, yes, almost by chance. The team suffered a plane crash which stranded them in an obscure part of the Himalayas. They succeeded in stumbling upon an obscure village called Firis, which had remained untouched since the time that they were ruled by Alexander, who they remembered by the name Iskander. They certainly believed that they were still in communication with ‘Iskander’ through auguries, and were awaiting his reincarnation so that they could invoke Alexander’s ‘god-spirit’ into him.
“While in Firis, the team discovered the skeleton of Alexander’s erstwhile friend, another Ylid called Cleitus, and succeeded in retrieving it for study. This was a very important find – it helped us to deduce that Ylids were usually unable to approach one another safely without suffering an effect similar to spontaneous combustion. Somehow, Cleitus and Alexander had managed to overcome this problem – Cleitus’s system contained traces of a metal we call dubium, which had counteracted this effect and allowed the pair of them to meet. However, it seems that at one point the pair of them had a quarrel, and Alexander killed Cleitus.
“I believe some members of the team experienced visions and acquired a sense of Alexander’s personality while they were there – you might want to communicate with the surviving members of that mission group. Sadly, Ella Wallace and Robert Montague Flint are no longer with us, and Operative Loki is still in a coma, but you might get something useful out of Daniel Masterson, Iain Blayne or Greg Wentworth…”
What am I doing here… how can they plan so coolly – how can they be so cheerful?
Graham has retreated to his own room, suddenly finding the sound of the others’ voices too jarring. He sits on the bed and leans backwards, wincing as the wall nudges against the bruise on the back of his head. He closes his eyes, and for once wishes that his visual imagination were not his strong suit. From the darkness behind his eye-lids, the dead face of Rashino stares back at him.
His door is open a crack, and beyond it, he can hear other voices.
“You don’t have any, like, hair dye?” Through the half-open door he can see Maddy, calling into the room across the corridor. With one hand she is clasping a heavy, make-shift turban around her head. As he watches a length of it unfurls, and falls resolutely over her face. She pushes it aside, undaunted. “It’s for disguise, yeah? An’ I can’t get my sari to stay tied round my head…”
“No, sorry.” Heather’s voice from within the room opposite. “Judith – you don’t need to bring that. You’re not going to be hosting any garden parties out here.” Heather is helping Judith in the painful task of whittling her luggage down to essentials.
A little after one-thirty Kass leads the rest of the team to a small side-road near the hotel, in which is parked a Land Rover Discovery.
“Impressive,” remarks Yuri, as he sets about loading the newly bought supplies into the vehicle.
“Did you… I mean, is it legal?” asks Graham.
Kass leans across and pats his cheek.
“Like I say, hidden talents.” She will say nothing more.
Twenty minutes later a curious and scattered convoy is making its way along the road that leads south out of Udaipur. It has been decided that Maddy and Kass will ride ahead on their motorbikes, since they are less likely to attract attention, and would be more easily able to double back and warn the rest of problems ahead. Dexter rides with Sherry, and the rest ride in the Land Rover.
Behind them the shining blade of the lake is lost first amid the throng of buildings, then beyond softly rolling hills. The distant mountains recede, their blue softly melting into that of the sky.
The southern road is a major route, and there are a number of other vehicles, most of which seem inclined to veer suddenly from one lane to another. This is more than a little disconcerting for drivers and passengers alike. Yuri, who has taken the first stint at the wheel, notices that many of the larger lorries have a sign attached to their back bumper which reads, “Horn, please.” Noticing that liberal use of the horn seems to be the norm, he guesses that this is an invitation to vehicles behind the lorry to sound their horn and thus let the lorry driver know where they are.
By the time darkness falls, the road has passed through a couple of small towns – Guman, Rikhabdeo – and the terrain on either side has subsided into gently sloping fields. The party decide that, instead of pushing on further that night, they will leave the road and camp for the night.
“Six months ago, I’d never have thought this is how I’d be spending Christmas,” Sherry remarks. “Thanks, honey.” This last remark is addressed to Maddy, who has just passed her the bottle of scotch that Kass has contributed to the celebrations. Sherry sips, and passes the bottle on to Dexter.
The fire is now blazingly steadily and providing a welcome relief from the chill of the night air. When Kass stands, the slick leather of her high boots reflect a dozen tiny flames, which curl and waver like the tails of angry cats.
“Well, I’m afraid I didn’t manage to get presents for you all, the way Heather did. So I’ll just have to do the best I can for you.” Gracefully, she raises her arms, like a conductor rousing an invisible orchestra. “A little piece of myself for you all to keep, you might say.” Moving slowly at first, she begins to dance.
There is no music, only the sudden castanets of logs popping in the heat, or the whistle of flames sucking hungrily at wet wood. High heels and polished toes beat a soft, strange rhythm on grass and wood-ash. In silhouette against the flames, Kass’s leather-clad legs seem slimmer than ever as she circles the fire. Her gleaming jacket somehow works itself loose, shrugs itself from her shoulders and slides down her back like oil, to lie on the ground. A few minutes later, several of her other garments have followed suit.
Pausing only briefly to don the ankle bells which were Heather’s gift, Kass starts to increase the pace, her bare feet stamping the ash into tiny clouds, and occasionally startling fallen sticks into little shocks of sparks. The tiny bells gleam around her ankles like flame-coloured droplets, and she pauses in her whirling now and again to direct a smile at this person or that through her veil of flame-coloured hair. Her body weaves and twists itself like smoke.
When the dance sweeps to a halt, and Kass is once again standing motionless before the fire, arms spread, there is a ripple of appreciative applause. The performer grins, brushes the ash from her palms and footsoles, and stoops for her slacks.
“That was really something,” Sherry remarks appreciatively, as Dexter walks her back to the car. “I was wondering for a bit back there if she was going to strip right down to nothing – but I guess that would be a bit crazy in December, right? But she’s really toned – that slow somersault thing she did, I couldn’t do that in a hundred years, I don’t have the muscle tone. She must work out a lot – she’s got a great figure.” Dexter catches Sherry giving him a questioning glance.
“Not my type,” he says, with a smile. “Here we are. You might want to throw a coat over yourself.” Dexter watches Sherry settle on the backseat of the car to sleep, then returns to the others.
“Oookay…” When Dexter returns, and gives a brief nod to indicate that it is safe to talk, Maddy reaches behind her for her iMac. “I’ve been finding stuff about Lothal and Ahmedabad. It’s all about water. Lothal’s been, like, flooded loads of times – and they’ve got this really weird man-made harbour thing. Nobody knows if it was for ships to come in or a, y’know, fresh water reservoir or what.” She shrugs. “Anyway, it sounds like my vision, the one when I did the dancey thing to find out who tried to kill Ganesh. There was a big flat lake an’ someone was standing there singing – trying to wake something in the water. Something big, like the Kraken. Or Cthulhu.” She gives a slight shudder. “Kali’s a moon goddess. Maybe she can do, like, stuff with tides… Oh! And hasn’t somebody got a nuclear bomb thing called the Kraken, or Project Kraken or something? Is that India?” She shrugs again. “Hope everybody’s packed their, like, swimming stuff.
“Oh, an’ I sent an email to one of the other SITU groups, to see if my squiggly green thing was the same as this church with, like a great big globe on the spire.”
It emerges that Maddy has also been researching Alexander the Great during the journey. “The Net’s got loads of cool stuff on him: he came to the Indus Valley in, like, 327BC or whatever, and he had loads of fights and then just sort of went home again. An’ then he died in 323BC. Bummer.”
As the others digest this information, Graham clears his throat. “I’ve been trying to recall as closely as possible what Rashino said to Tokutaro in Japanese just before… well, before things became interesting. I’m not sure about a lot of the words, but if I understood one phrase correctly he was saying something about ‘together in the fire.’ If Maddy knows any way my memory can be stimulated further…”
“Wow, stimulating memory? I’m, like, probably the last person you > should ask about that… Mind ou, when I want to have flashes of, like, inspiration, I have a hot bath with, uh, some beer poured into it. Unblocks your chakras, yeah?”
“Ah.” Graham does not look encouraged. “Well, on another note it seems that the Shekar couple have gone missing in suspicious circumstances.” His smile is met by a sea of blank expressions. “I… I did say, early on, that I thought they might be important…”
“Well, it would seem you were quite right,” Lady Judith says, kindly. “We should certainly keep an eye out for them. I would recommend that when we get to Ahmedabad we start mingling and chatting with the locals, and find out if any of the missing passengers have been seen. I’d be interested in visiting some of the local museums too.
“Whatever,” mutters Dexter. “Just so long as we get our hands on those Ylid scum before they can do any more damage. Depraved freaks…” He glares into the fire.
“We also ought to take some time to look through Rashino’s things.” Heather pulls forward her bag, and draws out some of the dead man’s possessions. “The shorthand notes didn’t seem to be any standard form of shorthand – Blaize will be picking those up to see if his people have any more luck decoding them. What about this?” She holds up the brownish, translucent stone. “Is this amber? Does anyone know if amber has any special significance? And there’s this stiletto… it feels odd, sort of lighter than you’d expect. And I don’t know what the hilt is made off, but it sort of feels greasy.”
While the others move forward to examine Rashino’s belongings, Graham notices that Judith remains seated at some distance from the fire, and notes her give a slight shudder as the dead man’s possessions are handled. Remembering his bout of queasiness earlier in the day, he feels a pang of empathy. He rises and moves towards her, ostensibly to kick a fallen log back into the fire, then seats himself by her side.
“I’m not sure I quite feel ready to be part of going through his effects,” he says, to explain his withdrawal from the group. “I’ve… I’ve never been this close to death before.” Judith gives him a quick glance of comprehension and sympathy.
“Those objects in Heather’s hands were all from Rashino’s case,” Judith contributes. “The last time I saw them they were crawling with… butterflies. Paper butterflies.”
“Ah – magical origami creatures. I still haven’t been conscious at the right time to see those.” Graham gives a small, self-effacing smile. “I’d – I’d be interested in hearing more about them, though.”
“Well, the butterflies were rather comical in their way – that was the worst thing. With their silly little pointed paper wings. I think some of them even had little blue margin lines and punch holes in them, just as if they’d been folded out of ordinary notepaper. When they were scrambling out of the case, some of them were jostled by others, and tipped over onto the floor where they just lay on their backs. But there were hundreds of them – hundreds of those foolish little wings, and hundreds of tiny legs scrabbling for a foothold. Then they all launched into the air at the same time. It was only when they swooped towards our faces that we saw the teeth.
“I don’t think the teeth were made of paper. They were too shiny, like rows of tiny needles…”
“I’ve never been too good at origami myself. I could only ever – wait, I’ll show you.” Graham delves in a pocket, and pulls out a piece of notepaper. He carefully starts to fold it, emphasising creases with his thumbnail. After a minute or two, a small, misshapen bird of paper perches on his knee. “Its wings flap…” Glancing at Judith, he sees her pale as she regards the tiny pointed wings of the bird, and guesses that he has not chosen the best way of amusing her. “Just a moment.” He reaches for a pen, then carefully draws an eye and half a smiling mouth on each profile of the little bird. Judith musters a smile, but is still watching his little origami effort as she expects it to make for her eyes. “Sorry.” Graham picks up the bird, and tosses it into the flames. “It’s alright, it’s ah, it’s ah, dead now.” He gives an apologetic grimace.
“It’s alright.” Graham gives Judith a surreptitious glance. She is looking into the flames, where the little smiling bird is blackening to ash. It occurs to him how striking a painting she would make that moment, her profile vivid with the firelight, her hair a halo of shadow and amber. One of the ‘butterfly scratches’ runs a little way down her throat from below her ear-lobe, yet somehow it just seems a part of the picture, like a runaway tress or a deliberate ornament.
“I… I wanted to, um, thank you for looking after me when I was er, recovering.” Graham raises his hand to touch the tender place at the back of his head. “And.. and for those other times when you, um, took an interest in my health. Lavender, and, um, so forth.”
“Lavender? Oh – oh yes. Well, I am glad it helped. Oh dear – I think the rest of my lavender water was left behind with our excess luggage though…”
Yuri is driving again, weaving the Land Rover through a busy, chaotic street. Beside him a map flaps as the passenger on his left struggles to make sense of the web of streets. About the flanks of the Land Rover the autorickshaws growl, like hyenas harassing a buffalo. Dust-laden sun streams through the left hand window, half-blinding him.
Pausing at a traffic lights, he closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose. As he does so, the sound of the traffic hushes. When he opens his eyes again, the roar of the traffic has subsided to the lisp of wind-bound rushes, and through the front windscreen he sees a wide and watery vista. The wind weaves soft waves and spirals into the thick rushes, while above them small hawks ride the air, wings a-quiver.
The sound at his left ear is no longer the abrasive, papery sound of the crumpled map, but the mellower billow of cloth in a breeze. His passenger’s long, white garments ripple softly. The light is still almost dazzling, but now Yuri can see that it does not stream through the window, but rather appears to pour from the region of his passenger’s head. It is a little as if sunlight were streaming through a circular window cut in the other man’s forehead.
“I stop here,” the passenger says quietly. His face is in silhouette, Yuri cannot see the mouth moving. “I travel no further.” The door of the Land Rover opens and the passenger steps out onto the bank of the lake. “I never reached Lothal. But it did.” The Land Rover door swings shut, and at the moment of its impact the light is extinguished.
Yuri is lying on his back in his sleeping bag, beneath a cloud-wreathed Indian moon.
The party rise early the next morning, many finding their limbs stiff from their sleep beneath the stars.
As the convoy approaches Ahmedabad, the road becomes increasingly busy, and the driving style more aggressive. When the road reaches the outskirts of the city, the flow of traffic slows to a crawl, and the sound of horns becomes almost deafening. Despite the warmth of midday sun, the travellers in the Land Rover soon agree to wind up the windows to keep out the choking smell of exhaust fumes.
“I hadn’t realised it would be so large,” Judith remarks, peering across at a set of unprepossessing looking industrial towers.
“Well, it says here that it’s the capital of Eastern Gujarat,” Maddy says, her iMac open on her lap. “Oh wait! There’s a bit on the Mohenjo-Daro script here! It says it’s, uh, similar to the stuff found on Easter Island – y’know, with the freaky stone faces? Oh, and although there’s loads of worship of mother-goddesses an’ stuff there’re, like, no goddess figures found at Lothal. Just that sea god again.”
“What interesting masks! Look, over there!” One of the little shop fronts does indeed seem to be crammed to bursting with painted paper faces. As the wind blows, the faces shift and chafe, as if a crowd were jostling. Then one face is caught up by a gust, and starts to pull free, straining at the full extent of the long wires that tether it, until a shop assistant runs forward and restrains it.
“Kites! I think they’re all, um, kites.” Graham peers down the street. “In fact… there seem to be rather a lot of them everywhere, don’t there?”
Paying a little more attention to the shop displays, the other occupants of the Land Rover become aware that the brightly coloured displays in nearly every window are, in fact, comprised of kites, great and small, paper and fibre-glass, simple and elaborate.
Before setting out to explore the city, Judith finds a phone, and puts a call through to Jake Hobarts.
“You want an ‘angle’ so you can approach Marcus Massey? Well, unless you’re really sure of your footing you might not want to pretend to be an archaeologist. From what I hear he’s not the most suspicious of people, but he does know his stuff. You might do better pretending to represent a journal, maybe one he’s never heard of. He’s given interviews for student journals before now, I think. The way I hear it, the person you might run into trouble with is his research assistant, Leda Piers – she’s supposed to be quite sharp. According to the jokes I’ve heard, she pretty much mothers him through things, and stops people taking advantage of him…”
After a brief discussion, the group agree to divide their forces, and meet again in near the tourist office at 6pm. Judith, Graham and Maddy decide to visit the local museums and see what can be learnt about ancient artefacts that have been found in the area. Yuri, Heather and Kass volunteer to take a stroll around the streets of Ahmedabad. Dexter is once again given the task of accompanying Sherry.
After a quick visit to the tourist office, Judith has learnt that there are three main museums in Ahmedabad, the NC Mehta museum of miniatures, the local folk museum and the Calico museum of textiles. None of these display any exhibits of a period old enough to interest her.
At the folk museum, however, among the books on display in the gift shop she sees a glossy booklet titled Lothal.
“Excuse me, that book – is it about the old archaeological site at Lothal? The old settlement that was part of the Harappan empire?” The face of the bored looking middle-aged man behind the counter lights up, as he warms at once to her bright, inquisitive air, and the suggestion of informed interest.
“That is right – you have been to Lothal?”
“No – but I was hoping to go there.”
“They are digging there again, did you know that? New parts of the settlement, new discoveries – we are all listening to hear what they find. This book,” he places it in Judith’s hands and opens it so that she can admire the photographs inside, “this book is made in the last month, and has pictures of the latest finds. Only book which has these latest pictures. You see here,” he turns over a few pages, “here is a picture of the walls they find. And that – it is a brooch. Pretty, yes? And this photo, that is a unicorn seal.”
“A seal?” Judith’s attention is immediately captured.
“Yes – a seal for the traders, to mark which bundles are theirs.” The photo shows a small, square piece of ceramic, stamped with the simplified image of an animal, seen side-on. “You see, the rope from the bundles, it passes through that hole there, at the top of the seal. They call these unicorn seals because, you see, the deer that is drawn here is shown from the side so that its horns are lined up. So it looks like there is an animal with one horn, a unicorn. But it is not really a unicorn – it is signifying a deer of some kind…”
“Yes, you are very lucky to be visiting Ahmedabad at this time,” explains the shop assistant, as he climbs his step-ladder to correct the loops of a long, grinning, paper dragon-kite. “This is the last day of the kite festival, the biggest day of all. You will stay in the city this night, yes? That is good. Tonight they tie lights to the kites and use them to fight each other – put egg, and rice, and broken glass on the strings and use them to cut each other’s strings, yes? Beautiful, beautiful. You will enjoy it, sir. Will you buy a kite for your wife?”
“I’ll buy us a couple,” Sherry declares, her eyes shining with excitement.
The shop assistant has noticed Dexter’s hesitation. “She is your wife, yes?”
“Yes,” Sherry announces cheerfully, her ringless left hand hidden behind her back.
Heather walks away from the cinema shaking her head, and rejoins Kass and Yuri.
“You’re not going to believe this, but she did it, she really did it. At about ten this morning Bina Ajanta broke cover to slip to the cinema and spend a couple of minutes looking at the posters for her own new release. Of course the girl behind reception was a film fan, and adores Bina Ajanta, and recognised her immediately, dark glasses and all. She’s been bubbling over about it, but I don’t think anyone believed her except me.”
“So – we know Ajanta was here this morning at least.” Yuri casts a glance at the sky. “It’s starting to get dark. We should return to meet with the others.”
As dusk settles, the dismal streets of Ahmedabad are transformed. The drab buildings become mere outlines sketched upon the surface of the dusk. The windows of the shops that remain open are aflame with fantastic shapes – sailing boats, crocodiles, cellophane-winged fairies – all trailing threads as if a giant spider had made a desultory attempt to lash them together.
The few remaining cars now push slowly through the pedestrians that throng the street. Most vehicles, however, have given up the battle. Looking upwards, Heather notices that every flat roof holds its own crowd. A cluster of kites jostle above these groups, like gulls above a plough.
Many people in the street are also staring skyward, while they struggle with perverse slacks and tugs of a kite wire. Above the roadway, neon-coloured snakes spiral slowly. Traditional diamond-shaped kites chase their tails, and head-butt the overhangs of the nearby buildings. One pale, tasselled cylinder hangs almost immobile in the air, ripples running down its length as if it were some deepwater jellyfish. A vast, orange box-kite quivers at the end of its wire way above the other kites.
It is hard to say at what point the mood changes. Heather is suddenly aware, however, that by some unspoken agreement, the battle of the kites has commenced. Previously the kite-flyers had merely concentrated on their own kite, and avoided tangling with the wires of others as they would avoid the branches of trees, or any other obstacle. Suddenly she, and everyone else on the street, knows that the rules have changed. The wind picks up abruptly, and she hears a thin note sound from the wire of the nearest kite, as if it were a harp string which had been stroked by an invisible finger.
A gorgeous blue-and-emerald kite in the shape of a fish suddenly breaks into a spiral. A small light has been attached within it, and its jewelled colours draw the eye as it moves closer, closer to a gleaming cylindrical kite in the shape of an open-mouthed snake. For a moment, the wires catch the light, and Heather sees the lines of the two kites chafing. Then the snake tumbles slowly from the sky, its form crumpling as it descends.
“Kata!” There is a jubilant cry some ten yards to Heather’s right, and immediately afterwards a chorus of applause from the spectators. Heather notes the excited face of a fourteen-year-old boy, clearly the wielder of the attacking fish. Heather is about to return her gaze to battle above, when she suddenly notices that one other member of the crowd is not staring upwards.
Barely a dozen yards away, Rina Shekar is standing, and staring directly at Heather. She is wearing a loose, white Indian suit with gold edging. The green stone in the ring on her finger glimmers gently in the light from the kites above. For the briefest of seconds she faces Heather, her countenance stony. Then she turns sharply and plunges back into the crowd with the rapidity of a striking snake. The crowd closes behind her.
“Damn! That was Rina Shekar! Did you see where she went?” For a few seconds Heather tries to struggle after the other woman, but the crowd is unresponsive, all faces turned to watch the inter-play of the kites. “Quick, Yuri, let me climb on your shoulders – I want to see if I can catch sight of her again.” With the Russian’s consent Heather clambers up onto his shoulders, but the young Indian woman is now nowhere to be seen.
“We had better return to the others and let them know that we have been seen,” Yuri remarks.
“There’s gotta be a knack to this.” The pale blue paper bird twists in the air and plummets for the sixth time, and Sherry laughs aloud. “Oh, Dex – I’ve hooked it over the lamp post. What do we do?”
“We leave it.” Dexter has glimpsed two figures slipping through the crowd, dressed in dull grey turbans, and with their faces muffled in dun-coloured kerchiefs. The two men push patiently, relentlessly through the crowd, like tigers stalking through long grass. “Come on.” Gently but firmly, he takes Sherry by the arm and draws her along the street, away from the mangled remains of her kite.
Graham’s nerves are fraying a little, what with the nerve-jangling whizz and hum of the near-invisible wires close to his head, and the continual cries of “kata!” on the part of victorious combatants. Since none of them are particularly tall, Graham, Judith and Maddy have retreated up onto the steps of the tourist office, in the hopes of seeing the others as they approach.
Graham is the first to glimpse Kass’s flame coloured hair far across the crowd.
“Yes, all three of them are there. Heather’s seen us – it looks like she’s trying to mouth something to us.”
“Bina – No! Rina Shekar! I think she’s mouthing Rina Shekar.”
“Um…” Maddy has lifted her large aviator shades to peer down the street. “Um, do you think we should, like, make sure that Heather and Kass and Yuri know about them…”
“Have they understood?”
“I don’t know – it looks like Judith’s trying to mouth something back. Can you make it out?”
“Looks like all three of them are mouthing the same thing.”
…oo-e-i-oo… ook-e-ind-you… look behind you…
As the penny drops, Heather stands on tip-toe, and casts a quick look across the crowd behind her. Her eyes narrow as she glimpses a figure with a muffled face and a dull-coloured turban amidst the smiling, excited crowd, then widen as she sees another, and another, and another…
“Alright. I count seven guys in the crowd behind us, two in the side-road to our right, and three more coming out of the building about ten yards back and to our left. That makes twelve men, all dressed like the guy Kass and I chased in Jaipur. I think we have a problem.”
26th December, 6pm.
All are on the streets of Ahmedabad, near the tourist office.
Kass: Ah yes, the Land Rover Discovery…
Well, you did try to hunt down a dealership that would hire you or sell you a decent four-wheel-drive, but the one place you did find had a good range of cars, but a sorry, clapped out collection of off-road vehicles. And then you went a little further down the street, and there it was… a beautiful Land Rover Discovery, parked outside one of the hotels. One quick, timely jostle, and the key was out of the owner’s pocket and into yours. Even if he does later associate the disappearance of his key (and his Land Rover) with the person that bumped into him in the street, the description he will give the police will be of a young man of forgettable appearance, and not of Kassandra de Sade.
During a confidential moment, Maddy expresses an interest in your reasons for joining SITU. (I’m assuming that this is a private conversation between the two characters, so it might be simplest if the two of you communicate directly over email – it’s up to you how much Kassandra wants to tell Maddy about his/her background.)
Maddy: You express an interest in Kass’s reasons for joining SITU. (S)he does seem to share your somewhat conspiratorial attitude to your conversations now that you know his/her secret, and also seems to share your feelings of shyness.
(Since I’m assuming that this is a conversation to which the rest of the party is not privy, it might be simplest if you talk to directly to Kassandra’s player about this to find out how much (s)he wants to tell you about his/her background.)