The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
A Shattered Visage Lies
“I, uh, owe you an explanation,” Maddy says slowly, glancing at the faces of Graham, Judith and Yuri in turn. “But I need to, like, ‘phone Blaize first, yeah?”
There is a pause, during which Yuri makes no move to open the door wide enough to admit her.
“No.” The word is softly, courteously but emphatically spoken. Graham has recovered from his initial shock, and has moved up behind Yuri. “No, I think you give us an explanation first.”
Maddy raises one hand to ruffle her hair, then glances up and down the corridor.
“What – like, out here?”
“She has a point. Yuri, perhaps we’d better let…” Judith pauses as Graham turns and catches her eye, and shakes his head very slightly. He casts a quick glance towards where the unconscious Leda Piers sits bound to a chair, currently beyond Maddy’s view. “Perhaps we’d better go through to the other room,” Judith says, adapting quickly.
“You go – I shall stay here and keep watch… through the window.” Yuri has witnessed Judith and Graham’s silent exchange, and has also guessed at Graham’s reluctance to allow Maddy to see their young prisoner.
The three others move into one of the other bedrooms, Graham taking care all the time to keep himself between Maddy and Judith.
“Look… this call to Blaize could be, like, really urgent, yeah? It could be, like, stopping things like Cthulhu coming out of the sea and gobbling Nauru, or something. I mean, it’ll be really quick, and I’ll just talk, I won’t ask questions, OK?”
Graham and Judith exchange glances.
“Alright,” says Judith. Gratefully, Maddy reaches for the phone. Graham watches carefully to make sure that she is, in fact dialling the SITU number.
“Blaize! It’s, like, Maddy.”
“Executive Hook?” There is a tone of incredulity combined with suspicion in Geoff Blaize’s voice, and Maddy instantly guesses that he has been informed of her recent disappearance. “Where are you? What is your situation?”
“I’m back with the others now… listen, you have to get the SITU servitor boss people out now! Yashi’s somewhere else, it’s Alexander again an’ he’s done something sneaky with Marilyn’s – uh – my head. He doesn’t know where, like, you are but he knows about Nauru. Just, y’know, warn them.”
“Wha-” Blaize manages before Maddy hangs up.
Maddy slumps into a sitting position on the floor, and there is a long pause. Neither Judith or Graham are given to violent demonstrations of anger or resentment, but somehow their cool and stony countenances are more daunting than any amount of blustering.
“So… Marilyn?” asks Judith politely.
“Yeah. Okaaay.” Maddy reaches into her rucksack, causing Graham to tense a little. It does occur to him that if he moved fast enough he might be able to push Judith quickly down to safety behind the bed, and maybe shield her from… from… a loaded pomegranate, or whatever other weapons Maddy might have in her bag of tricks. To his relief, she draws a small leather-bound pocketbook, a passport, a slightly yellowing document, and a number of photographs. On closer inspection the document proves to be a birth certificate for one Marilyn Hooke. The photographs show a girl who bears a striking resemblance to Maddy, a younger sister perhaps. One shows the girl in a graduation gown, her face serious and keen as a knife. Another shows her in a white lab coat with a group of other girls similarly dressed, a pair of safety goggles folded in one of her hands.
“She’s me. Or she, um, was me. ‘Til 1994 when one of the Ylids, Sophia, did this weird genetic pollen thing and stole Marilyn. That’s when I started being, like, Maddy an’ then I found Marilyn again three years later but, uh, I couldn’t go back, y’know? My mum… well, uh, she says it’s cool but she really wants Marilyn back, like, all the time. I know. My dad… my dad died. When Marilyn was, y’know, away.” Maddy pauses, biting her lip.
“I was in the hospital. Dr Culver said I was really good at, like dissociating.”
“Perhaps you’d better explain that,” Graham says, still a little coolly.
“OK, it’s like on a computer, yeah? You’ve got this, like, account databasey thing with all your memories, right? Only, one day you can’t remember the, um, password, so you can’t access stuff. So… you make up a new database called ‘Maddy’ and start using that. Then after, like, a zillion years you remember the password for the ‘Marilyn’ one but… but all the stuff in it doesn’t, like, fit you anymore.” She shrugs.
“So, you just switch between the two personalities at will? We heard you… changed suddenly out by the river,” remarks Judith.
“Yeah. I’m not Marilyn much, but Ro…” Maddy pauses and corrects herself, “Alexander made me so, like, twisty, I just, uh, went away and let her take over. I kinda thought she could, um, bargain with him – she’s good at that stuff – an’ he’d not be able to, like, read my… our mind ‘cause it’s too, y’know, fractured.” Maddy scowls suddenly, recalling the scene by the riverside.
“He did something. I don’t know, uh, what, but I remember him making her eat some of the Chaosphere – like thingy. Persephone.”
“I thought the Chaosphere was supposed to hold our negative feelings, so we could use them against the Ylid.” The suspicion in Graham’s voice is quite palpable. “How did it turn into a weapon they could use against us? And if it was supposed to be powerful enough to harm an Ylid, how come you are still alive and healthy? It seems to me…” Graham remembers that he is speaking in front of Lady Judith, sighs, and stifles his outburst.
“I don’t know. I just know she won’t let me, like, in; like when you remember the password but your account still won’t open.” Maddy’s eyes are wide and serious as she glances first at Judith, then at Graham. “I think he poisoned her.”
“What have you done with them?” Rina Shekar takes another step forwards.
Dexter casts a quick glance around at Rina’s four cohorts and assesses the odds – they do not seem good. The dagger is still nestling temptingly in its hiding place in his coat. Crazed, craven collaborators… but this is clearly the time for restraint, for carefully chosen words, for…
A streak of leather-clad litheness launches itself past him on his left, trailing a comet train of bright red hair. Kass hits one of the thuggees amidships, bearing him over backwards, her sheer momentum causing the pair of them to roll over beneath the great central table.
Bollocks, thinks Dexter. So much for the psychological approach.
Heather takes this same moment to make for the door. One of the thuggees moves to intercept, but she ducks under his arm with a speed and agility that confounds him. Rina shouts something, and two of the remaining thuggees set off in pursuit. Rina turns to Dexter again.
“Where are the others?” she asks again.
“The other what?” Dexter has decided to play dumb. At worst it might stall the warped creature, at best it might bleed a bit of information out of her.
“The seals!” Rina Shekar hisses the words, her eyes vivid and a little mad. It is now almost impossible to connect her to the doe-eyed, adoring bride that they had seen in the Palace-on-Wheels. “The other ten unicorn seals!”
“Nothing to do with us. And who wants to know, anyway? Just whose side are you on, anyway, Rina?”
There are a series of thumps from under the table, and a few of the vases wobble. The last of Rina’s attendants to remain standing in the room is padding stealthily around the table, occasionally stooping to peer under it, but the struggle underneath seems each time to roll out of his reach.
“You know who I follow. You know the most famous of her many names. We are among the few that realise that hers is the true and original face of the greatest of all mothers. Through the words that we pass down like jewels to those of the purest spirit, we can look back a time when the heavens were not crowded, when only her face, vast and beautiful as a night sky, gazed down upon the earth like a mother upon an infant. Then came the slow shattering, like the breaking of a mirror, and the heavens became filled with fragments that thought they were gods and goddesses, lies woven by the weak and unfocussed minds of men.
“We seek only to recover what already belongs to our goddess – the power was hers, but she bound it into a gift, and presented to her worshippers that through their prayers they might serve her more fully. When we have it once more, and it is worn by a true believer, nothing will stop us from returning our goddess to her sole dominion.”
“Very interesting,” snarls Dexter, his restraint fraying a little at the edges. “But it sounds like someone has stolen a march on you. Ten unicorn seals missing, eh? Sounds to me like your great and powerful goddess has lousy taste in allies.”
At-a-boy, Dexter, thinks Kass, as fragments of his conversation filter down to her. Put some doubt in that little witch’s mind.
Meanwhile, Kass’s own mind is occupied with the task of survival. The darkness under the table has left both Kass and her opponent fighting blind. One of Kass’s first reflexes has been to place a knee to the groin, which squeezes half a gasp out of the thuggee before he pulls free of her grasp. There is a wild, unseeing interval in which both have fistfuls of one another’s clothes, and seek to swing the other this way or that, and to take possession of a limb, a throat, a shoulder, to guess at the position of one another’s hands. The heel of a hand strikes Kass’s chin, and she ducks her head to stop the thuggee following up the blow. Both lie on their side on the gritty floor, each in turn attempting to roll the other onto their back, neither allowing the other the freedom or time to raise themselves to a sitting position.
In one fist Kass grasps the fabric of the man’s loose collar, but her opponent is thrashing too hard for her free hand to find the carotid artery. She aims a blow down towards what she hopes is his throat with her elbow, and feels a jarring tingle up her arm, as if she has struck his collarbone. An invisible hand winds itself into her hair, and tries to drag her head backwards. There is a faint and familiar metallic hiss, and Kass quickly raises her free hand before her face. As she suspects, a moment later she feels a narrow pressure as the garrotte wire is wound once, twice, around her head… and lodges against the strong wires she has sewn into the sleeves of her forearms, and the thick leather collar around her throat. That’s what I like to see in an assassin, she thinks. Fanatical, lethal and predictable as all hell.
“Aren’t you a one-trick wonder?” she mutters. Now that both his hands are busy with the garrotting attempt, she risks loosing her hold on his collar, and feels quickly along his arm towards his throat. “You need to diversify, sweetie.”
What now? Wake the camp?
Heather’s footsteps impact softly upon the powdery earth of the path. Behind her, the steps of her pursuers are almost inaudible. For a moment it almost seems that she is running alone and unheeded, but a quick glance behind her shows her two figures, pale turbans hovering above loose, pale garments, the face, feet and hands melting into the darkness. On either side, trees bow hunchbacked, and slowly sweep the path with their long hair.
There are a number of crude buildings, which might be occupied by the sleeping archaeologists. But tempting as it is to hammer on their doors, Heather has no idea which is which, and dislikes the idea of zig-zagging through the buildings rapping experimentally on doors while two lethal fanatics are at her heels. In addition, she has a hunch that the archaeologists might be inclined to ask questions about the presence of unauthorised persons on their site, the body of the security guard in the storage room, the disappearance of numerous priceless artefacts and the crumbs of steatite that had once been unicorn seals.
Too late for that now anyway – Heather’s swift feet have carried her past the huts. The ground beneath her feet is becoming rougher, stonier. A fist-sized lump of stone tries to roll away beneath her heel, and she scarcely keeps her balance. A crevasse suddenly looms before her, and for a moment it seems that her right foot will find itself supported by nothing but darkness. Somehow she manages to catch her heel on the muddy edge of the drop, and braces against it to leap. She lands in a crouch, her feet on a slope which starts to crumble beneath her, and she only prevents herself from sliding back into the pit by reaching out, snatching at fistfuls of dry grass, and pulling herself forward.
As she lurches to her feet once more, she notices the ground around her thickly planted with tiny plastic tags and labels. I’m on the site, she realises. Behind her, an abrupt cry informs her that at least one of her pursuers has probably attempted the leap across the excavation with less elegance than she.
There is a red-and-white plastic cordon which flickers in the wind, stretched across her path, but she leaps this with ease. The ground is rising and flattening slightly, and she realises that she has passed the new excavations, and is drawing towards the part of old Lothal that has been fully cleared – the original ‘Mound of the dead.’
Suddenly there is brickwork under her feet, and she glances down to find herself running along a low wall foundation, the bricks so neatly lined that she could believe it a modern path. Some sort of narrow drainage channel flanks her to her left, and beyond it she can see other low walls, all curiously prim and angular. A low dais some three feet tall approaches, and she changes tack to duck from view behind it, and runs at a crouch alongside its wall.
Adjacent to this dais is a strange, round, roofless, pot-bellied structure a head or so taller than Heather. After an experimental glance around the dais to see whether she is being observed by her pursuers, she vaults quickly up onto the lip of the structure, and drops inside.
The lower bricks within are slightly blackened, and Heather guesses that her hiding place is some sort of furnace. A few gaps between the neatly laid bricks allow her a vantage point from which to watch the two turbaned men as they cautiously pad across the thick dust, scanning the low walls in search of her. They are evidently aware of her approximate location.
Heather blinks, and pinches the bridge of her nose. For a moment, the image of the two men has blurred slightly, and her first conclusion is that once again her eyes are suffering the strain of the new contact lenses. A moment later her vision is clouded again, and this time she can make no mistake about the cause. From somewhere near her feet, soft clouds of smoke are rising. She glances down, and is disturbed by the gleam of red embers beneath her shoes. Her instinctive reaction is to shift her feet before they can burn, and to raise one sleeve to protect her nose and mouth from the effects of the smoke. The next instant she has recovered her composure, and realises that although the mess of blackened wood is unmistakably smouldering, she can feel no warmth, and although the air about her is thick with a greyish vapour, she can smell no smoke…
Aware that her involuntary motion has made a slight noise, she stoops to peer through a niche in the brickwork. Sure enough, the two men are edging in her direction, one pulling a dagger from a hidden armstrap in a slow, arcing, graceful motion. They seem unaware that behind them three or four other squat pot-bellied furnaces are silently spewing columns of smoke into the still night air. The dais, furthermore, now seems to support a low building with a set of shallow steps leading to it.
One of the men stoops to peer towards the stocky furnace in which Heather is hiding. She pulls back, but cannot be sure that she has not allowed a little moonlight to fall upon her face. He murmurs a single phrase to his companion, and points directly towards her hiding place with his dagger. Realising that her position will soon become untenable, Heather reaches up and pulls herself back onto the lip of the pot where she crouches, ready to flee or defend her high position as the two men approach.
Somehow, the low walls that play their geometry across the site seem now to be casting longer shadows in the moonlight, as if they had quietly increased in height. The columns of smoke above the furnaces start to bend from true, and there is a breeze surging gently from the direction of the dry and deathly harbour, carrying a river-freshness, and the leisurely creak of moored boats stirring in their sleep. From the narrow channels which skirt the edge of each building a fine veil of darkness is rising gently into the air, rendering the trees and hills beyond the site murky and indistinct. Here and there in this nebulous wall of shadow, figures can be dimly discerned, like characters woven into a translucent tapestry, but shifting and animate. Heather has an impression of robes stirring in the spectral breeze, of tall head-dresses which taper to two horn-like points.
The shadow congregation ripple and part, as if making way for someone of eminence. There is a pause, and then the dust near the boundary of the site is stirred, as if by the shock of a silent step. It cannot be truly said that a figure has stepped from the tapestry, yet now there is a trick of luminosity in the air, a gloss upon the surface of the night, like a sheen on a peacock feather. Blinking through the unreal smoke, Heather for an instant glimpses an exposed and muscular shoulder, a stiff patterned sash, a dark-skinned face, and a darker smear across a bare throat like that left by a strangler’s rope. In the moonlight, the eyes are diamond spear-tips. The gaze is fixed unblinkingly upon the two men in turbans.
The nearest thuggee is still approaching Heather, where she crouches like an imp amid the spectral smoke.
“There is nowhere to run,” he says in English, but with a touch of uncertainty in his voice.
“Yeah, well, it looks like that’s a bit too bloody bad for you, doesn’t it?” snaps Heather. Deep in her pocket, her fist is gripped around the handle of Rashino’s peculiar stiletto.
The night ripples like water, and the phantom gleam of a man seems to raise his arm. Something washes across the acropolis, something that carries the scent of woodsmoke, and sunbaked clay, and spices, something that carries a gentle tide of voices, so faint and shapeless that they might be the remembered echo of dream-speech. The thuggee that is furthest from Heather gives a cry, but his voice is swallowed by the tide, and becomes another muted note in its melody. He turns to flee, and runs for the outer perimeter of the site, his arms folded over his head as if were bracing himself to shatter a wall of glass. He leaps through the wall of darkness, but does not appear to land on the other side. Round and about the dark curtain a translucent figure flickers and flits, as if the man has been caught in the shadow tapestry, and is flinging himself about like a moth caught between two panes of glass, in an effort to fight his way back to three dimensions.
The nearest thuggee pays no heed to his fellow, but runs a few steps, then leaps with disturbing agility up the side of pot-bellied furnace, landing on the lip so that he faces Heather across the circular drop. Pulling her hidden knife from her pocket, Heather swings out and upwards, drawing a slender line of blood across the man’s forearm. There is the briefest of pauses before the man’s eyes bulge and fix strangely, and then he slumps slowly and topples into the furnace. His descent is greeted by a hearty swell of smoke from the depths, and Heather becomes aware that something pale and glutinous appears to be oozing from the slender blade in her hand.
“So, if your goddess is so bloody powerful, why doesn’t she just take back her own power?” demands Dexter. Unlike Rina, he has noticed that the central table has ceased to judder and jump, and has guessed that, one way or another, the battle beneath it has ceased. Out of the corner of his eye he can just about make out a pair of hands and knees on the move, someone proceeding quickly on all fours through the shadows under the table.
“It was taken from her by a treacherous follower of her consort, who strove to hide it from her using trickery.” There is a vicious edge to Rina’s voice which suggests indignation, but also a certain defiance or embarrassment, as if there is something further she is not saying. “If you are seeking the disc yourselves, you are fools. You lack the strength of mind to wear it and harness its power. You are godless, and even if the disc did not crush your minds, you would bring forth only monsters and misshapen idols from your own feeble dreams.” Forgetting all considerations of stealth, Rina’s voice is becoming increasingly shrill.
A pair of long, elegant hands reach out suddenly from beneath the table and grip the ankles of the thuggee standing close by. One sharp tug, and the man is sprawling on his front. Dexter, who has been keeping one eye on Kass’s movements, is ready. He springs forward, and flings his considerable weight firmly upon the back of the man in the turban. Drawing his dagger, he places it over the back of the man’s neck.
“Right – now it’s our turn to ask some questions,” he growls. Kass slithers out of the shadows, and raises herself to her knees.
Rina starts violently, and takes a few rapid steps towards the door. In the doorway, she pauses and spins around, her short knife gleaming in one hand. She flings her arm forward in a throwing motion, and the man struggling beneath Dexter suddenly goes limp. Rina’s white clothes flare briefly as she sprints into the moonlight, and then she is gone. Kass looks down at the knife hilt jutting from just above the thuggee’s collarbone.
“I am really starting to dislike her,” she murmurs, then stoops to peer under the table for her erstwhile opponent. “Dexter – the guy I was fighting – he’s gone! We’ve got to find him – he’s got to be in here somewhere…”
“No time.” Heather has reappeared at the doorway to the storeroom. “We’ve got to get gone ourselves. What with Rina’s shrieking, lights are going on all over the site.”
“But I knocked him out – he’ll be groggy. If we grab him, we can take him back for questioning.”
“Kass, people will be here in seconds. If you have a good explanation for two stiffs and a pile of crushed antiquity, then great. No? Then let’s get out of here!”
Heather, Dexter and Kass reach the hotel a little after midnight. As soon as Judith opens the door, it is clear from her face that something has happened in their absence.
“What’s wrong?” All of Dexter’s paranoid fears crowd to the forefront. “Has Leda changed again?” Other more disturbing theories occur. “Is anyone hurt? Sherry?”
“No, nothing like that.” Judith casts a quick glance over her shoulder. “Maddy’s come back.”
“Oh, has she?” asks Dexter grimly. “Well, her Ylid friend needs someone to keep an eye on us, doesn’t he? Where is she?”
“In the smallest bedroom, doing a little meditation. Graham’s watching her, in case she… well, just in case. She… she doesn’t know that we’ve got Leda.”
“Good. Let’s keep it that way for now.” Dexter strides towards the door of Maddy’s room. “Let’s go and shake her out of her trance.”
A minute or two later, slightly sleepy and tousle-headed, Maddy finds herself repeating her explanation to the new arrivals. After she has finished, there is an icy pause.
“So that’s it?” explodes Dexter. “In a moment of crisis you decided to turn into someone with a taste for Ylid company? And you think you might do it again?” When in the full flood of rage, the Scotsman’s height almost seems to increase.
“Look, I’ve got a plan, yeah? OK, so yes, I’ve – Marilyn’s – been, uh, compromised. I think.”
“You think? Don’t you have any idea what’s going on in your own head?”
Maddy hesitates for a moment, biting her lower lip so hard that it turns white. She stares into the middle distance for a while as if coming to a conclusion, then her eyes mist slightly.
“I guess I do know. I keep hoping I’ll find out she’s OK, but she’s shutting me out, yeah? Deep down, I know she’s working for him now. I need to, like, deal with it. Could you help, Judith? You’re good at hitting people on the head.”
“What do you have in mind?” Judith is not quite sure how to respond to this summary of her skillset.
“You know sati, yeah?” Maddy twists the fabric of her sari around and around her finger. “Like, when a wife throws herself on the pyre of her husband – a sort of blood sacrifice, yeah? I need to do one of them. On Marilyn.”
“Oh, please.” Dexter turns away in disgust, and sets about pacing the room.
“Steady, everyone.” Kass walks up to the bed, and sits down a little way behind Maddy. “The whole story’s a bit off the wall, but then Maddy’s a bit off the wall too. This all makes a kind of sense in terms of Maddyland.” She smiles slightly. “Go on, Maddy.”
“Well… I think I’m stronger than her now, but I guess she’s still going to object. I guess I need someone to stay in the room, and, like, hit me if I start talking like Marilyn. Y’know, without saying ‘y’know.’”
“Talking like Maddy is bad enough – some of us wouldn’t mind hitting you for that.” Heather glares at Maddy, then looks around at the other faces in the room, fists on hips. “Tell me no one’s actually going to buy all this! I mean, Christ, hold onto some facts here! She ran off to pour drinks for some Ylid while we were dodging lava, and now she’s saying that an imaginary person in her head made her do it? What’s she going to do tomorrow, stab one of us to death, then say “don’t worry, it’s all, like, OK, that was just, like, Miriam and now I’m going to, like, sacrifice her as well.”‘
“Well, I am just as confused by all this as anyone,” remarks Judith quietly, “but for the moment I cannot see any reason not to let Maddy perform her ritual. In the meanwhile, I am willing to try and keep an eye out for Marilyn, in case she returns and causes trouble.”
“I think I should also keep watch,” Graham adds quickly.
Dexter and Heather exchange glances, each seeing their own expression mirrored in the other’s face.
“Oh, let’s make this a full family affair,” growls Dexter. “Right now, I’m not letting you,” he stabs a thick finger in the air under Maddy’s nose, “out of my sight.”
“OK. I’ll, uh, need to get some stuff together first, yeah? For the ritual?”
“Whatever,” snaps Heather. “I’m off to make a phone call.”
“Blaize? This is Heather Montrose.” Heather carefully draws a cigarette from her emergency packet, and holds it a few inches in front of her face, examining its rounded contours, and appreciating the dry-moss smell of the tobacco. It has been a while.
“Ah, Agent Montrose. Executive Hook called me to let me know of her return. Are there any further developments? What is the situation?”
“The situation? Well, let’s take this clockwise around the landing.” Heather perches the cigarette in her mouth, and reaches for her lighter. Screw it, if the world’s about to end: who gives a damn about lung cancer anyway.
“Behind Door Number 1, we got Leda Piers, who as far as we can make out turns into an Ylid every time the wind changes. We’ve tied her to a chair with bits of string, and we’re hoping that’ll help. Behind Door Number 2 is Maddy more-names-than-sense Hook, who seems to be going Dark Side on us. Behind Door Number 3 we have Sherry Carlisle, some stray American bint who Dexter seems to have told everything, just because the pair of them are itching to share bodily fluids.
“Everyone else seems to be taking Sherry on trust, but we really don’t know a damn thing about her.” Heather breathes out a slow, welcome lungful of smoke. “I was wondering if you could run a check on her. And… when you have the results, could you tell me directly? I don’t want Dexter getting touchy about me checking up on his ladylove.”
The night passes uneasily, the members of the group getting little sleep since it is judged necessary for two members to be awake at any one time; one to guard Leda, and one to keep an eye on Maddy.
Yuri takes the first shift, watching the sleeping form of Leda. After his shift has ended, he finds his way back to his room, and slumps in an armchair. He closes his eyes for a brief instant, and when he opens them, the room has altered.
Luke Pearl is sitting at a narrow desk, scattered with papers. He is turning over a square piece of steatite in one hand, and seems to be making shorthand notes in an exercise book with his spare hand.
“I wish the light was not so bright,” Pearl mutters, as if to himself. “I have a splitting headache.” Indeed, the light shining upon the desk is peculiarly intense, throwing the scattered oddments and artefacts into violent relief. This radiance does not seem to have its source in the little table lamp by Pearl’s elbow. Pearl raises his head, and looks directly at Yuri. “I do not know what is happening,” he says.
The light is dazzling, and pours from Pearl’s head, as if sunlight were streaming through a circular window cut into his brow.
“You have the source of the light in your own head,” Yuri says. “How can you not know this?”
“The world looks no different to me,” says Pearl. “This is how I see her all the time. Now please excuse me, I am waiting for a phone call.”
Yuri flinches from the light, and when he opens his eyes again, he is awake once more in his own hotel room.
Early in the morning, a quick council of war is held. Yuri agrees to keep an eye on Maddy, while the group a little reluctantly leave Leda Piers in the hands of Sherry. The others meet in one of the other bedrooms.
Heather, Dexter and Kass give a quick account of their experiences on the site. On Kass’s suggestion, the group of them had grabbed armfuls of artefacts from the table of the storeroom before fleeing. A number of these are now in a rather poor state or repair, since most are pots, the fragments of which had been patiently glued back together by the archaeologists.
“Well, I don’t know if there’s anything of importance in this rubbish,” Dexter waves a hand at the heap of clay fragments that the group have spread out on the floor on a newspaper, “but Rina and her fanatics were certainly looking for something, and spitting blood because they couldn’t find it. Which suggests to me that we’ve got it.”
“I’m not so sure,” Kass remarks. “Remember, Rina was ranting about the ‘missing ten unicorn seals.’ Now Judith’s seal is very pretty, and maybe it’s what they were looking for, but we certainly didn’t steal ten of them.”
“So who has them? Alexander?”
“Well, let’s keep Judith’s seal safe anyway, shall we?” Heather picks up Judith’s unicorn seal, and turns it over in her hand. “Do you think we could turn this into some sort of weapon against Kali or something? There must be some reason why the thuggees were destroying all the seals they could find. We looked to see if there were any left, but Rina’s bunch had broken them all apart.”
“The person I’d usually ask about creating mystic weapons would be Maddy,” Kass murmurs.
“Well, how much do we actually know about the seal? What about Leda – has she ever done one of her transformations when the seal’s been nearby?”
“We’ve only seen her change once,” Graham explains. “And no, none of the unicorn seals were nearby at the time.”
“Well, I vote against experimenting by bringing the two of them into contact with each other,” mutters Dexter. “In fact I’m not too happy about keeping our stash of ancient junk so close to her. We need to think about what to do with her – perhaps we could try and get her out of the country, or something.”
“Perhaps we should keep a close eye upon my little statue as well,” suggests Judith, turning over the sculpture of the priest-king. “I’m a little concerned that someone…” she casts a glance roughly in the direction of Maddy’s room, “might be persuaded by an Ylid to steal it and bring it to them.”
“Hmm.” Heather takes the statue from Judith and stares at it for a moment, pinching her lip. “You know something? That ghostly figure I saw out in old Lothal – the one that was advancing on Rina’s men – well, I think it was dressed a bit like this. I recognise the patterning on the sash. And the weird, combed-looking beard. And I think he had the same ribbon wrapped around his forehead, but,” Heather taps the little coin-like shape on the statue’s brow, “he didn’t have that. The disc was missing.”
“Interesting. But where do we take things from here?”
“Well, there’s Dexter’s mysterious stranger,” Heather reminds them. “Does ‘Zelmane’ actually mean anything to you, Dexter?”
“Not a thing. What other leads do we have?”
“Well, I for one am more than a little curious about our Mr Pearl,” says Judith. “Graham noticed that Luke Pearl seemed to be regarding Miss Piers with an expression of, well, worship. Which may mean that he is a devotee of the goddess. Now, as I understand it, he is due to be leaving for Hull in the next few days, so if we mean to talk to him, now is probably the time to do it. We might also want to get in touch with Blaize and find out if SITU have a team near Hull – if something is due to happen there they will need to be ready.
“I can talk to him if you like.” Kass lays herself out along the bed, and stretches like a cat. “If you want him wheedled, I’m your woman.” She gives a small shrug. “And if you want his arm twisted in a more literal way, I’m still your woman.”
“Well… we could just try conversation first,” Judith suggests, diplomatically. “I would like to return to the site anyway, and have another look to see if I can find something that resembles the disc worn on the head of my little sculpture…”
A little after ten, Judith makes a call to Dr Marcus Massey.
“Dr Massey? I just wanted to thank you for that very interesting interview yesterday. I was wondering if we might be able to visit again, perhaps ask a few other questions?”
“Visit the site? Oh, not the site, I’m afraid.” Massey sounds quite distraught. “I am afraid a lot of quite dreadful things happened last night, and now the police won’t let us go there, even to pick up our things. It’s a crime scene, you see.”
“Goodness – a crime scene?” Judith manages to imbue her tone with the right degree of counterfeit shock.
“Yes – poor Jack Porter, who was in charge of security last night, has turned up quite dead. And some chap with a turban seems to have wandered in and died on our floor with a knife in his neck. Quite an interesting knife, actually.” Massey’s voice brightens slightly. “Oh, recent make, of course, but the style and ornamentation – quite old – rather a nice piece. Oh goodness, that sounds awful, what with the poor man being dead – do excuse me.”
“I am so sorry to hear that …”
“Oh, I’m afraid it gets worse.”“
“Oh, much worse. There seems to have been a really vicious spate of vandalism and theft – countless priceless items have disappeared, or turned up crushed to powder.” Massey sounds almost tearful. “And Leda – Leda cannot be found anywhere. I don’t think anyone quite knows what to do without her. When we found the whole mess in the storerooms last night, someone ran to her room, but she wasn’t there, and now no one’s sure they’d even seen her since yesterday afternoon. The odd thing is, we found a note in her room saying, ‘Call me and I will explain everything – L.P.’ It was scribbled, though, and Leda’s handwriting is always so neat, almost like printing. I cannot imagine what could have got into her.”
“This must all be a terrible shock. Perhaps you would like to meet us again somewhere in town, so that you can have a quiet drink and recover?
“Oh. Oh yes, that would be rather nice.”
“And perhaps some others from the site would welcome the break – you mentioned Dan Fisk and Dr Troth. Maybe – maybe you could even bring that nice Mr Pearl with you as well.”
“Oh, I can’t. That’s the other thing. He’s disappeared too. He drove off yesterday afternoon, apparently to buy some supplies, and no one’s seen him since.”
Under the watchful eye of Yuri, Maddy types away at her laptop.
“So it’s easy to, like, kill an idea, hmm?” Her fingers scuttle and jab at the keys, as if she were trying to hurt them, or someone at least. “An’ you don’t even know who James Bond is…” She glances up at Yuri. “This’ll show him. This is gonna be, like, a sigil, right? A big sigil of ‘Death to all Ylids especially Alexander.’” Her eyes shine. “I’m gonna, like, send it to a friend of mine…” She has faith in Mr Sandman’s ability to slip the sigil into a virus which can be sent all over the Internet, so that countless people will suddenly find their screens afflicted by animations of dancing, trumpeting elephants… so that their irritation will power the sigil all over the world. Let’s see you kill that idea, Alexander…
Maddy pauses, frowning. There is an unpleasant sensation in the back of her mind, rather as if she has heard a soft noise behind her – perhaps a stealthy footstep, or a faint laugh. She glances behind her, but of course there is no-one. The faint sense of movement has no origin in the physical world, but has issued from behind the door in her own mind, the door that leads to Marilyn, the door which has now become sinister through its strangeness and silence.
Surely Marilyn cannot have sabotaged the sigil from her stronghold in Maddy’s mind? Surely not… Maddy’s pauses, ready to send the email to Mr Sandman, then withdraws her hand. The risk is too great.
“You better call the others,” she tells Yuri. “I’m ready.”
When Heather, Dexter, Judith and Graham enter, they find Maddy squatting on the floor in the lotus asana position. Beside her the lid of her laptop is raised, and an image of Ganesh gleams in radiant pinks and golds, his smiling countenance in marked contrast to Maddy’s expression of tremulous determination. In front of Maddy are strewn all the little relics of Marilyn’s: the pocketbook, the passport, the birth certificate, the photographs.
“Ganesh is, like, the God of beginnings and portals and, like, luck. You, uh, make offerings to him at the start of anything new. He likes coconuts and, um, ‘sweetmeats.’ Whatever they are.” Maddy retrieves a nearly-full bottle Malibu out of her rucksack, and sprinkles it in a circle around the laptop, filling the air with the warm, sweet smell of coconut and alcohol. She then pulls out a slightly crushed and fluff-covered Ferrero Rocher chocolate, which she places solemnly in front of the keyboard.
Heather shifts from one foot to another, looking incredulous and restless. Judith moves to squat behind Maddy. She is holding the piece of wood which she had used to cosh Leda the day before.
“Om shri Ganesh…” Maddy starts to intone, her eyes closed. “…mighty but gentle Lord Ganesh, Son of Almighty Shiva. I beg you grant me, um, luck and strength in this, like, sad thing I have to do.” Heather rolls her eyes impatiently.
Maddy pours a little lighter fluid into a saucer, and the lights it with a match. She hesitates, as if having to renew her resolution, and then continues.
“As you broke off your own tusk, oh Elephanty One, so I break off part of me. All that’s, like, Marilyn I commit to the, uh, pyre.” Her hands are shaking as she picks up the yellowing birth certificate, and dips the corner into the flame. The faded paper catches immediately, and a tongue of yellow runs up its nearest edge, then licks over the whole, blackened ash falling to the carpet. Maddy holds it until the last moment, then drops the last fragment into the saucer where it is utterly consumed. A long shudder passes through her, and she closes her eyes. “It is over,” she says quietly.
“Is that it?” asks Dexter, bluntly.
Maddy opens her eyes and gives him a ferocious glare.
“Were you expecting my head to revolve through 360?” she asks, icily. “If so, I’m sorry to disappoint you.”
“Were you expecting us to trust you because you’ve burnt a bit of paper?” asks Heather. “If so, you’re the one that’s looking for disappointment.”
“I’ve had just about enough of this.” Maddy stands. “How far do I have to bend backwards for you people? In case you have missed a bulletin, we do have a mission to attend to, and we really don’t have time to spend on this shit.”
“I’ll tell you what we don’t have time for,” bellows Dexter, his restraint suddenly evaporating. “We don’t have time for games with fruit and candles and incense and chanting gobbledegook when dark alien gods are stalking the land. We don’t have time to waste trying to decide whether you’re a traitor or just plain nuts. You need something alright, but I don’t know whether it’s a bullet to the brainpan, or a horse-stunner sedative and six rolls of padded wallpaper.”
“How fucking original.” Maddy’s voice could be used to slice diamond. “‘Isn’t Maddy a flake.’ Have you examined yourself lately, Dexter? A dangerously unpredictable, paranoid ex-Elvis impersonator with a penchant for stuffing bodies into suitcases. Isn’t that sane!” She glares around at the other members of the room. “Be honest, ‘poor little Maddy’ is hardly the limpest banana in this little bunch. We’ve got monosyllabic Yuri, Judith and Graham who are obviously gagging for each other but too uptight to say so, snippy Heather and Kass, who, since the rest of you are obviously blind, has a penis…”
It remains unclear whether Maddy intends to say more, since at this point Kass steps up to her and punches her in the jaw with considerable force. There is a dull sound of impact, and Maddy crumples.
Kass has coloured deeply, and is breathing quickly. Raising her eyes, she glances quickly around the room, where most of the others wear a slightly scandalised expression, partly as a result of Maddy’s words, and partly due to Kass’s violent reaction.
“In case the rest of you are blind,” Kass says quietly, eyes lowered, “that was Marilyn.”
“I was starting to guess,” murmurs Judith. On the ground, Maddy stirs slightly. A drop of blood is welling slowly from a cut on her lip.
“Kass, hold her ankles.” Heather stoops next to Maddy. “I’ll take her wrists.” She glances up at Judith. “I guess the ritual failed.”
“Perhaps not – maybe it just wasn’t completed before Marilyn took over. What did Maddy say – ‘all that is Marilyn I commit to the pyre.’ Graham, could you please pass me the matches.” Pouring out a little more lighter fluid, Judith lights it, and then hesitantly reaches out and takes up one of the photographs. She hopes that Ganesh is broad-minded about the fact that Maddy is no longer conducting the ritual. “I… I commit Marilyn Hooke to the pyre. Um, that is to say… er, Elephanty One.” The photograph slides into the saucer, and the figure of Marilyn Hooke in her graduation gown is instantly caressed by flame.
Emitting a shrill scream, Maddy jerks into a sitting position, her eyes wide and blind with shock and pain. Kass briefly loses her grasp on Maddy’s ankles, and it is with difficulty that Heather keeps hold of her wrists. Even Dexter flinches at the sound – the mortal terror is too intense to be mistaken for an act. Yuri stares across at the opposite wall, his face unreadable, but the corners of his mouth working slightly.
Judith’s lips tremble, but she reaches for the next photograph, and quickly tosses it into the tiny pyre.
Maddy begins struggling desperately, her eyes glancing sightlessly at her legs and torso, as if she can see flames consuming them. Her face still has the intense, slightly angular look associated with Marilyn, but she is now not the icy, sarcastic opponent of a moment before. Now Marilyn is a terrified, agonised young woman.
Judith reaches for the passport, and her hand is stayed by Graham’s hand on her wrist.
“We… we can’t do this,” he whispers, helplessly. “We’re… we’re killing her.”
“Didn’t we know that that was what Maddy planned?” Judith is white-faced, but there is resolution in her large green eyes. “This is sati.”
“But… what if we’re killing Maddy too?”
“I have to trust Maddy’s judgement,” Judith says softly.
“And I trust yours,” Graham says quietly. He takes his hand from her wrist, and the passport is committed to the flames. The plastic-covered pages take a while to light, preferring to buckle and warp instead, and all the while Maddy writhes and sobs. The credit cards are equally stubborn in the face of the flame.
Now only the pocketbook awaits the flames. As Judith picks it up, eager to finish the gruelling task, Maddy’s eyes open again and fix her.
“Please… not yet…” It is a younger Marilyn, still well-spoken but without the bitter edge. “…I just want to talk to my mother first… just quickly…” There are tears in the large, intelligent eyes. “She only just got me back… I’d just like to say… I’d just like to tell her…”
Hands shaking violently, Judith holds the pocketbook over the flames. She manages to hold it steady even as a wail of despair and agony pierces her ears. She does not look up, focussing all her attention upon the little book as pages yellow, wither, and then fall as wrinkled wraiths of black ash.
As Judith drops the seared spine of the little book into the tiny pyre, Maddy gives one last soft moan, and slumps back to the floor. Heather and Kass wait until the paper is quite consumed before releasing their hold upon her limbs.
“I think we could both use this.” Lady Judith places two cups of tea on the table. She watches as Kass takes ‘her’ mug up in her hands. Her large hands. Long, yes, and elegant, but large and with a subtle strength in them. “You… you know of course that what Maddy told us really doesn’t make much difference to most of us, don’t you?”
Kass glances at Judith over the rim of the cup.
“Oh, you mean that…” Kass lowers her eyes, and for a moment Judith glimpses a quite different person behind Kass’s painted smile, one with a face drawn taut by uncertainty and wariness. When Kass raises her eyes again, however, she is wearing her usual challenging gaze. “When did you guess?”
“Well, I was never sure, but I have had my suspicions since the morning I saw you performing your martial arts practice on the railway platform. There was just something, well, masculine about it all.” Judith, who has kept her eyes tactfully lowered while speaking, flashes Kass a quick glance of sympathy.
“I see. As long as that.” Kass smiles slightly. “There’s more to you than meets the eye. For example, I don’t know if I could have made myself keep burning those papers the way you did.”
“Yes. Well.” Lady Judith sighs, and gives Kass a bright, thin, little smile. “It had to be done, didn’t it?” She glances at her watch. “Goodness, I must be going, or I shall be late for dinner with Dr Massey…”
Massey is twenty minutes late, and arrives at the restaurant wearing a beleaguered expression and a tie which is not so much askew as rebellious. Judith find herself wondering whether Leda Piers usually ferries him to his appointments and straightens his tie.
“I’m terribly sorry.” He offers a slightly dazed and wounded smile to Judith, and to Graham and Heather who have decided to accompany her. “Fisk and Troth should be here before too long, but the police are talking to them at the moment.”
The restaurateur appears to recognise Dr Massey, and to be familiar enough with the archaeologist’s somewhat haphazard mind that he takes no offence when Massey gets his name wrong.
“I will put you in your usual table. No Miss Piers tonight?”
“No, no Miss Piers.” Massey’s countenance is almost tragic. He sits himself down at the table indicated, and stares mutely at the menu for a few moments. “Oh dear,” he says, sadly. “I’m allergic to some of these, but I can’t remember which ones. Leda did tell me, but the names of the dishes are all so odd, I really don’t recall which ones they were.”
“Perhaps she’ll come back in a little while,” Judith suggests comfortingly. “You say she left a note?”
“Yes. Yes, I suppose it must have been from her, but it isn’t like her at all. She does own a mobile phone, of course, and I’ve tried to ring it, but it seems to be switched off. I remember that yesterday afternoon Luke Pearl kept asking when she’d be back, and seeming quite agitated. And now he’s missing too. Oh dear.
“And of course now there’s hell to pay with our backers. Just this morning, we had word from the gentlemen that Okada Tokutaro represents, to say that they wanted to take possession of all our findings to date, but were content to leave all future findings to our other backers, the English institute. They offered a really quite alarmingly large sum in exchange, to go towards further development of the site. The gentleman who phoned was really very agitated when I explained that there had been a break-in during the night, and the police had impounded everything.”
“I’m still a little confused by the backer situation,” Heather remarks. “There’s been an archaeological site in Lothal for a while, right?”
“Oh yes, a long time. After all, you know, it was still possible to dock ships in Lothal harbour as late as the middle of the nineteenth century – people could hardly miss the remains of a settlement of this quality.”
“And where did the name ‘Mound of the dead’ come from?” asks Judith.
“Oh, I think that’s just a local name for the place – I daresay people noticed the smooth mound covering the city, and maybe a few people dug around and uncovered bones. There are other sites which have been given similar names for the same reason.”
“But these recent excavations – you were alerted to them by one set of backers? How much was known about this new site before they contacted you?” asks Heather.
“Well – a lot of people had suspected that the old settlement was larger than the part that had been uncovered. It was a matter of guessing in which direction it extended. Okada Tokutaro contacted us and told us that his people had some leads on the likely disposition of the settlement, and were looking for an expert team to follow it up. A little preliminary excavation had been performed, just enough to suggest that there really was something down there, but apparently his employers didn’t want to proceed further without a really proficient team of experts.” Massey sighs. “I cannot imagine what they think of us now.
“The worst thing is that some of it is starting to look like what I suppose the police would call an ‘inside job.’ We’ve looked back through our records to try and work out how much was lost and broken last night, and now it seems that there are lots of discrepancies between the items recorded as discovered, and those that have descriptions recorded during the cleaning process, for example. It almost looks like someone had been diverting them, or quietly removing them piece by piece – it seems to have been happening for weeks. Of course, what with that note in her room, the police seem to suspect poor Leda.”
While Massey is speaking, two more men enter and approach the table. A tall, willow-thin man with a thick moustache and a pronounced squint is introduced as Dan Fisk. Dr Troth is a square-jawed, laconic individual with a strong Irish accent.
“More news, Massey,” remarks Fisk, when they are all seated around the table, “and not all of it good. It seems they’ve found another of those turbaned chaps dead in one of the pot furnaces. Some nasty sort of fast-acting poison, they think.”
“Any news on Leda or Luke?”
“Not a whisper. Massey, old chap, don’t take it too hard against young Luke. I’m sure he had nothing to do with this attack upon the site, and if he did perhaps decide to take a trip with some of our findings in his luggage… well, I’m sure the Institute will look after them well enough. You might say, as far as the safety of these artefacts goes, it’s just as well he didn’t leave them behind him to be wrecked by those vandals.” Massey stares at him. It is quite clear that he has no idea what Fisk is talking about.
“Anyway, if it makes you feel better, the police say they have an idea who might have been responsible for the death of poor Porter. It seems there’s a group of Europeans they’ve been trying to track down across half of East Gujarat. Apparently they killed some poor Japanese tourist on a train, broke into a couple of rooms, and assaulted some other fellow. The police think they may also have been responsible for the theft of a Land Rover Discovery, and a particularly daring break-in in Ahmedabad, but that’s less certain. They’re allegedly quite a distinctive-looking bunch, and the police say there have been some definite sightings of some of them in Lothal – and this ugly affair apparently bears all the hallmarks of their senseless destructiveness and violence. The police even say they have some leads concerning where they’re staying in Lothal, so they’ll be able to inform us of an arrest by tomorrow.”
“Oh, good,” Judith says, faintly.
“Of course not! I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous in my life!” Leda’s tones are clearly audible as Sherry emerges backwards through the door.
“Dex? Your Leda woman is awake, flaming mad, and demanding to talk to the British embassy.”
“Thanks, Sherry. We’ll take this from here.” Dexter exchanges looks with Kass, and then the pair of them enter the room. Leda is sitting bolt upright in her chair, her black eyes bright with annoyance. A ruddy bruise is visible on one temple.
“Are you in charge here? If not, I would like to speak to someone who is. I don’t know why I’ve been brought here, but someone has clearly made a very silly mistake.”
“Is that a threat?” growls Dexter.
“Of course not,” snaps Leda. “It is simply a statement of fact. If you imagine that I have any money or political importance, then you are wasting your time and mine.”
“What do you know about Kali?” Kass asks, watching Leda’s face for the slightest hesitancy or masquerade.
“What? Kali? The goddess?” Leda looks utterly baffled. “It’s not really my field. Have you tried reading a book on the subject, or surfing the web?”
In another room, as the hour approaches midnight, Maddy sits by her laptop. She has recovered consciousness, but the world still feels vaguely unreal to her. There is a strong sense of loss which she is not yet analysing. For now it is a little like the chill on the back of the neck of which one is conscious after the cutting of hair. From time to time there is a numbing shock as she reaches for a part of her mind which is not there, a little like an amputee trying to move a missing limb. She had not realised how accustomed she had become to Marilyn’s presence in her mind since the recovery of her memories.
Despite her insistence that she be left alone, Yuri has refused to quit her side, and watches from a distance as Maddy prepares another ritual. She replaces the Ganesh backdrop on her computer with the dark and grimacing figure of Kali. The floor is now sprinkled with red tikka powder, which adds its dusty odour to the sickly scent of the Malibu. There is a henna ‘om’ symbol painted onto Maddy’s palm and a third eye of turmeric on her forehead. A scarlet hibiscus flower sits on the remains of Marilyn’s sati saucer.
Despite initial misgivings, the group have at last admitted to Maddy the presence of Leda Piers, and besides these tokens lies a single black hair from Leda’s head.
“We prostrate before her who is at once most gentle and, uh, most terrible…” Maddy starts to chant, all the while trying to visualise Kali as a bloated spider woman at the centre of a web, a web of threads like kite-strings, of threads like the fine connects that make up the Internet, of threads like the single hair in her hand… she carefully attaches one end of the hair to her laptop, and seeks to wind the other around one of the slender Kali-threads, to draw Kali in…
She stops. Something is wrong.
“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” says Leda. She stands, and the ropes around her slither from her. Suddenly she is the centre of the universe.
Maddy bounds from her door just as Judith, Graham and Heather reach the top of the stairs.
“Oh, you’re awake again, Maddy dear, I’m so pleased,” says Judith in a rather harassed fashion. “Could you help me gather the others? I really do think we need to go straight away.”
“Um, yeah, but there’s something I got to tell you about Leda, right?”
“Oh yes. Leda. Good point. We will have to do something about her, I suppose.” Judith clips swiftly to the door of the room where Leda has been held, opens it, and stops dead.
“She… she’s not meant to be untied, is she?” Sherry asks, through her clenched smile.
“No,” mutters Judith, with resignation. “She’s changed again. What’s she doing?”
“Making everyone tea, and telling them to sit down and discuss things like adults,” hisses Kass. She is sitting with a cup of tea in one hand, as is Dexter. There is something helpless and stiff about their posture, and from their faces it is clear that their current posture is not their choice.
“I. Am. Not. Drinking. Ylid. Tea.” Dexter declares, with muted venom.
“I don’t think she’s an Ylid!” whispers Maddy, almost deafeningly.
“I just did this, like, ritual, yeah? And tried to use Leda’s hair ‘cos of its affinity to Kali? Well… there isn’t one. I mean her hair’s all really charged, right, like it’s goddess hair, and it’s a bit like Ylid power, and it’s even a bit like Kali power, but… but it’s something else. More, y’know, pink and fluffy.”
“So if it isn’t Kali possessing her, who is it? What kind of goddess makes everyone hot drinks and forces them to play nicely?” A look of fear crosses Dexter’s face. “Mary Poppins isn’t an Ylid, is she?”
Midnight, 29th December 2000
Everyone is at the hotel.
Graham Drummond – You examine the white stone tablet, but can make little of it. It is not like anything with which you are familiar.