Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Matters of Responsibility

That evening, at seven o'clock sharp, Irene, Peter, Mukherjee, and a few of the remaining soldiers departed for Ihsaan Waahaan one more time. The plan, as explained by Sergeant Mukherjee, was that everyone would be spending one last night in town. When Peter asked, Mukherjee answered, "No, we will certainly not be staying at the hospital. Arrangements have been made with the village panchayat for quartering with families. At five o'clock tomorrow morning this truck will leave from the town square. We will catch the Karachi Express from Larkana at seven."

The darkness has a way of taking possession of a wide-open space, such as the Sindh. Rather than arriving in the slow creep of shadows from trees and buildings, darkness seems to come to the steppes and plains from all points, infiltrating the atmosphere. And when it has settled, there is no rustling vegetation, and no structures from which echoes may bounce and grow. So it was that night: there was a stillness and calmness in the Sindh's lowlands, as if some great guardian face were looking away, ignoring the happenings taking place in its realm. Beyond the engine of the Hack and the parcel of the world illuminated in its headlights, there seemed to be nothing but stars and a dim phantasm of a landscape.

The pangs of regret may have been gnawing at Irene – she had, after all, gotten scarcely any chance to do real archaeological work on the order of her stints in Egypt. Furthermore, she had left her substantial collection of books behind at camp, to be sent along to the Archaeological Survey of India office in Karachi the next day. (Noting the perpetually understaffed, under-funded, and under-resourced state of the Karachi office, the Major had remarked to Irene that the ASI would be only too happy to hold onto her books until she needed them.) Peter, on the other hand, was more than pleased to be departing. From the moment he had ferreted the amulet under his shirt to the minute of the truck's arrival in Ihsaan Waahaan, nothing about Peter – his speech, his gait, the very tempo of his bodily movements – was short of lively.

It was nine o'clock by the time the group arrived in town. Mukherjee wasted no time in escorting Irene to her hosts, three sisters in their sixties who ran a weaving business. Peter made his own way to the home of an even older couple, a much-respected pair known as Shri Subhas and Hansini Devi. Somehow, he managed to drop off his baggage and to politely evade the onslaught of tea and biscuits offered to him, their honored guest. He knew that their next guest would be the Major himself - for, as the others left, McCormick and his man Ahluwalia would remain with a skeleton crew of soldiers as Mohenjo-Daro's wardens. Surely the Major would be encouraged by the pandits' affections. After the misadventures of the past week, it was heartening to witness a cardinal virtue of Indian culture, hospitality, in action - but Peter simply could not be stayed. There was one last task. Despite his better judgment, and against no small part of his own will, he would return to the hospital.

John Daniel woke up with the barrel of a gun in his mouth.

"Shh," Peter whispered. "Listen: I know everything. I know about the riverside and what you were doing last night. I know that it was your face in the well, and I know it was you directing the jackals. As you might imagine, I am very cross with you just now, Dr. Daniel, and I'm sorely tempted to pull this trigger. But if you do as I say, you might yet save your wretched life. Now, open wide."

Peter removed the gun from Daniel's mouth and replaced it with a large wad of gauze, which he then secured in place by wrapping a bandage tightly around his jaw.

"That's better." Peter tossed another bandage onto Daniel's chest. "Tie your left arm to the bedpost," he instructed.

"Good," Peter said, holstering his weapon. He reached into his haversack and withdrew a large, empty glass syringe. Holding it up so Daniel could get a good look, he remarked, "Can you believe they just left this thing lying around?"

"When I found it," Peter elaborated, "my first thought was to give you a lethal dose of morphine. But then I recalled a story my brother told me about a soldier in a hospital who killed himself simply by injecting enough air into his bloodstream. The technical term is gas embolism. It would be a better death than you deserve, but it's also much quieter than a gun, and leaves less of a trace than morphine. My guess is that your demise would be attributed to medical error, or something in that vein." He smiled mirthlessly at this grim bit of jest.

He continued, "As a fellow intellect, you must be wondering why I would go through all the trouble of tying you up like this when I could have simply killed you in your sleep. The truth is this, Dr. Daniel: there's something I want from you. It's a narrow, elliptical object about this big, previously encased within one of the bricks we uncovered. I know you have it, and I'm guessing it's valuable enough to you to keep it close by, so I'm going to assume it's somewhere in this room with the rest of your belongings. For your sake, let's hope so. You can tell me where to look by directing your eyes to its location."

Peter followed Daniel's panicked gaze to a large trunk on the floor. After opening it and conducting a brief search, he found the strange object tucked away inside a box of cigars. He puzzled over it for a brief moment: it was a roughly cylindrical, tapered, crystalline thing; somewhat resembling a metallic icicle, it was surprisingly light and possessed a dull, graphite sheen. Peter wrapped it in a handkerchief, placed it into his own bag and, for good measure, helped himself to one of the cigars.

"Thank you," Peter said, replacing the trunk and its contents. "You're doing very well so far." He seated himself just out of arm's reach of Daniel and held out a notepad and pencil. "Take them. Good. Now, if you would be so kind, please give me a detailed summary of the object's origin, it's function, and how it is activated. There's no need to rush, we have all night."

Daniel scribbled with his free hand and held up the pad for Peter to see. YOU ARE A BRUTE, it read.

Peter smirked. "For a man in your position, you've got a bloody cheek. But, perhaps there is some truth to what you say."

He rose from his seat and paced, his expression troubled. "A week ago," he confessed, "I would have thought it inconceivable that I would be taking a colleague hostage, let alone contemplating how best to murder him. But my experiences here... shall I call them extraordinary? They have left an indelible impression upon me, Dr. Daniel; they have caused me to doubt everything I took for granted as true and valid, they have called into question every law of nature that I thought governed this world. Why then, should they not also lead me to question the utility of the laws of man? For these are strange times, and they have put me in a desperate frame of mind, and all the events leading up to this moment, sir, were set in motion by you and your vile band of heathens."

"Did you honestly think that you could dabble in the infernal without consequence? That there would be no reprisal for trying to kill me? I've noticed that people here talk a lot about karma. Now, I don't claim to know about such things, Dr. Daniel, but I think we can both agree that you've fucked with the wrong man."

Peter flourished the syringe. "Now," he commanded through clenched teeth, "write."

For all his forceful bluster, which was convincing enough to have intimidated John Daniel into spilling his guts onto paper, Peter did not begin with the intention of killing him. Why would he? After all, Daniel would hardly be so foolish as to complain to McCormick that something which he had stolen from the dig site had just been stolen from him! Moreover, and more importantly, Peter was not that kind of man.

But as he sat there watching Daniel write down his secrets, Peter thought of Irene, and what might happen to them both if Daniel ever had the opportunity to inform the cult as to what they knew and what they had taken, for he would surely do so at the earliest opportunity. As he imagined what kind of horrific revenge the cult would exact upon them, their chances of making it out of India alive seemed to dwindle beyond any reasonable probability. He considered his options, but again and again he came to the same uncomfortable conclusion: if John Daniel did not die, then he and Irene almost certainly would.

Though Peter's personal prohibitions against killing permitted exceptions when it came to the defense of himself and others, it was one thing to weigh such matters in theory and quite another to act upon them with premeditation. As he worked up the nerve to do the unthinkable, not fully convinced that he was even capable of such a deed, he was terribly conscious of the fact that it would not be long before Daniel stopped writing, and then he would have to decide one way or the other.

As if on cue, John Daniel set the pencil down on the pad of paper and held them out for his captor to take. Peter hesitated just a moment before collecting them, and looked down at the man. But he did not see him.

Instead, he saw Daniel's face leering mockingly at him from the well.

He saw Ashan, comatose and trapped in a world of nightmares.

He saw Navid, who would suffer a torturous death in prison for a crime he did not commit.

He saw Irene...

Wordlessly, he grabbed Daniel's free arm, jabbed the needle in, and fully depressed the plunger.

Peter did this until the man stopped moving. It did not take long.

Checking for signs of life and finding none, Peter undid the gag and restraints with a noticeable sense of detachment.

He closed the fresh corpse's eyes and posed it as if in slumber, with everything in its right place.

"Good night, Dr. Daniel."

Peter quietly opened the door and tiptoed into the corridor. "Sorry," he whispered to the guards as he covered a yawn, "I dozed off for a while there." Gently closing the door behind him so as not to disturb the patient beyond, he bade the guards good evening.

Not quite ready for sleep himself, Peter found his way to the veranda, lit the cigar, and smoked in silence while listening to the nocturnal serenade of the Sindh. It had been much easier to kill John Daniel than he anticipated; if anything troubled him, it was not guilt but the complete absence thereof.

V. 26 April, 1924
"Damn you, Peter Cox!" Sergeant Mukherjee clutched the note in his hand.

The three of them – Mukherjee, Irene, and Peter – had only just stepped onto the train platform in Karachi, when a crisply dressed infantryman intercepted them with a telegram. The crowd parted around the Sikh as he read. The same fearsome presence that had for the past several hours granted the two ferenghiyan an amiable pocket of shelter from the crush of bodies on the train suddenly transformed into a tangible aura of rage. Barely containing himself, Mukherjee dismissed the soldier.

"Do you hear me?" He clenched his teeth when he spoke. Never before had Peter actually seen someone whose eyes were 'like daggers,' but Mukherjee's were so narrowed and filled with angry heat that Peter could barely meet the Sergeant's fierce nazar. He cast his own gaze about the station and saw nothing but cautiously curious eyes, flitting between the predatory stare of the Sergeant and their own weaving, intersecting paths. Peter looked to Irene, and he saw puzzlement and a wordless but deeply sincere request in her face for some form of elucidation. Mukherjee growled once again, and Peter winced at the words: "You are responsible for this!"

Parts I & V by da solomon.
Parts II, III, IV by homodm.


HomoDM said...

"Please calm down, Sergeant," Peter said coolly. "To what are you referring? What is it that I am responsible for that has you so upset? I'm afraid I don't understand. May I see that?"

While he could have wagered a guess at what the telegram contained, he wondered exactly how much Mukherjee knew. That the sergeant had not already arrested him suggested that his suspicions had not yet reached the threshold of proof.

da solomon said...

"No you may not!" he spat as he reduced the paper to a wad in one of his fists.

"But I will tell you what it says: Professor John Daniel is dead!"

HomoDM said...

Peter let his mouth fall open for just a moment in feigned surprise. "Dead?? But I just saw--"

"Surely," Peter stammered, "surely you don't think that I had anything to do with this?!"

da solomon said...

For a split second, Mukherjee's rage gave way to exasperation. "You fool!"

He moved even closer to Peter, who found himself eye-to-mustache with the Sergeant. Hot breath assailed Peter's face. "Blast you!" Mukherjee shouted in a whisper. His words were spiced with the choli and chai that he had bought through the train's open window at the last station. The aroma swelled as he spoke. "Don't you see? I released him. I am to blame, and I am a fool for listening to you! We have been taken in by a simple thug!"

HomoDM said...


So Mukherjee still suspected Navid! Peter was so relieved that, perversely, part of him wanted to laugh.

Stifling this impulse, Peter said gravely, "The fact that you showed mercy to your prisoner speaks highly of your character, Sergeant Mukherjee, and I am very sorry if my actions contributed in any way to Dr. Daniel's death."

"But before you get angry with me, or angry with yourself, please consider this: if Dr. Daniel was involved with a death cult, of which I am certain, it is very possible that his death had nothing whatsoever do with Navid's release."

"This cult has already demonstrated that it does not suffer its members to live for long past their capture. One of them even bit out his own tongue so he could not be interrogated! I am, therefore, inclined to think that Dr. Daniel was somehow killed by one of his brothers; or, knowing that his involvement in the cult would soon be discovered, he found a way of taking his own life."

"If you cannot consider this now, Sergeant, please come back to it later when you are less upset. You will see it makes sense."

da solomon said...

"No, no." For innumerable seconds, they stood there on the platform. The crowd begin to empty out, either onto the train or through the station house and into the road. Mukherjee glared at Peter and the wad of paper in his hand, and slowly his features . . . they did not soften, but slowly they resumed the stolid leonine countenance that the archaeologists had come to know. As the train whistled its departure, most of the his anger had already gone.

"You must be right." He was considerably calmer. "Now that I consider it, I am quite sure that Navid could not have traversed the distance to Ihsaan Waahaan in the dark, unaided . . . unless he was more familiar with the land than I think.

"Your conclusion is plausible, Peter: Daniel was killed by one of his co-conspirators. If your observations have been correct, then it seems that they are as much bound to one another in death as in life. That is, if they are willing to kill one another to protect themselves and their secrets."

(And end of act! Blogging awards have been posted here. Posting awards have brought Peter's English score over 90, +1 sanity. Also, end of act skill awards are:

Irene: +6 Harappan (secret skill).
Peter: +8 conceal, +7 history, +1 persuade.

As always, I am keeping track of everyone's scores, but if you'd like to get an updated character sheet or just want to check your totals, let me know.

At this juncture, it will be appropriate to make posts in your own journals as the characters make their way across the continent to Berlin. Mukherjee will remain in Karachi. Notable stops on the route are many, including Constantinople and Prague. In the meantime, I'll prepare for Berlin, and Elizabeth can catch up.)