Masquerades: Part One
When James Nexis pushed through the front doors of the Mystic Times headquarters, the first thing he noticed was the chaos. Sheets of papers had been thrown across desks and floor, jackets and hats lay discarded on top of the paper, and frantic people ran through the building, calling and waving documents.
Taking in the fact that it was a Friday, this was fairly normal.
“Morning.” The brown Hissi grinned, tipping his hat to a sulky Aisha who looked like she had stepped out of a badly-made horror movie featuring zombified vampires. “Having any luck with your report?”
“No.” The reply was spat out between gritted teeth as the Aisha rummaged nervously through a stack of paper. “I hate deadlines. Now go away.”
James rolled his eyes and turning from her, made his way towards the hat stand at a leisurely pace. As he took off his fedora and coat, he noticed that the floor around him was strewn with jackets and assorted scarves. Apparently almost everyone else had been too busy to bother fiddling with the pegs.
James worked as a reporter for the Mystic Times, a large-scale newspaper catering primarily to Shenkuu. The job suited him well; he got to be nosey to his heart’s content, and was entitled to unlimited coffee, a benefit he took full advantage of.
As a general rule, the entire building was a permanent disaster zone, but with not one but two ambassadors visiting Shenkuu’s royalty, it was nothing short of a nut-house. Only James, who had mercifully received several low-profile stories, could be anything that resembled relaxed.
“Mr Nexis! Sir!”
James turned from the pegs and scanned the room to see a small, neat Xweetok dodging through the crowd, her face creased with concern.
“Oh, good morning, Deirdre.” James flashed a broad smile, recognising his secretary. “Something the matter?”
Deirdre squirmed past two arguing Lennies and tripped to a halt in front of him. “Good morning, sir, and yes. Mr Marcus wants to talk to you.”
James’s smile disappeared faster than free toffee at a fete. “Is that bad?”
“He said he had a new assignment for you.”
James swallowed loudly and glanced around. “An assignment doesn’t sound too harsh. But why does he have to give it to me personally? He always just sends me a memo.”
The Xweetok shrugged. “Maybe he wants to get to know you better?” She offered a weak smile.
“This is Mr Marcus we’re talking about, Deirdre,” James stated matter-of-factly. “The only time he’d want to get to know me better is if I was suddenly and miraculously promoted to be king.” The Hissi sighed. “Okay. Well, he can’t fire me if he’s going to give me an assignment, now can he?”
“Unless it was a farewell sort of assignment...”
“Please don’t say that, Deirdre,” James begged, plucking his hat off the wall and putting it back on his head. “I have a feeling that I’m going to need an awful lot of coffee after this meeting, even without doubts being raised about Mr Marcus’s inability to fire me.”
Deirdre raised an eyebrow, smiling. “Was that an indirect request for coffee?”
“You know me too well. I’ll see you in ten.”
James waited until his secretary had disappeared from sight before taking a deep breath and straightening his tie. Turning, he stalked through the blend of pets and navigated the maze of pathways and offices until he got to a large and fancy wooden door.
Mr Marcus was head of the Mystic Times, a fact that he seemed to like reminding people of. The doors were a rich mahogany, with a gold plate set into the front reading ‘Mr Marcus- Manager’- as if it were hard to guess.
Clearing his throat and straightening his tie again, James steeled himself for a second before knocking on the door. A prim Cybunny wearing spectacles answered it, and looked him up and down disdainfully. “So... Mr Nexis?”
Her voice was extremely high and nasally, causing James to jump. “Uh... yes. That’d be me.”
“Follow me, please,” she said, turning and walking into the room with short, fast steps. With nervous glance around, James followed.
If the door had been impressive, it was only a vague suggestion of what the inside room was like. James hadn’t been inside it since when he had been hired four years previously, but it was every bit as incredible and luxurious as he remembered. Thick red curtains framed a huge window behind an equally huge mahogany desk, at which a Grarrl- also huge- sat. The Grarrl grinned at James, showing an abnormal and disturbing number of teeth.
“Ah, Mr Nexis! How good of you to come. Please, please, take a seat.”
For the first time, James realized there was another person in the room. A sallow, darkly mysterious blue Nimmo sat in one of the two chairs in front of the desk, seeming to blend into the shadows as his eyes darted firstly over James, then Mr Marcus, then the room.
Smiling and nodding, James took his seat next to the mysterious Nimmo.
“Mr Nexis, I’d like you to meet Mr Trix. Trix, this is Nexis, one of our best reporters. He’ll be covering your story.”
James instantly perked up at the mention of a story. So, it really was a new assignment. It had to be important, though, for Mr Marcus to actually condescend to meet with him and this Trix.
“A pleasure, I’m sure,” Trix said, eyeing James curiously and making no move to shake the hand offered to him.
“Nexis, Mr Trix is one of our more useful outside contacts. He came to me this morning with some very interesting news. Mr, Trix, if you will,” Marcus nodded politely.
The Nimmo jumped straight to the centre of it. “We believe there is an assassination planned for the Annual Winworth Ball tomorrow night.”
James tried very hard to keep the excitement out of his face as he leaned forward and waited for Trix to continue. Stories like this only came around once in a blue moon, and they never, ever found out about them before the event. An exclusive eye-witness account would undoubtedly sell more papers than a royal birth, two visiting ambassadors and an interview with a flying Elephante combined.
“Many notable citizens from across the globe will be attending the ball, royalty mixed amongst them. The target is, supposedly, Lord Winworth, a wealthy Bruce.”
“Evidence is very hard to find, Mr Nexis, due to a large number of red herrings. I have made my best guess based on what information I have, and am fairly confident that I’m right.”
James had pulled out his notepad and was scribbling madly. “Lord Winworth, you say? What can you tell me about him?”
“Lord Edward Winworth, fourty-two years old, husband of Lucille Winworth. He and his wife are hosting the ball.”
James’s head snapped up. “He’s hosting the ball he’s going to be assassinated at?”
“Alright. And do you know who it is exactly who’s planning the assassination?”
They obviously weren’t getting far on this track, so James tried another angle. “Does Lord Winworth know about the assassination?”
“I believe so.”
James’s eyebrows went up. “He knows his life is in danger, but he’s still going along with the ball?”
Trix shrugged. “Apparently.”
“Does his wife know about this?”
“No. I would find it surprising if she knew anything except what the latest hair style is.”
“She’s that stupid?”
“That and more.”
James scribbled on his notepad for a few seconds as Mr Marcus tapped his claws on the desk. “Could you tell me some more about this ball?”
“It’s an annual event organised by Lord and Lady Winworth. About a hundred acquaintances will be attending in pairs. The usual schedule is meeting for drinks before a dinner, and then dancing and talking until some time after midnight, at which time the guests leave.”
“Uh-huh.” Two questions in particular had been bugging James, and as the interview seemed to be heading towards a close, he decided there was no better time to pose them than now. “How did you hear about this, and- more importantly- why are you telling us?”
The Nimmo smiled faintly at James’s bluntness. “How I know about it is my own business. Suffice to say that Lord Winworth has been aware of the threat to his life for some time, and confided in me. As to why I should tell you... let’s just say that your newspaper pays better than my current job.”
James rolled his eyes and nodded, knowing better than to ask any further. Mr Marcus, realizing an exclusive front-page story of immense value, had paid Trix for his information. That would also explain why the large Grarrl was actually meeting with them in person; he was making sure the project was understood and carried out thoroughly. Fair enough.
“Has any sort of defence been taken?”
“You seem like an intelligent person, Mr Nexis. What do you think?”
In Shenkuu, the ultimate in defence was the Royal Guard, a group of highly trained swordsmen and martial artists originally grouped to protect the royal family. However, they were hard pressed for their services, and for those who couldn’t afford them or didn’t know the right people, there was the Civil Defence... who probably wouldn’t take too kindly to an old Bruce raving on about the possibility of an assassination.
“Okay,” James said, looking over his notebook again. “No defence. So, let me get this straight: Lord Winworth and his wife are hosting a ball, at which time an attempt against the Lord’s life is planned. Lord Winworth is aware of this, but he hasn’t taken any form of defence yet, except to tell you. We don’t know who’s behind this, why, or how they plan to do it. Correct?”
“And my job is to invade the ball armed with notebooks, and sit back and watch as a murder takes place.”
James grimaced, but at a look from Mr Marcus sighed and nodded. “Okay. I can deal with that.”
Mr Marcus stood up, signalling the end of the meeting. “You, Mr Nexus, are to attend the ball and write a report on anything that happens. Understood?”
“Good. Thank you for your information, Mr Trix. See Nina on the way out and she’ll give you the payment we agreed on. Nexis, I’ll send someone from Resource Centre with a ticket to the ball, a suit, and anything else you’ll need. Good day to both of you.”
James nodded politely and left the room, as Trix accepted a plain brown envelope from the prim Cybunny receptionist. No doubt his payment.
Following James into the corridor, the Nimmo put his hat. “Good luck with your report, sir.”
“Remember, it’s a partner’s ball, so you need to find someone to go with.”
James grimaced. “Oh. That complicates things.”
“I’m sure you’ll do fine, Mr Nexis. Good day.”
The Nimmo turned and walked down the passageway towards the exit. James watched him until he was out of view, then turned and made his way to his office to think.
Sitting down at his desk, the Hissi took off his hat and flipped through his notes again, looking for clues. “Strange,” he muttered, reading one particular line, “that Lord Winworth knows about all of this. Even stranger that he hasn’t taken any precautions.”
There was a knock at the door, and a grim-looking Gnorbu entered. “Mr Nexis?”
James grinned, recognising the head of Resources. “Tina! How’re things with you?”
Ignoring his question, the Gnorbu marched into the room and handed him a sealed envelope. Before James could attempt any further small-chat, she began talking with streamlined efficiency. “Mr Marcus told me to supply you with access to the Winworth’s annual ball, and clothes to match. Here is a ticket we obtained...”
“...that should pass as the real thing. We left the invitee section blank...”
“Wait, could you please clarify ‘obtained’?”
“...so that you can write whatever alias you wish to go by,” the Gnorbu charged on, apparently oblivious to James’s questions. “We can provide you with some silk clothes as well, so that you will hopefully be able to blend into the crowd.”
“That’s nice and all, but I still don’t know what you meant by ‘obtained’,” James said miserably.
“We stole an invite, and created yours so that it’s identical.”
“If you need anything else, you know where to find me.” With that, Tina turned on her heal and marched out of James’s door. The Hissi watched her go, shaking his head in amazement. “I swear that lady could pass for a robot if she just painted herself silver. Obtained indeed.”
Leaning forward in his seat, James tore open the envelope and pulled out a slip of paper. As soon as he saw it, he knew it was no cheap affair. It was made of expensive, glossy gold paper that reflected the light and smelt vaguely of lavender, and even felt expensive. He briefly scanned it.
It is both a pleasure and an honour to invite you to our fifth annual evening ball.
Held at Winworth Acres, Saturday the Eighteenth.
We look forward to seeing you there.
Edward and Lucille Winworth”
Noting that the invitee space was blank like Tina had promised, James put the ticket into a drawer where it would be safe until the next night. “Gosh, it’s a miserable world,” he mumbled to himself. “Everyone seems to be making money off this poor chap’s death. It’s not exactly like I’m in a position to help, though.”
James leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling in exasperation. “Drat! I’ve still got to find someone to drag along with me. And not just anyone, either. I’ll need to find someone who I can trust, who isn’t going to attract unwanted attention, and who won’t drive me insane.”
With perfect timing, a blue Xweetok pushed open James’s office door, carrying a mug of coffee on a tray. James felt a large grin slide over his face. “Deirdre.”
“You asked for coffee, sir,” the secretary said, setting it down. “Indirectly, yes, but you still asked for it. I met Tina on the way here, and she told me about the new project at that ball. Congratulations!”
James sat forward in his chair, fixing the Xweetok with a massive smile. “Deirdre, I have a surprise for you.”
“You’re going to give me a raise?”
James’s smile faltered for a second. “Uh, no, not exactly. Guess again.”
The Xweetok eyed him nervously. “A holiday?”
“I have no idea, sir.”
James’s smile widened. “Deirdre, when was the last time you wore a dress?”
“I don’t know, sir. I think I was cast as Cinderella in a school play when I was five, but... oh.” Deirdre’s eyes widened in horror. “Oh, no. No, no, no. Absolutely not, no.”
“Come on, Deirdre,” James wheedled. “It’ll be fun!”
“No way, sir. I’m not going to any ball, and especially not in a dress.”
“I’ll give you a raise.”
Deirdre opened and closed her mouth mutely for several minutes, the internal conflict reflected on her face. At last she sighed and fixed James with a frustrated glower. “Fine. I’ll go.”
To be continued...