James Nexis - Betrayal: Part One
Rain was pouring in freezing torrents over the Shenkuu landscape, blurring Deirdre’s view of the picturesque hills and buildings. The petit blue Xweetok’s face was set in a grimace as she stared out of the window towards the hunched figures shuffling through the street. Draped over one arm was a towel, and in the kitchen behind her the coffee pot was being kept warm.
The door was thrown open and a drenched brown Hissi stumbled through, bringing several litres of rainwater with him. Spitting out a mouthful of water, he pulled off his coat and fedora and dropped them unceremoniously on the floor. “Good morning, Deirdre. Ghastly weather, isn’t it?”
“Especially if you’re too stubborn to hire a coach,” Deirdre said, holding out the towel with a grin. “Here.”
“What’s that for?”
“Really? Your observational skills astound me.”
The Xweetok shoved the towel into his arms, frowning. “You’re late, by the way, and Mr Marcus asked to see you.”
James dropped the towel. “He what?”
“He asked to see you. I think it’s a new assignment.”
James flinched. “You remember the last time he personally gave me an assignment?”
“Yeah, we ended up being chased around a burning mansion by a crazy aristocrat.” Seeing James’s pained look, Deirdre sighed compassionately. “I’ll make you some coffee.”
“Thanks. Oh, Deirdre?”
“Make it extra strong.”
Deirdre shook her head as her employer sloshed his way towards the main office. “You already have it strong enough to knock out an Elephante for a week. Any stronger and we’ll be facing an apocalypse.”
The Hissi fired a mock salute without glancing around.
James Nexis worked as a reporter for the Mystic Times, a newspaper that was situated in - and reported for - Shenkuu. He was quite good at his job- occasionally too good, as the crazy-aristocrat-burning-mansion episode bore testimony to. Arguably, much of his success could be attributed to Deirdre, whose job included remembering hundreds of names, dates and places, keeping James out of trouble, and making copious amounts of coffee.
Several alarmed glances were directed at the Hissi as he walked through the offices, leaving a trail of water in his wake, but he ignored them. Following the well-known path through the maze of offices and archives, he eventually came to a massive, ornate wood door, and, taking a deep breath, he knocked. The golden plaque on the door read ‘Mr Marcus, Manager’, as if it were hard to guess whose office it was.
The door was opened by a short, painfully neat Cybunny, whom James vaguely recognised from around the office. “Mr Nexis...?” Her voice was excruciatingly high, and her nose wrinkled in disgust as she stared at his dripping clothes.
“That’s me,” James grinned, edging his way past her and, to her obvious horror, dripping water on the expensive red carpet.
The manager’s office had been decorated for impression rather than convenience. The desk alone would probably have cost more than all of the furniture in James’s house combined, and it was rumoured that the curtains framing the massive windows had been imported exclusively from Altador. Sitting in front of the desk and fitting in superbly with the decorations was a large red Grarrl sporting a massive, toothy smile. James’s jaw ached just from looking at it.
“Mr Nexis! How good of you to... why are you wet?” Mr Marcus’s classic greeting crumbled into awkward confusion.
“It’s raining,” James said as he took a seat, earning a pained squeak from the pristine Cybunny by the door. She was obviously the type of person who had dust covers on her chairs, and went into a panic attack if anyone dare neglect to put a coaster under their cup.
Mr Marcus ignored his secretary, and instead focussed a fake smile on James. “You won’t have to worry too much about rain where I’m sending you.”
“The Lost Desert, Nexis.”
“Oh. Why there?”
Mr Marcus rolled his eyes. “Because I have a story I want you to check up on. Have you ever heard of the Shunans?”
“Well, I’m sending you to them, anyway.” The Grarrl frowned and massaged his temples. “The Shunans are desert nomads who have recently decided to become merchants, basically. Their leader’s name is Jericho, and they recently signed a large trade deal with Sakhmet.”
James was scribbling in his notebook. “Right, got that, even if the spelling’s off. What’s so interesting about them, anyway?”
“Their warehouse exploded.”
James looked up. “Really? Like, actually exploded?”
“That’s what I said, didn’t I?”
“Was it a deliberate sabotage?”
Mr Marcus frowned at him. “No, the warehouse just suddenly decided to blow itself up in the middle of the night. Don’t be stupid, Nexis; yes, it was a sabotage.”
James raised his hands innocently. “Just making sure. When did it happen?”
“Last night- about ten in the evening. We were alerted by one of our contacts about an hour ago.”
“And what’s the state of the crime scene?”
“You’re going to like this part,” Marcus crowed gleefully. “The Sakhmet guards have forbidden civilians- or anyone else, for that matter- to go within a mile of it, due to the possibility of hazards or further explosions. The town has been evacuated, and not even the guards themselves have gone near it. According to their laws, the Shunans are responsible for the whole mess from now on; there’s an official from Sakhmet to examine the wreck, but that’s it. The best bit is the Shunans owe us a favour from last year, when we ran an article on their fleece trade. That means you,” he pointed at James, “will be a VIP guest with complete access to the ruins.”
James’s grin almost broke his face. “That’s brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. When do I leave?”
“Uh...” Mr Marcus checked his watch. “...now.”
“The Shunans are going to go to examine the wreck tomorrow, when they’re sure there aren’t any aftershocks and when the trade ambassador arrives. You’ll need to get there before then, with time to look around and ask question. So, yes, get packed. Your flight leaves in ten minutes. You can take company, if you think you’ll need it.”
James saluted enthusiastically. “Yes, sir! Right away, sir!”
The Grarrl stood up, signalling the ending of the meeting. James obediently squelched his way past the Cybunny secretary- who seemed to be having an emotional breakdown- and out of the room. A few minutes of navigating the Mystic Times’s hallways James found himself back at his office, where Deirdre was waiting for him with a mug of coffee and a fresh towel.
Ignoring her offer to take his coat to the cleaners, he flopped into his chair and picked up the coffee mug. According to instructions, it was strong enough to revive the dead, but James didn’t seem to notice as he sipped it thoughtfully.
“Deirdre, when was the last time you went on a holiday?”
“What?” The Xweetok stopped trying to mop up the water that was dripping around her employer, and stood up to stare at him. “Well... years ago, I guess. Why?”
“I just got a new assignment, which will take me to a rather exotic location, and I was thinking that it might be useful to have some help.”
Deirdre gave him a pained look. “When I signed up for this job there was nothing in the contract about travel.”
James gave her his best winning smile. “Oh, c’mon, Deirdre. It’ll be fun.”
“I hate it when you say that,” she sighed. “Where are you going?”
“Guess. It has lots of sand, sun and culture.”
“Uh, no, the Lost Desert, actually.”
Deirdre groaned. “I hate sand.”
“So you’re coming?”
“I suppose I don’t really have a choice. If I stay, you’ll probably end up in gaol, and then I wouldn’t have my job, would I?” She sighed. “I’d better be paid overtime for this, though.”
James grinned as he stood up. “Brilliant. We’re leaving in, like, two minutes, by the way; so if you need to pack anything, now would be a good time.” Picking up his still half-full mug of coffee, he attempted to down it in one mouthful. The result wasn’t pleasant.
Sighing, Deirdre shoved the towel into her coughing superior’s hands and left to pack.
Ten minutes saw James and Deirdre aboard the Hover, the Mystic Times’s emergency form of transport. The Hover was a Virtupets design ex-military aircraft, capable of reaching extremely high speeds when necessary. Apparently now was one of those ‘necessary’ times, because the clouds whipping past the window were nothing more than white blurs, and Deirdre was looking slightly queasy.
James, oblivious to his secretary’s plight, was sorting through a pile of maps which, though they were all on the Lost Desert, marked the camps and towns in different places.
“You’d think they’d have an accurate version by now,” James said, glancing between two maps which were showing Qasala to be in opposite corners.
Deirdre gripped her backpack tightly and swallowed as she swayed. “It’s not called the Lost Desert for nothing. Just because the desert itself has been found, doesn’t necessarily mean that everything in it stays in the same place all of the time.”
James glanced at his maps moodily. “Well, what’s the good of that?”
“Theoretically, it increases the city’s trade if people can’t find out how to leave.”
James snorted with laugher and turned back to the window. They were just passing over the last of the mountains, and stretched before them was miles and miles of sand, heaped into hills and valleys. For as far as James could see there was no form whatsoever of habitation, or any vegetation. He whistled slowly. “I wouldn’t like to be lost in there.”
“I wouldn’t want to be lost anywhere.”
James glanced at his assistant. “Well, I can’t say I agree with that.”
“Why not? If you’re lost, you’re lost, and where you’re lost doesn’t really matter if you can’t find your way out.”
“Yeah, but it would be better to be lost in, say, Coffee Land, than in the desert.”
Deirdre stared at him. “...Coffee Land?”
James’s mouth twitched. “Coffee Land is a magical place where coffee flows in rivers from the beautiful coffee-bean mountains, and no one ever complains about overdue assignments. I intend to retire there.”
“Wow. And you think I have issues.”
James grinned and went back to looking out of the window. The Hover was now flying close to the ground, and all he could see was a golden blur whizzing away below the window. When he twisted his head, he noticed tents looming up between the hills. “Looks like this might be our stop,” he said, standing up and then sitting down abruptly as the Hover landed with a jolt. “But how on earth we actually found it, I’ll never know.”
To be continued...