James Nexis - Betrayal: Part Two
One of James Nexis’s favourite sayings was ‘looks can be deceiving’. It was cliché, old, and pretty much pointless- hence why he liked it so much.
Another thing it had in its favour was the fact that it was painfully true.
As James and Deirdre stepped out of the Hover and into the desert, the hackneyed saying took on a whole new meaning. From the Hover, the desert had looked extensive, majestic, and yellow. No amount of surveying had prepared them for the fact that it was also very, very hot.
“YAH!” James screamed as he jumped back from the doorway. Waves of boiling heat rose up from the sand, threatening to cook any unwary travellers who should be stupid enough to step outside their ship without half a ton of ice to stand on.
Deirdre just grimaced. “I really hate the desert.”
James stuck his head out of the ship just long enough to see what looked like a large pile of cloth tied together with a red sash standing a few feet away. “Uh, yeah, that’s me.”
“You are very welcome here, sir,” the cloth-pile said in a heavy accent. “If you and your lady would care to follow me, I will escort you to the camp.”
The cloth-pile turned and began to stalk away, confirming James’s suspicions that there was actually a pet under the swathes of fabric. He and Deirdre exchanged a glance and gingerly stepped from the Hover and onto the burning sand.
The waves of heat washed over them again, but this time they were slightly more prepared, and stood their ground. The cloth-pile’s voice betrayed his humour. “You will get used to the heat. It will be night in a few hours, and then you will likely freeze. Come, follow.”
James eyed their guide as they began to tramp through the piles of burning sand. Not only was it treacherously hot, it was also frustratingly unstable. “Care to explain how he doesn’t cook under all of those clothes?”
Deirdre was already panting for breath in the hot air. “They keep the heat out. Reflect the sun, that sort of thing. And stop you from burning.”
James glanced at his skin despairingly. “I should really work on my tan.”
“I really hope this job doesn’t take long. I’m not built for the desert.”
James shot a grin in her direction. “Relax, Deirdre. It’s a simple report. What could go wrong?”
Deirdre grimaced as she slid down into a miniature sand-valley. “Don’t say that. It’s like testing fate. And anyway, this is you we’re talking about. So, what could go wrong? Everything.”
“Aw, don’t be like that. Since when have I not been responsible?”
“Do you want me to answer that?”
“No, actually, it’s probably best that you don’t.”
Their conversation was cut short as they rounded a sand dune and found themselves on the edge of the camp. Large white and cream tents were dotted around a wide clearing, apparently home to dozens of unidentifiable piles of cloth. Petpets huddled in herds around the clearing, locked in pens or tied to posts. A well sat off to one side, surrounded by a dozen or so Shunans, waiting to draw water. Other than that, the clearing was empty.
Their guide turned around, probably smiling, and nodded. “My name is Mikah, and I have been nominated to be your escort. If you require any assistance, please ask for me, or for our leader, Jericho. Now, follow, and I will show you your tent.”
They marched through the crowed of cloth-piles, all of which turned to stare at them as they passed. Mikah seemed oblivious to their curious glances as he stopped in front of a largish cloth tent and pulled one of the flaps to the side. “You will stay here. Tomorrow we will be travelling to the warehouse. I will bring you some food shortly.”
“Okay, sure,” James muttered awkwardly as he and Deirdre edged into the tent. Inside was a worn wooden table with a Ruki sitting behind it, and three hammocks around the walls. If a length of cloth could be classified as a wall, that is.
The Ruki behind the table looked up. “Wha... oh, hello there.” An awkward smile spread over his face as he clambered to his feet. “I wasn’t expecting anyone else to be staying here. Though, I guess, with space such a premium, that was a bit stupid.” There was a pause as he detangled his feet from under the table and stumbled up to James, holding out a hand. “I’m Juhan, ambassador from Sakhmet. They called me here to write up a report on the mess and make sure it’s taken care of properly.”
James shook the offered hand, grinning broadly. “I’m Nexis, reporter from Shenkuu. It’s my job to make sure this story is publicised as widely as possible.”
Juhan chuckled. “Each to his own, I suppose. Nice to meet you, Mr Nexis.” He turned to Deirdre, who was trying to get sand out of her ears. “And you are...?”
“Deirdre, my secretary,” James said. Deirdre smiled thinly and began pulling her sand-filled boots off.
“Well, Mr Nexis and Deirdre from Shenkuu,” Juhan spread his hands widely, as though to encompass the tent and surrounding landscape. “Welcome to the Lost Desert.”
Deirdre unpacked for them while James sat talking with Juhan. It turned out the Ruki was a trade official from Sakhmet Palace, and in charge of the economics and supply.
“It’s not a bad job,” Juhan said, leaning on the desk and scribbling aimlessly in his notebook. “There’s not a lot to do, really. I generally just get sent on random and ‘very important’ projects like this one.” He made quotation marks in the air to emphasise the ‘very important’ phrase. “Mostly they don’t take me seriously.”
James nodded companionably. “No one really takes me seriously, either.”
Deirdre stood up, looking hurt. “I take you seriously.”
“Yeah, but you don’t count.”
Deirdre sighed and went back to stacking the eight identical shirts that James had brought under his hammock.
“So, really, what’s it like living in a desert?”
“Hot,” Juhan replied wryly. “And there’s a lot of bugs, too; but I like it. I went to Shenkuu once- it rained almost every day I was there.”
James grinned. “When it’s not raining, it’s foggy; and when it’s not foggy, it’s raining. Suits me, though.”
Deirdre muttered something about choosing Shenkuu over the desert any day, but they both ignored her.
“Though,” the Ruki said, “Sakhmet is far more civilized than here. These traders are on the fringe of our economy- they come with their wares, they sell them, and they go again to goodness knows where. Dratted unpredictable.”
James glanced at the tent opening, which hid the Shunans from view. “What’s with those clothes, anyway? They all look identical to me.”
Juhan laughed. “You’ll get used to it eventually. Maybe, if you spend enough time around them, you might even be able to guess what species some of them are. Maybe.”
There was a rustle behind them, and suddenly one of the Shunans was standing in the tent. James glanced at the red sash tied around his waste and guessed Mikah. “We’re ready for you, inspector.”
Juhan flipped a pocket watch out and glanced at it. “Already? Rightio, then. You’ll be coming, wouldn’t you, Mr Nexis?”
“Sure,” James said instantly, and added as Deirdre dropped her head into her hands, “...where are we going?”
“To interrogate the suspect,” Juhan said cheerfully, shuffling through his papers as he searched for a pen.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Mikah said. “My instructions are that you are to conduct the questioning, no one else.”
Juhan found his pen and straightened up. “C’mon, what’s the harm? Mr Nexis gets to awe his readers with information about the villain, and I get another brain to pick. Let him come.”
Mikah hesitated, and Juhan smiled persuasively. “Please?”
“Fine,” Mikah sighed, turning to lead them out of the tent. “He may come.”
James turned to the Ruki. “They caught the person who destroyed the warehouse? When did that happen?”
“Recent development,” Juhan explained as they left the tent. “Apparently he’s some tourist who’d stopped here for a couple of nights. They arrested him last night, just after the warehouse was destroyed- they found some of his clothes covered with dust from the building. They’ve got him detained, and want me- well, us now- to do the questioning.”
James had his notebook out and was writing furiously. “Does he have a name?”
Juhan shrugged. “Dunno. Probably.”
“You’re not sure if he has a name or not?”
Juhan frowned thoughtfully. “Well... he should. I mean, why wouldn’t he have a name?”
“Maybe he’s a robot. He might only have a serial number in that case.”
Juhan looked at James strangely. “I never thought about it that way.”
There was a dead silence for several minutes before James shrugged and flipped to a new page.
“Do you know where he comes from?”
Juhan shot James an apologetic smile. “I’m in the dark there. All I know is he’s been arrested.”
James closed his notebook. “Deirdre?”
“Yes, sir?” Deirdre had been forced to jog to keep up with James and Juhan, and was glaring in disgust at the sand, which was leaking into her shoes.
“I think I’m going to need more than one notebook. Would you go back and get-”
“Two steps ahead of you, sir.” Deirdre held up her purse, which was slightly larger than an average bag, and had several unusual lumps in it. “Four spare notebooks, and extra pencils, in case yours break.”
Juhan whistled. “Impressive.”
“Yeah,” James said blithely as they arrived at an official-looking tent. “I don’t know what I’d do without her.”
“Use your hat-lining for paper when you run out?” Deirdre suggested, grinning.
James scowled at her. “You remember that?”
“After you, please, Mr Nexis,” Mikah said, loudly enough for James to assume it was at least the third time he’d had to repeat it.
Grimacing at each other, James and Deirdre entered the tent. It hadn’t looked very unusual from the outside, but the interior strongly resembled a jail. Half a dozen Shunans armed with swords stood around the perimeter, and in the centre a thin, scraggly camouflage-coloured Kougra sat in an iron chair, his hands tied to the armrests.
He looked tired, James noted, and fearful. His black eyes looked at them through bruise-like hollows, and his fur was matted and in dire need of a wash. He licked his lips as James, Deirdre and Juhan hesitated at the entrance of the tent. “Who’re you?”
Juhan took a breath and stepped forward. “I’m Juhan, trades official for Sakhmet. Our trade was in the warehouse you burnt down.”
The Kougra grimaced, licking his lips again. “I didn’t burn it down. I didn’t do anything. You’re crazy.”
“That’s for me to decide. I’ll need you to answer some questions.”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“Yes,” Juhan said wearily. “You already told us that. Just answer the questions, please.”
The Kougra did nothing except scowl at them, so Juhan took a step closer and pulled out a list. “Firstly, what’s your name?”
“Or, more importantly, do you have a name?” James added helpfully. “Or is it just a serial number?”
The Kougra, Mikah and the six guards stared at James, probably questioning his sanity.
Juhan fought to keep a straight face. “Just your name, please.”
“Lee.” The Kougra coughed, licked his lips again and continued. “Lee Robinson.”
James began scribbling and Juhan moved to the next question. “Where do you come from?”
“Sakhmet. Look, I don’t know what’s happening, but you’ve got the wrong guy. I-”
“Didn’t do anything, we know. How old are you?”
“Thirty-two,” Lee sighed.
Juhan leaned forward slightly. “Could you please run through how you came to be here, and everything you’ve done in the last twelve hours?”
Lee shook his head slowly, obviously trying to remember. “I was travelling through the desert. Two-day trip, you know, from here to the mountains separating the desert from Altador. I was getting ready to set up my camp when I found this place- these nomads invited me to camp with them for the night. I was going to stay for today, too, rest up a bit, and leave early tomorrow. That’s it; I set up my tent, I read for an hour, and then I went to sleep.”
“Uh-huh.” Juhan glanced back at his list. “Do you have any alibi for the hours of twelve to two this morning?”
Lee gave him an odd look. “Well, yeah, I just told you, I was asleep.”
“Can anyone confirm that?”
Lee just shook his head slowly.
“Right. So, why did you stop here, at this particular camp, last night?”
The interrogation went on. James and Deirdre found seats around the edge of the tent, and flopped down to wait. First, Juhan asked him about his history; where he’d been born, where he lived, his family, everything from his favourite sport to the size of his house. The questions were harsh, and Juhan took his time before he moved on to the last forty-eight hours. He went right across Lee’s story multiple times, trying to find inconsistencies or inaccuracies. Lee, however, continued to stubbornly insist he was innocent. James used up two of the precious notebooks on what could only be pointless information; the food Lee had eaten, the book he was supposedly reading, the length of his trip from Sakhmet to the Shunan camp. Juhan brought up the evidence- the residue of rubble found in Lee’s tent- several times, but the Kougra countered it by claiming he had no idea how it got there.
Deirdre was beginning to fall asleep by the time Juhan lowered his notes and shrugged. “No further questions for now. You will stay here tonight, until it is settled as to whether your trial should be before the Shunan council or Sakhmet authorities.”
“Do you guys still have the death sentence?” Lee asked, his tone implying it was a joke, but his eyes flickering with fear.
Juhan didn’t answer. Instead, he rolled up his scroll and made for the exit. “Coming, Mr Nexis, Deirdre?”
“Actually, would you mind if we stayed here for a bit and chatted with Lee?”
Juhan hesitated, but then shrugged and smiled. “Sure. Let me know if you come up with anything interesting.”
The Ruki left, and James and Deirdre found themselves alone in a tent with Lee. Well, alone wasn’t technically correct; there were still the six guards standing around the edge of the circle, but James suspected they couldn’t understand his language. It made sense to have protection without the complication of gossip.
The silence stretched on for several minutes before Lee coughed and shook his head. “I didn’t do anything,” he rasped desperately, looking first at James and then at Deirdre. “You’ve got to believe me. Please.” He stopped and licked his lips again. Deirdre, who’d been watching the motion through most of the interrogation, frowned gently.
“Are you thirsty?”
Lee glanced at her warily. “Yeah, I am.”
Deirdre looked at James, who shrugged, and then pulled out a flask of water. She made to walk to Lee, but one of the guards blocked her way.
“Oh, come on,” she snarled. “It’s not like he’s going to escape if we give him a drink. What is this? Some kind of sadistic prison?”
“I don’t think you want that question answered,” James muttered.
The guard hesitated, obviously not understanding everything that she said, and Deirdre took the opportunity to shove past him. She pulled a pocketknife out of her handbag and approached Lee. The Kougra flinched back from her as she carefully cut the cords that tied his right paw to the chair. She handed him the flask of water and he took it gratefully, fear forgotten for a second as he concentrated on drinking.
James blinked in disbelief. “Since when do you carry knives in your bag?”
Deirdre just grinned.
Lee took a final gulp and handed the empty water flask back, smiling thinly. “Thanks,” he gasped, and the circles under his eyes looked a fraction less pronounced. “You don’t know how much I appreciate that.”
Deirdre took the flask and turned to go back to James when the Kougra impulsively reached out and grabbed her arm. “Please,” he whispered, ignoring the guards as they crept forward, weapons raised. “Please, you have to believe me. I have two children to support. I didn’t do this, I swear.”
Deirdre’s face twitched, but she shook Lee’s hand off as the guards shoved him back and roughly retied him to the chair. James appeared beside her and poked her, his cheerful mood completely inappropriate, as usual. “Ready to go?”
“Yes, sir.” Deirdre sighed and followed the Hissi to the entrance to the tent, where she paused and looked back. Lee was still surrounded by the guards, his dark eyes reflecting bleak hopelessness as he watched them go. Deirdre hesitated for a fraction of a second before she mouthed the words ‘I believe you’, and then she turned and followed James into the burning heat.
To be continued...