James Nexis - Betrayal: Part Four
Everything was silent as James crept through the desert camp, glancing at the tents they passed. Shuffling along behind him, dressing gown wrapped tightly around her small figure, was Deirdre, looking very tired and very annoyed and very nervous.
Apparently the Shunans observed a strict custom of going to bed when the sun went down, because there were neither lights nor voices nor any sign of life. Even the herd animals were nothing but sleeping lumps on the perfectly flat horizon.
James felt a grin slide over his face as he crept around one of the larger tents. With over a hundred Shunans and almost half as many tents, looking for something specific in the camp would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Thankfully, James had absolutely no idea what he was looking for.
The brown Hissi pulled up short as he rounded another corner. There, near the middle of the camp, was a particularly large tent with a light inside, silhouetting two figures. Nudging Deirdre, he crept back into the shadows and listened.
The silhouettes seemed to be examining something on a table. The one to the left spoke in what James could only guess was their native dialect. It was an odd combination of guttural words and clicks, and he seemed to be very agitated by the tone.
“Hush, Jericho,” the second person said. James gave a start as he recognised the voice as that of Mikah. “They will hear.”
Deirdre nudged James. “Isn’t Jericho the leader?”
The first voice, Jericho’s, resumed. “Let them hear, then,” he snapped as he began to pace. “It’s not like they haven’t guessed as much already. We have nothing to offer Sakhmet now- all of our trade was stored in the warehouse.”
“We can regain it,” Mikah said wearily. “We can go back into the desert and harvest more wool- it would only take a few weeks-”
“-which is more time than we have,” Jericho snarled, slamming a fist onto the table. “You read the letter, did you not? Or have you forgotten what it said? If we can’t supply the agreed amount in ten days, they’ll-”
“Go to the Ammans, I know.” Mikah’s silhouette sighed loudly and ran a paw over his head-cloth. “But is that even so bad? We can’t do anything to mend the damage that’s been done. I know this trade was supposed to create stability and reliable income for our people, but I am sure another opportunity as good as this or better will come along eventually. There is no point in pushing our people to exhaustion when we may not make the deadline. Let the Ammans have the trade.”
There was silence for what felt like a centaury before Jericho spoke so low that James and Deirdre had to strain to hear him. “I would watch what you say more carefully if I were you, friend.”
Mikah looked up sharply. “What are you saying?”
“What I’m saying,” Jericho murmured, “is that our warehouse didn’t annihilate itself. Very few people knew we were storing our trade there, even among our own camp.”
James and Deirdre were forced to creep out from behind the tent in order to hear them now.
“Are you accusing me of betraying my own people, Jericho?”
“No, I would never do that. I am just warning you, friend; people will jump to conclusions. After all, I’m not the one with an Amman mother.”
There was a hiss as Mikah took a sharp breath. It was silent for a minute as the two cloth-clad figures stared at each other. “I thought we had already discussed this, friend,” Mikah said coldly, putting painful emphasis on the last word.
Jericho shook his head. “I am not holding your history against you. All I say is that someone destroyed our warehouse, and that someone knew that our trade was stored there. Perhaps this reporter who is staying will be able to shed some light; I’ve heard he’s good.”
James nudged Deirdre, grinning broadly. Deirdre just rolled her eyes.
“Whatever else he is, he’s rather irritating,” Mikah said.
Deirdre just couldn’t resist nudging the irked Hissi back.
“It is late,” Jericho muttered, reaching for the lamp. “We will look at the wreck tomorrow; until then, we need rest. Goodnight, friend.” He snuffed the lamp out with two fingers, and the pair of them pushed out of the tent. James and Deirdre shrunk back into the shadows as the pair’s silhouettes paused to glance around, and then with a final nod to each other, they went their separate ways.
James waited in the dark for what felt like ages, until he was sure they were both well and truly gone, and then he beckoned Deirdre towards the tent.
“We’re going to get into so much trouble if they catch us,” the Xweetok hissed as she jogged after James.
“We’ll just have to be careful, then, won’t we?” James pushed open the flap to the tent and crept in. It was too dark to see anything, and the Hissi almost tripped over a folding chair before he found the table. Setting down the lamp, he began to search his pockets.
The Xweetok’s face was dead-pan as she glared at him. “You’ve lost your matches again, haven’t you?”
James tried to twist into an awkward position to check two pockets at the back of his jacket. “It would seem so, yeah.”
Deirdre reached into her purse and pulled out a matchbox, and James’s face lit up into a huge grin. “Thanks. What would I do without you?”
“Crawl into a corner somewhere and die, most likely,” Deirdre sighed. “Could you try to hurry, please, sir? I don’t like being here.”
James lit the lamp and suddenly the tent was illuminated with light. On the table sat several documents and maps, and on top of the pile was an opened letter. He carefully picked it up and pulled the sheet of paper out of the envelope, shaking it open beside the light.
From Head Trade Official Tandari Rhukan of Sakhmet Palace, advisor of Princess Amira-; to Jericho, leader of Shunans, Desert Trader- Greetings.
We offer our condolences regarding the unfortunate cessation of your property in West Desert Subdivision 32B, and for the loss of your assets. However, in accordance with our agreement of trade, the terms and conditions of our contract as signed and agreed for must be met before the expiry designated at the time of agreement. Failure to comply with the terms of the contract before the stipulated date will result in the voidance of the agreement, and the movement of the trade to a different source, with no compensation for your labour.
We thank you for your time.
Head Trade Official Tandari Rhukan.
James whistled as he put the paper down. “So...” he trailed off as he looked at Deirdre. “...what’s the chance that they actually offer courses in how to write like that?”
“Professional lingo,” the secretary said, rotating the paper on the table so she could look at it again. “Basically, if they don’t complete the trade before the day they’ve agreed on, Sakhmet will move the business onto another source. Probably the Ammans we heard Jericho and Mikah talking about.”
“That was pretty interesting, actually,” James muttered as he began to pace. “What Jericho said about hardly anyone knowing where the trade was kept. That would probably only be the Shunans in this camp. So, it’s highly likely that we’re standing within a couple hundred meters of the culprit.”
Deirdre re-folded the letter and popped it back into the envelope, positioning it on the table so that it didn’t look like anyone had been tampering with it. “Do you have any ideas?”
James shrugged. “I don’t know. At the moment, the main suspect I want to check out is Mikah- he didn’t seemed awfully upset about losing his warehouse, and apparently he has an Amman mother.”
“You think he might have sabotaged the Shunan’s trade so that the Ammans could take advantage of it? Almost like a undercover agent?”
“It’s very possible, yes.”
“Any other possibilities?”
“Anyone’s a suspect. That includes Jericho, and all of the other Shunans.”
James shrugged. “He’d certainly have the ability to do it. As leader, he would have access to enough money to buy explosives, and could bring them in without anyone noticing. He’d also have transport to get them there, and it would be really easy to cook up a story about meeting with some trader or other as an alibi. The only thing we’re missing is motive, but that can often come in the strangest ways.”
“All that’s true, sir,” Deirdre said as she jumped up to sit on the table, letting her feet dangle above the sand. “But all of that’s just as true for Mikah. He’s second in command, after all, and he and Jericho seemed to treat each other as equals.”
“Exactly,” James said. “Right now, he’s looking very suspicious.”
“Oh, I would not say that if I were you, Mr Nexis.” The tent flap rustled lightly as Mikah stepped past it and into the tent, the lamp’s light shining eerily off his cold eyes. “If I were in your position, I would not say that at all.”
To be continued...