James Nexis - Betrayal: Part Six
James, Deirdre and Juhan sat in the back of a large carriage, swaying in time at it jolted over bumps and indents in the sand. Four large petpets that James couldn’t identify were dragging it along, chewing on cud and growling.
The Shunans had taken mercy on the city-dwellers and procured the carriage for them to ride in on the trip to the decimated warehouse. They preferred to travel on the backs of Apis.
Juhan looked almost as hot as James felt. The Ruki flipped out a pocket watch miserably and glanced at it. “We should be there soon. Say, Mr Nexis?”
The Hissi leaned back in his seat comfortably. “Call me James.”
Juhan grinned, looking pleased. “Sure thing, James. I was thinking about our talk last night. What you’re saying is you think Mikah destroyed the warehouse, right?”
“I think it’s quite likely. He’s got the ability, the time and the motive. If his mother was an Amman, he’d have conflicted interests.”
“I see.” Juhan tapped his chin thoughtfully. “But what about Lee, then?”
James cast his mind back to the camouflage Kougra being held in custody. “I don’t think he did it. Why would he?”
“Dunno,” Juhan admitted. “I just thought it’d be a lot more likely it was him then the Shunan hierarchy.”
“Usually it’s those with the most to lose who take the biggest risks.”
“What do you suggest we do, then?”
“I was hoping you could help me, actually,” the Hissi said. “If we could just ask Mikah a few questions....”
“I see,” Juhan said. “You want me to help corner him?”
“If you could. I have a feeling he’d give me a cold shoulder if I tried to talk to him, but he won’t dare ignore you.”
“That’s not a bad idea, actually; we can work as a team- you’ll know all of the questions that we need to ask, and with me there, Mikah won’t dare refuse to answer them.”
James nodded, chewing on his pencil. “Good. If he’s innocent, we won’t do any harm, and if he’s guilty, we might get him to slip up.”
Deirdre, who was sitting next to James, frowned. “You don’t have much evidence against him, though. Only that his mother was an Amman.”
“True,” James said, “but he’s looking most likely at the moment. This desert is immense, and the chance of finding the warehouse by accident is infinitely small. Whoever did it must have known where the warehouse was, so that pretty much narrows it down to those in the Shunan camp.”
The carriage slowly rattled to a stop.
“Looks like we’re here,” Juhan said with a smile.
James didn’t know what he’d been expecting the warehouse to look like, but it certainly wasn’t this. They’d parked ten or so meters outside of a high chain-link fence which surrounded the ex-building. It had been long enough for the fires to die down and for the worst of the heat to be sucked into the freezing desert air, but small tendrils of smoke still curled lazily into the sky.
It had probably been a large, discreet building, though now it was hard to tell. The entire structure had collapsed into rubble, leaving the occasional charred wall to show the outlines of rooms. Ash covered the ground, crunching under their feet as the stepped out of their carriage and stared in awe at the building.
Juhan’s face was dark as he stared at it. “Tragic.”
James was scribbling furiously. “Is it safe to go in? What’s the likelihood of us being squished?”
“Low,” Mikah said indifferently, suggesting squished-James wasn’t a particularly unpleasant mental image.
Juhan took a deep breath. “Right. Let’s go.”
Five of the Shunans stepped forward and pushed open the gates. They groaned loudly, grinding on their hinges. James, Deirdre and Juhan followed Mikah as he made his way towards the wreck. “Stay close,” the Shunan said. “Theoretically it’s supposed to be safe, but I wouldn’t take any chances.”
James sighed and put his notebook in his pocket. “It’s now or never. Let’s go.” With that, the Hissi stepped through the empty space that would have been the doorway.
There wasn’t much to see in the ruins; just ash, melted metal and crumbling walls. Every few minutes there would be a muffled crash from somewhere as another part of the building collapsed, but other than that and the crunch of their steps, it was silent. The fading smoke stung James’s nostrils and throat, and the sun shone down mercilessly.
The three of them slowly separated to look in different rooms. James found himself in what could have been a kitchen; something resembling a warped sink sat on the ground, and burnt pipes stuck out of the walls. Through a doorway he could see what had used to be one of the storage rooms; ash, the only reminder of the Shunan’s trade, was especially thick on the ground.
He glanced through a gap in the wall to see Deirdre slowly stumble through the rubble not far away. The Xweetok suddenly stopped, and then knelt and picked something up from the ground. She looked at it for a second then turned to say something to him, only to clamp her mouth closed again.
James was about to call to her when someone tapped him on the shoulder. “How’s it going?” Juhan asked, smiling and trying not to get ash on his clothes.
“As well as it could go,” James replied, waving his hands at the debris. “I haven’t been squashed yet.”
Juhan grinned. “That’s always good. I can’t find anything. Really, I’d be surprised if we did. Are you ready to go?”
“Sure,” James said, beckoning to Deirdre. “Time to get out of this infernal heat.”
Deirdre trotted through the maze to stand next to him. She looked like she wanted to speak to him, but shut her mouth again as Mikah approached them.
They crammed themselves back into the carriage, which had apparently had enough time to heat up during their absence. Deirdre wiped sweat off her face. “I really hate the desert.”
The ride home was carried out mostly in silence. Juhan attempted to start conversation several times, but James was wrapped up in memories of the warehouse, and Deirdre said hardly anything that wasn’t monosyllabic. The heat steadily increased until they arrived back at the camp and tumbled out, desperate for a cool drink.
“How much was stored in the warehouse?” James asked, dunking his face in a basin of water.
Juhan, who had grown up in desert temperatures and was comparatively unaffected, shrugged and began to pull his official robe off, folding it neatly inside a trunk. “It would have been a fair bit- Sakhmet never buys anything unless it’s in bulk. Probably several hundred tons of Apis wool, amongst other things.”
James whistled, his mind doing the math. “That would be worth a fortune.”
“No kidding.” Juhan began to pull his boots off. “I was technically only sent here to examine the warehouse, which is what I’ve done, but I’d like to get a bit of closure to this whole thing. The Shunans are in charge of it from now on, but that doesn’t mean we can’t give them a nudge or two in the right direction.”
James grinned. “I agree. Wait here, Deirdre.”
The Xweetok forced a wide smile onto her face. “Can I have a quick word with you, sir?”
“Later, Deirdre.” James handed her a cloth to clean her face with. “I’ll be back in a few minutes. Keep out of trouble, all right?”
The Hissi and Ruki left the tent, leaving Deirdre glaring in frustration at their backs.
A few minutes quickly morphed into ten, leaving Deirdre pacing furiously, occasionally glancing at what she held in her paw.
“Idiot,” she muttered under her breath. “You would’ve thought that after so many broken-coffee-pot emergencies he’d have learnt to listen to me, but no. It’s nothing but ‘Later, Deirdre’, and ‘Keep out of trouble, Deirdre’. He’s really going to get an earful of it when he gets back, the ungrateful, irritating, obtuse little-”
Someone stepped into the tent, and Deirdre turned around with relief. “Finally! Sir, I have something to tell- oh.”
James stomped into the tent, kicking up sand in frustration. “I’m back, Deirdre. Nothing new with Mikah; just ‘you must be insane’ looks and denials. I really wasn’t game to push it much further in case our luke-warm welcome cooled any more, so I...”
James trailed off as he realized he was talking to an empty room. The Hissi frowned, rotating on the spot slowly. “Deirdre?”
James turned to leave the tent, but stopped as a flash of blue caught his eye. Stumbling over his discarded boots, he knelt down behind the table, where an unconscious Xweetok lay, eyes closed, breathing softly. James shook her, and as her head lolled to the side he noticed a smudge of blood on the sand.
“Oh... this can’t be good.”
To be continued...