"Where are we going?" Kevin asked, as he followed Bret out of the Walled Garden and down the road towards the portal terminus.
"To the beach," Bret replied shortly.
Kevin had already guessed that.
"But we don't really know where Tanji is," he insisted as they jogged down the street.
"But we might be able to find out," the other man replied, "And I think that Tanji is smart enough to give us a lot of information - perhaps even more than she realised herself."
He paused, then added, "But let's double-check, shall we?"
Bret stopped and pulled a magic writing slate from his rucksack, the one he habitually carried, Kevin recalled, like so many of the natives of this world. Seeing it, Kevin was once again struck by a blast of despair; he remembered the way that Tanji used to write to her friends all the time when they first met, and now he feared that he would never see her again.
"Now," Bret began, gently pulling Kevin back to the here-and-now, "You visited the warehouse in this world near the crossing, didn't you?"
Kevin nodded miserably.
"And do you recall the name of the person you showed you around?"
Kevin thought hard. Remembering people's names was not one of his strong points, and he struggled with the recollection for a moment or two.
"There were two of them," he replied slowly, than added as the memory finally struck, "They were called Vanise and Lyssa."
"Hmm," Bret nodded, already making complex gestures over his slate in order to, Kevin presumed, communicate with the warehouse staff.
"OK, I'll write to them," he said after a few moments, "We want to find out whether there was a single direct delivery recently."
He scribbled a few sentences on the surface of the slate. Even now, Kevin could not make out very much of the alphabet and syntax of the written language, despite a fair degree of effort from himself and tutoring from Tanji.
"That should do," Bret concluded, again gesturing over the slate until the writing faded before their eyes, "So come on."
Together, the two of them entered the portal building. Guided by Bret, they undertook a series of transfers following a route which, Kevin considered, was almost certainly different from the one he had taken with Tanji, although he could not be completely sure.
The two men emerged from another portal building on the sea front, adjoining the beach hotel where Kevin had stayed with Tanji all those months ago. He recognised the setting in a blast of nostalgia and a sudden aching reminder of the loss of Tanji. Pulling himself together, he marched straight across the wide boulevard from the portal building to the railings which separated the roadway from the beach.
The two men then undertook what Kevin would later consider to be a classic piece of detective work, at least as far as he could judge as an amateur but enthusiastic reader of detective novels and whodunits.
Kevin leant against the railings, surveying the scene. In front of him, he could see what were evidently holidaymakers strolling to and fro, enjoying the promenade. Similarly, in the other direction, he observed numerous sun-seekers taking their ease on the beach, many of them wearing, as was the custom in many parts of this world, little or nothing by way of bathing costumes.
"The way I see it," Bret said, ticking off the points on his fingers, "We've got two important clues. Firstly, the bar code which you so insightfully noticed on Tanji's foot."
"Which clearly was originally attached to a package of some kind of bean that was part of a shipment exported from this world," Kevin added, nodding vigorously.
"Right," Bret confirmed, "Together with Tanji's appearance during the second contact."
"Exactly," the other man agreed.
Bret paused, clearly not quite sure how to approach the topic on his mind.
"About the change in Tanji's, err, shape," he began, "Are you quite sure there is no doubt, no ambiguity in your mind?"
"Oh no," Kevin responded immediately, "I'm quite sure. I wasn't even aware that Tanji could change her body like that until the day we arrived here, and it's definitely the only time I've ever seen her perform that trick."
Kevin was feeling very fidgety and wanting to be doing something - anything - rather than just standing here.
"Do you imagine that she'll be in the hostel?" He asked, waving in the direction of the familiar building just across the road.
"Somehow, I doubt it," the other man responded, "But there's no harm in asking, is there?"
Seemingly suddenly energised, Bret strode rapidly in the direction the other man had just indicated, leaving Kevin scampering along behind. Bret strode unhesitatingly into the hostel and accosted the receptionist who jumped up from behind his desk. There was much shaking of heads and muttered conversation, then Bret turned away apparently thanking the man for his help.
"She's not here," Bret said to Kevin, "I've been assured that no-one's been staying here for long enough to be Tanji or her captors."
The two men made their way out onto the street. Bret suddenly stopped dead in the roadway, then again reached for the slate in his rucksack. He gestured briefly at it, and Kevin could see writing appear on the black surface, though he could not read a word.
"It's a reply from Vanise and Lyssa," Bret announced, running his fingers along the lines of text as he translated for Kevin's benefit, "They confirm that a large sealed crate was transferred from your world. Unusually, it used express delivery and point-to-point routing to be delivered, for personal collection, at a goods warehouse in this area."
He paused, looking at Kevin who was listening intently, then continued.
"After that, they have no information, other than this was the only sealed crate big enough that was handled recently."
"Do they tell us exactly where the warehouse is?" Kevin asked excitedly.
"Unfortunately, no," Bret replied, "Oh, there's a reference number, but Vanise and Lyssa are not sure exactly where it is physically, although it's definitely around here somewhere."
Kevin's shoulders sagged.
"Look, there can't be that many warehouses around here," Bret added, "And at least we have some confirmation that Tanji is in the vicinity."
"They must have opened the crate while still in the warehouse," Kevin said, suddenly looking more positive, "So that Tanji could pick up the bar code."
"True enough," Bret said, "So what next?"
"We follow the beans," the other man answered smartly.
Kevin had recalled that, not very far from here, there was a market where all sorts of produce was bought and sold. He had visited when he and Tanji had been tourists, and he thought he could remember how to get there by portal. Kevin led Bret to the entrance he was certain he remembered from before, explaining to the other man about the visit he and Tanji had made. Bret glanced up at the notations above the portal and agreed that it looked plausible. A few moments later, the two men were in an agricultural area which, to his immense relief, looked entirely familiar to Kevin.
"This way," he said to Bret, pointing a finger.
Ten minutes brisk walking along the dusty road brought them to the market Kevin remembered. As before the market was thronging with noise and life. They made their way around until they found a grower with a handcart laden with slender green beans in what must have been intense negotiation with a rather stout and pompous-looking man in a flowing robe.
As they approached, some kind of agreement seemed to have been reached. Some of the magic coins which Kevin had seen before were handed over, rather begrudgingly, and checked carefully by the farmer.
Apparently satisfied, the farmer grasped the handles of his handcart and tipped it up. The beans slid off the cart onto what Kevin at first thought would have been the ground, but in fact they were deftly caught - not a bean was missed - by some form of transport magic which was barely visible even in the bright sunshine.
The hill of beans slid away on the levitation platform, guided by the pompous man with an occasional irritable flicking gesture, and moving slowly and unevenly to avoid the pedestrians. The farmer watched him go, then slipped the coins he had received into an old-fashioned leather purse held on a string around his neck.
"Let me talk to him," Bret suggested, "Stay here."
Bret strode over and accosted the grower, who seemed happy enough to talk at length now that he had off-loaded his crop. He grew increasingly animated and chatty, waving his hands around, obviously warming to the subject at hand. Kevin waited patiently in the relative coolness of the coconut thatch that shaded a nearby stall until Bret returned.
"That was very useful," he said with a wry smile that Kevin had begun to wonder if he would ever see again.
Bret explained that beans, and other fruit and vegetables, were often sold to professional buyers, who worked for an intermediary organisation who prepared and packed the goods, and then arranged for them to be shipped out.
"Come on," Bret exclaimed, "Let's catch up with him."
They set off through the crowds, Kevin panicking for a moment until he caught sight of the buyer's bulk ahead. He need not have worried; it turned out that following the pompous man was particularly straightforward. Once clear of the market and the little village which contained it, their quarry walked at a steady pace along the road for about half a mile, his apparent destination being a large low building with the same blocky reinforced construction as other places in the area.
Bret and Kevin trailed along behind at a discreet distance, strolling with an affected attempt at casualness as if they were a couple of tourists.
The buyer arrived at his destination and disappeared inside the building, trailed by the floating cargo pallet.
"Let's wait here," Bret suggested, "I'd rather not tackle the buyer - he looks like hard work to me."
Kevin nodded in agreement. The two men watched the building, again pretending to be casual tourists admiring the rural scenery. They did not have long to wait. A few minutes later, the pompous-looking man re-appeared in the doorway, now no longer tailed by a floating heap of vegetables, and set off in the opposite direction towards the portal Kevin and Bret had used to get here.
The two men waited until he was out of sight, then strode purposefully to the entrance, which stood open. Looking inside, Kevin was sure that this was definitely the place described by the farmer in the market. The cool interior seemed dark after the brightness of the sunshine. Down one side, rows of workers sat behind benches preparing and packing produce, their nimble fingers and alarmingly large knives making short work of any recalcitrant vegetables.
Rather than the tidiness and attention to detail of Vanise and Lyssa, the staff at this warehouse seemed relaxed and laid back - indeed, mused Kevin, so far laid back as to be practically horizontal. Perhaps this was only the case when the proprietor, or buyer, or whoever the pompous man was, was not actually in the building. The floor, in particular, did not seem to have been swept very thoroughly, or very recently, and pieces of paper, vegetable scraps and other less-identifiable items were littered around in many places.
Even so, consignments were flowing smoothly into, and occasionally out of, the operational goods portal set into the wall opposite from the team of packers. It was extremely similar to the one Kevin had seen before in this world, and clearly under the competent control of two men who were alternately gesturing calmly and chatting to one another.
While some of the arriving goods were being shepherded onto horse-drawn wagons, or even the occasional hand-cart, most used the same floating magical pallets that Kevin had seen before. As he watched, a floating pallet of plastic packaging trays - the same kind that were being used to package the vegetables - arrived through the portal and was delivered to the vegetable workers.
While Kevin stopped at the doorway surveying the busy scene, Bret strode further into the building and spoke to one of the people operating the portal. After a few minutes conversation, Bret beckoned Kevin over.
"I think you need to hear this," he said, although it turned out that Bret meant it only figuratively, since he smoothly translated the warehouseman's words for Kevin's benefit.
Through Bret, the portal operator confirmed that there had been some unusual - even suspicious activity. A few days ago, a large crate arrived, to be collected. It was man-handled and then opened on the premises by a group of rather large men, rather than being removed intact by the magical transports that would normally be used to collect an express-delivery package.
"They wouldn't let the portal workers watch," Bret translated, "And forced everyone to leave the building."
Bret lowered his voice.
"Frankly," he whispered, "I think he was scared. Anyway, when he came back, everyone had left, with just the crate left behind."
"Can we see the package?" Kevin asked, and Bret translated.
The warehouseman pointed at a large wooden box in one corner which appeared to have been crudely levered open, and which was, worryingly, about the size and shape of a coffin. At first, it seemed that there was no evidence that it had even contained anything: just plain wood inside and out.
Bret and Kevin knelt and examined it closely, Kevin eventually locating a few threads adhering to the rough edges which might have come from some kind of blanket. He held them up for inspection.
"Well, at least we know that she was reasonably comfortable - and hopefully unconscious - during most of his confinement," he said.
Kevin was fuming.
"What happened to the men who came here?" He wondered aloud, the anger apparent in the tone of his voice, "Any idea where they might have gone?"
Bret translated his words. The warehouse worker glanced slightly nervously at Kevin, who nodded and smiled encouragingly. Emboldened, the worker beckoned them to follow further into the darkened recesses of the building. He pulled open a back door and pointed across the fields where, in the far distance, some kind of low building could just be made out.
|© 2007-2008 Trevor Hopkins. All rights reserved.||Webmaster||Last updated 30 October 2008|