Over the twenty-four hours that followed, I kept a close eye on the the various players with whom I shared First Class. Loelle came out for meals but seemed to spend much of her time resting, either asleep or merely at peace. I had conducted a brief search and discovered that her cargo was five cabins down from ours, safely stowed. It consisted mainly of finely tanned leathers, boxes of furs, linen and several cases of completed clothing. Hoping to reaffirm the dates that her husband had been delivering, sure that they provided the alibi she needed, I performed a little light-fingered reconnaissance into the Notary’s cabin while he ate his breakfast. Sure enough, the dates matched up so that, even had she travelled with her husband on his supply route, she would have been in Rida during the first two murders and still in Zar for the third.
Jef’nerin apparently preferred to spend his meals in his cabin, for I did not see him leave once during the day. For hours I turned the problem around in my head; what was his final project? In the past he had successfully kept his business ventures a secret from me. I had been aware of a shadowy figure behind several of the criminals I had apprehended, but he had never made a formal appearance and I had only been able to garner the faintest suggestions about his manner. To have Jef’nerin laid out for my study like this was… unheard of.
I sought out the final person I had yet to talk with. Having spent much of his time engrossed in paperwork, the agent from the Department of Corrections had been a rare sight, though I had seen him enough to gather some of his background. A middle-aged man, he had worked a street patrol in his earlier days before earning a commendation, the medal for which he still wore on his uniform. That he wore his uniform even when travelling like this told me much; he was not just proud of his position but married to it, unable to go off duty even here. Instead of light reading or enjoyment of the view, his leisure time was filled with report-writing or filework.
I paused outside his compartment, straightened my couture and knocked politely on the frame. He looked up, then beckoned me in. He was a large man, head almost spherical, but it was a beefy, solid look rather than fat. His skin was dusky and his facial features suggested that he was Koruan, but he had spent time in other countries judging by some of his mannerisms and accent.
“Ming Bao,” he said.
I nodded, surprised. “You’ve heard of me?”
“Dao Habaza.” He pronounced with with an odd emphasis on the -ba- syllable, not at all the Koruan fashion. “We almost worked together. You were consulting in Fjornik.” He lay down his pen perfectly parallel to the table edge and folded his hands over his paperwork, neatly blocking my attempt to read whatever it was upside-down. “My superiors sent me for a multi-country operation, a drug problem that was sweeping both our countries. I’m sure you remember it.”
I did. Dust, the grey drug sold in little glass vials, was meant to be swallowed. For a short while, users felt like they could take on anything, and the worst part was, they actually could. It enhanced muscle usage, increasing speed, agility, reflexes… it wore off quickly, thankfully, but the addiction was instant after the first hit and prices soared.
“That was one of my first, Mr Habaza, one that started my career.”
“I transferred in as you left. My superiors were quite…” he allowed a small smile to flicker over his clean-shaved face. “Well, judging by what they said I was quite unlucky to have missed you.”
I smiled. “I’m sure that wasn’t all they said.”
“No. They also said you were an infuriating bastard.”
“That sounds more likely, yes.”
He put his head slightly to one side, eyes still locked on me. “I kept something of a track of you, Mr Bao. You’ve had quite the checkered career these past years. You mix with criminals -“
He waved a hand. “That may be so. You have a criminal mind -“
“All the better to identify the criminals that the Corrections Departments seem unable to,” I retorted.
“And since we sat down, you have made three separate attempts to read the paperwork on my desk.”
“I profess to be endlessly curious. Is that a crime?”
He leaned forward. “Why are you on this rail, Mr Bao?”
“I’m here by personal invitation of the Stationmaster at Shinsun’s Cowl, Mr Habaza,” I said. “May I ask the same of you?”
He leaned back and ran a hand slowly through his hair. “Interesting,” he murmured. Then he turned the piece of paper he had been writing on around. “This, I think, explains my presence here.”
I took the piece of paper and read it. ‘The Desert Wind’, it began, ‘is a person of importance in several major crimes across at least three of the five countries in Ehrian.’ It went on to list several of the crimes that I had managed to link together, several others that I hadn’t had the evidence to link to the crime lord (but which made perfect sense in retrospect) and then a surprising detailed personal profile of the Desert Wind. A few of the details were ones that surprised me in their accuracy and I found myself engrossed as I worked my way down to the bottom where the foremost suspect for the role of Desert Wind was suggested.
It was quite a fantastic piece of detective work and almost entirely accurate apart from one vital fact.
“You think I am the Desert Wind?” I said, almost choking with laughter. “Are you aware of my many involvements with army and policing forces in Lyria, Zar and Koru?”
“And are you aware of just how many low-life scum I’ve… this is preposterous,” I said, cutting myself off. “Good luck with that theory, Mr Habaza, for I’m not sure you’ll find many sympathetic ears to it.”
“I have found more than a sympathetic ear, Mr Bao,” the Corrections Officer replied. “I am, in fact, on my way to Inira to present my findings to the Emperor’s brother.” He tapped the file. “It’s all in here, documents linking you to the crimes by time if not by direct involvements.”
I smiled mockingly. “Why tell me, then? Are you not worried that I will commit some heinous crime, or escape?”
“I want you to know that the game is up, Mr Bao. Once I have the proper reinforcements, you will be apprehended. I suggest that you make no effort to resist,” he said, calmly taking the paper back from me and placing it exactly in line with the others.
“Do you not worry for your own safety, then? Were I the Desert Wind, surely I would now be thinking about the best way to eliminate you before we arrive at Inira.”
He was shaking his head before I had even finished speaking. “No, the Desert Wind never gets involved in his own schemes. He allows others to take his fall for him, never dirties his hands.”
I gave a short laugh. I wanted to tell him then, tell him how close he was to the real truth about the Desert Wind. To tell him that the Desert Wind was, in fact, on that rail, was actually situated in a compartment very near to his indeed. How the Desert Wind had been near him since the start of the journey and was planning a final operation in which he would, indeed, ‘get his hands dirty’. But no.
“Well, it is going to be fun watching your theory come apart at the seams, Mr Habaza,” I said. “I’m sure that you have all the evidence you think you need. But I warn you; I will not be merciful in my defense. My memory of the past few years is perfect. Can you say the same for yours?”
Not waiting for a response, I stood and left the compartment. This journey was becoming curiouser and curiouser; in the same few square feet we had the Notary, a target; Habaza, the law keeper who was so close to his own personal target; Jef’nerin, the real Desert Wind, apparently bent on performing a last deed; a woman unconnected to it all but caught up in the middle of it; and myself, of course, the one enigma I could never answer.
Inira lay but another twenty-four hours away and I knew that if someone were to make a move on the Notary it would be within those hours. All the kills had been made with a mere two or three hours before the rail docked at its destination and I was sure that this time would be no different.
I made my way to the observation deck where I could view the passing scenery at my ease. I went straight to one of the comfortable chairs that were bolted to the floor against the wind and sank into it. The view consisted of mostly flatlands and swamp, rushing past at a pace far faster than any horse could manage. I closed my eyes and listened to the whistle of the wind passing over the cabin in front and buffeting against me.
“Enjoying the view?”
I snapped my eyes open; Loelle was stood nearby, smoking one of her thin cigars.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“Worry not, my dear,” I said, standing and bowing. “I am always prepared for your company.” I noticed a glint in her eyes that had not been there before, and I sat back down. She remained stiffly standing.
“Mr Bao, wasn’t it?” She took a drag and allowed the smoke to be whipped away by the breeze. “You were telling me a story yesterday over lunch. About Kirito Swordancer.”
I nodded. “One of my finest, yes.”
She narrowed her eyes. “I thought that was what you said, yes. I remember now where I recognise your name from. The man who was ruining all of those people was also a trader in legal commodities, including ore, medicines and fine clothing.”
“An odd mix,” I commented.
“Shut up,” she said. “He was a major buyer for my husband. When you put a stop to his criminal activities, his legal trading went up in smoke too and utterly destroyed my husband’s business.” Tears sprang to her eyes. “He never recovered from the loss; the day he died he was in Fjornik trying to negotiate the trade agreement that I am only just fulfilling now. It was a miracle that it’s been honoured.” The tears began to run down her face.
“You consider me to be the source of his death? My dear, how could I have known-“
“Liar! You think of everything! You could have seen that Swordancer was involved in far more than criminal activities; you could have ensured that someone oversaw his other work, someone trustworthy. But no; it was far better to destroy him utterly. That’s what you do.” She laughed bitterly. “You think of everything. But you don’t think of everyone.” She threw the remains of her cigar into the wind and, as it was carried away from the rail by the slipstream, she stalked past me and back inside. I watched her go, emotions warring inside me.