The small, new god sounded a series of pulsed tones. The chieftain glanced quickly sideways toward the litter frame that surrounded the squat and heavy being upright in its place of honor on the lead zazumil. The mouth gaped round as if calling out, but its lack of speech was ensured by the invisible rock that filled it. Actually, there were as many such mouths, spaced evenly around the upper body, as the chieftain had legs, but more mouths in this case did not convey more information. The bars and stripes of the strange, glowing eyes still stared skyward at what surely only a deity could see, but their pattern had changed. Interpretation still lay beyond the means of the band’s best soothsayers–although, out here, any change could be taken as a warning.
Finding that giant vundol in a denzog, for example, during an advance-scouting foray on paw. The creature, and possibly its companion, had flown its apparent nest at their first approach. After that, farther downwind, the Second Bodyguard had lost ziz, both the knife and the status it symbolized, when the approach of a war-armored zazumil of unheard-of size had forced a premature dig-in. Was that a change or a warning or both?
Fortunately, the zazumil pack had already been hidden some distance away. The interloper had been bigger than their largest cargo zazumil, but faster, even, than their attack mounts. Had they been spotted, the incident may have turned out quite differently, and not to their advantage. They would not have found it sufficient just to flee.
They had taken a chance in cutting between Mizbon and the hill country in order to avoid further encounters, a calculated risk alleviated somewhat by following, for as long as possible, the tracks of the now-distant Nozgavob traders. Breaking new trail after that to skirt the basin of the Hidden People had increased the risk again, though hopefully not from Mizbon’s unexpected military capability. So far, their luck had held.
They had descended the scarp into the basin at a major gap in the higher cliffs downwind. It had been a treacherous descent accompanied by numerous sand slides on the steep slope. It was doubtful they could return the same way.
Some time afterward, the advance scouts had found a small jumble of fractured peaks forming an indentation into the cliffs of the basin. If any of the rebranching passages led anywhere, they had yet to discover the route. The chieftain’s mounted contingent secured a position in the near passages while the scouts continued downwind. Perhaps more such breaks, and larger, occurred farther along their path.
The main body had hung back in concealment while what was apparently a major procession of Gatherers made their way upwind through the center of the basin. Anyone who could afford to raise that much dust feared nothing, therefore they were to be avoided. It had taken some time after their trail had dispersed before the main zazumil pack could resume progress. They had only recently caught up to the chieftain’s group.
The god signaled again, more insistently, it seemed. Instinctively, the chieftain sniffed the air. There was no doubt. Ad’laad’nib’goz was about to turn. The chieftain nodded. Such a god from the sky would know. The chieftain had witnessed its arrival personally during their previous foray into Mizbon. Fortune had greatly favored the timing of that acquisition or the locals would have it now. This one was worth its weight in lem, even without the mysterious expanse of fabric by which, apparently, the god had flown before landing, then had released it to drift downwind, out of reach.
Unfortunate, also, that the stem the god had extended upward after landing had broken during the digging process they had used to obtain its services. The stem lay tied to the frame of the litter until such time as anyone devised a way to recompense for the damage. The god had not, apparently, held the mishap against them, aside from a trilled warning whenever one of its handlers, inadvertently or not, touched the marked areas lower on the sloped surface that framed the eyes. Further information might else be obtained.
A few, quick paw signals directed the band to the far side of a complex intersection of paths. There, a passageway half under sand should prove defensible enough until the Glow turned again. The chieftain nodded deeply toward the attack mount’s co-occupant and gave the order to dig in.
The well-dressed executive paused in the deepening twilight, one hand on the palm-print reader seamlessly integrated into the doorframe exterior of his late-model sports car. Being a connoisseur of such things, he noticed an ancient, battered jeep amid the menagerie of hybrids and pickup trucks, some rather battered themselves. It wasn’t really out of place, but somehow, he had a feeling he had seen it before.
The younger executive half placed, half pushed a thick folder on top of his superior’s workload. His was not the job of a courier, but one could not take chances with material like this.
“The problem with the sunlight?” The boss’s eyebrows twitched slightly. “It’s been solved.”
“So, guys, I hear you’re goldbricking down here. Got some cute flicks, huh? C’mon, you owe me. I’ve been holding off Fredericks on the phone. Turns out, all he wants is to know if you want any more. He wants his life back. He’s over eighty, you know.”
All she got were blank stares.
“When did you say he called?”
“About thirty minutes ago.” The banter quieted to discomfort. “He didn’t know. How did you contact him?”
“E-mail and certified letter, standard procedure. No way he could have missed them both.”
“I’ll call him back personally. Now what about those two rookies you sent him?”
More blank stares. “Look guys, you can’t both play ventriloquist’s dummies. One of you has to make sounds, the other lip syncs. They weren’t experienced field ops. All that tough talk about no overseas commerce until Venture coughed up, and so on. A hundred years ago, maybe. No judge is going to allow that. Go yourself, next time. Or pick someone who plays by the rules.”
The senior partner found his voice. In a dust bin, from the sound. “We never sent anyone.”
“And close out the computer file, if you don’t mind. I can’t do my job if I don’t have all the facts.”
Back upstairs, the phone representative called the special investigative department.
“A company being considered for an audit inquired about a second visit from our agents, not the original caseworkers. We have no written record of such a visit. The agents specifically deny sending anyone. We do have on record that written and e-mail confirmation was sent and receipt confirmed before the second visit. Apparently, the intended recipient never got either message.”
“He called them.” The man in the sports jacket stood breathless in the office doorway.
“Who called whom?” You couldn’t pick your moles. Some defect in their personality was how they got recruited in the first place.
“Theodore Fredericks. He called the IRS.”
“I haven’t been able to find that out. The phone records show only the two phone numbers and the time and duration of the call. It lasted almost ten minutes, long enough for him to give them information, but not for them to do any real digging while he stayed on the line.”
“Did he make or receive any other calls right before or afterward?”
“I’ll have to check to be sure, but I don’t think so. I probably would have seen any entries in the log that came close to that time.”
“Any other possible sources we can tap?” The hint hung heavy in the air.
“No way. She’d suspect something, then Fredericks would know.”
The instant the door closed, the phone receiver was in his hand.
“Send two plane tickets, Denver to Atlanta, and a second set, Miami to Brasilia. Different carrier, preferably not domestic. Cash for bus tickets in between. You know where, and to whom. Don’t call them, and they don’t need to come here. They can get new IDs once they get there. Between airports would be better, but there isn’t time.”
The Adventure Continues