Fiction – “Desert Tango” by Jacob Edwards

Dawn, and with it, death. Shirl sat fore of his camel’s single hump and rode its undulations with a well-practised, rubbery sort of ennui. The trusty Arabian rocked beneath him, regal in its stride, stoic in the face of whatever Central Australia might cook up. It was the less bad-tempered of his two ships, but still aloof, its rubbery lips pressed into a contemptuous sneer and working constantly lest there prove cause to spit at something: a shadow; the dawning sun; death. Shirl wondered if anyone else knew yet, or was it just the three of them? He, Mick, and a killer as yet unidentified. The camel made a noise as if dredging something up from its stomach and sidled up to the gate in the fence.

Shirl sighed. Murder was never the most auspicious start to a day — old man John with half a fence post skewered through his frontal lobe — and what’s more, it had given Mick an excuse to stay home and ruminate behind an obfuscating cloud of black-puffed out’bacco. “My prerogative,” he’d claimed, older than Shirl by several minutes and with a lifetime’s airily waving his pipe to prove it. “You toddle along and I’ll have it solved by the time you come back.” So Shirl had unsaddled their Bactrian two-seater and taken the Arabian instead. Now he had to open all the gates himself. He squeezed his knees against the camel’s neck, leaned down and teased the latch open. The morning sun sent sticky oysters of sweat shooting down past his Adam’s Apple. The camel paused, a haughty, decisive reminder of who was in charge, then brushed past the squeaking iron and into the adjoining property. It fell immediately into its toe-pointed, pilgrim’s step and Shirl had to whistle at it to stop. For a moment he was tempted just to keep going — there was, after all, a murder to investigate — but leaving a gate open was like unleashing Cerberus: two of the newly redomesticated camels per square kilometre the land could cope with; thousands of feral marauders it could not. Sighing again, Shirl backed the camel up until it pushed the gate closed with its lumpy hindquarters. It looked around and glared at him as if most put-upon, but Shirl held its searing gaze and merely tilted his chin a degree or two. The camel leveled nostrils like barrels of a shotgun but turned and started forward again, uncowed, grudgingly acquiescent.

They passed the rusting old ute that marked the halfway point. Its tyres were gone and it was layered in red dirt. To think , Mick would say,the world once ran on these: cars and trucks with thick rubber treads, each like a herd of undulates sending great ochre clouds billowing through the air. Shirl shook his head and took a swig from his canteen. Not anymore. Death was the only constant of the outback, echoed in the hoarse whisper of a man without water or the long-drawn emptiness of these lonely, flyblown metal carcasses. It came not in the wet flow of blood but in dry, dusty red; if not right now then soon. Always. Even old man John, who’d last night gone to bed safe and smiling in Our Lady of the Pillar, was this morning just another mound, laid to rest shovel-deep and at one with the red dirt. He’d probably even had high expectations of the new dawn, what with the announcement and all. But life’s like that, Shirl mused, and death too: no sense of occasion, save for the big one; the big red. He pinched the brim of his Akubra.

Murder. It was rare these days for someone to usurp Mother Nature in her relentless accentuation of mortality. There seemed little point, really. A few months here or there, perhaps a year extra. Who would bother? Who indeed, thought Shirl. Who, of all the suspects gathered here today? He nudged the camel into a marginally faster gait, though one where a compensatory reduction in its length of stride all but negated any real shift in their respective bargaining positions. Tough negotiators, camels, particularly the Arabians. Shirl cocked his head and blinked the shimmer from his eyes; scanned the horizon. He should have been able to see it by now. It should be–

There. Rising from the pervading flatness and lost for a while amidst rocks and stumps, obscured by a trick of perspective. Gradually its true size became apparent, and as Shirl drew closer he couldn’t help but nod his respect. What Nature could accomplish, little by little through the passing of years, with no blueprint, no direct input even, and working with only the most insubstantial of resources. Puts you in your place, he decided, then flared a derisive nostril. Lord and master over two camels and an ocean of sand; dependent — dependent for everything — on a brutal ecosystem and the moulded peculiarities it throws up. Shirl twisted one cheek into a smile and stretched his leg out to give the camel a scratch behind the ear. It shied its head away, gave him a baleful glare in return. No matter. With the desert sun starting to hit its straps, Shirl backhanded sweat from the corner of one eye and looked to the jutting edifice ahead: a sanctuary, first and foremost, but one seeped also in shadow. Mick might not deign to set foot near this hallowed ground, but it was here that death cooled its heels; here that the murderer had gone to ground. Shirl knew it just as surely as he knew the evasive speed of a scrabbling goanna. Cracked lips twitching, he opened his nose to the desert; filled his lungs with dry heat and the trailing scent of a bloodied conscience. Murder and mystery were at hand.

Saint Peter’s loomed before him, the largest of the great cathedral termite mounds. Its dome peaked at just under ten meters above the desert sand; a grotesque, architectural masterpiece shaped from nothing more than dirt, spit and faeces; built up over the lonely years, decade after decade, rising from beyond the grave like some muddy tribute to Gaudi. Nature worked from her own schematics and Saint Peter’s had aligned itself north-south, unconsciously bio-engineered that way. Hot air rose within the confines of the great dome, its movement creating currents and causing air to circulate through the tunnels beneath. The larger the colony, the bigger the mound required, not for living space but rather for thermoregulation. While Shirl sat contemplating Saint Peter’s, his camel kept walking until it stood within a sawn-off snout of the mound’s knobbly exterior. It allowed Shirl to manoeuvre it around to the shady side, then spat and prostrated itself beside the morning tethering post, its expression as Shirl clambered down managing somehow to convey a relieving of its bowels. Not, Shirl reminded himself, that the cathedral mounds couldn’t be used for habitation. Humans were few and far between nowadays and those that remained were like hermit crabs: they scuttled through the sand, soft and vulnerable, looking for old shells to move into. Vagrants. Squatters. It didn’t matter that the mounds already were spoken for. Homo Sapiens had rarely played nice even when in charge of the sandpit. Why should they behave any better now, as a homeless, displaced remnant? Yes, Mother Nature was unremitting in her cruelty, but human nature was second-generation unrepentant, the prodigal son embracing its upbringing and showing no remorse as it set upon the cathedral mounds, converting them into misshapen, gothic bungalows. “Termites,” Mick had once told him, “can produce two litres of hydrogen just by munching their way through a single sheet of paper. They’re handy little buggers if you have the technology to make use of them.” Technology? Shirl felt his lips thinning, the cracks stretching. That was just a wet dream, like toilets that flushed or refrigerators filled with ice. Only the Wizard up in Alice had access to any technology, and he was the one who’d sent them scrying for termite mounds in the first place. No, Shirl thought as he looped the reins around the wooden bar and tied them with a butterfly knot: that was just the way of things. People saw what they wanted, and took it; like the camels and the termite mounds; like life.

Four other camels — all Bactrians — were tethered to the morning post, and each acknowledged Shirl’s Arabian with its own peculiar show of slow-masticating aloofness. Five dromedaries, united in their unwillingness to herd. Nine visitors, including Shirl. Quite the party. As Shirl squatted to duck-walk through the low western entrance, he sensed immediately that the news hadn’t broken. It was rare these days for people to congregate — too much heat, too little water — but when they did, invariably it was to celebrate. So much time was spent just eking out drops of existence. Birthdays passed without fanfare. Even funerals were lonely, solitary affairs, reserved for the next of kin; but still there were some occasions that elicited emotion; a spark of hope sufficient to forge a group dynamic from the parched throats and habitual isolation of the mound-dwellers. Births, of course, but second to that: betrothals. Shirl straightened and rose from his haunches. Even before his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he knew what he could expect to find from those who had gathered. Saint Peter’s echoed with chatter; hoarse voices brought together in a rare, muttering discourse. An undercurrent of excitement stirred through the mound. As Shirl stood up, eight faces turned in his direction; cautiously expectant; wiped clean of the worst of the red dirt; hesitant smiles re-jigged from muscles toned on squint and grimace. Most of these people he hadn’t set eyes on in over five years: Brian and Brianne; Nick and Rick, Don and Dan, all in their best, button-up shirts and least-torn jeans; Jane and Joan, who today at least he had no trouble in telling apart. It was difficult, especially when you didn’t see people often, but he could easily discern from their expressions which sister was to be given away this morning. Shirl winced, remembering the fence post embedded deep in old man John’s skull. Was to have been, he corrected himself. There’ll be no engagement today.

“Shirl!” Tim, the younger of the Saint Peter’s brothers, bustled towards him, arms outstretched, offering a double-shot greeting of water. He wore an open Hawaiian shirt over his singlet, and sported a bristly little moustache that was new since last they’d met. “Come in. Welcome. Is Mick not with you? Oh, shame. Never mind, have both of them.” He thrust the two glasses at Shirl and then spun back towards the grimy curtain that hung east-west, dividing the mound in two. “Shirl’s here, Tom! How’s breakfast coming along?” Tim twitched his way through a part in the curtain and disappeared, his voice becoming muffled. “What’s that? Oh. No, don’t worry. I’ll deal with it. Take them out while they’re hot.” There was a scraping of crockery and then Tom emerged through the curtain. Tom was less flamboyant than his brother — no Hawaiian shirt, no facial affectation, Shirl noted — and seemed almost embarrassed to be carrying the plastic camping plate full of sizzling termites. The others let out a collective gasp, as if a statue of the Virgin Mary had just started weeping.

“Tom!” exclaimed Brianne. “What have you done? You must have cleared out half the colony.”
Which was an exaggeration, thought Shirl, but not by much. The Saint Peter’s brothers had fried up enough fat and protein to last a year.

“You must’ve been diggin’ for weeks.” Brian gave a slow nod of respect, tinged with confusion. “But it’s the season for clearin’ fence posts. If you guys’ve been busy diggin’ for ‘mites, then how…?”

Tom shot a quick look at Jane and then lowered his eyes. “Well,” he mumbled. “Y’know how it is. Bit of a special occasion, isn’it? Don’t matter too much if the sand piles up outside.”

There was a grumble of agreement from Nick, Rick, Dan and Don; although more grumble than agreement, perhaps. Each of them knew the back-breaking necessity of maintaining the fences, and much as they might have liked to go fossicking for termites instead, it just wasn’t the done thing. Jane knew it, too. She was, after all, her father’s daughter, hard-working and obdurate; but at heart she was still a woman (Mick’s enunciation), intrinsically susceptible to being wooed.

“Tommy, that’s so sweet!”

“Yeah.” Joan pushed past her sister; snavelled a termite. “Tastes a bit nutty as well.”

At this, everybody moved in, tucking into the proffered termites like a maul of praying mantises. Tom held the buffeted plate as best he could while making cow eyes at Jane. Only Brianne seemed to notice that Shirl hadn’t joined in.

“What’s the matter, Shirl? Mick been nauseating your buds with that homegrown snuff of his?”

Shirl conceded the point with a faint shrug. “Actually, I was wondering if we should wait for John?”

Brian looked up guiltily, a termite pinched between thumb and forefinger, while Nick, Rick, Dan and Don seemed equally abashed. Shirl spent a few seconds wondering if it were even worthwhile distinguishing between the four young men; decided that, no, he might just as well bundle them together, for all the individuality they showed; by first syllables — NiRiDaDo, DoRiDaNi, or some other metric-sounding name. Joan was the only one who didn’t stop eating. She waved off his suggestion without even turning around.

“Mmph, don’t worry about it. Dad’s always late getting up. It’s his rheumatism, see? Funny, isn’t it, mmph, with the heat and all?”

“Yes, ‘late.’ Odd you should say that…” Carefully, Shirl placed his two shot-glasses of water onto a rough-hewn shelf. Two glasses! He’d put aside water for months just to cobble together enough for today’s trip, now here were the Saint Peter’s brothers gifting shot-glasses to everyone. It was probably that sort of affluence, as much as the magnanimous run-on, that’d had old man John willing to marry off his oldest daughter to one of them. Jane, and the Aparecida family’s battered old solar panel in lieu of a dowry — now there was a prize to grit the eyes with envy.

“Shirl…” Brianne drew out his name, her eyes fixed to the shot-glasses and their precious water. “Shirl of Saint Paul’s, you talk to me! What’s wrong? What’s happened?”

“Er…” Brian furrowed his brow just like Brianne’s, although in his case the creases seemed to plot out confusion more than worry. Doridani looked collectively baffled. Jane stared at Shirl, alarm seeping slowly across her face. Tom flitted on the spot, unsure what to do with the plate of termites. Even Joan, eventually, turned and cocked her head. Once they all were looking, Shirl fixed their expressions in his mind and let them have it. “I’m sorry, Jane; Joan; but your father’s dead.”

Means, motive and opportunity, Mick would say. That was all you needed to deduce the identity of a murderer. Which, of course, was why he’d stayed back at Saint Paul’s, chewing on the stem of his pipe while Shirl actually rode out to confront the suspects. Mick was a sleuth hound, self-trained to follow the scent of logic. “Jealousy,” he’d suggested, “at old man John’s choice of groom — or bride. Who wants children? Who needs a solar panel? What it comes down to, Shirl, is who wants whom, or what, and the things they’d do to fulfil that desire. It’s lust, pure and simple.” But much though Mick might presuppose from his hazy refuge back at Saint Paul’s, it could never be enough. What Shirl sought, more than just deduction or knowledge of the facts, was the guilt-laced essence of reaction; the moment of truth. It stretched out like a single drop of water, elongating, bloating at both ends as it made ready to fall away and pass into the timeless red dirt below. In that instant, before the gasps and tears and dropped plates, Shirl saw everything he needed to know.

“Tim! Tim!” Tom turned and fled past the curtain, into the next room. “Shirl says that John’s dead. He’s-” There was a thump, a high-pitched curse and the spinning clatter turned spatter-fall of plate and termites spilled. “Tom? Tommy? Aw, heck, you clumsy bugger…” Tim emerged like a butterfly from behind the curtain, his Hawaiian shirt flapping. “Tom’s bloody well gone and knocked himself senseless.” He straightened his path, homing in on Shirl. “What’s this you’re saying about old man John dying?”

“Killed, I’m afraid. Murdered.” There was another gasp as everybody tried to look at everyone else. Shirl gave a sad smile. “But at least we know who did it.”

Well, of course, Mick would later scoff. It’s obvious, Shirl. The only person who could have killed old man John was–

Hang on, hang on. What about motive? Isn’t that what you’re always on about, Mick?

Indeed, but in this case the bookends prove far more revealing than the mystery they contain. Means and opportunity, my brother, although I imagine it’s easy enough then to deduce the motive. Plain as the nose in front of you, really. It was– —

Shirl sighed, gazing with time-slowed awareness at the faces around him: Joan, her sourness giving way to bitter disbelief; Jane, like Lake Eyre in the occasional wet seasons of old, flooding with tears. It gave Shirl no pleasure to watch them. Nevertheless.

“Well?” Brianne peered at him, eyes unwavering as she reached sideways for one of Brian’s sinewy shoulders. “Tell us, Shirl: what happened? Who did it?”

Somewhere outside, a camel sneezed; an explosive, rubber-lipped warble pitched as if to flaunt a superior intellect. Tim gave an irritated frown. Brian and Niridado cast their eyes about as though they’d never heard such a sound; as if it were instead some cosmic manifestation of a falling gavel. Shirl picked up one of the shot-glasses of water, studied it briefly then took a swig. He shrugged. “John Aparecida, lately of the Lady of the Pillar, was murdered sometime last night, in cold blood and by brute force. Anybody here could have conceived the deed. Motives could be found for all of us. The pertinent question, though, is how?” Shirl gazed at his fellow mound-dwellers, from one to the next; received blank and distressed looks in return. A touch of impatience, perhaps. “Opportunity presents the first difficulty, since none of us live alone: Tim and Tom; Nick and Rick; Don and Dan; Brian and Brianne; myself and Mick; even Jane and Joan. If any one person committed the act, the other surely would have known; and yet, two people acting in concert would but further exacerbate the problem of means.” Shirl took hold of the second shot-glass; lifted it for their inspection. “Our spring of hope and our eternal nadir. Ask yourselves: who could have made the journey to the Lady of the Pillar and back, and then here to Saint Peter’s this morning? Nobody — not even the Wizard himself — not with the water each of us is rationed. Furthermore–” Shirl returned the shot-glass to its shelf. “Old man John’s bottle was left untouched. Whoever killed him was either a ghost or a human camel.”

Brianne steadied her hand on Brian’s shoulder; drummed the fingers of the other against her forehead, tappity-tap, as if to loosen a blockage. “What exactly are you saying, Shirl? You make it sound like none of us could have done it.”

“No, Brianne. Sadly, no. The killer stands amongst us, still lusting after marriage and the Wizard’s promise of fertility.” There came from outside another sneeze, and the restless stirring of hooves. Shirl pinched the bridge of his nose. A barren land specked with barren people; barren lives. The heat outside was on the rise. Inside, it was beginning to stifle. Sweat and death, nothing more. Who could wonder at the murderous urge to break that cycle? “We all know that Jane was to be given away to either Tim or Tom, but it seems to me that old man John must have changed his mind about whom she would marry. Perhaps he saw what I see now, or maybe in the end he was just a good judge of character.”

Tim made an ‘o’ with his mouth and placed hands upon hips. “Now look here, Shirl. Are you saying–”

“Yes, Tim. It was you. You murdered old man John.”

There were gasps from the ladies present; angry rumblings from Brian and Doridani; then Joan stretched out her hands, palms up. “But Dad was giving her away to Tom, not Tim…”

Tim waggled a finger at Shirl. “That’s right, and what about this water thing you’re saying? I couldn’t have done him away even if I wanted.” He gave a little snort, like a wallaby. “I dunno, Shirl. Just because your brother fancies himself a detective, doesn’t mean you can–”

“I assume it was you, Tim, but it might equally well have been–” Shirl stepped forward and ripped the moustache from Tim’s face, wincing at the need for so theatrical a flourish. “–Tom.”

For a moment there was silence, like when somebody drops a glass; then followed a pandemonium of questions and shouts. Brian lumbered over to the east-west curtain and flung it open, his face a study in perplexity. “There’s no-one here!”

All eyes turned upon Tim, standing now downcast before them, his trembling upper lip exposed. Slowly, but with the gathering promise of frontier justice, Niridado closed in around him.

With a strange, emotional emptiness, Shirl found himself thinking of water; of his Arabian camel outside and of the two-humped Bactrian back home; of Mick, sitting with heels kicked up in the termite mound called Saint Paul’s. “Yes. I don’t know how far back the deception goes — long enough at least to build up a large surplus of water — but there you have it.” His lips twisted, entirely without humour. “The only person who could have done it is Tim — because he, alone of us all, doesn’t have a twin.”

Outside the termite mound, five tethered camels stood practising their borborygmus and giving haughty little twitches of their necks. One-humped or two-, they cared equally little for mystery and murder, merely keeping alert for someone to spit on and scuffing moodily at the red dirt of a desert that gave no quarter.

Jacob Edwards graduated from the University of Queensland with a BA (English) and an MA (Ancient History) and only left when somebody took away all of the good old photocopiers. He spends his time writing academic articles, fiction and poetry. Recently, he edited #45 of the Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. Jacob lives in Brisbane, Australia, with his wife and son.

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