Castles, Kidnappings, and Really Bad Gourmet Food: Part Three
I tapped on every section of the walls around the bathrooms and the kitchen. Everything was rock solid, literally. No secret entrances, no hidden passages, no trapdoors or anything.
Investigation of the paneled floor proved fruitless. However, it seemed Maurecia Lintenzo was too cheap to carpet this particular area. Only the entrance and the dining room itself were covered. Here, it was just wood. A nice wood, but still just the product of a dead tree.
I knelt down and tapped on the floor. It sounded completely firm, without any recesses beneath. I moved here and there, tapping as I went, hoping I would find something.
And against one the wall, I did. A hollow sound reached my ears, but I couldn’t find any way to lift it. Ooh! A plan!
I grabbed a butter knife off the closest table. Luckily, no one was sitting there. Was it just me, or were the diners all congregated on the other side of the room... away from all the action? Their accounts would be useless; no one would have seen Mom.
I inserted the knife in between two panels, and it lifted with a slight creak. Pushing it away, I discovered a small cavity beneath the boards, about a foot long and a few inches wide. Inside was Mom’s purse.
Mom wouldn’t have just stashed her purse here. I mean, she keeps important stuff in there. Her crossword puzzle, a spare house key, a package of cheese puffs in case she gets hungry, fifteen different pens, a needle and thread... all kinds of things I’d never use, but which she uses alarmingly frequently.
However, there was one thing missing that I had seen her put inside: a small spiral notebook. It wasn’t important or anything, but she sometimes jots stuff down that she needs to remember. Things like, “Pick up dry cleaning at 5,” or, “Out of milk – get Immaculate to pick up more.”
I felt a twist of pain at the thought. My brothers – what if I never found Mom? What would we do? Would they blame me for her disappearance?
I shook my head to clear the shadows of doubt. No, I would find Mom, no matter what it took.
However, all four feet were getting tired. I had been walking around for some time now, and on an almost-empty stomach, too. I was right outside the alcove, and there were some bench-like things carved into the stone.
I sat down on one of the benches and felt the tension leave my feet. Aaah... much better. I closed my eyes and leaned back. Maybe just a little break.
Well, too bad for me. My back pressed against the wall, and I felt it shift slightly backwards... then shoot to the side, leaving me leaning against nothingness. I didn’t even get the opportunity to yell as I toppled backwards into the darkness.
* * * *
“Oof.” I landed with a thump a couple of feet below the hidden panel. Okay, that had hurt major big time. Standing up and rolling my neck from side to side, I took a look around. No candles for this little place. Small electric lights glowed from the ceiling. They were red, though – to reduce shock after appearing in daylight afterwards? I had read about that somewhere.
However, this was only a small hallway. I could see a set of stairs leading upwards into darkness – obviously no one was home.
But then, where was everyone? The kitchen staff, the waiter... Maurecia Lintenzo? What was up with this place, anyways?
I headed up the stairs and flicked my flashlight on. Holy Kau. It was like a house up here, stretched out across one level. Great. That meant I had to search every room.
The first door I opened led to a... bedroom? That was weird. This was a place to eat, not sleep. Unless there was some bed-and-breakfast deal I didn’t know about...
The next half-dozen doors I opened were bedrooms, too! Maybe... rooms for prisoners? I suppressed a shudder.
I turned another doorknob, but was shocked to see, like, eight faces turn towards me. The kitchen staff... was here? In a room with no lighting except candles?
But they didn’t look guilty, or hardened, or mean. They looked... sheepish, almost.
The cranky Peophin turned back to the others. “Looks like we’ve been caught, guys.”
I found my voice. “I’ll have you all arrested! You ought to be ashamed! What in Neopia do you think you’re doing?”
“Um... taking a break?” A slender and distractingly pretty Ixi in the corner spoke up. “We do that, y’know.”
“Everyone’s eating their main courses,” the Peophin explained. “When they’re done, Clark takes their orders and tells us, and we go down and fix dessert. Just don’t tell Vincent, the maitre’d, okay? He’d say it wasn’t an efficient use of time.”
“Yeah, it’s not like it matters. Everyone’s here already and you have to have a reservation. We know exactly when people will be here and when we need to be downstairs. It’s not like it’s a big deal. In the meantime, though, we’re playing Cheat!. Want to join in? Only three of us actually know how to play, and no one else wants to.”
“Sure, why not,” I sighed. Maybe I could get some clues while I was here.
A large, rotund Gelert dealt me in and I picked up my hand, glancing around at the other players. The staff was all different shapes and sizes, and if they hadn’t worked together, I’m sure they would never have met.
“Four fives,” the Peophin said, slapping down his cards. I took a look at my own. I had a five, but I didn’t want to risk getting him mad at me. My backside was still sore, after all.
“Cheat!” the Gelert barked, and the Peophin flipped his cards. Sure enough, he only had two fives, and the others were threes.
The Gelert must have seen the bewildered and somewhat pained look on my face. “You needn’t be afraid to call Francis’ bluff, you know. He wouldn’t hurt a Veespa.”
“Well, I’m in the middle of an investigation,” I explained loftily. “I’m trying to find my Mom, who mysteriously vanished, and Mr. Happy over there,” I gestured to the Peophin, “kicked me out when I was asking questions. I may not be a Veespa, but he definitely hurt me with that towel of his.”
The Gelert laughed. “He’s just possessive about the kitchen, is all. Your turn.”
I stared down at my cards. I still had my five. “One five,” I said, slapping it on top of the pile. No one called it.
“Two sixes,” the fourth player, a small and thin Eyrie, whispered. She timidly pushed her cards onto the pile and immediately withdrew to the top of a bookshelf, where she could still watch.
“What’s up with her?” I asked the Gelert.
“Oh, Lizzie? She’s just very shy. I have to say, though, she makes a fantastic chocolate torte.”
The game went on, but my investigation had come to a screeching halt. No one seemed to know anything about my mom, and if the incredibly withdrawn Lizzie knew anything, she wasn’t talking.
Finally, when the Gelert (whose name turned out to be Jeremy) set down his last card, I knew it was time to leave. I wasn’t getting anywhere with this, and all I was doing was wasting time.
“I’d better get going,” I said. “I still have to find my mom, and it’s getting late. Thanks for the game.”
“Promise you won’t tell on us?” the Ixi, Claire, asked.
“Oh. Um, yeah, sure,” I mumbled. “Out of curiosity, though, do you all live here?”
“Yeah,” Francis said. “It’s pretty convenient. Kinda dark, though. We’ve petitioned for electric lighting up here, but the owner’s only gotten around to lighting the downstairs hallway.”
I turned to go, but a thought occurred to me. “Wait a second. You mentioned earlier that Clark takes the orders. What does he look like?”
“Oh, he’s the big, scary-looking waiter. Tall, white Grarrl,” Jeremy said.
“But... um... he’s not downstairs,” I stammered. “If people want dessert, they won’t get it if you guys are up here, and he’s not down there stalking tables.”
A large Lupe sprang up. “You mean he’s not doing his job? But then we’ll all be fired!” He led a mass stampede out the hall and down the stairs.
I was left alone, coughing on the trail of dust left behind. “Um... you’re welcome.”
I kept going. Obviously, the kitchen staff was off the suspect list. They valued their jobs too much to risk anything illegal. However, it did seem kind of odd that they all lived here. Maurecia seemed a bit controlling, for just being a business owner.
A search of the rest of the upstairs room didn’t reveal any clues. A couple of bathrooms, a kitchenette, a room with Neovision. Wherever Mom was, it wasn’t up here. I stood at the top of the stairs, ready to descend and go back into the restaurant.
I sighed. “It seems I’ve failed you, Mom. I can’t find you, no matter how hard I try.”
“Maybe you haven’t been looking hard enough,” a voice behind me said.
I whirled around to see a small, shadowy shape. With a shower of stars, my world exploded into color. I felt myself falling as everything faded into darkness.
To be continued...