Card House Secrets: The Prince - Part Two
“Sir? Agent Maya’s report just came in via neomail. I’ve also got a request from Special Agent Sax,” announced a young Secret Service agent, poking her head into her superior’s room. The agent was a young, calm, and extremely professional Purple Gelert.
Her supervisor, 00Hog himself, was in a foul mood, rummaging, none too neatly, through old files. “Stupid, worthless, pathetic...!”
“SIR! The report!” shouted the Gelert.
The Yellow Moehog suddenly noticed the Gelert and dumped the files he’d been flipping through onto the floor.
The Gelert walked over and handed him the report. He scanned through it, frowned, then tossed it over his shoulder with the rest of the rejected files.
“Garbage,” he said simply, glaring at the young agent, waiting for some sort of reaction. There was none. “Are there any decent agents left in the NSS besides myself?” he asked mockingly, though obviously half-serious.
“Sir, Agent Maya was following orders and procedure strictly and to the letter.”
00Hog snorted. “Then he’s an idiot.”
The corner of the Gelert’s mouth twitched. “With greatest respect, sir, you selected her yourself.”
The Moehog paused. “Oh.” Then he shrugged. “Pah! Shows what I have to work with nowadays. Honestly, the only two field agents I’ve ever met worth my time were Expea and Eyes, and Fyora knows both had problems.”
The Gelert thought about that while 00Hog went back to rummaging, or rather ‘rampaging’, through the old archive files.
Agent Expea, or rather, Agent XP, was quite famous in espionage circles. All agents heard about him during training. The only agent with a perfect success rate. Also the only agent to suffer quite so severely from OCD and paranoia, on top of being a lab-pet and all the... oddities that went with the risks. And a horrible attitude--distrustful and rude. The only agent to ever speak of XP in a positive light was 00Hog, who delighted in torturing the agent with mess and fairly dumb problems. Word was he’d been transferred to some uber top-secret division Queen Fyora had created herself.
But... “Agent Eyes, sir?” inquired the Gelert innocently.
“Actually, come to think of it, Eyes was never a real agent, so forget I ever mentioned him.”
“Of course, sir. If I may inquire as to what you’re looking for?”
“A file on Eyes started by a former agent, now serving time--thanks to information provided me by Eyes, of course.”
The Gelert walked over to the shelf, scanned if for a second, then pulled out a file and handed it to 00Hog.
“I have a photographic memory, sir. Also, I spent the last three months reading through every one of these files.”
“Yes, and that file doesn’t mention anyone named ‘Eyes’. It’s an internal investigations report on the possibility of your using outsiders to collect information through possibly illegal means. Naturally, sir, the results of the investigation were negative. The investigation hit a dead end in Neopia Central.”
00Hog’s eyes were bright in admiration and he was smiling slightly. “What’s your name, agent?”
“Data, sir. Sub-agent Data, your personal assistant as of yesterday.”
“Well, Agent Data, I take back what I said earlier. If I may ask--?”
“No one has declared any intentions of renewing the investigation. Nor has anyone examined the file in the past five years since it closed, sir.”
00Hog smiled. “And?”
The Gelert smiled mysteriously. “I assure you, sir, that case will never be touched again.”
“May I ask why?”
The Gelert blinked slowly, thinking about that. “Personal reasons, sir.”
“One more thing, Agent?”
“Are you protecting me, or Eyes?”
The Gelert blinked again. “Someone... someone very dear to me. By extension, it could be your Eyes, yes. Though you are quite useful yourself, make no mistake.” She smirked mockingly.
00Hog smiled. “Thank you, Agent Data.”
“You’re quite welcome, sir.”
“Oh--and about that request from Agent Sax?”
“Call him up and tell him I’m afraid I have no information related to his subject. Apparently the whole story is some sort of urban legend.”
“With pleasure, sir. And if I may make a suggestion?”
“Perhaps you should pretend to read the request before replying to it next time?” She held up the request neomail she still held in her other paw. “Some agents may get suspicious. And we certainly don’t want them doing their own research on the Pirate King, now do we?” She again gave that mysterious, all-knowing grin, bowed politely, and left to do as bidden.
Dr. Louise was a brilliant Cybunny, but unfortunately cursed with enough curiosity to rival a journalist’s. It was a top-secret assignment, she’d been handsomely paid for her professional linguistic services, and she’d been completely dismissed. But she couldn’t let got of this story of a prince. Or, more accurately, of her curiosity about a certain secretive club owner.
Something about Black Jack fascinated her. Not in an “Oh! How handsome and mysterious!” way--more of a “What the...?” sort of way. She still couldn’t figure out that accent of his. His educated mannerisms and eloquent phrasing. That perfect bow. And the way he’d caught that knife out of midair, which she hadn’t reported but was sure her ‘attendant’, an agent himself, had.
What kind of royal grabs knives out of midair? Has traveled so extensively? Has no researchable past, but exhibits evidence of the highest quality education?
Most of all, what kind of royal stoops to running a shady backstreet club, and seems to be good at it?!
Forget royals! It’d be near impossible to find ANY Neopet that fits in those categories!
Which was how she found herself roaming the historical level of the Lenny Library, scanning the Meridellian shelves for books based between 10 to 50 years ago, when she crashed into a Brown Lenny in a blue vest. Several dozen books of all sizes were scattered from his wings as both fell clumsily to the floor.
“Oh, sorry,” Dr. Louise apologized. “I’m sorry, mister...?”
“Oh! Westchance, Niles Westchance. And you?”
“Dr. Nadania Louise. If I could...?”
She started helping him with his books, but he’d started at the mention of her name.
“The linguist! Oh, it’s an honor! Brightvalian, of course, same as me--and such a noble lineage! One to be quite proud of!”
“Wait--who are you?”
“Niles Westchance. I’ll be getting my doctorate in Brightvalian history once I finish my thesis. I don’t suppose you could--?” He blushed. “Oh, never mind.” He collected the books and got back upright.
“What, Mr. Westchance?”
“Niles, please. Actually, I was going to ask for help on my thesis. I picked a tricky subject and am quite afraid I’ve run into a brick wall. See, one of my favorite stories from when I was little was that myth about a prince that got kidnapped by pirates. So I’m researching the influence pirates had on--”
But Dr. Louise didn’t hear anything after ‘a prince that got kidnapped by pirates’. Could it really be a coincidence?
The Lenny didn’t seem to notice she’d zoned out. “I know I can’t expect to solve the mystery, but I’d at least like to find some more information about pirates from that era so I can explore a few plausible ideas of what may have happened to him.” He shook his head, obviously considering quitting. “He’s probably dead and I’m wasting my time.”
He was researching a missing Brightvalian prince?! And Black Jack’s accent...! She remembered her own analysis. “A strong Brightvalian foundation.” Could the Secret Service be on the wrong track entirely?!
The Brown Lenny was still talking. “At least that Black Jack finally returned all these research texts, so maybe I’ll find something.” He hefted the books he was carrying and sighed.
Dr. Louise’s mouth dropped slightly open before she caught herself. How...? Why...?
Misinterpreting her surprise, the bewildered Lenny pointed in the direction of the checkout center. “I thought it might be one of my colleagues that checked them out. Since they were taking so long to return, I asked the librarians for the borrower’s name. No help though--never heard of the guy. But no matter, since I got them in the end.”
“Mr. Westchance?” finally interrupted the Cybunny linguist.
“Niles, could I talk with you for a few minutes? I just may be able to help you.” And maybe he might know something that would help her.
Black Jack cleared his desk, locked the door to his office, and blocked out the skylight before he emptied the tube he’d brought back from his trip. Inside was a huge sheet of paper, big enough to take up over half his desk, and a collection of special drawing tools. Specifically: ink, pens, and tools for calligraphy and mapmaking.
For a minute the Brown Wocky just stood, staring at everything, then he sighed and took his seat.
He really should have said no. Absolutely no. It was just asking for trouble. It was incredibly, enormously stupid. There wasn’t even a point; no one would be able to decipher it.
He couldn’t refuse Falcon, the ex-cook on his father’s pirate ship. That’s all it boiled down to. His elderly teacher and friend, who had visited him last week with a strange request.
Create a treasure map for him. And put it in code so it couldn’t be solved.
Black Jack shook his head, annoyed at his own sentimentality, and got to work. With every stroke of the pen he remembered details of his conversation with the old Pirate Gnorbu, who had been practically crying.
Falcon was dying. And he didn’t want the location of his family’s treasure--a treasure pirates have fought and died for--to die with him. He didn’t care if “Jackie” refused to collect the treasure himself, he didn’t even care if no one was able to solve Jackie’s brilliant code--as long as the map was out there.
How can you ignore an old friend’s death wish? Even if that wish screams of senility?
Angry at what he considered his own weakness, he grabbed another pen with his free paw and scribbled away with both paws, a strange talent he’d had as long as he could remember. Perhaps related to being trained to use dual weapons since childhood.
Well, he had to draw the line. There would be no key to this code, no riddle to solve, no hints whatsoever. He intended it to be unbreakable, and to in no way resemble a treasure map. Not even any kind of map. The solution would die with him, he was sure, unless his sources managed to find a relative of Falcon’s. Though Falcon himself had insisted he was alone in the world and had scoffed at Jackie’s plan.
Already the sheet was covered in strange symbols and lines that made no logical sense. If anything, it looked like an abstract painting or a baby’s scribbles. Perfect.
No one would ever know they made perfect sense if you knew the code, nor that these ‘scribbles’ led to a treasure of approximately 700 million dubloons.
A gorgeous Faerie Pteri entered The Card House and was immediately stopped by a large paw held up in her face. She frowned and dug through a little purse beneath her left wing, eventually pulling out a playing card—the Queen of Diamonds. The paw dropped as it saw the card and she went on in.
It was still fairly early for Card Housers, only about 6 pm NST, so the place only had a couple Neopets at the bar and a few regulars playing Cheat at a table. She ignored them all, as they did her, and went straight to the hallway at the back.
The 10 of Clubs, that big ol’ Red Kougra, Black Jack’s right paw, was standing at the beginning of the hall. He held out a paw and she handed over the card.
He raised his eyebrows at seeing such a high card, but carefully examined it to make sure it wasn’t a duplicate. The back was black, with a strange silver filigree pattern border. In the center was a large cursive J in scarlet. He nodded and handed it back to her.
“You’re expected,” he said simply, turning from his position to head back to the bar, his job done for now.
The Faerie Pteri went down the hallway, past the doors to the cellars, past a locker room for employees, to Black Jack’s office.
She tried the handle, but it was locked, so she knocked twice. There was a click and she let herself in.
The Brown Wocky looked as exquisite as ever, immaculately dressed in an all-black tailored suit. He was sitting at his desk, his amazing blue eyes staring at the weird picture in front of him. All strange lines and symbols and swirls in random colors and directions.
“Jacque,” she said.
He let out a sigh, then leaned back in his chair. “Hello, Mirelle.”
“The news isn’t good.”
“Rose says you’re in terrible danger.”
“Aren’t I always?”
“Now is not the time to be flippant, Jackie!” she scolded, sounding an awful lot like a bossy older sister. “Rose says it’s time to stop playing games and realize you can’t keep secrets forever! The League can only do so much; we can’t help you if you don’t trust us.”
Black Jack shook his head. “Come, Mirelle, you know trust isn’t the issue. I’m not telling you who the prince is. It wouldn’t help the matter anyways.”
“What news of Falcon?” asked the Wocky seriously.
“He’s dead. Natural causes, old age caught up with him.”
The Wocky blinked a few times, then stared up at his skylight. The stars were just beginning to come out. “I guess the old fool was right,” he said softly, sounding a little stunned. “He did have barely any time left.”
“Jackie, his room was ransacked shortly after his death.”
Silence. He kept staring up at the stars.
“We can assume his trip to Neopia Central was discovered. He used public transport.”
“Your father is on the move, Jackie! This is serious! Rose would like you to hide out in headquarters until we sort things out. And we need to know which of your Card Housers is that prince so we can guard him as well.”
“Hiding is an admission of guilt.”
“So is running away.”
“Touché. But I’m not leaving The Card House.”
Mirelle slapped a wing on his desk angrily. “So you’ll endanger your precious Card Housers for your own selfish convenience?! Or do you really think you have the manpower to hold off Le Baron de Corsair, a.k.a. the Pirate King, your father!”
“None of my Card Housers will be harmed. I won’t let that happen.”
Mirelle jumped onto his desk (something Pteris can get away with, being so small and light) and grabbed his lapels, furious. “You better not be thinking of sacrificing yourself without so much as a fight! If you are--so help me--!” She choked and tears sprung to her eyes. “So help me--” The tears began to fall and she released his jacket.
“Jackie, I’m worried about you. So’s Oleander and Rose and Timothy and Corey and... and everyone in the League. You hand yourself over and... and we’ll never see you again. We don’t stand any more of a chance against Kiote con Triste than your Card Housers. We’re a secret guild, not superheroes!”
Black Jack’s face looked blank, then a strange expression--something between chagrin, irony, and pity--took over.
“Don’t think too much about it, Mirelle. Thank you for the information.” He paused, then changed the subject. “Any leads on Falcon’s family?”
She shook her head while she wiped her tears, ducking to hide her face.
“There might not be anything, but I’d be eternally grateful if you’d keep looking.”
He rolled up the strange picture, slid it into a tube he had next to his desk, then pushed open a small panel at the bottom of a large set of shelves. He slid the tube in through the opening and closed the panel, making sure it was well hidden again, then stood up and straightened his suit.
“I really must get out on the floor, Mirelle. Now that I’m done here, we certainly don’t need the bouncers checking everyone that comes in.”
Mirelle had collected herself together and looked perfect again. She nodded, even forcing a smile that seemed perfectly natural, and followed him out of the office.
End Part Two of Four
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