From the Files of Phil M. Nwar
The Morningside rental office building was not the nicest place to situate your business, but it was cheap, and that was what counted. It was nestled in Neopia Central, built so crooked that the washed-out yellow building seemed to be leaning on its neighbour for support. Of course, no one could see it was yellow. Layers of graffiti had coated the exterior of the building for years. The managers weren't interested in cleaning off what was essentially a free paint job, though "CHET FLASH WUZ HEAR" in neon pink didn't add much to the decor.
Though most of the people who dared venture into Morningside were not exactly high society, even they agreed that the interior of the rental space was worse. Dark, dirty, and damp, Morningside could easily offend people lacking noses and wearing blindfolds. Exposed pipes snaked along the walls, although with poor lighting and nonexistent heat they seemed rather redundant. The walls, floor, and in some cases, the ceiling, were covered in stains that looked like one thing and smelled like another. There was a host of spiders in the basement, although rumour had it that a previous tenant had smuggled them in on a grudge.
Morningside's clientele were, in a word, varied. Very few people actually used the place for enterprising young businesses. It was close to the centre of Neopia Central and not too far from the local Eyrie port, which made it a valuable space.
A rather unpopular band (although what exactly did one expect from instruments like the brass zither and electric cello?) used a room as a rehearsal space, stuffing the gap under the door with rags in a vague attempt to soundproof.
An aspiring chef spent her days at Morningside combining quite unwilling ingredients. If the dish was, by sheer luck, successful, the rent would be paid. If not, food would be flung out of the window with sobs. As a precaution, most people tended to avoid the space beneath the window, lest it start to rain pink pudding.
Surely the most reclusive tenant was Phil M. Nwar of office 4b. He had only moved into Morningside a month ago, and so far no one had actually seen him. A sign on the door of his office read "Phil Nwar, Detective". Well, actually it said "PIERATS R WINN!", but because many graffiti artists don't have much expertise in the way of thought, the sign several inches below the graffiti'd one remained untouched.
One fine day, or as fine as it got working at Morningside, Phil was rather frustrated. The blue Bruce had purchased a small game from a proprietor in Faerieland, but Tic-Tact-Toe wasn't proving to be "a blast of fun and etiquette with each roll of the die!". The stupid thing kept reminding him to floss despite the fact that, as a Bruce, he didn't have teeth. It was rather unnerving.
Phil sighed, set the game on his desk, and eyed his office. It was grey. Walls, floor, ceiling, furniture. Phil had placed a very special screen over the window and the lightbulbs in the room, so the light they cast coloured everything in multiple shades of grey. Phil liked the old-fashioned, simple feeling that living in a black-and-white world gave him. The detective even wore sunglasses with the same material on them, for going outside on a case, although that had yet to happen. It's hard to earn a reputation when no one asks for your help because you don't have a reputation.
Suddenly, there was a knock on his door. Without warning (well, you could count the knock as a warning but that would make the whole thing less dramatic) the door flung open and an Aisha--green skin shaded to grey by the lights--practically flung herself onto Phil's desk, wracked with sobs.
From the moment he saw her, he knew she was going to be trouble. It might have been his detective's intuition, but it was more likely the fact that she was severely dampening his copy of the Neopian Times.
Phil reached into the depths of his grey trenchcoat, which swaddled his entire body, and produced a handkerchief. The teary Aisha grabbed it with a sniffle, looked up, and stopped. She stared at her grey colouring and inspected the room until she saw the thin film over the lightbulb.
"Cool effect," she breathed, blinking in the strange light.
"Thanks, Dollface." Phil grinned, eager to get into the detective spirit.
The Aisha reared back with a gasp. "How did you know my name?"
Phil pointed to the label on the girl's shirt: Hello! My name is Dolly Dollface! it read cheerily.
"Hello, Dolly." The detective grinned.
Dolly groaned. "You know, there's a detective on the next block who doesn't make wisecracks. I just picked you because you're cheaper. Maybe I'll go see him."
Phil sighed, horribly alone on his own end of the humour spectrum. "Whatever, then. No wisecracks. What is it, exactly, that you want?"
Dolly hoisted herself onto Phil's desk, opening the blinds until the grey light elegantly illuminated her face. Then she squinted, thought better of herself, and closed the blinds. "I work for the Neopian Tree Welfare Foundation, or NTWF. I was on my way to an meeting earlier this morning with highly important documents on the Money Tree when I passed the Kadoatery. One of the Kads wanted a bit of omelette, you see; I had a piece and no one else was around."
She looked down, slightly ashamed. "I left my purse outside. I was only gone for a minute, but when I returned the contents of my purse were scattered about. I found everything..."
"Except the documents."
"Exactly. But only another NTWFer would have known about the documents."
Phil got up, waddling around his desk. "I can find your documents for you. I charge a rate of three thousand Neopoints a day, plus expenses."
The Aisha hopped off the desk and accompanied Phil to the door. "Expenses?"
Phil nodded, opening the door of his office. "You know. Snacks. Magazines. Scratchcards."
They made their way down the stairs. "Whatever, Nwar. I'll pay, as long as you find those documents. It's of the utmost importance." The pair strolled through the front door of Morningside. Without so much as a goodbye, Dolly turned and walked away, disappearing into the throng of Neopia Central. He knew as he watched her that this was far from over.
Phil would have hurried to the Money Tree, but it was in the direction Dolly was headed. Knowing how awkward it was for two people to continue walking together after saying their goodbyes, Phil began to walk the other way.
Unfortunately, he did not remember that he was walking under the open window of the aforementioned troubled chef. The spirits of irony like a good joke as much as the next Neopian, if not more, and felt that it would be a wasted opportunity to let Phil walk this route unscathed. With a mentally unstable cry of "Look out below!", the chef emptied the contents of a large mixing bowl onto the street below.
Phil groaned as it rained pink pudding.
He had been able to get the pudding off his trenchcoat after a few washes, though it had proved resilient. The smell still hung about him heavily, like a telemarketer who insisted that even if it was a bad time, it would be a lot worse if you didn't know about the sheer usefulness of an avocado-green peach defuzzer.
It was evening now, and Neopia Central was unusually deserted. The sky, like markers bleeding into each other, cast a warm gloaming light over empty streets, although with Phil's greyscale vision, all he could perceive was the shadows darkening in the corners and alleys of the city.
The detective headed towards the Money Tree, careful to avoid his office building lest the pink pudding return. He turned a corner and saw flickers of light in the distance. A crowd was gathering, swarming and congregating at the base of the Money Tree like flies on rotten fruit. He quickened his pace, emerging in the plaza proper. A podium of sorts had been erected, and a crowd of eager Neopians waited around it.
Phil might not have been an expert sleuth, but he knew crowds. He fluidly infiltrated the mob of people, gently inserting himself into the center of the throng. He ended up beside a red Shoyru who introduced himself as Jonah.
"Nice to meet you," Phil murmured, distracted. "What exactly is going on here?"
Jonah was about to answer when an appalling stench filled the air. It wrinkled the noses of the crowd, and curdled the milk in the bottle of one little JubJub. Phil was certain that if the smell was any thicker he would be able to see it. The Bruce didn't even have a nose and the odour was giving him a headache.
But no one left. Someone stepped onto the podium. Phil pushed closer, squeezing through the crowd. It was a fire Faerie, amber wings spread, addressing the crowd. He realized, with a sinking dread, that this Faerie was the source of the stink.
The Faerie held up a hand for silence. "My name is Smelly. I am here to talk to you today about the nuisance that is the Money Tree." Phil's eyes widened as the crowd cheered. Here was a clue and a half.
"The Money Tree was, at first, a wise decision. It gave kind Neopians a chance to help out those less fortunate. Wonderful gifts would drop from the branches. It made Neopia Central a beautiful place to live. There was always the sound of laughter and cheers as people retrieved their gain.
"But soon the Money Tree started being abused. It started small, a few bottles or empty boxes here and there, but it spread. It was easier to just throw the junk away than dispose of it. Now look at what lies beneath your feet." Phil looked down and, indeed, there was a thin layer of litter coating the ground around the tree. Tombola booby prizes clinked against old left shoes and other assorted junk.
"I, for one, am tired of it. Do we really need garbage and pollution decorating the ground? Should we have to go through our day surrounded by Neopia's refuse? Shouldn't people be responsible for their trash?" Smelly paused, waiting for the final blow. "And what about that smell!"
There was absolute, infinite, total dead silence. Then the crowd burst into cheers. Phil tried not to make any jokes and instead looked through the crowd. Jonah had vanished, which was odd. He couldn't find him anywhere in the throng either, but wait--who was that at the far end of the group.
Phil began to push his way through the crowds towards the Aisha. What was Dolly doing here? Surely a member of the NTWF would never attend an anti-tree protest. Phil ducked under an enormous Grarrl. Dolly had been standing between the Money Tree and the Rainbow Pool, but there was no one there now, except for an owner standing there, looking a bit confused.
"You haven't seen my Jonah, have you?" she called to Phil uncertainly. "He's a red Shoyru. He was just here a moment ago, and I can't even find my paint brush..."
Another twist. Jonah had been here a minute ago, at the same time Dolly was. And he was supposed to be painted. These were important facts, and Phil needed time to sort them out. He should head back to the office, ponder it over a glass of juice, and talk to Dolly tomorrow.
But then something flickered in the corner of Phil's vision. He turned sharply, staring past Smelly to the glowing light leaking from behind the Money Tree. Before he knew it he was running, sprinting towards the light, because he recognized it. Fire.
The crowd was thinner here and Phil shoved past the spectators as he circled the tree. There was no source of water in sight, and the Rainbow Pool was too far away to extinguish the fire quickly. It licked along the grass, heading steadily for the extremely flammable Money Tree.
With a heroic leap, the Bruce threw himself on the fire, flaring his trenchcoat. Searing heat brushed his skin as his coat smothered the flames. Smoke poured from the earth, engulfing him, clouding his mind and sending his colourless vision into frenetic nonchromatic spirals.
You've only got time for one quip, he thought. Make it count.
"My first job and it has a robbery and arson!" he muttered weakly. "I'm on fire!"
Could've been better.
Normally, in stories, it would be expected that the hero would be carried to safety if he passed out. Phil found out that day that such was not the case. He awoke a few hours later with a headache like a battering ram and a jacket that now smelled of smoke and pudding.
He sat up, thought better of it, and lay down again. He felt as if he was still on fire, even though all that remained was a charred patch of grass and something digging into his back. He reached under himself, pulled it up--
A Fire Paint Brush. Now a sooty black.
Let's see. Dip the paint brush in the Rainbow Pool. You step towards the tree--no one's listening to you because Smelly's going on and on. You gently lob the paint brush; it lands on the grass, starts to burn it up. You turn, duck out of the crowd, mission accomplished.
The pieces were there, he just had to put them together. Think, Phil.
He got up unsteadily, bracing himself against the tree. Someone had decided to donate a slushie earlier and he was still fairly cold, so he sipped on that, feeling the sugar pick him up. He would have appeared to have passed out for most of the night, as the grey light of dawn was lightly waking Neopia Central up as he staggered around, trying to wake up.
He was just about to head back to the office when a figure emerged from a side street. Dolly. The Aisha stopped, blinking, as she recognized Phil. The Bruce advanced on her, trying not to scare her off.
"Phil. I would have thought someone would have carried you to safety."
"Honestly, me too." Wait. Hold on. "Except how would you know I was passed out here unless you were at last night's festivities?"
Dolly gave a snort at his interrogation tactics. "Since when am I denying that? Of course I was there. Do you really think I would ignore one of the NTWF's biggest rivals?"
"You were near the Money Tree, where the fire started." The accusatory tone pierced Dolly's confidence. He could see her sag, slightly.
"It wasn't me," she murmured, voice hoarse. "Phil, trust me. Why would I sabotage my own campaign?"
"Lots of reasons. Do you know a Jonah, red Shoyru?"
Dolly nodded, with a strangely distant look in her eyes. "Yeah, actually. I was looking for him at the rally yesterday. He used to work for the NTWF."
Click. That was it. Pieces fitting into place seamlessly. "He used to work for you guys?"
Dolly could barely even nod before Phil took off running. He didn't know where, exactly, but detective's intuition pointed him into the direction of the cafe across the street. He valiantly swung the door open, wincing as the tinkling bell destroyed the drama of the situation utterly.
Jonah was perched on a stool at the counter, sipping one of the cafe's famous frappalappaccinos. Phil marched over to him. Jonah looked up and broke into a smile. "Oh, hey! It's Phil, right? How are you?"
"You tried to set the Money Tree on fire."
The tiny cup that held the frappalappaccino dropped with a clatter. "What did you say?"
Phil had no time for games. "I've no time for games. You stole Dolly's documents, too, didn't you? Trying to sabotage the Neopian Tree Welfare Foundation."
Jonah grew angry, pushing himself off the barstool and staring the detective in the face. "Do you realize what sort of allegations you're making, sir? My owner happens to be a very wealthy and influential Neopian, and would not take kindly to you tarnishing my reputation with your slander."
"If your owner's so rich, why are you still a basic colour?"
If Jonah had not already been crimson-hued he would have turned red. "Red happens to be my owner's favourite colour." Now everyone in the cafe was staring at them eagerly.
"Dung," Phil cried. "You were going to be painted Fire last night, weren't you? But then you got it in your head to set the Money Tree on fire, so no one would notice the missing documents anymore! I'm surprised you didn't burn those too!"
"Dolly was my friend!" Jonah roared. "I only joined that stupid tree thing because she asked me too. Then when I left, she got mad and wouldn't talk to me. I figured maybe if I took that away from her, we could be friends again." There was a simultaneous gasp in the room, so much so that there was such a lack of collective oxygen as to knock one elderly Buzz out.
The door swung open again, and Dolly stepped inside. Jonah opened his mouth to speak, but she angrily cut him off. "Save it," she spat. "I have nothing to say to you." Shattered, Jonah sank to his knees, staring at the tile floor. The waitress began to contact the authorities and Dolly turned to look at Phil. "Good work, detective."
Phil tipped his hat. "No problem, Dolly. You gave me what I needed to know." He signalled to the waiter. "Get me a frappalappaccino. Extra frappalappa."
Dolly, with a sigh and half a smile, sat down to join him.