Unlikely Allies: Part Seven
Delma carried the necklace back to the field forlornly as her mind alternated between possible explanations. The most likely seemed that Ciona had run away. Delma couldn’t understand why she’d been pretending to act so excited about the Opening Ceremony, though. Besides, she’d had more than enough opportunity to escape before today if she’d wanted to get away. It didn’t add up to Delma, but most of all, she couldn’t figure out how she’d left. The security guards Kakoni had entrusted their location to were so proficient that Delma rarely remembered their existence. She saw neither head nor tail but the lack of bothersome fans or press—except, as they’d proved, the occasional persistent paparazzi—was proof that they did their job. She had a hard time imagining that Ciona could get past them, and she doubted that they’d permit the Kyrii to run away.
“Delma?” Kakoni was clearly impatient and growing more agitated. “Ciona’s never missed a practice before without excessive prior notice...”
“She wasn’t there.” Delma couldn’t tell if she was smiling or frowning. She looked from Kakoni to Babolino and felt slightly lightheaded.
Valtonous steadied her and she leaned against him as Team Darigan approached uncertainly. Mutely, Delma held out her hand. The necklace dangled from it, sparkling innocently as the gems caught the light.
“This was all I could find,” Delma explained hoarsely. “She was wearing it when I left to come to practice.”
Babolino leaned closer. “What does it mean? It’s just a necklace.”
“I just don’t know why she’d run away,” Delma said quietly, trying to control her emotions, a mixture of betrayal and grief. She didn’t even know if she’d ever see Ciona again.
Kep leaned closer. “No, I don’t think she ran away,” she said in a voice of soft certainty. “She was very pleased with that necklace. I think she’d take it with her.”
“I can’t...” Delma’s head swam and she suddenly found herself sitting in the soft grass. “I don’t understand.”
“It means,” Layton interjected, “that she didn’t leave because she wanted to.” Before Delma could say anything he had reached out and taken the necklace from her limp fingers and lifted it to his nose.
Tormo actually laughed. “He has an enhanced sense of smell,” the Bruce explained at Babolino’s quizzical look. “He complains about it all the time.”
Layton shot him a glance as he sniffed. “I believe...” He gave Kep an inscrutable look before continuing, “that what I am smelling is a very faint trace of Clay and Leaf Paste.” He looked at Delma directly. “Did Ciona have a case of the Shaky Flakies recently? I can understand that it might be something worth keeping from the media, but it’s dangerous to self-medicate...”
“She hasn’t been sick,” Delma said quietly. “She’s been quite healthy.”
“I can smell her and you... I think,” Layton said as he sniffed the necklace once more and stared off into space, considering. “That’s definitely Clay and Leaf Paste, though.” He paused and then handed the necklace back to Delma with a shrug.
Kakoni looked stuck between angry and confused. “I don’t understand who could have taken her. Our security guards are excellent.”
“Well then, you know where to start,” Layton said calmly. He bowed his head. “This is a terrible misfortune. If there’s anything we can do to help, let me know. We’ll call our last scrimmage off. I hope you find out what’s happened before the Cup starts.” He looked sincere, Delma thought vaguely as her head spun.
“Alright,” Kakoni said vaguely. “Would you mind cleaning up here? I’ve got to go ask some people some questions.”
“Not at all.” Layton nodded in an extremely conciliatory manner.
Delma stood up. “Kakoni, I’m coming with you. I’m going to help you find Ciona.”
The Bruce shrugged. “Fine. You can start questioning the guards. I’ve got to alert the managers.” He paused. “Start in the guard’s station. They’re on the fourth door down the South Hall.” He began walking toward the building, so Delma gave herself a small shake and pressed her lips together in determination. She’d find Ciona. Nobody took her roommate and got away with it.
Delma was surprised when Tandrak jogged to catch up with her. “I want to help,” he told her as he caught her stride. “I’m worried about her.”
“Fine.” Delma shrugged. “Two heads are better than one.”
The guard’s station was a small room, unfurnished save for one very plain couch. Richard, the Grarrl who answered the door, looked extremely confused. “You’re asking me if there’s been any lapses in security?” He asked, frowning. “I wouldn’t think so. We checked stations at lunchtime, and everything was in order.”
“Ciona’s missing,” she said abruptly. “It appears that she’s been taken.”
He looked taken aback. “That’s... That’s not possible.” He glanced at his watch. “We could go check the stations nearby... But I am sure there’ll be nothing amiss...” He looked extremely uncomfortable at the thought that his service had somehow made a mistake, but he didn’t complain as he led them outside.
The route to her suite looked entirely unfamiliar from the outside. Delma watched as they approached the window she’d found; it had been sealed with tape, and there were voices coming from inside, which Delma recognized as belonging to one of the team’s managers and Kakoni.
“Here’s where you said it happened?” Richard said dubiously. Delma nodded in response. “Right, this is where you two were staying, so we’ve had security pretty tight around here. This is where they were patrolling...” The Grarrl stepped away to a low hedge that contained a hidden footpath Ciona hadn’t noticed before, on the edge of the lawn. “I think Leo’s the one who’ll be coming along next,” he muttered as they walked down the path. They were rounding the corner of the building and not a soul was in sight.
Delma cleared her throat uncomfortably after they’d been walking for what felt like an eternity but that Delma knew was probably only a matter of minutes. “Sir,” she said in a voice carrying more steel than she really felt. “Where exactly...?”
Richard held up a hand. “We usually have someone stationed here,” he said with a smile that was strained. He stepped into a nook hidden behind a large bush, and issued a surprised exclamation. “Leo? Leo, wake up!”
Tandrak and Delma craned their necks and Richard lifted a Chia in his arms. “That’s Leo?” Tandrak asked.
“Yeah, he’s... he’s not waking up, he must’ve gotten knocked out or something...” Richard looked worried. "I don't understand how this could have happened. We all have the best training... But it explains how Ciona was taken without any notice... Although, it's odd that nobody else noticed anything..."
"They might be knocked out, too," Tandrak said grimly.
Delma glanced at Leo and then looked back up at Richard. "Well, you should probably take him inside. We'll keep looking."
Richard looked dubious, but his call to duty was too strong. "Well, I'll be out here in a minute." He lumbered off, cradling the ill-begotten Leo gently.
Tandrak sighed. "Well, if there are other guards, then clearly whoever did this was quite proficient... I'd say that they've all been hidden as well, since we haven't seen them yet."
Delma and Tandrak continued along the path, stopping to examine possible hiding places as they went. When they found a Tonu who was just as unresponsive as Leo had been, Tandrak just gave a weary sigh and returned to the path. "We'll let Richard know and he can carry the guard." Tandrak was clearly not impressed with the guards so far.
Richard returned to them just as they found a Kacheek hidden behind a column. The Grarrl surveyed the situation grimly for a moment.
"There was also a Tonu back there," Delma added.
Richard sighed and shook his head. "Those are the three posts that overlap outside of your room. They're all knocked out, too... I don't know how this is possible. Well, let me take care of these two..."
"We'll take another look around, just to be sure, and come back to the guard's station," Tandrak informed him.
Though he and Delma searched every nook and cranny they could find, there was no sign of life until they ran into an Eyrie wearing the guard's colors. "Um... hello," he said awkwardly, peering at them. "You shouldn't be out here, you know..."
Delma waved him off. "We're not escaping, we're just looking around."
"We were leaving anyway," Tandrak said with a small nod as he tugged Delma away. "Looks like it was just those three after all. Do you think Richard could have had a hand in this? He seemed to know a fair bit about the guards' situation, even though we didn't explain that much..."
Delma shook her head. "I think he was genuinely surprised to find them knocked out. It's his job to know about the guard patrols, after all..."
Tandrak nodded quietly as Delma opened the door to the guard's station. The three guards were lying on makeshift cots, and Richard looked up as the door opened, hurrying over. "We've reassigned some guards to cover the area that was left unprotected. The doctor came by but he didn't recognize any of the symptoms, and he said it didn't seem to be anything he'd seen before..."
"Aren't they just knocked out?" Delma moved into the room and was aware of Tandrak following her.
"Apparently not," Richard continued on behind them. "The doctor said it looked like it had to do with magic or potions, probably."
Delma sighed and looked at the three guards, who appeared to be asleep. Leo, the Chia, was mumbling every now and then and turning fitfully, but Delma couldn't make out anything he was saying.
She bent over him to try to hear clearer when he turned over, and she noticed that his hand was curled into a fist. A sudden idea struck her. "Tandrak," she said slowly, "I believe he may be holding something."
Tandrak moved over to look at him as well. "You might be right," he said as he reached for the Chia's hand and eased it open. Leo seemed reluctant to give up whatever it was, but Tandrak gently extracted a small piece of parchment and stepped back. Richard looked at Leo with an expression of worry.
As Tandrak smoothed out the piece of parchment, Delma leaned closer. There was no writing on it at all, and in fact only a small dash of ink on the surface, not enough to decipher any clues from.
Delma sighed, feeling lost. A useless clue was nothing more than a dead end.
Tandrak sniffed the paper gingerly and then frowned at it. "I can definitely pick out Clay and Leaf Paste."
Delma sighed. "Great. We know that it's connected, but we don't know anything else."
Tandrak looked up at Richard. "Thanks for your cooperation. You can expect that someone will be in touch. Good luck with those three." Without another word, he strode out of the room, and Delma had to hurry to catch up.
"Tandrak? Where are you going?" She reached for his hand.
Tandrak slowed enough that she could catch up. "Just giving him some time alone," he replied softly. "I don't think he felt very comfortable with us hanging over him. Come relax for a while."
Delma tamed her fury before it could emerge. "I can't relax knowing that Ciona is kidnapped," she said shortly.
Tandrak smiled at her. "You're always one for doing things. You don't give yourself enough time. If you push your brain to think too hard, it may end up closing like a trapdoor. But if you let it work through problems on its own, it may come to a different solution more effectively."
"You Darigans are always talking about taking breaks," Delma grumbled, but she followed him past her own suite, knowing that there'd probably be detectives or something in there anyway. The thought made her much more gloomy. "Tandrak, what are we doing? We're not detectives. There's not much hope that we'll be able to solve this."
Tandrak held open his door for her. "We're smart," he reassured her with a small smile, following her in and closing the door.
Reshar looked up from the couch in surprise. "Oh, hi, Tandrak... Delma," he added, nodding politely at her. Tandrak waved at Reshar but steered Delma into their small kitchen unit.
"You're looking slightly pale," he said in concern as Delma took a seat in one of the chairs at the small table.
"I'm really worried about Ciona," Delma replied sadly.
Tandrak opened their fridge and pulled out a pitcher. Delma watched him apathetically. He poured her a glass of whatever it was—it looked like orange juice—and handed it to her. "You should drink something with a little sugar in it," he said before sitting in the seat opposite her.
Delma sipped at the juice for Tandrak's benefit, but the feeling of helplessness, that she was utterly letting Ciona down, persisted strongly. Tandrak laid out the piece of paper on the table and stared at it. Finally, apparently gaining nothing from it, he sighed and looked back up. "It's a large grain," he explained, as though repeating the facts would bring a new conclusion. "It appears to be somewhat porous and has a loose texture."
"What are you talking about? Oh, hello, Delma." Delma heard Kep's voice but only offered a small wave over her shoulder. Kep moved into the room, holding a bowl. "Are you using the sink?"
"Go ahead," Tandrak said with a nod. Delma watched him as Kep washed the bowl. He didn't really think they could solve the case, did they?
Kep looked over Tandrak's shoulder and uttered a quiet exclamation. "Tandrak! Where'd you get that piece of paper?"
Tandrak stared at Kep. "Why? Do you recognize it?"
"Of course I recognize it. It's the exact same kind Ciona got from the bookstore when we were shopping." Kep dried her hands on a dishtowel and looked closer. "I don't recognize that ink, though." She picked up the scrap, examining it. "It looks like a water-based pigment like the kind that I got, only there's something... Maybe it was written with a brush instead of a pen, the quality of the stroke is somewhat more fluid..." She continued to inspect it for a long moment before replacing it and looking at Delma. "Where'd you get it, again? I didn't notice Ciona buying any ink..."
"No," Delma said, suddenly energized. "We found it with a guard who was knocked out, and it seemed to be connected to Ciona's disappearance." She looked at Tandrak, and then finished her juice quickly. "This is a great lead! Kep, that was so cool!"
Kep flushed slightly and backed out of the room with an uncomfortable smile. "Glad to help..."
"Do you know what this means?" she said to Tandrak with a roguish grin.
"Sure do," Tandrak said, smile more subdued. "To Altador Main Square."
Delma knew that she was worried, but now that they had a lead, her spirits rose slightly. It wasn't until they actually arrived at the book shop that a thought occurred to her. "Tandrak," she said, "shouldn't we have told someone where we were going, or told a detective the clues that we'd found?"
Tandrak looked back at her and then shrugged. "I don't know how much difference it'd make. We're probably getting things done faster than they would."
"Alright, but we should tell someone when we get back," Delma said as they headed inside the shop.
The elderly Ruki recognized them and greeted them happily. "Were you satisfied with your book?" he asked with an air of concern.
"It was lovely," Delma said with a little smile.
"We have a question for you," Tandrak interrupted. "Do you recognize this paper?" He held out the small scrap. "Or the ink?"
The Ruki squinted and lifted the scrap to his eyes. Delma waited impatiently. Finally the Ruki breathed, a little wheezing sigh from between his teeth. "The ink looks to be water-based, not from a powder, and probably diluted with water only, based on the linear formation and lack of feathering or smudging... The paper is one that we have in stock. Would you like me to find it for you?"
Delma was privately impressed by the man's knowledge, but Tandrak just said, "Please do."
The Ruki moved with alacrity despite his shuffling walk, and returned to them holding a sheaf bound with thick gold ribbon. "This'll be the one," he said, handing it over and eyeing them warily. "Looking for a gift, perhaps?"
"Ah..." Delma wasn't sure how much to tell him, so instead she took the sheaf and turned it over to read the label.
"Not quite," Tandrak explained, smiling grimly. "We're interested in the origins of this paper."
"We haven't had somebody buy this in a few weeks," the Ruki replied.
Delma made a quiet noise of exclamation. "This is made in Altador?" she asked.
"Sure. We do shipments to other continents, though. It's funny, but I don't recognize that ink as one that we have in stock." He lifted it again and pursed his lips. “It looks like something from Shenkuu,” he said. “Probably one made from Bluchard; they often use that root when searching for pigmentation... It appears as very dark in some concentrations when mixed with particular solvents. It is prized for its near-black color that appears slightly warmer because of its blue undertones...”
Delma hesitated. “Did you say Shenkuu?”
The Ruki nodded. “Yes, they have very elegant writing and calligraphy techniques and their inks are often prized... I’ve found that they don’t work as well with quills, but they are superior with brushes.”
Delma looked at Tandrak. “Shenkuu...”
Tandrak nodded. “Clay and Leaf Paste.”
Delma looked at the Ruki shopkeeper. “Have you had anybody come into the store with Shaky Flakies?”
He looked thoughtful for a moment, but shook his head.
Delma looked back at Tandrak. “Do you think that Team Shenkuu is attempting sabotage?”
Tandrak shook his head. “I’ve had lunch with Larcy before. They’re very honorable.”
Delma pursed her lips and looked back at the Ruki shopkeeper. She didn’t want to admit defeat, but they seemed to have hit a dead end again.
“Can we have a list of all orders you’ve had from Shenkuu for this paper before?” Tandrak asked suddenly.
The Ruki looked uncomfortable. “I don’t know if my patrons would appreciate it,” he said haltingly. “If you had some sort of connection to the Defenders, perhaps...”
Tandrak smiled thinly at him. “Thanks for the help. We’ll be in touch.” He grabbed Delma’s hand and marched out, clutching their scrap of paper.
“Tandrak, what are you thinking?” Delma hurried to keep up with him.
“I’m thinking that somehow Ciona has a connection to someone in Shenkuu. We’d better tell the detectives. Has she ever mentioned anything at all about Shenkuu?” He was walking briskly as he spoke and Delma had to walk quickly.
“Well... I don’t remember her ever having said anything...” Delma thought for a long moment. “She’s never mentioned anything... I don’t know for sure that she’s traveled there, I guess I’d just assume that she has.” Delma shook her head. She wasn’t sure how all the clues related to each other.
Tandrak smiled tightly. “Never mind. We’ll talk to the detectives and they’ll get the information we need.”
Delma hoped he was right.
The personal detectives of the Defenders of Neopia were unnervingly efficient. It was less than a half hour after Tandrak and Delma explained everything to them that they had retrieved the information and shared it with them.
The detective they were talking to was a smartly-dressed Acara with a very sensible watch strapped to her wrist. She introduced herself as Amelia before sitting at the table in Darigan’s suite. She had a red pen in her hand and had circled a few names. “All of the ones highlighted have addresses on multiple continents,” she explained as Delma stared at the printout from the bookstore. “And I am circling the names of known Yooyuball fans, regardless of team.” Her quick strokes of red across the page reminded Delma morbidly of blood. “And here we have come to an interesting conclusion,” she said as she put a star next to one name. “This one is cross-listed on four different continents, which is not unusual for many business companies to have branches in foreign lands, but who has been a devoted Darigan fan from the oldest press coverage.” She paused, glancing back at the sheet. “He’s listed as Gary Greyson but I’m betting that’s not his real name.”
Delma blinked, astounded that so much information could be gleaned from such apparently small clues.
Amelia must have noticed her expression, because she smiled widely. Delma was reminded of a feral Pinklet. “We are good at our jobs, Ms. Harrence. Especially when figures of high profile are involved.”
Delma sat back, head spinning. She could hardly believe that so much had happened in one day. Her stomach growled and she immediately flushed. “I’m going to go get some food.”
Amelia nodded. “I’m going to dig up some dirt on our friend Gary,” she said briskly. “I trust the Darigan room will be open at all hours?” She glanced about the suite dubiously.
Tandrak nodded. “Someone will be here.”
To be continued...