A Lesson Well Learned: Part Three
She had only just loosened her fingers from its folds, but already Ursula felt the urge to sink her hand back into the pocket of her jeans to grip that precious rag of material. It was the only real evidence to substantiate the unease in her gut that had flared up the moment she laid eyes on the chaos spilling out of Corey’s dorm room.
Breakfast was usually a time for light-hearted banter and to display a thorough lack of table manners, but not today. She’d taken the scrap of fabric back to her room the previous night and then lain awake for hours staring at it, as if some strange magic would spark it into motion and lead it to tap dance out under her door if she took her eyes from it. After she and Piao had presented it to Briar and Skeet and described the findings of their expedition moments earlier outside the dining hall, the four of them had then queued and purchased their food in silence. And now they sat facing each other, bowls of cereal rapidly growing soggy on the table between them.
Their brooding was interrupted by a timid young Usul shuffling over towards them. “Erm, excuse me,” she said in a voice that rivalled Skeet’s for its lack of imposition. “Have any of you seen Nigel Nitterwick today?” She clasped her hands tightly in front of her chest and her bottom lip quivered slightly as she spoke.
“No, I haven’t seen Nitw... er, Nigel since yesterday afternoon. Have any of you?” inquired Briar, appealing to the others on behalf of the timid girl.
“Nope, not seen him. Why, does he owe you money?” teased Piao.
“Heh, no,” stuttered the Usul, “only he was supposed to meet me an hour ago. We have a chess tournament scheduled and he was in the first match.” Her shyness suddenly got the better of her and her cheeks flushed crimson. “If you see him, tell him Leesha is looking for him, please.” And then she shuffled off again, albeit much faster than she had arrived.
Alone again, the four glanced amongst each other, waiting for one of them to say what each was thinking.
“It’s not like Nitwit to miss a game of his beloved chess,” Skeet finally offered.
“No, it isn’t, is it.” Briar was slowly consigning herself to the fact that her sister might have been right about the suspicious nature of Casey’s disappearance. She dragged her spoon through her Captain Scarblade Crunch and sighed deeply.
“Look out, Dr. Vile Death at 2 o’clock,” hissed Ursula, trying to look inconspicuous by barely moving her lips as she spoke, which only served to make her look even more conspicuous.
The purple-clad form of the newest member of staff at the institute swaggered up to the serving area, ordered a croissant and then sauntered back out the way he came. The whole incident took less than two minutes and hardly displayed anything approaching an evil demeanour, and yet for some reason Eliv’s brief presence had spell bound the entire dining hall.
“Did you see that?!” cried Ursula, still attempting to speak without moving her lips for some reason best known only to herself.
“Yes, I saw that,” replied Piao. “He’s eating a croissant for breakfast, that most evil of breakfast pastries! How very bourgeois of him.”
Ursula eyed him with a look sour enough to turn even the finest pasteurised milk from Kau Kau Farms. “No, not what he was eating,” she barked. “I meant what he was wearing!”
The Neopoint suddenly dropped for Skeet. “The scrap of purple cloth you found; it’s the exact same colour as that cloak he always wears.”
Ursula nodded vigorously. “We have to tell the dean about this. He needs to know that he’s employed a kidnapper!”
“Slow down there a minute,” said Briar, holding her hands up. “You don’t know for certain that it’s him; running to the dean with no real proof will only end up landing you in hot water. You can’t seriously expect him to take your allegations seriously based on a scrap of fabric that you find whilst illegally snooping around another student’s room.”
“She’s right,” conceded Piao. “If you want it to stick, you’re going to need something more concrete than that.”
The would-be detective sat in thought for a moment, then became animated as she hit upon an idea. “You have an etymology lecture with Thade later, don’t you, Briar?” Her sister nodded. “Well, take this scrap of material with you and when you get a chance, check if there are any tears or patches missing from his coat. Then we’ll know for sure.” She handed the precious evidence across the table as if it were made of solid gold. “Don’t lose it, though, whatever you do; it’s the only clue we have.”
“I’m not you, you know. I don’t make a habit of losing things,” scoffed Briar, but she accepted the material with just as much caution as it was given nonetheless.
“Now that’s sorted out,” interjected Piao, “what’s all this ‘Mr. Vile Death’ business?”
“He likes anagrams, so it makes sense that his name itself would be an anagram.”
“Yeah, but it’s clearly Evil Death, not Vile Death.”
“Evil Death? That doesn’t even make sense; how can a death be evil?”
“Well, it’s hardly a pleasant experience, is it?”
The pair continued their disagreement until the bell was rung to signal the end of service. Meanwhile Briar sat twirling the strip of fabric absently between her fingers and staring off into space.
* * * * *
The lecture hall was even more packed than usual; Briar assumed that the excessive turnout was down to students from other subjects wandering in to sate their curiosity about the new tutor. She was early, though, as usual, and so was able to secure a spot down in the second row, giving her a clear view of where Eliv would be standing.
The bustle of the others chatting did nothing to distract her from the growing feeling of unease in her stomach. What if Ursula was right? What if he really was behind the disappearance of Casey, and what if he had something to do with Nitwit’s inexplicable absence from the chess tournament?
She smoothed her paws through her immaculately styled blonde hair and tried to calm herself. After all, this was ridiculous. Despite his past, Eliv was a tutor here, and tutors didn’t go around abducting their students.
This thought was playing through her mind as Thade himself announced his arrival in the hall with a loud clearing of his throat. Nobody had seen him enter; he just sort of materialised in the gloom beside the door. After all, using a door would be far too low-key of an entrance for a super villain, much better to loom into view from a suitably dark corner.
He didn’t so much walk up to the lectern as advance upon it menacingly, like Balthazar creeping up on an unsuspecting Babaa. Once there he rubbed his hands together and surveyed the room with his one good eye, sending a collective shiver down the spines of all present. As if on cue, a number of students got up and hurriedly left the hall through the back door, their questions either having been answered or just plain frightened out of them.
“Nwo tehn,” the husky, serpentine voice pronounced, “slahl ew bgien tdaoys losesn?”
As the overhead projector clicked through its allotted slide show, Briar desperately tried to multitask; it proved to be harder than she had imagined to write cohesive and legible notes about the potential Altadorian origins of daily Neopian language, whilst also striving to check Thade’s outfit for any missing sections.
Suddenly a shadow fell over her the page she was writing on. Glancing up from her notes she found herself making eye to enormous-glaring-red-eyeball contact with Eliv. Without even being aware that she was doing it, her gaze shot across to her pencil case, and in her mind she saw how glaringly visible the snag of hastily packed fabric was as it bulged out through the open zip.
His gaze followed hers and settled on the pencil case, a wet tut signalling that he had clearly found something of consequence there. Briar’s heart leapt into the upper regions of her throat and began to pound furiously.
Oblivious to Briar’s internal chaos, Thade reached over to the pencil case and plucked from it, not the fabric, but her Vira Pen poking out just beneath it.
“Vria si a gdoo fenrid fo mnie,” he said, a slow smile spreading across his lips like a plague. “Yuo konw, seh haetd wehn tehy mdae tihs pne ni hre linekses.” He continued to smile to himself for a moment, perhaps out of nostalgia, then replaced the pen in Briar’s pencil case and returned to the front of the hall to continue his lecture.
Briar was certain that had he not walked away when he had she would have most definitely melted into a puddle on the seat and spent the rest of her life absorbed in the furniture of that lecture hall. His interest in her stationery had given her the perfect opportunity to get a close up look at his cloak, though, and in spite of her near paralysing fear of discovery she had managed to do a very thorough job of it.
So as the terror in her gut ebbed away with each step Eliv took farther from her seat, it was replaced by another emotion that was much harder to define. But there was no doubting what she had observed, she knew that.
Eliv’s coat was entirely intact.
To be continued...