A Lesson Well Learned: Part Five
“This stinks!” complained Ursula.
“Sorry, it’s probably the manure that Dad uses to fertilise the fruit patches,” said Skeet.
“What? No, I don’t mean... never mind.” Ursula closed her eyes and shook her head. “I mean it stinks that it’s taking them so long to sort out the institute; they’ve had a cleaning crew in there for the last three days and we still haven’t had any word on when we’ll be able to go back.”
“That’s what I like to hear, somebody eager to return to their studies.” Skeet’s mother appeared at the door with a beaming smile and a tray full of homemade florangeade. If you had been given the materials and asked to draw the perfect farmer’s wife, the result would have undoubtedly looked exactly like Mrs. Larson. She was the personification of cosy homeliness, somewhat plump and a little dowdy but nonetheless cheerful and welcoming to a fault.
“Here you go, I thought you could do with some refreshment,” she said. “Oh, and a Neomail arrived for Miss Briar.” She handed an ivory envelope above the heads of Ursula and Skeet, who had already converged around the tray and were busy pouring themselves glasses. Briar thanked her and Mrs. Larson shuffled off downstairs again, content that her work there was done.
“You might have told her that the only reason you’re so keen to get back is because of your precious Yooyuball tournament,” said Briar with a hint of scorn in her voice. She slid her fingers under the sealed flap of the envelope and pulled out the sheet of paper within.
Meanwhile Ursula was busy pouring large quantities of florangeade into her face. “This is amazing!” she burped in between gulps, “does your mum make it?”
“Yeah.” Skeet smiled, flushed with pride. “She grows loads a lot of floranges in her little greenhouse round back; they’re about the only thing we can grow lately with these bitter winters we’re having. There’s not really much of a market for them, though, so we mostly just eat them ourselves.”
There suddenly came a noise of disquiet from behind them, so Ursula was obliged to stop filling her head with the little orange bubbles that popped in such a pleasant manner and inquire about what was perplexing her sister.
“This is a Neomail from Piao’s parents,” her twin explained. “I thought it was unperceivable that they could have received and replied to a Neomail, much less have travelled from Shenkuu to Brightvale in the time it took Skeet’s parents to get there from just a mile or two away. So I got in touch with them to see what had happened and they confirmed my suspicions; they were never contacted by the institute and Piao certainly isn’t at home with them.”
“So where is he then?” asked Skeet as he took another sip of his drink.
“My guess is he’s still back at the institute somewhere, along with all the other students who mysteriously vanished during the last week.”
“If he is, we can’t just leave him there!” cried Ursula. She feared she had been rather too loud and so covered her mouth with her paws, which was just as well, as shortly after doing so she let out a huge belch.
“I’m not suggesting that we do,” said Briar. “I’ve been planning for such an eventuality since we first arrived here so I already have a course of action mapped out. We’ll wait until Skeet’s parents and brother go to bed for the night, then we’ll sneak out and head back to the institute and search for Piao, Nitwit and Casey.”
“But where do we even begin?” inquired Skeet. “I mean, we were living there while the others were going missing and never noticed anything. The institute is a big place, how are we going to search all of it in just one night and get back before my family notices we’re gone?”
Briar screwed her face up at his comment; clearly this was something that she herself had considered in the course of making her plans.
“Well,” said Ursula hesitantly, “it would make sense to start our search in the basement. If somebody did tamper with the generator and the sprinkler system then they would have to have done so from the maintenance room, which is down there underneath the dining hall. It’s the only place where nobody really goes, except perhaps the caretaker.” She suddenly went pale. “What if the caretaker is in on it? He was there at Casey’s room when it was trashed, and do you remember how insistent he was that we leave and not look at anything in there?!”
“You have a point there,” Skeet mumbled into his now empty glass.
“Well, I guess we’ll find out tonight, one way or another.” Briar switched into assertive older-by-two-minutes sister mode. “So if we’re going to do this we’ll need to be properly prepared.” She pulled a folded sheet of notepaper from her pocket. “I started making a list of what we’ll need to take...”
* * * * *
The two girls didn’t have a choice of espionage outfits, they only had the clothes that they stood up in to wear since their impromptu ejection from their dormitory without any of their belongings. So far they had managed to avoid smelling like Charlie and his rubbish dump by borrowing baggy shirts from Skeet to sleep in so that Mrs. Larson, who was always up and about in the dew-soaked hours of the morning, had time to wash, dry, press and hang them on the back of the guest room door to be worn afresh that day.
Their other equipment consisted of Skeet’s Defenders of Neopia torch - which he had vehemently insisted was most definitely not his – and one of his brother’s golf clubs that Ursula has insisted on bringing ‘for protection’.
And so once all other sounds of movement in the house had been replaced by gentle snoring (or not so gentle in the case of Mr. Larson), the three of them clambered out of Skeet’s bedroom window and down the shishkafruit trellis which was conveniently located just below the windowsill.
The actual journey back to the institute was highly uneventful; it was mostly a subdued safari through overgrown bushes and reeds that whistled in the wind, punctuated only by the semi-regular inquiry of “what was that?!” from one of the girls in response to the chirp of an insect they had never encountered before.
An hour or so after setting out they finally drew up to the familiar building, although they quickly discovered that it looked a lot less welcoming and homely when viewed from outside in the midst of a cloudless night and under the cover of sneakiness. None of them communicated this feeling verbally, of course; that would have been too cowardly.
And so they encountered their first problem, actually getting in to the building. Despite her careful formulating, Briar had neglected to account for the fact that obviously the cleaning crew would go home at night and when they did they would lock up all the doors behind them. Skeet interpreted this as an omen that they should abandon the effort, whilst Ursula merely saw this as a challenge. Five minutes later and Skeet believed even more firmly in his convictions as he found himself being forcefully shoved through a partially open window by the girls because ‘he was the smallest’.
Once inside he was able to unlatch a larger window, and so the twins joined him in the shadowed alcoves of the library. The carpet still squelched and oozed beneath their feet, and through the gloom they could make out the outline of several piles of soggy pulp where the cleaners had heaped together all of the texts that were beyond rescue. For some reason, Briar felt a twinge of sadness at seeing so much knowledge callously discarded like that, but at the time she assumed it was just the beginnings of a bruise where Ursula had dropped the window on her while she was only halfway in.
They set off out into the corridor beyond and made their way across to the dining hall, travelling in single file with their hands on each other’s shoulder at the behest of Ursula, who had seen this method used in a film she had once seen.
“Alright, this little door here is the entrance to the maintenance room,” said the intrepid explorer herself, drawing up beside a small, red hatch off to one side of the dining room’s double doors. With a little help from the others she managed to work it loose and then shone the torch inside to chase some of the darkness into the recesses of the passage beyond.
“After you,” muttered Skeet behind her.
“Fraidy Kad,” she hissed, and clambered in through the newly opened hole.
A matter of paces down the hallway they became aware of dull noises coming from in front of them. They weren’t regular enough to be the clank of machinery, but they were too distant to be identified. Sensing they were on the right track, Ursula picked up her pace, causing Skeet to practically have to break into a jog to keep up and behind him Briar’s patting of the walls hastened.
Presently the passageway in front of them began to lighten; at first they thought it was just their eyes becoming more accustomed to the darkness, but then they happened upon a clear pool of light flooding out from underneath a hatch in one wall.
The three of them gathered around the hatch and wordlessly positioned themselves to advance into the room. Ursula handed the torch to Skeet to aim at the door, which he did with trembling hands, and then took the golf club from Briar. The latter moved to the side of the hatch and reached across to the handle, readying herself to pull it open on cue.
She raised a paw with three fingers extended and slowly counted them down. Three. Ursula tightened her grip on the club, causing the leather to creak slightly. Two. Skeet did his best to keep the beam of the torch straight and closed his eyes.
Briar heaved the door open and stood back to allow Ursula to charge blindly into the room, dazzled by the sudden increase in brightness but otherwise undeterred and shrieking like a Valkyrie.
Once her eyes adjusted, she found herself face-to-face with Piao. He was stood in front of a large chalk board, chalk poised in midair, his customary arm warmers absent and replaced by a length of rope binding him to a rail just above the board.
Her expression of mingled relief, joy and overwhelming confusion was met with a ‘turn around’ stare from her friend. So she did. Then let out a gasp of shock as she laid eyes on his captor.
To be continued...