The Mysterious Case of the Missing Skeith: Part Six
Also by fuliguline
A tense silence hung in the air.
"Oh, what a fool I was!" Sylvette wailed. "But I trusted Mercutio, and so I went to the meeting place and waited. While I was there, I noticed someone—a strange-looking Bruce, very dark and heavyset—staring me from across the room. After a few moments, he got up and deliberately bumped into me on his way out the door.
"I didn't think much of it at first, but several minutes later, I realized that the satchel on my shoulder was missing. That's when I finally understood what had happened. They weren't planning to release Mercutio at all. They had cheated me, just like they cheated him, and it had... it had cost me the only thing my family had to live on." She paused, looking mortified. "I desperately wanted to tell my family what had happened, but I—I couldn't. I knew they would despise me. I just..." Sylvette quietly broke into sobs, and the room became deathly still.
When Sadie finally spoke, her voice was barely audible. "But Sylvette, what if Mercutio isn't innocent? What if he wrote that letter to trick us? Maybe he... h-he really is a thief, just like everyone says."
"Do you really believe that?" asked Shylock from the side.
There was a moment of silence, before Sadie looked up with a dogged expression on her face. "No. No! Absolutely not!"
"If your brother is indeed innocent, then," said Shylock finally, "we must address the alternative possibility: that the kidnappers forced him to write the note, knowing that Miss Sylvette would forfeit the statue to have him back."
Grotson nodded. "It's a common psychological device, I'm afraid—forcing the victim to write the letter themselves. The handwriting is more personal, so the family is more willing to give up the ransom. Very shady tactic."
"Oh, poor Mercutio!" said Sylvette, her hands shaking. "I can't imagine what he must be going through right now."
Shylock looked deep in thought. She tapped her chin a few times, then turned to Sylvette. "Do you still have that letter, madame?"
"Yes—yes, of course." The Aisha blew her nose and nodded woodenly. "I'll fetch it straight away."
A few minutes later, she laid a crumpled piece of parchment in front of the detective.
"Here it is," she offered hesitantly. She paused, then continued: "I hope you don't think this is too presumptuous, Shylock, but how... how on earth did you know that I was the thief?"
"I suppose I never explained that," said Shylock. "Well, it's all quite elementary, really. You see, you set yourself up from the very start. You mentioned that it had rained the day before the statue was stolen. If you paid regular attention to the weather, however, you would realize that the only place in Neopia that was raining this week was in Maraqua."
"That bit is true," said Grotson, nodding his head in assent. "I remember reading that in the Times. Something to do, I believe, with the Drenched throwing a bit of a temper tantrum."
"Of course, you being in Maraqua didn't quite match with the rest of your story. Perhaps it was simply a mistake of memory. But I was watching your face carefully, you see. I am a great reader of faces, as Grotson here can attest to. The part of our interview where you were reminiscing about the rain was perhaps the only time when you were being absolutely truthful." She paused slightly. "That, and when you were talking about Mercutio."
"I'm not sure I follow," said Sylvette tentatively.
"When we visited the scene of the crime earlier today, we found a smudge of Maraquan mud near the safe. Fairly fresh too, judging by the smell. So either it was a remarkable coincidence that both you and the thief had been in Maraqua recently, or the second solution: that you were the thief. You knew the combination, your brothers thought you were at home, and no one would even think about suspecting you." Shylock crossed her arms, a smile tugging at her lips.
Sylvette swallowed, then gave a short laugh. "I see. Very clever."
"Of course, that is circumstantial evidence at best. Although when I arrived at your lovely house, what else did I see but these?" And Shylock grandly gestured to the pile of shoes in the corner.
"The shoes?" Sadie looked bewildered.
"Notice these shoes here," said Shylock, picking up a pair. "A very ladylike pair, although a bit too small for your feet, Sadie. And so, I deduced, they must belong to Miss Sylvette. But ah, what have we here?" Shylock quickly turned the shoes over. "Do I spy Maraquan mud?"
Sylvette was very quiet.
"However, what finally led me to make my accusation were these," said Shylock, and she lifted the Aisha's hand.
"My... nails?" Sylvette asked.
"As you may know, split fingernails are most commonly caused by excessive moisture in the environment. When the nailbed is exposed to water, it swells, and when the nail is dried, it contracts. This swelling and drying process is what causes the fingernail to split." Shylock paused, then added dryly: "And where else would nails receive a better soak than in Maraqua?" She reached into her coat and extracted a plastic bag. "I found this at the scene of the crime."
Sadie and Grotson leaned in for a closer look. Inside the bag was nothing other than a broken nail, gently fractured at the edges.
Sylvette stared, then raised her hands in defeat. "You have me there," she said. "I suppose I would make for a rather terrible villain. You are correct, Miss Shylock—the warehouse I mentioned was indeed located in Maraqua. And as I recall, my nails did begin to split horribly after my visit—and I suppose I was too distracted to notice that I left a piece of evidence at the crime scene."
"Ah, my dear, but that wasn't the only piece of evidence you left," said Shylock, before pulling out another small packet. "I found this as well."
Inside the bag was a piece of matted fur. Despite a chartreuse hue at the tips, the roots of the hairs were conspicuously blue.
"Do you recognize this, Miss Sylvette?" asked the Usul. "Or rather, Miss Tiffany McMillan from Kreludor?"
For a moment, Sylvette looked stricken, before suddenly letting out a small laugh. "Not a very good disguise, I suppose? Although I fooled the bank manager, so it must have been worth something. A rather terrible color, of course, but speckled was the cheapest paintbrush I could find."
Shylock appeared unswayed. "Next time you decide to try your hand at criminal activity, perhaps you should remember to dye your roots. I could recognize the fraud from a half a yard away, my dear lady."
Grotson gently nudged Shylock in the ribs. "Not everyone is as observant as you are, Shylock."
Sadie simply stared, her mouth agape. After several seconds, she recovered her senses long enough to shoot Shylock a glare. "Did you send me away to fetch you a pen so you could browbeat a confession from my sister?"
"But of course. I always keep a fresh supply of pens in my pocketbook," said Shylock, patting her collection fondly.
Grotson, sensing an impending confrontation, loudly cleared his throat. "Shylock, shouldn't we take a look at the letter?"
"Yes, yes, I was just getting to that, Grotson." Shylock snatched the letter in question and skimmed over its contents. "Hmmm." Her brow furrowed. "Tell me, madame, is there anything strange about this letter to you?"
"Now that you mention it, I did find the last part a bit peculiar. But I didn't think much of it, because it was my brother's handwriting, and—fool that I was—I didn't think that anything could go wrong."
"And what, pray tell, is so peculiar about it?"
Sadie glanced at the letter on table. At the end of the letter, Mercutio had written:
P.S. Send my love to Liscae, Yurble, and Cladee.
P.P.S. Remember, Ettie—always, always, the third time's the charm!
All my affections,
Mercutio Cyvisham the 3rd
"Well, to begin with, I don't know any Liscae, Yurble, or Cladee," said Sylvette. "And secondly, my brother wasn't the third Mercutio Cyvisham." Her brows drew together. "He was adopted, after all."
"Indeed," Shylock assented, with an air of deep thought.
"Finally, as for the third time being the charm... quite frankly, I don't see what this 'third' business has to do with anything!"
"The third, the third," muttered Shylock as she stared at the page, before suddenly ripping a sheet of paper from her notebook. Snatching up a pen, Shylock wrote:
"Now watch," she said. "Start with the third letter of every word, and underline three letters at a time."
"S-C-A-R-B-L-A-D-E," read Sadie, before sucking in her breath. "Scarblade?"
"Your brother, dear lady, was trying to send you a code. I'm sure they were monitoring everything he wrote, so he was unable to state the facts in a more obvious way. Also, the name of the company he was invested in—Greenvethe, if I'm not mistaken—"
She wrote out the name in block letters:
Sylvette stifled a cry, and clapped a hand over her mouth. "The Revenge! So Scarblade was the one who kidnapped him? And he's now a captive on their ship? Oh, poor, poor Mercutio!"
Shylock patted her hand reassuringly. "Look on the bright side, madame—your brother was able to send you clues through code. At least he still appears to have his wits intact." Added thoughtfully: "I suppose they haven't beaten those out of him. Yet." (Upon which Grotson immediately elbowed her sharply in the ribs.)
"Oh Shylock, what do we do?" Sadie asked.
Shylock turned to Sylvette. "Madame, do you have a way to send a quick message?"
"Yes, yes, over here." Sylvette ushered her into a corner. "My Weewoos. They may be old, but they're still the best carrier petpets around." One of Weewoos issued a few drowsy coos of agreement.
"Perfect." Shylock hastily scribbled a few lines, then tied the note around a Weewoo's ankle. Whispering the address into its ear, she quickly slid it through a crack in the window.
"Now we wait," Shylock said.
The bird came back an hour later, a different-colored letter attached to its leg. Shylock leapt up and scanned it quickly. "As I would've guessed," she said. "Predictable. Pirates always go back home to celebrate."
"Home?" asked Sadie.
"That's right," said Shylock. "That message I just sent out was to the Fontaine Sisters, who work at the Golden Dubloon. Apparently Scarblade and his crew came in last night, bragging about fresh loot."
"The Golden Dubloon?" Sylvette wondered aloud. "You mean all the way in Krawk Island?"
"None other," Shylock replied. "I helped the Fontaines with a certain case a while back, so in return, they provide me with information when I need it. Now, madame, if we are to help your brother, we must hurry up."
"Oh! Yes," agreed Sylvette, wringing her hands. "But shouldn't we call for help? Perhaps we should message the Defenders..."
Shylock scoffed. "The Defenders will arrive too late to be of any pertinent service. Trust me, madame, I have dealt with them before, and putting on those suits takes much more time than you may think."
Sadie was already busy writing out a message. "I'm going to send them a note," she said breathlessly. "It's better than nothing!"
Shylock frowned, but bowed her head. "As you see fit," she said. She appeared to think for a moment, then went back to the corner. "Allow me to send out one last letter before we leave. Grotson, my dear man, if you would be so kind as to gather our belongings? And madame, if you would summon your brothers—just in case we need the extra assistance."
"Oh—yes, certainly!" Sylvette ran to fetch her siblings.
"Shylock, what on earth are we going to do?" Sadie asked quietly when her mother was out of earshot. "All of this... I mean, how—how could my sister be a thief? And my brother! Kidnapped! It's almost absurd!"
Shylock rapped her gently on the head. "Everything will turn out all right, my dear girl. Just relax and trust me, yes?" She thumped herself on the chest and shot Sadie a confident grin.
Grotson glanced over. "You should have seen some of Shylock's old cases, Sadie. Terribly difficult ones, with my own being the very worst." He paused in half-reminiscence, then gave a dry chuckle. "But, somehow, Shylock always seems to find a way out. You'll see."
Sylvette chose this moment to barge back into the room, with her two older siblings unceremoniously in tow. ("What is the meaning of all this, Sylvette!" roared Theodore, still clad in a polka-dot bathrobe.)
Shylock spun to meet them with an air of utter delight. "My dear fellows! Splendid that you've decided to come! If you would be so kind as to join us on our adventure? Yes, watch your step now. Splendid, splendid." ("Not in this I won't!" Theodore lurked behind the doorway and resumed his yelling.)
It was only a few chaotic minutes later, with Theodore in relatively more civilized garb, that the rescue mission was permitted to give its first sputtering lurch.
Shylock abruptly turned to face Grotson. "Now," she said, with a madcap gleam in her eyes, "is when the real fun begins."
Grotson did not look happy at all.
To be continued...