Two Dozen Black Dresses: Part Three
"I'm telling you, Mari, you've gotta stop worrying so much about it. 'S just dresses, yeah?" The plump Bruce paused his tirade to take another bite of the apple he was holding. "And dresshesh are noshing to worry 'bout!"
Marius wiped flecks of chewed apple off his coat before figuring how best to answer his friend. "Sal, it's more than just the dresses! I just know that the Baron's up to something! He gives me a most peculiar feeling when I look at him." Marius had confided in Sal the next day, hoping that the bond the two had shared for several years would prevent the portly Bruce from making fun of. Clearly, the bond was not enough.
"You're just paranoid. Some creepy guy orders some dresses and you're acting like Sloth is back to take over Neovia! Look, I know things are kind of slow here in Neovia so it might seem weird, but back in Neopia Central, I saw a lot of weird things. Dresses? That's nothing." Sal slapped Marius on the back in a show of camaraderie and continued gnawing at his apple. Evidently there was nothing Marius could say that could possibly contradict the foreigner's knowledge of what was what in the world.
"Look...I have to be at the store in an hour. How about we go check the house out and see if we can find anything out. If there's nothing there, I'll never speak of this again." This was Marius' last hope; if Sal's curiosity wasn't remotely piqued, the journey would end here.
Sal contemplated his half-eaten apple for a moment before tossing it jauntily over his shoulder and turning to Marius with a new gleam in his eye. "Oh, why not! It'll almost be like an adventure!" Sal was marginally intrigued by the mystery proposed to him, but a lifetime of pretending to be aloof made it necessary for him to patronize the idea. Marius couldn't know that he was not as cynical as he appeared. "Lead the way, Mari!"
A short time later, the two friends stood in front of the door from the other day. It was as solid as ever, giving forth no hints as to its purpose.
"And you say some guy just told you that a Wocky had no pajamas when you knocked?"
"It was the most curious thing, Sal! He repeated himself about it, as though I needed reminding that somewhere inside there is a Wocky who has nothing to sleep in at night."
"Well, let's just try knocking again."
"Sal, wait!" Marius watched helplessly as Sal raised his flipper and pounded heavily on the door. A few seconds later, the same eyes from yesterday appeared in the slit that suddenly appeared.
"Sunset dew across a Buzzer's back," droned the voice, as monotone as before.
"Sunset dew, you say?" asked Sal, pretending to contemplate the words seriously. "Why should it be sunset rather than sunrise, I wonder? Perhaps you can enlighten me, my good sir."
Marius could have sworn the figure rolled its eyes before repeating "Sunset dew across a Buzzer's back."
"I don't know how much help I can be if you're just going to repeat yourself," harrumphed Sal.
The eyes stared down at the two youths before disappearing with a sharp click as the panel slid back into place. Sal turned to his bemused friend. "Well, it was worth a shot, wasn't it? But it looks like your Wocky friend got his pajamas alright. Now we've got a wet Buzzer to deal with."
"Events around here are getting stranger and stranger, Sal. I have a terrible feeling about this door."
Sal was more upbeat about the affair. His initial curiosity more than satisfied, he was ready to tackle a proper mystery, which this door was proving more to be with each passing minute. "Well, you said ol' Priggy got in just fine yesterday, right? That means he knew something we didn't! And if this guy's keeping watch, that means he's some kind of doorman, like at a hotel! I'd bet you anything that his nonsense about Buzzers and Wockys is like a code from a spy book; he gives you a sentence and you have to answer back with a different sentence! And then he lets you in!"
The explanation sounded far too cloak and dagger for anything that would be happening in Neovia, Marius thought. Things like that might be commonplace in the pages of a thrilling novel or else in more sinister areas throughout Neopia, but Neovia was a quiet town. Its inhabitants were mild folk, slaves to routine and never ones to stir up trouble. The mayor's rampage some years earlier had caused quite the scandal, and he had still not lived it down. Sal's suggestion that some clandestine organization had taken up roots in Neovia was simply undeniably false.
"You've lost your head, Sal. Spies? You're the one who sounds paranoid now!"
Sal was ready to retort when he suddenly grabbed Marius' arm and pulled him around the corner of the building.
"Ow! What are you-"
"Shut your mouth for once, Mari. We're about to do some real spy work." Sal put a finger to his lips and motioned for Marius to poke his head around the side.
Marius gave a sigh of resignation and carefully eased one side of his head around so that the space in front of the door was visible to one of his eyes. A beautiful striped Xweetok was cautiously approaching the door, looking nervously about her as though expecting someone to be lying in wait. She approached demurely and rustled in her handbag for a moment before producing a scrap of paper. She scrutinized it carefully before folding it neatly and placing it back in her bag. The paper, however, caught on the lip of the finely-crafted accessory and fluttered gracefully to the ground.
The Xweetok, oblivious to the paper's lack of ensconcement, knocked on the door, waited a second, and then said something inaudible to the ears of Marius. A few seconds later, she stepped forward and was lost to sight. Marius, not bothering to tell Sal what he had seen, dashed forward and scooped up the folded paper before anybody could realize it was gone. Sal, slightly miffed at being ignored in such a manner, followed his friend.
"I suppose you've got yourself a clue, then?"
Marius had already unfolded the paper and was devouring it, his eyes quickly running down the page. When his eyes hit the bottom, he flipped the missive over to see if any scribbles had made their way to the back and, failing to find anything, handed the document to his friend.
Sal read aloud from the paper as was his custom. "'My dearest Sara.' Oh, I like this already. 'I have missed your presence at my parties, but I am sure that you're quite busy waiting on Lady Goldshire. The things that old Wocky must talk about! You simply must stop by my offices in Neovia and tell me all about the dear old thing.' I suppose this is the office, then? 'While you're here, I believe it's high time we discussed that code I've been telling you about. It will make our correspondence that much more scintillating.' Wow, scintillating...he's starting to sound like you, Mari. 'Until your arrival in fair Neovia, my dear. I am yours, most sincerely, Festerside. P.S. The Duchess is most anxious to make your acquaintance should she enjoy your stories of Lady Goldshire.' And that's it." Sal too had flipped the paper over, hoping that there would be more to the story. "So...what did you make of it?"
"It sounds as though the Baron is simply a gentleman who enjoys the company of other high-standing people. I daresay Mr. Prigpants has been to enough galas in his time, and this paranoid conspiracy of yours is just an overblown version of an exclusive club run by the Baron." Marius was satisfied with this answer, though the mention of a code still nagged at his brain.
Sal seemed to pick up on this doubt and latched on. "But what about the code! Fancy people are all well and good, but they don't go around talking in code. And who is this 'Duchess' character? Neovia doesn't have one of them as far as I know, and I've certainly never heard of one anywhere else! It smells more and more like some kind of secret society, Mari, and we're the ones who get to infiltrate it!"
"Infiltration, Sal? Are you completely off your head?"
"Oh c'mon, Mari! Remember when you would always tell me about those crazy natives that you'd find down on Mystery Island? You were always talking about what an adventure it would be to trek into the jungle and that lost city of Gerakku or whatever it was. Well, this can be an adventure just like that!"
"Sal, I have to get to work. Maybe we can talk about adventures this afternoon when you've knocked these...infiltration ideas out of your head." Marius waved a short goodbye to his friend and headed down the street towards the tailor shop. He hated to leave on as hard a note as that, but Sal was becoming worked up over a seeming triviality. The Baron's offices offered no adventure save what little there could be had from scrutinizing the purloined letter. A few hours were hopefully all that was needed to set the Bruce straight.
"Master Finchley, I am doubly pleased to offer you your compensation from yesterday after learning from the Baron how remarkably you carried the dresses." Mr. Swolthy held forth the check as though it were manna. "Of course, you shouldn't get used to this kind of reward, oh no, shouldn't get used to at all," he added with a grotesque wink. Marius delicately peeled the check away from Mr. Swolthy's grubby hands and made for the back room where he might have some solace. The way was blocked, however, by Mr. Prigpants' lanky form.
"Mr. Finchley, a moment." The Lenny pulled Marius close and draped a wing over his shoulder in a most uncharacteristic display of fatherly affection. "Whilst aiding the Baron with his most dreadfully tiresome burden, you didn't happen to speak to him, did you? Or he to you? I only ask so that I can ascertain whether you carried the name of our store with grace and tact."
"No sir, Mr. Prigpants. He merely said to leave the package and tipped me for my service. I left the street directly you suggested it."
This answer seemed to satisfy the persnickety salesman and he grunted a short "Good," before moving aside. Marius brushed past him and into the stuffy confines of his home away from home. As the door was closing, Marius was hit with a sudden, whimsical inspiration. He grabbed the door before it could fully shut and poked his head out into the main room.
"Oh, Mr. Prigpants? A question, sir?"
"What is it, Mr. Finchley? We are due to open in not ten minutes and I should like to be well and truly prepared for the customers."
"It's a trivial thing, sir, but I was wondering if you had ever heard of anyone called...The Duchess?"
The effect was immediate; Mr. Prigpants' eyebrows nearly shot off the top of his feathery head, and his limbs appeared to have been struck by an acute bout of paralysis. "The Duchess?" he whispered, appearing to speak not to Marius but to himself. "She..." Mr. Prigpants stuttered for a moment and came to his senses. His glazed eyes refocused themselves and he leveled his gaze at Marius with something akin to hatred behind the foggy monocle. "No, Mr. Finchley. I can't say I've ever heard of anyone who goes by that name. As you might be aware, Neovia is overseen by a mayor, not anyone of the nobility. Now, unless you have any more asinine questions, I suggest you go to your room and await the first order of the day."
Marius nodded solemnly and retreated into his tomb. His head spun with dozens of questions created by Mr. Prigpants' strange answer. Sal, perhaps, had been right. There was something rotten in the town of Neovia.
To be continued...