Mystery of the Brightville Vanishing:Part Six
Erin saw Orlitz through the glass and called out to her. She was completely restrained in her chair, her wrists and ankles tied to the seat’s arms and legs. Her curly hair was tousled, and she looked terrified. Much to Orlitz’s relief, though, she did not appear hurt. Behind her, a trapdoor had been propped open with a box. The cybunny attempted to open the door, but it was locked.
“Hold on Erin!” she yelled, “I’ll get you out!”
“Orlitz, help me!” cried the Pink acara, “They’re coming back soon!” Her voice was muffled through the glass. Orlitz circled the small building, searching—desperately searching—for an entry point. In the back of the hut, where thick coils of vine had crawled up the wall, she noticed a small window in the roof open just a crack. If those vines could support the cybunny’s weight, she could scale the side of the building and squeeze in through the window.
In that moment, Orlitz regretted her lack of physical prowess. The vines were slippery from the rain, and she had trouble finding a foothold with which to pull herself up. Eventually, and with great difficulty, she reached the windowsill and eased herself in. Her damp clothes caught on the edge of the opening, and she tumbled into the lost-and-found center with very little grace. She had landed in some sort of storage room. But, without giving much thought to her surroundings, Orlitz bolted through the door and ran towards Erin—
Only, Erin was not in the chair anymore. In fact, Erin was not in the room anymore. Orlitz stood, dumbfounded, in the center of the space. It had taken her no more than a few minutes to enter the shack; how had the culprits been so quick? They must have taken her into the tunnels—but it wouldn't have mattered. Even if she knew where to find the trapdoor, she’d be unable to pry it open from the outside. Orlitz rubbed her eyes and sank into the chair where the acara had been. She was no closer to finding Erin. If only she had found her way into the room sooner…
The cybunny sat in that chair for a long while, face in hands. She wasn’t sure how long: everything was moving so slowly, and too quickly, all at once. Eventually, she forced herself to look up and take in the contents of the room. Much like the welcome center, a fine layer of dust has accumulated on the sparse furniture lining the walls. In the dustlight, Orlitz could see that nothing in the room had been touched—aside from the chair. A thin trail was left on the dusty hardwood floor where it had been dragged. By the seat was a pizza box, and a few feet away, Erin’s green notebook left unceremoniously open. There was evidence to be gathered.
The pizza (topped with artichoke, as Orlitz deduced), had a few slices missing, but appeared otherwise fresh. In fact, it was still warm to the touch. This puzzled the cybunny: it must have been recently prepared, but who ordered pizza at six in the morning? She also found the fragment of a receipt in the box, but it had been torn such that one could not decipher the pizza’s origin. She could only read “Pizzar… S.” The little piece of paper did confirm, however, that the pizza had been purchased at 6:27am. Orlitz consulted her watch: it was fifteen minutes to seven. Wherever the pizza had been procured, it must have been close enough to Brightville to stay warm on arrival.
From where she was, Orlitz noticed a black shape strewn again the back wall. “Erin’s windbreaker,” she muttered, picking it up. It occurred to the cybunny that she had ample evidence to present the Brightvale Guard. “Here’s the evidence you’ve been looking for...” Then, she removed her camera from her bag. Orlitz snapped photos of everything in the room: the chair, the notebook, the jacket. The dust accumulating on the furniture. Having gathered up all the evidence she could find, the cybunny left the building and set out for the park’s entrance.
* * * * *
The walk back to the front of the park was lengthy, and Orlitz spent the entire time examining what she had learned. No matter how she dwelled on the events that had transpired—from the haunted house, to Reba’s suspicious disappearance, and even Erin’s own reappearance—she did not agree with the evidence. The cybunny was increasingly suspicious. She wanted to feel some relief at having found Erin unscathed, but she felt as though everything—everything, from the moment she had entered those tunnels—had been set up for her to find. As though she were the receiver of some elaborate prank. But who would lead her on like this? And why?
Orlitz’s perplexed meditation was cut short upon emerging from the overgrown path. There, she found a handful of neopets in hardhats: demolition workers? Fortunately, they did not so much as look at her. The gate, having been opened, appeared amidst the foliage, and she spotted Sophia Grigsby, and… was that Iskeen? For a second, the cybunny felt very happy to be reunited with her friend, and then she noticed the guard standing beside her.
“Oh no,” she whimpered. What had the cybunny just walked into?
* * * * *
Had someone told Iskeen that she would leave the house at 5am sharp, sneak into a rundown amusement park by hopping the fence, and then be stopped by a member of the Brightvale Guard for trespassing, she would have stayed in bed, thank you very much. And yet here she was, in Brightville, with the hand of a guard pressed restrictively on her shoulder.
“Listen, I was just looking for my petpet, I’m not a danger to society,” she had attempted (with little success) to explain. After Sophia and Nora Sparks had disappeared into the ticket booth, the ixi had pressed her ear to the door, keen on listening in. Only, she had not heard very much. For instance: Iskeen had not heard the chomby and the lenny get up from their seats, throw open the door, and trip over Iskeen. Everyone had been very surprised by the unexpected collision, but Sophia was the first to have recovered. She had summoned a nearby guard and Nora had left moments later.
Iskeen tried to explain that her Gruslen had slipped through the gate, prompting her to follow him into the park. Unfortunately, neither Sophia, nor the guard believed her story. This was because Sparta had vanished into the trees after Iskeen’s collision with the park owner. Much to her chagrin, it seemed increasingly apparent to Iskeen that she would be spending the day in the Brightvale dungeon. Then, Orlitz emerged.
Relief flashed across the cybunny’s face—followed quickly by confusion, followed then by a grimace.
“It’s alright, that’s my friend, she’s with me!” said Orlitz, reporter badge in hand.
Sophia did not seem quite as happy to see the cybunny traipsing out of the park. In fact, her grey eyes flashed with anger.
“You? How, in Fyora’s name, are you in my park after I explicitly told you to leave yesterday?” To this, Orlitz did not have much of an excuse. “And now there’s two of you gallivanting around my park like you own the place! How many more are there?” Orlitz tried to alleviate the situation, but the chomby wouldn’t have it. “I should have you two reported directly to King Hagan.”
“I found Erin,” the cybunny retorted flatly. Iskeen shot her a look of surprise. Sophia was stunned to silence. “If you’ll let me explain, I’ll tell you everything. But you have to let my friend go.”
After the guard had begrudgingly released Iskeen, Orlitz ushered them into the ticket booth. They crowded into the constricted space, Iskeen sinking into the beanbag chair and Sophia leaning expectantly against her desk. Orlitz stood nearest to the door. Her expression was unreadable.
“I found the entrance to the tunnels early this morning, that’s how I entered the park.” Sophia began to protest, but she continued: “and I found quite a bit of evidence thanks to that. Your haunted house ride, Palace of Terror, was activated by someone, and I was trapped on it. I found a second ransom note, this time addressed to me. Later this morning, I found Erin tied to a chair inside your lost-and-found center, only, when I managed to get inside, she was already gone.
“So I think this proves a few things, Sophia: first, that Erin is still in your park; that she was, indeed, kidnapped. Second, that someone with access to the park’s controls is tampering with the rides at night. And third, that whoever is responsible for this is growing desperate.”
Sophia was silent for a moment. “Did you find anything in the lost-and-found?” she finally said.
Orlitz considered the chomby. “I’ve collected the evidence, and I’m turning it over to the Brightvale Guard once we’re done here.”
“I really would rather you waited until Erin’s been missing for 24 hours…”
“I think the time for waiting is over.”
Sophia face curdled into a scowl. “Suit yourself. But I don’t want you setting foot in the park again. If I find you strolling around Brightville again, I will be reporting you to the guards, and this time, they won’t be so understanding.”
Orlitz crossed her arms and approached the desk: “I don’t think you want to do that,” she said dryly, “because if you do, I’ll assume you’re hiding something, and whenever I think someone is behaving suspiciously, I can’t help but uproot whatever it is they’re hiding. I’m a journalist, remember.”
“You should listen to her,” Iskeen piped in from her vantage point in the beanbag chair. The ixi had observed this tense exchange with wide eyes. Orlitz turned towards her, indicating that they would be leaving now, and the ixi stood up with great difficulty (for most of her body had been absorbed into the beanbag) while trying to appear dignified. Before Orlitz reached for the doorknob, the cybunny looked at the stunned chomby once more.
“By the way, I found this,” she removed a Team Tyrannia keyring from her pocket, “is it yours?”
“Yes, I’ve been looking for that everywhere, where did you find it? I lost that weeks ago.”
* * * * *
When Orlitz and Iskeen exited the ticket booth, a little Gruslen was awaiting them at the door. The cybunny kneeled and allowed the petpet to leap into her open arms.
“Why hello there, Sparta!” she cooed, “did Iskeen bring you all the way out here to come look for me?”
“I went out to find you early this morning, and he wouldn’t sit still unless I took him with me,” said Iskeen. Then, she glared at the petpet: “where were you when I needed you most?” He mewed demurely.
Orlitz was glad to finally leave Brightville: truthfully, she was happy to be anywhere else. The rain from earlier had subsided, but gloomy clouds still drifted lazily in the sky as the pair marched towards the guard outpost. By now, the bustle of the morning had begun. Brightvalian locals strolled along in the streets, going about their routines.
Iskeen was glad to have found Orlitz in one piece. The cybunny had the unhealthy tendency of wandering off in pursuit of a hunch at absurdly inconvenient times (for example: at three in the morning), but her best friend had since grown accustomed to the habit. The girls caught each other up on their findings. Iskeen explained that, after searching for Orlitz in the park, she had uncovered Sophia and Nora conspiring while Brightville was still closed. Orlitz described her findings in the tunnels, the subsequent attack in the haunted house, her conversation with Rey Wilde, and her discovery of Erin’s hiding place.
“Did you find out anything about the kidnappers?” asked Iskeen.
“That’s the thing, I’m not sure.” Orlitz rubbed the place on her head where she’d been struck. “Everything so far has seemed—well, staged.” Iskeen glanced at her quizzically. “The ransom notes, the haunted house, even Erin. I didn’t say this to Sophia, but I feel like I was deliberately led to each of these places. Like every clue I find is placed there for me to collect, like a glorified scavenger hunt...
“I feel like everything was planted for a reason; like that keyring. Why would Sophia’s keyring be sitting in an unused haunted house? And the pizza I found with Erin: it was still warm. And come to think of it, after I found Erin, she was gone almost immediately.” Orlitz stopped walking. “Like the kidnappers dangled her in front of my nose, to prove that she was still trapped in the park.”
Iskeen agreed that it all seemed peculiar. “Like the set ups are too perfect,” she said. By now, the pair had arrived at the guard outpost. Inside, the guard who had looked into Lou’s alibi greeted them. Orlitz gave him her camera, and showed him the objects she had gathered. To their immense relief, he agreed that the Brightvale Guard would conduct a sweep of the park. Then, the cybunny requested that he contact the Neopian Times to notify them of the situation.
“By the way, I looked more into this Lou Elder,” said the guard as the two turned to leave, “seems like he has quite a reputation for using unorthodox tactics during his protests.”
“What do you mean?” Iskeen asked.
“There have been multiple times where he’s used dangerous stunts to get more attention. A few years ago, his group tried to save a rundown Brightvale school from being rebuilt: he threatened to kidnap the project’s leader. Of course, he wasn’t able to.”
* * * * *
Orlitz figured that her parents would be worried that both she and Iskeen were gone without notice. Besides, they were famished. So, the two elected to return home for the time being. When they entered in through the front door, however, the girls bumped into Keon Livia, who looked extremely surprised to find them emerging from outside.
“Good morning?” he stammered, nearly dropping the tray he was carrying. On it, eggs benedict, two tall glasses of orange juice, and an absurdly decorative assortment of Brightvale fruits had been precariously stacked. “I was just about to bring you girls breakfast…” With all his good intentions, Orlitz’s father had wanted to surprise the girls with breakfast in bed. Yet, even in his infinite fatherly knowledge, how in Neopia could he have known that they would be stumbling in from outside?
Orlitz looked rather sheepishly at the Pink cybunny: “actually, could I trade the orange juice for coffee?”
Over a much-appreciated breakfast, Orlitz told her parents everything that had transpired in Brightville this morning, careful not to mention the tunnels, or the dangerous escapade through the haunted house. Keon and Elva listened with rapt interest, never interrupting. When she was finished, Elva asked whether the guards had made any headway on finding Erin—or at least, on halting the demolition.
“We just spoke to them, and they’re on it,” said Iskeen in between mouthfuls of passionberry.
After eating, Orlitz yearned, desperately, to curl up in her bed. But she knew she couldn’t: there was still so much to do, and new leads to follow. First things first, she needed to investigate the source of the suspicious pizza. Grateful for the caffeine buzzing through her veins, the cybunny grabbed Iskeen, who strongly protested, and the two were off once more.
* * * * *
In the back of a uni cab en route for central Brightvale, Iskeen dedicated all of her energy to not, under any circumstances, fall asleep. This was a task easier said than done, and soon she found herself wishing the cab’s cushioned seats were less inviting for a quick nap. Eventually, she turned to Orlitz, who was struggling with the same goal.
“What are we looking for in downtown Brightvale?” she finally asked.
“Tourist Information Center,” answered Orlitz, suppressing a yawn. “I want to find a pizzeria near the amusement park
that’s open at 6am. I think that’ll give us a pretty good lead to narrow down our list of culprits.” The cab crawled onward, passing a building adorned with a mural of the Brightvale Altador Cup team.
“...Say,” the ixi said abruptly, “about the Tyrannia Altador Cup keyring: do you think that it was planted in the haunted house to frame Sophia?”
“Probably. Or Sophia planted it there herself, to get us off her trail.”
The Brightvale Tourism Information Center And Bookstore For All Knowledge Pertaining To Brightvale (as was its complete title) sat just a few blocks away from the palace. Iskeen could see its vast towers and their massive snow-colored flags peaking above the rooftops. She wondered absently whether King Hagan had ever visited Brightville, and if so, if he had been on rollercoaster. The interior of the tourism center was neatly decorated, with vibrant posters of the land adorning the pristine walls. A bespeckled pteri beckoned them to the counter.
When Orlitz queried about a pizzaria within ten minutes of Brightville open early in the morning, they were presented with two options: Roberta’s Enchanting Pizzas (near the plaza), and Pizzaria Solaris. Bingo: that name matched the torn receipt. Iskeen noticed the cybunny trying in vain to suppress her excitement.
When they left the center, the pteri called after them: “may I ask why you’re looking to order a pizza at such an early hour?”
“For breakfast,” Orlitz said plainly as the door closed behind her, and Iskeen wished they had stayed long enough to register the pteri’s reaction.
* * * * *
Pizzaria Solaris was merely a few blocks west of Brightville: close enough to deliver a pizza in under 10 minutes. The restaurant was large, with a deck above the first floor to accommodate more tables. It was packed with customers, waitstaff hurriedly working through the early lunch service. Orlitz and Iskeen squeezed their way to the counter, where a familiar Speckled draik stood behind the register.
“Welcome to Pizzaria Solaris, how many in your party—” Lou Elder paused, for he too recognized the patrons standing before him. “Oh, hello again!”
Orlitz looked at the draik with burning curiosity. Now this was interesting. “I didn’t know you worked here.”
“Uh… organizing protests doesn’t pay itself!” he tittered nervously. “That reminds me, yesterday, when I said I had been in the plaza handing out brochures all morning, I was actually called to work between 10 and 11:15 for my delivery shift. So if anything interesting happened while I was away, you’d have to ask another member of my protest group.”
“Can you prove that you were here during that timespan?” asked Orlitz, writing this new information into her notebook.
“Sure, ask any of my coworkers, they’ll tell you.”
The draik took two menus from his counter and led them to a table further into the restaurant. Orlitz would have declined the service, but the smell of fresh pizza was so beguiling, she simply followed him. Once seated, she asked Lou if anyone had purchased an artichoke pizza at 6:27am. He offered to check the register, and returned moments later with a receipt.
“Yes, as a matter of fact, someone by the name of Reba W. came in this morning to pick up an artichoke and spinach pizza at that time.”
To be continued…