The Case of the Missing Acara
I arrived at the designated location at precisely noon, Neopian Central Time. The old lodging house tilted precariously over the rushing stream that it overlooked, its brightly thatched roof sloping toward it at a severe angle. The hilltop's buffeting wind coupled with the steady push and pull of the stream gave one the sense that at any moment, the tilting building might go tumbling into the water below.
As I made my way up the well-trodden path that wound up the hill to the lodging house, I noted the state of disrepair of the locale. Untended rose bushes tangled with weeds wandered onto the path, completely obscuring it in places. The woods had crept up the hillside, with young trees dotted along a slope that had once been cleared of underbrush. The neighbouring buildings were similarly ill-used; crumbling paint advertised an apothecary in a ramshackle shop, and a bakery and other tenement houses were clustered at the hill's base.
This was the old town of Neopian Central. Most former tenants had moved away over the years, but cheap lodging and cheaper fare had its own compelling charm, attracting visitors and long-term lodgers alike.
Hat in hand, I rapped twice at the red-painted door of the little lodging house. A moment later, an Elderly Aisha appeared, an apron tied around her waist, and flour smudged across her nose.
"Hello!" she said brightly. "I'm Martha. Welcome to Avalon Lodging House. Are you looking for a place to stay?"
"Hi," I said. "No, sorry – I'm here to visit one of your guests," I said, assuming that Martha was the proprietor.
"Ah," Martha said. She gave me an assessing look, taking me in from my head to my toes. The wind had dishevelled my perfectly coiffed hair, and mud from the path was splattered across the hems of my formerly clean pants.
I grimaced, understanding that the Aisha's hesitation to let me in was due to my state of disarray. I reached into my coat pocket, produced a business card, and handed it over.
"Here," I said. "I received a note from one of your lodgers this morning, and I'm here at their behest. I promise I don't mean any trouble."
Martha peered at the business card, holding it close to her glasses.
"Confused by clues? Call this Blumaroo!" she recited. She glanced up at me, brow furrowed. "What...what does that mean?"
Heat climbed my neck. It was impossible to hide my embarrassed blush, given that I was, unfortunately, a Transparent Blumaroo. I snatched the card back.
"Ignore the rhyme. I'm workshopping some catchphrases to advertise my business," I muttered. I flipped the card over and handed it back.
She squinted at it again, this time looking at the relevant side. "Ah! Ada Investigative Inc. I've heard of you! You're a private investigator."
I nodded. "As I said, I received a note this morning–"
"You're here to solve a mystery here? At my lodging house?" Martha clapped her hands together. A cloud of flour suffused the air. She waved it away. "I've read about some of your former cases in The Neopian Times!" she said, eyes shining with delight.
I carefully schooled my face into a smile. I didn't want to discourage her enthusiasm, because that would complicate access to the lodging house, but at the same time, I desperately didn't want to encourage her, because for some reason, fans always thought they could –
"Maybe I can help!" she exclaimed.
I frowned. "Maybe," I hedged.
"Do you think this case will end up in The Neopian Times as well?" she said, struck with excitement by the thought.
"Maybe," I repeated. Then, speaking quickly to avoid further interruptions, I continued. "I'll brief you later tonight as to what sort of cooperation may be helpful on your end, but right now I have a meeting with a client in the main room," I said.
"Of course! Come in," she said, stepping aside so that I could escape the biting wind at last.
I entered, shutting the door firmly behind me. The entryway to the lodging house was cosy; a thick rug was laid over the deep-hued hardwood floors, and flowery landscapes adorned the walls. I set my hat on the hat stand, and trailed after Martha as she led me to the kitchen, animatedly pointing out the different amenities the lodging house offered (a music room, tea time in a saccharinely decorated parlour, daily laundering…). The lodgers each kept a room on the second and third floors, with the bottom floor set aside for communal spaces. The main room, furnished with couches and a tea table, was toward the back of the house.
The steady sound of the stream that wrapped around the rear of the building could be heard there. I settled onto one of the couches and withdrew a notebook from within my coat.
"Ring the bell if you need anything," Martha said. "I'll go inform the lodgers that a guest has arrived for one of them." She exited the room.
A few minutes later, a Red Grarrl appeared in the doorway. "Are you...Ada?" she asked hesitantly, smoothing her silken skirt.
I rose to my feet, nodding.
"Oh, thank Fyora," the Grarrl nearly sobbed, barging into the confined space gracelessly. She threw herself upon the couch opposite me, rattling the tea tray set upon the table between us. I watched with interest as my client restlessly adjusted herself on the couch into a comfortable position.
"Sorry," she said, noting my gaze with a wry smile. "I’m always a bit clumsy, and, well, with everything going on, I’m a bit distraught, which makes me anxious, which makes me clumsier, which makes me –"
"Sophie, right?" I asked, cutting off her rambling, and confirming she was the prospective client who’d written to me.
The Grarrl nodded.
"Why don’t you explain the cause of your distress?" I said. "That would be a helpful place to start." I went to the door, shutting it firmly, then sat down on the couch and flipped open my notebook.
"Didn’t you get my note?" Sophie asked, clearly surprised by the request.
I nodded again. "Yes, but I’d like to hear you retell the situation in your own words. I also have some questions – just to fill in some blanks," I assured her.
"Of course," she said. She poured herself a cup of tea with shaking hands, raising it carefully to her lips for a long draught, then set down the teacup and sighed.
"Well, to the crux of it is that my dearest friend – my closest, most wonderful friend – is missing."
I raised a hand. "Please," I said. "Let’s go chronologically. Start at the beginning."
"Oh – alright. Well, Belle and I have been friends forever," she said. "She’s a Green Acara. About...this tall," she said, raising a hand into the air to indicate her height. "Just so you can imagine her properly," she said, gesturing toward the notebook I was scribbling in. A wry smile twisted my lips. I nodded, and made a note in the book:
Green. Twice the height of a tea table.
"We met in school, Belle and I," Sophie continued. "We had some overlapping interests – books and business, mainly. I wanted to start a business immediately upon graduation, but Belle was always more philosophically minded. She continued her studies well after I did, but we always had a plan to go into business together. I had some capital already from my mother, but Belle, being the hardheaded Acara she is, didn’t feel comfortable relying solely on my funds. She wanted to be equal partners…"
Sophie trailed off, her eyes shining with unshed tears. "She was always like that – aggressively fair-minded. She wanted us to be equal participants in the business, but the truth was, we never could be – not because the initial funding would have been lopsided, but because she was more thorough than me, more rigorous in her work schedule. There’s no hope for it – I can’t go into business without her. Not just because I miss her, but because she would have been the one to navigate setting up the business. She would have been the one to confirm all the details and keep us afloat."
"What sort of business were you planning to start?" I asked.
"A bookshop," Sophie replied. "We planned to start a bookshop. It was agreed we would both bring fifty thousand neopoints to the table, to fund the initial real estate and inventory purchases."
I let out a low whistle at the sum. "And you had the money already?" I asked.
"Yes," Sophie said, blushing. "From my mother. My family is quite wealthy, so it was a trifling sum. I withdrew the money from my trust at the bank, then came straight here."
"How did Belle get the money?" I asked.
"She requested a loan from the Neopian Bank," Sophie said. "Although, I don’t know if it was ever deposited to her account. She was meant to meet me here three days ago with the funds so we could scout out some of the cheaper real estate in this neighbourhood."
"But she never showed up?" I asked.
"No," Sophie said, her voice quivering. She lifted her watery gaze to meet mine. "Never."
To be continued…