The Case of the Missing Acara
Ada the Transparent Blumaroo investigates the disappearance of a Green Acara named Belle…
Some time later, I found myself seated across from Sophie, relating my theory on Belle's disappearance for the second time that day.
After Edward had explained the source of his mistrust for Sophie, I had reciprocated by sharing my theories regarding Belle’s disappearance. The Quiggle had reacted to my ideas with considerable interest, asking thoughtful questions and considering the matter carefully. Sophie, by contrast, had immediately collapsed into tears.
"Belle wouldn't betray me like that," she insisted, wiping at her eyes. After her mishap with the tea in the afternoon, she had changed into a cashmere sweater embroidered with Red Grarrls, just like her. Its sleeves were now wet with tears.
"Sophie," I said gently. "I know this is difficult to hear, but there’s a real possibility that Belle is trying to take advantage of you. She asked you to withdraw a huge sum of money from your personal trust and bring it here, to an unprotected location she scouted out about a month ago. The correspondence you showed me between the two of you...forgive me for saying this, but it paints a picture of unrequited affection. It's undoubtedly clear that Belle was a dear friend to you, but she shared so little of her life with you in return. It's possible that at some point she truly did intend to go into business with you, but the simplest answer now is that having finished her studies, she decided to take the money and run. Her studies were complete, and by your own account, she had few friends. Very little tied her to this place."
"I tied her to this place," Sophie said. "Our – our plans for a bookshop tied her to this place."
I hesitated, moved by her distress. "Perhaps I'm wrong, and she doesn't intend to take your money," I said. "In fact, the primary flaw in my theory is that she hasn't attempted to steal the money yet...But there's no harm in verifying that I’m incorrect."
"I spend most of the day in my suite," Sophie said, sniffling. She seemed to have not heard my words. "If she was trying to steal from me, I would have seen her..."
I shook my head. "Unfortunately, that may actually explain why she hasn't come for the money yet. She's likely trying to avoid any direct confrontation, because you’d have an advantage over an Acara like her in that scenario. If I’m correct, she'll come for the money tonight, while you're asleep."
Sophie gasped, her gaze shooting to mine. "Tonight?"
I nodded. "It rained two nights ago, so she couldn't come then, and last night the roads were still muddy. She would have wanted to avoid leaving tracks, so she'll come tonight."
Sophie was looking at me curiously through a sheen of tears. "You – you seem very sure of how Belle would think through this."
"In my line of work, I’ve gotten quite familiar with her type," I said.
Sophie sniffed again. "What do you propose?"
"Martha’s given me a room for the night," I said. "You’ll sleep there, and I’ll wait in your parlour for Belle to arrive."
Sophie’s eyes widened. "You’ll be up the whole night?"
I gestured to the pot of tea on the table. "I’ve had about a half-dozen cups of tea today," I said. "I won’t be sleeping any time soon. Don’t worry about me. What about you? Are you comfortable with this plan, Sophie?"
Sophie gazed out the window, eyes unfocused.
"Yes," she said finally. " I need to know the truth."
Martha had given me a suite on the second floor, just down the hall from Sophie’s. The Elderly Aisha had given me the keys, which I then gave to Sophie.
Sophie trailed me up the stairs, then cosseted herself in my suite, still sniffling quietly as she bid me goodnight.
I made my way to Sophie’s rooms and entered. They were furnished similarly to mine, with one
notable difference. My parlour didn’t have a poorly concealed Blue Quiggle standing behind the curtains.
"I can see you," I said dryly.
"There’s no one here," replied Edward.
I went to the couch, and sat down on the floor behind it. From this vantage point, I could see the door, but anyone entering would have to deliberately look at the ground to notice me.
"You need to leave, Edward."
Edward poked his head out from behind the curtains. "Not until we search this place. Something fishy happened here the night Sophie arrived. I want to know what it was."
I frowned. "We’re not searching the place. I’m here to wait for Belle. You need to leave," I repeated.
Edward groaned. "Fine, we’re not searching the place, but I’m not leaving. I heard you talking to Sophie about your plans. Either Belle actually arrives, and you need backup because – well, who knows what she’ll do – or Sophie comes back – and I don’t trust her."
I let out a breath, tamping down my frustration. "You’re compromising my investigation."
"I’m not leaving," he insisted.
"Fine," I bit out. "Stay silent, and stay behind the curtains."
Edward did just that. He stilled behind the curtain and quieted.
The night stretched on as hours passed; I heard nothing but the sound of the stream flowing beneath the window.
Then, as the clock approached five, the creak of a floorboard shattered the heavy stillness of the night. Footsteps. Whoever was approaching had a heavy tread, but was struggling to conceal it by tiptoeing.
"Fyora's Crown," Edward breathed from behind the curtains. "You were right – it's –"
"No." I stood up and dusted myself off.
The knob turned, and as I expected, Sophie's large frame filled the doorway.
"Ada?" she whispered into the dark. "Is that you? Has anything happened yet?"
"It's me," I confirmed, whispering back. "It's been uneventful so far. You should return to bed. There are a few hours left before sunrise."
"I can't sleep," Sophie said. "I keep tossing and turning – I can't stomach the idea that Belle might have betrayed me – I just feel so dread–"
She gasped, her eyes catching on something in the darkness behind me, and in a sudden movement, lurched toward the curtains, wrenching them open. The wan light of the half moon slipped into the room, illuminating Edward.
"You!" she choked out.
Edward let out a wry laugh.
Sophie turned to me, eyes flashing in the dark. "What is he doing here?"
I covered for him. "He's assisting me with the case. If Belle arrives, we don't know how she'll react to being caught in the act. I thought it useful to–"
"You did not get my permission to allow him in here!"
"Of course. I apologize. Edward, would you please leave us?"
Edward edged past Sophie, and cast me a fleeting look. I shook my head tersely, bidding him to say nothing and simply comply. He looked angry, but left the suite.
Sophie's breath came hard and fast. I noted, with some surprise, that she truly was furious. I supposed her reaction to Edward made sense, since she was convinced Edward had attempted to rob her – in truth, I wasn't sure how much of Edward's story I believed. It was possible that had been his intent the day Sophie had arrived.
"Why don't you return to bed?" I asked. "You have my word Edward won't return."
Her anger seemed to evaporate, and she grew sheepish. "Yes," she said, downcast. "It’s just...I don’t like him."
I nodded. "I apologize again," I said.
Sophie nodded. "It’s alright. You didn’t know. I’ll go back to bed now. I just...I couldn’t sleep, is all."
"The sun will be up soon," I said. "You can come back and sleep in your own bed, then."
She nodded again, then left.
I sat in silence for twenty minutes longer, my eyes trained on the door, but couldn’t shake the image of Sophie’s angry face when she’d caught sight of Edward. The sudden anger that had twisted her typically sweet expression had been...intriguing.
I considered my options, and came to a decision.
I needed to search the area without leaving a trace.
Thankfully, since Sophie had only taken up residence a few days past, the suite was nearly empty. I didn't have a precise idea of what I was searching for, but I knew if there was something of interest to be found, it had to be large enough to merit being smuggled in under cover of darkness to avoid detection. There were few places in the suite that could hide something of that size.
I withdrew a candle from my pocket, lit it, and began my search at the entrance.
The foyer was empty save for a hat stand and small table atop which perched a vase full of wilted flowers. I eased open the closet door, which mercifully didn't squeak. The flickering light of the candle revealed nothing unexpected: a thick woollen coat hung on the mounted rack, and a few pairs of shoes were neatly arranged on the floor.
The main area was clear save for the couch and coffee table, with no space to conceal anything large. I made my way to the bedroom to search there instead, my tread cushioned by the lush rug laid upon the hardwood floor.
The room was just big enough to fit a massive bed, draped in colourful sheets and piled with decorative pillows, and a towering, ornately carved dresser. I went to the dresser and opened it. Inside were meticulously arranged, expensive clothes, many with the tags still attached. Silk shirts, woollen sweaters, and gossamer skirts, all were folded neatly or hung from the rack. Sophie was from a wealthy family, so her extravagant shopping habits weren't particularly noteworthy. I was, however, mildly surprised at how organized her belongings were given her clumsiness. There was nothing else of note in the dresser, so I shut it and stepped back, scanning the room with a cursory look.
There was one last place to look, and I already knew what I'd find there. Navigating the tight space, I crouched to my knees and lifted the blankets that grazed the floor to peer beneath the bed. There, in the center, was a bag bulging with neopoints. I hesitated a moment before reaching beneath the bed to grab it. It was possible she had hidden something within the bag. Nothing large could be concealed within, but it was the only other possession of Sophie's in the suite; I would have been remiss not to look.
I hefted the bag into the main room and set the candle down carefully on the coffee table. The mouth of the bag was tied with a Mynci knot – a knot I knew how to replicate. I teased the knot apart, then one-by-one, withdrew the one thousand neopoints pieces, setting them atop of the table to search the bag without making undue noise.
"One, two, three…"
Hm, it didn't seem like there was anything else within. Just cash.
"Forty, forty-one, forty-two…"
My hands grazed the bottom of the bag. I felt around, grasping at the rest of the pieces, but there was nothing else within. Had she spent some of the money?
Sophie hadn't mentioned doing so, but then again, she likely didn't expect me to go snooping through her belongings and counting the amount to verify it was the sum she claimed.
Eight thousand neopoints were missing. I returned the pieces of the bag, closed it firmly with a Mynci knot, slipped back into the bedroom and placed it beneath the bed.
I turned to exit the bedroom once more, then paused and went to the dresser instead. The sun was beginning to rise, and I could see the contents of the dresser quite clearly now. I had to move fast before Sophie returned. Rifling through the clothes, I quickly added together the prices listed on the tags. The clothes must have been new since Sophie hadn't worn them yet – it stood to reason that this was where the rest of the money had gone.
The price tags summed to nearly three thousand neopoints, but that left five thousand still unaccounted for. It was nearly six – I had to get out, but I wanted to get to the bottom of this, and set aside any suspicion of Sophie had Edward had elicited so I could focus on my case, rather than investigate my client.
By Sophie's own account, she had withdrawn the neopoints just days ago, and headed straight to the lodging house. It was evident now that this was a lie, and that she had gone shopping first.
Why hadn’t she told me that?
Besides the clothes, what had she purchased, and why was she so secretive about it that she'd had to enter the lodging house under cover of darkness? And whatever it was that she had purchased...where had it gone? What was the noise Edward had heard the night Sophie arrived? My mind buzzed with unanswered questions.
The morning sun’s warmth bathed the room. My time had run out. I returned to the suite’s main room and was drawn to the window, where pale pink rays were easing their way over the horizon. The familiar rush of the stream that wrapped around the lodging house could be heard below. I pushed the curtains back, and the room was suffused in light.
Behind me, the door opened, and I heard Sophie enter the room as my gaze slipped down to the stream, lost in the swirling eddies of the water.
And then it hit me.
To be continued…