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Defaced!


by mamasimios

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It was a Monday morning and I was at work in my office, as is my habit on all Monday mornings. Business was slow lately, slower than a Mibblie race in the sucking mud of Sophie’s Swamp, so on this particular Monday morning “work” consisted of sharpening a pencil and tackling the Faerie Crossword. With a brain like mine, one trained to solve mysteries, too little to do on a Monday morning can be a one-way ticket to Meepit Oaks. And I’m not going back there, not even on another case. Yeah, I don’t think I mentioned that I’m a detective. The Zafara Detective. And like I said, business had been slow.

      She walked into my 10 by 10 square box of an office as though she owned the joint, betraying a lot of pride beneath the shabby green cape she was attempting to conceal herself in. I kept my head bent toward my crossword but watched her through the brim of my hat. That’s when she started the waterworks, crying fat tears as shiny as diamonds, acting like the kind of character who traded in tears, buying what she wanted with the salty jewels of her eyes. I tapped my pencil on my desk and asked, “Do you know a seven letter word for ‘Earth Faerie who was kicked out of Faerieland and now lives in Meridell, sending poor Neopets on mostly unrewarding quests to procure random items of unknown utility’?”

      She turned off the sprinklers and asked, “I beg your pardon?” Nice manners in that ratty old wrap.

      I tapped the pencil on my desk louder and added, “Begins with an ‘I’?”

      After a slight hesitation, the kind of pause I was trained to look for, she said in a voice as smooth as a Jazzmosis concert, “Could it be ‘Illusen’?”

      I raised my eyes for the first time and answered, “That’s what I was wondering.”

      Her hands fluttered together nervously and I could see the fingerless green gloves hidden within the large sleeves of the cape. She broke the silence by asking, “Well, am I right? Is that the answer to the clue?”

      I nodded, never taking my eyes from the shadowy face hidden within the cape’s hood, hoping that I was staring directly into her own eyes.

      With a sigh of exasperation, she asked, “Well, aren’t you going to write it down then?”

      I folded up my crossword and replied, “Oh, it wasn’t a clue in my puzzle. Just a clue.”

      “Well then, it’s funny you should say so.”

      “I’m a regular Chia Clown.”

      She stomped her foot petulantly, like someone had just taken off with her last Cream Cookie, and shrugged off the cape, leaving it to fall to the floor like a pile of dead leaves. “Let us stop the pretence then.” I looked at Illusen as she stood before me, an irate faerie who seemed to emit a static charge of dangerous energy; even her red and green hair stood slightly on end making her look just a bit like a dandelion gone to seed.

      “Yes, let’s stop the pretence. But tell me, why the cloak and... well, the cloak stuff anyway? If you didn’t want to have anyone know you needed the services of a private detective, why didn’t you just send your sidekick Vadellen?”

      Illusen narrowed her eyes and replied, “I’m afraid I don’t trust anyone right now. Let’s just say I wanted to be a bit more circumspect, okay?” She crinkled up the corners of her green lips and purred, “You do know how to be circumspect, don’t you?”

      If Illusen thought that she was going to put me in my place with her 100 NP word then she must have forgotten already that I am a master crossword puzzle solver, a regular wordsmith. I returned her smile and replied, “I can be anything... for a price.”

      She waved her hands dismissively through the air like she was batting away Lightmites and said real coy, “Complete my que... er... case and I will have a little something for you.”

      “Listen, Sister,” I said, rising to my feet, “I don’t work for Flower Cakes and Cucumber Eye Cream. If I take on this case, the payment will be agreed on up front.”

      “Well, don’t you even want to know what the case is before we start talking about payment?”

      “It makes no difference to me if this is a lost Meowclops or if you’re being blackmailed.” I paused to let that sink in before hitting her with my bombshell. “If I take on your case, the payment will be... one Honey Potion.”

      Illusen stood as still and as stony as a statue in the Hall of Heroes, a dark cloud of anger slowly passing over her freckled face. Her eyebrows knit together so hard I was afraid a sweater would pop out. “You talk about blackmail...” she fumed.

      I slowly dropped back into my chair, unfolded my crossword puzzle and smoothed it out like I was all alone in my office on a regular Monday morning. Whistling to myself, I tapped my pencil gently on my desktop as I lowered my head toward the puzzle, watching the faerie through my hat’s useful brim. That’s when Illusen produced a paper of her own, with the flourish of a cheap magician at a child’s birthday party, and waited for me to react. I filled in a few squares.

      “Okay,” Illusen snapped. “One Honey Potion, but I expect professionalism and discretion.”

      I raised my head and gave the faerie the nod.

      “I expect,” Illusen continued, smoothing out her own paper on top of my puzzle, “I expect you to find the criminal who did this!”

      I was more amused than shocked at what I saw, but I kept my face as unreadable as Eliv Thade’s poetry journals. The paper she had brought along was a cheap poster of herself, the kind they sell for 10 NP each at the Trading Post, but this poster had an unusual feature; this poster had been defaced with the addition of bushy black eyebrows that met in a V at the bridge of her nose, a long and pointed goatee and a luxurious moustache that curled impressively at its ends. She looked like an old time villain in the poster. I was especially impressed by the moustache.

      “These are all over Meridell,” Illusen added. “It seems like every poster ever made of me has been... been mutilated.”

      I nodded and replied, “I think I know where to start.”

      “Well, don’t you want to know about any leads? About any of my theories?”

      I sat back in my chair and looked hard at Illusen, making a tent of my fingers under my chin. This faerie was wearing on my nerves like a broken tooth.

      “I’m going to say that if you knew who did this, you wouldn’t be offering me a Honey Potion to solve the mystery. I’m going to say that you came to me for my expertise.”

      Illusen shuffled uncomfortably, like a kid caught with her hand in the cookie jar, and shook her head as she asked, “You don’t want to know about Jhudora and how she...”

      I waved my hand as though trying to rid the room of a bad smell and interrupted. “You don’t want to confuse me with your prejudices. I have a good idea who’s behind this.” I spun my chair toward the window and barely breathed the words, “I’m coming for you, Meerca Brothers.”

     *****

      I walked into the Henchmen’s secret lair as though I was the criminal, skulking in the shadows and holding my breath. I could hear excited babbling coming from the last room along the corridor and it drew me along like a towrope on a ski hill, the sound of my nemeses pulling me forward as though unrelated to my own actions. I reached the open door without exactly knowing how I had gotten there.

      “Aha!” I yelled, attempting to entrap the Meercas with my cliché exclamation while covering my own confusion.

      They looked uneasily at each other, then simultaneously pushed an enormous loot bag behind their backs and drew their water pistols, levelling these freeze rays at me with confidant swaggers. Funny how weapons can turn the tables faster than a riot at the Food Club.

      Heermeedjet adjusted the goggles on his forehead and asked, “Aha, what?”

      I knew this trap; the Meerca Brothers and I had a history longer than a Greeble’s tongue. I took the bait anyway; sometimes the Phish needs to do the phishing.

      “Aha, I bet I know what’s in that bag.”

      Merouladen shook his head and replied, “No, you don’t.”

      I remembered Illusen and her requirements that I be discreet and circumspect, so although I was convinced that bag held posters and marking pens, I chose to play it as cool as a Moltenore. I shrugged and asked, “Would you mind showing me your hands?”

      The Meercas exchanged a brief glance, and with a shared shrug of their own, they each held out their hands to me like hopeful supplicants.

      “Aha!” I pounced, pointing at their blackened fingers. “Could you explain how your hands got so black? Been doing any doodling lately?”

      The brothers lowered their water pistols and exchanged looks of genuine confusion; I would have given them an award for acting if I had one on me.

      Heermeedjet took a step forward and said, “We were attacked on our way back from Qasa... well, we were attacked. By some joker with a Thick Smoke Bomb. Do you know how often that happens to us?”

      “Yeah,” Merouladen added, “We’ve been dragged into the Battledome so many times I’ve almost got a mind to get the Defenders of Neopia involved.”

      The two Meercas laughed together in a high-pitched squeal that set my teeth on edge. I didn’t get the joke. I interrupted their party.

      “Are you sure you boys haven’t been in Meridell lately?”

      Merouladen winked slowly at his brother and pulled off his left boot. Turning it upside down, sand fell to the floor into a perfect cone that sat there and pointed at me like an accusation.

      Heermeedjet reached behind him and withdrew a shiny gold statue from the loot bag. With a smooth underhanded toss, he threw it to me and said, “Even we can’t be pulling off a caper in Qasala and in Meridell at the same time, can we?”

      I looked at the gilt bust of Nabile that I now held and I was forced to admit that he was right. I hate it when that happens.

     *****

      I walked into my office and saw Illusen sitting behind my desk, looking as smug as the Bug Brothers after an afternoon of pocket-picking. I decided to confront her head on. That’s just my style.

      “You were right about the Meerca Henchmen; they have... an alibi. What did you want to tell me about Jhudora?”

      Illusen rose from the chair and came around the desk, standing right in front of me. I had never noticed before just how tall and imposing the faerie was. She smiled at me, but her eyes remained hard as steel discs.

      “Don’t worry about Jhudora; it would seem that I was wrong too. Tell me, have you and I ever met before?”

      I took a step back and shrugged. “I think everyone in Neopia has done one of your quests at one time or another.” I didn’t like the way this conversation was turning. Illusen took another step toward me. I could sense the wall of my small office right behind my back; this two-step was just about over.

      “And when you did my quest, how did that end?”

      I retreated until I was pressed against the wall and replied, “It didn’t end well for me.”

      “How far did you get? What quest number?”

      “Don’t you keep records?” I shifted my eyes around the room; I was as trapped as a bottled faerie.

      “You made it as far as quest number thirty-five, didn’t you?” Illusen drew nearer yet, her eyes holding my own in a steady glare. “Tell me how that ended.”

      I began to babble, telling Illusen about all of the items I had dutifully brought back for her, every item she had required in a timely fashion. I told her how the detective agency had been slow lately and how with my bank account dwindling and the bills not getting paid, I was gambling the small amount of neopoints I did have, gambling on receiving the Honey Potion that might be sold to keep me afloat until the business picked up again. I told Illusen how I had failed at bringing her the item she had asked for at quest number thirty-five. I told her all of these things as though detached from myself, not quite in control of what I was saying, and I wanted to tell Illusen how this detachment had been happening to me more and more lately. She stopped me before I could fully explain.

      The faerie produced a defaced poster of herself, with that same magician’s flourish that I had found to be laughable earlier, but as she held it in front of my face now, an uneasy sense of recognition passed through my brain like a broken sewer main, an unstoppable seepage I had no desire to touch.

      “And so you did this,” she declared with finality.

      I shook my head, uncertain, unconvinced that it had been me. Defacing posters was not my style. “I... I don’t know.”

      Illusen waved a hand towards the door to my office and Judge Hog walked in, his red and yellow suit flashing like a firestorm, his movements as confident as any irrepressible force of nature.

      “Did you get the results back from the lab?”

      “Yes, Illusen, and you were right. The posters were defaced by this Zafara’s pencil. But how did you know?”

      The faerie produced my morning’s unfinished crossword puzzle with another sleight of hand. “Not only does he give curly moustaches to every rounded letter he writes, but the answers he gave to every clue was some variation of ‘ididit’ or ‘itwasme’. I think his subconscious mind wanted him to get caught all along.”

      Hog turned toward me and clamped a black-gloved hand around my arm. “I’m afraid it’s back to Meepit Oaks with you for another little rest.”

      I tried to struggle but it was hopeless. I turned to Illusen and said, “Could I ask you just one thing?”

      The faerie smiled at me with a mixture of pity and understanding that made me want to grab my pencil and draw a luxurious, curly-ended moustache directly onto her freckled face.

      “When do I get my Honey Potion?”

The End

 
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