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Neopia's Fill in the Blank News Source | 29th day of Storing, Yr 22
The Neopian Times Week 5 > Short Stories > Bitter Fruit

Bitter Fruit

by scriptfox

I was stretched out in the middle of the park, the warm sunlight gleaming off my golden coat and horn, the gentle breeze riffling through my mane and wings, when my sun-nap was interrupted by a yelp.

"Hey, Monokeras!" Achilles81 called. I opened a lazy eye as he ran over to where I lay. "Is anything wrong with your baby fireball?" he panted.

Sometimes I think Gelerts pant just because they know it annoys me. Maybe not with Achilles81, though, he was a happy-go-lucky Gelert that I'd made friends with in the aftermath of the Ill-Starred Blumaroo affair. "Nope, Sun Pegasus is fine," I replied. "Why?"

"Oh, good. Your office had a sign on the front of it that said, 'Closed due to Sun'. I thought maybe he was sick or something."

I laughed. "Nothing like that. I meant the real sun up there. I figured it was too fine a day to be stuck indoors." I sat up and looked at him. "Don't tell me. You've got a case for me."

He blinked. "How'd you know?"

"Your antennae just managed to tie themselves in a triple knot," I replied dryly. "I remember that nervous twitch from the last night-spot we hit."

Achilles' fur prickled with embarrassment as my little dart struck home. I grinned to myself as he absentmindedly straightened out his antennae. Achilles81 had a personality that combined a cynical manipulation of his owner with a flat-out total worship of her. The few times I'd managed to get him to sneak out of the house at night, he'd spent the evening alternating between snickering about how he put one over on her and then feeling sick about pulling such an awful rotten stunt on her.

"Uh, yeah, yeah, some friends and I have this problem, and I was hoping you'd help."

"You got the points, I got the time."

"Hey, what happened to friendship?"

"It got put second to making a living. C'mon, quit teasing. You know very well I can't go around doing my work for nothing. Let's get back to my office while you tell me about this little problem."

"Ok." He trailed after me as I led the way back to my Private Investigator's office. "It's like this. Some Gelert friends of mine from the fight league and I found a little spot on the edge of the Haunted Woods that is just lousy with huge rats. We've formed sort of a hunt club, and we've been hunting them down on Saturdays. The only thing is that they're disappearing on us! We're about as good a set of hunters as you ever saw, and we know- they're just not there anymore."

I opened my office door and held it open for Achilles81. "So what am I supposed to do?"

"Uh... find out where the rats went and what's happening to them?"

"Sounds like you're depleting them with too much hunting to me," I said as I sat down behind my desk.

"No, no way. We only catch one or two a week, the fun's in the hunt."

"Hmmm..."

"Anyhow, I told them that I knew a great Private Eye that could figure it out. They're waiting for us now at our spot. I told them I'd come get you to look at the situation."

I grinned. "Awfully confident of yourself, weren't you."

"More confident in the fact that you wouldn't turn down two hundred neopoints."

This time I laughed out loud. "You know me too well! Ok, you've got a deal. Let me get my kit and we'll be off."

We found Achilles81's friends waiting just where he told me they would be. There were six of them altogether, and he introduced me around. I remained as pleasantly noncommital as possible, maintaining the facade of a calm expert on a routine case. After the introductions were done, I told them what I needed them to do.

"Ok, Gelerts, can any of you bring me one of these rats back alive?"

A chorus of hoops and hollers was my answer as they all dove into the woods to comply with my request. While they were gone, I opened my case and pulled out a bottle of clear fluid. Wiping it over my hooves, I knelt down and began wiping the grass, braiding it into a pattern of rays about a couple of feet across. Then I took a can of special green paint and coated the rays, molding them into ridges. By this time, Achilles81's gang was back with my live rat. Fortunately, they'd caught a baby.

"Ok, good, here I'll take it." I put the rat down onto the centre of my design. To their obvious amazement it instantly quit struggling and almost went to sleep. "Now, I'll need you all to sit around me in a circle. No, back up and give me some air. I need elbow room to work my magic." That last word spread the circle out quickly. Any NeoPet that hopes to last in Neopia learns early to respect magic.

I put my hooves on the rat and concentrated. Its mind snapped into focus, and the magical lines in the grass instantly cast their net through the area, using it as a focus. After a couple of minutes, I had all of the rats in the area polled, sifted, examined, and questioned. Questioned on a subconscious level, that is. It's kind of hard to carry on a conversation with an animal like that.

As a few sparks flickered out towards the surrounding ring, I sighed and let my focus go.

Achilles81 finally broke the silence by clearing his throat. "Well?" he asked.

I frowned to myself and looked around at the gathered circle. This was going to be a complicated case to pull off. "I need at least one of every leaf, nut, and fruit you can find in this area," I replied.

They weren't as enthusiastic this time, and Achilles81 just plain stayed behind and watched me. He didn't get much of a show, though. I leaned back against a tree and stared into space. Whenever he asked anything, I'd reply as briefly as possible as I brooded over the situation. He finally took the hint and quit asking as his friends made a small pile of everything they'd found. After about fifteen or twenty minutes of this, they seemed to reach a consensus that they had everything they could get. I decided they were probably right. I took their finds and put them around the edges of my design. A quick flick of my hooves, and a line of green fire that even they could see flashed out along one of the rays and highlighted a large black nut.

I picked it up and held it out in front of them. "Here," I said, "is your problem." Just then, the rat seemed to wake up and it suddenly took fright. It squeaked and fled. Such was the concentration of my audience on me that it managed to dodge between two of them before they decided to end it, and it managed to get away.

"What's that?" one of the gelerts asked.

"It's a biteroot nut," I replied. "Very bitter, and mildly poisonous, but these rats thrive on them. That's why you had so many here in the first place. This place is full of these nuts right now." Nods among my audience confirmed that they'd seen that, too. "The only problem is that they're going out of season, and what with the reduction in their food supply, your rats are simply moving on."

A disappointed sigh arose from the pack. "So there's nothing to do?" one asked.

"Nope, I'm afraid not. It's one of those seasonal things- you'll just have to come back next year. But, don't feel too bad. These nuts have toxins that collect inside the rats. It's a good thing you all were only catching one or two a week. If you'd been eating any more, even one every day or two, those toxins would be building up in you until you got very, very sick. Not fatally sick, you understand, just sick enough to make you wish you were."

A shiver went around the circle as they realised what a narrow escape they'd had. "Oh well, that's that," one of them said sadly. The others agreed and a few minutes later, only Achilles81 was still there to watch me get my supplies repacked. I shut the case to find him staring at me.

"You lied, didn't you," he said.

"Now, now, Achilles. The first rule in magic is that any belief which is strong enough is reality."

"Maybe so, but I don't believe what we got was the straight truth. I know you. That wasn't a simple explanation, that was a performance. What I want to know is why."

I sat back down and mused for a bit. It wouldn't hurt to tell him, I decided. The others would see the results before long anyway. "Some of it was true, and some of it was... let's say exaggeration," I said carefully. "The rats really do eat those nuts, and they really are going out of season right now. But rats are too omnivorous to have a mass migration simply because one food is giving out. Also, that talk about poisons was a big exaggeration. You wouldn't want to eat one of those nuts yourself, but you won't get sick from eating the rats."

"So why didn't you tell us that??" Achilles81 exploded.

"Because then I'd have to tell you all the truth and say that two of you were cheating on the others. Try hunting an area as small as this, and catching and eating three or four rats a day (a piece) and see how long the population lasts."

Achilles81's jaw dropped. "They did THAT?"

I nodded. "But, I figured it was better this way. Remember, belief is truth. You're going to have a couple of very sick friends... sick not from nuts, but from a guilty conscience, with just a touch of magic and a persuasive talk to spur it."

Achilles81 growled softly and shook his head as the implications sank in. "I don't know whether I ought to thank you or curse you," he finally said.

I grinned. "Try option C," I replied, "pay me."

His eyes bugged incredulously before he burst out laughing.

In the end, I got my cold hard cash. The cheating friends got hot, swollen bellies. And Achilles81 learned once again that when you're faced with a bad situation, the best medicine is laughter.

The End


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