Strange Cases: Behemoth - Part Six
WOODLANDS LINING KIKO LAKE, 4TH DAY OF SWIMMING, 13:57 PM
At those three ominous words, Agent Max Steele’s hands became clammy as he clutched the pair of cards closer to him in a vice-grip, and he had to silently admonish himself; it was just information, he reminded himself. Being hardly a life-or-death scenario, was it really worth getting so worked up about? He’d be able to make do without the info, right? Right...?
“Well?” he asked, stifling a gulp as he blinked away the beads of sweat that dripped from his brow.
“What have you got, Agent Steele?” was all the mysteriously dressed Grarrl would say.
Sure hope he isn’t asking just to gloat over his winning hand. Cautiously, wracked with nerves, Steele showed his hand, a nine of hearts and a ten of clubs. The Grarrl smirked.
“Nineteen; not bad, Agent Steele, not bad at all,” he commented in that growl the shadow Scorchio had come to dread with every syllable the Grarrl spoke. “Especially seeing as I’m bust.”
“Buh-what?” Steele blurted out, not sure that he’d heard right as the cloaked figure revealed his own three cards; the Grarrl had a king, a ten... and a two.
“Twenty-two, Agent Steele,” the Grarrl confirmed as if he took the NSB operative for a simpleton. “One over the target... you win. Therefore, you now have me at your disposal – but be warned, for you only have the pleasure of three questions... I suggest you think them over carefully before asking each one.”
As the dinosaur took the cards back, shuffled the Jubjub deck once again, boxed it and slipped into his coat pocket, Steele mulled over his options. Finally, after what seemed like an age, he spoke.
“What information do you have that can help me with this case?” he asked slowly, picking out his phrasing carefully so that he couldn’t be caught out or put through a loop-hole.
The Grarrl merely grunted nonchalantly. “As shrewd as ever, Agent Steele... very well,” he added as he fished out a folded slip of paper from another pocket, checking over its details quickly before handing it over to the Scorchio (who was feeling very pleased with himself). “Go to this address, and you’ll find a potions manufacturing factory – what,” he shot Steele a disapproving look at seeing his incredulous stare, “you thought Edna and Kauvara still brew every single potion in Neopia? With increased demand comes an increased need for constant supply. It’s the basics of business, and the business of potion-brewing is no different; most potions are now mass-produced from this address,” the Grarrl pointed at the slip of paper in Steele’s hands. “You’ll find they had something of an... accident a while back.”
When the Grarrl failed to say anything else about the situation, Steele surmised that his question had been answered to the stranger’s satisfaction. “An accident, huh?” he murmured with a smirk. “Hmm... okay, then... how do I get to this address?”
Was the Grarrl disappointed with his choice this time? His full expression was hard to make out under the low rim of his navy-blue hat. “From here, for you, it shouldn’t take too long. Just head due north-north-east for approximately ten minutes; you won’t miss it. Now,” he added with a dramatic breath, “you have just one question remaining, and I can already assure you I’ve told you everything I can about this investigation... so, what is your last question?”
“You mean, I can’t carry it over for our next meeting?” asked the shadow Scorchio wryly. Steele stared directly into the Grarrl’s eyes, not thinking for another second. “What’s your name?”
Smiling, the Grarrl took a step back behind the broad tree trunk he had appeared from. “You, Agent Steele, can call me... Blackjack.”
“Cute,” the NSB agent muttered tersely, taking a few steps to follow him. “Really cute, Mr... huh?”
The figure now only known as Blackjack was gone, vanished without a trace; Steele looked into the tree, all around him and even searched through nearby bushes – nothing. There weren’t even any footprints by the base of the tree, other than his own.
“Impossible...” Finally realizing that the mysterious Blackjack had just left him with more questions than answers, Agent Steele sighed, shrugged his shoulders (“Another notch on the kooky-stick,” he grumbled) and took flight, ascending above the treetops to gather his bearings.
KIKO LAKE, 14:10 PM
It had taken just under an hour for Junior Agent Tanner and Mr. McNulty to gather enough fishermen and their boats to carry out the big plan the cloud Kougra thought his partner had in mind. When he relayed it to the group present, the response was exactly as he had feared.
“Are ye mad, lad?”
“Aye, there be no nets big enough for that kinda thing!”
“Then make one,” Tanner reproached the group of fishermen with the last ounce of his patience. “Tie all your smaller nets together until you get it big enough...”
“But, that would take hours!” one angler complained.
“Better get started,” Tanner muttered darkly, turning to face the woodlands his partner had retreated to some twenty minutes ago.
Where are you, Steele...?
POTION MANUFACTURING FACTORY, 14:33 PM
Even with Blackjack’s directions and Steele’s homing instinct, it had taken the Scorchio twice the estimated time to arrive at his destination. Obviously the Grarrl had never flown, let alone against the wind.
When Steele finally spotted the factory poking through the green forest floor beneath him, he almost stopped in his tracks. Two long, yellow oblong buildings ran parallel to one-another, their roofs covered with chimneys, joining to the main section of the factory which, in turn, gave way to a towering, open-topped dome, like the world’s largest cooking pot. From this – and the thousands of numerous other chimney-stacks – came smoke of every color and hue imaginable. It was a weird and wondrous sight, and Steele wondered why he had never noticed, or even heard of the factory before. Were the woods really such an effective hiding place for something when people didn’t even know they were looking for it? Steele had always thought the idea of ‘hiding something in plain sight’ was ridiculous, but this... this was amazing. It was things like this discovery that often amused the agent during his otherwise serious work at the Neopian Branch.
As he alighted next to a set of double-doors at the front of the main building, they swung open to let a white-coated Bruce through as they came out to meet him, a worried and curious look on their beak.
“C-c-can I help you, sir?” she asked, her eyes squinted with caution.
They mustn’t have very many visitors. “Why, yes, you could,” Steele replied, quickly palming his ID badge out of sight. “I’m here to look into a report of an incident...?”
“You’re with Health and Safety?”
I’ll take that for one-million NP! “Yes, Ma’am,” the shadow Scorchio lied, guessing the last thing a group of secretive workers needed was a surprise visit from a secret organization they’d never heard of. “There has been an accident, then?”
“Yes, Sir, but... well, it was easily over a week ago. Why now, may I...?”
“I’m new to the job, you see,” interjected Steele quickly, holding up a hand for silence. “Took me some time to find the place. You’re well hidden down here.” Hey, at least that much was true, he thought.
“Hmm, well there’s not much I can show you now, we’ve pretty much cleaned it up.” The Bruce pushed back on the door, beckoning the agent inside the factory. “All I can show you now is where it all happened –”
“Sorry, sorry, but what happened, exactly?”
The bird shot Steele a suspicious glance. “You weren’t told?”
“We weren’t told,” Steele answered firmly, his mind racing like a Poogle. “The Department was only told of an incident – no more, no less – we weren’t informed as to the nature of the aforementioned ‘incident’, no other details were given... we were told you would fill us in.”
“Why, we had a spillage, Sir... the worst on record, in fact...”
Fiona – the Bruce who just so happened to be the Deputy Manager of Paisley’s Potions Incorporated – was giving Steele a quick, guided-tour of the factory floor as they made their way through the buildings to the scene of the incident. Observing how Neopia’s potions were now mass-produced evoked in Steele the same sense of amazement and wonder for the Scorchio that he reckoned Tanner had felt upon discovering how the NSB’s lift worked.
It all started in a funnel the size of a house, into which workers poured hoses of water – the base ingredient, surprisingly, of all potions – from water-towers suspended from the ceiling. The neck of the funnel released the water into a half-tube that ran the entire length of the first oblong building. All along the tube, on either side, workers dumped bags of various ingredients into the flowing stream, the currents roiling and mixing them together as they travelled down the tube, as it made its way to the large, spherical structure at the far end of the factory. Steele didn’t get to go that far, but Fiona kindly explained the rest of the process to him.
“Basically, this tube takes the raw ingredients into what, as you’ve probably gathered, is the factory’s cauldron. Temperatures in that particular part of the factory reach up to one thousand degrees, boiling the potions to optimum heat. It’s then cooled, released into a hatch that drains the cauldron to another tube in the second building, where it’s bottled, ready for shipping.”
It took a while for Steele to take all this in and, in his silence, Fiona led him through another set of doors, down a small corridor that connected the two long buildings halfway along. When they entered the second building, she went on to talk about the bottling section.
“We manufacture and bottle up to twenty different varieties of potions in a single day, so as you can imagine, speed and efficiency are our top priorities,” the Bruce announced proudly, shouting over the drone of mechanical capping machines as she led Steele alongside the second tube to a place he noticed seconds before she pointed it out.
“That’s the incident site?” he asked hesitantly. The Bruce simply nodded.
It looked like some mad artist had filled a vast number of balloons with paint, and dropped them all from a very high height; there were splashes of red, white, pink, brown, clouds, stripes, glowing green and even invisible floors among other less noticeable colors and styles. It looked amazing, but for some odd reason Steele couldn’t help feeling disappointed.
“That’s your incident?” he asked, crestfallen.
“Not all of it, no,” Fiona muttered, her slow voice laden with suspicion as she pointed to a small, wooden stool caught within the multicolored splashes. A small, wooden stool with two dry footprints.
“Ah... someone got hit by all of this?” Steele could only imagine what the poor worker looked like now.
“Uh-huh, his name was Marco Vincette, a Blumaroo. One of our best bottlers, too, used to win the Employee of the Month, well, every month –”
“Whoa, hold on there, Ma’am! ‘Was’? ‘Used to’? What happened?” Steele already feared the worst as the queries left his lips. “Did he... die?”
Fiona was aghast. “Oh, no! At least, not as far as I’m aware... what I meant was he used to work here, but two days after the accident we were told he left home for work... but, well, he never turned up.”
“Hmm, Ms. Fiona, could I have a look at a list, an inventory of potions lost in the accident?”
“Why, of course, I’ll just go and fetch a copy.” Leaving Steele to his own devices (much to his surprise), Fiona waddled off to her office.
Donning a pair of boots and gloves from a rack nearby, the shadow Scorchio edged closer to the splash-zone to try and make out any other potions that might have been destroyed. Apart from the colors he had seen originally, there wasn’t much else to be discovered.
“Ahem...?” Fiona was back already, inventory in hand (Or was that wing? Steele hated political correctness sometimes) and – if even such a thing were possible – an even greater look of suspicion upon her dowdy features. “Just what might you be doing, may I ask?”
“Me? Erm,” think fast, Max... “I’m, ah, conducting a personal investigation... you know, for my report!”
“Hmmm... well, here’s the list you asked for.” She handed the roll of paper over to him once he’d removed and replaced everything he’d hung them all up again. Not knowing what to expect, Steele cast an eye down the list:
5x Ultra Supersizes
“Why are there no –”
“No species in the names?” Fiona interjected, as if it had been the one question she had been expecting. “That’s the final touch, and is dealt with further down the line... but, of course, you’d have known that little fact if you were really with Health and Safety. They were given full briefs on how our manufacturing processes work – for their reports – which is more than I can say for you.”
“Ah... rumbled... and, er, how long have you known?”
“For some time now,” Fiona crossed her arms, a look of distaste and mistrust on her face. “So... who are you really, and why are you here?”
“I’m with an organization called the Neopian Special Branch,” Steele admitted reluctantly, retrieving his ID from its pocket. “I’m currently investigating where a gigantic creature has been reported to be attacking campers around Kiko Lake and, looking at this list, I now have a strong belief that Marco is involved.”
“The Neopian Spe –”
“Special Branch, yes, or NSB for short.”
“Oh... well, if you’ve got everything you’ve come for, I’d appreciate it if you leave,” Fiona bristled, pointing towards the nearest exit. “You’re not supposed to be here... you shouldn’t even know we exist! How did you find out about us, anyway?” she called after his retreating figure.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I even tried explaining,” he muttered as he pushed open the door and took flight.
To be continued...