The Petpet Detectives: Case of the Lost Lizark - Part Six
I sprinted through the jungle, eager to help extinguish the flames in any way I could. Being an Eyrie, I was easily able to maneuver through the trees and bushes with grace and speed. I could smell the smoke right away; it’s thick, strong odor wafted through the trees.
When I arrived at the scene, the three triangular tents were engulfed in orange flames. The heat radiating from the blaze was incredibly strong, almost pushing me back to the safety of the jungle. A group of Neopians had come as close to the flames as they could, using large, wet towels and buckets of dirt to contain the fire. It was great how quickly they had responded, but I knew that it was possible they were doing harm as well.
“Wait! Wait!” I yelled, waving my arms and going to them, but the group was in a state of panic and didn’t seem to hear me. I circled the tents, mind racing. Just as I had suspected, a pair of footprints was leading away from the scene, and when more archaeologists came, they’d likely destroy the evidence. With just over two days left to solve the case, I couldn’t let that happen.
A second group appeared from a dirt path, Mystery Island Monthly reporters with their cameras flashing.
Camera. Thinking fast, I sprinted over to Kale, who protested heatedly at the thought of having his camera wrenched out of his grasp.
“Kale, I swear I’ll just be a minute.”
“Don’t you see this blaze?” the red Lutari asked, gesturing to the warm flames. “This is gonna be a great story!”
My heart hammered with impatience. “I know, but the fire will still be here in a minute. Please, Kale.”
He froze, hands still closed around the camera. A look of uncertainty crossed his face. “All right, fine. But be quick!”
I crossed to the other side of the flaming tents, which, to my relief, was still untouched. I snapped a few shots of the footprints leading from the blaze, where they vanished near a tree wound with vines, and even a close up so we could easily see the pattern on the boots.
And then I hurried to return Kale’s camera and assist extinguishing the flames.
While it only took ten minutes for the archaeologists to put out the three flaming tents, there was much damage done to the jungle. Luna and Charlie made it to region five out of breath and anxious, but they helped use wet towels to prevent the fire from spreading.
Raia sat with the group of panicked archaeologists who had only abandoned the tents for a moment before they went up in flames. The crew from the Mystery Island Monthly had surrounded the small group, hounding them with questions and continuing to snap away at the destroyed blue tarps. Felix was among the interviewees.
“I swear!” a blue Techo insisted. “We were gone for five minutes and we came back to find everything burning!”
“Will you do anything to help restore the jungle to its original state?” asked an Acara, shoving a tape recorder into Felix’s face.
The Draik sighed irritably, but answered in a calm manner. “I think a fundraiser is in order. Hopefully we’ll be able to raise enough money to rebuild what was lost.”
Luna nudged me in the side, leaning against a hollow tree. The air still smelled of smoke and singed plants. “Did you hear that? Felix plans on having yet another fundraiser. Geez, every time something unfortunate crops up, he uses it as a chance to raise money. There’s your motive. Marlo? Are you even listening to me?”
I nodded slowly. “It’s fortunate and unfortunate, really.”
Luna frowned. “How so?”
“We now have a great motive for Felix, but we also have a good motive for London. It’s not like this helps narrow down anyone.”
“When did Kale say those photos would be developed?” Charlie asked.
“I’m heading there tonight.” I started over to the area where the footprints originally lay; now they had vanished under the wet towels, dirt, and footprints of many others who had encircled the tents. I stopped at the tree covered in thick vines and rubbed my chin. “I’m telling you, they disappeared right here.”
“The footprints?” Luna asked, coming to where I was standing. The shadow Yurble craned her neck to view the canopy. “Perhaps our kidnapper climbed the tree and fled that way?”
Charlie pointed to the bark. “Very possible. There are patterns of stress here. The outer layer of bark has been torn away.”
“So we are dealing with a climber,” I mused. “The kidnapper probably wanted to leave as few footprints as possible to avoid being tracked down. Somehow I don’t see London making his way through the jungle by means of tree.” Although London was smaller than me and probably swifter through branches, we were both Eyries and Eyries were not made to climb.
Luna winced. “If we’re going from our leads, then that means Felix is the likely kidnapper.” She paused, staring up at the canopy. “Is anyone else getting that gut feeling, though?”
“Like we’ve pegged the wrong guy?” I finished glumly.
“Hang on, we don’t know anything for sure,” said Charlie. “Why don’t you head over to the Mystery Island Monthly to see if those prints are in. Luna and I will meet you at the base station. We can check the rooms for the pair of boots with the same markings as the one in the pictures.”
It was the most Charlie had said all day, and it was a good idea.
I was able to return with the images of the footprints in less than an hour.
“Did Kale get some good shots even with you borrowing his camera?” Luna asked.
I shrugged. “Who knows? He went out to find some of the archaeologists surrounding the area for a second interview. I got these from the Acara at the front desk.”
Thus began our boot hunt. The three of us soon discovered that searching all of the dormitories in the base station led to even more hostile behavior from the select archaeologists who were never on our side to begin with. We looked under beds, in closets, and even in the storage areas. There were plenty of boots to analyze; that was not the problem. Unfortunately, none of the dozens of boots we had found matched the set of footprints in the picture.
This frustrated Luna. The shadow Yurble exhaled dramatically, leaning against a stone wall in the west corridor. “So the person we’re looking for isn’t an archaeologist?”
“Not necessarily,” Charlie cut in. “There are several regions of Geraptiku where Felix’s teams have set up tents. There could be lots more pairs of boots in those areas.”
I slapped my forehead and cursed for not even thinking about the marked regions. There were likely several more pairs of boots scattered all over Geraptiku.
Charlie’s little eyes were narrowed. “Forget about the boots for a second. Damien was framed, and now the mysterious fire shows up in region five.”
“So?” I asked, still preoccupied with the footprints.
“We initially thought the crime had been against us because Damien had been framed, but now with this fire that was targeted on three of the archaeologists in the area... these attacks are random. I’m beginning to think that framing Damien was not our kidnapper’s intention. He or she wanted to harm Felix’s team by stealing their Lizark... what if Damien just happened to be walking back to the base station when the figure came along?”
“You may be on to something!” Luna exclaimed. “But...” her voice fell. “It’s hard to believe that Felix would be doing this to his own team. I’m not saying it’s never happened before,” she added quickly, as I was about to remind her of an instance which sprung vividly into my memory, “but it just doesn’t seem right.”
“I know,” the pea Chia agreed.
I began to shuffle my feet impatiently. “While this is all very interesting, I think we should focus on catching this shaman guy. We’re running out of time.”
That was true. The day was almost over and tomorrow would be Tuesday. We had until Wednesday evening to prove Damien’s innocence.
“We’ll go tomorrow,” said Luna. “First thing.”
“Why not tonight?” I demanded. “We can take some lanterns and--”
Luna frowned. “Marlo, you must be out of your mind if you think Charlie and I are willing to go walking around in the dark with a crazy shaman on the loose. And there’s no way we’re letting you go alone.”
“Fine, fine, tomorrow it is. But don’t you at least think we should tell the Defenders of Neopia about this fire? They’d realize that there was no way Damien could have started it because of his situation at the moment.”
“The Defender that spoke to us in the jungle several nights ago said we had to not only prove Damien’s innocence -- which I believe the fire has helped us do -- but also find who’s responsible for the Lizark’s disappearance,” said Luna.
“Right, the Lizark.” I had almost forgotten about the petpet that was taken. Since it didn’t exactly have an owner and no one was missing it terribly as Neopians often do when their little companions are taken, it was difficult to link with the case. Since Damien’s future as a detective was at stake, it was challenging to turn my attention to a petpet at the present time.
The three of us headed back to our rooms in silence. As we rounded a corner, a red Ixi almost ran straight into me. I took a step back and she gasped, realizing the near collision.
“I’m sorry,” she said with a light accent. “Excuse me.”
But before she could go, Luna had jumped forward. “Hey. Damien saw a red Ixi in the clearing right before he blacked out. Are you... are you her?”
“Please,” she waved her hoof, “I don’t want to be involved. I saw your friend fall to the ground, I made sure he was okay, and then I fled.”
“What’s your name?” I asked.
The Ixi began inching her way down the hall, still facing us. “Victoire. And I’m sorry, but I really must be getting to the site.”
Luna’s eyes narrowed in suspicion as the red Ixi hurried away. “I haven’t seen her around recently, not since the night Damien was framed.”
“You think we could have another suspect?” Charlie asked. “This late in the case?”
The Yurble’s eyes were still glued on Victoire as she replied, “Yes. I think so. Where was this Ixi the night of the festival? And she just happened to be in the jungle when Damien was attacked?” Luna’s smile was bordering on conniving. “Yeah, I think we should definitely look into that.”
To be continued...