The Viridian Gloves: Part Six
The wagon reached the warehouse after a short ride, and the Meerca Brothers led Harlath inside. Masila gave a wan smile. "Heermeedjet, proceed with the plan. Meerouladen?"
As the first Meerca brother left the warehouse to attend to whatever "the plan" was, Meerouladen reached with a gloved hand into a pocket and brought out something. Without even making eye contact, he tossed it to Harlath. Caught off guard and still wondering where Heermeedjet was going, Harlath instinctively caught it and immediately wished he hadn't. It was a pair of viridian custom utility gloves. Suddenly the other Meerca, now laden with a pack that jingled with Neopoints, came back through the door. Taking the gloves out of Harlath's hand, he tucked them into the pack and left again without a word.
"It was unwise of you to intrude upon our meeting," Masila said in her smooth, smoky voice. "I don't know what you thought you would witness, but you have found yourself in a difficult predicament. I certainly have no intention of giving the authorities a reason to hunt me by kidnapping you or worse. This was nothing but me giving a lost traveler a ride home out of the kindness of my heart. But if you attempt to tell a story of what you've heard tonight, you will find I have taken steps to make sure that the Defenders of Neopia have strong incentives not to believe you."
"I've been working on this case," Harlath spat. "They'll believe me."
Masila smiled as if she secretly found this inordinately amusing. "Ah, but I have been quite involved in this case as well. I've put together quite a bit of evidence on who I think might be behind it. That's information you will learn in due time."
Harlath, backed up against the wall, looked desperately for a way to leave the warehouse, but Masila and one of the Meercas had all exits cut off. The tall Acara thief had deliberately left her sharp dagger slightly unsheathed, warning him not to attempt anything crazy. He tried stalling instead. "So... how did you do it?"
Eyes sparkling, Masila deliberately answered the wrong question. "Good hearing. Quick reflexes. Plus you're pretty bad at sneaking through the woods."
Another question or two, and it became clear that Masila had no problem with stalling, and in fact was waiting on whatever Meerouladen had left to do. She repeatedly toyed with his questions, never admitting to the crime and insulting the abilities of Harlath, the Defenders of Neopia, and some people he'd never even heard of. A long hour passed, with Masila occasionally drawing her dagger and playing with it as a continued warning not to think about escape. Finally the Meerca returned, noting, "the seeds are sown."
At this, Masila drew near to Harlath and whispered conspiratorially, "Might want to take the night off tomorrow. I know I will. But after that, it's on again. There's going to be a lot of money changing hands soon, but you didn't hear that from me." The brilliant cloak of Masila swished as she spun and left the warehouse.
The Meerca Brothers grabbed Harlath. Bypassing the wagon, they escorted him on foot over several blocks of abandoned Neopia Central buildings. Reaching the outskirts of the residential areas, they roughly shoved him facedown into a puddle of mud, then abruptly turned and vanished behind a building. Orienting himself, Harlath found that they had brought him to a point just a few blocks from his own house. He grinned in delight. What unbelievable luck! Surely Masila had underestimated his credibility. Mentally calculating the robbery patterns in his head and weighing Masila's final words, he realized that Neopia Central must be the next, and likely final, target. And judging by their propensity for hitting each land's most valuable resource, there could be no other target than the National Neopian Bank. It wouldn't be attacked tomorrow, but the Meercas would likely strike the night afterward to steal the life savings of thousands of innocent Neopians! But Harlath could stop them... all he had to do was inform the Defenders of all he knew, first thing in the morning. It sounded like Masila had sent her henchman out to try to undermine his testimony, but that was nothing a little smooth talking wouldn't solve.
Harlath reached home and crawled into his bed, but he couldn't sleep. Probably for the best, that would let him be at the station as soon as it opened in the morning.
"If this much information on the crime was available, I don't know why it wasn't provided before," Judge Hog was saying as Harlath walked in.
"True," a Lenny defender was saying. "But it holds water. All the records are perfectly accurate and the fingerprints are a match." Suddenly seeing Harlath, he looked shocked. "Well, I'll be. Speak of the Pant Devil..."
Judge Hog turned around and also showed surprised to see the young Krawk. "Harlath. Well... how interesting. Last night someone turned in a complete set of evidence documenting the mastermind of all this mess. We have purchase records for ropes and pulleys, eyewitness accounts of a skulker at the Hidden Tower, and a pair of gloves identical to those found at two previous crime scenes, containing the fingerprints of its buyer. There's also a purchase order for these gloves, bearing the name of the buyer, and all of the ingredients that would be needed to create the improvised firebomb that Orig found in a Faerieland shop. And now you come right here, to our station?"
Harlath looked between the two Defenders. "You think I compiled that evidence? I..."
Judge Hog rose from his seat. "No." He walked over to Harlath and closed the door of the room. "YOU are the buyer for these items, and it's your fingerprints we found. I'm sorry son, but you... are under arrest."
Harlath had trouble even processing that last sentence. "Wait, wait. It's a frame-up, I swear. Masila is the person you're looking for. In two nights..."
Judge Hog scowled deeply. "Masila? If you need a scapegoat, try someone who has been seen in Neopia in the last five years. Look, it seems a little too good to be true for me as well. We'll keep trying to discover the facts, but your guilt is proven fairly convincingly by this packet. You won't come to any harm until our investigation is complete, but I'm afraid we can't let you leave this station."
An hour later, Harlath sat in a cell. How could everything have gone wrong so fast? One moment he knew the identity of the culprit and the location of the next strike, and Masila had no idea of his knowledge. One misplaced log later, his discovery had allowed the Mistress of the Double-Cross to work her most convincing scam of all time. It must have been a frame-up intended for the first person who became an inconvenience to Masila. He wondered if the cunning thief would have been bold enough to try the same trick if Judge Hog himself had come stumbling upon the meeting, smiling broadly at the image. But that smile only lasted a minute, and then the realization that he was on the hook for millions of Neopoints once again came crashing down on him.
On the bright side, he mused, if Masila truly robbed the National Neopian tomorrow night it would be hard to blame him. But that was small consolation. If only he had listened to Shalina and stayed out of this!
His lunch was passed through the bottom of the door. With it was a folded note. He opened it and read a taciturn message:
I know there's more, you couldn't have done it. Will keep looking. –Orig
Shalina trudged home, the news about Harlath heavy on her heart. Matching her mood, darkness filled the sky and a strong rain poured down. Clutching the stack of papers she carried to her chest to try to keep them from soaking through, she hurried faster to get out of the rain. Of all the nights for her to pick to try and catch up on the paperwork requested by Algenein!
Reaching her home, she turned on the lights. Her mother would probably be back in just a few minutes – the shop had been almost ready to close when she left. Glancing at the top paper, she set it aside. Looking for the letter Algenein had requested, she shuffled through paper after paper until suddenly a note caught her eye. Was this what she was looking for?
Reading the first sentence, she determined it certainly wasn't. But the sentence grabbed her eye, and she read on.
The time has come to carry out the latter part of our agreement. Produce the records and have them ready for pickup. When they are picked up the name will be provided.
A space had been left here, where someone had penciled in "Harlath".
The former part of our agreement will proceed as planned in two nights. Your package will arrive late in the afternoon, have everyone clear in time. The package will contain your payment in exchange for the loss of your shop.
From the shadows – M
Harlath's name on this letter? Right alongside a section about producing records? This had to be a major break in the case... word had spread quickly that the convenience of the sudden appearance of evidence against Harlath lent itself well to theories of a frame-up. Evidence like this could prove it – or, at least, convince the Defenders to look further into it. Only then did she realize the darker implication. Her own employer, Algenein, could be complicit in a series of burglaries that had rocked Neopia to its core! And loss of your shop? Could it be that the shop she had spent so much time in was destined to burn down as a diversion for another crime?
Scanning quickly through the rest of the pile, Shalina found nothing of any more interest. But she supposed she still ought to do the job she started. Finally finding the letter she had started out looking for, she drafted an elegant reply and prepared it to take back to the shop in the morning. But she knew now that she had another stop to make first.
"I really should be at work!" Shalina protested, still carrying along the stack of Algenein's letters as she trailed behind Orig. She had found the caped Lupe first thing in the morning, before he could even enter the building, and presented him with the incriminating letter. Orig had read it raptly, and noted that it confirmed his own suspicions that something was not right about the evidence provided against Harlath. Before she even knew what was happening he had pulled the files from the evidence locker, called her to follow, and now they were entering Faerie City.
"Don't worry, if this is as important as I think it is, you won't have a boss to answer to for much longer. Even if it turns out to be nothing, I'll cover for you. But it's very important now that we search the records of the shop that provided another part of the evidence. There were three shops total that provided records of a purchase made by Harlath, and one of them was here in Faerieland. If we can't find anything here we'll move on to Mystery Island."
"Harlath's never even been to Mystery Island," Shalina said with a pronounced eye roll. "That receipt is just as fake as Algenein's."
"Nevertheless, I need your help to search through these records."
The pair arrived at the address that belonged to the store in question. Orig's eyes went wide. "Well, I'll be! This is the same shop that had an explosive device planted in it two nights ago! If the letter holds true to form, then this mastermind has been paying off shop owners to burn down their shops themselves, and provide a backup plan in case anyone got too close. Ingenious."
As it had been the night before, the shop was deserted. If a stack of Neopoints had come with the package, as Algenein's letter implied, it was likely the owner was off on a tropical vacation now, enjoying the spoils of his bribe. Orig skillfully forced open the door and they made their way to the office. Shalina could hardly register the huge amounts of records stashed here! Whoever this shopkeeper was, they weren't very organized.
It took more than an hour of both of them poring over records, but finally Orig located the paper they were looking for. Its wording was the same as the first note, except that the request for records was not made urgently, but as a matter of future preparation.
"That settles it," Orig said. "This is enough evidence to get Harlath free and convict Masila, if we can ever find her again. Luckily, I think I know someone who might know where to look."
To be continued...