Orlitz and the Geraptiku Scandal: Part Four
Orlitz ran up to where the figure had been standing moments ago. She illuminated the dense foliage of the jungle with her torchlight, squinting her eyes in an attempt to see through the thick facade of leaves blocking the entrance to the still jungle.
Unfortunately, her efforts to locate the shady figure were futile. The s was tempted to enter the jungle in pursuit of it, but she realized that Iskeen was still waiting for her at the bottom of the pit. On top of that, a light rain had begun drizzling, and the ground was quickly transformed into a messy, muddy concoction. Discouraged and exhausted, the reporter turned around and headed back to the ditch behind the petpet shop. Her gruslen, who at this point was also very tired, hobbled behind her. The threat the silhouette had growled at her resonated in her head. The warning frightened her, yet Orlitz was more determined than ever to get to the bottom of the mystery.
* * * * *
Iskeen was still standing on top of the tallest crate at the bottom of the pit, her hair damp from the rain. She had left her torch and her crowbar on the floor, and was not tempted to climb down and collect them. The flashlight illuminated two crocalus that, unable to climb, were crawling around the crate and snapping at the Island Ixi.
"I hope Orlitz comes back soon," she begged, gazing up at the top of the ditch. The stars in the night sky were hidden behind somber-looking clouds, and tiny raindrops splashed into her eyes, forcing the Ixi to look away. She held the frightened fleeper against her chest.
"At least one creature will have been saved tonight," she thought, casting a worried glance at the hungry crocalus.
Iskeen suddenly stretched her ears, positive she had heard a noise from outside. Sure enough, she could detect the sound of approaching footsteps splashing in the mud.
"I hope that's Orlitz," the Ixi sighed.
"Orlitz! Get me out of here!" she yelled, upon recognizing the familiar silhouette of a Cybunny at the top of the pit. Iskeen was relieved to hear a response coming from above.
"Yes, of course!" yelled the other. Orlitz tugged on the rope tied around the Ixi's waist, pulling her up. Iskeen scrambled out of the hole as soon as she could grab the slippery grid covering it. The fleeper eagerly struggled out of her grasp and flew towards the jungle with a happy "peep!"
Iskeen breathed a sigh of relief and flopped onto the wet ground, exhausted.
"Where, in Fyora's name, were you?" she asked in annoyance, "I was trapped down there for who-knows-how-long, with a pair of hungry crocalus chasing after me!"
Orlitz apologized and told her friend why she had vanished. She explained her encounter with the hooded figure and of the warning it had yelled at her. When Orlitz was finished retelling her adventure, Iskeen studied her friend with a troubled expression on her face.
"I'm worried the threat was genuine. If it was, you shouldn't come back here."
"Nonsense," Orlitz brushed off the warning, "I have every intention of finding out who that person was."
Iskeen shook her head in disapproval. Knowing it was futile to try and convince her friend otherwise, the Ixi retold her own experience at the bottom of the pit. The Ixi told Orlitz of the undomesticated, half-starved fleeper that she had found in a crate, and of the two crocalus she had let out from another.
"I'm sure that there are other wild petpets in the other crates, which basically proves your suspicions that smuggling is occurring in the jungle," finished Iskeen.
"Now, all we have to do is find the perpetrators and figure out what they are going to do with the captured petpets. And I have a feeling that Emuk has something to do with this."
"Let's contact the Defenders of Neopia when we find out more," suggested Iskeen, pulling out a raincoat from her backpack and throwing it over her shoulders. The Ixi rubbed her eyes, requesting that they get some sleep before progressing any further.
"I think we all deserve some shut eye," her friend agreed, suppressing a yawn. The two friends packed their backpacks, Orlitz picked up her sleeping gruslen, and they eventually stumbled out of Geraptiku.
It was four in the morning by the time the exhausted group had made it out of the city. With mangled hair and muddy shoes, the pair made quite a sight as the walked past the early morning merchants that were setting up their food stands for the day. The UNI Transports were all closed, and so it was decided that the soaking, mud-covered friends rest in a nearby neolodge until the transport opened once again.
* * * * *
Later that Sunday morning, having showered, eaten breakfast, and mailed an express neomail to the Defender's headquarters in Neopia Central at the hotel's post office, the group checked out of the neolodge and took the earliest UNI Transport home. The girls and petpet were both glad to have returned to their house, and promptly retired to their bedrooms to take long naps that lasted well into the afternoon.
Orlitz dreamt a series of nightmares, all having to do with the silhouette in Geraptiku and the threat it had called out to her. The warning resonated in Orlitz's head: "Leave, if you know what's good for you." The Cybunny shifted in her bed in discomfort, frightened by the haunting warning. Questions continued to whirl in her head: Who was the figure? Why had the figure been near the petpet shop? Had it been looking for the note Orlitz had intercepted? An abrupt pounding made the Cybunny jump up in a cold sweat. Bright afternoon sunlight streamed through her curtains as Orlitz scrambled to find her slippers. The knocking came from outside, and sleepily, Orlitz stumbled to the front door in her pajamas and swung it open.
"Almos?" she remarked in surprise upon recognising the visitor. The Yellow Kougra sported cargo pants and a cheesy flowered island shirt and looked slightly displeased with his choice of clothes. He gave Orlitz a sheepish grin and tugged on the scratchy shirt in frustration.
The Cybunny invited the PPL agent inside for a cup of afternoon coffee and a bowl of corn balls. The two drank the dark beverage and retold what had occurred to them the previous night after having parted ways. Orlitz explained that Vin, the phony PPL agent, was in fact the certified caretaker of the petpet shop and took care of the petpets on sale there. Almos nodded understandingly, but argued that Vin should not have lied about being an agent. The pair munched on their snacks until Iskeen eventually entered the kitchen in the same wrinkled clothes that she had worn the previous day, and joined them.
"What did you find in the pit again?" Almos asked her immediately.
"A ton of crates," crocked the Ixi, pouring herself a cup of coffee. "I opened one and there was a half-starved fleeper, and another box had a pair of very hungry-looking crocalus. They were definitely not part of the petpet shop; they looked too wild."
"Then that proves our theory that there is unlawful smuggling occurring in the city," the PPL agent speculated thoughtfully. Orlitz and Iskeen nodded in agreement. They sat at the table in silence for a moment, all preoccupied with their own private thoughts.
Finally, Orlitz broke the silence.
"So, what brings you here?" she asked.
Startled by the abrupt question, Almos took a moment to gather his thoughts.
"Remember that triangle symbol you showed me on that paper?" Orlitz nodded. "Well, I think I might have found something that could possibly refer to it in the jungle, and I came here to ask if you ladies would like to see it."
Orlitz raised her head excitedly. A new lead! she thought eagerly. Meanwhile, Iskeen held back a groan. The Ixi had spent more than enough time in Geraptiku, and was less than thrilled to revisit to the creepy jungle.
As if reading her thoughts, Almos suggested that Iskeen stay at home while he and Orlitz explored the jungle once more. Though worried about letting her best friend go back to the Lost City, especially after the threat she had received, Iskeen was glad to oblige and stay put at the bungalow. Meanwhile, Orlitz had forgotten all memories of the worrisome menace and promptly gulped down her coffee before hurriedly scrambling to her bedroom to change into hiking clothes.
Moments later, the Kougra and Cybunny were leaving the bungalow. Orlitz had opted to leave Sparta at home, as the petpet was still exhausted from last night's escapade. The day was unsurprisingly warm and humid, and a few strands of hair clung to Orlitz's cheeks as the pair marched towards the nearest UNI station. The island was populated with hundreds of tourists, all hurriedly trying to fulfill their vacation plans before the weekend ended, and the pair struggled to wriggle through hordes of neopets bustling near the shops. The walk would have taken over half an hour in the crowded streets of the West Island, but Almos managed to catch an EDAC (Eyrie-Drawn Aerodynamic Cabin) and in no time, they landed before the gates of the city.
After paying the eyrie cabbie, the two headed into Geraptiku. The sun was still high in the sky, so they would have plenty of time to explore before nighttime. The city was full of tourists, but Almos helped Orlitz sneak into the dense undergrowth without being noticed. The Kougra expertly led her through the shaded vegetation until he reached an area where fewer trees and plants grew. Tree stumps littered the ground, but in their midst, three thick palm trees stood tall, onto which large torches had been mounted. These three trees, when connected, formed a large triangle.
Orlitz approached a torch and felt the head. Though blackened, the fabric used to light the torch was cold.
"It doesn't look like these have been used in a few days," she told Almos, inspecting the other two torches. The locations were clearly connected to the scrap of paper Orlitz had found. A meeting would occur at a specific location, and judging by the triangle drawn onto the paper and the triangular perimeter created by the three torch-wielding palm trees, they had found the spot.
"The parchment said that a meeting will take place somewhere—most likely here—tomorrow at midnight," she concluded excitedly.
"Are you suggesting we plan a stake-out?" asked Almos with a glimmer in his eye. The look of Orlitz's own expression suggested that she was thinking just that.
* * * * *
Orlitz followed Almos out of the jungle and back into the populated city, her heart racing. Hopefully tomorrow night, her questions would all be answered! Her mind buzzed with possible scenarios for the stakeout—in no time, she would uncover what—and who—was behind the decline in petpets. She chose to show the Kougra the pit behind the petpet shop, so the two made their way between crowds of tourists and to the less populated back of the shop. The Kougra knelt at the edge of the hole and shined a flashlight down to its depths. The crocalus that had hungrily pursued Iskeen the night before were sleeping in their opened box.
"There are at least a dozen crates in here, if not more," muttered Almos with concern, shining his light around the room. The walls were stacked with wooden crates of different sizes, each possibly containing one or more mistreated jungle petpet.
"I'll contact PPL headquarters as soon as I can; some specialized agents will be able to jump down there and get the petpets out."
"Compared to the petpets that Vin keeps in her shop, the petpets down there are clearly mistreated and directly from the jungle," observed Orlitz, pointing at the crocalus. Almos said nothing. Instead, he replaced the torch back into his pocket and frowned at the idea.
The pair left the shop grounds and began the trip back to the entrance of the city, all the while discussing their plans for the following Monday. Almos agreed to pick Iskeen and Orlitz up from their house at around six in the evening to insure that so that the group would have ample time to reach the triangle of trees and establish a stake-out encampment before midnight. Sparta would stay safely at the bungalow.
Almos and Orlitz finally reached the gated marked "Geraptiku", but before they could leave the city grounds, Orlitz noticed a familiar Checkered Bori whispering to a short Spotted Kougra. The Cybunny remembered Aldar mentioning a Yellow or Spotted Kougra entering the grounds of the city in the evening. If not Almos, could it be him?
The reporter grabbed Almos by the arm and pointed at the two figures speaking.
"I'll be right back, I'd like to talk to that Bori," she motioned. The Cybunny walked towards Emuk, who suddenly noticed her. A panicked expression flashed across his checkered face as he quickly hushed the Spotted Kougra. The mysterious Kougra clamped his jaw and walked into the visitor center without addressing anyone. Suspicious, Orlitz walked right up to the Bori, followed by Almos.
"What a coincidence, hello, 'E'!" she greeted the startled Bori, "you ran off in such a hurry the other day that I never got the chance to ask you any questions." The Cybunny tucked her blue-tinted hair behind her ears and gave him a most charming smile.
"Y-YOU?!" the startled Bori stammered, "listen, lady, I don't have the time for this." The Bori shuffled backwards nervously, intending to walk away and hide in the visitor center. Behind Orlitz, Almos growled. Emuk shut his mouth, glowered down at the Cybunny, planted his feet on the dark ground, and stood tall and menacing. Thanks to the support of Almos, however, Orlitz was unfazed by the intimidation.
"It'll only be a moment of your time, it's for an article I'm writing," the young reporter assured him, pulling out a pen and a notepad from her purse. Emuk clenched his jaw, glaring at Orlitz. Flustered, Orlitz racked her brain for questions she could ask him. The Cybunny had not thought the scenario carefully through. Too excited for reasoning, she had jumped on the opportunity to question Emuk without having formulated any questions to ask him.
"You told me that the jungle was a hostile environment, yet there are virtually no petpets left in there. If this is the case, then why should anyone refrain from entering the jungle anymore? There are evidently no more dangers," she fumbled.
"Of course there are, lady. There are still a few dangerous petpets, and it is very easy to get lost in there."
Orlitz nervously admitted that his reasoning was flawless.
"Do you know why the petpet population has declined? Many people are thinking that smugglers are the culprit."
"I highly doubt that, miss," Emuk said slowly, chewing on his words, "the petpets have most likely migrated for the season."
"But it's the middle of Summer, island petpets are not known to migrate during the Summer," Orlitz grinned, grasping at the chance to find a loophole in Emuk's explanation. The Bori grimaced. Behind her, Almos nodded in agreement.
"Are you aware that with the decline in petpet wildlife, the jungle ecosystem is in great danger?" she continued hastily.
"Of course I am, I work on a wildlife reserve, don't I?" he muttered.
"Emuk, listen, we can help you, just tell us really what's going on here," Orlitz reasoned, desperate to learn more.
"I am not troubled, lady," the Bori snapped. "Now if you'll excuse me, I've got work to do!" Before Orlitz could react, the Bori stormed towards the visitor center and vanished into the shack. Orlitz stared in dismay after Emuk, disappointed that she had been unable to pry anymore information from him. The Cybunny was tempted to follow him into the shack, but a hunch told her that she could coax no more words from that stubborn Bori's mouth.
"Suspicious guy," noted Almos. Orlitz nodded, wondering who the Spotted Kougra with whom Emuk had been speaking was.
The pair left the premises as the sun sank, and Almos found another EDAC to fly them back to Orlitz's house. When they arrived, Orlitz could smell Iskeen cooking dinner through the open windows. The food smelled partially burnt, but Orlitz was so hungry she didn't particularly mind. The Cybunny thanked Almos for the information he had helped her receive, and promised to meet him again tomorrow evening for the planned stake-out.
The Cybunny entered the bungalow and excitedly recounted the day's happenings to her housemate over a plate of lightly blackened quiche. Tomorrow, her suspicions would hopefully be answered.
To be continued...