Neo’s Diner was sparsely populated that night. Perhaps because the villain Baron Von Evil had escaped and was free to attack it, or anywhere else he pleased. But more likely because it was a weeknight and people had better things to do.
Not Cleopatra Kish.
The Grey Aisha sat at the second booth from the corner, her usual spot. She took a sip of coffee, and was disappointed to find it was now stone cold. He was late.
She flipped through her reporters’ notebook. Cleo was briefly reminded of the time Ron had rescued her notes from a pickpocket who’d stolen her purse. She rubbed her face tiredly. Things had seemed so much simpler back then. When the blond looked back up, he was there.
James Sparks. A hard-boiled detective if she’d ever seen one. His trench coat was looking a bit shabby, and so was the rest of him. He sat down across from Cleo, and the waitress approached, handing him a menu. “Would you like something to drink?”
“Cream Soda,” said the White Lutari, then asked the blond across from him, “You still payin’, Kish?”
Cleo nodded with a smug smile. “Sure. You gotta get your meals somehow, right?”
“Just for that, I’ll take a triple hamburger, loaded bacon cheese French fries, a side of onion rings, an extra-large chocolate milkshake, a slice of pecan pie, and a cream soda,” he smirked, handing back the menu without reading it.
“And more coffee for me, please,” added the reporter, taking his extravagant jab in stride.
The Poogle waitress jotted down his order and accepted the menu, leaving to relay the meal to the short-order cook. Sparks leaned back comfortably on the bench, regarding the Grey pet across from him. “So, what did you want to talk about so badly, Kish?”
Cleo leaned forward in respond. “There’s something up with Ronjono D’Angela, and I want to know what it is.”
Sparks snorted. “Honey, you don’t need a Detective to tell you the problem. Her buddy Matty Cavus escaped the clink, and she’s all shook up about it. She was soo convinced that he ‘wasn’t actually all that bad,’ and that things weren’t really ‘that black and white,’ but you see how that turned out.”
Cleo crossed her arms. “Nah, there’s more to it. Dr. Cavus escaping jail with Von Evil? He’s always been a wishy-washy fanboy, probably would cut off his own fabulous Kyrii hair if one of his villain idols asked. But Ron refusing to talk to me about it? Something’s off.”
The Lutari became serious. “Listen, I don’t take cases involving Ink. Not anymore. You saw how the last one turned out. I was the laughing stock of Neopia Central for trying to pin that shadow guy’s – Charlie, right? – crimes on their hero Shadow Gelert. But I mean, the Shadow Usul was already pinched for something else, and the crimes were still happening. Who else was it gonna be?”
Cleo frowned. “That’s all on you, man. I can’t help that the shapeshifter tricked you too. And he hasn’t said his name yet, but yeah, they’re calling him Charlie. What you get for letting Matt nickname you.”
The Poogle returned with their drinks, setting down a cream soda in front of the detective, and replacing the reporter’s coffee. Once the waitress left, Sparks threw out, “Maybe you don’t know your friend as well as you think you do, Kish.”
Cleo narrowed her eyes. “I’ve known Ron for a long time now, James.”
Sparks laughed. “Sure, ever since she saved you from that Crime Boss Kougra, right? But that was after she became a Defender. The thing about Defenders, sugar, is they tend to ignore their personal lives until they don’t exist anymore. Did you know she has a sister?”
The Aisha’s eyes widened, and Sparks smirked. “Yeah, that’s right, didn’t know that, did you? She’s a Rainbow Gelert trying to make it as an artist, if you’ve ever seen her work in the Art Gallery you’d recognize it under the name ‘Regina D’Angela.’ Not that you probably have, she hasn’t made the cut too often. A little too abstract for their tastes most of time. A nice girl, misses talking to her sister though.”
Cleo was reeling from this new information, and Sparks was eager to press his edge. “And what about Mathew Cavus? A good friend of Ronjono’s growing up, smart boy, became an accomplished chemist, even got a doctorate in chemistry. But once she became a Defender, she wouldn’t give him the time of day. He got so desperate to talk to the Gelert he turned to a life of crime just so they could interact.”
Sparks grinned. “And now there’s you, Cleopatra. Trying to bribe a tired old detective into helping you talk to your friend. Starting to see a pattern here, Kish?”
Cleo was gripping her coffee cup so hard it was liable to shatter in her hands. She shot back, “You don’t know your associates as well as you think you do either. Mona Hallow is a con artist, you know. And she’s been playing you for years now.”
Sparks scowled. “You think I don’t know that? I’ve been playing her right back. We use each other. It’s strictly professional.” But his bravado was gone, and Cleo was on equal footing with him again.
The waitress brought over the Lutari’s food, his feast spread the width of the table. Cleo swirled her coffee bitterly. Sparks mockingly held out an onion ring to her before placing it in his mouth. The blond retaliated by stealing a cheese-coated fry and eating it with relish. He quickly took a big bite out of his burger before she could attempt to steal that too.
Cleo folded her arms. “Okay, so maybe Ron has a few personal issues I didn’t know about. She’s still my friend, and I’m going to do everything I can to help her.”
Spark swallowed, hamburger grease dripping down his face, soaking into his fur. He took a sip of milkshake to wash it down. “I never said you couldn’t. Just that she isn’t so innocent as you and everyone else seem to think. She has her secrets, her problems, her share of less than noble actions. Just because she has the Defenders of Neopia Mask doesn’t mean she’s perfect.”
“Well, then, she needs the help of her friends all the more,” the Aisha reasoned.
“Doesn’t mean she’ll accept it,” Sparks retorted.
Cleo smiled. “I think she will. I still know her better than you, and I think she knows the value of a true friend.”
“Who doesn’t?” the Lutari replied. “The real question is, does she have any true friends left?”
“She has at least one,” the blond stated simply, standing up to leave.
She stopped at the counter, setting a pile of Neopoints next to the cash register. “Keep the change,” she told the Poogle. The waitress nodded at her generosity, already starting to calculate the tip the Aisha had given.
Cleo looked back at where the detective sat. Sparks had set aside his half-eaten burger and without shame went straight for dessert, digging into his pecan pie. The guy had no shame. No shame at all.
The Aisha made her way outside, the streets dark after the bright lights of the diner. The shadows stretch before her, but she walked onward. She knew what hid in the shadows, and she knew she had nothing to fear.
Get more Ink at www.neopets.com/~Ronjono