Mystery of the Brightville Vanishing:Part Two
Orlitz knew two things were certain: first, that Erin had vanished. Second, that the welcome center in which she had gone missing was, well, untouched. No sign of a struggle. No hint as to what had crashed. No clue, even, that another neopet had been inside in weeks. The Cybunny hurried through the desolate room. It was unbelievably dusty: evidently, no one had vacuumed in a while. What little light trickled in through the greenery draping over the windows revealed moted dustlight filtering through the air. To one side of the room were several empty desks: a few couches on the other. Shelves of old magazines and park maps lined the walls, accompanied by framed photos of Brightville. Nothing held a clue as to where Erin had gone. At the far end of the room were several doors. Orlitz rushed to them, desperately rattling their handles. All locked!
She tried in vain to keep her mounting panic at bay. Her friend had vanished, and no one was around to help. She reasoned that it might simply be a prank, but an unsettling shiver ran up her spine. The Cybunny felt as though someone was watching her: something far more sinister was at play here. Hurriedly, she bolted outside and down the stairs, intent on finding someone—anyone!
She ran towards the entrance to the park, but just as she rounded another bend, she tumbled head first into someone. They both plummeted to the ground with a dull thud.
“Woah there miss,” the stranger, a Spotted Gelert, exclaimed, helping her up, “what’s the big hurry?” He seemed much older than her, with a worn face and tired eyes.
“You must have heard that scream, my friend is missing,” she explained, out of breath, “I need to find her! Was anyone near the welcome center... did you see anyone?!”
“Uh, there’s no one here except for me and you,” he responded. A moment later, he said, “well, I did see Reba a few minutes ago…”
“Who’s Reba, was she with a Pink acara?” the Cybunny pressed on.
“N-no, she was alone, she was emptying trash bins,” he answered calmly, “listen, ‘mam, why don’t you go talk to Sophia, I’m sure she could help…”
Before the Gelert could finish his sentence, the Cybunny had already bolted towards the entrance. The empty park was unsettling. With only her shadow for company, Orlitz strode through the desolate paths obscured by a dense canopy of trees. Even the closed rides were disquieting. In the shade and in the stillness, she felt utterly isolated. That Brightville had ever been a pleasant memory seemed highly unlikely now.
* * * * *
Eventually, Orlitz did encounter the Shadow Chomby, just as she disappeared into the ticket booth. The Cybunny ran after her and burst into the small structure. Sophia was writing something at her desk, but she jumped at the sudden interruption.
“Can I help you?” she demanded, irritated by her unwelcome visitor.
“My partner, Erin, she vanished!” the other exclaimed.
For a brief moment, Sophia’s eyes widened, but Orlitz noticed a flicker of something else in her gaze. “Are you sure she didn’t just walk to another part of the park—or that she might be pulling a prank on you?” the Chomby offered gently.
Orlitz was not thrilled by this calm demeanor. “Well, considering the fact that she screamed moments before she disappeared, I highly doubt that,” she snapped.
“Well, we’ll find her, don’t worry.” The Chomby moved to pick up her pen once more, but Orlitz slammed her hands on the table:
“Don’t worry? The park will be demolished in three days, and Erin is missing!”
It took several minutes for Sophia to calm Orlitz down long enough for them to talk. The Cybunny was still shaking as she sunk into a plush seat offered by the Chomby. Why did she feel so distraught—so unsettled—by Erin’s disappearance? The vacant amusement park possessed a disquieting atmosphere: it was too still, too empty. And yet Orlitz felt threatened by unseen eyes. She had evidently dealt with far too many mysteries.
“I really think you might be overreacting,” Sophia said, “it might just be that Lou left a note that he was elsewhere in the park, and that she left the welcome center to find him.”
“Be that as it may, I’ll feel a lot better after I find Erin,” the Cybunny replied. At this, Sophia turned to her desk and shuffled through the top drawer until she found a set of keys held together by a ring.
“Here,” she offered, handing the distraught Cybunny the keys, “these are for most employee buildings in the park, feel free to look around if that makes you feel better.” Sophia reclined in her seat and sighed, “Fyora knows there’s no one left here to protest if I give you unrestricted access to the park...”
“Thank you so much,” Orlitz said, pocketing the ring of keys, “thank you for understanding.”
The Cybunny left the ticket booth feeling somewhat reassured. Sophia did indeed make a valid point; she was too suspicious for her own good. Years of solving mysteries and dealing with dangerous suspects had left the Cybunny overly enthusiastic for any sort of enigma. It could be that she had jumped to the worst conclusion in pursuit of a new mystery, eagerly ignoring a much simpler explanation: that Erin had not vanished. Perhaps a Spyder had frightened her. Perhaps Lou was elsewhere in the park…
When she reached the welcome center again, however, this sense of relief quickly faded. Upon entering the wooden structure, she found that someone had left a note on one of the otherwise empty desks. But Orlitz would not have noticed the piece of paper if not for the small knife puncturing the desk to hold it in place.
“That’s a little dramatic,” she muttered, wrenching the dagger out of the wooden surface. Her heart rate quickened upon reading the note, drafted with a collage of cut-out magazine letters:
“THE ACARA WILL RETURN ONLY IF THE PARK IS SAVED!”
Beneath the unsettling ransom, Erin’s visitor badge had been stapled. Orlitz placed the note and the knife into her bag and forced herself to think rationally. What should she do?
“Deep breaths first,” she reminded herself, taking a moment to lean on the desk and consider her options. Lists always helped bring order to a predicament. First, she should, of course, tell Sophia what had transpired, and get ahold of Brightvale’s Royal Guard. At least now, she was without a doubt certain that Erin had been kidnapped: outside help would be needed. The Guard could halt the park demolition long enough to find her friend. Orlitz’s eyes roamed across the room.
She eyed the entrance: Erin had screamed almost immediately after having disappeared inside the building. The double door was set into an alcove of wood-panelled walls. To one side of the alcove stood a towering four-shelf bookcase, no doubt to display souvenirs for sale when the park had been open. The width of the book case was large enough that someone could have hidden behind it, unseen by anyone entering the center. Evidently, Erin’s kidnapper must have caught her by surprise—but where had they taken her?
The Cybunny left the building and marched around its perimeter. As far as she could tell, the welcome center had only one visible entrance: no backdoors or employee-accessible areas marked its backside. What’s more, over half of the building was raised several feet above the ground: leaping out of a window would have resulted in quite a fall, one that she would have no doubt seen, or at the very least, heard. And what if the kidnapper had, in fact, exited the building? The welcome center was placed in the middle of a clearing—it would take anyone several seconds to duck behind the nearest tree. Orlitz leaned against that very tree now:
“What if Erin is still inside the center?” she mused, furrowing her brow. The Cybunny rummaged through her shoulder bag, searching for a notebook to write down her observations. Instead, her hand brushed against the compact camera bag entrusted to her by the Neopian Times to photograph the park and the interviewees. She removed the camera from its pouch and held it pensively in her hands: perhaps taking pictures of the—well, the crime scene—would help with the investigation. And so, she snapped photos from different angles of the building, highlighting the distance between the center and the nearest trees. Satisfied with her work, Orlitz replaced the camera and made to enter the structure once more.
That is, she would have made for the center if not for the hand suddenly grabbing her shoulder. The Cybunny jumped out of her skin and whirled around, shaking out of its grasp.
“Oh, I didn’t mean to frighten you!” Orlitz looked down. A stout Orange Gnorbu, about a foot shorter than her, stood before her. Her mane had been pulled back into a messy braid, and if not for the employee badge hanging from her belt, Orlitz would have assumed she was just another visitor.
“I’m Reba, the all-around handyman of the park,” she continued, shaking the very stunned Cybunny's hand, “Rey let me know that your friend is missing.”
“Rey?” the other echoed feebly.
“He’s the Gelert you ran into earlier, he told me how your introduction had been a little, well, abrupt.” Orlitz remembered the Spotted Gelert she had so unceremoniously tumbled into in her initial panic to find Erin. Her cheeks burned, but she remained silent.
“Listen, I wanted to find you and let you know that I’m here to help. I’ve worked at Brightville practically my whole life, so I know the ins and outs of the park. Right now I’m helping to clear out all areas of the park, but I did want to let you in on a secret. The park has tunnels underground, connecting every attraction and building. You may want to begin your search there, especially since you seem to already have access to most of the park…” Reba eyed the Cybunny's impressive ring of keys.
“Thank you, but I think I’d rather contact the Guard first before I go off on my own, and I’d rather stay near the welcome center, just in case…” Orlitz replied. She was somewhat unsettled by the Gnorbu’s readiness to help: her advice seemed infantile, as if no one truly believed that Erin had been kidnapped and that she was being held against her will in an ultimatum for the park’s preservation. Instead of explaining all this to Reba though, the cybunny elected to keep her mouth shut. Everyone in the park was a suspect.
She thanked the employee once more; she would speak with her again later. Right now, she needed to continue her inspection of the welcome center. The front room had three doors leading to different parts of the building: surely, behind one of those doors was a clue as to where Erin was. Mostly, Orlitz hoped—begged—that the acara was safe.
* * * * *
“Cookie?” Iskeen’s eyes shot up from her concentrated task. Hovering above her stood Keon, plate of cookies in hand. Iskeen stood up from the floor and stretched, gazing down at her handiwork before accepting the snack.
“Keep up the good work!” the Pink Cybunny encouraged, admiring the half-completed jigsaw puzzle at their feet. The picture was supposed to be of the Brightvale cliffs, but the ixi had only managed to piece together parts of the cliff and the lighthouse perched atop. Littering most of the floor were hundreds of barely distinguishable blue and white pieces: either the sky or the ocean, but Iskeen was baffled as which one went where. What was cloud and what was seafoam? At least all the puzzle corners were accounted for.
“Two thousand pieces seemed manageable before I opened the box,” she sighed in between mouthfuls of biscuit. They were delicious; freshly baked, and with a hint of cinnamon. Keon was a culinary genius when it came to baking. He maintained a small rare books boutique on the boardwalk, but spent most of his free time experimenting in the kitchen.
Iskeen, too, was greatly interested in cuisine, and had told Keon as much. While she was only a waitress at Poppi’s Grill, one of the many beachside restaurants on Mystery Island, she hoped to eventually become a chef—a task easier said than done. Iskeen may be gifted in many things, but cooking was, unfortunately, not one of them. Despite the cooking classes she attended, the ixi did not have a natural inclination towards anything to do with food. It had been a frustrating, uphill battle, one burnt dish after the next, and progress was unsteady. Still, she was determined.
“It’s going to be a few more hours before lunch, would you like to do anything while we wait for Orlitz and Erin?” asked Keon, “the fisherman’s boardwalk is only a ten minute walk from here, and it’s lined with shops.” Iskeen kindly agreed to this suggestion, grateful to take a break from the puzzle.
Outside, the sky was still overcast. A drizzle—barely perceptible, as though one were walking through a cloud—refreshed the air. There was no need for an umbrella in this faint mist, and Iskeen trode onward. The walk through the neighborhood was uneventful; Iskeen occupied herself by counting the number of stained glass windows adorning each house (they averaged four to a house). The distant sound of waves crashing drifted in the air… Iskeen adored that sound. Whenever she was too far from the coast, everything seemed too still, but near the ocean, the lull of the tides soothed her.
The street leading to the boardwalk was just as charming as the boardwalk itself. Keon was right: there were dozens of boutiques and small shops lining the pathway, each one unmistakably distinct from its neighbor. Everything was so colorful; the store fronts were adorned with a different style and hue of paneling, their display windows filled with all sorts of interesting items. They sold chocolates, mirrors, stained glass, cakes, clothing, and books… so many books! Iskeen slowed her pace, taking time to peak into each shop, utterly charmed. She even found Elva, Orlitz’s mother, working behind the counter of the rare books boutique. At the corner, she happened upon a stationary store.
“I wonder if Orlitz needs a new notebook,” she mused, entering the shop.
* * * * *
A supply closet, a restroom, and a dressing room: no Erin in sight. After some fumbling with the ring of keys, Orlitz had managed to open all three doors. The restroom and closet were of little interest to her: both rooms were cramped, and upon examining the walls, the Cybunny had uncovered no hidden passages, no secret flips to open a trapdoor. The closet was empty, apart from a single flashlight and a coil of rope. She had claimed the flashlight for herself, but shuddered at the thought of that rope being used to hold Erin hostage. The dressing room, meanwhile, was most promising.
It was extraordinarily messy, with every available space cramped with boxes and clothing racks stuffed with costumes. One clothing rack had been knocked over. Orlitz found a switch, which turned on the vanity lights lining the mirrors to one side of the room. This space had evidently been used by performers when Brightville was still in business. To her surprise, it seemed as though it had remained completely untouched, yet to be emptied. Those tunnels that Reba had mentioned lingered in the back of her mind as she maneuvered through the room; no doubt, the park’s performers would have had access to the underground network, but where to start looking? Posters covered every inch of the walls, and costumes had been strewn across every square inch of the floor. There was no hint that Erin had been here either.
Orlitz felt a wave of dismay wash over her. How would she find anything in this mess? With a sigh, she moved the clothing rack that had toppled to the ground to the side.
“Enough room to walk would be a good start,” she muttered, continuing on with this task, when suddenly, she froze. Wedged in between two floor boards: could it be?
The flower-printed leaf of paper was unmistakable—that careful cursive handwriting, even less so. Orlitz knelt down to confirm her suspicions: Erin had been in this room.
To be continued…