Mystery of the Brightville Vanishing:Part Three
"And you found this note where?”
“It was pinned to a desk with a knife,” answered Orlitz. She was back in the Brightville ticket booth, seated in a beanbag chair. Well, the Cybunny wanted to be seated, but it was difficult to appear dignified whilst sinking into an oversized plush sack. Across from her, Sophia Grigsby leaned against her desk and studied the ransom note found in the welcome center.
“I think this, without a doubt, proves that Erin is being held against her will,” she continued, “so I think it’s time we contacted the Brightvale Guard.” Orlitz struggled out of her lumpy seat (which at this point had absorbed most of the Cybunny), and reached for the ransom note, but Sophia stopped her. She slumped back into the beanbag.
“Orlitz, I’m not sure I want Brightville to get this kind of publicity so close to its demolition,” she began, “and for all we know, this might as well be some sort of publicity stunt to preserve the park. You never found Lou, did you?”
Orlitz shook her head. Sophia’s icy gaze made her shrink into the beanbag.
“Well, to me, this ransom note looks like a bad attempt at scaring us into rescuing the park. For all we know, Lou is behind this: him and his protest group have been the most vocal about Brightville being demolished. What if this is their last drastic attempt to stop it—by threatening me? I wouldn’t be surprised if Erin was in on this too, seeing as she herself is from Brightvale.”
At this, the Cybunny shot up from the beanbag. “That’s ridiculous,” she snapped, “why would Erin be involved in rescuing a park she hasn’t even been to since she was a kid? Besides, she’s never even met Lou.”
“Be that as it may,” Sophia interrupted, “I’ll contact the Guard only if Erin is still missing after 24 hours.” Orlitz rubbed her temples: Sophia would not be swayed. She sunk back into her seat (or rather, it swallowed her whole).
With a sigh, the Cybunny opted to tell the Chomby about her other findings. She informed her about the encounter with Reba, and the knowledge she had learned on the underground tunnels stretching across the park. She finished by telling her about the page from Erin’s journal wedged in between two floorboards in the welcome center dressing room. Evidently, Orlitz had discovered an entrance to the passageways.
“I wasn’t able to find a switch or button to open the door, though,” she concluded.
“That’s because there isn’t one,” Sophia replied at once, “the tunnels’ entrances can only be activated from the inside. When Brightville was still open, I’d have a dozen security employees monitoring the tunnels and escorting workers. But a few years back, we had too many incidents of neopets sneaking into the passages and getting lost, so we removed all outside access points.”
“But that means that whoever took Erin is an employee who has access to the tunnels—”
“—and that it was a two-person job, since someone needed to be in the tunnel to keep the door open,” finished Sophia with a sigh.
Orlitz opened her mouth to ask where one might find the main entrance to the underground passages, but stopped herself. Sophia was reluctant to help as it was, she doubted the Chomby would even consider telling her how to get into the tunnels. Instead, she settled on finding Reba and questioning her.
Unfortunately, she barely reached the door when Sophia stopped her once more.
“I’ll keep the ransom note and the keys, if you don’t mind,” she stated, holding out her hand expectantly, “I’d rather you did not traipse around the park anymore, not until we learn more. They’re preparing for the demolition anyway, it’s not safe to walk around if you aren’t familiar with the grounds.”
Orlitz bit her tongue to keep from arguing, and returned the ring of keys to Sophia. There goes my all-access pass to Brightville, she thought. To add insult to injury, the Cybunny was also asked to surrender her visitor badge. Lastly, she relinquished the ransom note: her only clue. The Cybunny studied Sophia quizzically: was the Chomby so afraid of having the Guard involved, that she did not want to risk the note getting into the wrong hands?
With Sophia’s invitation to return tomorrow morning for any developments, Orlitz was removed from Brightville. She stood in front of the park’s front gates as they swung closed. This wouldn’t do. She would not just wait around and do nothing, not when Erin may very well be in danger. She paced. She leafed through her notebook. She glanced at her wristwatch: it was nearly noon.
Perhaps it was time to find Lou Elder.
* * * * *
As the fisherman’s boardwalk dwindled in the distance behind her, Iskeen was expressly certain of two things: first, that shelling out 12,000NP for a mote-patterned notebook (however cute the design) was a little too steep a price. Second, that although it was now lunchtime, she had the distinct suspicion that Orlitz would not be back from her interview.
Sure enough, upon entering the Livia residence, she was greeted by Elva and Keon, who invited her to have lunch in the kitchen. No one was surprised that Orlitz, and by affiliation, Erin, were late. In fact, for Iskeen, it was expected. The Cybunny was always chasing a lead or getting distracted by a suspicion of hers; should she arrive on time, now that would shock everyone.
“Orlitz has always been very independent, even as a youngster,” said Elva, setting a pitcher of water on the table, “we never could manage to reign her in—nor did we ever want to,” she sighed with a smile. Iskeen found this information not surprising in the least, having lived with Orlitz for several years now.
The small gathering enjoyed passionberry jam sandwiches (Keon proudly declared that he had made the jams himself). Afterwards, Elva entrusted the Ixi with a small bag of sandwiches and a thermos of tea, to bring to Orlitz and Erin. After some directions on how to reach Brightville, Iskeen set out once more in a light sprinkle of rain.
* * * * *
“Miss, I would suggest that you return tomorrow morning and register an official concern,” the Brown Kau seated behind the tall wooden counter said, stifling a yawn. She was dressed in a forest-green uniform, adorned in gold and white accents. Her stiff vest was decorated with the Brightvale crest, in shiny metal. Despite Sophia’s insistence that Orlitz not involve the Brightvale Guard, the Cybunny had done just that, but to no avail. She was now in a guard’s outpost a few blocks from the amusement park, determined to find the help she needed. Unfortunately, just as Sophia had predicted, the Brightvale Guard would be of little help this early in the investigation.
“Unless your friend has been missing for 24 hours, I’m afraid there is little we can do.” Orlitz had been arguing with the guard for several minutes now, with little success. It seemed that, without any evidence that Erin was in immediate danger (for, Sophia had kept the ransom note), she did not have much of a case to present.
“If you happen to find some sort of evidence pointing to the contrary, that your friend is, in fact, in danger, then the Guard will be happy to be of service,” she offered, “otherwise, I suggest that you return tomorrow morning.”
Dismayed, Orlitz exited the premise, dragging her feet. Locked out of the park, and with no clues on Lou’s whereabouts, there was little left for her to do. She drifted back the way she came, towards Brightville. Along the cobbled path, the Cybunny happened upon a small coffee shop, fittingly named “The Brightvale Cafe,” directly across the street from the park. As she had no other leads to follow, she went inside and ordered a coffee. Then, she found a table by the window. If Lou Elder really was protesting the parks demolition, no doubt she should spot him somewhere nearby.
The Brightvale Cafe was neither remarkable nor populated. A few newspapers littered a bench, and a measly bookshelf stocking less than a handful of books had been built near the trash can (it was strange that this shop should take the namesake of the land of knowledge). Astoundingly, the cafe’s food selection was even less inspiring. A couple of day-old pastries stocked its glass display, so Orlitz settled on a plain muffin.
For an hour, Orlitz stayed by the window, sipping her coffee that had since turned cold and nibbling on the tasteless pastry. A few pedestrians strolled past the park, and the occasional worker entered the premises, but nothing of interest happened, and she grew restless. The thought occurred that she could return home and rest for the time being; glancing at the clock near the cafe’s entrance, the Cybunny realized that it was nearly two in the afternoon. Still, she could not bring herself to leave. And so she stayed, agitated yet stranded, gazing into her dark coffee.
The storefront bell chimed as another customer entered the cafe, and Orlitz lazily glanced up from her mug. The sudden sight of Iskeen (who must have seen her through the window) was unspeakably refreshing; it even compelled a rare smile. The ixi smiled back and hurriedly pulled up a chair at her table.
“We were wondering what was holding you up!” she said, shaking fine rain droplets from her hair, “Keon asked me to bring you and Erin some sandwiches.” She placed her bag on the table, then, noticing Erin’s absence she asked, “where is Erin?” Then, noticing Orlitz’s downcast, tired expression, she said, “what happened?”
Orlitz spent a good half of the hour bringing Iskeen up to speed. She told her that Erin had vanished with a scream. That she had discovered a chilling ransom note. That Sophia had asked her to leave the park. That she could not get help because Erin had not been missing for long enough. The cybunny managed to take two bites from her jam sandwich before her throat clenched. Her eyes filled with tears, and she could not prevent them from spilling over. Iskeen could only console her with the thermos of tea.
“If I could at least find Lou, then maybe I could have something to go on, but I haven’t even seen him,” she mustered, “and he’s supposed to be leading protests against the demolition!”
“Wait,” mused Iskeen, handing Orlitz a napkin with which to wipe her tears, “I saw someone holding up posters about Brightville a few blocks away—what does Lou look like?”
“I think he’s a Draik,” she sniffled.
Iskeen had in fact noticed a Speckled Draik at a fountain plaza a few blocks east of the amusement park. He had even handed her a glossy brochure, which she had folded up and shoved into her jacket. She retrieved it now. Creased and somewhat damp, the front fold of the brochure had pictures of a Brightville rollercoaster. On top, in dramatic green font, was written: “SAVE A PIECE OF BRIGHTVALIAN HISTORY: SAVE BRIGHTVILLE!” The rest of the pamphlet featured information on the park’s founding and details of its unjust demolition. Iskeen turned the pamphlet over to the side that credited the park-saving rallies to the Guild for the Preservation of Brightvalian Historical Sites, and its founder…
“Lou Elder!” both girls exclaimed in unison.
“You found him!” Orlitz cried out and hugged Iskeen, “oh, where would I be without you!” Enlivened with newfound drive, the cybunny, scarfed down the remainder of her sandwich, threw her trench coat over her shoulders, and marched towards the door.
* * * * *
The gentle rain drizzling over Brightvale had, at last, subsided, and a few glimpses of blue sky appeared through the clouds. Iskeen walked briskly towards the place where she had seen Lou, followed closely by Orlitz. For Erin’s sake, both girl’s hoped that the Draik would still be there when they reached the plaza.
Soon, they approached a cobblestone square within an intersection, accented by an ornate stone fountain in the center. Decorative leaves and flowers had been sculpted into its three tiers. An ornate sign at the entrance read, “Roberta’s Plaza,” and spectacularly ornate trees shaded and framed the whole affair. Sitting at the fountain, a Speckled Draik appeared to be reading a book. Beside him was a fold-out table concealed by posters, clipboards, and brochures like the one in Iskeen’s hand. The pair approached the display.
“Excuse me,” Orlitz called out, “are you Lou Elder?”
“The one and only,” answered the Draik, closing his book and standing. He shook her hand, “are you here to learn more about Brightville and its cruel demolition?” He said all this cheerfully. Orlitz was somewhat taken aback by his chipper demeanor. Here she was, having just cried in an empty coffee shop, and this whole time, Lou had only been a few blocks away.
“In a way,” she answered, “actually, I’ve been looking for you all morning—my partner and I had an interview with you at ten today, but you weren’t there.” She removed a Neopian Times badge from her bag and handed it to Lou.
“Orlitz Livia, journalist,” he read before returning the card “Well, I’m sorry miss, but I was under the impression that the interview had been cancelled.”
When the Cybunny scrutinized him quizzically, he continued, “a day ago, I received a notice from the Times that my interview had to be rescheduled, and that I would be contacted again. I may still have the note somewhere, hold on.” The Draik unclasped a backpack at his feet and after some rummaging, retrieved an envelope. He gave it to Orlitz, who read its contents.
Iskeen peered over her shoulder. “That looks pretty official,” she murmured. And it did: printed on heavy cardstock letter, the message indicated that Lou’s interview with two representatives from the Times had been cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances. The letter even had the Neopian Times insignia, a golden quill held in the beak of a weewoo. It was a convincing forgery. The giveaway was in the envelope, where the Times’ Neopia Central address had been scrawled, and not its Mystery Island branch, where Orlitz worked.
“We did not cancel your interview, at least to my knowledge,” said Orlitz, perplexed. This enigma was growing denser with every discovery. Had Lou been deliberately led away from the site of the interview in order to be framed? Was this a genuine alibi, absolving Lou of any involvement in Erin’s disappearance, or was he using the letter to devise a fake alibi? “Do you know who sent you this letter?”
“All I know is that this letter was in my mailbox yesterday,” answered Lou, “I’m sorry I can’t be of any more help to you—I’m still available for an interview, if that’s what you’re here for.”
“Mr. Elder,” said Orlitz cooly, “when my partner, Erin Baker, and I arrived at the Brightville welcome center, you weren’t there. What's more, Erin was taken from inside that building. I found a ransom note later, so I’m under the impression that she was taken against her will.” Lou’s smile curled into a frown. “So you can see why I’m troubled by this letter…”
Now, Lou seemed veritably shaken. He stretched his wings nervously. “I don’t like what you’re implying here, miss,” he stammered. The Draik insisted that he’d been right here, in the plaza, since nine this morning. “Ask any guard stationed on the premiss, I swear I was here—I needed permission to set up, I wouldn’t just leave my station.”
Orlitz wrote this information down in a small notebook. She would have to follow up on his alibi with the Brightvale Guard. Despite his insistence that he had nothing to do with Erin’s disappearance, the Cybunny was not inclined to trust Lou. After all, Sophia had suggested that Erin’s alleged kidnapping must have been a two-person job. Lou could be working with someone. His every assurance only augmented her suspicion.
“Believe me, I want to help,” he insisted, “and if you need to find me, I’ll be here tomorrow as well.” Then, after a pause, “My team—the Guild for Preservation—will be around for the next few days, especially on Tuesday night. We’re organizing a full-blown protest during the closing celebration, so you can also find me then. If you have any questions...”
To Lou’s great relief, it happened that Orlitz did have some questions about Brightville: namely, about the tunnels hiding underneath the park.
“The tunnels were built with the rest of the park, so they’re almost as old as this plaza,” he gestured behind him, “which was built around the same time.”
“The park’s current owner, Sophia Grigsby, told me that they’ve since been closed to the outside.”
“Yeah, it was that Chomby who mandated that the tunnels only be unlocked from the inside, to prevent lost park visitors from accidentally wandering in. Or sneaking in.”
“But there must be some main entrance to the tunnels, otherwise no one—not even the workers—could access them,” interjected Orlitz.
“I’ve never been an employee of the park, I’m just for its preservation,” answered Lou, “I’ve never seen the tunnels for myself, but you’re right, there’s probably some sort of employees-only access point.”
“Is the entrance somewhere inside the park?”
“Unlikely,” mused the Draik, “Brightville has notoriously kept the existence of its tunnels a secret; my guess is, the entrance is somewhere outside of the park. Given how old Brightville is, the entrance may even be several blocks away.”
Orlitz felt dissuaded. There were endless streets snaking around Brightvale: how could she find a hidden tunnel entrance within such a vast radius?—in less than two days, no less! It was a daunting task, with no end in sight.
To be continued…