Strange Cases: Behemoth - Part Four
NSB HQ 4TH DAY OF SWIMMING, YEAR 9, 11:21 AM
As Agent Steele finished the formalities at the lobby’s reception desk, cataloguing their absence, destination and estimated expenses to be taken from the agency funds, his new partner – a young cloud Kougra by the name of Francis Tanner, Junior Agent rank – watched the professionalism of the shadow Scorchio. He did everything by instinct, not evening looking at the logbook as he filled it out, his attention focused on the female Skeith carefully counting out the Neopoints he had requested for their assignment.
“How’s the family, Sheryl?” he asked conversationally, arms crossed as he leaned calmly on the polished surface of the desk.
“Oh, not bad, Max, not bad...” If he was trying to distract her from her work, it wasn’t working; if there was one thing Steele knew, it was that all Skeiths stuck to money like Shockets to magnets. They just couldn’t help it.
When the correct amount had been counted and bagged, Steele slipped the moneybag into one of his black coat’s pockets (Tanner had completely forgotten he had been wearing a coat, the Scorchio’s color blended so well with his attire), turned to Tanner and motioned him towards the lift that led up and out of the NSB headquarters.
“How does it work?” the young Kougra asked as Steele pressed a single red button set into the side of the towering shaft.
“Magic,” Steele answered simply, but his uneasy shuffling told the Kougra he was lying.
“No, seriously... actually, wait up a second.” As the hovering platform descended sluggishly from the shadows, the Junior Agent risked a glance up at it and saw that screwed to the base was a sheet of steely-blue metal. Pulling his head back out of the lift shaft, Tanner reckoned he had the lift’s secrets all figured out a second before the platform came to settle by their feet. “It’s all magnets, isn’t it? There must be three of them; one set into the floor, another in the ceiling way up there, and the other in the base of platform. Right now, the floor’s magnet is the attracting force but – and this is really ingenious, this is – when you press the button,” when they were both safely aboard the lift, he leant over to jab the button in question, “something switches the magnets in the floor and ceiling around, reversing the polarity, so now it’s the ceiling that’s the attracting force, and the floor that’s repelling the platform! I’m right, aren’t I? Huh?”
“Huh,” Steele repeated, although his ‘huh’ was a mix of admiration, disbelief and – oddly enough – disappointment. “I think I’m beginning to see why Fuller chose you to join me. You can see the reasons and the explanations behind the mysteries, no matter how extreme, or seemingly ludicrous, those truths may be... good work, Tanner, and yeah. As far as I’m aware, you’re spot on with every detail.”
“One question, though,” the Kougra braced himself as the lift jolted to a halt at the top of the shaft, and the faux vault-door opened up into the Neopian Bank. “How does this bit work? Science dictates that a magnet can’t just attract to a certain point, either it doesn’t attract at all, or it does – all the way, in which case we should be squashed against the ceiling... what just stopped us?”
“Magic.” There was no uneasy shuffling this time.
“Ah... guess we should be thankful to the Faeries then, always looking out for our safety...”
“Yeah, plus the world can’t get much help from a bunch of NSB pancake-people,” Steele grinned grimly as he pushed the door of the fake vault closed behind them and spun the combination lock. “Come on, I’ve got to grab a bite to eat at Hubert’s before we start our journey. Especially if I have to start carrying you around, now...”
“Great! I’m absolutely starv – what?!”
“Sure, how else did you think we’d get to Kiko Lake in good time? I have wings and you don’t. So, unless you want to get painted Faerie to work around this... although I doubt the look would suit you. Anyway, long story short, I have to fly and carry you, see?”
“Yeah, but... are you saying I’m fat?”
“Wouldn’t dream of it, partner... but I guess we should just be glad most places around here have double-doors – kidding!” Steele winced as the Kougra swatted him playfully. “But, seriously, you better be cloud-like in more than color...”
KIKO LAKE, 4TH DAY OF SWIMMING, YEAR 9, 12:45 PM
The campsite around the lakeside was unusually quiet, having been quickly evacuated of all campers and other holidaymakers soon after the accident. All that remained were a few investigators and the owner of the site itself, a portly and profusely sweating blue Yurble in a loosely-buttoned checkered shirt and shorts, a red cap keeping the blazing sun out of his eyes.
He was so focused on nervously observing the investigators scouring his property that he totally ignored the sound of flapping wings giving way to the gently double-thumping of Agent Steele alighting behind him and dropping Junior Agent Tanner with little grace.
Few can ignore a sharp claw tapping away at their shoulder, however. With a start, the Yurble spun to face the strange, navy-blue suited pair. “Oh! C-c-c-can I help you two, Sirs?”
Tanner could just about feel his senior colleague go tense at the use of the dreaded word before Steele answered the campsite owner. “Mr. McNulty, I’m Agent Steele and this –” gesture towards Francis, who nodded awkwardly. “ – is Junior Agent Tanner who, between you and me, could do with cutting down on his waffle intake... we’re from the Neopian Special Branch, and we’re here about the incident.”
“Isn’t everyone...? An’ anyway, how’d you know my name? I haven’t heard of no Neopian Special Branch.” The Yurble’s arms were crossed, his skepticism blatant.
“And I’ve yet to meet an average Neopian who has,” Steele replied with businessman-like humor. “So, I guess that makes us just about even, wouldn’t you say?”
“Hmm, well, if you say so... it happened down there,” Mr. McNulty told them, needlessly waving in the direction of the investigators. “Though I can’t see how you’ll do any better a job than the guys already here... got a Lupe down there you can’t miss, what with the glowin’ an’ all... goes by the name of Kojak Hommes. No doubt you’ve heard of him, being in the same line of business an’ everything...”
“Two things,” Steele spat impatiently. “One, Mr. Hommes is an amateur compared to us... and Two, you couldn’t get two extremely different lines of work if you tried to compare Doctor Sloth with the Soup Faerie. Now, please, just let us get to work... sheesh,” he added once he and Tanner were a good ways down an embankment, towards the campsite. “And people say I go off on one!”
“Yeah, but why did you call Kojak Hommes an amateur? The guy’s a genius, easily smart enough to be an NSB agent,” Tanner stated, before taking a moment to contemplate what he’d just said. “In fact, why isn’t he an agent?”
“He refused, that’s why... said he’d rather become a freelance detective, to be known for his skills, to not have his ‘amazing abilities’ kept a government secret. That alone, in my eyes, makes him an amateur at best.”
“Okay... but why, Steele?”
“Well, for one thing the NSB pays more, much more, and it’s constant, and if a smart pet can’t make an obviously beneficial, financial decision like that, how can he laughingly call himself a professional?” If it were possible for Steele to momentarily be a living pun, he was doing it now, his eyes steel and pinched. Tanner picked-up on the undercurrent almost instantly.
“Wait a second... you’re jealous of him and his success, aren’t you? Sure, you may have the riches, but he has the recognition, and you don’t like it.”
“You know, I hate you sometimes, and it’s not even been two hours! Hmph... whatever, we’re here – okay!” Steele yelled at all the investigators present, waving his arms madly for their attention. “The Neopian Special Branch is here, which means we now have jurisdiction, which means everybody out, go home, thank you and good day!”
One by one the disgruntled PIs shambled up the embankment to go their separate ways... until only one remained, and there were no prizes for guessing who that one person was.
“Mr. Hommes, do you need a Trumpet of Blasting to clear out your ears, or did you just not hear me tell you to leave?” asked the shadow Scorchio coldly, arms folded behind his back, covered by his wings.
But the glowing Lupe was more interested in their badges than whoever was speaking to him. “So, the NSB is still running. It must be, what, four years since I was offered a position?”
“Five,” Steele muttered before he knew what he was saying, and Tanner saw Kojak flash him a brief, triumphant smile; what was going on here?
“Ah, yes, of course... hmm, five years and still running must mean you’re all doing your jobs well since no one knows of anything you actually do.” Kojak took a sharp intake of breath. “My, now that’s a mighty fine job, really satisfying... whereas I, on the other hand, have only been working professionally for a year or two, and already I’m practically world-famous from all my accomplishments – some of which, don’t you know, are well-documented in the Neopian Times.” The glowing green Lupe smiled modestly as he walked around the simmering Scorchio and made his way after the other investigators. His footsteps were accompanied by a series of crackling pops as Steele followed him with glowering eyes, the joints in his knuckles cracking as his hands tightened into enraged fists behind his back.
Once Kojak was over the embankment and out of sight, it amazed Tanner how quickly the transition from raging inferno to complete and utter tranquility came over the dark Scorchio. Something told Francis that this hadn’t been the first time the two of them had crossed paths in the last fives years, despite Kojak’s act of a long absence... was Steele keeping secrets from him already?
“Right!” announced Steele brightly as he breathed in the fresh, crisp country air. “I’m going to see if I can spot anything from a higher angle.” At this he unfurled his wings in a way that made it seem as if it had been the most liberating action he had ever performed. “You go on ahead, Tanner, and keep an eye to the ground,” he added, pushing off from the ground to hover about ten feet in the air, wings beating effortlessly. “Wow, I never noticed how easy this was until I had to lug a dead weight around...”
“‘Eye to the ground’ – hah, yeah, right!” Tanner laughed wryly, striding on ahead, eyes fixed skeptically on Steele. “Like we’re bound to find something your slideshow didn’t tell uhhhsss!”
“You mean, like the actual depth of the mystery monster’s footprint?” Steele asked with a smug grin as he flitted over to the edge of the large indentation. “Nice find, partner.”
“Shut up and lift me out,” muttered the cloud Kougra darkly as he dusted himself off... and looked around at the six-foot deep footprint he’d waltzed into.
To be continued...