Intrigue at the Altador Cup: Part Three
Tobik’s holiday home was a mansion, as Fredrick had expected. Expensive lights lit up the grounds, and a team of stocky Neopets manned the doors.
Rodney was let straight through without a fuss, into the heart of the party.
There was a buffet, as ever, with ice sculptures of Cup players placed amidst the vol-au-vents.
Fredrick took one of the pastries and chewed it carefully. Everyone hated the things; that was the thing to remember, but no one dared say they were awful aside from old people and children. The key was to keep your face pleasantly chewing, while conveying with your eyes the feeling that you wished your taste buds would shrivel up and die.
Fredrick managed this practiced expression with ease, and took in the room.
Most of the crowd from the box was there, along with a few others who had no doubt been added to make up the numbers.
“Rodney!” the shrill voice of Tobik called from across the room.
Fredrick grinned to himself internally, and set Rodney’s face in a polite smile.
He made his way over to the group containing Tobik.
“I was just telling everyone all about you, Rodney!” Tobik said exuberantly. “Everyone was very impressed!”
“I can’t remember the last time that the Concert Hall sold out for a new band,” an elderly Lenny informed him.
“We’re so blessed,” Rodney replied modestly.
“I must say, I’m very impressed with your vocal range,” a blue Gnorbu said.
“Oh, really?” Tobik asked.
Fredrick recognised the Gnorbu, he’d been in the VIP box... what had his name been? Mr. Stevenage?
“I rushed straight out and bought a copy of your record,” the Gnorbu continued. “I listened to it before setting off for this gathering. Your voice is quite remarkable.”
He smiled pleasantly at Rodney.
Or rather he smiled past Rodney’s shell, at Fredrick.
His eyes didn’t mirror the smile, they were cold, and said something entirely different.
I know what you are.
“Perhaps you could serenade us all later?” Tobik asked with glee.
“I’m afraid I can’t,” Rodney announced, having difficulty tearing his eyes away from the Gnorbu. “My record company has a very strict policy regarding public performances.”
Tobik’s face fell.
“What a shame,” she said sadly.
Her eyes focused on a crowd on the other side of the room and she brightened up.
“Why, there’s the Worthington-Smythe-Foxelys! I simply must go and say hello, please excuse me,” she told the others.
She swept off across the room, leaving the group unattended.
“Where is the restroom?” Rodney asked the Lenny.
“Just over there,” he pointed out.
Without daring to look back, Fredrick rushed off.
He burst into the toilets, and stood leaning over the sink, staring at his own reflection while gasping for breath.
What was going on? Fredrick had barely been in the city a day and already two people had made him.
Greenbolt was one thing; he was a professional who was trained to find criminals... but this Stevenage... who was he? Why hadn’t he acted on what he knew?
He’d just stood there, smiling at him, mocking him.
He was one of Greenbolt’s men, perhaps? He was bound to have subordinates...
Fredrick had to know. He couldn’t let something like this go.
An Ogrin left a toilet stall and washed his hands next to Fredrick.
“Sorry to ask you to do this, but could you pass on a message to Miss Tobik?” Rodney asked. “Tell her that Rodney had to leave early, a band emergency. I’ll see her tomorrow at the games.”
The Ogrin nodded, and then left.
Fredrick took a deep breath and then entered a toilet stall, closing the door. He fumbled in his pockets for the small potion he’d brought with him.
Rodney Clacks couldn’t help him, but a new identity could.
Fredrick took a deep slug, and a few moments later, a red Xweetok exited the toilet stall.
It was the work of a moment to slip into the kitchens and procure a waiter’s apron from a peg. Then, tray of hors d'oeuvres held ready, he entered the party once more.
A new identity, a new person, breathed into existence.
The nameless waiter, part of the furniture, picked his way through the guests. His tray became lighter as people picked off the contents, but Fredrick was not paying attention to that.
His eyes glanced around the room, focusing on each of the guests. That was merely for the show of it; Fredrick was in reality only watching one person.
Stevenage was milling about the room, moving from guest to guest, making polite conversation here, the odd joke there.
Fredrick gathered from the conversation he overheard that the Gnorbu was in the stock broking trade, and was on holiday from Neopia Central. He seemed quite knowledgeable about most of the other guest’s professions, and the areas they lived in, which suggested to Fredrick that he was well travelled.
There was no way the story he was giving was true. No stock broker could ever make Fredrick that quickly. He knew. After all, he’d grown up scamming the wealthy businessmen outside the Stock Exchange in Neopia Central. But Fredrick couldn’t see who this strange man really was. There were no clues, nothing.
Until the end of the evening.
The lights were suddenly dimmed, and a spotlight appeared out of nowhere, focused on Miss Tobik. She smiled broadly and made her way towards a stage at one end of the room. She cleared her throat, preparing a speech.
“My friends, thank you all for coming here this evening!” she began. “I have some announcements to make, but first there’s an Inspector Softpaw who would like to speak with you!”
The guests clapped the polite clapping of people who are not entirely sure what the immediate future is going to hold. A stern looking yellow Eyrie who seemed to have arrived late to the party took Miss Tobik’s place in the spotlight.
“I’m sure most of you are aware of the rumours going around about blackmail and match-rigging this year,” the Eyrie told them. “My superiors would like it to be known that we are personally investigating these claims, and we will get to the bottom of them, one way or another.”
There were approving nods from the guests.
“In the meantime, I would ask that you report any suspicious characters, and remain vigilant at all times. Thank you all for your time,” Softpaw instructed.
He stepped out of the spotlight, allowing Miss Tobik to return. Sporadic applause broke out across the room, but was quickly silenced by embarrassment.
Fredrick meanwhile, couldn’t stop smiling.
Not because of anything the Inspector had said... after all, he was probably a lackey of Greenbolt’s. No, Fredrick had been looking at Mr. Stevenage.
The Gnorbu was still wearing the pleasant smile, but the eyes... those deceitful little eyes, had told a different story from the moment the Eyrie had taken the stage.
They were eyes full of fear. They were eyes that said something very different to what the smile was saying.
They’re on to me.
Fredrick didn’t need to know anything else about Mr. Stevenage; everything he’d said at the party was undoubtedly a lie.
Mr. Stevenage was a conman, just like Fredrick.
Miss Tobik began speaking again, making a big show about how all her dear friends were gathered in one room. Fredrick became aware that his tray was becoming perilously empty, and left the room as quickly as he could.
The waiter was no longer of any use, and Rodney Clacks had already left the party... Fredrick couldn’t risk another disguise. Instead, he let himself out of the tradesman’s entrance as quietly as possible and returned to his original form of a shadow Ruki using another potion.
Lurking in the darkness surrounding the extravagant lights in the gardens, Fredrick waited for the party to wind down.
Just like any effective conman, Mr. Stevenage left the party half an hour after it began to die. Staying too late and leaving too early drew attention to yourself, especially at high-class functions. As the Gnorbu passed him, Fredrick detached himself from the shadows and silently followed.
He was good, Fredrick could see that. He walked with the faint air of someone who thought they owned the place, mixed with the air of someone who has been at a party all night and isn’t entirely sure if they are asleep or awake.
Most conmen would have missed out the second part. By the nature of the trade, they are always alert, even when asleep. There was hardly even anyone around worth noting at night, so there was no need for the complete act. But here it was... the Gnorbu’s attention to detail was astounding.
Fredrick noticed they were leaving the posh part of town. It was Altador, so there wasn’t exactly a slum anywhere, but some areas were more affluent than others. Mr. Stevenage, the act, would have lived in a penthouse... but this Gnorbu, whoever he truly was, was heading towards what Fredrick recalled was the Industrial District.
On the plus side, that gave Fredrick more shadows to lurk in, but it only deepened the mystery about this strange character.
Eventually, Stevenage stopped outside a warehouse that had clearly been abandoned for some time. He pried a plank of wood off the door, and slowly slipped himself inside.
Fredrick circled around the building. A battered and faded sign hung over the door Stevenage had entered through. It identified the warehouse as the former heart of a paper shipping business. The roof had long ago caved in, and the owners had moved on. The windows were all boarded up, as the door had been. Fredrick tried to peek through the gaps in the planks, and thought he could glimpse candlelight inside.
He backed away from the warehouse. He couldn’t challenge Stevenage yet... and he’d need more evidence before he presented anything to Greenbolt.
Fredrick walked quickly back to the hotel, taking care to transform back into Rodney Clacks before he entered.
To be continued...