We Ought Never To Have Done It: Part One
I. Present Day – Crime Scene 1120-B
In the clearing, there stands a tower.
In the dying light of the day, Detective Inspector Hiram Landsdale of the Defenders of Neopia thought it looked more like a dead tree or a bolt of branching lightning. Against the potent reds and oranges of the sun, the tower stuck out in black relief, none of the windows or doors visible. In full light, he doubted it would look much better; indeed, many of the stories told about the old Milford Estate began by mentioning its dilapidated appearance, strange spires, and altogether too tall middle tower. It stood out as the trunk of the tree, the central bolt of the lightning delta, a grotesquely large piece of architecture, spawning smaller corridors and balconies as it plunged shamelessly towards the sky. None of the stories agreed on its purpose.
No one even remembers who Milford was. Can’t think why anyone would build something out here in the boonies, Landsdale thought as his carriage rolled around a bend in the road, giving him another view of the thing rising up over the pine trees. And of course my station is the closest one. Blast those costumed buffoons, leaving the common crimes to us plainclothes cops.
It was true, in fact, that the Defenders of Neopia were broken into two main categories. The Defenders of comic book fandoms everywhere were a small subgroup who tackled high-profile cases. The majority of the Defenders were more like Detective Inspector Landsdale, humble pets with no superpowers who had to solve the robberies and disappearances of everyday life. Everyone knew who they were, but it would be a cold day in Moltara before anyone made a comic about them.
As these thoughts soured Landsdale’s mind, he found himself pawing through the file that been sent to him earlier that day. His Defender station, situated a few dozen miles outside of Neopia Central was located so as to enforce the law in a number of surrounding villages with minimal travel time. Usually this was a beneficial arrangement, with Landsdale sending several lesser officers to reside in the villages and report back if anything amiss were to happen. This way, he could sit comfortably for the majority of the week, collect a paycheck, and only come out for the more important cases.
However, the file he received earlier was a different beast altogether. It had come from one of his protected villages, yes, but as a report from someone who had gone hiking in the Barrens. These pine-covered hills filled the horizon but were another fifteen miles distant from Landsdale’s station. Getting to them required the hiring of a carriage and a four hour ride simply to reach their base. The Milford Estate, being nestled comfortably in the upper reaches of the Barrens, was yet another hour or two moving up sloping switchbacks and along narrow trails that wound through the pine trees. Having gotten the report just as he was tucking into a lunch of leftover soup, Landsdale found himself only just breaking into the hilltops as the sun set lower and lower through the tree trunks.
Blast them, he again thought darkly as his eyes traveled slowly down the file. The report was as barren as the location in which it was taken; apparently a hiker had been trailblazing through the hills and suddenly found herself in the vicinity of the Milford Estate. Being a curious sort, she started to explore the grounds when she found...something. On this point, the hiker’s statement was vague, but the officer who had taken it wrote that it involved “destruction of a wanton nature, possible breaking and entering, and very likely the disappearance of person or persons unknown.” This note was as useless as it was broad, and Landsdale suspected that what he would find at the top of the hill was nothing but the standard, slow destruction of an old house that had seen too many vandals.
He closed the file with a sigh and looked out the window again. The tower was still there in the distance, looming above him still but beginning to disappear into the dark of encroaching night. There were no lights in the windows up there. There hadn’t been for years. Suddenly, a thought struck him.
“Oy!” he called out to the bulky Usuls pulling his carriage. “Oy, slow a bit!” The carriage obligingly came to a stop and one of the Usuls, having disentangled himself from the straps, came to the side door.
“Wot is it, sir?”
“It’s getting on towards night. Do you know if there’s been a base camp set up at the estate? Or if there’s, I don’t know, a hotel…anywhere around…here?” Landsdale’s question trailed away as he noticed the Usul’s blank stare.
“You pulled us in here from Central. We know about as much as you.”
So I’m spending the night in the tower, then. Lovely. He grunted in response and motioned for the Usul to get back to pulling. He very much doubted that any of the officers from the villages would have come to assist him in his investigation. If anything, they were probably all back at their own stations, laughing at how the Detective Inspector had to spend a night in the haunted Milford Estate. There was probably already a scary story about his ordeal being drafted as he rode.
When the carriage arrived at the rusted gates, Landsdale was surprised to find another officer standing at the ready. There was only one of her, it was true, but she was an officer nonetheless, and he was relieved to know that, regardless of what else, he at least wouldn’t be stuck up here on the hilltop alone. The sun had fully set by now, and it was only by Kreludor’s light that he was able to see anything. It was not a pleasant light.
As he stepped out of the carriage, Landsdale tossed a small pouch to the Usuls and nodded brusquely. The biggest one caught it deftly and tucked it into an unseen satchel. “You need us to stick around?”
Landsdale considered for a moment before responding, “No, go on back. Central should be sending a full squad up before long, and we’ll have our own transport.” He had gone a few steps before turning back and muttering, “Thanks.”
The Usuls grunted in return before turning the carriage around and sprinting back down the hill. They were gone before Landsdale could think better of his response. Perhaps it hadn’t been the best idea to send away his only means of transportation before he was even sure that more help would be forthcoming. Possible breaking and entering did not usually merit more than an officer or two. Coupled with the lackadaisical nature of his subordinates and the sneaking suspicion that this whole thing had been a prank, Landsdale was quite ready to-
“Inspector.” The word cut across Landsdale’s silent fumings like a nightstick to the face. He looked up from the patch of dirt at which he’d been staring and finally took real notice of the officer who had been patiently awaiting his arrival. She was an Ixi, relatively plain in all respects (red, short, average strength) but had the eyes of a true Defender. Possibly been denied the chance at being one of the costumed freaks and now wallowing here with the rest of those who enjoyed the idea of justice but couldn’t quite dispense it with the BIFFs and POWs of Judge Hog.
“Yes, quite, hello.” Blast her, staring like that. “And you are?”
The Ixi gave a quick salute, not at all ironic. “Jenkins, sir! Isadora Jenkins. Happened to be first responder to the call.”
“Out here in the Barrens? You’re not part of my station.” Being the closest station to the desolate hills, Landsdale’s unit was not accustomed to other stations responding to, caring about, or even being aware of the existence of their calls.
“It’s…complicated, sir. I’m stationed at Pteri’s Rest, northwest of Central. We always get copies of reports that come from the Barrens, part of a deal some Inspector or other made a long time ago.” Jenkins shuffled appropriately and averted her eyes from Landsdale’s own. It was common courtesy to respect the jurisdiction of each station, and even something as seemingly innocent as receiving another station’s files could be seen as nigh-heresy. “In any case, I was on leave, hiking in the Barrens, when a Weewoo from my Chief Inspector dropped the report right in my hands. I felt it was necessary to investigate. They…” She stopped briefly, sizing up the Chia before her. “They said you’d probably be the one to inspect things.”
So it was as he expected. Everyone else sat back and laughed as Hiram Landsdale tackled the haunted Milford Estate. Hiram Landsdale braved the pines and the peaks and the pitiful architecture just so he could solve a case of minor vandalism. Blast the kids that dragged me out here, he thought bitterly. And blast this Ixi for expecting me. It wasn’t fair.
“So, sir…do you want to see things? I took a preliminary look around and…well, you might want to see these things for yourself.”
Despondent as he was, Landsdale didn’t notice anything curious about Jenkins’ tone, and he merely snorted in acquiescence and followed her through the gates. As they walked towards the estate, Landsdale instinctively observed the ground underneath his feet. Ahead of them were three distinct sets of tracks. Based on the prints, a Yurble, a Lupe, and a Lutari had all made their way towards the estate recently. The definition of the prints suggested that the entry was less than twenty-four hours ago.
“Three prints,” he said out loud.
“Well…yeah.” Jenkins didn’t even bother turning around to face him. “Didn’t think that was worth pointing out. But there’s something interesting about them. See it?”
Still deep in his resentful reverie, Landsdale only cast the barest of glances at the ground before saying, “Just three prints. Yurble, Lupe, Lutari. Just troublemakers. Don’t see what’s strange about that.”
“Well, this is just my way of seeing things, but…there’s only three sets.”
“Yeah, and? Like I said, Yurble, Lupe, Lutari.”
“No, that’s three pets. I’m saying, there’s only three sets.”
Landsdale’s patience was already thin, and as the sun continued fading around him and the prints were soon lost to view, his annoyance broke past the boiling point. “Three pets, three sets, what difference does it make? We’re looking for three vandals! They came, they vandalized, they left, I don’t unders-”
“But they didn’t leave, that’s the point.” Jenkins’ voice was quiet, but it cut through Landsdale’s words like a perfectly-placed lance. “That’s what I’m trying to say. Three sets, not six. Three pets walked through that gate and into the estate. There’s no tracks leaving.”
Landsdale was quiet for exactly three seconds before his anger flared up inside him. “You got me riled up for that? They probably just left some other way! It’s a forest around here! You think they couldn’t just wander off through the woods when they were done being hoodlums and vandals? Come on, Jenkins, I expected better of an officer.”
To be continued…