ARC 2 - Chapter : Seen and Unseen
“That’s the greenhouse?”
Tucker stared in awe at what amounted to a hulking structure of steel and glass that rose like a baking cake nearly two floors high. The glass was the only bit that gave the building the distinction of being a greenhouse. That, and the plants that showed through the sparkling windows. The rest of the place was more like an extension of the Thorne Mansion than anything else. The bottom of the building was made up of the same stone as the manor, rising off the comfortable green lawn about waist high. This was the foundation that supported everything.
The rest of the place was as fragile as a set of fine china, or at least appeared that way.
“Yep,” said J.D. “Must be nice to have money, eh?”
That wasn’t exactly what Tucker was thinking. He was more concerned that the Thorne’s entire operation depended on a flimsy setup of open orchards and breakable glass.
“It’s just…glass…” he muttered in disbelief. At the very least he had expected a tall wall surrounding the greenhouse, but there was none.
J.D. did not catch on easily.
“What’s the matter with it? Doesn’t it look like a perfectly serviceable place to grow and harvest plants?”
“Sure…” said Tucker. “It’s just that…well. With such valuable and hard to grow plants around, I would have done more to protect my crops if it were me. But, what do I know? There are people where I come from who don’t even lock their doors at night.”
“Now that sounds reckless,” J.D. said with a jab of his finger. “But to address the issue, yes. One would hope that there was some extra precaution taken. The issue here is that West Arran is not a place known for its crime. An event like this is kind of an anomaly - hence the big pay day. Hmmm… Yeah. Now that is a big problem.”
They had come around the side of the structure and found that the hidden wall that faced the orchard of trees had been busted into. The sight of the broken glass and twisted steel frame was jarring among the beauty of the rest.
Beside the damage was a door that was locked when Tucker tried it. He glanced at J.D.
“So, they did use some precaution. It just wasn’t enough.” Noted.
Tucker crouched down to examine the bottom lip of the busted window more closely.
Investigative Skills Increased. You are detail-oriented. Nothing gets past you - and that’s a testament to your dedication to justice. Let nothing be overlooked!
See your Codex for more.
“Hmm…” muttered Tucker as he searched for markings on the stone lip that the window sat on.
“What are you looking for?” asked J.D.
“Footprints,” Tucker answered. “The ground is soft and moist enough that markings may have been left on the stone if whatever did the stealing managed to step on this ledge…”
It was a nice thought, but on closer inspection there were no wet markings on the stone lip. This was because the dampness of the past few nights had left a wet sheen on the stone, erasing any outline that a foot or boot would have made.
“Anything?” asked J.D. Tucker shook his head.
“The crime scene has been left too long. Water has gotten everywhere - at least on the outside. We might have luck inside. Come on.”
They took the same route that the thief had done and found themselves in the middle of a small interior forest. For all its visual splendor - green leaves decorated with bright blue veins and purple undersides - it was the smell that made the greatest impression on Tucker. There was a warm aroma of moist potting soil. Mixed with that was a hint of citrus which left a tangy taste, like lemon, on the back of Tucker’s tongue as he opened his mouth.
“Smells ripe,” said J.D. “No wonder the thief is striking now. A harvest this potent is incredibly valuable. See? They started taking entire trees with them just as Lady Thorne said.”
He pointed out the trail of dirt that wove around the polished stone floor, ending at the busted window. On the other end was the round spot where a potted tree had once stood - now empty and out of place.
Examining the trail, Tucker noticed that there were spots where the culprit’s feet, whether booted or otherwise, had shuffled, but it was too messy to make out a pattern. The tree must have been heavy because the dirt trail was a mess that suggested much heaving and dragging. To test out his theory, Tucker went over to another potted tree and tried to lift it.
“Holy cow!” he said, giving up after only a few seconds. “These things are crazy heavy!”
“What do you expect?” J.D. chuckled. “They’re trees! The Ancients never meant for them to be lugged around, unless one of them sprouted legs and moved itself. It’s bound to be hard work.”
“That’s what I mean,” Tucker went on. “See the trail? It goes all over the place, which leads me to believe that the culprit acted alone. They struggled quite a bit. If there had been more than one, it would be less chaotic and not as much soil would have been spilled.”
“They could be setting it up to appear that way,” J.D. added. “Keep that in mind.”
Deciding that now was as good a time as any, Tucker pulled out his Codex. He had been accumulating so much information as he went along that there had to be something that could help him now.
The book felt good in his hands as he flipped through it. There were many pages that he had already absorbed so those were like normal pieces of paper. Further in, however, the pages took on a bluish glow that alerted him to information that was new. He stopped on a specific page with the heading “Thorne Manor” and started to read.
Thorne Manor has been an institution in West Arran for three hundred years. Founded by Alastair Thorne, the home has been passed from generation to generation up to the present. It has only been in the past two hundred years that the property was developed to produce Anthroot fruit, well-known for their usage in healing potions. To the family’s surprise and delight, the soil surrounding the mansion produced potent fruit that soon became extremely valuable. To this day the Anthroot fruit is one of the most sought-after exports in Acaedia.
The current owners of the estate are Hamish Thorne and his wife Delise. Along with their daughter, the family continues the rich tradition of harvesting Anthroot each year. To help with this burden, the family employs up to fifty workers who run on shifts to harvest the fruit in a timely manner.
“Fifty workers?!” He smacked a hand on his forehead. “How are we going to find the time to interview fifty workers? That’s impossible.”
“That’s why we’re not going to do it,” said J.D. “I’m not crazy enough to try something like that. The trick will be interviewing the right workers. And don’t be stupid,” he added with a grin. “There won’t be fifty workers. Didn’t Lady Thorne say that some of them have gone on strike or quit because of all the thievery?”
“You’re right about that,” said Tucker. “But, how many of them do you suppose have quit?”
“There’s only one way to find out,” said J.D. and he pointed out through the windows of the greenhouse to the rows of young trees beyond where a few workers were assembling in the early morning light. They looked weathered, yet still young, with tough skin and hands covered in thick gardening gloves. A few of them had rakes in hand or other gardening tools.
“Who should we ask first?” Tucker wondered.
The men and women would likely have their guard up, especially with the mischief recently. Not to mention Tucker’s concealed appearance and it looked like an uphill battle.
Yet J.D. set his mind at ease as he reminded Tucker that they had the necklaces of the Thorne family sigil around their necks, so that settled things for Tucker.
He left the greenhouse and approached the nearest worker - an elderly gentleman with bright white hair and a messy, if short, beard.
Tucker was glad that his approach was met with warmth instead of suspicion, as he expected. The majority of the workers that stood around observed Tucker and J.D. with skeptical glances, mostly keeping to their own conversations which were said in hushed tones.
“Ah,” said the bearded man with a warm smile on his face. “You two must be the ones investigating the burglary.”
“What gave it away?” asked Tucker, returning the friendly tone of the greeting. Maybe being friendly was the trick to dealing with this mysterious incident, he thought. Where some players of RPGs liked to get information out of the NPCs with intimidation, Tucker only resorted to that tactic when he absolutely needed to. For the most part, he liked to get the townspeople on his good side in case he needed their help or guidance later on. This seemed like the correct approach here because the man chuckled.
“I’d think it obvious that the necklaces you both have on are none other than Lady Thorne’s tokens.” He clapped his hands together to free them of some dirt. “When you’ve worked for the Thornes as long as I have, it’s hard for things to slip by unnoticed. Every detail is important in a household such as this. It’s keeping track of the details that marks a skilled servant apart from the rest.” With the dirt removed from his hand, he held out to shake with Tucker. “The name’s Laurel, and I’m pleased to be of service to you both.”
Tucker and J.D. both introduced themselves, and for the first time since they started out onto the property, J.D. asked some questions.
“You said you’ve worked for the Thorne’s a long time?”
Another chuckle from Laurel. The man seemed easily amused and perpetually of good cheer, despite the dire circumstances that had settled over the estate.
“If you call fifty years a long time,” Laurel answered. “Yes, I started here as a cleaning boy and worked my way up. Emptying chamber pots and that sort of stuff. Not glamorous, but the pay was nice. Good food is a great motivator when you’re stubborn. If you don’t work, you don’t eat, am I right?”
J.D. shrugged. “Unless you can steal what you need.”
The smile didn’t leave Laurel’s face, but it took on a slightly forced look. He pointed a finger at J.D. as he continued the conversation.
“Don’t think that stealing isn’t work. It may not be honest, but there’s nothing particularly easy about it. Not only do you have to pull a fast one to not get caught, but you also have to deal with the fear that someday you will be found out. Personally, I would never choose that kind of life. Things are already stressful as it is, just by nature. I don’t need to add any more anxiety than I’m currently experiencing in my daily life.”
“Some people like to take that chance, though,” said Tucker.
Laurel forced his smile into a downward show of indifference.
“Sadly. Still, even with the thief out on the loose, I have no doubt that two investigators such as yourselves will be able to bring them to light. That’s why you’re here. So, what can I do for you?”
“We’re looking for any leads that you - or anyone else here - might have.” Tucker crossed his arms, thankful that his Codex would do all the note taking that he would need.
Laurel scratched the back of his neck as he pondered the proposal. “Well…I don’t have very much that I can add, as far as leads go. Mostly I work during the daytime, and all the thievery has happened at night. I’m an old man. My bed time is pretty early. Once the sun sets, it’s just a matter of time before I pass out in my bed. Usually that’s right when I hit the hay.” He motioned to the other few workers standing in the background. “As for the others…well, they might know more than me. They’re younger and more robust. But, something tells me that they might be less inclined to talk. Some of them think that too much information has gotten out as it is, if you get my meaning.”
“No,” Tucker replied. “I don’t exactly. What do you mean?”
Laurel’s eyes narrowed, sparkling with amusement.
“You haven’t been around too many wealthy families, have you?” he asked. When Tucker shook his head, Laurel nodded. “Right. You see, the thing is, a family is only as powerful as they appear. Money is important, yes. But, it’s not the be-all end-all of power. Wealth is just a cog in the machine of power. Sometimes there’s more value in how a household is perceived by the community.” He glanced up at the manor. “The Thornes have been a part of this area for generations. In that time they’ve worked hard to keep up appearances. Not many outside of these walls know the inner workings of the manor. The cogs in the water wheel are the great secret, and the great power of the entire operation. And, as you have no doubt seen so far, with one leak, an entire ship can be brought to the bottom of the ocean.”
His eyes returned to the other workers. “So, as you can understand, many of my co-workers are loathe to say anything. They believe that enough damage has been done. But, then again, you have me. I’ll try to help in any way that I can - assuming that you keep the information to yourselves.”
Tucker nodded. He appreciated the man’s candor. Yet, if Laurel hadn’t seen the culprit of these burglaries - even in shadows - then another approach would be needed to put the puzzle pieces together.
“So, you haven’t seen anything suspicious during the daytime,” Tucker started, speaking carefully. “What about the master of the house? We haven’t seen him at all. Lady Thorne said that he was off on business. Isn’t his business here? Especially when his harvest is being stolen?”
“Very astute of you,” Laurel answered. “And, true, Lord Thorne isn’t here. But, you’re wrong. His business isn’t only at the manor. It’s an important place, but hardly the only place that he would be found. I can tell you this: He’s currently traveling to keep up appearances. Nobody outside of this house and a few others know that our harvest has been compromised - and Lord Thorne wants to keep it that way. Could you imagine if his buyers suddenly were to find out that there was someone stealing the precious Anthroot? What would that say about the family? That they couldn’t protect their own investments?” Laurel shook his head. “No. That wouldn’t do at all. So, the Lord is off to draw the attention of his buyers away from the operation until the thief - or thieves, I should say, are apprehended and brought to justice.” He looked as if he had a thought suddenly, then chuckled and added, “I suppose that Lady Thorne could have gone to do the diversion, but she’s integral to the operations here. I think you’ll find that she doesn’t settle for nonsense. When something goes wrong, she wants it fixed straight away. After all, she’s the one who decided to put out the word that we are in need of two investigators such as yourself. It’s a big gamble, but the potential loss of harvest is worth it if the thieves are eliminated.”
“And once that’s done,” Tucker said, “will the Thornes be fixing their security? Meaning, specifically, these low fences?”
“I believe that’s the plan, yes,” said Laurel. “Though don’t quote me on that. They haven’t done anything so far as I know, but I’d imagine that once the thieves are caught, there will be some big changes in the estate. Burglars are becoming more daring in these modern times. Nothing seems sacred any more. Who would be so selfish as to put their own ambitions above the livelihood of an entire household of people?” He shook his head. “It’s a sad state that we’re in, but all the more important that you figure out who has done this.”
Tucker decided on a new branch to try.
“What about the buyers?” he asked. “Have there been any changes in how the family does business that would anger their customers? Have they raised prices or anything like that?”
“Not that I know of,” said Laurel. “Prices have stayed the same the past two or three years. There was a big outcry about the price of potions a couple years back. Some folks in Acaedia were appalled that something as essential as healing potions could demand such a high price. Naturally, the Thornes didn’t want to be responsible for causing hardship in the surrounding towns, so they agreed to cap the prices of the Anthroot at a set amount. So far they haven’t gone back on their word. Other places have raised their prices, but they saw their business decline as most folks couldn’t afford to divert any more of their incomes. Some made due with the meager potions that they already had, which aren’t as potent as the ones made from fresh Anthroot. Those are made out of powdered stuff. You can always tell the difference. Fresh Anthroot has a kick to it. The powder isn’t the same. But, you buy what you can afford, I’m afraid.”
“True enough…” Tucker was starting to notice that for all the fantastic elements of Acaedia, a lot of its economic workings weren’t too far off from what he had experienced in the real world. People still struggled with poverty. Necessities were sometimes hard to come by, and when that happened, people resorted to stealing or swindling others. He couldn’t help but be reminded of how Vinny had taken advantage of him by charging him a ridiculous amount of money for rent. That was one injustice out of many, and it sickened him to think that instead of getting a job and earning what he had the honorable way, Vinny would rather take the money from Tucker to fund his lazy lifestyle. He wondered if the people taking the Anthroot from the Thornes were the same kind of good-for-nothings looking for a handout.
Another thought came to mind.
“What about animals?” he pressed on. “Any strange creatures lurking about that you’ve seen, or even heard about?”
“Hmmm…” Laurel scratched his beard. “You know, nothing really sticks out. But, there has been more activity with the changing of the seasons. There usually is, but it rarely affects our operation. Most animals in the area are too afraid of us humans to come close, and that goes for at night as well. The lights in the windows usually ward them off. But, who knows? Maybe I’m just not keeping my eyes as open as I should be.”
“Maybe,” J.D. took over this time, giving Tucker a break. “You haven’t seen any footprints or things like that? Claw marks?”
“Claw marks?” Laurel chuckled. “It doesn’t exactly take claws to get through a glass window. Of course, I heard talk early on that it might be an animal stealing the Anthroot. It made sense at first.”
“What do you mean?” asked Tucker, feeling like they had suddenly struck a vein.
“Well…” Laurel scratched his beard some more. “Initially I believed, like the others, that it was an animal that we were dealing with. That was when the thievery was out in the orchard. Trees were stripped clean when we had just checked on them the day before. Seemed normal. You can’t exactly stop birds and creatures like that from feeding off the Anthroot. But now with the greenhouse busted into…” He shook his head. “I doubt any animal would be so desperate for Anthroot that they would ignore all the trees left in the field and go for the most potent ones in the nursery. No. I think saying that it was an animal all this time is a false lead. You can quote me on that one, too.”
Tucker finally felt like they were narrowing things down. He nodded, considering what he had just been told. “So the culprit might be a person after all,” he muttered.
Laurel raised an eyebrow.
“Did the Lady tell you that it was an animal?”
“She did,” J.D. replied. “So, I thought that I was going to be coming up against some kind of creature, hence all the swords and such.”
“Ah,” Laurel stroked at the tip of his beard. “You may still need the swords yet. But, something tells me that she was only saying that it was a creature to keep the rumors at bay. Sounds much more natural to say that an animal is pestering the crops as opposed to a cunning thief making off with the merchandise, wouldn’t you say?”
Tucker agreed. There was a lot of secrecy going on - on both sides of the equation. Not only was the family trying to make it appear that they weren’t suffering from burglary, but the burglars themselves were also flying under the radar. Since they seemed to know when to strike when nobody was looking, Tucker was inclined to believe that the thieves were involved in the Thorne’s business. That meant that Lady Thorne was right to keep things quiet. If she caused a stink, it might scare off the thieves and they would get away with everything.
While they were still working with the family, however, the thieves were in easy reach to discover and apprehend.
“I think we’re almost done here,” Tucker said, ready to regroup with J.D. privately and discuss what they had been told. “My last question might seem a bit forward…but, what do you know about the Thorne’s daughter?”
As Tucker expected, the question caught Laurel off guard. He straightened up.
“Kiara?” he replied. “What would she have to do with any of this?”
“That’s what I’m curious about,” said Tucker. “Lady Thorne told us that we were to keep her out of out investigations, yet we’ve only seen her in fleeting glimpses. It’s like she’s being kept away from the rest of the household. Why is that?”
“She’s been battling a sickness the past month or so,” Laurel explained. “Been troubling the little lady for a while. Nothing has really shaken the spell from her. Just seems to get worse. Lord Thorne thought that it might be the cold air, so they agreed that she should stay inside and try to ward off whatever it is with heat.” There was a sadness in the man’s eyes just then. “Poor little thing. Barely started her life and now she’s fighting for it. The family is very protective of her. She’s their only child, after all. No visitors allowed in case of contamination. Does that answer your question?”
Tucker had to keep a poker face on as he absorbed everything that had just been revealed. A new lead. He hoped that the Codex was recording it all.
“Perfectly,” he said. “Laurel, thank-you for your time. You’ve given us a great deal to look into. We should be off to begin our plans.”
With another handshake, Tucker and J.D. were off.
Bio: I have been a writer pretty much from the time I could hold a pencil and scribble letters. I am looking to develop my craft and better my storytelling. I am a huge fan of fantasy and horror in all their incarnations. When I'm not reading, I'm usually hunting for Legos. You can find me trying to decipher the mini-figure blind bags at the local big-box store.