The Case of the Missing Pilot!
Welcome to Aventura!
The vandalized rusty old sign shook as the car passed it.
Aventura, California stretched from the bay in the West all the way to the foothills in the East. People had lived here continuously for the last six thousand years, but it’d only existed as a city for the last hundred and fifty. Esteban had never been through here before. Not with his dad or his mom. Not surprising. It was a two day drive just to get here. Between the cave system, the tar pits and the beaches, he hoped he could pass the time on the weekends getting a bit of exploring and cryptid hunting in. He just hoped this Summer program wouldn’t be too super boring.
Hero Prep. Sounded like something a bunch of nerds came up with so they wouldn’t have to rough it in the woods like a real summer camp. And now Esteban was going to be part of it. He got bored of listening to his Cryptozoology podcast and turned to his dad.
“So, how do you know these people?” Esteban asked.
“I’ve worked with them before,” Geraldo said, checking his map app again. “Noah’s a great guy. He’s the director. Been doing this for years. You’ll be in good hands.”
“Does he just do this Hero Prep thing or…?”
“Among other things. Why?”
“I tried looking them up and couldn’t find anything about the Hero Prep program or Labrys.”
“The people who run it? I thought you knew them.”
“Well, I mean, I know the people. Must have changed their name recently.”
“You don’t think any of this is weird?” Esteban asked.
“Of course not. Noah runs exclusive programs for exclusive clienteles. He doesn’t necessarily… advertise to the general public,” Geraldo said.
“Because his clients like their privacy,” Geraldo replied. Esteban sighed. Geraldo patted his shoulder. “You’re gonna love it, kiddo. Trust me. And think of all the great friends you’ll make! Oh, I’m jealous.”
“I said I’d be fine, dad. You don’t have to pretend this is such a great program.”
“I know. I’m just excited is all.”
Sure you are, Esteban thought. “Try not to have too much fun in Paris. And Rome. And Istanbul.”
“Work’s never fun, son. Not when you’re not around.”
“It’ll be good. It’ll be great,” Geraldo said, though it sounded like he was trying to convince himself.
They stopped in front of an old apartment building. It was eight stories high with a big courtyard, surrounded by a wrought iron fence. A weathered sign out front read: Minos Flats.
“Here we go,” Geraldo said. Esteban frowned.
“This is it?”
“Yup. Minos Flats.”
“I’m not so sure about this place.”
“Huh? 1100 Knossos Drive. No, this is it,” Geraldo said, checking the map app again.
“I mean… doesn’t it look kind of dingy though?”
One of the chains holding the Minos Flats sign broke, causing it to swing precariously in the wind.
“So it’s got a little wear and tear. It’s just very lived in. That’s all,” Geraldo said.
“It doesn’t look anything like the pamphlet.”
“Don’t nit pick, Esteban. Come on.”
The entrance fence was open, lightly moving in the breeze with a hideous metal squeaking. Esteban grabbed his luggage and followed his dad through the weedy courtyard and into the apartment building beyond. A sign that read Don’t Feed the Harpies lay on its side, consumed by overgrowth.
The main lobby was silent save for the echoes of their footsteps. The ceiling high above them was painted like the Sistine chapel, with cherubs and other cute winged creatures adorning every golden cloud. The floor was a beige marble surface with a circular jade design in the center beneath an ornate chandelier. If he looked close enough, Esteban swore he could see little fairies dancing between the chandelier glass. It was a cool optical illusion.
“Hello? I’m looking for Noah?” Geraldo called out. His voice echoed but no response came. At the front desk was a sign-in sheet and a rooming list. “Hellooo?” Geraldo called again.
“Where is everybody?” Esteban wondered.
“Must be busy with orientation stuff,” Geraldo figured.
The chandelier glass tinkled. Leaves blew in from an open window. Esteban shivered.
“I’m getting a creepy vibe from this place,” he said.
“Well, big echoey spaces are creepy so that’s perfectly normal.”
“Dad, look at this place. Are you sure you wanna leave me here?” Esteban whined.
“It’s gonna be fine. Here, sign us in and I’ll try and find Noah. Okay, sport?”
“Fine. And don’t call me sport.”
“You got it, champ.”
Geraldo walked around the front desk to a door at the end of the lobby. Esteban signed them in. He glanced at the rooming list. It was organized by floor. Each floor was labelled. Floor 1 was the Lobby. Floor 2 was Yggdrasil Lodge. Floor 3 was the Panhelena League and so on. Hero Prep Summer Smashtm was Floor 5. At least he knew where he was headed now.
Esteban looked over his shoulder. He swore he’d heard a tiny little voice just now. Had it been the wind?
“Hi,” came another tiny voice.
Esteban spun around. Where the hell was that coming from? The chandelier glass tinkled as it moved ever so slightly. Creepy vibe level rising.
“Dad?” Esteban called out. No response. “I think I’m gonna wait in the car. Okay? Okay.”
He grabbed his bags. Then he heard a loud ding from the hall on the left. Esteban leaned over to get a peek. Indeed, it was an elevator. But not just any elevator. It was an ancient looking brass contraption that could have been steam powered for all he knew. The brass elevator doors opened, as if to beckon him closer. Esteban approached cautiously. He’d never seen a model like this. It looked… custom made? Like it belonged in a building from the 1920s but updated for the modern day.
More tiny voices, so quiet he wasn’t sure he actually heard them at all, began to swirl around him.
“Are you a hero?”
“Hee hee hee.”
“Can you hear me?”
“Hee hee hee!”
“You look so brave.”
“Go to Basement Two.”
Was that a TV in the next room? Someone’s headphones blasting super loud from a desk drawer? He didn’t know what to think. Except that it was all super creepy of course and maybe it was time to leave.
Esteban jumped out of his skin. When he landed, skin intact, he found the source of the voice belonged to a teen about his age. He was very dark and had very curly hair. He was also very finely dressed, his wardrobe a variety of greens and browns that tied together very well. The teen was holding several suitcases. They looked really heavy. He didn’t seem to mind, though.
“Hey. Hi. Um, what’s up?” Esteban asked.
“Are you going up or…?” the teen asked, nodding toward the elevator.
“Huh? Oh. Right. I guess I am.”
They entered the elevator.
“What floor?” Esteban asked.
“Five please,” he said.
“Neat. That’s where I’m going.”
“Okay,” the teen said, totally uninterested. He looked very tired or very bored. Or both.
Esteban pressed the button for floor 5. The elevator hissed, dinged, and then hissed again as the doors shut. Maybe it was steam powered, he thought.
“So you’re doing this Hero Prep thing too, huh?” Esteban asked. The teen nodded. “Cool. Cool. Any idea what it is we’re actually gonna be doing all summer?”
“Probably the same stuff we always do.”
At floor 5, the doors opened to a hallway with navy carpet and cream colored wallpaper. The teen dropped the suitcases with a thud in the hall just outside the elevator next to a collection of similar suitcases and pressed the button for the lobby.
“You got a lot of bags,” Esteban noted.
“Yeah.” The elevator doors closed.
“Hope everyone’s not like this,” Esteban muttered to himself.
He surveyed his surroundings. He was in a hallway. There were doors on either side of the hallway leading to dorm style rooms. Most of the doors were plain and empty save for one or two that were covered in decorations and notes taped on to them. Straight ahead was a double door opening to some kind of common room/living area. Esteban rolled on forward. There had to be some responsible adult here he was supposed to talk to.
On cue, one of the doors seemed to open of their own accord.
“Hey you. Can you come here?”
Esteban looked around.
Esteban pushed the door open. A short kid in a black hoody with short black hair, purple highlights, black fingernails and ripped skinny jeans was unsuccessfully trying to push a table. They turned as Esteban entered the room.
“Hey,” they said.
“Hey,” Esteban replied.
“Can you help me push this table over there?” they asked.
Esteban moved the table to a spot next to a dresser with five big drawers.
“Thanks,” the kid said, getting on the table and rummaging through the drawers. “Name’s Chelo, by the way.”
“Cello? Like the instrument?”
“No. Chelo like the world famous Chelo.”
“No. This is my floor. I think.”
“Oh. Cool. You’re new, then.”
“Well, why don’t I give you the tour.”
“Sure. There’s a tour?”
“Yeah. You gotta know your way around if you want to have a good time here.” Esteban wasn’t sure what that meant, but he dropped off his stuff and followed along anyway. “What’s your name?” Chelo asked.
“Well, Esteban, what brings you to Hero Prep Summer Smash?”
“Um. My dad signed me up?”
“Well, he’s busy with work this summer, so, I’m doing this. I guess.”
“Ah. A motel kid,” Chelo nodded.
“You check in for a bit, then you check out. Like a motel.”
“Am I the motel in this scenario?”
“Nah nah nah. Keep up, Esty, or Hero Prep is going to chew you up good.”
“This is Zamir and Tay’s room,” Chelo said, knocking on the door.
Again, the door seemed to open of its own accord. The room was bathed in a golden light coming from the window. Or was it coming from the dashing Middle Eastern looking kid on the bed, strumming on a perfectly maintained guitar, each string humming with a celestial melody that pleased the senses? It was hard to say. Zamir flipped back his exceptional hair and strummed again, transporting Esteban to another universe of sensation.
“Whoa,” Esteban whispered.
“Hey, Chelo,” Zamir said with a dazzling smile.
“Hey, Z. I’d like you to meet the newest inmate. Esteban.”
“Hi. Wait, did you say inmate?” Esteban asked.
“It’s a joke. Sort of.”
“Don’t be mean, Chelo. It’s always nice to meet new faces. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Esteban,” Zamir said, saying his name with a Latin flourish.
“Uh, same,” Esteban replied, confused.
“I hope you stick around. It’s been a while since we had a new prepper,” Zamir said.
“Everything okay, Z? You look troubled,” Chelo observed.
He does? Esteban thought. Zamir huffed in a dramatic fashion.
“It’s a tragedy, Chelo. Truly there aren’t words to describe this pain I feel.”
“I lost something.”
“What’d you lose?” Esteban asked.
“The one thing that keeps me in tune. The thing I treasure the most in this world. I… I lost my harmonica,” Zamir sobbed.
“That’s it? You lost a harmonica?” Esteban asked without thinking. Zamir’s woeful eyes turned to him and he immediately felt bad.
“It’s no mere harmonica, sweet Esteban. It is a very sentimental treasure of mine.”
“Oh. Uh. Sorry. I didn’t mean…” Esteban sheepishly scratched his head.
“Plus if I had it I could finally finish this sick tune. But alas, I remain harmonicaless and unable to properly tune my guitar.”
“That’s terrible. Did you try checking your luggage? You know, for extra pockets?” Chelo asked, rummaging through Zamir’s bags.
“Yes. I’ve also checked my room and the hallway. It has vanished from my world,” said Zamir.
“Huh. Well, good luck with that,” Chelo said, waving goodbye.
“Farewell, Chelo. And Esteban?”
“If you see it, will you let me know?” Zamir asked.
“Of course. I’ll keep an eye out.”
“Thanks, Esteban. Good to meet you.”
Chelo continued down the hall with Esteban close behind.
“Pretty weird, right?” Chelo asked.
“He’s… an interesting guy,” Esteban replied.
“Yeah. But also weird. Kind of a diva too. But we love him,” Chelo said.
“Does everyone here know each other?” Esteban asked.
“Yup. Other than you, everyone on Floor 5 is a returning prepper.”
“Don’t worry, you’ll fit right in, Esty.”
“That’s not my name.”
“Sure it is. Just shorter,” Chelo replied with a devilish grin.
“I don’t like nick names. Besides, none of them work for me as Esty so clearly demonstrates.”
“So clearly demonstrates. Who talks like that? You a nerd or something?”
“Yeah. I am,” Esteban replied rather defenseively.
“Nice. I love nerds.”
“And over here is Sheridan and Deka’s room,” Chelo gestured. They cleared their throat with a nervous laugh and said, “Door’s closed so they’re probably not home k moving on.”
The door opened.
“Oh great,” Chelo sighed.
This room was adorned with all manner of weapons. Swords. Spears. Bows and arrows. Shields. Maces. Crossbows. The works. Covering every wall. Esteban was spellbound. And a little terrified.
“That’s far enough.”
The voice belonged to a blonde girl laying on her bed, legs crossed, reading a book. She wore a black head band, rough cargo pants and a loose shirt. And tan leather boots.
“Far enough for what?” Chelo asked.
“Take another step and you’ll set off all my traps.”
Esteban and Chelo looked down. They were both standing on a red X.
“Did you say traps? What is all this?” Esteban asked.
“Who are you?” a camo painted face emerging from the closet asked. Esteban yelped and almost fell backwards into Chelo. The girl emerged from the closet, grabbing him before he stepped off the X.
“Sheridan this is Esteban. Esteban, Sheridan,” Chelo said.
“Hello,” Esteban said. The girl pulled Esteban to his feet and dusted off her hands.
“New blood. Awesome,” Sheridan said flatly. She had Master level poker face because Esteban couldn’t read her at all.
“So if you’re Sheridan then the one on the bed must be…” Esteban reached for the name. It was right there. “Deku?”
“That? That’s a decoy,” Sheridan said. The girl on the bed fell over, revealing a set of carefully placed pillows, clothes and a book made to resemble a human body.
“No way! That wasn’t a person?” Esteban asked. Sheridan gave him a look, then carefully navigated the room to her bed, took the black headband off the decoy and put it on.
“Seriously, who is this guy?” she asked.
“He’s new,” Chelo said, again with an impish smile. Esteban was liking this less and less.
“Right. Well, nice to meet you. Good bye.”
“Oh. That’s it?” Esteban asked, confused.
“No offense, but I don’t have time for small talk right now. Something of mine was stolen and I intend to catch the thief when they inevitably return to the scene of the crime.”
“You’re missing something too?” Esteban asked.
“Not missing. Stolen. Why, do you know something? Have you heard anything about it?”
“Well, um, Zamir lost his harmonica. Maybe it’s related,” Esteban offered.
Sheridan eyed them both. Then she shrugged.
“Anyway, don’t set off any of my traps. If you trip one you’ll trip them all and then I’ll have to set them all up again.”
“What went missing?” Chelo asked.
Esteban laughed. Chelo and Sheridan gave him a weird look.
“That… that was a joke right?” he asked.
“This look like a joke to you?” Sheridan replied before stepping into the light of her window. Indeed, she cast not a shadow. Esteban did a double take.
“Y- you don’t…” Esteban stuttered.
“That sucks,” Chelo said.
“Don’t worry. I’ll find it. I always find my targets…”
An uncomfortable silence fell over them. Chelo shifted nervously. Sheridan didn’t blink.
“I didn’t take your shadow!” Chelo blurted.
“And why should I believe you?”
“Because I don’t steal things,” Chelo replied, outraged. Sheridan arched an eyebrow, obviously not impressed. “Okay I steal things, but only if it’s funny. And this whole missing a shadow thing isn’t very funny at all.”
“Uh huh. Keep an eye out around that one, Esteban. They love pulling pranks,” Sheridan said.
“Your shadow. It’s…” Esteban couldn’t get the words out.
“Is he okay?” Sheridan asked.
“I don’t know. Probably. Hey, where’s Deka?”
“I don’t know. Probably punching something somewhere.”
“Yeah that fits,” Chelo nodded.
“You don’t have a shadow,” Esteban blurted.
“I know. Because someone stole it,” Sheridan said, as if it were a super obvious thing.
“Okay. Well then. Moving on. Bye, Sheri,” Chelo said. They pushed Esteban out of the room and down the hall. “You okay there, bud?”
“She… didn’t have a shadow,” Esteban said because he wasn’t sure what to say. His brain couldn’t process what he’d just seen. Were his eyes broken?
“Yeah I know. Sucks when that happens.”
“But she… you…”
“You okay? You’re sweating.”
“I think I sat in the sun too long on the ride over here,” Esteban said, rubbing his head. “So not having a shadow is a bad thing?”
“Isn’t it? Seems like it’s really bothering you.”
“Is she gonna be okay?”
“Don’t let her cute face deceive you. She’s the toughest gal I’ve ever met. I call her and Deka the Violence Queens.”
“Yeah. Fighting is their whole deal. Don’t get on their bad side, whatever you do.”
“Here’s the laundryroom. Pretty self explanatory. Make friends with the washing machine and your life will be so much easier.”
She didn’t have a shadow, Esteban thought.
“Bathroom and showers. No funny business in there or they’ll banish you real quick. Fair warning.”
Why didn’t she have a shadow?
“Here’s Kavita’s room. She’s the adult in charge of this floor. She’s pretty cool.”
“And here’s the common room,” Chelo said with a wave of their arms. “There’s a fridge and a kitchen area but most of our food comes from the cafeteria on Floor 1.”
“That’s Carl’s room. He’s just Carl.”
“And over here is my room,” Chelo said, presenting the door to Room 509. “And that’s the tour.”
“Cool. Thanks for showing me around.”
“No probs, new guy.”
“I wonder which room I’m supposed to be in.”
“No clue. You should talk to Kavita about that.”
“Yeah, sounds like a- Hey wait a minute! You were in that other room going through dresser drawers.”
“That wasn’t your room?”
“Nah, that’s Pedro’s room. He’s kind of a loner. Doesn’t like roommates. Or people.”
“And you went through his stuff!”
“Well sure. How else was I supposed to find my missing notebook? I had to have left it in somebody’s dresser drawers while I was rummaging through them earlier. Figured it was worth a look.”
“But… but you… hold on. You’re missing something too?”
“Yeah. I am.”
“Why is everyone here missing stuff?”
“Beats me. Chaotic moving-in day? Some kind of thief who takes things from teenagers? Could be anything. Certainly wasn’t me.”
“That’s… that’s all really weird. Including the rummaging.”
“Aw don’t be so judgey, new guy. And here I thought you were cool.”
“Well you know what? Same here. Until I found out all this.”
“You think I’m cool?” Chelo asked, eyes lighting up.
“Well, I mean, the highlights and the nails kinda give you a neo-goth look and I think that’s pretty cool.”
“Yes! Pseudo goth was totally the look I was going for. You know, maybe you’re not so bad after all.”
“I wasn’t the one going through people’s stuff,” Esteban mumbled.
“If you weren’t a guy, I’d totally love to be your roommate. But Hero Prep has this whole no co-ed rooming allowed because of our crazy hormones or whatever, so, you know.”
“Right. Wait, you’re a girl?” Esteban asked, totally caught off guard.
“I know, crazy right? K bai.”
Chelo opened the door to her room and a gust of tornado strength wind blew out of it, knocking Esteban over. Inside the room, two other teen girls were floating in the maelstrom, not perturbed at all by the windstorm all around them. Chelo gave Esteban a mini salute and then shut the door behind her, cutting off the vortex.