Mr. Pufferton and the Last Magazine: Part Seven
Chapter 7 – In Which Pizza Toppings Are of the Utmost Importance
The docks of Neopia Central sprawled over several miles of coastline, and they ran the gamut from lavish harbors from which cruise ships departed to dingy piers where the trade ships docked and even less savory boats made their port of call. On this particular day, the Pizzaroo ships could be found at Pier 18, situated squarely in the middle of the more disreputable portion of the city's quays.
As Mephistopheles R. Pufferton and Argyle St. James approached the pier, they could see towering masts rising up from above the warehouses, outfitted with multicolored sails that offended the eye; the edges of the sail were brown and the interior was a ghastly yellow-orange. Splotches of red, green, and white speckled the yellow area.
Argyle was the first to realize what the sails were meant to be. "For Fyora's sake... even the sails are pizza."
"I'm more interested in the masts, Argyle. Why a boat with sails and not a more modern means of conveyance? I should have thought that Pizzaroo would use standard cargo ships to deliver pizzas."
"Sails are faster, Puffs. More maneuverable. Those great, puffing cargo ships can't turn on a dollar, let alone a dime."
"I see... so why does Pizzaroo need to sacrifice power for agility, I wonder?"
This question hung in the air as the rest of the ship came into sight. It was a schooner, a ship well-known for its speed. It was used almost exclusively by people up to no good, and it did not bode well for the excursion. Burly Blumaroos could be seen hopping along the deck and loading crates on board. Though affiliated with Pizzaroo, the pets looked like they would fit in better at The Golden Dubloon.
Gibraltr Fontaine, resplendent in his white suit and combed, greasy black hair, stood at the base of the gangplank, looking around impatiently. Upon noticing the Bruce and Techo threading their way through the crates on the pier, he smiled broadly and opened his arms familiarly. "Ah, Cliff. Jamie. How good of you to make it."
"You said Pier 18, and here we are." Mr. Pufferton accepted the offered embrace with grace, and enveloped the Blumaroo in his fleshy stomach. "What is it you need from us right now?"
"Right now? I need for you two to relax! Let the boys handle the heavy lifting. There's a special cabin for you two below decks. Why don't you check it out? Soon as the crates are on, we'll shove off, and we'll have plenty of time for talking. Until then, I have matters I must attend to."
"Of course, of course. Don't let us keep you."
Gibraltr Fontaine clasped Mr. Pufferton's flipper, nodded briskly, and sauntered off down the pier to verbally abuse two workmen who had spilled a crate of pizza packed in ice.
Argyle followed the green Blumaroo with a careful eye before turning back to his employer. "So are we actually going to go sit tight in our cabin?"
"I believe the appropriate expression is 'not on your life.' Come, Argyle, let us see what we can see."
The hold of Cheesy Pete (for that was the name of the schooner) was filled with stacks upon stacks of crates, nailed shut and stamped with the name of Pizzaroo as well as "DO NOT OPEN" in big, black letters. Mr. Pufferton heaved his bulk down the ladder, sucking in his expansive stomach so as to actually fit. As it was, his navy blue suit caught on a nail and ripped, leaving a jagged scar down the front of the otherwise impeccable dress.
"Blast it all, Argyle! I knew you should have come alone on this mission. Infiltration and subterfuge is your area of expertise. I'm meant to remain at the estate, cleverly solving the mystery while you do all the legwork."
"Ah, shut your beak, Puffs." Argyle nimbly leapt down the ladder and landed beside Mr. Pufferton belowdecks. "If I solved the mystery all by myself on this ship, you'd never let me hear the end of it."
Mr. Pufferton did not deign to answer. Instead, he busied himself with the inspection of a nearby crate. Various proddings and pokings did nothing to reveal the inner workings of the vessel, and it was soon apparent that Argyle would be called upon to find a means of opening the crate. This he did, finding a crowbar in a toolbox that had been placed nearby by some lazy workman.
"There must be something in here, Argyle. Something more than frozen pizzas. Gibraltr Fontaine would not stoop to sail on a ship that was carrying anything less than valuable property or information."
"I'm right there with you – urgh – Puffs. But – unh – do you really think there's anything in these – gah – crates?" Argyle's question was interspersed with the grunts and groans that accompanied his valiant efforts at prying the top off of the Pizzaroo box. A satisfying crunch came soon enough, and Argyle ripped the shards of wood off to reveal a series of pizzas stacked neatly alongside blocks of dry ice. "Looks like pizzas to me, Puffs."
Mr. Pufferton drew near and lifted one of the frozen circles out to closer examine it. "Tell me, Argyle. Do you notice anything about this pizza?"
Argyle gave the pizza a quick once-over. "Looks like a plain old pea and corn pizza to me. Wait... you don't think..." An idea slowly dawned on the gruff Techo. "They're smuggling the attack peas across Neopia using these?"
"It's a distinct possibility, Argyle." Mr. Pufferton plucked one of the frozen peas off the pizza and held it gently in his flipper. "If, when thrown into the rollicking sea, this little devil creates some waves, we'll know precisely how the global attack pea smuggling ring operates."
"We've got 'em, Puffs! They're ours!"
"Half of them," the Bruce corrected. "We have Gibraltr Fontaine and everyone underneath him neatly in our grasp. There's still the matter of finding out who actually creates these villainous objects. Come, we'll find nothing down here to incriminate a manufacturer."
The door to Gibraltr Fontaine's personal cabin was locked, and the omnipresent Blumaroo workmen prevented any attempt at picking the lock. The frozen pea from the pizza, when thrown overboard, provided a satisfactory burst of water that confirmed Mr. Pufferton's original suspicions. Unfortunately, the remainder of the ship proved otherwise lacking in clues, and it was with a dreadful air of defeat that Mr. Pufferton resigned himself to the cabin specially set aside for himself and Argyle. He had just settled himself into the sturdy hammock, reinforced to hold his massive form, when a sudden jolt shook the ship.
"That must be us leaving port," he noted. "This, then, is the point of no return."
Argyle was too restless to lay in his own hammock, and he paced the room nervously. "What's your game, Puffs? You've always got a plan. Far as I can see, though, this ship has death written all over it. No Defenders on board, no evidence except these attack peas, and a whole crew of Blumaroos who'll murder us as soon as they realize we're not on the level."
"All very true facts, my stalwart manservant, but you're forgetting one important thing."
"What's that, then?"
"I'm Mephistopheles R. Pufferton."
"Ah, right, I forgot that your mere name sends shivers down men's spines. Oh, wait, sorry, that's Judge Hog. Your name will get us killed when they realize you aren't Cliff the middleman!"
"I merely ask you to trust me, Argyle. Is that such a difficult concept for a Techo of your background? Trust?"
"I trust you, Puffs, but sometimes I wish you'd tell me the game we're playing."
"And ruin all the fun?" Mr. Pufferton winked at Argyle before closing his eyes and placing his flippers together under his beak.
"Mr. Gibraltr Fontaine requests your presence in his cabin for supper." The message was delivered by a stout blue Blumaroo with an eyepatch who looked as though he couldn't care less whether the two misfits belowdecks accepted or declined the request. He did not wait for an answer and left as soon as the last "r" had left his lips.
Mr. Pufferton and Argyle, who had not thought to bring dinner clothes, arrived at Gibraltr Fontaine's door wearing what they had had on earlier with the notable exception of Mr. Pufferton wearing a separate navy blue suit to replace the ripped one.
"Knock twice, Argyle. We mustn't show ourselves to be too keen to discuss business."
Argyle complied, and the door swung open immediately after the two knocks were delivered. Gibraltr Fontaine, still clad in his white suit, smiled a toothy grin at the two as he beckoned them into his small, private quarters. The table was set for three; no one but Gibraltr Fontaine, Mr. Pufferton, and Argyle would be dining that night. It was a small comfort, but it was reassuring to know that if things went south, there wouldn't be too many armed felons to deal with.
"Gentlemen, please, sit. We'll eat shortly, but I would like to talk business first. You know what they say about business and the meal well digested."
Mr. Pufferton did not know what they said about those particular things, but he smiled good-naturedly and sat down in one of the seats. "Business it is, Mr. Fontaine."
"Good. Great. Now, listen. You two came upon me very sudden-like, and while it's none of my beeswax who our mutual friend chooses to be the go-between, I like to make a point of knowing exactly who I'm gonna be chummy with for the foreseeable future, you know?"
"Very wise, Mr. Fontaine. Speaking of our mutual friend, though, how is he? It's been some time since I've met him face to face, and I'd rather like to know if he's still complaining about that cough?"
Something in Gibraltr Fontaine's blink scared Mr. Pufferton. "Him? Oh, yes, right, him. Cough's gone, Cliff, near as I can tell. Don't talk with him much these days."
"Of course, of course. The less mouths to feed and all that."
"Yes, all that..." Gibraltr Fontaine did not appear to be looking at Mr. Pufferton. His gaze pierced right through the Bruce's flabby tummy and seemed to go right on through the wood of the cabin walls. He shook himself suddenly and flashed his dark eyes at Mr. Pufferton. "Anyway, to business. How did you and, ah, Jamie get your start with... our mutual friend?"
"Well, how do any of us get our start in this business? I was with them since the beginning, if I recall correctly."
"The beginning, eh? Tell me all about it. Of course, I know the story from an outsider's point of view, but... it would be marvelous to hear how it went from the inside."
Argyle stood up abruptly. "'Scuse me, Mr. Fontaine, but I think I'm getting a little seasick." A sudden rock of the ship sent the poor Techo reeling, and he sped out the door without another word.
"You'll have to forgive Jamie, Mr. Fontaine. He hasn't quite got his sea legs yet."
"No trouble... Cliff. Now, back to your story."
"Oh, right, yes, well, do you remember the first thing our mutual friend ever manufactured?"
"It was a long time ago, Cliff. Remind me, will you?" Gibraltr Fontaine poured a red liquid out of a crystal decanter as he spoke. "Would you care for some grog? I confess, I only carry krakuberry, but I find the headiness of a nice red grog to be quite special."
"Why yes, thank you." Mr. Pufferton took a glassful of the grog but did not drink. He swirled the drink around as he pondered his next words. "The first job, well, it was very hush-hush. I was just a message runner back then and I was told to hold the secret until my dying day."
"Mm, very wise, very wise." Gibraltr Fontaine took a sip of his grog. "Ah, fantastic! Drink up, Cliff, drink up! You shouldn't let grog like this sit out in the air for too long. Spoils the taste."
Mr. Pufferton put the glass to his lips and took a long draught; pretending to drink the grog was a trick best reserved for children, the elderly, or those who had already had enough grog that they couldn't tell the difference. If there was poison in the drink, the krakuberry hid it well. "Delicious. Now, Mr. Fontaine, if you don't mind, I would like to ask you a few questions."
"Ah, so the river flows both ways, so to speak? It's only fair, Cliff. Ask away."
Mr. Pufferton drained the rest of his glass before continuing. "The peas. All I know is how your men get them. It would make matters easier if I knew how the beggars got their hands on them."
"Oh, Cliff, surely you don't think I would know that? In an operation such as ours, very few people get to see the big picture! And little old Gibraltr Fontaine is unlucky enough to not be one of those people."
"I see. Then perhaps you could tell me a little about your own end? Specifically, how you get our product to all of our consumers." Mr. Pufferton rubbed at his eyes. He was feeling unnaturally tired; the sun had barely just set.
"Easy as pizza pie, Cliff. Attack peas aren't anything special to look at, so we hide 'em in plain sight! Our pea and corn pizza, the stuff we're transporting right now? Call it attack pea and corn pizza." Gibraltr Fontaine snorted at his own joke. "Gets past customs lickety-split. We deliver those frozen beauties to our local folks wherever we happen to be, the peas get unloaded, your ads get read, and we do the same across the sea as we do here."
"So... so the ads are... global?" Mr. Pufferton found himself holding his eyes open with his flippers. Something was terribly wrong.
"Sure thing, Cliff. Your good work is read around the world! Ain'tcha proud of yourself... Cliff?"
"I... What's... I don't..." Mr. Pufferton tried to stand but found his legs turned to jelly. He fell hard in the seat, found it lacking in support, and crashed to the floor in a heap.
"Oh, Cliff! What's the matter? Can't handle your grog?" Gibraltr Fontaine rose to his feet and stood over the fallen aristocrat.
Mr. Pufferton fought to keep his eyes open, but Gibraltr Fontaine appeared only as a green and white blur. "Ar... gyle..."
"Argyle, huh? Is that Jamie? Shoulda figured he'd be faking too. You slipped up, Cliff. Big time."
"P... poison?" The question barely made it out of Mr. Pufferton's lips.
"Poison? You? Think I'm a murderer, Cliff? No, you're just gonna... gonna sleep for a bit. And then we'll find out what you think you know."
Mr. Pufferton opened his mouth to respond, but his tongue was as cotton. He tried to focus his eyes, to remain awake no matter the cost, but the drugged grog was too potent. Mr. Pufferton fell asleep and was as helpless as a baby.
To be continued...