Mr. Pufferton and the Last Magazine: Part Two
Chapter 2 – In Which Robbery of Two Kinds is Perpetrated
"No, look, you don't seem to understand."
"I understand you, young Techo. You would like the stamp with the attacking pirates."
"No, see, that's the thing. I don't want that one. I want the one with the captain of the pirates. You know? The scary Lupe? Remember when he was messing around with Maraqua?"
"...Are you sure you don't mean the one with the attacking pirates? That stamp is quite popular."
"Look, you doddering old Chia, I'm here with a check for more neopoints than I'll ever see in my entire life, and you're sitting here trying to sell me literal garbage. Now are you going to sell me the Scarblade stamp, or am I going to have to sail all the way to Mystery Island to try to get it off one of the scam artists at the trading post they've got set up? I know which I'd prefer."
The Chia pondered Argyle's words for a second, took off his glasses and replaced them, adjusted his tie. He seemed to be struggling with the question. After far too long, the old Chia appeared to reach a conclusion of sorts. "Young Techo," he said, with an air of finality, "I am quite sure that you would enjoy the stamp with the attacking pirates. It's very exciting."
Argyle St. James left the store.
The errand was not particularly hard when all was said and done. Lady Colchester, ever the affluent aristocrat, sent out for sundries when the mood struck, and the items were found with little in the way of effort. It was the sheer amount of items on the list and the sheer thickness of the shopkeepers that troubled Argyle. If it wasn't the shopkeeper at the music emporium thinking he wanted a plushie trumpet rather than a real one, it was the furniture shop mistaking a bureau for a dresser. These grievances had delayed Argyle so severely that dusk's tendrils were already stealing across the tops of the roofs as he made his way into the last of his destinations.
The bookshop was dusty. This was an inherent problem of bookshops, Argyle had found, and it made the entering of them particularly distasteful. The owners of the shops did not seem to notice the dustiness of their property or, if they did, they found it none too bothersome. Argyle St. James thought they would do rather more business if some semblance of cleanliness could be found to infest the establishments. The proprietor of Neopia Central's Magical Bookshop, however, did not appear to share the sentiment.
The Blue Nimmo was, when Argyle entered, arranging several dusty tomes on the highest rows of an even dustier bookshelf. He managed this feat by standing on the higher rungs of a decrepit ladder that, by all rights, should itself have turned to dust long ago. Argyle could not wait to leave.
"Ahem." Argyle cleared his throat partly to alert the Nimmo to his presence and partly to dislodge the ancient particles clinging to the inside of his windpipe.
The Nimmo glanced down from his perch, made a crackling noise of delight, and hurriedly shoved the rest of his books into the shelf. He then descended from the ladder with undue haste and scurried behind the counter with not half as much speed. The unfortunate Nimmo seemed to have spent far too many years hunched over a novel, and his back arched ferociously as he walked.
"Welcome to my Magical Bookshop!" the Nimmo croaked in a voice that sounded at once like rustling parchment and death incarnate. "Might I interest you in a book, my boy?"
Argyle ignored the offer and instead dropped several shopping bags on the ground to free a hand. He groped in his pocket and, finding what he sought, pulled Lady Colchester's list out. "No, not a book," he said, absent-mindedly. "I'm looking for... ah... oh sniddberries, she didn't write it down. Er..." Argyle looked desperately around the store. "I don't suppose you have a magazine rack in here?"
The Nimmo's face convulsed in horror, and he looked as though he might keel over and die right then and there. Instead, he jabbed a bony finger towards the corner of the store nearest the door and held it there, quivering. "There," he hissed. "Stocked with the latest trash so none of your type can complain." Without waiting for an answer, he crept back to his ladder, hefted a pile of books from an unseen box, and began making his timeless way back up to the peaks of the store.
Argyle snorted and turned his attention to the storefront. The magazine rack was indeed tucked away in the corner where it might be left unseen by the shop's proper clientele. He turned the rack listlessly, trying to remember what particular magazine he'd been instructed to buy. The title of one, Feasts and Fetes, stood out to him as being pompous enough to have been the one, and he snatched it off the rack, leaving behind an empty slot. Evidently it was a popular journal and the last of its kind this week.
As Argyle made his way back to the counter to pay for the thing, the door to the bookshop swung open, and a Disco Grarrl sauntered his way into the shop. His aviator sunglasses, leather jacket, and tangled mop of hair all spoke to a more streetwise than booksmart personality, and Argyle wondered if he had accidentally wandered into the wrong store.
"Ahem." Argyle cleared his throat as he approached the counter, partly to alert the Nimmo to his presence and partly to dislodge the dust from his windpipe.
The Nimmo glanced down from the top of the ladder, noticed who was waiting to be served, and returned to his previous task with no more haste than he had ascribed it before. He delicately placed each book in its assigned place on the shelf, climbed carefully down the ladder, and began walking towards the counter with the same urgency usually reserved for glacial movements.
"I hate to rush you," Argyle said, lying through his lips, "but I'm on something of a schedule. Think you could hurry it up there?" As the words left his mouth, he heard a strangled cry behind him. He turned to see the Grarrl turning the magazine rack furiously. "And I think you might want to check on that guy. Not sure he's the kind you want in here."
The Nimmo ignored every word of Argyle's attempt at conversation. His pace quickened not a bit, and he shot only the most cursory of glances at the Grarrl. When he finally arrived at the counter, he took one look at Feasts and Fetes and grumbled, "Five thousand neopoints."
Argyle St. James was used to exorbitant prices. He worked for a rich Bruce who maintained other rich friends. At parties, on trips, and even on a daily basis, Argyle had to deal with things that cost far more than he was used to. But for a weekly magazine to cost half a month's pay was simply beyond him.
"Five thousand neopoints, sir." The pointed tone of the Nimmo drew Argyle out of his fiscal stupor.
"Five thousand?" he spluttered. "Are you out of your mind? I could live for a whole week on five thousand neopoints! And you want me to fork over that kind of cash on, on, on this garbage?"
The storekeeper arched a bushy white eyebrow. "Why, sir," he said in a tone of delicate condescension, "I should have thought that your type would be eager to throw away good money on tripe such as this."
Argyle could have spit in his face. Remembering his mission, however, and the importance of keeping Mr. Pufferton's lady friend happy, he merely grimaced and reached into his pocket. "Five thousand it is." He removed the appropriate amount of money, dropped it insolently on the counter, and took the magazine, shoving it into one of his several other bags.
As he made his way out of the bookstore, he brushed past the Grarrl, who was still agitatedly scouring the magazine rack. "Hey pal," Argyle noted, "you're better off not wasting your money. Guy's running the best racket I've ever seen." He delivered a conspiratorial wink to the bemused pet before leaving the antiquated tomb, hoping never to return.
He wasn't ten steps out of the door when a claw gripped him from behind. Argyle spun around, expecting (and inwardly hoping) and that he might have to fight off a pack of ruffians bent on acquiring Lady Colchester's goods. It wasn't often he got to demonstrate his physical prowess as Mr. Pufferton's manservant. Argyle deflated somewhat when he found that the claw belonged to no ne'er-do-well but the Disco Grarrl whom he had just seen.
"What do you want?" Argyle's demand was rather more threatening than necessary. The offending Grarrl looked more anxious than angry. His response was even moreso.
"You, er, you just picked up the last copy of Feasts and Fetes, yeah?"
"What of it?"
"I'll buy it from you. Full five thousand neopoints."
Argyle had expected something of the sort. The Grarrl was clearly a fan of the magazine and, finding it sold out, would stop at nothing to procure the latest issue. "Sorry, pal. Can't let you have it."
"Ten thousand, then. I really want a... er... a recipe from that issue."
Argyle stared. A full month's pay for the few pages of paper stuffed unceremoniously in the bag in his hands. He could simply tell Lady Colchester that the store was already sold out when he arrived, a situation that would almost certainly have been the case if he had entered the building only ten minutes later. Duty, unfortunately, got in the way of Argyle's thoughts. "It's for a special client, bud. She'd have my hide if I let this little baby get away."
The last vestiges of sunlight danced across the rooftops and shone a scar of bright pink across the Grarrl's face. His eyes were wide, rolling desperately. "A hundred thousand!" The cry wrenched itself from between his teeth like a starving man begging for food. The Grarrl dug into a pocket of the leather jacket and drew out wads of bills. The paper filled his claw and spilled into the street. "A hundred thousand neopoints for that magazine!" Passersby began to look.
Argyle was nervous now. This Grarrl was not normal. He was offering near on a full year's worth of pay for a worthless food mag. "Look... friend... if you'd come to me yesterday with the same offer, I'd have thrown this rag at you and gone home skipping. But Lady Colchester's got me on her line now, and if I don't deliver this thing to her... well... let's just say I wouldn't be around for you to make any more offers to me, yeah?" He left then, hoping to put as much distance between himself and the Grarrl before he decided that taking the magazine from the Techo was much more worthwhile than attempting to pay for it.
It was nearing ten o'clock by the time Argyle St. James arrived back at Barnaby Downs, and it was almost half past by the time he could convince Old Shamus, the obstinate gardener, that yes, he was Argyle and yes, he was allowed to be on the premises without being threatened by a pitchfork.
"Speaking of trespassers, is Lady Colchester still around?" Argyle silently hoped that the impossible Lutari had retired to her own manse for the night instead of staying in Mr. Pufferton's spare room.
"She's inside, guv," Old Shamus cackled. "Ol' Puff took her for a stroll around the 'zaleas and I heard 'em sayin' how she wasn' to worry her little head about nuffink wot wif the guest rooms done up an' all. S'pose they're waitin' for your pretty little face right 'bout now."
Argyle groaned and pushed his way past the still-cackling Quiggle. It had been too much to hope that Lady Colchester was gone; Mr. Pufferton never wasted an opportunity to leech more money off of the unfortunate woman. And now with her staying in the Pufferton estate overnight, Argyle would be forced to meet with her without the benefit of having had a full night's sleep to recover.
As he pushed his way through the large front doors, Argyle was immediately set upon by the sounds of cutlery clinking and the dim rumble of several conversations happening at once. "A party?" he muttered. "Blasted Lutari isn't just staying the night... she invited everyone else to do the same." Argyle deposited his bags beside the doors to the dining room and, instead of making a scene of barging into the middle of a dinner party, he made his way down the hall to the kitchen. Chef would make for pleasant conversation at least.
The Pirate Skeith known only as Chef was an acquisition from one of Mr. Pufferton's trips abroad. He had returned from Krawk Island several years back with the Skeith in tow and nothing but praise for his abilities. It was well-deserved praise; Argyle had never tasted food quite so good as the fare that Chef created, and the Skeith was not so arrogant as to deny that others might have important advice. Argyle made sure to stop by at least once a day to talk with the culinary wizard about his latest creations and to offer criticisms where necessary.
"Hey, Chef. I was-" Argyle began to ask about the impromptu party taking place in the room next door when his query was suddenly stifled by a tart being thrust into his mouth.
"Here, try this. Brie, sage, shallots, and egg wrapped in a buttermilk pastry dough. Think it needs honey?" The gruff Skeith reached into a nearby cupboard, pulled out a jar of thick liquid, and forced a spoonful into Argyle's semi-resisting gullet. "How's that? Better? I thought about honeying the crust itself, but I think maybe a honeyed mustard jus might be more appropriate."
Argyle swallowed heavily and waved away Chef's offer of another bite of tart. "It could use fewer shallots and more brie."
"Fewer shallots, you say? Aye, that might do the trick."
"Enough about shallots, Chef. What's all this get-up in the dining room? Puffs didn't hook you into catering for Lady Colchester, did he?"
Chef's grizzled face broke into a checkerboard grin. "Aye, the good Lady thought that a party would be in order tonight. She's in a spending mood, St. James, and she weren't thrifty on the ingredients. Cheeses, roasts, salads, and more bubbly than I've seen in a long time. Them back on Krawk Island never put back as much grog as these powdered types can tipple."
Argyle was in no mood to serve at Mr. Pufferton's side tonight. "When you bring out the next course, I don't suppose you could tell Puffs that Lady Colchester's bags are outside the door and that I've turned in for the night? Bit of a rough day in the city."
Chef nodded his assent and returned to his stove, where a dish of unknown composition had just caught fire. Argyle left the Skeith to his culinary pursuits and exited the stifling kitchen into the more refreshing climate of the hallway. The sounds of exuberant conversation were heard once more. Argyle dragged himself toward the staircase at the end of the hall that would lead up to his bedroom. It had been a very long day indeed.
The midnight air was rent by the sound of shattering glass followed almost immediately by a piercing shriek. The lights in the large mansion were all out, and the hallways were ghostly in the pale moonlight. Argyle, eyes half-closed in sleep, stumbled out from his door only to see other dark figures leaning out of their doors up and down the hallway; the party guests were all invited to spend the night. Sleepy murmurs filled the air. The shriek had dissipated.
"Anyone know what's happening?" Argyle asked the hallway at large. He was ignored almost entirely. Mr. Pufferton, who slept in the room across the hall, emerged grandiosely from his chambers, clad in lavender silk pajamas and wearing an absurd nightcap on his head.
"Argyle, I do believe Lady Colchester is the cause of this ruckus. Be so good as to see what the dear lady requires."
The cause of Lady Colchester's consternation was immediately apparent upon entering her room. The contents of every wardrobe, closet, and bureau were scattered across the floor, the Lutari herself was huddled in her four-poster, sheets drawn up to her neck, and the curtains around the window were fluttering in the breeze that whirled through the newly-created hole in the glass.
"My dear Lady Colchester..." Mr. Pufferton sat down on the side of the bed and put a comforting flipper around the quivering Lutari. "Are you alright? You are not harmed in any way?"
"N-n-no, Mr. P-pufferton. I-I'll be okay... Heavens if he didn't frighten the l-living daylights out of me, though!" She accompanied this last with a frightened chuckle as if to laugh the fear out of herself. Mr. Pufferton smiled and pulled her into a soft embrace.
"Argyle, go rouse Shamus from his slumber. I request the two of you search the premises and see if you can't find our dastardly scoundrel." Argyle nodded and left immediately. Mr. Pufferton returned his attention to Lady Colchester. "Now, Lady Colchester... Cynthia... if you're feeling well enough, it would be wise for us to see what the thief has taken."
The Lutari looked up at Mr. Pufferton, her hair in rollers, her eyes bloodshot. The Bruce looked down at Lady Colchester, his lavender nightcap drooping, his beak turned up in a smile. Many unsaid things passed between the two of them as they looked at each other, not the least of which was Mr. Pufferton's thought that the Lutari really had been much more beautiful ten years prior.
"Yes, of course... Mephistopheles. Would you be so kind as to help me up?"
Half an hour later, the grandfather clock in the foyer struck one, Argyle returned from his fruitless mission, and Mr. Pufferton and Lady Colchester finished their search of the room. The only thing missing, as far as they could tell, was a single trivial object.
"It's the most curious thing, Mr. Pufferton! Out of all the jewels and heirlooms, why would he only take my copy of Feasts and Fetes? It's only worth about five thousand neopoints..."
Mr. Pufferton placed the tips of his flippers together and brought them together so the tip of his beak could rest upon the conjunction. It was the position he took whenever he was deep in thought. "Lady Colchester," he intoned, "while I share your astonishment, I must confess I differ from your opinion on one singular point. I believe that your culinary magazine was, in fact, the most valuable object in the room."
To be continued...