Mr. Pufferton and the Last Magazine: Part Five
Chapter 5 – In Which At Least Two People Fail to Disclose Vital Information
Detective Inspector Landsdale of the Defenders of Neopia did not enjoy his job nine times out of ten. Too often he was tasked with mundane tasks such as upholding the peace or ensuring the safety of Neopian civilians. The "characters," as he liked to call them got all the attention. Lightning Lenny, Judge Hog, those fancypants dress-up actors were the ones who made headlines with their high-profile cases. But it was Inspector Landsdale and his officers who really kept the streets safe. But nine times out of ten, he wished that he too could have a tight spandex uniform.
Inspector Landsdale's current situation was one of the tenth kind. When he had been informed that some Bruce over in Barnaby Downs had got hold of an attack pea, he initially assumed that it was just another aristocrat trying his hand at the Battledome. When he was subsequently informed that the attack pea had been smuggled, he began to actually enjoy his job. And when he was finally informed that the attack pea was, in all probability, a counterfeit, Inspector Landsdale fairly jumped for joy.
This good mood was dashed almost immediately upon meeting the rough green Techo who was inexplicably dressed in a coat and tails. The Techo's manner was completely at odds with his dapper dress, and when Inspector Landsdale presented himself as the Defender who would be investigating the case, he was greeted in turn with a snort of derision and a snide "Can't we get that Moehog in the tights instead?" Inspector Landsdale had pushed brusquely past the Techo, clambered through the hole where a door had once been, and emerged into the foyer where he had been told the attack pea would be waiting.
The monstrously overweight Bruce who held the pea was a calming sight; he was dressed neatly in a pale lavender dressing gown tied with a maroon sash, wore a matching nightcap on his head, and held a lavish wooden pipe up to his beak. This was the master of the house, clearly, and would answer the good Defender's questions simply and honestly.
This, at least, had been Inspector Landsdale's hope. Upon questioning the Bruce, he found that Mephistopheles R. Pufferton was as deliberately unhelpful as any convicted con. "Must have been a beggar" was the only information as to who gave him the pea, and "Can't seem to remember" was given as the exact address where the exchange took place. Inspector Landsdale was beside himself as the hour for lunch drew near.
"I can't help," he cried after failing to receive more than a sentence in response to a question, "if you're going to be so stubborn, Mr. Pufferton! If you have any information regarding this smuggling ring, it's your responsibility to tell the Defenders of Neopia, i.e. me!"
The interview had moved from the foyer into the sitting room, and Mr. Pufferton was lounging peacefully in one his largest, most plush armchairs. He idly tapped the ashes out of his pipe before saying "My dear Inspector Landsdale, I simply can't tell you what I don't know. If I knew who had given me this blasted counterfeit, I would tell you! And if I knew how I came to be involved, I would tell you that too!"
"But Mr. Pufferton," pleaded the Inspector, "you must have some idea of the smuggling ring! It isn't every day that an innocent bystander just happens to end up in the exact place where an exchange is to be made. What were you doing in the 'shiner's District?"
"Errands, as I have said. My money is my own, Inspector Landsdale, and how I choose to spend it is none of your concern."
Inspector Landsdale noticed the Techo smirking out of the corner of his eye and re-situated his wooden chair so he would only be able to see Mr. Pufferton. "Very well, sir. If you refuse to help me, I shall simply have to look into matters on my own. I'll be needing the counterfeit pea, and then I'll be on my way to the District myself to interview some beggars. We'll find out the truth one way or another."
Mr. Pufferton relinquished the pea into the capable hands of the Inspector and rose to see him out of the estate. Argyle gave a brief nod as the Chia passed. Inspector Landsdale stepped over the rubble in the foyer, gave a quick salute, and motioned to the officers stationed outside that it was time to return to the city. Argyle waved them off with a white handkerchief he had produced from a pocket.
"Argyle, you shouldn't be so intolerant of Inspector Landsdale. He believes he's doing good in this world."
"Aye, Puffs, but if we really wanted this thing cracked open, shouldn't we have gone to one of the real Defenders?"
Mr. Pufferton sighed and retreated back inside the comfort of the mansion. "It is true, Argyle, that had I wished for the Defenders to solve the mystery, I would have asked, nay, demanded that Judge Hog himself preside over the case. As it is, Inspector Landsdale's common intellect is precisely what I desire."
Argyle followed his master inside and chuckled mirthfully. "You want this one for yourself, yeah? Solving that missing kid case gave you a taste for crime, did it?"
Mr. Pufferton yawned, a deep, gasping noise. It was a foghorn in a mine, echoing and vibrating throughout all the earth. "I am a connoisseur of the mystery novel, that is all. Given an opportunity to experience such a mystery firsthand, I would be loath to allow the Defenders to ruin the fun."
Argyle snickered and fluffed the pillow on the armchair as the Bruce readied himself for the descent into the plush piece of furniture. "So while they're off chasing their tails with the beggars, where will you be?"
"I shall be right here in this chair, Argyle." Mr. Pufferton made this statement fact before continuing. "You will be traveling to the city to inquire at Bindinghouse Publishers after one Mr. Harlan."
Mr. Harlan, said the Christmas Uni at reception, was not in the habit of receiving visitors. Mr. Harlan, Argyle retorted, was in the habit of receiving visitors. The check that suddenly found itself in the Christmas Uni's hands made a convincing argument for Argyle's position.
Harlan worked in the subterranean levels of Bindinghouse Publishers; the magazine printing presses resided there as did all who worked on them. The upper levels were reserved for the employees who dealt with actual books. Argyle learned this from the incredibly helpful receptionist, and he soon found himself descending into a maze of paper, ink, and cubicles.
It was soon discovered that Harlan was something of a celebrity in the world of magazine printing. The frightened Kacheek whom Argyle pressed for information had pointed reverentially down a hallway when asked where the mysterious pet could be found, and continued inquiries elicited similar responses; Harlan was a legend.
The door to Harlan's "office" was nondescript, and the plate outside the door said simply "Harlan McManus – Advertisements."
"Why are you so special?" Argyle murmured. This Harlan was evidently nobody in charge, yet he had developed a palpable reputation.
"Is someone there?" The voice came from behind the door.
Argyle swore under his breath. He had been too loud. "Yes, there's someone here."
"Well, come in, come in! I'm a very busy man."
Argyle went in and was immediately confronted by a sweaty, greasy Kyrii writing furiously at something on his desk. The pet might once have been green, but the ink covering him from head to toe left him with a distinctly camouflage appearance. "Er... you're Harlan?"
"Yes, yes, was there something you wanted?" The Kyrii had yet to look up. If the sketches pinned around the walls were any indication, the important paper on the desk was a rough draft of some ad or another.
"Yes... I was wondering if you could help me with a problem I had."
"Problem?" The Kyrii's pencil stopped moving. "What problem? Did Pemberly reject next week's lot of ads?"
"No, no, nothing like that." Argyle moved up to the desk and put a hand on the Kyrii's potential advertisement. "I had a few questions about this week's Pizzaroo ad."
It was astonishing to see the change in Harlan's countenance. Whereas before he had been harried, impatient, and only slightly shaky, he now appeared almost to cringe back into his seat, afraid of the green Techo who had barge unceremoniously into his office. "P-pizzaroo? What about it?"
Argyle pressed his advantage and picked up the ad on Harlan's desk, pretending to scrutinize it. "Tell me, McManus. Have you ever heard of the Defenders of Neopia?"
"Y-yes?" The Kyrii's voice resembled the creak of a door hinge.
"Well, I'm going to put it to you straight. We're on to you, McManus. We know about your ads. And we're going to find out the rest of it, too. Now, we can either find out for ourselves..." He paused for dramatic effect. "Or you could tell us and save everybody involved a whole lot of trouble."
The Kyrii's eyes looked everywhere but at Argyle. "I...I don't know what you're talking about."
Argyle made a sound that was half-laugh, half-snort. "Right, and I'm the Tiki Tack Man. Be smart here, McManus. Tell us everything we need to know, and you're a free man! Keep anything back and... well..." Argyle drew a single finger across his throat. "Do we understand each other?"
Harlan looked around the room as if expecting intruders to be hiding behind one of the many easels. Evidently satisfied that they were quite alone, he leaned over the desk and brought his mouth up to Argyle's ear. "Alright, meet me at my house tonight after work. They'll be suspicious if I leave early. Be at 145 Spruce Avenue at... nine tonight. I'll be there, and I'll tell you everything."
"Now, Mr. McManus, that's all I needed to hear!" Argyle squeezed the helpless Kyrii's arm companionably, shot him a wink, and left the office without another word.
Eight o'clock saw Mr. Pufferton, once again, stalking the streets of Neopia Central. The Marshbank brothers had been thrilled to transport his bulk to Neopia Central, and Argyle had been congratulated for his hard work earlier by being allowed to also ride in the cart. The twilight sun greeted them as they disembarked, and as the two approached Spruce Avenue, only a sliver of the sun was still poking above the rooftops.
"He did say nine, Puffs. We've still got an hour."
"Argyle, you have never perused any reading material of the mysterious persuasion, have you?"
"Not a one, Puffs, and I'm very proud of that." The Techo thumped his chest in a display of this pride.
"Then it's understandable that you would be ignorant as to one of the most fantastic tropes in all of crime. If an informant gives you a time for a meeting, say, nine o'clock, an investigator arriving at precisely nine will find the door to the informant's residence either ajar or curiously unlocked. Inside will be signs of a scuffle and, possible, a half-eaten dinner for two. The body of the informant may or may not still be on the premises, but that is of little importance. The important part is-"
"Alright, alright, I get it. If we showed up later, our boy Harlan would be dead as a doorknob."
"Not actually a thing, Puffs. Look, there's 145."
Mr. Pufferton approached the wooden door of the small home and knocked twice. After the first knock, the door swung open into the house.
"Huh. Looks like the door is curiously unlocked, Puffs."
"Ah, Devil take you, Argyle. Are you sure he said nine and not eight?"
"Sure as my name's Argyle St. James. We're early and his door's just swung open like it's half past nine."
Mr. Pufferton pushed the door the rest of the way open and stepped inside. The room was not in shambles; shelves were not overturned, papers were not strewn haphazardly, and the stuffing was not torn out of pillows. Dinner for two, however, was set on the table in the middle of the living room, and it had been half-eaten. None of the dinner party was present.
"We are too late, Argyle," Mr. Pufferton said as he stepped around an overturned chair. "An hour early, and we're still far too late."
Argyle, who had done a quick but thorough search of the other rooms, returned with a glum expression. "He's not in any of the rooms, Puffs. You figure they got him?"
"Oh, they got him, Argyle. Whether alive or dead, I do not know, but I do know one thing. Harlan McManus will never be allowed to tell his tale."
To be continued...