A figure leapt down from the hole created by the sudden explosion, and the dining room—as well as the rest of the building, I’m sure—was rocked by the concussion. The figure ran through the room, its face impossible to see through the dust. Another bloodcurdling scream was heard; this one was more horrifying than the last, for it contained what was almost certainly someone’s final moments of life. Mushroom and Anchovy dove under the table to hide. They listened, but discerned little through the screaming and crying. Minutes later, the atmosphere calmed. Nothing else had happened and although part of the dining room was now missing, everything else seemed relatively normal. The dust from the blast was beginning to settle, making the room visible once again. Mushroom put up a hand to signal to Anchovy to wait, and he got out from under the table.
"Be careful," Anchovy hissed. Mushroom took off into the crowd to see what had happened. Moments later, he returned, his face ashen.
"You should come with me," he said, his voice heavy. Anchovy decided not to question him, and she pushed herself out from under the table. She followed him through the dusty wreckage of the dining room, where people were coughing and sputtering, some spitting out bits of shrapnel. Some had minor injuries, and others were not so minor; one unfortunate bloke walked away with a shard of his wineglass jammed firmly in his left eye. Oddly enough he wasn’t screaming or flailing, he was just standing there talking to someone. Anchovy had to wonder if he even noticed, so she asked if he was all right. The man sighed.
"Look, I was born this way," he said with frustration. "I have acute eyeglass syndrome. I wish people would just stop asking." Anchovy didn’t reply, thoroughly embarrassed, and she just decided to keep on following Mushroom.
Mushroom led her to a gathering of people who seemed to be circled around something. Anchovy got a quick glimpse of Feta, who was in absolute hysterics, and she already knew what was wrong. One quick look down to the centre of the throng confirmed her fears, for there lied Artichoke, her throat slit and completely bloody, lying in a twisted heap. Her eyes were completely vacant and glassy, and they stared up at the ceiling, likely the last thing she ever saw. Other members of the Panzerotti Group were in the gathering, shaking their heads sadly, and some of them removing their hats out of respect. Anchovy could then hear Commander Roast Chicken’s voice, then saw him pushing through the crowd.
"Goodness..." the Commander murmured as he reached the front. Anchovy got a good look at his face and saw that he was not only sad, but very angry. "Take this body out of here... I need to speak with my Group."
An hour later, the Panzerotti group, sans Artichoke and sans Feta--who was given leave with pay--met in a board room, where Commander Roast Chicken stood at the head. He sighed deeply and cleared his throat. "It is a sad day for the Panzerotti Group," he said loudly. "While it often happens that we will lose an agent on the job, it is very rare that we lose a member to murder. Unfortunately, it is because of murder that we are here today." Several of the group members had not heard of the tragedy due to their absence in the dining room at the time, and those group members emitted a shocked gasp. "It is with great sorrow and regret that I inform you of the passing of Miranda Dora Whethersfunkel, better known as agent Artichoke of the Panzerotti Group." This prodded a few more gasps and some bewildered whispers.
"We can’t stay here!" cried a lady who went by the codename of Spinach. "Obviously there are people out for our lives!" While a few other Group members shouted their agreement, the Commander raised a hand to silence them.
“To be blunt, that is a preposterous assumption,” he said firmly. "There is no proof that she was targeted because of her status. If that was the case, why would she be killed and not I, or any of the other Group members in the dining room?" He shook his head. "It doesn’t make sense. Either she was killed as a random, or she was killed because she is Miranda, not because she’s Artichoke." He paused and cleared his throat, giving Anchovy the opportunity to speak up.
"That’s a bit presumptuous for my liking," she admitted, "but I think it makes sense. There were many of us in the dining room, out in the open and wearing our badges. It does make sense that we would have been targeted as well." Spinach shook her head.
"No," she said, "no, I don’t like it."
"Then you are welcome to leave," the Commander said sternly. "We will transport all who are staying to the cave immediately, instead of tomorrow. You will be safer in the cave, regardless, and you will have your partner to keep an eye on you at all times. We can’t cancel this, people," he said, sterner than before. "We have people counting on us and paying for our time."
"And you think they wouldn’t understand if we said there was a death in the group?" asked Spinach with a snort of contempt. "Come now. Be reasonable."
"You don’t know these people like I do, Spinach," warned the Commander. “Remember that I am the commander here.“ Spinach’s cheeks flushed with red, and she silenced herself promptly. "Now, shall we move on to the cave, or are you all going to cower in fear of a freak accident that is unlikely to replicate? Catching murderers is not the job of the Panzerotti Group. Perhaps it is the job of secret service - " to this, he gave Mushroom an unsettling glance which sent shivers up his spine " - but we are treasure hunters. We find treasure at any cost, be it death or dismemberment, fear or uncertainty."
"That offer of a ride home is sounding pretty good right now, eh?" Anchovy asked Mushroom with a smirk. Mushroom smirked, himself.
"Either you’re in it for the treasure, or you’re not in it at all," the Commander finished. For a long moment, no one said anything. Then, Spinach stood. "I’m leaving," she said. "I might be at the next hunt, if the threat is removed." A few others stood and followed suit. One lady, quite tall and thin, bearing the codename of Olive, raised her hand.
“Yes, Olive,” said the Commander impatiently.
“Will we have our sandwich privileges on the ride home?” she asked. The Commander frowned.
“To think of food at a time like this!” he uttered, disgusted. “Yes, you will have your bloody sandwich privileges!”
“And will there be spinach and grilled mushroom on multigrain garlic toast?” Olive asked.
“You have my expressed permission and great encouragement to leave immediately!” the Commander snapped. Olive did, indeed, leave, and by the time this was through, there were only six people left, including Mushroom and Anchovy.
"So that’s it," said Commander Roast Chicken incredulously. "This is all of you who have any kind of integrity? Three groups?"
"If I have to choose between living a dull life or dying young, I’ll take dying young any day. Living a dull life isn’t really living, anyway," said Anchovy.
"Hear hear!" the other five said in chorus. The Commander nodded.
"Very well," he said. "Let us take you to the cave immediately. There you will be given further instructions."
The group was transported to the cave by steamcar. They arrived at the cave about an hour later, where Lieutenant Back Bacon was standing, offering nods to the remaining six members.
"I’m sorry for your loss, but I appreciate your integrity," he said. "I understand this is likely very frightening for all of you, and it is very dangerous."
"Frightening, yes," Anchovy said with a pensive nod, "but I’ve seen more dangerous." Mushroom nodded in agreement.
"I have seen worse myself," he said gravely. His tone suggested to Anchovy that there was much more to that than he was implying. The Lieutenant nodded.
"Then, again, we appreciate your help as you are willing to give it. Thank you," he said. The Lieutenant was a tall and very dashing looking man. He had an enormous black moustache that covered his upper lip and a pair of bushy eyebrows. His hair was cut fairly short, just grazing the top of his head, and along his chiseled jaw and chin there was some hint of stubble. He was very muscular as well, and was, quite frankly, just about the direct opposite of Commander Roast Chicken, who had difficulty hiding his jealousy of him. Even though the Lieutenant was he was married and had children, the Commander couldn’t help but see him as a rival of sorts.
"Now then," said the Lieutenant, "to business. Here—“ at this he gestured to a rack of six large packs “—are packs containing provisions, exploring gear, an extra change of clothes, a pistol with ten rounds, a small dagger and a utility belt, as well as some picks, rags, a compass, small bedrolls, first aid supplies and extra storage items. Should your group be the first to find the jewels we seek, you are to come immediately back to the start of the cave as best you can. We have no means of contacting you.
"If you should become injured, then it is your and your partner’s job to fix that. As you know, risks are the nature of this business—it comes with the pay. In addition, you may keep what you find, apart from the jewels, so long as you agree to have it go through inspection first." He nodded again. "Commander Roast Chicken and I will await you in our camp here." He saluted the six remaining members of the Group. "Good luck, agents, and may the best team find the treasure. Now we will draw lots to see which group goes first." He brought out three straws, concealed carefully in his hand.
Anchovy chose first, followed by Onion, and then Pepperoni: a widow who was in her fifties of age. The three looked, and Onion had gotten the longest, Anchovy the shortest. She cursed at length.
"Nothing to worry about," Mushroom murmured, trying to hide his surprise at Anchovy’s colourful vocabulary.
"Onion and Sausage will go first," said the Lieutenant. "Five minutes later will be Banana Pepper and Pepperoni, then five minutes after them will be Anchovy and Mushroom." Commander Roast Chicken quickly handed out packs, which the group members strapped to their backs, then the Lieutenant held a pistol to the air.
"Three... two... one!" he bellowed as he pulled the trigger. Off went Onion and Sausage, dashing into the cave. Anchovy took this opportunity to sit down and gaze about her surroundings. The area about the cave was a dense forest, and it had been impermeable aside from walking; they could not take the steamcar through such a thicket. It was very humid and hot, and Anchovy was looking forward to getting inside the cold, dark cave. Flowers of all colours and sizes, as well as thick, loamy moss, grew over various surfaces. Large fungi, usually brown and beige but sometimes red, stuck out among some of the moss and under trees. The whole area smelled like green, if green had a smell. Anchovy could feel sweat collecting beneath her bodice. She knew she wouldn’t have a bath for days, but she already craved one.
The sun was starting to go down, and Anchovy was finding it hard to believe that all of this had happened in one day. She woke up that morning in her home, had boarded a train - after punching out a cab driver—witnessed the murder of one of her fellow hunters, and now she was starting the hunt. She wasn’t sure how many days it would last; the cave had never been fully explored and thus everyone was unsure as to how long exactly it might take to track down the jewels.
Pepperoni and Banana Pepper’s turn arrived, and they ran in. Banana Pepper, compared with Pepperoni, was a good deal younger, and he was tall and strong, reminiscent of Lieutenant Back Bacon. Anchovy could only think that Banana Pepper’s stature could prove useful to Pepperoni, as she was considerably frail in comparison. That didn’t mean she wasn’t a threat, though—she had still won many a hunt in her time, and might still now.
"What are you thinking about?" asked Mushroom, crouching down beside Anchovy and watching over the horizon, where the sun was setting.
"Possible strategies," Anchovy lied. She didn’t like people thinking she wasn’t always on her toes. Mushroom chuckled in response.
"Really?" he asked. "We don’t even know what we’re up against just yet!" Anchovy shrugged.
"I like to hit the ground running,” she affirmed. Mushroom nodded.
"As do I," he said. The Lieutenant was gazing at his pocket watch.
"We’re coming up on your time," he said. "Ten, nine..." Anchovy stood abruptly and held fast to her pack. She had already put on the utility belt and placed the pistol and dagger in their respective holsters, and she looked quite the part, dressed in her traveller’s trousers and a comfortable shirtwaist, the sleeves rolled up, and her hair back in a tight and practical bun. Mushroom still wore his hat and a pair of rather tight pants, as well as a pocketed vest for who knows what. Mushroom glanced at Anchovy and noticed she looked a bit apprehensive. To Anchovy, though, she was simply prepared.
"...Two, one!" finished the Lieutenant, raising his pistol in the air and letting off a single shot. Anchovy and Mushroom wasted no time entering the cave, their torches held high at the ready.