Patricia woke up early on that autumn morning with a decision in her mind. Yes, she, Patricia "Anchovy" Finnigan, was going to board that train. She was going to accompany the rest of the Panzerotti Group in what was likely the most daring mission of all time.
She was going to search for Tu’jiqutani’s Lost Jewels in the Forbidden Cave of Jamdero.
"Be reasonable about this, Anchovy," she murmured to herself as she put on her best kid gloves and donned her hat, "you can’t expect that you and your partner will be the ones to get to the jewels. That’s foolish." Of course, she was expecting it, though. She was imagining herself and Mystery Agent A (or 1, whichever you prefer; or perhaps Z, if you feel a bit like mixing things up), standing among the rest of the Panzerotti Group with a fistful of jewels apiece. She imagined them getting their photographs taken and having her face on paintings in years to come. She imagined a suave, handsome man of noble birth asking her hand in marriage, because money and power, of course, always mix. Finally, she imagined herself propelling a steamcar through her own personal island. She imagined servants, waiting on her every whim hand and foot. The money she would make from such a commission would be able to afford her all these luxuries and surely more.
"Best to be reasonable," she reminded herself. "Best to be reasonable."
Anchovy had already packed her suitcase the night before. She hadn’t yet made her decision, thinking to sleep on it, but she knew she would have to be ready in case she decided to go. So, as she had already dressed in her finery, already packed her bags, and, indeed, already made her decision, Anchovy was heading out the door of her modest flat in the city of Burdon, clutching her suitcase, and every last shred of her dignity. She stepped onto the cobbled street and hailed as she spied a cab putting its way along. It pulled over and a middle-aged man with a prominent moustache leaned out the side. He spat out a brown gob of undeterminable origin.
"What’er yer want?" he grunted. Anchovy blinked, rather taken aback at this.
"Ah, a ride, obviously," she replied.
"Gotcher any change?" the cabbie snapped, giving a bit of a spit toward Anchovy’s boots. Anchovy took a quick step backward.
"Obviously," she said curtly. "Now, listen. I’m in a hurry and if you don’t agree to transport me immediately-"
"Ain’t gonna take yer if yer ain’t gotcher no change," said the cabbie with a sniff and a shrug, turning with resignation back to the steering wheel.
"Really, I said before that I do in fact have change," Anchovy retorted. "I have more than change. Now take me to the train station immediately!" The cabbie shrugged and sniffed again.
"Ain’t got no time for people who ain’t gotcher no change," he said simply. Anchovy had certainly had more than enough. Her face went red, her hands balled into fists and she screamed a scream of absolute rage. She swung back her arm, then leaned forward and ploughed her fist directly into the cabbie’s face. The cabbie’s nose immediately broke, erupting with a colourful burst of blood, and he flew out of the car with the impact, opening the door behind him. Anchovy quickly moved into the car and placed her suitcase on the seat, then, clearing her throat, she started the engine and proceeded to drive off, leaving the cabbie and his broken nose to their own lonely misery.
The little cab putted along. It was far too early in the morning for Anchovy to be particularly concerned about policemen discovering what had happened and taking off in her pursuit, so she thus decided not to concern herself with it. Before long, the car had left the city altogether and was going along a little red dirt road not far from the train station.
"I’m certain I’ll be the first one there," she said with an affirmative nod to herself. As she approached the station, however, she saw that there were, in fact, many others already there and prepared to go. As she saw this, she leapt from the cab - still moving, as she hadn’t thought to stop it - onto the road and took off running toward the train tracks, where the group of people waiting for the train stopped and stared at her. The car exploded into a tree in the background.
"Oops," she could be quoted as saying.
"Ah, Anchovy," said Commander Roast Chicken, one of the elite of the Panzerotti Group. "You make the last of us, then. Anyone else from here on out will have to be turned away."
"Aww," a voice spoke from not far away. Everyone turned around to see Pickle, a young man with bad luck who never, ever made it to Panzerotti Group treasure hunts on time. This was probably because no one wants a pickle on their panzerotti. He turned around and walked away, all hope for ever actually getting into a Group hunt fading from his young and once hopeful eyes.
"Now then, to business," said Commander Roast Chicken. "We will be boarding the train momentarily. Please keep in mind that you will be representing the Panzerotti Group and that if you act foolishly, you and your partner will be sent home immediately with no pay at all and no chance to obtain any until the next hunt. Don’t ruin this for you or your partner, understand me?" Everyone in the group let out a chorus of "Aye". "Now then, we will be assigning your partners on the train, unless of course you have permanent partners; in that instance you shall be seated accordingly. The person you sit with will be your partner throughout the journey. This person will be your friend and ally, your companion, your family. Treat them as such." Suddenly, a man with the agent name of Onion raised his hand in the air. "You may speak, Onion," said Commander Roast Chicken.
"I just wanted you to know, Commander, that you shouldn’t use the pronoun ’them’ in such an instance," said Onion. "You should say ’treat him or her as such’.” Commander Roast Chicken blinked at Onion very slowly before continuing.
"Uh, anyway," he said, "you will treat... him or her as such. If you betray your partner, then you betray all of us, understand? You will be ejected from the Panzerotti Group forever. Teamwork is the key here, and if you work well with your partner then you have the opportunity for a very good bonus. As I’m sure you all know, museums and collectors all across the world pays our wages when we hunt for treasure." Onion raised his hand once more, but did not wait for Commander Roast Chicken’s permission before he spoke.
"With all due respect, Commander, you should have said ’museums and collectors all across the world PAY our wages’," he said.
"Will you cease with your interruption!" bellowed Commander Roast Chicken.
"That should have been a question, not an exclamation," Onion added. The Commander decided this time that he would ignore the heckler and plug away with his talking.
"So without further ado, let’s go along and board the train. We will have another debriefing once we arrive at our destination. Please do not abuse your alcohol privileges onboard but feel free to abuse your sandwich privileges as much as you like," he said.
"I hope there’s mustard and cheese on rye," whispered a lady agent by the name of Artichoke.
"I hope there’s alfalfa sprouts and devilled ham on pumpernickel," replied her best friend, another lady agent by the name of Feta.
The group entered the train, all of them very quiet. Through their heads came question after question, one of the more prominent ones being "I wonder who my partner will be?". Anchovy wondered this as well as she boarded the train, the last to go. There was a slight hold up as an agent argued with the Commander over the decision of who his partner should be, but before long, all was right and the line was moving normally again.
"Ah, Anchovy," said the Commander with a winning smile. "Perhaps you should be my partner, hmm?" Commander Roast Chicken, you see, had professed an extreme attraction to Anchovy for many years. Perhaps it was her large, sparkling blue eyes, her shiny red-auburn hair, or her luscious hourglass figure, but whatever the case was, Commander Roast Chicken wanted her. He wanted her bad. Unfortunately, she was far out of his league. Anchovy wouldn’t necessarily profess herself to be shallow, but Commander Roast Chicken had the face of a braised head cheese and a round, unashamed belly, as well as the breath of a hog-toad and a balding pate with the personality of an unfettered, gibbering ferret. Maybe she was a little shallow. But he didn’t even have a good personality.
"I’d really rather have a real partner, if you please," said Anchovy curtly. She had obtained the status of "unobtainable" by the gentlemen of the Panzerotti Group, for generally she seemed rather uninterested in any sort of romantic rapport. She was never seen with a man in that way and no one could rightly figure out why. She was far from ugly; in fact, she was quite the opposite and received a number of potential suitors, but none of them seemed worthy enough for her to try any of their affections. She was twenty-six and unmarried and, at the time, this was considered on the brink of becoming a spinster. Very rarely did anyone ever marry after thirty, unless they were rich men who were looking to bribe attractive young ladies with their money.
"Very well," the Commander replied with a frown. "Sit there." He jabbed his finger toward an empty seat, which was beside a male figure that Anchovy did not recognize. She sat down beside him and slid her suitcase under the seat.
"Ah, hello," she said somewhat awkwardly to the figure beside her. She noticed that his hat was drawn down over his eyes, and she could not see the rest of his face, either. In fact, he decided replying was beneath him, or so it seemed, and he did not speak a word in response to this. Anchovy frowned and turned back to look at the back of the seat before her. She decided this would likely be a boring trip.
Moments later, the engines had started, and before everyone knew it they were moving, slowly but steadily, across the countryside. Anchovy closed her eyes and let out a little sigh as she attempted to allow the sounds around her soothe her, or, at least, interest her. She eavesdropped on a few conversations, but nothing of note. The next thing she knew, the lunch trolley was clattering along, and she opened her eyes again.
"Sandwich or brandy?" asked the nearly toothless woman pushing the trolley.
"What kind of sandwich is it?" asked Anchovy.
"Pumpkin seed butter and red tuna on a sundried tomato flatbread," replied the dentally-challenged woman.
"I’ll take three of those," said Anchovy. She turned to her dozing partner. "Would you like anything?" she asked, but to no reply. She shrugged and accepted the three sandwiches the lady passed her, which were free, of course, due to sandwich privileges. They were placed on a tray and handed to Anchovy with a cup of weak tea. She sipped at her tea as the gap-toothed woman moved along to the next group. She overheard Artichoke and, in turn, Feta, complaining about the day’s sandwich and asking why their favourites were scarcely ever made.
Anchovy was finishing her third sandwich as the train started to slow down. She looked out the window and saw that they were currently passing over a large, long bridge, and likely they had been for some time. When she looked ahead, she saw an island coming into view.
"That must be our destination," Anchovy said to herself. The island was called Jamdero, and it was a popular getaway spot for recently-married couples and for those wishing to depart from the normalcy of everyday life. Jamdero was home to a number of bizarre customs, incredible tropical sunshine and a multitude of delectable native foods and fruits. Anchovy had never been there herself, though she had always dreamt about it. Fortunately for her, the Panzerotti Group had funding for hotels, food, and supplies, because they did work that no one else would dare to do, and to an outcome that would be of the benefit of hundreds, if not thousands of people. The Panzerotti Group helped the ignorant to learn of the world around them, and they helped the rich become richer.
Anchovy felt an unsettling lurch in her stomach as the train slowed down with jerky, uneven motions.
"I hate this part," she muttered, closing her eyes. It seemed foolish to say; train travel was the way of the present, but there were many things about it she couldn’t stand.
"Ah, really?" came a heavily accented male voice. "That seems a bit odd; the train’s just slowing and there’s no danger." Anchovy fluttered her eyes open and looked to her right, where her partner was finally awake, his hat tilted back to show off his handsome features. He had high cheekbones and blue eyes - blue like her own - a thin, but wide, moustache and long dark hair. His moustache was tilted slightly upwards, indicating a smile.
"Oh, you’re awake!" said Anchovy.
"Why yes," replied the man. Anchovy extended her hand.
"How do you do? I’m Agent Anchovy," she said. The man accepted the hand readily and gave it a firm shake, then a delicate kiss. Anchovy wasn’t sure how to react.
"Agent Mushroom, your partner," he said with the tiniest of winks.
Smarmy, Anchovy thought immediately. Smarmy, smarmy, smarmy.
"Pleasure," she replied with a semi-forced smile.
"So, what is young and lovely lady like you doing in this group?" asked Mushroom, continuing with his smile and leaning back in his seat. Anchovy shrugged.
"Looking for high-stakes excitement, I suppose," she replied. "I have no use for sitting around at home all the time, and no family nearby, so risks aren’t really of concern to me.” Mushroom lifted his eyebrows.
"Ah, so you are not married, then?" he asked. “A pity. A pretty young lady like you should be married by now." Anchovy shrugged.
"I’m not really interested in marriage or family," Anchovy replied with a sigh. She got this a lot. “There’s more to life than getting married.”
“I suppose—but there’s more to life than adventures and riches, too,” said Mushroom with another wink. Anchovy chuckled, but then paled as the train lurched again and slowed even further. She closed her eyes and swallowed hard.
"Come now, you don’t seem the sort to be afraid," Mushroom said in an incredulous tone.
"I lost my - " Anchovy began in her moment of weakness. Realizing what she was about to say, however, she caught herself and changed her direction. " - lunch, in a train, once. I don’t trust trains. They don’t seem like good technology at all. Unsafe." Mushroom gazed at her a moment, as though trying to decide whether or not he should accept that response, but then said nothing. Anchovy squeezed her eyes shut again out of nervousness and fear.
Five minutes later, the train slowed considerably then came to a halt at the train station in Jamdero. Commander Roast Chicken stood at the front of the train to make an announcement.
"While this island is certainly a destination for a vacation, agents, this is not a vacation," he said firmly. He usually made this same speech whenever the Group visited an area such as this, as agents were prone to slacking off; they would get paid regardless of who found the treasure they sought, they just wouldn’t receive the large bonus the winning pair would, so many would decide that they’d might as well live it up. When Commander Roast Chicken and his superior, Lieutenant Back Bacon, discovered this, they would withhold pay from the guilty party and use it to help fund other hunts and adventures. The guilty party was subsequently given a formal reprimand and a strike against them, as well as leave without payment or invitation to hunts for six months. The Panzerotti Group was an elite group, reserved for treasure hunters of utmost quality and achievement. It was not an institution of layabouts and slackers.
"Feel free to take today to relax and get a feel for your surroundings before we start the hunt tomorrow," the Commander continued, "of course your food and accommodation will be paid for, but again do not abuse your alcohol privileges!" He ground his fist into his palm to emphasize this. "You will be waking up early tomorrow to begin the hunt, and we don’t want any drunken fools stumbling about the cave!" He took a deep breath and made an attempt to be pleasant, but his smile was that of a rat caught in the underside of a wheelbarrow. "Now then, do enjoy yourselves today, and be ready for the hunt tomorrow. We will have another debriefing in the morning, in front of the cave. Directions have been left in your hotel rooms." The Commander bobbed his big head and moved off the steam engine, where all of the agents followed not far behind.
Merely an hour later, Anchovy and Mushroom had been directed to their room, which they shared. Two small beds were placed three feet apart in the room, which was classy and comfortable. A large picture window overlooked the ocean, and it was open to let a salt-scented breeze drift in. There was a small balcony just on the other side. The curtains were thick and cut of the richest red velvet, and an elaborately patterned plush rug welcomed them beneath their feet. Luxurious and ornate furniture was dotted about the room, with a comfortable chaise and a pair of ebony, cushioned chairs, as well as a large night table for the two beds to share. Gaslights and lanterns were placed about the room, and a table with another pair of chairs sat by the window, a pitcher of water with a native flower in it and a pair of glasses sitting on top to be shared. Tall vases were filled with large, fragrant flowers, likely natives of the island.
"Wow, they did mean the suite, didn’t they?" said Anchovy with a chuckle. "Very nice. If there was only one bed, I’d say this was a lover’s paradise." Mushroom smirked.
"And few more candles," he added. Anchovy immediately saw this conversation going in an awkward direction, so she changed the topic.
"I wonder what the restaurant’s like," she mused, dropping her suitcase by the door and flopping onto a bed. "This is the nicest hotel on the island, so I’m sure the food is divine."
“You’re likely right,” Mushroom said with a nod. "Perhaps you would like to come to the restaurant with me, then? I would treat you, but of course our meals are paid for. It might give us a good opportunity to get to know each other, perhaps." Anchovy smiled and stood.
"That sounds very nice," she said. "I am a bit peckish - those sandwiches on the train weren’t very substantial, and what little substance they had, well... I wondered if one of the trolley lady’s teeth hadn’t fallen in it." Mushroom laughed at that and shook his head, moving toward the door.
"Come, let’s go eat."
The dining room was enormous and elaborate. Smells of all manner of glorious, luxurious food danced in the air. Sights of brightly coloured fruits, and meals prepared with native flowers, were not far away either, as well-dressed and groomed waiters whisked them past. A few other agents from the Group were enjoying a meal as well, and because of this, Mushroom requested a private booth. The waiter looked him up and down until he spied the Panzerotti Group’s badge sticking into Mushroom and Anchovy’s collars.
"Ah, of course! Anyzing for ze Panzerotti Group!" said the waiter. "Right zees way!" The waiter led them to the booth and immediately brought them a cask of wine. Alcohol privileges.
"I was hoping for something a little stronger," said Mushroom with a wink. "Crescentwine, if you have it." The waiter widened his eyes.
"Sir, you are sure? You have big hunt tomorrow," he said worriedly. Mushroom pulled a coin from his vest and placed it on the table.
"From my own pocket," he murmured. "Now, you were saying...?" The waiter’s eyes grew even wider.
"Was saying... our crescentwine is out back," he told him with a smile. "Let me to fetch it as quickly as I can manage." Off went the waiter in pursuit of the crescentwine.
Crescentwine, you see, was one of the most potent varieties of alcohol available. It was made by fermenting apples mixed with sugar, salt, liquified sheepskin, then fermenting the individual petals of a single hibiscus blossom, and mixing the two concoctions together. Its flavour was sickly sweet and potent, but it worked, and it worked damn well. It is called crescentwine because after half a glass, you can’t see out a whole side of your face, and the blind spot is shaped like a crescent. Some activist groups have attempted to link this to brain damage from over consumption, but no one has been able to prove that link correct. Yet. Due to its extensive brewing process and difference in flavour from batch to batch, crescentwine was not only expensive, but very popular and sought-after.
"Crescentwine!" murmured Anchovy with a furtive smile. "Why did you get crescentwine? We’ll be hung over until next week!" Mushroom smiled.
"Only if you don’t know how to drink it," he replied. "But let us speak of that when the drink arrives." Anchovy smiled at that.
"Well, what would you like to talk about now?" she asked. Mushroom pondered that a moment.
"I am certainly wondering why a beautiful lady like yourself joined the Panzerotti Group and doesn’t pursue relationship or family," he said, taking this opportunity to drink some of his water. Anchovy shrugged and managed to avoid rolling her eyes.
"I suppose that is because I haven’t found anyone I’m interested in, aside from the reason I gave you before," Anchovy said with a shrug. "I’m sure several of the men in the group have told you all about how I denied them and what a bad person that makes me, but it’s the truth. None of them interest me. I suppose I just have... high standards." She took a drink from her own glass of water. Mushroom nodded slowly.
"That makes sense," he agreed, with a nod. "There’s nothing wrong with high standards as long as you’re not missing out on anything. And really, so long as you don’t think you’re missing out, then you’re probably not.”
"It’s nice that you understand,” said Anchovy with a small sigh. "I’m awfully sick of being told that I’m getting too old for marriage and that I’ll miss my chances. If the right man is out there, I’ll find him.”
"Yes, exactly,” said Mushroom with a faint nod. "Ah, here comes our crescentwine." Anchovy turned to look and, indeed, there was the waiter, moving briskly toward them with two small shot glasses containing a very dark red substance.
"We can only to put it in small doses," said the waiter apologetically. "It take up all of your privileges and is cost a lot. Is very expensive, a crescentwine." Mushroom waved a hand.
"That makes sense," he said. “Thank you.” The waiter smiled and nodded.
"Sir and madam, specials has glazed Jamdero seabird with lemon butter and side of mild fruits and some leek and potato. You would like for to try?" he asked.
"Oh, that sounds good," said Anchovy. "Yes, please, I would like that."
"I will be having the same," said Mushroom with a nod. The waiter smiled again, and off he went. Mushroom grinned.
"Now for the business of drinking the crescentwine," he said, lifting his small glass. "A toast to us, group Fungus Fish," he said. Anchovy laughed.
"A toast to group Fungus Fish," she agreed, lifting her own glass. The two clinked them together and each took the smallest of sips. This resulted in furious coughing and choking, as the crescentwine’s flavor was that of an incredibly sweet apple, exploding five hundred times and peppered with leather tanned in balsamic vinegar, topped with the tartness of ten limes at once. To say that crescentwine was strong was to say that a beach has a lot of sand. To say that crescentwine was strong was to say that cats like to chase moving objects every so often. Anchovy felt on the brink of passing out.
"That... has some kick to it," she coughed. Mushroom placed down his glass, clearing his throat several times but still attempting to appear as suave as he could manage.
"Yes... very strong," he agreed. And the beach had a lot of sand.
"Now then... Mushroom, I think I have some questions for you," said Anchovy, putting her drink aside for now. Because of the affects of the crescentwine, she was already feeling lightheaded. That small shot glass had enough alcohol in it to kill a cougar... the cat, that is. Human cougars tend to be both formidable and well-versed in the world of liquor.
"Well, ask away," Mushroom replied, pushing his own drink aside.
"When did you join the Panzerotti Group?" asked Anchovy. Mushroom nodded.
“I’m not surprised to hear you ask this, Fishie," he said with a little wink. Anchovy couldn’t suppress a giggle. "I am not surprised at all. You see, I know you are a long-time member because I have heard Commander Roast Chicken speak of you many a time." Anchovy winced.
"I’m sure he’s only told you lewd and improper things," she said. Mushroom laughed.
"Ah... mostly," he agreed. "He’s not very cryptic with his feelings. Anyway, I only joined the Panzerotti Group one month ago."
"We have very strict policies on who we allow to join," Anchovy pointed out. "I’m not your superior by any means, but as your partner, and therefore your equal, I would like to know what your credentials are." Mushroom chuckled again. That chuckle was starting to annoy Anchovy just a little, but she didn’t say anything.
"Well, you see, I was once employed in the secret service in my country," he said, "but they did not like me. They said I was too brazen and that I took too many risks, even if I did get the job done, and well, I might add. I could not change who I was, so instead of that, I just quit."
"Just like that?" Anchovy asked?
"Just like that," Mushroom replied with a nod.
"Interesting," Anchovy said, nodding slowly, herself. "Well, I can’t say I blame you. So, you decided to work in a business that involved taking a lot of risks for that reason?” Mushroom smiled pleasantly.
"That is correct."
"Well then, I think we’re going to get along just fine," Anchovy said with a smile of her own. Just then, the waiter came by with a basket of fresh, warm rolls, and a pat of butter.
"The butter here is exquisite," said Mushroom, helping himself to a roll and a knife full of the butter he meant. "They blend it with garlic."
"You’ve been here before?" Anchovy asked. She suddenly felt a little more admiration for this man... and, of course, a small tinge of jealousy. Mushroom nodded, buttering his roll.
"Ah yes, many times. There was a big problem with murder here many years ago. Several people were killed... it was very sad," his eyes cast downward. "I was investigating it."
"Did you solve the crime?" asked Anchovy. Mushroom shook his head.
"We tried, many times we tried," he said, "but the murderer escaped us every time. We don’t know to this day where he may be." Anchovy frowned and picked up a roll, herself.
"That’s... too bad," she said quietly. "I think that you were brave to look, though."
"Perhaps it’s time for a happier subject," Mushroom said, taking a bite from his roll. "Such as, might you have your mother’s eyes?î He winked again, smarmily. Anchovy coughed. This was getting irritating.
"Strange question," she said. "Actually, they’re my father’s eyes." Mushroom grinned.
"I should have guessed," he said with a nod. "Men, they always have more beautiful eyes. No one likes to admit it, but it’s true." Anchovy wasn’t sure how to respond. Mushroom had rich, deep brown eyes. They were nice, but it would have been awkward to say so.
"Perhaps," was all she said. A long silence followed. "Anyway," said Anchovy after a moment, "I’m sure our dinner will be here soon." Mushroom nodded. Just then, a horrifying scream was heard. Anchovy and Mushroom looked at one another, then turned to cast a glance through the dining room. A loud crash echoed all around, and the partners looked on in horror and surprise as part of the dining room was completely gouged out!