It was a fortunate break for Potpie that he was able to find another job after the loss of his ship. Many other sailors residing in Port Plees-Comagin were not so fortunate. This was what Wendy, Haskin and Bobbin soon discovered as they traveled the streets, hearing snippets of conversation from many worried men forced out of their livelihoods by pirates. One name in particular seemed to be on everyone’s lips: Silverware, Silverware, Silverware.
“Who are these people talking about?” Wendy asked.
“They must mean Long Jim Silverware,” replied Haskin. “I’ve heard his name mentioned before, but I hadn’t realized just how much havoc he was wrecking. We need to report this to the king immediately.”
“How can we do that?” Wendy piped. “We’re two days from the Whyte Castle.”
“Simple,” returned Haskin. “We use Pan-Ex.”
After asking various townspeople for directions, the travelers found the Pan-Ex building, an impressive structure topped with a large sign depicting a rampant panda. While Haskin composed her message, Wendy wandered about the shop, looking at the rows of neatly stacked boxes. Each set of boxes were made of different materials depending on the distance and importance of the item being sent. There were stacks of cloth, ribbon and heavy parchment for local deliveries, leather containers and wooden boxes for further destinations, and crates wrapped in water-proofed animal hides for overseas travel. Peering into an open barrel, Wendy saw a large quantity of arrows with little tubes attached to each. These were meant to contain short, informal messages, which were then fired off by Pan-Ex bowmen.
“Well now,” said Haskin, returning from the customer service counter, “the message is on its way. It should arrive at the castle by sunset.”
“I still don’t understand,” Wendy said. “How will it get there so fast?”
“I’ll show you,” said Haskin with a smile, gesturing for the girl to follow. Along with Bobbin, they exited the building and walked around to the back where Wendy saw several large wagons, each gaudily painted in red, white, and black. The now-familiar panda logo adorned the sides of the wagons.
“They look like ordinary wagons to me,” said Wendy.
“They are,” agreed Haskin, “but it’s what pulls them that is unique.” No sooner had she finish speaking when Wendy heard snuffling sounds coming from behind her. She turned to see Pan-Ex workers leading out two very large panda bears which were then hitched to one of the waiting wagons. Before Wendy had time to say anything, a man hopped onto the wagon’s driver’s bench, snapped the reins, and the vehicle took off at a rate of speed that Wendy never would have believed possible. The pandas pulled the wagon with ease as they flew down the road in a cloud of dust.
“What…?” was all that Wendy could mutter.
Both Haskin and Bobbin grinned.
“That,” said Haskin, “is how our message will be delivered.”
“Let’s go down this street,” Wendy said, pointing to a wide road that branched off Plees-Comagin’s main thoroughfare. A large sign with an arrow pointing down the road proclaimed it to be Wing Way. Restaurants of all types lined both sides, and Wendy had a good time peeking in all the windows and waving to diners.
“That’s odd,” Bobbin mused after the trio had strolled for several blocks. She pointed to a Little Julius’ restaurant. “I am almost certain that we passed this place not more than a moment ago.”
“It was probably just a similar-looking restaurant,” Haskin said.
“I suppose you are right,” Bobbin replied. “It would be rather silly to…”
“Look!” Wendy interrupted, pointing to a restaurant across the street that was in the process of being remodeled. A large sign in the window said: “Coming Soon! Little Julius’ Pizza.”
“That can’t be right,” said Bobbin. “Two Little Julius’ on one street?”
“There’s another one!” Wendy said excitedly as they continued up the street. Sure enough, the travelers drew even with yet another Little Julius’. “They sure love their pizza here!”
“Has anyone else noticed if there are other pizza establishments around?” asked Bobbin.
“There’s one over…oh wait…” Wendy spotted a building with a sign that read “Goradino’s Pizza,” but another sign hanging in the window stated that the restaurant was now out of business.
“Something is very wrong here,” said Haskin.
They continued to follow Wing Way as it led out of the town’s center. The crowded storefronts gradually tapered off as the travelers moved toward the edge of town. No further Little Julius restaurants had been seen. Still, what they had seen continued to trouble Haskin and Bobbin. It wasn’t unusual to see a successful restaurant branching out, but to have that many restaurants on one street…and why were Little Julius’ competitors disappearing from the area? After Goradino’s, the trio passed another pizzeria which was open, but was suspiciously devoid of customers.
“It’s clear what this Little Julius is up to,” Bobbin said, breaking the prolonged silence.
“The question is how is he doing it?”
“And why are the other pizza businesses letting him?” added Haskin.
“Bribery,” offered Bobbin, “or blackmail?”
“I wonder if this is happening in other parts of the kingdom?”
“What’s that up ahead?” Wendy asked, pointing at a solitary building that had appeared over the horizon. The building turned out to be a humble little cottage with a brightly painted red roof.
“I wonder what this place is,” Wendy said, skipping to the door. She was about to knock when the door was flung open and a large man in a suit came barreling out, nearly knocking Wendy to the ground. A second man, just as large and well-dressed, followed in his wake.
“Outta da way,” grunted the first man to Wendy.
“Hey!” Wendy blurted indignantly. “You almost ran me over!”
“Youse gotta problem?” The man scowled down at Wendy who scowled right back.
“Wendy!” Haskin called nervously. “I think you need to…
“Yeah, I gotta problem!” Wendy cut in. “How about an apology?”
“Look, ya little…”
The second man stepped between the combatants.
“Easy there, Squishburger. She’s just a kid.”
“I am not ‘just a kid’!” Wendy spat angrily as Bobbin tried to pull her back.
“Sure kid, sure,” the second man grinned. “Hey look, I apologize for my associate Squishburger here. He ain’t exactly what you call a ‘people person.’” Squishburger grunted in agreement.
“Are you sure he’s even a person?” Wendy blurted out before Bobbin managed to clap a hand over her mouth. Squishburger growled, but the second man just laughed.
“Good one! Hey, you’re all right, kid! Look, you ever find yourself jonesing for a sandwich, stop by my restaurant, all right? Tell ‘em Hoboken Mike sent ya!”
With that, Hoboken Mike motioned to Squishburger and the two strode off.
“‘Jonesing’?” Wendy asked.
“It means ‘craving,’” said a voice from within the cottage.
“Why didn’t he just say ‘craving’?”
“As I have so recently discovered,” replied the voice, “those men seem to have a language all their own.” From behind the door stepped an old man. His hair and beard were both long and gray. He wore a dark green tunic and in his right hand, he carried a gnarled oaken staff.
“Forgive me, I should probably introduce myself,” said the old man with a weary smile.
“I am Father Jon. Welcome to my pizza hovel.”
As they sat around a table and consuming a large pizza, Haskin, Bobbin and Wendy regaled Father Jon with stories about their adventures since leaving the Whyte Castle and what they had witnessed in Plees-Comagin. When they mentioned the proliferation of Little Julius’ on Wing Way, the old man nodded sadly.
“Yes, I have noticed this as well. I’m afraid this may only be the beginning. I have heard from others that his restaurants are appearing throughout Dryvthru.”
“But why does he need so many?” Bobbin asked. “Surely, there is not that much demand for his pizzas.”
“At present, no. However, he will not stop his conquests until he becomes the only place to go for his type of food. No competitor is safe.”
“Has he been here?” Wendy asked.
Father Jon gave another weary smile.
“He doesn’t need to. Those gentlemen you ran into earlier do the visiting for him.”
“Hoboken Mike?” inquired Haskin. “He runs his own restaurant. Why would he be
delivering messages for Little Julius?”
“Why indeed,” Father Jon replied.
“They’re working together!” Wendy cried.
Father Jon tapped his nose and winked.
“Precisely, and judging by the brusque conversation I had with those suited gorillas, there might be another player in this plot.”
“Who?” asked Wendy. “What did they say?”
“After suggesting that I should…retire from my business, I refused. He then hinted that my ingredients supplies might be in danger of running out. At first, I supposed that he was threatening to hijack any fresh supplies that came my way from the port. This did not trouble me as I can easily find ways to circumvent the villains. However, the way he was describing it, I suspected that they might have found a way to keep the supplies from ever reaching the port. The restaurants here rely on various food items imported from other lands. To cut off those supplies would bring severe hardship to many owners.”
“That must be what Long Jim Silverware is doing!” Haskin said excitedly. “There have been reports of increased pirate attacks on ships!”
“It’s not that far-fetched to believe that Silverware is also working with Little Julius and Hoboken Mike,” said Father Jon.
“Wow…” whispered Wendy.
“We need to alert the king at once!” Bobbin quickly rose from her chair. “We have to send another Pan-Ex message!”
“That might be easier said than done,” the old man said gravely.
“Why?” asked Haskin, also standing.
“Yeah, we just came from there,” piped Wendy. “Those pandas are faster than they look.”
“Just before your encounter with them, Hoboken Mike mentioned that their next stop would be the Pan-Ex building.”
“They wouldn’t dare interfere with the sending of messages, would they?” Bobbin asked. Father Jon nodded.
“It is to their advantage if they do. The last thing that they want is for the king to be alerted to their plan. If news to the Whyte Castle can be delayed long enough, it may be too late to put a stop to this wicked scheme.”