Part Fifteen further introduces Caplin Rous playing the role of Captain Caplin of the Guardia Principale. He’s very important, a fact lost on Dobby and Gari.
If you started reading here, Prince Dobby and Gari are enduring lunch with Caplin. The entire scene is in a restaurant and in Part Fourteen, Dobby accidentally tipped over a silverware caddy. You’ve already missed a bunch of the story. Here’s a link if you’re one of those types who prefer to start at the beginning. There’s a big old chart below to help you sort out the myriad characters. Recommended snack: Root Beer Float (again)
“I don’t think we can get away with sitting here much longer. We better go around.” Dobby sighed and took a handful of gold coins out of his waistcoat pocket and dropped them onto a clean corner of the table.
They heard Caplin before they saw him. When they came around the corner to the front of the restaurant, two waiters and the restaurant manager were gathered around Caplin’s table. His back was to them, and they slowed and walked quietly so that they could hear what was going on.
“I was told that you have no birdseed cakes. I want an explanation.” Caplin was still barking and the waiters looked quite uncomfortable. The manager had a strained smile pasted on his otherwise annoyed face.
“We rarely feature birdseed cakes any more. Or anything with birdseed, for that matter. It simply isn’t available. We have some very fine pumpkin seed tortes, and during the dinner hour, the peanuts are complimentary at each table, with free refills.”
Dobby and Gari looked at each other and rolled their eyes. They moved around to where Caplin could see them and sat down in front of two fresh root beer floats. The Captain was having tomato juice. They looked at their floats and at each other, not sure how to drink them without creating a gigantic mess. Caplin removed the celery and carrot garnishes from his drink and set them down, neatly parallel to each other, on a tiny white porcelain plate. He drank the tomato juice in one gulp.
“They have no seed cakes,” Caplin said. “Let’s finish our drinks and find a restaurant that has seed cakes for dinner.”
“We are the only restaurant that ever has seed cakes on the menu,” said the manager. “The smaller restaurants never have them. It is my understanding that one has to travel north quite some distance to find them. Is that correct, Prince Dobalob? I hear you are from the north.”
Dobalob smiled at the manager. “Yes, if they are available, they would come from very far north. Seed cakes are very difficult to obtain, and have been for some time. Birdseed, too.” Dobalob turned to address Caplin. “Are you able to get seed cakes in the deep south, then?”
“Of course!” Caplin looked at his brother suspiciously. “So you’re serious, then? No seed cakes here or north of here? That makes no sense. Bird seed is readily available at the base.”
“Nevertheless, we have no birdseed,” said Dobalob. “Mother has been fretting over getting seed cakes for her party. Shall I tell her you will send up some birdseed?”
“Of course, but it hardly seems necessary. I think you could try a bit harder to get it for her. What else do you do around there, anyway?”
Dobalob sat up straighter and tried to decide how to address this insult. When Sylvia had asked what he did, he hadn’t been offended because she was sincerely interested in what he did, even if her question was rather blunt. Why did his brother continually put him on the defensive? He noticed that the wait staff and manager had discreetly high-tailed it out of there.
Gari looked Caplin in the eye.
“Are you telling me you’re so oblivious that you don’t realize there has been a birdseed shortage in this region for ages? This region where your family lives? Don’t you ever talk to them? When was the last time you visited your parents?”
“I talk to them all the time.” Caplin stared at a drop of tomato juice on the tablecloth and considered having the wait staff bring a clean one. Gari stuck his straw deep into the root beer float and sucked it halfway down. It was Dobalob’s turn to look Caplin in the eye.
“You don’t talk to them, you text them. Or you send postcards. Mother told me that she hadn’t talked to you in months. She’s excited that you’re going to make it to her birthday party.”
“Oh, I should probably talk to you about that,” said Caplin. “I’m not sure I can make it.”
Dobalob’s mouth hung open for a moment and then snapped shut. “If you don’t think you can make it, it isn’t me you should talk to. You need to talk to Mother.”
“We’re short-staffed right now, and I haven’t been able to find anyone to take my place.”
“How can you possibly be short-staffed? Your recruiter took all our roosters, or don’t you remember? They were really enthusiastic, and they all wanted to sign up,” said Dobalob. “It was good pay and great training.”
“Well, we never saw your roosters. The recruiter went up north, but he never sent us any roosters. We could have used them.”
Dobalob looked at Gari, who was very carefully spooning out tiny bits of ice cream. So far he hadn’t spilled a drop.
“Gari, are you listening to this? Caplin says the roosters never made it down to the base!”
“Aw, gee,” said Gari. A dollop of ice cream had slipped off the spoon onto the tablecloth. He grabbed a tiny white plate and placed it over the mess. Then he looked up at Dobby.
“The roosters—are missing!”
Caplin looked from one to the other.
“Let’s not jump to conclusions, here.”
“So then, where are the roosters? They aren’t here. Nobody has seen any roosters around here for months. Maybe since last year. Caplin, what did the recruiter say when you asked why they didn’t show up?”
“Well, I didn’t ask. I don’t have any control over that part of it. The recruits show up, I check them in, and that’s when I train them. Until they show up on base, they don’t really even exist, as far as I am concerned. I don’t ever talk to the recruiters.”
“Gee,” said Gari. “It’s sort of a black hole, then, between the recruiters and the Guardia Principale. Dudes sign up, disappear, nobody notices. Great system.”
Gari started doodling spaceships on the tablecloth with his straw and some spilled root beer. Dobby kicked him under the table and he looked up.
“Appetizers are here!” and they were. The waiter hovered over the table with a tray as they made room for a large plate of assorted starters and more of the tiny white porcelain plates, odd little three-pronged forks, nutcrackers, a small cutting board and a mini-sledgehammer.
“I’m still wondering, though. You heard about these roosters wanting to sign up, right?”
“I did. We needed new recruits, and I heard there had been a positive response,” said Caplin. “But we’re never surprised when the recruits fail to materialize. Again, it isn’t my area of expertise. When they show up I train them. They become my problem, then.”
The three capybaras were silent for a few minutes, cracking nuts, crunching crudités, and generally trying to look sophisticated while massacring a plate full of edible rocks and raw vegetables.
Dobby looked at his brother.
“So what happens now?”
“I can’t remember, either. What was the second course?”
“No, no, no. About the roosters. What are you going to do?”
“Nothing,” said Caplin. “This is the first I’ve heard about it. Plus, it isn’t my problem, not my recruits. Maybe if someone submits a formal complaint, but so far, nobody seems to have noticed.”
“Well, everybody around here noticed. The roosters weren’t too popular, but once you get used to them, they aren’t so bad. Some were fairly decent chaps.”
“What might be worth investigating is this birdseed shortage. That doesn’t make much sense at all, if what you say is correct.”
“If what I say is correct?” said Dobalob. “What’s your point? Do you think I’m exaggerating the problem? Or maybe just lying? Why would I make that up?”
Gari was trying to remove himself from the conversation and had started to draw zeppelins on the tablecloth. Why do some people insist upon making every social occasion a battleground? Maybe Caplin had chosen his career path wisely. Caplin looked at his little brother.
“Down boy! I didn’t mean to ruffle your feathers. But do you have any data to back up the extent of this shortage? When it started, whether the shortage was abrupt or gradual, whether any other foodstuffs are affected, that sort of thing.”
Dobalob stared at his brother, not sure whether he was teasing him or serious. Gari had stopped doodling and was now leaning back in his chair, arms crossed, enjoying the sibling show. Dobalob glared at his brother.
“About a year ago, birdseed—only birdseed– became unavailable. The hens seem to have an erratic supply that ‘drops out of the sky.‘ That’s how they put it, no matter how many times I ask about it. They are awfully generous about sharing the little bit that they have. Any more questions, Sherlock?”
“That’s not a lot to go on. Well, good luck figuring it out!”
Dobby looked at Gari.
“It must be nice to be an only child.”
Caplin was too busy examining a miniscule mustard stain on his uniform shirt to hear the comment. Waiters bearing trays of food descended upon the table and covered every available space with plates, platters, bowls, and small dishes of condiments. The now untidy appetizers and associated equipment were whisked away. Caplin looked up at the nearest waiter.
“My good man, have you any stain remover?”
The waiter strained to see the offending stain that Caplin was trying to indicate with his paw.
“Yes, sir, I will be right out with it.”
Caplin forgot about his stain for the moment and meticulously examined the dishes on the table. Finally, he smiled and looked at Gari.
“I’m surprised. This looks delicious! This little backwater town has something going for it, after all.”
Dobby covered his mouth with a napkin and snickered behind it. Gari took in a quick breath and was about to say something when the waiter returned with the stain remover. Caplin took the little bottle without thanks and started to look again for the itty bitty stain. Now Gari had a napkin up to his mouth and the two chums stifled giggles as they watched Caplin look unsuccessfully for the teeny tiny stain. Finally, Caplin doused the front of his shirt with stain removal fluid, and they started loading their plates with food. For a while the sound of happy munching grunts could be heard. As the munching slowed to an occasional crunch, Dobalob caught Caplin’s eye.
“Seriously, you’re not going to skip out on Mother’s birthday, are you?”
“I put in for the time off, but they turned me down. I could ask again, but it isn’t likely to change their answer.”
“You realize, don’t you, that it’s not at home, it’s at the Schist palace? With the three dubious debutantes? Don’t make me face them alone!”
“Take Gari with you.”
Gari stood up and waved at an imaginary friend across the street.
“I’ll be right back,” said Gari. He walked across the street. In fact, Sylvia had appeared and was locking up the shop for the evening.
“I don’t think Gari is interested in Mother’s party. He already knows I don’t want to go.” Dobalob was looking across the street at Sylvia. Caplin followed his gaze but only saw Gari talking to a porcupine in coveralls. “You know, Father doesn’t like those folks, either. He and I will be holed up in a corner with a hors d’oeuvres tray while Mother prances around with the three daft daughters. It would sure take some pressure off of me if you could suck it up and marry one of them.”
Caplin laughed. “Fat chance of that!”
“Nice joke, bro. So, anyway, before you take off, and before it gets dark, could you check the alligator safety zones that the city installed?”
“Oh, I’m sure they’re fine. There aren’t any alligators, anyway.”
“Well, there aren’t if the safety zones are operating properly. Can you just take a look?”
Caplin looked down his enormous nose at his kid brother.
“There are no alligators. You know that, don’t you?”
Dobalob’s mouth hung open. He was stunned, could think of nothing to say. Gari had said goodnight to Sylvia and was headed back across the street toward the two bickering brothers.
“Gari,” said Dobby. “Caplin says there are no alligators. Doesn’t want to check your security.”
“Caplin, you’re joking, right? Did you see Sylvia across the street just now? She’s taken in three orphaned kids because the alligators moved in and murdered their parents. The security systems aren’t a frivolous option for us. We’ve lost some good friends around here.”
“A lot of things have changed around here. Where there once were swimming holes and mud puddles, we now have fire swamps. We never had those when I visited as a kid,” said Dobby. “There aren’t any alligators near home, but if Gari says there are alligators here, I can’t say I’m surprised. Hasn’t anything changed near the base? You’ve been there long enough to have seen some changes.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Nothing has changed,” said Caplin. “Fire swamps? I think they don’t exist.”
Dobby and Gari looked at each other in disbelief. Caplin continued.
“The magic simply doesn’t allow fire swamps, alligators, anything like that. It’s the whole point of having magic, isn’t it? So that everything is always pleasant?”
“If that were so, we wouldn’t need the Guardia Principale, then, would we? And since you mention it, the magic is decidedly dodgy here in the south,” said Gari. “There are some very bad leaks and even dead spots where there is no magic at all. Most places it is okay, but you get out of town a little bit and the magic comes and goes, like a radio station that is on the far side of a mountain. It never used to be that way. That’s probably why the alligators have been able to move in, though no one has done a proper study.”
Caplin reconsidered. The Guardia Principale was necessary to maintain the peace and prosperity, of course. But since he had been involved, they hadn’t had to do anything beyond sitting back and enjoying the pleasantness. They’d never had to rally to protect it. Or repair it. He began to wonder if there had actually been a breach of some kind. Balderdash! Not a chance.
A spray of gravel peppered the sidewalk and as the associated dust cloud cleared, a blocky military truck appeared. The radio blasted contemporary dance tunes, and an unruly platoon of uniformed flunkies played musical chairs to make room for Captain Caplin at the shotgun position.
“My ride is here,” said Caplin, as he pushed back his chair and picked up his kit from the ground. And he disappeared in a puff of dust.
“Thanks for stopping by,” yelled Dobby as the vehicle lurched down the road. “I’ll take care of the bill.”
Gari sat in stunned silence. Dribs and drabs of their dinner covered the table and he absently nibbled on this and that. Dobby glanced at the check and dumped a small pile of gold coins onto a relatively clean spot near the middle of the table.
‘I suppose we are on our own with the alligator investigation,” said Gari. “It never occurred to me before this, but the alligators moved in right about when the roosters disappeared. Do you think alligators got them?”
“Hmmm. The roosters were arrogant and noisy, but they were alert and savvy. Plus, there were so many of them. It seems kind of unlikely. I doubt they stumbled into a fire swamp, either. I’ve always thought they would turn up sooner or later.”
”Well, let’s head on back to the villa. I’ll gather up these leftovers to take back to my staff. They can’t be expected to live on boxes of cookies.”
To be continued . . .
The quite extensive Cast of Characters:
This story needs illustrations! Select an event from this story (how about the table full of lunch plates, or a fat alligator?), draw a picture of it, and send me an email. I’ll reply so that you can attach a digital copy of your masterpiece to it. I’ll add it to the story!
Or, if you’d rather help with the glossary, send me the list of words you had to look up (or should have looked up, but didn’t!). When I finish writing the ending, I will start putting together the glossary.