This is a work of fiction. Characters, names, events, and places are born of the author's imagination, dreams, and nightmares. Any resemblance to actual events, persons, living or dead or out of phase, or locals no matter how fantastic and seemingly impossible is entirely coincidental. And should you find yourself observing inexplicable acts of magic and creatures from the Monster Arcanum of Battlegrounds Volume 1, then you may very well consider yourself one of the gifted decedents of the ancients.
Copyright © George Lamore, 2018
Illustrations copyright © 2018 by George Lamore
Cover illustration © 2018 by
Cover Design by George Lamore
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
XS Dark Publishing
Case Connor and The Trials of Sand and Fire
By George Lamore
Everyone Hates Lawyers
I'm convinced Jenkenz Slazenger was born with an iron rod deeply embedded in his backside. Apologies. He's “Mr. Slazenger” to me and anyone not worthy of his inspirational company and towering intellect, which is, by the way, the whole freaking world. I still call him “Mr. Jenky.” Well, at least in my mind I do, or when he's safely out of earshot. But, right now, at this moment in time, he's definitely Mr. Slazenger. His office definitely looks more like an ancient lair to me, but more on that later.
He leans forward, taking a better look at the documents spread before him, adjusting his wire-framed spectacles to read the fine print. He lets out an ever so slight sigh and seems about to speak when a tenuous knock comes at the door.
He looks up at the door and at me with profound disappointment, and calls out with a firm voice, “Yes, Miss Pettra, what is it?”
The heavy, oak paneled door to his lair opens, and a gorgeous shock of red hair, blue eyes, and red lips peeks in.
My heart races, the same way it does every time I see Mr. Jenky’s assistant, and I hope the blood rushing to my face isn't obvious.
“Um, sir, the package you were waiting for has arrived.” She has an angelic voice.
“Thank you, I'll be there momentarily,” Mr. Jenky replies.
The door closes, and the sun that is Miss Pettra winks out of existence.
“Mr. Connor, I'll be a few minutes. You are to sit here, still as a mouse under a cat's gaze. I will return shortly, and we'll discuss the outcome of this latest incident. Understood?” He levels a spectacled gaze at me that brooks no argument.
“Yes, Mr. Slazenger,” I reply meekly. I don't know how he's able to suck the wind out of my rebellious sails so easily. The only reasonable explanation is vampiric powers.
“Good.” Mr. Slazenger scoots his chair back and walks briskly out the door, which is impressive for someone older than dirt. The door closes behind him with an ominous click. Locked in, I realize, trapped in his lair, no chance of escape. Or is there?
His immense office is paneled floor to ceiling with wood from some endangered species of tree. It’s dark red with a rich luster and swirled with a deep beautiful pattern that is clearly the result of hundreds of years of growth rings from some ancient tree that had weathered countless years of life in some faraway tropical forest. Until someone cut it down to become paneling for some rich guy like Mr. Jenky. Too bad for that silly old tree.
Each wall is filled with built-in bookshelves. And get this, one wall has ancient books with real leather and cloth covers. They're all worn and thumbed through, giving the appearance that Mr. Jenky actually consumed the contents of the old tomes.
The other wall of shelves contains strange and creepy trophies from his past conquests, which is where I got the whole lair idea from and, most likely, confirms his vampire status. Just listen, there’s the severed hand from a gorilla, palm up, like an ashtray. Next, a stuffed monkey stands frozen on a pedestal, small fangs bared as it clings to a large shellacked blue scorpion. Another cubby holds a simple blank envelope on a wooden stand. A sun-bleached jawbone from some animal rests on another shelf, an antique brass sea compass thingy with etchings in some obscure language, a fan made of blackbird feathers, an hourglass filled with blue sand, and an enormous ostrich egg with a strange Celtic pattern inked on its surface.
There's more I can't see, so I crane my neck around. The door is closed. I climb onto my chair so I can see the higher shelves. Above the first couple of shelves is more bizzaro stuff. One shelf holds a dagger-sized knife sheathed in leather and brass with a wolf face stamped into the silver handle. Next to that is a simple box of inlaid Mother of Pearl. I spot an ugly brown jug last, which seems the most ordinary of the shelved items. I think Jenky shops garage sales in his spare time, specializing in things of the strange and unwanted kind. I think he kind of missed the whole point of the Antique Road Show. Or, what I'm leaning toward, he's definitely some sort of vampire voodoo monster.
A click outside the door is all the warning I get. I drop back onto my seat in one motion and peer over my shoulder innocently—very innocently—as the door swings in.
Mr. Jenky pauses in the doorway, silhouetted by brighter lights in the reception area. His head and eyes swivel across the room and back to me. “You did not touch anything, did you, Mr. Connor?” His undead gaze locks on me.
“Nope, been right here in this seat the whole time.” I smile.
“Yes, apparently I need to be more specific in the future.” He walks back to his desk and takes a seat, immediately scanning the documents again. Every so often he breathes a disappointed sigh as he comes across something particularly offensive in the police report.
Now, hang on. I don't want you to get the wrong idea about me just because Jenky is reading a police report where I happen to be portrayed as the main antagonist. I can explain it, to you and to him.
He puts the papers down, straightens the edges with practiced efficiency, and says without preamble, “What do you have to say for yourself, Mr. Connor? And don't waste my time with fibs. We both know I'll smell the lie in it.”
Yep, he's a vampire. Gotta be. “Can you open the shades and a window? I’m feeling a little sick,” I say.
Yep, a vampire.
“Give me a second.” I fold my legs under myself in the chair.
“Sit properly, Mr. Connor,” he says. “That chair is a two-hundred-year-old antique. I would prefer your sneakers not scuff it.”
“Do you want to hear my side or not?” I unfold my undercarriage back to the ground.
“Not really, but I suppose I must so I can judge how best to proceed. Now if you don't mind.”
“Okay, but no interruptions. You gotta hear me out no matter how crazy it sounds. Deal?”
“You 're in no position to make deals. Now proceed, Mr. Connor.”
“Where to start? Okay, let's start after last bell at the academy.” I pause to see if he has any objection.
His hands are pressed into a steeple before his face, gaze locked on me like a vice.
“So, last bell goes off at the prison, um, academy, and we bail out the side doors to make a bee-line for the game shop. And by we, I mean Lester and me. We take our secret shortcut, past the maintenance building, the yard equipment, and through a hole in the back fence, that may or may not be entirely known to the prison staff.”
Mr. Jenky is still there, gaze fixed, but he gives me a slight nod to continue.
“The shop is getting in the new volume of the Monster Arcanum for Battle Realms. But the shop owner said he might only get a few copies in the first order, and it could be weeks till the next one. So we can't risk some other 'nims' getting them first."
“We pop over the next fence and head down the road to town. We see the usual suspects along the way, Shaky Slim, the old homeless guy whose hands are always trembling. There’s also Frankenstein, the guy built like a brick shiii, um, outhouse and gentle as a puppy. He's drawing on the sidewalk with the chalk we scored him from art class. Pretty rad design if you ask me, but it’s only a matter of time before he gets frustrated and wipes it all out. Finally, there's old Santa Claus, AKA Christmas Bob, sitting there two sheets to the wind, his nose brighter than a fire hydrant. We keep jetting. Following me so far?”
“Yes, despite your unflinching assault on the English language, I am,” Jenky says.
“Cool, continuing then. We skip through the rest of the blocks, not literally skipping, but we can skip that part as nothing significant happens.” I have to be clear in case Jenky gets the wrong impression and thinks kids actually skip anywhere.
“So we get to Myron's Mythical Game Shop and, as expected, we see Eddy and his suckers coming around the far block. Too late, losers. We step into the shop and claim victory! But the shop has been totally sacked as in ransacked; shelves busted, displays knocked over, cash register smashed open, glass cases shattered. We're about to exit stage left when a huge black limo pulls up, you know, like the kind you drive—well, get driven in. Two oxen-like men wearing dark shades make straight for the front door.”
“Time to exit via the back friggin' door, but in the back of the shop, we find Myron crumpled up and bloody. We try to help him, but he starts shrieking, 'don't touch me, don't touch me' and pedaling away like I'm the devil himself. The two ox bros barge in, and this is when stuff gets weird, really weird.”
“The first one makes this freaky chuffing sound, picks Les up by the collar, and slams him into the wall. No questions, nothing, just picks him up and smash. But the really freaky part is that their skin is rippling and boiling, all Werewolf in London like. Horns, real freaking horns, start sprouting out the sides of their heads. Are you following me?”
Mr. Jenky takes a deep breath and smooths out the papers. “I said I would hear your version of the tale, uninterrupted, and that's what I'm attempting to do. So far, your tale is not doing you any service, Mr. Connor, but please continue.”
“Well, I said I would tell the absolute truth no matter the consequence, and that’s what I’m doing.”
A tight smile creases his face. He nods for me to continue.
“So, friggin' horns sprout out of their heads, and they're transmorging into giant stink-butt minotaurs. Minotaurs! I don't know what happens to me. I just go a little nuts, and given there are minotaurs in the game shop, I think that’s reasonable. Myron has some of his ren-fair gear in the back of the shop, a battle ax, a long sword, and even a huge morning star. I pull the sword off the wall—it seems like the best choice given the close quarters—and start swinging.” I jump out of my chair swinging an imaginary sword.
“That gets their attention, and I lay a chop into the shoulder of the first one. Bones crunch, blood spurts, and the brute grabs the blade with his hoofy hand and yanks it out of my grip. So I grab the ax, which has a nice spike at the top. I duck as the other rakes his horns at me. I slam the spike into that one's foot, pinning it to the floor. They're both bellowing, but I have the morning star now and I swing it in a protective circle and that seems to give them pause.”
Mr. Jenky isn’t impressed with my acrobatics, scratching notes on the paper, but I carry on anyway.
“That's when the third guy shows up. He's real tall and thin with a forehead and eyes that seem way too big for the rest of his face. 'I've got this,’ he says to his minions. I call them minions because they step back pronto and things get super freaky. His skin starts doing that rippling thing, too. His arms start to stretch out and unfold into barbed death grabber things, while his eyes blow up and travel to the top of his head, antenna sprouting up behind them. He's turning into a Mantisman. A friggin' Mantisman! No way am I getting out of this alive! Do you know what a Mantisman is?”
“I have never heard of such a thing. Where did you learn about them? Was it in history or mythology class?” Mr. Jenky asks.
“Not the kind of thing you learn in class. It's a fifth circle beast from the Monster Arcanum of Battlegrounds Volume 1.”
“I see. The game again. The game you were forbidden to play the last time you visited my office.”
“Yeah, that game. And it's a good thing, too, 'cause if I hadn't, I would be Mantis meat right now. You know what a Mantisman's weakness is? Sound, that's what. Those little feathery antennae on the top of its head are not fond of big bangs, nor air-horns for that matter, which Myron keeps on a shelf by his back door to scare off raccoons when they’re digging in his trash. So I drop the morning star and give him a full dose of air-horn, and he crumples like a rag doll and starts doing the horizontal jitterbug. I bolt out the back door and right into the loving arms of Police Officer Parks. The one whose name is attached to that report.”
“And what happened after that, Mr. Connor?” Jenky leans back and rubs his bald head tiredly.
I plant myself back in the chair. “And then it was a big mess of what they said versus what I said, but I was way outnumbered in the they said department. Les was K-oed the whole time. Myron told the cops I had trashed the place and trashed him trying to get my hands on the Monster Arcanum, which he claimed was sold out. And Mr. Mantisman, AKA Mr. Henning, was coming by because the silent alarm got tripped on his property, and he just happened to be in the area. Apparently, he and Myron go way back. Said he often visits the store as he's part owner. Go figure. Myron never clued me into that. Know what else?”
“I am dying to know. Please, don't hold back.”
“Mantismen have a hypnotic gaze power, kind of like vampires, but not as strong. It's only a temporary thing they use to subdue their prey. I think he put the mojo on Myron and Les, at least long enough to fool the cops. I bet if we check back tomorrow or next week Myron will totally back me up. Totally!”
“Is that the sum of your story, Mr. Connor?” Mr. Jenky makes a slight adjustment to his glasses. He jots some notes down on the police report. “Are you sure you don't want to revise anything, maybe start over and tell me something else, a version closer to a reality we actually live in?”
“I said what I'm going to say, crazy as it sounds or makes me. And if I'm going to hang, I'll hang by the truth, no matter how psycho.”
“You will probably live to regret this fanciful tale, Mr. Connor.” Mr. Jenky drops his pen, removes his spectacles and gives them a terse rub with his gold-embroidered pocket hanky.
“I have plenty of regrets, like having a stinky old lawyer for a legal guardian. You're not related to me, you're not a relative, just some little old man who lives up here in the dark with a bunch of creepy trophies. I mean, who are you, really? You know what I think you are?”
“I'm sure you are about to dazzle me with your detective skills. Do tell me who I am.”
“I didn't say who. I said what.”
“Even better. I'm waiting.”
“A vampire, that's what. And you've been waiting all these years for something, something sinister.”
It’s Jenky's turn to smile, but when he smiles, it does not make me feel any better, or safer, or any kind of warm and fuzzy. It's the kind of smile that says this is the end. “That's quite enough, Mr. Connor.”
“No, it isn't. It isn't near enough! Prove it. If you're not a vamp, open the window. I dare you. I double-dog dare you! Stand before the light, you spawn of darkness.” I'm kind of losing it.
Mr. Jenky stands sharply and turns toward the shuttered, curtained windows, and that’s when I see it for the first time, the tattoo on the back of his balding head. Before I can make it out, the room is awash in brilliant sunlight, and I'm blinded to all but Mr. Jenky's silhouette standing before the window. No smoke, no flames, no bubbling flesh. Not a freaking vampire after all. Go figure.
“Are you satisfied? No vampire, no minotaurs, no mantismen, and no more lies. Remember, I may not be your relative, but I am your legal guardian, and I'm a trained attorney, and I can smell a lie a mile away. Now, tell the truth of what happened. Any truth would be better than what just came out of your mouth. I'm seriously doubting that you're even capable of telling the truth when you speak. Now say something.”
“Okay, Jenkenz, how's this for truth? A big whopping truth. Everyone hates lawyers, including me!”
I went too far, way too far.
The impeccable, unflappable, cold as ice Mr. Slazenger loses it. Well, for him it’s losing it.
He slaps his hands onto the desk and yells, “Miss Pettra!”
The door swings open immediately like she anticipated this and was waiting to intervene. “Sir?”
“Take him away,” Jenky grits out between clenched teeth. He locks down his outburst.
She walks over to my side and puts a grip on my arm. There's no way I'll fight Miss Pettra, and he knows it. She stands me up and escorts me toward the door, Mr. Jenky right behind us.
As we cross the threshold, Miss Pettra turns to Mr. Jenky. “Where should I take him this time?”
“Australia.” He closes the door in our faces with an unquestionable slam. The lock snicks into place.
The Long Trip
I follow Miss Pettra past the waiting area and down the mansion’s long hall to the grand entryway where two staircases hug the walls and swoop down to the granite floor. A couple of suits of armor stand guard on either side of the great wooden door. I'm surprised when we don't take a turn up the stairs to my usual guest quarters, but head right out the front door.
The black limo is waiting in the driveway, and Miss Pettra leads me straight to it. She opens the door and gently, but firmly, guides me in and takes a seat opposite me.
“Airport please,” she tells the driver.
“Yes, mum,” he says with a thick British accent.
The glass rolls up between us, and we pull out down the drive. Jenky has an exceptionally long driveway, a Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous driveway, minus the famous part with an extra helping of the rich part. Yet, he's still a crotchety old tool. We cruise under the canopy of trees, dappled light flashing in and out of the limo windows. Upstate New York is beautiful this time of year, the fall colors turning the slopes of the surrounding hills into masterpieces of color slipping past the windows.
I lay my head back and watch. It's rather hypnotic. I'm not in the mood to talk and, apparently, Miss Pettra, who's usually quite chatty and charming, isn't either. She does, however, hand me a bottle of water from the mini-fridge.
I mumble, “Thanks.”
In hindsight, I probably should have handled that situation with Jenky better. The whole thing is a complete mess. I’m sure I'll see an army of shrinks in the near future, and my life at the academy will be on double lockdown if I don't go straight to juvie. I wonder what's happened to Les. He still has parents—parents who sent him to the academy, but parents, nonetheless. I know they consider me a barely tolerable friend for Les, not having a pedigree of old money or any money for that matter. Now they'll consider me outright filth and probably forbid Les to associate with me.
The school administration will switch our classes around and probably put us in separate dorms. No doubt I'll be spending my weekends and evenings in the detention study hall. Oh, joy, life is just grand, and I'm totally exhausted. My lids are heavy. Might as well sleep; the drive to the academy takes a couple of hours.
What's that racket? I wake with a start to honking horns. The trees outside my window now replaced by skyscrapers, and it's dark. What the frig, people? This is not the way to the academy!
“Miss Pettra, where are we?” I shout.
But there is no Miss Pettra and no limo at all! I'm on a bus with a grey utilitarian interior, hard bench seats, and a metal grate door blocking egress from the bus. There are four other occupants in lime green jumpers spread out with three or four rows between us. I jump up and immediately fall down as I reach the end of the shackles around my wrists and feet.
“Hey, boys, looks like Prince Charming's awake,” one of the boys in front of me says with a full-on Australian accent.
I fumble around and right myself. I give the chains a few futile yanks. The city doesn't look at all familiar, and I know all the big cities within two hundred miles of the academy.
“Where the hell are we?” I ask the other kids.
They all laugh.
The big one in the front, with short cropped blond hair, answers, “We’re in Australia, mate. Sydney to be exact. And this ain't hell; hell is where we'll be in a couple days.”
“How'd I get here? I'm not supposed to be here! I'm supposed to be in New York! Upstate New York!” I yank on the chains some more.
“Well, you're not. You're in bloody Oz now. Don't know how you got here. The bus stopped at the airport, and two blokes bring your arse onto the bus and chain you up right there. One of 'em stuffs an envelope in your pocket. Says to me, 'tell him to read it when he wakes up.' So now I'm tellin' ya.”
I fumble for the envelope in my pocket. In my haste, I rip the letter inside. Now I have to hold the two pieces together to read them.
Mr. Slazenger meant it when he said Australia. I am sorry how this came about, but there were no other options. If you had stayed, things would have gotten worse, and there was significant trouble coming because of what you did at the game shop. Mr. Slazenger pulled in a lot of favors to get you out of the country and put you where you are. You have a difficult road ahead of you in your new home. Be strong, and someday we might figure a way around this mess.
Love, Penny Pettra
“What's it say, princess?” one of the boys in back asks. He's a slim, lanky, ginger-haired boy with a hawk-like nose and cruel eyes.
“Says they sent me here on purpose. Where the frig is here? I mean, where are they taking us?”
“Hell, mate, truly. We're going to hell. A lovely place called Bundai's Camp for Troubled Youth.”
They all laugh. Somehow, I sense it isn't all that funny, and their laughs are more bravado than anything.
“Isn't this kidnapping or something?” I ask, panicked.
“Not for me; it was this or the real slam up,” the big kid in front says.
“Same here,” says the ginger.
“Third strike here,” says the dark-skinned kid two rows behind me.
“Fifth strike for me,” says the last kid. He has a wicked scar across his neck.
“I don't have any strikes!” I shout. “Well maybe one, but seriously, I've been kidnapped!” I yank on the chains some more.
“Must have been a hell of a first strike,” the big kid says, laughing. “Don't bother with the chains. Seriously, mate, you'll just hurt yourself, and it makes an annoying racket.”
I stop yanking.
“That's better. Name's Tims,” the big kid in front says. “What's yours?”
“Case. My name's Case,” I say, looking around at the others.
“Chad,” says the dark-skinned kid behind me.
“Niles,” says the kid with the scar.
“None of your bloody business,” says the ginger.
“Right wanker he is,” says Tims, nodding toward the ginger. “Since he won't share his name, we're calling him 'Carrot.'”
“I told you to stop calling me that!” the ginger shouts.
“Then what's your name?” I ask. “What should we call you?”
“Call me nuthin'. Just don't open your craw at me.” He stares daggers at me.
“Shut it, Carrot. This is a piss-a-bucket situation for all of us, and you're not helping,” Tims says.
I decide right there that Carrot is a class 'A' tool.
“So what gives here? What is this camp they're taking us to?” I ask.
Tims answers, “Not none of us knows everything, but what we gather, it's bloody hell on earth. I might have chose the slam up instead after chatting with these fellas. It's like this hell camp for kids who be in trouble, to get them back on the right track and all.”
“Problem is,” Niles chimes in, “some kids never make it back. Saw it on the tele couple years ago. They got sued 'cause ten kids died on some survival trek.”
“Then it's like nuthin' ever comes of it. Ten kids dead, but the camp keeps running, business as usual,” Chad finishes.
“That would never happen in the States. Lawyers would swarm over that like sharks in a feeding frenzy.”
“Well, this ain't the States, Dorothy.” Carrot sneers.
“Think that one up all by your lonesome? I'm impressed, Carrot's got a brain,” I answer. I've been dealing with his kind all my life.
At this point, the iron grated door at the front of the bus opens. A hulking guard in a grey jumper with a nightstick bangs on the metal cage. “No more talking. Time to sleep. Next one to peep will get punishment first thing at camp, starting with twenty-five pushups, Bundai style.”
“Hey, hey you!” I shout earnestly. “There's been some kind of mistake. I'm not supposed to be here.”
He points at me. “You're in the right place, and you ain't very smart, you ain't. I said no peeps. You get twenty-five right off the bus. Another peep and you all get twenty-five—”
“But I need to call my lawyer! I mean my guardian—”
“That's twenty-five for the lot of you and fifty for the yank,” the guard roars.
I'm about to peep again when Carrot screams at me, “Not another word, you idiot. Not another, or I'll slice you open like a worm!” He lunges to the end of his chains, his face purple with rage.
The guard storms back and clouts him across the face, knocking him back into his seat. “That's fifty for the lot of you, and a hundred for you, yank.”
I'm about to unleash a string of curses, but I catch Niles' face out the corner of my eye. He's shaking his head No emphatically. I get a grip on myself and sit back, staring straight ahead. We all do.
The guard storms back to the gate and looks us over one more time. “That's better, and keep it quiet back here til morning. Or else.” He slams the gate closed.
We stare straight ahead. City lights and buildings stream by. A few minutes later, I hear some choked sobs from Carrot. I worry the guard will notice and hand out more punishment.
He does. I see him turn around in his seat and look back through the dirty Plexiglas. A smile of genuine happiness splits the guard's face, and he turns back around.
I feel sorry for Carrot. His pitiful sobs betray his fear, the same we're all probably feeling, but at least not showing.
Eventually, we all fall asleep and wake when the bus pulls into a nondescript rest area with some picnic tables and a bathroom. The landscape has become rugged and arid, and the sky stretches to the horizon in all directions, a cloudless sea of blue.
The guards, all three of them, march us off the bus. Carrot sports a red whelp on the side of his face. We're not allowed to talk, and they let us each have a turn in the bathroom. They march us three laps around the parking lot. After that we get down on the ground for twenty push-ups. It actually feels good doing them after being stuck on the bus for so long, but I bet Carrot would disagree because he's struggling after five.
The guard, whose name tag proclaims as Frank, kneels next to Carrot. “Better practice up, Carrot. This is nuffin’ compared to the Bundai pushups you got coming at the camp.” He laughs, counting Carrot's pushups out loud and not counting ones that aren't done properly.
We do three more rounds of parking lot marches and twenty more pushups after each round of marching. Everyone except Tims struggles after two rounds. Carrot can't do them at all and keeps getting a no rep count from Frank for lack of form.
Finally, one of the other guards, Stan, says, “We don't have time for this. We got to get on the road.”
“Fine.” Frank hoists Carrot up by the collar. “You still owe me fifteen more.”
They sit us down at one of the tables and bring us breakfast. If I thought the pushups were bad, breakfast is utterly cruel and unusual punishment. It's some kind of biscuit smeared with butter and some sort of tarry substance that tastes like; well, there's no polite way to describe how it tastes. I spit it out and try to wipe it off my tongue on the sleeve of my jumpsuit. I'm gagging, and I realize that I'm providing everyone, the guards, the boys, and even Carrot with some great entertainment. They're all smiling and chuckling.
“What's the matter, yank?” Frank asks. “Never had vegemite 'fore?”
“Vege-what?” I notice all the others are wolfing down their biscuits like a pack of hyenas.
“Just eats it,” Frank says. “All of it. And if you spit out 'nother bite, it'll be twenty more Bundai pushups, each bite.”
The next few minutes of me choking down that biscuit must be some of the most entertaining moments they’ve had in years. The only way I can manage it is to take a bite, chase it with water, gulp it down, and jump around like a kangaroo to fend off the gag reflex, all the while clamping my hand firmly over my mouth. I finish the biscuit in six horrifying bites before lying on the ground and waiting for the toxic tar to finish me off. The world spins, the sky pulses, and I'm sure this is the end.
Everyone but me is laughing so hard that tears streak down their faces. A minute or two later, the laughs subside, and the world returns to normal.
Tims stands over me, face still red from hysterics. He puts out a hand and hoists me up. “Good one, mate, good one. Time to go.”
We file back onto the bus.
Frank gives me a final warning, “No heavin' your kipper on the bus, or you'll be licking it up.”
I take that to mean don't hurl. I'm not a hurler in general. No car sickness, air sickness, nor sea sickness ever, but after that biscuit experience, I'm a little worried.
The miles and terrain roll by in an endless monotony of boredom. It isn't like we're on vacation and being shackled to the hard bench is anything but comfortable. I've also long since given up on trying to get more answers. The boys on the bus are as helpless as me, and the guards, especially Frank, are just looking for excuses to dole out more punishment. I make sure to keep tabs on the signs going back the way we came, and the last one showed Sydney 1100 klicks east. At least I know which way to run if I get a chance to escape.
That evening we pull into a town, a collection of doublewides actually, one of which has the word “PUB” spray-painted in bright red letters across the side. We pull to a halt here. The guards usher us off the bus.
“Time for some tucker, real bush style, that is,” Frank says gleefully.
We're led inside the pub, single file. The outside looks a lot worse than the inside, which is quite tidy. Some simple tables are neatly arranged along one wall, and a long counter runs down the other with plain stools. The third wall hides what must be a kitchen. The smell of food wafting from the back is fantastic. The last piece of open wall is a little tourist shop and a rack of knickknacks. My mouth starts to water as I realize we've not eaten since the biscuit this morning. I'm starving.
Behind the counter stands a tall dude with a big smile who greets us warmly. “Hi, mates. You've come to the right place and the only place. Name's Phil. What can I scrap up for you?”
“The boys here will be having a bit of bush tucker 'fore they fly out to the Bundai. A few burgers for me and my mates, and some pints, too.”
“What kind of bush tucker you have in mind?” Phil has swarthy skin, handsome broad features, a shock of blue hair, and piercing blue eyes. I'm not the sharpest tool, but I finally realize he's probably an aborigine.
“What have you got that's fresh?” Frank asks with a smile.
“Got some cat, some lizard, and I might have some wallaby that's frozen,” he says.
“Great. Boys, what's it going to be, cat, lizard, or wally?” Frank asks. “Make your minds up quick, or I'll choose for ya.”
“I'm not hungry,” Carrot says.
“That's not an option,” Frank says. “He'll have the lizard. Next.”
“Lizard,” I say because there seems to be the least guilt factor in that choice from my point of view.
Tims says, “Cat.”
“Wally,” Chad says.
“Lizard,” Niles says.
“You boys want chips with that?” Phil asks. We nod.
“Then a few burgers and beers for the grown-ups, right?”
“Yep, sounds right,” Frank replies. “Going to take them out back and let them wash up.”
“Right. Don't forget to lift the lid and check for redbacks if you're needing a sitter,” the man says.
“A sitter? Redbacks?” I whisper at Tims.
“You know, number two. And a redback is a deadly spider. Don't you know nothin’?” Tims shakes his head.
Frank shuffles us out the back door. There's a separate building for the toilet which we get to use one at a time. Me first. Yay. I use my foot to flip the lid, and sure enough, there's a spider half the size of my hand. I shriek and backpedal out the door as the spider scuttles right at me.
“Spider! Friggin’ chasing me!” I practically fall off the porch.
Frank and the rest laugh. “What kind?”
“The big-butt chasing kind, that's what kind,” I reply, now safely off the porch with Frank between the creature and me.
“What color is it?” Tims asks. “Is it black?”
“It isn’t black, but it's big.” I make a circle with my hands to indicate how big. “And it friggin' chased me. What kind of spider does that? Spiders are supposed to run away from you even if you run away from them!”
“Don’t be such a skid. I'll have a look,” Tims offers. “Probably just a huntsman.”
I’m not sure what a skid is, but I'm sure it’s not flattering.
“There's a boy with stones,” Frank says to Tims and steps aside. “You'll do well at Bundai; well, better than this lot, I reckon.”
Tims disappears into the toilet. We hear him shuffling around. “Found it. Yep, she's a huntsman all right, real beauty, hiding behind the tank now. I'll be out in a bit.” The next few sounds are not so exciting, leaving me wishing I had gone first.
Tims comes out beaming. “That was a real dunker, but I feel much better now. Next.”
I step forward, but Frank bars my way with his baton. “You're last now.”
And so I wait and wait. Each boy does his utmost to outdo the previous one in terms of gross-out factor. Yay for me. So when it's my turn, I hold my breath and make my way in. I scan the walls and ceiling for the monstrous arachnid. Nothing. I open the stall and spot where it's hiding, a couple of legs extending above the back of the tank. They survived. I'll survive. I flip the lid of the toilet up and get an eyeful of grossness. Now I think I know what a skidder is. I’ll have to remember that one.
I get down to business, 'cause I'm desperate, trying to make as little noise as possible and not disturb the rightful owner any further. I crane my head around, catching it out the corner of my eye, the eight-legged menace slowly walking across the top of the toilet. I'm at a point in my business where there are simply no good options, none. I can only watch. She scuttles slowly over the tank until I lose sight of her. Petrified, I imagine her legs on my back, soon to be followed by the fangs, I’m sure.
I am distracted by the chaotic thumping of a giant winged bug bumping into the ceiling light. I glance up and see the huntsman crawling across the roof. She closes in on the bare bulb, a virtual spider diner with the blue light special bouncing around dumbly. With a sudden burst of speed she catches the confused insect in her oversized mandibles. She retreats back down the wall to her safehouse behind the toilet.
The crap has been scared out of me literally and figuratively. Shaking, I wrap things up and shuffle slowly out the door. I add the fear of going to the bathroom to my list of negatives for Australia, just super great, but I won't let them know that.
“You survive that okay, yank?” Carrot asks.
“Yeah, totally fine,” I reply calmly.
“You don't look fine,” Carrot says. “You're white as a sheet.”
“I was a bit paranoid at first, gotta admit, but I had an idea. I gave it a peace offering and made friends,” I lied.
“A peace offering? What kind of peace offering?” Frank asks.
“There was a bug flying around the light, so I grabbed it and gave it to the spider to keep her busy while I did my thing,” I say.
“That's a load of croc turd, mate,” Frank says.
“Don't believe me, go have a look,” I say.
Frank goes in. “Well, I'll be damned,” he says from inside. Frank comes out and looks me up and down. “Well, spider lover, Bundai's got plenty more spiders than that, and big ones, too. Now let's go get that tucker.”
Inside the pub, a ruckus of pans comes from the kitchen. Phil pops his head out and smiles. “Comin' up in a second. I gotta do it all these days. Have a look in the shop while you're waiting.”
“Go on, boys, but don't touch nuffin',” the guard named Stan says. He gets a glower from Frank.
They return to their beers, and we shuffle over to the store, which isn't much. There's a variety of camping supplies, a shelf of canned and dried food, some fishing supplies, a spinning rack of postcards, and, of course, a few stuffed koalas.
The artwork pinned to the back wall catches my eys. It's kind of amazing, like nothing I've ever seen up close. Wild colors and patterns are brushed onto a black canvas, animals playing a dominant part. The big painting on top, full of bright reds and yellows swirling around, a variety of wildlife cleverly painted into the scene, a lizard, a snake, a bird. I can almost feel myself in their world under the hot desert sun, dry wind blowing. The painting pull me in. I see through the bird’s eyes now, a faraway brewing storm of black clouds, but the distance seems distorted and fragmented in time. The animals look for shelter.
Someone shakes my shoulder.
I jerk around and see Phil's face up close and personal. “What the heck?” I take a step back.
“Tuck's ready, mate,” he says.
The boys are all sitting shoving food into their faces.
“You got a little lost in the dreamtime, but that's a good thing, I reckon.”
“I just spaced out,” I say. Phil is creeping me out. “'Cause I haven't eaten all day, that's all.”
“Hey, mate, where you're going, the dreamtime can help. And don't be afraid of it, hear me,” he says with earnest.
I shuffle back to the table.
“Um ya, dude, you just went Richter on the crazy scale,” Chad teases me.
I sit down and dig in. Lizard or not, I'm starving and ready to eat. Whatever it is, it tastes like chicken.
Phil takes the hint, nods, and goes back to the kitchen.
“How is it?” Tims asks.
“Not bad. Might open a lizard lunch shop when I get home,” I say.
“That's 'cause it's not, mate. He let us know them's just some chicky burgers,” Tims whispers and smiles. He nods toward the guards. “He gave them guards a bit of wallaby, though.”
We all giggle. I get a surprising and brief flash of happiness.
Into the Night
We finish the food, and the guards march us back out to the bus.
Phil comes out onto the porch and waves goodbye. “Good luck, boys. You'll need it.”
The bus pulls out, and we leave the ramshackle town behind. A short while after that, the road turns to dirt and gets rougher with every mile. The sun is diving toward the horizon, and long shadows start to stretch their arms over the desert. I'm slightly fascinated by the strange plants that call this place home, like nothing I've seen before, though not a place I would visit voluntarily. We pass a sign painted onto some old boards nailed to a post. The red letters and arrow proclaim “Airport” in the direction we're going.
Sure enough, a short while later we pass a tattered old orange windsock at the end of a gravel strip. We bump along the road and take a left into the airport. It's another double-wide trailer with a couple of antennae and a tattered windsock. On the far side of the trailer sits the only plane in sight, a dirty yellow rust-streaked thing with two prop engines fixed on the wings.
No way is that our next ride? No way. The stains from grease and rust run down either side of the engines. Similar rust streaks can be seen around rivets that seem particularly important to keep the plane in one piece. Someone has gone to the trouble to paint “Bundai Air” in large red letters along the tail section below the three dirty windows. No way!
“Bus ride's over, boys,” Frank announces. “Time for the next leg. Up and out.”
We shuffle to the front of the bus. I whisper to Tims, “They can't really be serious about that plane, can they?”
“Don't look too bad to me,” he says. “I reckon it'll get off the ground.”
“Yeah, but will it stay off the ground?”
“Move it, boys,” Stan says from the front. “No chatting it up.”
As we offload, Frank is banging on the doors to the doublewide. No one is home, thank God. Maybe we can stay on the bus. We hear a rumble coming down the road and some earnest beeps. Lights burn at the front of a dust cloud tearing down the road in the deepening dusk. The car is sort of going in a straight line, sort of. The jeep tears into the airport parking lot; whoever is driving can't quite keep the turn in control and slides out over the rock garden. The jeep careens around the circle and comes to a stop, barely missing the bus.
An old guy stumbles out, bottle in hand, and takes a swig. He looks down the spout. “She's empty, dammit.” He tosses the bottle aside.
“Hey, mates, I'm ready to fly you out.” He staggers forward. “You loaded up yet?”
“Aw jeez,” Frank roars. “You ain't in no shape to fly, Jeff! Ain't none of us going up with you like this!”
“I'm is fine, just need a little coffee.” He staggers over. We can smell the fumes from ten feet away. “'Sides, you not even bloody loaded the plane. By the time that happens, I'll be ready. I promish.” He staggers to the double wide, fumbles his keys into the lock, and disappears inside.
“What we gonna do, Frank?” Stan asks.
“We're gonna load the plane, real slow like, give that crazy bird time to sober up. 'Course, if anyone can fly in that condition, it's old Jeffers.”
Apparently, the bus cargo bays are loaded with supplies for Camp Bundai, and now we have to load them onto the plane. The crates vary in size, but I figure we can finish in less than an hour. Frank, AKA Cranky Frank now, comes up with a clever way to stretch it out. More exercise is, of course, the only ingenious solution he can supply.
We start taking turns loading the cargo one crate at a time. At Frank's insistence, we do lunges from the bus to plane and bear crawls back. We get to carry the small containers all by our lonesomes, but the bigger crates take two of us unless you're Tims. My quads are on fire after the fourth trip. Frank and Stinky Stan have a bet on who will crumble first, Carrot or me.
By now, the one floodlight next to the double-wide has turned on, illuminating the course between bus and plane. I think Carrot might win this one. After all, I've spent at least three days as a kidnap victim on a plane and a bus. My legs are simply dying. Surprisingly, it's Chad who crumples first. Grabbing one of his hammy's and dropping his crate, he collapses to the ground.
The crate busts open and a bunch of knives spill onto the gravel. The guards shove them back into the crate, but we get a good look at them. They aren’t butter knives or steak knives, but ginormous military looking knives that have no place in a kitchen or at a table unless it’s a table for carving corpses. They look like the unholy offspring from a Bowie knife and a machete. Tims, Carrot, and I exchange questioning looks, and we're all probably thinking the same thing; where the hell are we going?
Stan helps Chad up, and he limps over to a large stone and has a seat. Stan hands him some water and waves us all over. Chad sits on the rock, grimacing with pain, tears streaking down his face. Stan is working on his cramping leg, trying to get it to loosen up.
“Have a seat, boys. Drink some water.” Stan gestures toward some canteens. “We’ll get back to it after a while.”
“What you doin’, Stan?” Frank asks. “These three can keep going. It’ll do 'em some good, it will.”
“Enough, Frank,” he says. “They’ve been cramped up in the bloody bus for two days, and they ain’t going to be worth nothin’ tomorrow if we kill 'em tonight.”
“Tomorrow’s not my problem, but loading the plane is. Are you gonna carry the rest of them crates?” Frank gets up close in Stan’s grill. Frank has a few inches on Stan and probably fifty pounds, but Stan doesn’t back down.
“You don’t scare me, Frank,” Stan says. “And you ain’t in charge of me, not back in the day and not now, so step it back. They can load 'em up, but they're getting an hour break first. And they ain’t going to be doin’ no more squats or stuff like that neither.”
“I reckon they will,” Frank says. “Now piss off.”
“No, they won’t, and if they do, I’ll make sure the commander gets a full report,” Stan says. “We clear on that?”
“You threatening me?” Frank asks menacingly.
“You can think of it that way if you like, but you’ve been riding these boys' backsides hard this whole trip. Ain’t our job to break ‘em. We're supposed to deliver ‘em healthy and unhurt. Right now this kid is hurt, and he’ll be lucky if he can walk normal tomorrow. And that’s on you.”
“What you think about this, Ned?” Frank asks the third guard, who's hardly spoken the whole trip. He’s a tall, lanky fellow with greasy hair combed over his balding head.
“St-Sta-St-Stan's ri-rr-ri-right,” Ned says with a horrible stutter. Now we know why he’s been the silent type.
“Fff-fi-Fine, ss-ss-suit yourself,” Frank mocks Ned. “You two can sort this mess out. You’re not doin’ this lot any favors by being soft on 'em.” Frank turns and walks away.
“I’m going to check on the pilot. Boys, you have a good rest, and I’ll see about getting you something to eat. Ned, keep an eye on Frank. He’s a real wanker that one.” Stan marches off to the double wide.
We can see the flare of a match beyond the bus. Frank lights a smoke. His blunt features, briefly illuminated, are a mix of rage and hate. The glowing cigarette makes it easy to keep tabs on his location. Frank is pacing back and forth.
“That dude has some serious anger issues,” I comment.
“Tell us something we don’t know.” Carrot rubs his face.
“Whatever. Chad, how’s the leg?” I ask.
“I’ll live, but Stan’s right, might not be walking good tomorrow.” Chad winces as he rubs the back of his hamstring.
“Something tells me that might not be an option where we’re going,” I say.
“Well, if we can help out tomorrow we’ll do what we can,” Tims offers.
“Speak for yourself,” Carrot says. “I’m watching out for number one.”
“You’re all heart,” I say.
“Just the smart thing to do, yank. ‘Sides, you haven’t got nothing to offer that I need, especially where we’re going,” Carrot sneers.
“You know something we don’t?” Tims asks.
“I know it’s a cross between military camp, reform school, and prison. Except they took the worst parts of 'em all and threw the rest away,” Carrot says.
“Now look who’s full of brilliance and insight.” I nod at Carrot.
“Shut it, yank,” Carrot says.
“Wish I had Macleod’s Magic Eye,” I say.
“What’d you say?” Chad asks.
“Nothin', just wishful thinking. Used to play this game called Battle Realms—”
“Oh yeah. Me, too,” Chad says. “Didn’t know they had that game outside of Oz. So what’s this Magic Eye?”
“Macleod’s Magic Eye,” Tims offers. “I had one of them once. For my Imperial Guardsmen. Was wicked handy that. Would be wicked handy now, too.”
“No, it wouldn’t,” Carrot says with an air of superiority.
“How would you know?” Chad asks.
“Macleod’s Magic Eye only lets you see someplace you’ve been before or a place where someone or something you know is located to provide a psychic link.”
“Holy crap! You guys all played Battle Realms?” I'm stunned. “What are the odds of that? And Carrot’s right, it wouldn’t work for those reasons. Totally forgot.”
“And you want to know what else?” Carrot asks innocently.
“What?” we all say.
“And finally, you nobs, it wouldn’t bloody work because it's just a bloody fantasy game that ain’t bloody real, that’s what,” he says.
“Sucking the life out of Planet Earth one sentence at a time,” I say.
Before we can exchange more pleasantries, Stan comes back with food. I use the term food loosely. He's smeared some white bread with butter and some of that disgusting vegemite. He hands out the slices and insists I take one.
“Take it, eat it. Got a long flight ahead and a longer day when you get to camp. You'll need your strength.”
I try to find one with the least amount of the dark tar on it. I use a whole canteen to choke it down. It's so freaking salty, I’m sure it’s doing something horrible to my insides.
The pilot staggers out with a steaming cup of coffee in his hand. “Not loaded yet?” he hollers. “What you been doing, sleeping?”
“Relax, mate. These kids ain’t going nowhere,” Stan says. “They get an hour break, then they can finish loading. Drink the coffee, Jeffers, and I mean the whole damn pot.”
“You going soft in your dotage, Stan?” Jeffers chides.
“I ain’t going soft, you bloody old buzzard. I’m giving you time to sober up. What were you thinking getting tanked before you fly?” Stan grinds out, barely keeping his temper under control.
“You were late. After a couple hours thought you weren’t comin’ until tomorrow,” Jeffers says. “I’ll be right soon enough, though.”
“I bloody hope so.”
“More coffee.” Jeffers heads back to the double-wide.
“How’s the leg?” Stan asks Chad.
“Still hurts, but it’s getting better. Thanks.”
“A'right then, you get a pass on the rest of the loading. Drink that whole bloody canteen of water too, whether you’re thirsty or not,” Stan orders. “I’m going to go have a chat with Cranky Frank.”
We all glance around innocently.
“Yeah, right. Think we was all born yesterday? We hear all the names every time we deliver a band of delinquents. And the names you came up with don’t score high in imagination.”
We shrug. We've got nothing to say.
“Ned, I’m going inside ‘n making sure he’s drinking coffee and nothing else. After, I'll have a chat with Frank. Meantime, keep a watch out here.” Stan pats Ned on the shoulder and goes inside.
“Ok-kkk-ka-kay,” Ned answers.
We sit outside for the next hour watching a horde of bugs beat their brains out on the single floodlight above the car park. Some are so big we can hear the ting-ting noise as they bounce off the glass and metal. Sucks to be them. They're probably saying the same about us because at least they get to go home once the mesmerizing light turns off. As far as I can tell, this is a one-way trip for us.
It must be an hour exactly when Frank returns and orders us to finish loading without preamble, his face set with anger as he clips off every word.
We silently pull ourselves off the stones and begin to haul the rest of the gear to the plane. We stack it in the fuselage per Frank's orders, then he reapplies our arm restraints and chains us in our seats. He disappears, presumably to find the pilot.
“I got a bad feeling about this,” I say when he’s gone.
“Yeah, me, too,” Tims says. “Not too keen on the pissed pilot.”
“If we're going to escape, now is the time. Before this bolt bucket gets airborne,” I say.
“Got any brilliant ideas?” Carrot shakes his manacles at me. “'Cause you shoulda had ‘em before they put these back on.”
“Not me, but Chad there does, don’t you?” I say.
Chad opens the palm of his hand and reveals a small ring of keys.
“How’d you manage that?” Carrot asks in disbelief.
“Awesome,” I say. “He lifted ‘em from Stan while he worked on his leg. Hurry up and let’s jet.” Chad unlocks his legs, then his wrists. He tosses me the key. I'm out in a jiff and pass them to Tims. I glance out the window. The guards and pilot are coming.
“Hurry, they’re coming,” I whisper emphatically.
Tims tosses Carrot the key. He fumbles with his lock. There's not enough time. They're walking past the floodlight, and they all have guns, automatic rifles. Holy crap!
They board the plane. We're all sitting with insolent indifference. Stan looks us over one by one. He yanks on our manacles to make sure they are secure. Ned and Frank, aren’t pointing the guns at us, but they're holding them with fingers on the triggers.
“I hope you fellas weren’t getting any ideas,” Stan says. “It would be unhealthy.”
We all shake our heads no. The keys are gouging into my butt cheeks. I pray a full body search isn't forthcoming.
“Leaping lizards,” Jeffers proclaims. “That’s a shaky load of gear.”
“Too much?” Frank asks.
“Yeah, too much for all of us to go, I reckon,” Jeffers says. “Probably can take the boys, one of you, and me, unless you want to leave some of this kit for the next run?”
“Can’t do that. Got orders to get all this delivered on this run. I'll go; Stan and Ned can stay here. Once you’re up in the air, nothin’ will matter anymore. It’ll be safe.”
“G-G-Go-Got c-co-com-co-company!” Ned motions urgently out the plane door with his gun.
I look out the window. Beyond the double-wide, a train of car lights bumps down the road at breakneck speed.
“Damn it, they found us! Get this thing off the ground. We’ll hold 'em off.” Frank jumps out the door, followed by Stan and Ned. They run low and quick past the floodlight. Frank and Stan take up firing positions at the front and rear of the bus. Ned slinks south into the inky darkness beyond the floodlight's glow.
The plane's motors crank over with loud protests. The cars are speeding into the parking area. Shots erupt in the dark, muzzle flashes illuminating the black Land Rovers. The ting of bullets tearing through metal on the plane and bus follows.
We start to pull out.
Frank and Stan open fire at close range, and one of the cars careens out of control and smashes into the doublewide. Part of my brain screams duck for cover, but the other dumber part of my brain keeps craning my neck so I can get a better view as we rumble away. The last I can see is the cars skidded to a stop sideways, and the occupants are using them as shields while they exchange gunfire with Frank and Stan. They're completely outnumbered.
The plane swings around violently at the end of the runway. Jeffers throttles the plane and the engines roar. We dash back down, gaining speed with every foot. The rest of the guys are ducked down as low as they can in their chairs. As we race by, more bullets tear into the plane.
Frank and Stan are still holding them, I think. They disappear from sight, darkness fills the windows. We're pressed deep into our seats as the plane starts a steep, hard ascent.
Even after all that’s happened, I hope the guards survive back there. I also wonder who the hell found us, was chasing us, and why?
“Welcome to Bundai Air, boys. Please keep your seats upright, your manacles on, your mouths shut, and don’t be wetting yourselves over what happened back there. We’re safe now, and in a few hours we’ll arrive at your resort destination, Camp Bundai. Enjoy the ride.” Jeffers laughs maniacally.