CHAPTER 3: GUESS WHAT’S COMING TO DINNER?
Laughing, chatting, and generally carrying on among themselves, scouts new and old alike strolled out of the shadows of the thick tree line, the crunching of gravel on the path beneath their feet replaced with the soft whisper of grass as they stepped onto the faded yellowish-green turf of the campground. They passed through the rickety wooden archway shoulder to shoulder, which was topped by a ramshackle sign of nails and plywood reading “CAMP PROSPERO”. The various ratty banners attached to it fluttered lightly in the breeze, with the only other sound in the air the tweeting of the birds and the ever-present hum of invisible arcane energy emanating from the Moai head statues placed at regular intervals around the borders of the camp, which the veterans passed without looking twice and the new arrivals stared at in baffled wonder.
Taking in the entire scene from the window of his office, the scoutmaster of Camp Prospero narrowed his eyes as his lip curled in a sneer of contempt. The office in question was perched, along with the rest of the administrative hall, rather precariously in the branches of the only tree on the grounds. It was a massive and ancient oak that, like all the rest of the facilities in the camp, looked at one time like it had been somewhat dignified, but had been let go and run down by time and the elements.
Coincidentally, this description could also have been applied to the scoutmaster himself, and frequently was. Though never to his face.
“Look at them,” he muttered under his breath, poking his fingers between the blinds and pulling them a bit more apart to get a better view. “Those intolerable brats. It’s deplorable. They’re like lemmings—all mindlessly milling about toward the same destination. If I put a cliff in front of them, I have no doubt they’d jump off it without a second thought. Or even a first thought, for that matter.”
He ground his teeth, his craggy brow furrowed underneath his greying flat-top, as the rail-thin and pale man lurking in the shadows beside him combed his oily black hair over with his fingers, making a fuss in vain as some of it just refused to stay out of his face.
“Yes, sir,” he said. “An apt metaphor. Very amusing.”
The scoutmaster snorted, shoving the aforementioned hand back into the pocket of his dress uniform pants, just below the waistline that was bulging a bit too much for the fit.
“Shameful,” he continued, shaking his head. “It’s an absolute disgrace. Those young ruffians have no respect for silence, order, or discipline. Do they think this is some ordinary summer camp they’re attending?”
“I’m sure I don’t know, sir,” the other man replied, edging closer to take a peek through the blinds himself and bobbing his head. “But I must say, I’ve often wondered the same thing myself. As always, you’ve hit the nail on the head. You’re even more observant than me, sir.”
Removing his fingers and letting the blinds snap shut, the scoutmaster turned to level his baleful glare at him.
“Come off it, Crowley,” he growled. “That’s hardly high praise. In all your time as my assistant scoutmaster, if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that you’re about as observant as a rock. When I first got here, you were pathetic: a nobody. You were nothing until I made you the man I was twenty years ago. The next time I want your opinion, I won’t ask for it, because I won’t want it. Ever. Do you get me?”
Crowley stopped nodding and gulped, backing up a step.
“I get you, sir,” he said, licking his thin lips. “If you’ll forgive me for saying so, sir, you seem a bit out of sorts today.”
The scoutmaster grunted and stalked back to his desk, an imposingly solid piece of furniture considering the sparse and shabby condition of the rest of the office. The warped wooden walls were mostly bare, save for a few scattered portraits of famous military and political leaders, a smattering of certificates and diplomas, and several-odd banners with dry, pretentious slogans.
“Oh, is that so?” he asked, in a voice layered with sarcasm, as he slumped down into the rickety folding chair behind the desk. “I can’t imagine why. Could it be because I’m once again watching my camp descend into total anarchy for the next twelve to sixteen weeks? Every summer, the BMA sends me a group of talentless rejects that they charge me with shaping into functioning members of magical society.”
He laughed humorlessly.
“Functioning members? If this camp were a ship, they’d call us the Titanic. If we were a horse, they’d shoot us. Thanks to those oafs out there, I’ve been the laughingstock of the Bureau for years now. So pardon me if I’m not all roses and sunshine.”
“Surely they’re not all bad, sir,” said Crowley as the scoutmaster folded his thick arms over his maroon blazer and sulked. “Many of them are loyal to you and take Camp Prospero very seriously. Centaur and Quetzal Troop follow your every command. And Sphinx Troop continues to make us all proud with their brilliance and teamwork. Why, just last summer, they came up with that research proposal that could change conventional thinking on magical theory.”
“Don’t patronize me, Crowley,” his superior shot back. “The Centaurs and Quetzals stay in line because they’re a bunch of self-absorbed twerps who want to show each other up, not because they fear me. And those Sphinx Troop eggheads are always looking for ways to undermine my authority.”
“That may be true, sir,” Crowley agreed, shamelessly contradicting himself. “I can’t help but recall they had no problem shooting their mouths off about their formula when those journalists came around.”
He jumped as the scoutmaster slammed his fist on the desk.
“Those sorry little ingrates,” he seethed. “It was my formula. All mine. It was assigned to them by me, developed under my supervision, and produced with my approval. They just happened to do all the actual work, but that hardly matters. It was mine: Rudolph von Hasselberry’s formula. And it was my ticket out of this rat-infested hellhole and back to the real world where I belong. They ruined it for me, and they’d do it again if I gave them the opportunity. Any one of them would.”
“Of course, sir. I suppose the question then is, what do you plan to do about it?”
Crowley instantly regretted his question as Hasselbery rose from his chair and took a threatening step toward him.
“What do I plan to do about it?” he said, balling his gnarled fists. “Why, nothing at all. I just plan to let those savages run all over me. You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Crowley? Got your eyes on that cushy scoutmaster’s job and looking to take my seat once they get me fired, aren’t you?”
“No, sir, no,” Crowley insisted, sweating nervously as he backed up to the wall. “I’ve never been much of a leader. I’m more of an orders man myself. I only meant to ask what you might need me to do. Anything menial, degrading, or otherwise. Which of course I would do, but—”
“Oh, stop your sniveling,” Hasselberry said, turning away to pace up and down the bare wooden floor to his assistant’s relief, the boards creaking under the stress. “Intimidating you is no fun, Crowley. It’s so easy, it’s embarrassing for both of us. I’ve struggled to keep up with those hooligans in the past, but this year, I have a plan: a completely foolproof one that will solve all of my problems. I have to do something drastic; something that will make an impression on this bunch of dimwits that they’ll never forget. The Centaurs and Quetzals may be snots, but they’re also incredibly dull and predictable, and thus manageable. I would love to make an example out of Sphinx Troop, but that Sam Falco is too slick to give us any kind of disciplinary excuse. Therefore, there can only be one target: a troop that everyone knows is full of malcontents, slackers, and peons.”
“Ah,” said Crowley, snapping his fingers. “You’re talking about Jackalope Troop, sir.”
Hasselberry sighed, smacking his forehead.
“Of course I’m talking about Jackalope Troop, you idiot,” he scowled. “There’s only four troops in the camp. Try to keep up, Crowley. Although I know that’s a tall order for you since you were pronounced dead at birth.”
The assistant scoutmaster’s ears reddened and he bit his lip irritably.
“I’ll do my best, sir.”
“I highly doubt that,” Hasselberry drawled. “As I was saying, every year I’m forced to put up with Jackalope Troop’s constant misbehaving, insubordination, and childish pranks. But this summer, I’m putting my foot down. I plan to do whatever it takes to get those slackers by the throat and kick them out of this camp. That’ll show everyone here and in the BMA that I mean business.”
“That would be extremely difficult, sir,” Crowley interjected, paler than usual. “Expulsion from a government training camp and revoking a wizard’s right to freedom is very serious. The camp charter clearly states that no camper can be expelled unless they’ve committed a grave violation of Bureau policy. You’d need a massive body of evidence, and that’s for one scout alone. Expelling a whole troop is unheard of. I’m afraid it’s impossible, sir.”
Hasselberry chuckled dryly.
“For once in your life, you sound almost intelligent, Crowley,” he said, folding his hands behind his back, “but as usual, you fall just short of my lowest expectations. I’ve done my homework on this. It turns out there’s a little-known sub-clause in the camp charter that grants the presiding scoutmaster any and all necessary powers during a time of crisis when the safety and security of Camp Prospero is put in jeopardy.”
“All necessary powers,” Crowley mused, stroking his nonexistent chin. “But then, if we could prove to the Scoutmasters’ Council or the Bureau that the survival of Camp Prospero was at stake because of the Jackalopes’ antics, we’d have all the latitude we need. That could work. It’s a good idea, sir.”
“Of course it’s a good idea,” Hasselberry snapped. “I thought of it, didn’t I? And I resent your use of the word ‘we’, Crowley. As if you would have anything useful to contribute to this complex and brilliantly-conceived endeavor. No, I have a better use for you: get digging. I’m going to need all the dirt you can find on those Jackalope slackers if we want to get them expelled.”
He turned sharply and resumed pacing, gesturing with a finger as he did so.
“Although, even someone as slimy and disreputable as you will need some amount of help. Put Fordman and his lackeys on it. They’re a bunch of sneaky little bastards just like you. And as for our friend Sam Falco, he won’t like it, but he follows orders. If I tell him not to look the other way on Jackalope Troop this summer, he can’t disobey. And of course a few thinly-veiled threats to the safety of his own campers couldn’t hurt, either. Final score, three against one. Good odds, wouldn’t you say?” He stopped to glare at Crowley again. “But I swear by Merlin’s beard, Crowley, if you screw this one up for me, I’ll bust you so far down the chain of command they’ll use that blockhead of yours for an anchor after I’ve ripped it off your shoulders. Are we clear?”
His subordinate nodded hurriedly.
“I thought as much,” Hasselberry said, with a smirk that quickly turned into a scowl. “Now all I have to do is get it past Scout Marshal Rhodes.”
“But sir, how are you going to do that?” Crowley asked, his alarm getting the better of his mouth as he raised his eyebrows. “I mean, given your—err—history with the scout marshal, that may not be such an easy task.”
At that moment, the antiquated rotary telephone that sat on the corner of Hasselberry’s desk, unconnected to anything electronic, suddenly began to ring. The scoutmaster rolled his eyes as he walked over to it.
“Speak of the devil,” he muttered, snatching up the receiver. “Boy, connect me to Scout Marshal Rhodes, and make it snappy. I haven’t got all day, you know. And please, Crowley. You sorely underestimate me. If I can’t outfox that pompous, overbearing, furry-chinned windbag, I don’t deserve the illustrious reputation that I have worked so little to achieve. Rhodes and I may have had our disagreements in the past, but I’m sure that unimaginative dullard has forgotten about them by now.”
There was an irritable growl from the other end of the line.
“I believe that’s ‘furry-chinned windbag, sir’ to you, Hasselberry.”
“Scout Marshal Rhodes,” Hasselberry squeaked, stiffening and snapping his heels together as Crowley did the same. “I’m terribly sorry, sir. I wasn’t talking about you. I was just having a bit of a joke with my assistant scoutmaster. And don’t let me catch you talking that way about the scout marshal again, Crowley, or I’ll string you up from the highest yardarm in camp. Do you get me?”
“Yardarm?” Rhodes sighed, his gravely voice sounding tired beyond belief. “Are you sure you’re in the right branch of the service, Hasselberry? Now cut the horse manure. Merlin knows I’ve had enough of that shoveled at me by you to last me several lifetimes as it is. What’s your problem?”
“Problem?” Hasselberry echoed, wiping the sweat from his brow. “Oh, no problems here, sir. No problems at all. Everything at Camp Prospero is perfectly fine. Unless you think that I should think otherwise, sir.”
“Listen, scoutmaster,” Rhodes groaned. “You called my office a week ago because you said you were having severe issues at your post. Top priority message. Couldn’t wait. You’d better not be wasting my time, Hasselberry or so help me—”
“Ah, yes, of course,” Hasselberry stammered, trying desperately to course-correct. “That phone call. Actually, if I’m telling the truth, sir, things at Camp Prospero aren’t fine. In fact, they’re terrible. Terrible rather than fine. But I must say, things certainly were fine before they got terrible.”
“Steady, Hasselberry,” said Rhodes. “As it happens, I called you today for more than just exercise in talking in circles. I’m sure you’re familiar with the Scout Jamboree.”
“Of course, sir. Ceremonies, demonstrations by the troops, pomp, and of course circumstance. It only takes place once every four years.”
“Roger. Now I don’t want to make a big fuss out of it, but this year the Jamboree is coming to Camp Prospero. Officials from the Department of Defense will be there, along with myself and other delegates from the Scoutmasters’ Council and the BMA. They said something about wanting to tour our most—how shall I put this—challenged facilities. To see how well we’re dealing with the budget cuts and all.”
“Well, we’re just tightening our belts here at Camp Prospero, sir,” said Hasselberry, an edge of irritation creeping into his voice. “It’s not as though Crowley and myself need assistance in managing some 200-odd trainee wizards. I was actually quite pleased when Professor Finnigan was let go last year. He was a Democrat, you know.”
“Good,” Rhodes said gruffly. “Glad we’re on the same page for once, Hasselberry. Money doesn’t grow on trees.”
“Incidentally, sir,” Hasselberry said, “how is the money-tree project coming along?”
Rhodes grumbled over the line.
“Don’t ask. They got the tree to blossom, all right, but so far it only produces bills with Richard Nixon on them. Shame, too. He was one of our best. And we could certainly use the funds. Just last week, the soft-serve ice cream machine here at Camp Merlin had to be repossessed. Can you believe it? It’s outrageous.”
“No, sir,” Hasselberry muttered resentfully, looking around at his threadbare office and pursing his lips. “How terrible it must be for you.”
“Yes, quite. Next thing you know they’ll come for the animals in the petting zoo or the spas and sauna baths, or—” Rhodes stopped, clearing his throat. “Wait a moment. Don’t change the subject, Hasselberry! Now, are you going to be ready for the Jamboree, or aren’t you?”
“We’ll begin preparations right away, sir. You can count on us,” Hasselberry insisted. “We’re honored to be chosen.”
“Don’t flatter yourself, Hasselberry,” Rhodes growled. “I practically begged the Scoutmasters’ Council not to choose your camp, but they didn’t listen. They can practically taste the grant money already. So I don’t think I can overstate how important it is to all of us at the BMA that this Jamboree go smoothly. Last year the CIA beat us out of $22 million. If we don’t get it, Director Masterson will have my hide. And if he’s got mine, I promise you that I won’t go down without taking you with me. Is that clear?”
“Crystal, sir,” Hasselberry gulped, making Crowley roll his eyes.
“Good. And before I forget, make sure you sit on that wild troop of yours I’ve been hearing about. What’s it called? Jackrabbit? Antelope?”
“Jackalope Troop,” Hasselberry grumbled with a sour face. “Don’t worry, sir. They’ll be swiftly dealt with. You know, I’m no stranger to combat situations. Did I ever tell you that I was in Vietnam?”
Rhodes sighed over the line.
“Only about five thousand times, Hasselberry.”
“Right. Well, sir, that’s where I got my Purple Heart.”
“Yes,” said Rhodes dryly. “As I recall, that was for the splinter you sustained in your big toe while you were shifting boxes barefoot at the surplus warehouse.”
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence as Hasselberry struggled to come up with a follow-up.
“Well, it was quite a large and strategically placed splinter, sir,” he managed. “I got an infection from it. I had to be off my feet for days. They nearly had to amputate. I always suspected that splinter wasn’t one of ours, if you know what I mean.”
“As I recall, weren’t you also the very first one out of Saigon?”
“Indeed I was, sir,” Hasselberry said proudly. “I couldn’t very well let the enemy capture me and have the chance to torture vital secrets out of me.”
“But as usual, sir,” Hasselberry persevered, through gritted teeth, “I was ahead of the curve.”
“Yes. Three whole days ahead, in fact. Didn’t they catch you trying to sneak out of the city dressed as a woman? I believe I have the photographs.”
“I’m sure you must be thinking of someone else, sir.”
“Hardly likely. There are some things you just can’t unsee, Hasselberry. But enough jawing. I’ve got things that are actually important to do today. Just make sure your camp is prepared for the Jamboree.”
“Yes, sir. Absolutely, sir.”
“You screw this one up, Hasselberry, and I’ll put my boot so far up your backside you’ll taste my shoe leather. Do you get me?”
“I get you, sir. And may I say what a pleasure it’s been talking to—”
Hasselberry slammed the phone down in embarrassment and turned his disgusted look toward Crowley, who was standing just behind him with the glowing tip of his wand pointed at his ear and looking quite interested. In a flash, the assistant scoutmaster smiled apologetically and shoved the wand back into his own olive-drab blazer.
“I trust you heard all of that, Crowley?” Hasselberry growled.
“Oh, no, sir,” Crowley stammered. “Not all of it. Just the parts after the beginning and before the end. Pardon my saying so, sir, but it doesn’t appear the scout marshal is willing to let bygones be bygones.”
Hasselberry threw his hands into the air in frustration.
“That nearsighted old oaf,” he seethed, taking a seat behind his desk again. “I do a bit of creative interpretation of the rules in our weekly checkers games, translocate a few pieces here and there while his back is turned, win a few thousand dollars, and he responds by shipping me off to this backwater cesspool filled with slackers and an assistant scoutmaster that can’t tell a curse from the common cold. Anyway, when a man doesn’t realize he’s being cheated for three years, he deserves whatever he gets. Does the punishment fit the crime, Crowley? I think not.”
“Of course, sir,” Crowley muttered, trying not let his irritability at the insult show in his voice. “It must be so hard for you.”
“Yes, it is,” Hasselberry remarked. “Miserable, in fact. It’s lonely at the top, believe you me. Even if it’s the top of a malformed ant hill like this one.”
He reached into his blazer and pulled out an old-fashioned pocket watch, checking the time.
“I suppose we’d better get on with it, then,” he growled. “It’s just about time for the welcome banquet. Or as I like to call it, feeding time at the zoo. Those nauseating adolescents will no doubt be banging down the door of the mess tent to stuff their faces with our rations. Well, they’ll learn that when Rudolph von Hasselberry is in command, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Or any meal of the day, for that matter.”
A small and vindictive smile crept over his face.
“On that note, Crowley, while I’m thinking about it, take a memo. In all future editions of the Scout Handbook, replace the words ‘welcome banquet’ with the words ‘ten-mile physical fitness run’. I can’t wait to see the looks on those slackers’ faces when they find that little addition.”
Crowley nodded and scribbled the thought down in a notebook he drew from his jacket pocket as Hasselbery smirked, looking satisfied.
“Yes,” he mused to himself, leaning on the corner of his desk. “That sounds about right. Children these days have no appreciation whatsoever. Bunch of self-entitled little wand-nosers. They think they’re so smart with their honor societies and their Ivy League diplomas. But me, I never needed any of that nonsense. I’ve got a degree from the school of hard knocks. Not to mention three gold stars from the daycare of getting the living tar kicked out of me.”
“But sir,” Crowley spoke up, “I thought you graduated from Jackalope Troop at this camp, and then—”
In a split second, Hasselberry rushed forward, drew his wand from the holster under his arm and pinned Crowley against the wall. His breath knocked out of him, the assistant scoutmaster could only manage a slight moan as his superior’s wand dug into his neck.
“Go on, Crowley, you worm,” Hasselberry hissed, his face a mask of fury. “Say one more word. What troop did I graduate from, again? You know me. I’m so forgetful.”
Tugging at his collar and eyes wide in terror, Crowley swallowed hard and tried to get his racing heart under control.
“My apologies, sir,” he choked. “You graduated from Centaur Troop. My mistake.”
For a long moment, Hasselberry just stood there, his grey eyes narrowed and glaring at his subordinate. Then, mercifully, he stepped back and released Crowley, who collapsed to his knees, coughing and rubbing at his neck.
“That’s better,” he snapped. “And see that you don’t forget it. Now get up. We’re running late as it is.”
With that, the scoutmaster stalked back past his recovering assistant to the bare back wall of the office. Raising his wand once again, he made a few arcane motions and spoke the words of a spell. The wall before him shimmered and swam like the surface of the sea before parting in an arch-shaped portal, and sunlight and summer breeze poured into the room as the image of a grassy stretch of ground appeared.
Without even a backward glance, Hasselberry stepped through the portal, followed hurriedly by Crowley, who barely made it before the doorway dissolved into nothingness. Looking up, the assistant scoutmaster saw the dark bottom of the office in the branches of the tree that he was now standing at the base of, highlighted against the bright blue sky. The glowing symbols on the trunk from which they had stepped faded away entirely, and the few straggling campers that passed by them quickened their pace on the sight of the two leaders, with a few scared, wary, or just plain dirty looks besides.
“Ah, yes,” Hasselberry muttered, glaring at them in return. “Things never change. Tell me, Crowley; the campers don’t care for me, do they?”
“Well, I wouldn’t say that, sir,” Crowley said hesitantly as he stepped to the scoutmaster’s side at his customary position: a quarter step left and a pace behind.
“Come now, Crowley. There’s no need to mince words. You can tell me the truth. They hate me.”
“From my understanding, just your guts, sir.”
“Humph,” Hasselberry snorted as he started off across the grass. “A lot they care. Everything we do around this dump is for their own good. Of course, they’re all too stupid to realize what that is, so I’m more than happy to order them to do it. I’ve got one job, and that’s to make this cesspool of a camp look good long enough for me to find a way back to the big time. After that, Camp Prospero and everyone in it can fall right off the mountain. I didn’t come here to be liked.”
Taking up step behind him and safely out of view, Crowley made a face once again and muttered under his breath.
“You certainly came to the right place, then.”