In which our heroes meet their nemesis…such as he is.
CHAPTER 5: MONEY, MONEY, MONEY
A bit of breeze blew into the tent as a boy no one had seen before stepped inside, lowering his leg from where he had just kicked the door open. It ruffled with his hair, which was jet-black, spiked up and messy, but it was a messiness that reeked of deliberate styling rather than carelessness, and played vaguely with the edges of his worn black jacket. In fact, his entire wardrobe was black, from the fine tailored slacks into whose pockets he shoved his hands, the dress shirt casually undone several buttons down the neck, and the cowboy boots sticking out from under the cuffs of his pants. It all contrasted rather strongly with his skin, which was quite pale and seemed a bit stretched over his sharp features.
“I guess the rumors were true,” he drawled as he surveyed the tent and its occupant critically, a smirk forming on his thin lips. “This place really is a sty. Latrines? What is this, the Dark Ages? First order of business: fill that pit in and put in a full-service bathroom. Pay toilets except for members, of course. We’ve got to make a buck every now and then.”
He strode up the middle of the tables, whose occupants all unconsciously seemed to shrink away from his aura of frigid exclusivity.
“Yeah,” he continued, musing to himself. “Then we can put the spa right next to it and turn this slop house into the new latrine. Judging from the food, I think you’ve got a pretty good head start on that. Bring in some bulldozers, knock down the rest of the tents and that stupid treehouse, put up a few condos, and you might actually be able to pretend it’s a third-world country around here.”
Behind his podium, Hasselberry could only gape at the brazenness of the comments. If the boy knew what effect he was having, he didn’t show it.
“Guess it makes sense, though,” he said, wiping a long, bony finger across the surface of one of the tables and making a face at what he saw, brushing it off on the jacket of the nearest scout. “My dad always did say this camp was the bottom of the barrel. Looks like he was right about something for once. You all sure look like a bunch of scrubs to me.” He snorted. “I bet some of your parents aren’t even upper-middle class. Losers.”
“Okay,” Jack muttered, looking curiously at the new boy as he walked by. “Couple things. One, who is this guy? And two, does he raid Keanu Reeves’ wardrobe or something?”
In the silence following the new boy’s arrival, Chad Fordman decided to take some initiative and stood up from the head of the Centaur Troop table, folding his arms over his prodigious chest and trying to look at imposing as possible.
“You better watch your mouth, new guy,” he growled. “What’s your problem? Maybe you talk a big game, but I figure you’re just some spoiled mommy’s boy with a bad haircut. So why don’t you make like a leaf and blow, huh? We’ve got enough wussies around here as is.”
The rest of the Centaurs laughed and jeered at the boy in support of their leader, but he barely missed a beat as he gave Chad a sidelong glance.
“Speaking of big mouths, why don’t you shut your trap, meathead?” he shot back snidely. “If I want your two cents, I’ll have my accountant send you a bill. Not that you could afford it. I guess playing too many peewee football games without your helmet really does cause brain damage. Either that, or you’re living proof that cavemen still roam the earth. Sit down.”
Chad seemed to decrease in size substantially as the hot air whooshed out of him like a punctured tire and he slumped back into his seat, red-faced and unsure of what to say. His fellow Centaurs, and indeed most of the other scouts, just stared at each other. Seeing his chief minion shot down in flames, Hasselberry decided it was high time to regain control of the situation.
“Now look here, young man,” he said, frowning and affecting the most commanding voice he could, “I don’t know who you are, but I’m Scoutmaster Rudolph von Hasselbery, the leader of this camp. I have a Ph.D. in sorcery.”
The new boy laughed. It was a harsh and utterly humorless sound.
“I think you mean a B.S., grandpa. Just like everything else that probably comes out of your mouth.”
“Be that as it may,” Hasselberry said, controlling his rage with effort, “I unfortunately must inform you that you are late. All our troop assignments have already taken place, and the matter is officially closed. It’s a pity you clearly don’t spend as much effort being on time as you do with your insults. Then you might possibly amount to something. As it is, I will only ask you once to remove yourself from my camp, and my sight in general, before I have my scouts do it by force.” He made a shooing motion with his hand. “Go on. Better luck next year.”
But to his immense irritation, the boy didn’t move a muscle, actually folding his arms defiantly.
“Nice try,” he sneered. “But don’t embarrass yourself. I mean, any more than you do when you look at yourself in the mirror every day. Try going to the gym, like, once in your life. Seriously. The name’s Masterson. Drake Masterson. Get the picture?”
Hasselberry and Crowley both stiffened at the mention of the name, and the scouts whispered to each other in startled tones. Jack just looked more confused.
“Right,” he said slowly. “Was that supposed to mean something to me?”
“Yeah,” Danny breathed, his eyes wide. “Anyone who’s magical knows who the Mastersons are. They’re, like, one of the oldest wizard families around. They run the BMA. They’ve got their hands in everything. If one of them is at this camp, we’re in a ton of trouble.”
“Really?” asked Jack. “They’re that powerful? Then how come I’ve never heard of them?”
“It’s all a secret. They’d be at the top of the Fortune 500 list pretty much all the time if the government didn’t have to censor it and stuff.”
“Mr. Masterson,” Hasselberry stammered, shocked. “Err—welcome. I apologize. We weren’t told that you would be coming here. You haven’t exactly caught us at our best.”
“Yeah, no kidding,” said Drake. “Thanks for the update, Captain Obvious.”
“Yes, of course,” Hasselberry said, fuming silently. “We just assumed, as I’m sure you can understand, that you’d be attending an institution of a somewhat higher caliber.”
“I bet you did,” Drake replied, studying his nails and looking bored. “But plans change. And I’m a Masterson, so I do what I want. Plus, I like to make an entrance. Now, why don’t you point me to the best tent and the best troop so we can get this show on the road?”
“Of course, Mr. Masterson,” said Hasselberry, nodding mechanically. “Whatever you say. We’ll place you in Quetzal Troop right away. I believe that’s where you’ll be the most comfortable.”
“Yeah, yeah. Whatever.”
Crowley, for his part, could only mouth his wordless agreement as Drake’s smirk got wider. He turned his attention to the other campers, glancing up and down the tables as the scouts looked back at him with a mixture of fear and loathing.
“God, what a bunch of losers,” he said to no one in particular. “I’ve seen more impressive things stuck to the bottom of my boots.” First, he looked at Centaur Troop, where Chad still couldn’t meet his gaze. “You’re supposed to be the jocks? Get real. A paraplegic sloth could probably beat you clowns up. And you,” he said, glancing at the Quetzals, “I bet none of you even have your own live-in servants. If you weren’t what passes for rich around here, I’d rather stab myself in the eye with something cheap than live with you. Like, you know, a pencil. Or your wands.”
He turned to the Sphinx Troop table, where Sam Falco just looked at him impassively, but the rest of the scouts cowered away.
“And what’s the story with you geeks, huh?” he taunted. “Did you all have a stroke, Stephen Hawking? Got no guts?” He shook his head. “Some brainiacs you are. You know, you all have to be the most pathetic group of morons I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s almost going to be no fun just dominating you people all the time with how severely awesome I am. Almost.”
Over with the rest of the new recruits, Danny elbowed Jack in the ribs repeatedly to get his attention as the taller boy sized Drake up with his eyes crinkled and brow furrowed.
“Jack, quit staring,” he hissed. “What’s the matter with you? You want Drake to see you? What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” Jack murmured, not looking his way. “I’m just trying to figure what this guy’s deal is, but I can’t seem to read him at all. If he’s trying to make a big impression, that’s fine, but this is a little much. I mean, somebody’s feelings could get hurt.”
“Your feelings won’t be the only thing that’s hurt if you don’t cut it out. He’s dangerous.”
“Don’t be so judgmental, Danny. He could be a nice guy. It’s not like it’s a state secret that Chad’s a jerk, so that doesn’t prove anything.”
“But look at what he did to the scoutmaster,” Danny insisted. “Seriously, he’ll destroy you.”
“Yeah, well, those guys didn’t have something important.”
Jack just shrugged, as if the answer was obvious.
“You know. They’re not me.”
It was at about this point that Drake finally felt the eyes on the back of his head—or rather, the inside of his head—and snapped around to glower at Jack.
“Okay, what’s your deal?” he spat. “What are you looking at? And quit trying to stick your nose in my noodle. If you’ve got a problem, you better not make it mine.”
Despite the emphatic shaking of Danny’s head and his tugs on his sleeve, Jack shook him off and seized on the attention.
“Hey, man,” he said, getting up and giving a little wave. “Sorry about that. What’s going on? Look, I know you can’t really tell, but we’re actually pretty cool here.” He glanced briefly over at Chad, Hasselberry, and Crowley, all of whom were staring at him, dumbfounded. “Well, most of us, anyway. So—good to meet you, pal.”
He extended a hand toward Drake, who looked at it like Jack had offered him a dead fish.
“Uh-huh,” he said, raising an eyebrow up his pale forehead. “And who are you supposed to be, exactly? The guy who cleans out the shower drains?”
“Nah, I’m Jack,” said Jack, brushing off the insult. “Jack Ferguson. Look, maybe you’ll feel better after you have a beer or something. I mean, they’ve got to have alcohol around here somewhere. Otherwise, what’s the point, right?”
“Okay, Ferguson,” Drake mused, sneering as he tried to appear thoughtful. “How do I say this? Oh, I’ve got it. How about never?” He laughed. “Seriously, what planet are you from? Wherever it is, they obviously don’t teach you how to dress yourself in the morning. No way I’d ever be caught dead doing anything with a loser like you. And that goes for all of you no-talent hacks.”
Some of the Centaurs and Quetzals snickered at this, and the new Jackalopes bristled. The Sphinx scouts just looked scared. Jack, meanwhile, frowned and decided to try something different.
“Hey, come on,” he said, raising a hand and concentrating just as he had with Chad on the train. “We’re all friends here, man. Why don’t you just calm down?”
The familiar tingling sensation rushed up his back and through his arms as Drake stared at him impassively, tapping his toe on the ground. The air between them seemed to buzz with energy, but nothing happened. Jack grunted, letting his arm drop and stepping back a step, wiping at his nose with the back of a hand. It came away bloody.
“You know, whatever voodoo mind tricks you’re trying to pull on me, you can stop now,” Drake said. “So you’re a telepath. So what? Did you think you could whammy me? I’ve been training with magic since I could walk and hold a wand, and part of that was basic mental defense. Duh. I don’t know why I even waste my time talking to you. Oh, yeah I do. Since time is money, and I’ve got a lot of money, I can afford to waste it. So why don’t you just crawl on back to the parents that never cared about you and save the spell work for the people who actually matter?”
Just to make his point, he glared over at the Centaurs and Quetzals, who instantly fell silent and cowered away from him. Meanwhile, Jack’s eyes narrowed at the mention of parents, and he reached up to turn his cap around on his head.
“All right,” he said, in a much weightier tone. “I didn’t want to do this, but you asked for it.”
“Is that right?” Drake snarled, taking a fighting stance and pushing his coat back from one side of his body, where a custom-made wand with a carved pistol grip sat comfortably in a gunslinger-style holster at his hip. An unstable light danced in his eyes. “Bring it on. I wonder what you’ll look like char-broiled?”
Now it was Jack’s turn to laugh.
“Oh, no. That’s totally not what I meant. What I mean is, lighten up already. We’re all new here. Nobody knows anything. Why can’t we just be chill? It’s not like I’m scared of you or anything.”
“Yeah. You want to know why?”
“Sure,” Drake scoffed, straightening up but not taking his hand off his wand. “I wouldn’t miss this for all the tea in China. Which I can’t. I own it all.”
“Well, when you say you do, you mean, your family does. Right?”
“Semantics. So what, slacker?”
“Okay, got it,” said Jack. “So think about money. It’s sort of weird, right? I mean, it’s really just a bunch of paper and metal things. They’re not actually worth anything. So it’s only valuable because we make it that way. We believe it’s all worth something, and that lets us buy things with it and stuff. Otherwise, everything would just fall apart.”
“So?” Drake shot back, still belligerent but visibly uncertain.
“So, the way I see it, you’re all about money. Money you didn’t even make on your own. Come on, man. I bet you never worked a day in your life, because if you did, you wouldn’t make fun of us. Well, maybe them. I never worked on purpose. You think money is valuable. I don’t. So, by the transitive property, if money isn’t worth anything, then I guess you aren’t, either.”
“Wait, what?” Drake sputtered, as the Jackalopes behind Jack all looked at each other and grinned. “That doesn’t even make any sense.”
“Cents?” Jack asked, pretending to misunderstand. “Well, since you don’t actually make any either, I guess we’re even.”
“What? No,” Drake said, his ears turning red as people at the other tables started to chuckle. “You don’t know who you’re messing with, slacker. I’m a big deal. I’m like—uhh—”
“I think what you’re looking for is ‘Johnny Cash’, right?” Jack said, grinning as the laughter intensified. Scouts from the Jackalopes to the Centaurs were now catching on to the joke, some of them even starting their own catcalls against Drake, who backed away from Jack and toward the door, under assault from every angle.
“Son of a—” he growled, even more embarrassed. “You’re going to regret this, Ferguson. My family’s more powerful than you could ever be in your most twisted fantasies. I’ll get even with you if it’s the last thing I do. They’ll back me up, too. I’m a real asset.”
This time, even Jack couldn’t stop himself from laughing.
“Yeah, you’re only off by an ‘e’ and a ‘t’ there,” he said, waving jauntily again. “Later, buddy. Tell Mr. Peanut and the Monopoly man I said what’s up. Oh, and if you ever need any pocket change, look me up. With that wardrobe, your pockets are the last thing you should be worrying about.”
The rest of the new recruits cheered and applauded as Jack brushed his hands together and then raised them, welcoming the praise as Danny ran up next to him.
“Jack, that was amazing,” he babbled, his eyes wider than dinner plates behind his glasses. “How did you do that?”
“It was nothing, Danny,” Jack scoffed. “I just did what anybody else would’ve done.”
“Actually, I was talking about how you knew how to spell ‘asset’,” Danny groaned as Jack laughed and grabbed him to try to give him a noogie. Drake, however, wasn’t going down without getting the last word. Standing with his back to the door, still fuming, the young wizard bared his teeth and clenched his fists until they turned white. Little tongues of flame suddenly burst to life and curled the tips of the grass in brown circles around his feet as he brushed his coat aside, plucked his wand out of its holster, and twirled it between his fingers.
“Laugh this one off, Ferguson,” he snarled, raising his arm as the runic symbols carved into the dark wood glowed hot and a bolt of molten fire spat from the tip of the wand, sizzling through the air right toward Jack’s back. Danny, who just happened to be facing the right way at the time, saw what was about to happen and cried out.
“Jack, look out!”
In what seemed an effortlessly practiced motion, Jack turned into the jet of fire, his face expressionless with sudden concentration. At the same time, he brought his arm up, as though to block the spell, and the nearby scouts gasped as all the water in their cups jumped at its own volition into the air, coalescing into a single spout of liquid that directly intercepted the flames. With a burst and a hiss of heat and air, both spells were neutralized, leaving only steam in their place as the tent was plunged into silence once again. Everyone present stared first at Jack, and then at Drake, whose grey gaze was now wide with surprise and fury.
“I—that—but—” Drake stammered, unable to even form a coherent sentence. “How did you—” Sensing the eyes on him, he took a breath and attempted a rattled, shaky sneer. “Lucky break, Ferguson. But that’s all it was. Pure luck. You better have something more powerful than that little stunt ready next time I see your face around, or it’s going to be on fire. Your face, I mean. So—yeah.”
He stabbed at the air between them with his wand, trying to make a nonexistent point, and then turned and shoved the doors open with a bang, storming out of the mess tent. With the show over, the scouts all began to disperse, murmuring to each other and casting sidelong glances at Jack as suspicion and caution mixed with the initial admiration.
“Uhh—Jack?” Danny asked, still standing motionless next to him. “What just happened? How did you do that?”
“I don’t know,” Jack replied, holding his hand up in front of his face and looking at it in a dazed, uncertain kind of way. “It was just, like, a reflex. Pretty awesome, though, huh?”
“Pretty stupid, more like,” a feminine voice spoke up from behind them. The two boys turned around to see a girl with a blonde pixie cut in track shorts and an athletic tank top underneath her bright red blazer shaking her head at them. Her blue eyes looked them up and down, cool and skeptical. “You all right there?”
She gestured at his nose, and Jack nodded, wiping away the last of the blood.
“Oh, yeah, I’m good. Thanks.”
“Jack, who is that?” Danny whispered from next to him. “Holy cow. She’s, like, beautiful.”
“Calm down, Danny,” Jack replied. “Don’t get your hormones all excited or you might break out.”
“Hey,” Danny protested, hurt. “Quit it. That doesn’t happen. Anymore.”
“So who do I have to thank for the concern?” Jack asked smoothly, looking the girl in the face and putting on his most charming smile. She didn’t bat an eye.
“Somebody who doesn’t have a thing for suicide,” she said. “And next time, save yourself the tissues. I heard what happened on the train. Your telepathy won’t work on everyone, and definitely not someone prepared like Drake Masterson. Speaking of which, you’ve got to have a screw loose to mess him.”
“I said that, too,” said Danny eagerly, but Jack elbowed him.
“You want me to get you a bib for that drool, Danny? Don’t mind him,” he said to the girl. “I promised his mom I wouldn’t let him get over-excited. But hey, come on. I’m not worried about Drake. We were just messing around. I mean, you saw me handle that fireball thing, right? How cool was that?”
“I can’t figure out if you’ve got nerves of steel, or if you’re just dumb,” the girl said. “Either way, I’d stay out of his if I were you. Just some friendly advice. I’ll give you that was a nice counter-spell—really wasn’t expecting that out of a rookie—but neither was Drake. He’ll be ready next time. You really shouldn’t have shown your hand like that on the first day. Take it from someone who knows: around here, you’re better off flying under the radar.” She sighed. “It’s too bad. You’ve got the kind of guts we need more of around here.”
“Hey, thanks,” said Jack, beaming.
“It’ll be a shame to see them all over the parade yard,” the girl finished, the corner of her mouth and an eyebrow raised as she turned away to walk back to her table. “Oh, and by the way, since they’re not here to show you, Jackalope Troop’s on the far side of the camp, past the pond and down the hill. You’d better hurry. They’re probably hammered already. What is it, like one o’clock?”
“Sounds like my kind of place,” said Jack. “So I’ll see you around, right? Right?”
The girl didn’t reply as she faded back into the crowd and all the scouts started moving for the exit. Danny jumped as he felt a body brush by his and looked up to see his brother Sam giving him a disapproving look.
“Making friends already, huh, Danny?” he said sarcastically, giving Jack a critical glace. “Real nice. Bet you’re probably wishing you’d listened to me right now and kept a low profile. But we all know you don’t need my help anymore, don’t we?”
Danny opened his mouth to reply, but nothing came out. He just stammered and stumbled as Sam moved off and out of earshot.
Meanwhile, up at the speakers’ platform, Crowley gave Hasselberry an alarmed look.
“Sir, they’re all just getting up and leaving,” he said. “They didn’t even wait for us to dismiss them. That arrogant twerp Masterson and that bum Ferguson completely disrespected us, undermined our order, and ruined everything. How can we possibly salvage any semblance of authority from this catastrophe?”
But the scoutmaster simply smirked as he watched the flood of scouts filing out of the mess tent.
“Once again, Crowley, you predictably miss the boat,” he murmured, steepling his fingers and tapping them together. “I think I may just have an idea. Do you remember when I said I needed a true believer? Someone who was motivated, ready, and willing to do whatever it takes to cleanse this camp of its cancer? And how such individuals were currently in short supply?”
“Of course, sir,” his assistant nodded. “The world would be a much better place if only it were just a bit worse.”
“Well put, Crowley. Very well put. I suppose there’s a first time for everything. But I don’t think we need to search any longer.” Hasselberry smiled, bearing his teeth. “Yes. I think I may have found the perfect person to become my new apprentice. Did I say apprentice? I meant minion. I like that word. Minion.”
Check out Kyle Robertson’s new novel, Camp Ferguson, available online now at Amazon.com and via Kindle devices!