In which everyone involved learns they really have no business in show business.
CHAPTER 11: BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE JACKALOPE
Sitting on opposite ends of the cot, Leo and Oliver both leaned forward, their eyes fixated and intense.
“Okay, Danny,” said Oliver in a low, hushed tone. “You got this, buddy. Now just concentrate. It’s easy.”
“Yeah, like your mom,” Leo snickered, earning him a punch in the shoulder that made him respond with a backhanded slap to his friend’s gut. The two boys scuffled with each other while Danny, perched on a chair in the middle of the tent, sighed and gave them an irritated glance.
“Come on, you guys. Cut it out,” he whined, using the blade of the pocket knife in his hand to finish carving a last runic symbol on the shaft of the roughly ten-inch stick of knobby wood in his hand before snapping it shut again and inspecting his work. “I’m really trying to concentrate here. This is my first wand, and I really, really want to get it right. I have to make sure it works and practice before our next basic spellcasting class or I’ll look like an idiot in front of everyone.”
“What, more than usual?” Leo cracked, snorting with laughter, but Oliver shoved him away.
“Calm down, will you?” he said. “So you’ve got a wand now. Big deal. Nobody gets it perfect the first time. You just have to practice some. A lot of us don’t even do that.”
“Well, I have to,” Danny said sullenly, sticking his tongue out of the side of his mouth as he aimed his new wand at the jug of water sitting on the table in front of him and looked down the shaft. “I can’t afford to mess up here. Especially not in front of Sam. Then he’ll just tell me I’m a loser again and I’m not cut out for magic. I wish I could surprise him, or impress him. Just once.”
“Dude, I still can’t get over the fact that you’re Sam Falco’s brother,” Leo said, shaking his head. “How far out is that?” Seeing the other boy’s resentful look, he smiled. “You know, in a good way.”
“What’s with the water, anyway?” Oliver asked, nodding over at the jug. “I mean, I get that all wizards can use one of the elements—earth, wind, fire, the one that’s not part of the band name—but what makes you so sure yours is water? You’ve never tried to do this stuff before.”
“Water’s got to be my element,” Danny said, studying the wand again from every angle and running his fingers along the chain of symbols he had carved into it. “I just know it. Sam and both my parents are water mages, so it’s in my family. Besides, it’s pretty common anyway.”
“Not as common as us,” Leo said, slapping hands with Oliver and grinning. “Earth mages all the way, man. Solid as a rock. What about you, Jack?”
On the other side of the tent, Jack groaned in his cot and pulled the blankets over his head.
“Who cares? Whatever. Leave me alone.”
“What’s your problem, bro?” Oliver questioned. “Did you even make a wand for yourself yet?”
“Sure I did,” the boy muttered from under the covers. “I made it, like, the first day after Hasselberry gave us that lecture, out of the pencil I had with me. It took five minutes.”
“You used a pencil?” Danny asked with a frown. “I thought the scoutmaster said to find something that kind of, like, spoke to you.”
“Says the guy who picked up the first twig he saw,” Leo snickered behind his hand. “I mean, come on. Look at that thing.”
“Hey! It wasn’t the first one. It was, like, the third. I think.”
“Besides, it’s not like Jack was using that pencil for anything else,” Oliver chimed in. “Except maybe sticking it up his nose. I’ve never seen the guy write a single note down. Magic’s about all it’s good for.”
“Lousy magic,” Jack grunted, turning over and away from them. “You think it’s so cool until it just sucks the fun out of everything.”
“Look, Oscar the Grouch, I’m just trying to make a joke here. You don’t have to bite my head off.”
Sitting in the corner of the tent and fiddling with a pile of metal parts and wires in his lap, Lucas pushed his goggles up and cocked his head to one side.
“Is it just me, or does Jack seem a bit out of sorts today?”
But Leo snapped his fingers.
“Wait a second. I know why you’re being such a baby. You’re still mad about the baseball game, aren’t you?”
“Still? Seriously?” Oliver echoed as there was a brief silence before Jack unconvincingly denied it.
“How come?” Leo persisted. “Because we got stomped 186 to nothing? That’s what happens when that jerkwand Hasselberry stacks the teams. Centaur and Quetzal versus Sphinx and Jackalope? How is that fair? Or was it the part where everyone was using their magic to get ahead?”
“Dude, baseball’s, like, sacred and stuff,” Jack said, his voice muffled by the sheets. “It’s the greatest game ever invented. My favorite sport, and now thanks to wizards it’s only about how well people can cheat. It sucks.”
“For the last time, it’s not cheating,” Leo shot back, throwing up his hands, but then he reconsidered. “Actually, yeah, it is. I lied. But the point is, when you have magical powers, cheating’s kind of an accepted part of the game.”
“It’s pretty much the whole point of it,” Oliver agreed. “I mean, admit it. It was kind of fun making that baseball invisible. Those guys were running around like morons trying to find it.”
“And remember when we drilled the hole through the bat?” Leo cackled, clutching at his sides with laughter. “And jacked the pitcher’s mound up so all their throws came in too high? Awesome.”
Jack just growled with barely suppressed anger as Danny raised his own voice.
“Well, for me, I was just surprised we were playing baseball. It seems really sort of normal, you know? Like, I was thinking there would be some kind of crazy wizard sport. I don’t know, maybe flying around, putting balls in hoops, maybe dodging some other balls, and there’s a third kind of ball that just wins you the game, and in the—”
He trailed off as he realized Leo, Oliver, and Lucas were just staring at him.
“Danny,” Leo said slowly, “I have no idea what you’re on right now, but whatever it is, I really, really want some.”
“Seriously, man, what the spell are you talking about?” asked Oliver. “Now I’m definitely not letting you have any of my beer. You sound drunk enough without it.”
“I—but—oh, never mind,” Danny mumbled, holding up his wand and sucking in a breath, directing all of his attention and thought on the water jug. He gritted his teeth, clenched his fists, and closed his eyes, and all of a sudden, the vessel began to tremble. The water inside it bubbled, roiled, and began to steam, as though superheated by an unseen source. Then, it finally blew upward and out, showering the young Jackalope with a hail of droplets as his eyes flew open.
“I did it! I did it!” he yelled, jumping to his feet and dancing around the tent ecstatically. “Did you guys see that? Huh? All I had to do was concentrate. It was so cool. I actually used my magic. I can do this!”
“I’m sorry to rain on your parade, so to speak, Danny,” Lucas said, giving the Jackalope an apologetic look as he flexed and lowered his outstretched hand. It was currently covered by a metallic framework of a glove-like device, strung up with wires and glowing nodes. “But I think that may have been me. I’m just testing this design out. Poor timing on my part. You certainly looked like you were doing something, though, for what it’s worth.”
Danny’s face fell and his shoulders sagged as Leo and Oliver burst out laughing.
“Nice one, Lucas,” Leo wheezed, struggling to keep air in his lungs. “What is that thing, anyway? What are you building?”
“Well,” the Sphinx scout explained, straightening his tie, “as I can’t actually utilize magic myself, I figured there had to be a way for me to keep up with the other scouts around here through technology. Though I am having problems controlling the range and focus. Perhaps I’m thinking about this wrong. Maybe attempting full mental control isn’t practical unless—”
“Unbelievable,” Jack grumbled, throwing the blankets off himself as he turned over long enough to pull his pencil-wand out of his back pocket and pointed it at a cup sitting by his own bedside. Instantly, the water inside it rose up and threaded through the air over Danny’s head, streaming into the jug and once again filling it to the brim. “There. Can’t a guy be miserable about the death of good sportsmanship in peace without having to listen to you all yak? Baseball sucks. Life is a lie. God is dead. Happy now?”
“Umm—okay, then,” Oliver said, blinking repeatedly at what he had just seen. “Whoa. Listen, Jack, how many times have you done that? Like, have you actually been practicing?”
“Not really. I don’t know. A few.” Jack was impassive. “What’s with the look? What did I do wrong?”
“Nothing,” said Danny hurriedly. “Really, nothing. That was just—uhh—pretty good. You know, for a beginner.”
“Meh,” said Leo, trying to affect an air of aloofness as his mouth strained with jealousy. “I’ve seen better.”
“You certainly seem to have a good deal of control over your abilities, Jack,” Lucas mused, stroking his chin with his gloved hand. “More so than many of the new scouts. When was the first time you used your magic?”
“The community pool in Brooklyn, man. I told you all about this already. I found out the same time as all of you.”
“Are you sure, Jack?” Danny asked. “Lucas kind of has a point. Was that really the first time?”
Wincing and squinting as though a headache was coming on, Jack scowled and rolled back over.
“What? Yeah. I mean, probably. I don’t know. You guys are making my brain hurt. Just leave me alone, okay?”
Before anyone could question the recalcitrant scout further, however, the flap of the tent burst open and Scoutmaster Hasselberry, attired in his starched khaki uniform, maroon blazer, and all his hubristic glory marched inside, a disapproving frown pasted on his craggy features.
“Gentlemen,” he growled. “And Jackalopes. Attention.”
“Oh, great,” Leo muttered, rolling his eyes. “Look what just creeped in.”
“Emphasis on the creep,” Oliver replied as Hasselberry folded his arms and cleared his throat.
Danny and Lucas immediately dropped what they were doing, jumped upright, and pressed their hands to their foreheads in salutes. Leo and Oliver, meanwhile, both snapped to attention as well in grotesquely exaggerated fashion, nearly bending over backwards as they put their hands up in different oddball positions.
“Well,” the scoutmaster mused, looking them all over with a critical eye. “It’s nice to see at least some measure of military discipline around this pigsty of a troop. At ease.”
Lucas and Danny relaxed but remained standing, folding their hands properly behind their backs. Leo and Oliver, on the other hand, shared a brief but knowing look, shrugged, and slouched back onto the cot, kicking their feet up and showing no decorum at all.
“Just what do you men think you’re doing?” Hasselberry inquired, annoyed.
“Oh, you know, sir,” said Oliver airily. “Just lying around.”
“A likely story,” the scoutmaster grumbled, surveying the piled clothing, empty beer cans, and the dirty cafeteria trays scattered around the tent with distaste. “Filthy, of course. Living quarters in unacceptable condition. And you slackers are out of uniform, as per usual.”
“Yeah, but at least we make it look good,” Leo said snidely, drawing a sharp look from Hasselberry.
“I’d button your lip if I were you, Mr. Scott. It just so happens that I’ve come here on more important business than to chew the fat with you rejects.”
“Chew the fat?” Lucas asked innocently. “With respect, sir, I think you might be in the wrong place. The mess tent would seem a much more likely location for that.”
Hasselberry glowered at him.
“Mr. King,” he said flatly. “A Sphinx scout, associating with Jackalopes. I hardly think your troop leader, Mr. Falco the elder, would approve of this.”
“Whatever,” Leo muttered. “I thought you were trying to give reasons for him not to do it.”
“I’ll only warn you once, Mr. King,” Hasselberry continued, ignoring the jibes. “You should strive to make better friends here. Don’t let these people corrupt you.”
If Lucas was worried or afraid, he showed no sign of it, keeping his face polite but expressionless.
“Of course, sir. I’m doing my very best.”
The scoutmaster glared at him silently for a moment before speaking again.
“Be that as it may, I think all of you here are well aware that I despise every last one of you with every fiber of my being. This place would be much better off if all you disgusting ingrates were shipped off to another camp. Preferably a prison camp.”
“Aw, look at that,” Oliver said with a smirk. “He really does care. Don’t go soft on us, Hasselberry. I think I might barf.”
“The feeling is mutual, Mr. Mack,” Hasselberry sighed, looking none too pleased. “It is therefore my distinct and utter displeasure to inform you that there is someone, shockingly enough, who does want to speak with you. A film crew will shortly be arriving at Camp Prospero to make a documentary about its activities for government use, and they’ve informed me they’ll be needing scout subjects. To that end, I’ve been ordered to ask for volunteers from all troops to take part. However sad or pathetic they may be.”
“Film crew?” Danny moaned, wilting at the thought of it. “You mean, with cameras and stuff, sir? Oh, man. I hate being on camera. I don’t like the paparazzi.”
“Okay, I’m back.” Jack finally pushed all the cover off himself and sat up on his cot, tugging his baseball cap back on and looking somewhere between confused and interested. “What’s going on now? Documentary? About Camp Prospero? And were they sober when they decided to do this, or like nine tequila shots deep?”
“You said it,” Leo snorted. “What genius came up with that idea?”
“This genius, Scott,” Drake Masterson said acidly as he slid into the tent beside Hasselberry and gave Jack a sneer. “And for the record, Ferguson, I wouldn’t know. Unlike you, I don’t drink crap. My father’s the head of the BMA, remember? Plus, I was thinking I’ve been laying down on the job with my own publicity lately. The world’s probably wondering where I got to without all that quality Drake time for the press to talk about.”
“Yes,” Hasselberry said, tight-lipped. “Mr. Masterson organized the filming, and has already volunteered to be featured in it. That is, if there are no alternatives waiting to present themselves. Any at all.”
“This guy’s going to be your star?” Oliver spoke up. “Ugh. Really? We can definitely aim higher. You want this thing to be A-list or C-list, Hasselberry?”
Drake bristled, reaching past his green blazer toward his hip to get at his wand, but Hasselberry put a heavy hand on his shoulder, stopping him.
“Are you proposing an alternative, Mr. Mack?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. “Because if so, please note the only reason I ask is because I’ve been contractually obligated and directly ordered to do so by my superior, Scout Marshal Rhodes.”
“Oh, my God,” Oliver groaned.
“Close,” said Jack, raising a finger and grinning. “Very close.”
Leo laughed, but it stopped in his throat as an idea came to him.
“Wait a second. Get Jack. Yeah, Jack could do it. He’s got loads of—umm—personality and stuff. I bet he’d be a great star for this thing.”
Danny and Lucas nodded their encouragement, but Jack shook his head.
“No way, man. I don’t want to get involved with some government propaganda thing and have to memorize lines or any of that crap. Count me out.”
“Good point,” Drake said snidely, folding his arms over his chest. “I almost forgot you couldn’t read, Ferguson.”
“Shut up, Drake.” Leo turned to Jack, putting a hand on his shoulder and lowering his voice. “Come on, dude. Think about it for a minute. We’ve got an in on Hasselberry and Masterson’s little pet project. We could screw them big-time here. It would be the best prank ever.”
“You think so?”
“Absolutely,” Oliver chimed in from his other side. “It’s perfect, Jack. Besides, look at it this way: if you don’t take it, he’s going to give it to, you know—El Jerko.” He stuck a thumb over his shoulder toward Drake, who narrowed his eyes but said nothing. Jack thought it over for a moment before finally giving a noncommittal shrug.
“Okay, fine. You got me, sir. Where do I sign?”
“Very well,” the scoutmaster said, clearly not excited by the prospect. “If you slackers are absolutely certain you can’t come up with someone even more boorish and idiotic, then I suppose you will have to do, Mr. Ferguson. Come by my office tomorrow morning at precisely 0730. We’ll begin immediately.”
Giving the scouts a final, contemptuous glance, Hasselberry turned and strode out of the tent. Drake glared at them for a moment longer before joining him, and Leo and Oliver exchanged high fives over Jack’s head.
“Jack, are you, like, sure about this?” Danny asked, looking uncertainly up at his friend. “Maybe it’s just me, but this whole thing seems kind of fishy. I mean, if it’s such an important government thing, how come he wants us doing it? Plus, should we really be messing around with something like that?”
“Agreed,” Lucas said, concerned. “We should rethink our strategy on this. Something doesn’t add up. It could be a trick.”
“Hey, you guys?” Leo said mildly, turning toward them and offering an insincere smile. “I’m going to tell you something, and I really want you to take it to heart. Shut. The hell. Up.”
“What he said,” Oliver chimed in. “You’re really just a couple of buzzkills. This is the best chance we’re ever going to get to hit Hasselberry where it hurts: right in the ego. And the best part is, he’s such an incompetent, overconfident tool that he’ll never see it coming.”
“You know, being a celebrity is kind of cool,” Jack said with a chuckle as he turned back his baseball cap and picked the lint off his blazer and shirt. “There I was, just sitting around and minding my own business, and then all of a sudden, bam: a star is born. Man, what a great day.”
“But what about the baseball game?” Lucas inquired. “Aren’t you still upset about that?”
“Baseball what now?”
Danny sighed heavily.
“Well, in that case, I guess Lucas and I can—”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” Leo held up a hand. “You can’t Bogart our idea, bro. You didn’t want in this thing, so you don’t get in this thing. Consider yourselves out of the loop.”
“What? But that’s not fair!”
“What can we say?” Oliver sniffed, turning up his nose at the younger boy. “That’s show business.”
“You mean screwing over your friends just so you can grab your fifteen minutes of fame?” Danny asked accusingly. “That’s show business?”
Jack thought it over for a minute before giving him an apologetic shrug.
“Uhh—yeah. Pretty much. Sorry, man.”
On the outer side of the canvas wall, Drake took his ear away from the tent and smirked.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “They’re in. Go ahead, Hasselberry, you can be honest. Am I good, or am I great?”
“Don’t count your dragons before they hatch, Mr. Masterson,” Hasselberry said sternly from his position behind the Quetzal scout, folding his arms. “I still fail to understand the exact point of this alleged plan of yours. In case you had forgotten, the goal was to see those cretins expelled. Disappoint me, and you might just join them. And considering your failure to help Mr. Fordman to solve our problem the easy way, and your embarrassing venture with the tulpa, that’s two strikes so far, for anyone who’s counting.”
“You can cut the melodrama any time,” the Quetzal scout said snidely, although he couldn’t repress entirely the resentment in his tone. “And the only thing that’s alleged here is your acting ability. Don’t think your performance in there won you any Oscars. I was way more convincing. It’s called reverse psychology: or in your case, just psychology. I knew I could get in those bozos’ heads and make them want to do the film if it meant screwing us over, and when they do, they’ll be doing all our work for us. Then, after that’s over, I’ll have just enough material left to make the real film all about myself. I think I’ll call it ‘The Sweet Life of Drake Masterson’.”
“Well,” said Hasselberry, changing his tune a bit, “I suppose if there was to be filming of a personal sort on camp property, it could be financially beneficial for everyone involved. As long as I were to—”
“The answer’s no,” Drake interrupted him with a snort of distaste. “No way I’m having some old, decrepit hack like you driving down my ratings. People want some class in their TV shows these days, and if there’s not class, there at least has to be lots and lots of money. So I’ve got it covered. You, not so much. And don’t forget, I’m not doing you a favor for my health. I’m doing it so I’ll get through this stupid camp of yours and get you off my back, permanently. Plus get my revenge on that lousy slacker Ferguson.” He ground his teeth in fury. “I knew I had to come up with something really good. I’ve underestimated that scrub too many times already. He’s a sly fox, but he’s mine now.”
Hasselberry raised a greying eyebrow.
“I’m not entirely certain Mr. Ferguson is a sly anything. The other day during my lecture on basic spellcasting, I think I saw him trying to write with the wrong end of a pencil. But I suppose that could just have been because he was drunk. Degenerate.”
“Oh, no. He’s not fooling me.” Drake bared his teeth in a predatory smile as he swaggered confidently away. “First that counter-spell in the mess tent, and then thinking Big Boris out of existence? Ferguson acts like he’s all Mr. Fun Time, but that’s all it is: an act. Smart people are never that happy.”
“I think it’s far more probable that Mr. Ferguson is happy than smart,” the scoutmaster muttered under his breath. “But I’ll indulge you in your delusion, Mr. Masterson. Well, just long enough that I can present that film to those bumbling Washington bureaucrats and claim the credit for myself. Then we’ll see who’s the smart one.”
He paused for dramatic effect, but after a moment decided it might be necessary to clarify.
“It’ll be me.”
Frowning in displeasure as he peered over the rims of his sunglasses, Jack lifted the tray in his hands to his face and sniffed at its contents. Unsatisfied, he glared at the sweaty and terrified Sphinx scout behind the mess tent food bar.
“What the spell is this?”
“What do you mean?” the boy stammered.
“I mean this looks terrible,” Jack snapped, letting the tray clatter to the tabletop and drawing the attention of all the scouts nearby, as well as the dirty looks of those behind him in line. “Come on, man. Would it have killed you to put a little presentation into it? The chicken a la king is slopped all over the place, and it’s getting into the applesauce part. Speaking of which, I wasn’t going to say anything, but this chicken isn’t nearly a la king enough. A la crap, maybe. It’s like the steak the other day. Didn’t have enough Salisbury in it.” He looked over to Leo and Oliver, who were floating at his shoulders like two angels, or maybe demons. “That’s a thing, right?”
“Oh, totally,” said Oliver, bobbing his head in the affirmative.
“Sorry, man,” the Sphinx scout said, mustering enough gumption to sound annoyed. “I just work here.”
“Hey, don’t you give him that lip,” Leo shot back, raising a warning finger. “You know who you’re talking to here? This is Jack Ferguson. He’s a big deal. He doesn’t need to get hassled by the little people.”
“Big loser, more like,” a Quetzal from behind them snickered with his group of buddies. “Who do you idiots think you are, anyway?”
The three Jackalopes turned to look at them imperiously.
“The star of a government documentary, that’s who,” said Jack, folding his arms over his chest. “You got a problem with that, Todd?”
“Save your voice, Barrymore,” said Oliver, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Let us do the talking. Like he said, shut your trap, Todd.”
“Yeah,” Leo agreed. “Otherwise, I think the president might be really interested to hear all about those insane tax dodges of your dad’s that you were bragging about last week.”
Todd and his cronies instantly went pale.
“Yeah, right,” Todd scoffed, struggling to keep himself from sweating. “You slackers don’t have pull with the president. It’s just a stupid documentary. He’s not going to watch it.”
“Maybe,” said Jack, raising an eyebrow. “But do you really want to take that chance?” Seeing the Quetzals’ noncommittal gestures and staring at the ground, he grinned. “Yep, that’s what I thought. Now why don’t you guys get lost? It’s tough to hold onto all this celebrity when I’m surrounded by you plebes.”
“But we haven’t even gotten our food yet,” Todd began to argue, to which Leo simply smiled and waved.
The Quetzals threw down their trays and stomped out of the tent as Jack, Leo, and Oliver all trooped over to their customary table, where Danny was already waiting. As soon as they sat down, the three boys exploded into laughter.
“Are you guys, like, sure you’re not pushing this whole thing a little too far?” Danny asked.
“Are you kidding?” Oliver chuckled. “Dude, did you see how scared they were? We had them wetting their pants. Okay, that’s it. I can die happy now.”
“Relax, Danny. We’re just playing around, that’s all,” said Jack, stowing the sunglasses in his shirt pocket. “The filming wrapped days ago. We’re just stringing them along now. Still pretty funny, though.”
“But is that whole thing, you know, really on the up and up? It just makes me really nervous. I think we need to know more about what the scoutmaster’s going to do with it.”
“Bro, what you need is a horse tranquilizer about this big,” Leo said, rolling his eyes as he extended his arms to show just how big he meant. “If you ever actually paid attention to what Hasselberry says, you’d bore yourself to death. I never do.”
“Yeah,” Oliver agreed. “Me neither. Personally, I usually tune other people out when they talk. I skip ahead to the parts where I talk. It saves a lot of time.”
“I guess that explains how you slackers fell for the oldest trick in the book then, huh, Mack?”
The Jackalopes all jerked their heads up in surprise to see Drake Masterson looming over the head of the table, arms folded over his green blazer in about as condescending a pose as he had ever made. Leo, on the other hand, just made a face.
“Great. Thanks, Drake. I was just about to eat, too, but I thought that rancid smell was just from the latrine being upwind. Sucks to be wrong.”
“Then it must suck to be you, Scott, because you’re always wrong,” Drake sneered. “Actually, that’s just obvious. It pretty much sucks to be anyone who’s not me. You really thought you’d get away with it, huh? How big of an idiot do you think I am?”
“Well, that depends,” Oliver taunted him. “How big of an idiot are you?”
“Oh, good one, Mack. But you can go screw yourself. Nothing you people do can piss me off today, because I finally nailed you. Hand it over.”
He extended a pale hand and waggled his fingers impatiently, raising an eyebrow in an expectant and triumphant manner. Leo, Oliver, and Jack exchanged uncertain glances as Danny stared at all four scouts, completely baffled.
“Wait. Get away with what? Hand what over? What’s he talking about, guys?”
Drake snorted. “So they didn’t fill you in on the little game plan, huh, short stack? Big shocker. Maybe these clowns aren’t as stupid as I thought.”
“Sorry, Danny,” said Jack, giving Danny an apologetic shrug. “I mean, we really wanted to tell you, but me and Leo and Oliver thought it might just be better to keep it between us.”
“And by ‘we’, he pretty much means ‘him’,” Leo clarified. “Plausible deniability, Danny. The less people that know about our scams, the better. Plus, you’ve got to admit you have a really bad habit of blabbing about things when you get nervous.”
“What? No I don’t,” Danny stammered, pushing his glasses up and trying to make himself look tougher while dismally failing at both. “I totally don’t do that. Just like I don’t wet the bed anymore, either.”
“Dude, don’t try to con the con artists,” Oliver said, shaking his head. “I’ve seen the pictures.”
“And I put your hand in the bucket of warm water myself,” Leo added, unable to stifle a mischievous grin.
“You what?” Danny flushed with embarrassment. “Seriously, guys? Come on. Real mature.”
“I wouldn’t talk about maturity if I was you, Falco,” Drake grunted, narrowing his dark eyes at the smaller boy. “When exactly are you planning on finally growing a pair again?”
“Okay, okay,” said Jack, putting a hand on Danny’s shoulder as he saw how hurt his friend was. “I’ll tell you what’s going on, all right? Basically, the three of us agreed with you and we thought making this documentary might be some kind of trick. So we bribed a couple of Centaur scouts who were helping out the film crew to give us some inside info. Turns out the whole thing wasn’t actually a documentary. It was a hit piece to make Jackalope Troop look really bad in front of all those government suits. We just didn’t want to tell you because we didn’t want you to—you know—freak out.”
“Freak out?” Danny shouted, starting to hyperventilate. “Freak out! I don’t freak out. I don’t do that at all. See, like right now, you just told me you guys did exactly what the scoutmaster and everyone else wanted you to do and made this movie thing that destroys us all because you thought it would be funny, and you think I’m going to freak out? I’m not freaking out. You’re freaking out!”
He continued to rant and rave incoherently until Leo pushed him over and sat on him, cutting off the stream of panic. Drake rolled his eyes in annoyance.
“Let’s get a few things straight here,” he said. “One, I was the one who came up with this whole plan, not Hasselberry. It was my idea. All mine. That moron just did what I told him to do, and there’s no way I’m letting him hog all the credit. And two, you skipped the best part of the story, Ferguson: the part where you, Mack, and Scott decided to try and use your brains for once and steal the final cut of the film.”
“Huh?” Danny said, his voice somewhat muffled by Leo’s body. “You guys did that, too?”
“Yeah,” Oliver said grudgingly. “We snuck into the storage tent last night to switch the film they had with one we made instead.”
“You know,” Leo added, “the director’s cut.”
“Right. It was a joke. There weren’t any scouts on guard or anything, so we figured we were home free.”
“And you fell right into my trap,” Drake gloated, reaching inside his blazer and pulling out a film canister, waving it in the Jackalopes’ faces. “God, you guys are dumb. Didn’t you even think about why nobody was watching that stuff? They weren’t watching because I told them to take a hike. I knew once you scrubs figured out what the film was really about, you’d try to get clever and pull a stunt like this. Nice try. Not.” He chuckled mirthlessly. “I saw the whole thing, and I went all M. Night Shyamalan on you. Who’s the smart guy now?”
“Huh,” said Oliver, looking bored and resting his cheek on his fist. “I’ve got to say, I didn’t see that one coming.”
“That’s right, slacker. You don’t get the plot twist. You don’t even know what’s going on anymore.” Drake pushed his hand out again. “Now like I was saying, fork over the real film and maybe you’ll have enough time to get a few laughs off the blooper reel before I personally kick you sorry excuses for wizards out of camp. I’ve got the big screening this weekend in D.C. and I don’t want to be late. Or should I get Chad and the rest of the drool rangers to strip-search you?”
Once again, Leo, Oliver, and Jack exchanged looks, silently considering their next move. Realizing there wasn’t one, Jack shrugged and reached into his own blazer pocket, handing over another identical film canister.
“You don’t need to do that, man. Just take it. I had fun putting the thing together, at least. I think it could’ve won an award.”
“What, you mean the one for Best Supporting Dumbass?” Drake said, snatching Jack’s canister and tossing the one already in his hand unceremoniously onto the middle of the table, upsetting their trays of food in the process. “I couldn’t agree more. Smell you dweebs later.” With a general glare to the other three scouts, he leaned over and stared right into Jack’s differently-colored eyes with his grey ones. “I’m onto you, Ferguson. Everyone else thinks there’s nothing going on in your head, but I’ve got your number. This time, I played you. Suck it.”
He stood up straight again, pointed his middle and index fingers at his eyes and then back at Jack several times in an I’m-watching-you motion as he backed away, and then turned and strolled out of the mess tent, whistling cheerfully and tucking the film canister under his arm.
Danny managed to finally wriggle out from under Leo and busily wiped his glasses on his blazer to get the stray applesauce off them. Jack, meanwhile, looked back to the older scouts in confusion, taking his baseball cap off and scratching his head.
“So—he does know that we never actually found the film, right?”
“Who knows?” Leo muttered, throwing up his hands and refocusing on what remained of his food. “Half the time I think that guy needs subtitles. And did I not tell you to look underneath all the scripts again? How hard is that?”
“Says the guy who can’t find his cot when it’s right in front of him,” Oliver snickered.
“Okay, that happened, like, one time. And I was really drunk.”
“Sure, buddy. Sure. Whatever helps you sleep at night. You know, when you’re not on the ground.”
“But then—” Danny spoke up, his eyes wide in sudden revelation as he stared at the canister on their table. “Hold on. If what Drake gave back to us was the real documentary, then—what’s the thing he has now?”
Standing uncomfortably in the corner of the small, oak-paneled conference room, Scoutmaster Rudolph von Hasselberry tapped his foot and studied the Gothic arches and crenellations on the ceiling, trying not to look at out of place as he felt.
He tugged on the front of his dress uniform, which he suspected was starting to grow a bit too snug around the middle, as the elite of Washington milled around him in their power suits and garish ties, hobnobbing about everything and nothing. He often—very often, in fact—thought about what it would be like if he escaped from the fetid sewer that was Camp Prospero and attained rank in the real world once again. But invariably, every time he got there, it just felt like a world to which he didn’t belong.
This is what running a camp full of slackers for five years had done to him: he couldn’t even feel assured of his absolute superiority over others anymore. Those cursed Jackalope rejects.
A hand suddenly laid itself on his shoulder, and Hasselberry nearly jumped out of his boots as he turned to face its owner.
“Mr. President?” he asked hopefully.
In response, Scout Marshal Rhodes chortled and ran his hand over his cue ball-like head, trying to seem modest, as the small entourage of bureaucrats around him tittered sycophantically along with him.
“Oh, not quite yet, Hasselberry,” he said, seemingly in exceptionally good spirits as his thick goatee rustled and made the scoutmaster want to vomit as it loomed right in his face. “But certainly in Washington, one never knows. I trust you’ve got a fine film to show us this evening?”
“Absolutely, sir,” said Hasselberry, trying to play along. “You can count on us at Camp Prospero. We do nothing but the best work there.”
At that, the scout marshal and his political associates burst out laughing.
“Ah, Hasselberry, I had forgotten that you could have such a sense of humor at times,” he said, striding over and pulling the scoutmaster aside. Out of earshot of the others, his face grew deadly serious. “You’d better have something to show for this, Hasselberry. It was bad enough that you somehow went over my head right to Marcus Masterson at the BMA about it, but this is for all the marbles. Camp Prospero was the second choice for this documentary, and the president was not at all happy about the location change.”
“That’s quite all right,” Hasselberry quipped, unable to help himself. “He’s my second choice for president.”
“Isn’t it the truth,” Rhodes growled. “Progressives. Always trying to do something. Be that as it may, I want your personal guarantee that this film of yours is a winner. The Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and the Chief of Staff are all here to see it. Give me your word that this will make an impression. We need changes to happen in our camps, and we can only do that if those incompetent boobs in that welfare state of a Congress hurry up and give us more money.”
“I second your view on needed changes, sir,” Hasselberry replied, working diligently to suppress a knowing smirk. “And in regards to the film, I’m sure no one here will ever forget it. Just one more thing, sir: if anyone asks who is responsible for it, the concept, the art direction, any of the choices made in production at all, please let them know it was done by my order. No one else’s. As long as that wouldn’t make anyone think less of me, sir.”
“That’s perfectly all right, scoutmaster,” Rhodes grunted, unamused. “I’m quite certain no one in this room could think any less of you than they already do.”
He turned away, his attention caught by another passing bureaucrat, leaving Hasselberry clenching his fists in barely contained fury as Drake Masterson sidled up beside him, sipping at a glass of champagne.
“You’ve sure got a way of making friends, Hasselberry. Real smooth.”
“A pity you had to see that, Mr. Masterson,” the scoutmaster growled. “As it was, I had nearly managed to forget that you were here. I don’t understand why you obligated me to allow you to tag along in the first place.”
“Well, that’s why I’m the brains of this operation, I guess,” the Quetzal scout sneered, flipping the collar of his green blazer. “You really think I’m going to stay in that rat-trap camp any longer than I absolutely have to? Yeah, right. And there’s no way I’m missing out on getting a front-row seat to the end of Ferguson and his merry gang of scrubs.” He narrowed his eyes at Hasselberry suspiciously. “Plus, I had to make sure you wouldn’t try to steal my thunder and pretend like this whole thing was your idea or something.”
“Please, Mr. Masterson,” the scoutmaster scoffed, suppressing a smirk of his own. “I’m insulted you would even insinuate that. Your thunder, such as it is, will remain unstolen. I have nothing if not artistic integrity.”
“Whatever,” Drake snapped, taking a seat in the front row of chair behind them and crossing his legs, looking sour. “Just do me a favor and don’t talk through it, okay? I actually want to stay awake for once, unlike in your lame lectures.”
Biting his tongue from a further frustrated retort, Hasselberry took his seat along with the rest of the gathered officials as the lights in the room began to dim. A wizard against the back wall in a pinstripe suit waved his wand over a large crystal ball set on top of a pedestal, and a beam of light shot out of the ball and onto the far blank wall, drawing whispers of awe and anticipation from the politicians. That is, until the film began rolling, and the majestic orchestral chords of the score resounded through the space, shaking everyone’s teeth in their mouths and drawing confused stares at the image that confronted them.
“Mr. Masterson,” Hasselberry hissed, unable to believe his eyes. “Just what is this?”
It was a simple clapboard sign, set in the middle of a dark, grassy field, and illuminated only by candlelight. Scrawled on it were the words:
STAR BOARD: REVENGE OF THE STIFFED
“EPISODE XIV: THE WIND CRIES MONEY”
SCOUTMASTER RUDOLPH “THERE GOES MY PROMOTION” VON HASSELBERRY
A SNEAKY RICH JERK
IN ASSOCIATION WITH:
JACK OF ALL TRADES, MASTERSON OF NONE PRODUCTIONS
CENTAUR SCOUTS PLAYED BY:
THE CAST OF “GORILLAS IN THE MIST”
“What the—” Drake began, his mouth hanging open. “No. No way. I let them take the real film. And then I got it back from them. I knew that they knew about it. It was reverse psychology. Unless—they must have known that I knew that they knew.” He gritted his teeth and slammed a fist into his palm. “Reverse-reverse psychology. Ferguson, you evil genius.”
Amid the clamoring and confusion of the rest of the viewers, a mortified Hasselberry, who felt a mix of terror and rage coming on so strongly he might explode, attempted to quietly get up and slink out of the room. He was almost immediately pulled back down into his seat by a heavy hand on his shoulder, and turned with a weak smile to an infuriated Scout Marshal Rhodes directly beside him.
“What the devil are you playing at, Hasselberry?” his superior seethed, gesturing wildly at the projection, his face as red as a beet. “This is a disgrace: an utter and unmitigated disaster. I want an explanation, and I want it this very instant. What in Merlin’s name do you have to say for yourself?”
“Well, sir, I—that is—err—” Hasselberry stammered, for the first time in his life completely at a loss for words. “I suppose—give my regards to Broadway?”
Check out Kyle Robertson’s new novel, Camp Ferguson, available online now at Amazon.com and via Kindle devices!