In which we learn that curiosity killed the cat. Or the wizard. Whatever. Elementary, my dear Jackalope.
But seriously, this was one of my favorite chapters to write. Enjoy!
CHAPTER 14: CSI (CLUELESS SCOUTMASTER INVESTIGATIONS)
Assistant Scoutmaster Regulus Crowley would never admit it out loud, but he loved mornings like this one.
The scoutmaster was out, presumably bullying some underdeveloped Sphinx Troop wimps during their water survival training, leaving him alone in the camp office for hours on end. No appointments. No duties. And no insufferable, know-it-all children to bother him.
Finishing up his daily reshuffling of the camp files—this was something he made sure to do constantly because as long as the files were out of order, he would be the only one to know what was where, and thus ensured he had at least one useful function to prevent his firing—he gave a brief check out the window to make sure no one was in sight, and then slowly and carefully sat down in the leather chair behind Hasselberry’s massive desk, turning his proud brass nameplate out of sight.
“Ah, yes,” he mused contentedly, leaning back in the chair and taking some satisfaction from the fact that it didn’t creak like when his superior sat in it. “This is how it’s supposed to be. Scoutmaster Crowley, yes, sir. I’m terribly sorry for the utter disaster my predecessor left behind. Only six days to shape up, you say? Well, Merlin created Camelot in six days.” He frowned. “No, wait. I meant, Rome was built in a day. That’s not it, either. Well, if wizards had been on the job, it might have been.”
He turned his head to look back out the window, where scouts from various troop were gathered together socializing and shooting off spells, and frowned in disapproval.
“And of course Merlin wasn’t surrounded by a bunch of flakes.”
Feeling supremely confident now, he kicked his booted feet up onto the desk and pulled his wand out from his belt, waving it at the ancient phonograph set up on the other side of the room. There was the scratch of a needle, and “Eye of the Tiger” (by Survivor) started to blare out of its tinny speaker. Shaking his head, Crowley then flicked his wrist several times, bypassing “Eye of the Tiger” (this time by Katy Perry) and a half-dozen other tracks before he reached his personal favorite tune, “Stayin’ Alive”. He hummed along and tapped his toes together.
“Oh you can tell by the way that I move my walk, I’m a wizard, man, no time to talk—”
Just then, the portal to the office on the back wall flared to life, and Crowley only had enough time to jump up, flip the scoutmaster’s nameplate back around, and shut off the phonograph with another wave of his wand and a needle scratch as sunlight from outside filtered into the room. But it wasn’t the only thing, as Hasselberry walked in, the bottoms of his boots squelching with every step.
“Sir,” Crowley stammered, stiffly raising his hand in a salute, but then taking note of the scoutmaster’s utterly drenched uniform that was dripping water all over the floor. “Err—sir, are you all right?”
Hasselberry glared at him.
“That is the single most moronic, idiotic, and utterly stupid and brainless question I’ve ever heard in my entire life,” he growled, clenching his fists. “Crowley, you of all people should be aware that I’m never all right. Least of all at this moment. Though I suppose I should thank you for reminding me that there are, in fact, constants in this chaotic and dreadful mess of a universe.”
“Of course. My utter loathing of you being a primary example. Well done.”
Crowley’s lips tightened, but he refused to give any verbal indication of his irritation.
“Of course, sir. It’s my job.”
“Exactly right,” said Hasselberry, shaking his arms and legs in an attempt to wring them out. “Confounded Jackalopes. I try to hold mandatory water survival training in case our scouts are ever attacked by magic pirates or sea monsters in the real world, and they decide to turn it into a free-for-all surfing event. This is it, Crowley. The last straw. The one that broke the centaur’s back. The final humiliation. I’ve had enough. I want those pathetic, unreasonable, disgusting little slackers gone. Not tomorrow, not after lunch, now. Do you get me, you nauseating cretin?”
“Yes, sir,” Crowley gulped.
“See that you do. But, first things first.” Hasselberry gave him a long, hard look. “Crowley, when I came in just now, were you—singing?”
The assistant scoutmaster hurriedly ran through the long list of excuses in his head, trying to come up with one that sounded good. Failing that, he settled on his usual default response: deny everything.
“Why—umm—no. No I wasn’t.” He attempted a placating smile. “Would you like me to sing, sir? I can if you’d like. Actually, I was told at the Harvard School for Wizards that I had quite an excellent baritone range, and—”
“Frankly, Crowley, I think I would rather partake in a good, solid round of waterboarding,” Hasselberry scoffed. “Perhaps with some bamboo shoots stuck under my fingernails to relax afterward. Now, I’m going to the latrine to change into a dry uniform, and then we’re going to call Fordman, Falco, and whomever else we need to into this room. No one leaves until we have an undeniable, foolproof plan to kick the Jackalopes out of this camp. Make it happen.”
With that, the scoutmaster snatched a freshly dry-cleaned uniform off the coat rack in the corner and stomped back through the wall portal to the outside. As soon as the hole dissolved again and he was gone, Crowley leaned against the corner of the desk and sighed in relief. That had been a close one. If Hasselberry had seen his subordinate sitting casually behind his desk, the consequences would not have been pleasant. He was still seeing a therapist from the last time it happened. No, it wouldn’t do at all: on a good day, the scoutmaster’s temper was on a hair trigger, and for him to blow up, all that had to happen was—
Speaking of blowing up, at that precise moment in his train of thought, he was interrupted by a resounding boom, and the floor of the office swayed under his feet. Dashing over to the window and throwing the blinds aside, Crowley saw that the officer’s latrine several yards away had chosen this exact moment to explode, with a billowing column of smoke the only thing left among the charred wooden and canvas remains. Scouts of all troops were already flocking to the scene, some to help remove the debris, but mostly just to gawk and gape like guppies.
Well, he reflected, perhaps today wasn’t going to be so bad after all.
Screwing his cap back on his head, Jack frowned and bit at his lip as he thought for a long moment.
“This is seriously not good. I don’t like this. I don’t like it at all.”
Groaning, he pitched the cards in his hand face-down onto the cot.
“Fine. Give me three.”
Leo chuckled as he dealt from the other side of the bed.
“Betting on picking up the fifth king, huh, Jack?”
“Just shut up and deal, man. Nothing I hate more than a sore winner.”
“Hey, cut the table talk, okay?” Quentin snapped, irritably shuffling his cards. “I’d like to finish this game while I’m still young enough to enjoy life. Two, please.”
“Whatever, poker face,” said Leo, dealing him the cards and turning to Danny. “What about you, Danny?”
“I’m out,” Danny sighed. “I feel like I’m not too good at this game.”
“Why’s that? I thought the point was to give your money away as fast as possible. You’re doing a great job at that.” Leo snickered. “What about you, Oliver?”
“El-foldo, good buddy,” the red-haired boy said, laying down his hand. “Seriously, I don’t know how you keep doing so well in this.”
“Well, it’s a little thing called skill, I guess,” Leo said cheekily as he dealt out the cards requested. “I’m fine with my hand. So who’s first?”
“Me,” said Quentin, laying down his cards with a hard grin. “Full house, queens and tens. Beat that, Scott.”
“Crap,” Jack muttered, throwing his cards away. “I had garbage. I thought you guys were bluffing.”
“Looks like it’s just the big boys now, Scott,” Quentin taunted. “What do you have?”
Leo shrugged, laying his hand on the cot.
“Oh, you know. Just two pair. A pair of aces, and another pair of aces. No biggie.”
Quentin’s jaw dropped as Oliver whistled in awe.
“What? You’re kidding me. That’s, like, the eighth hand in a row. Last time you had a royal flush.”
“And before that, there was the straight flush,” Jack said. “What’s your secret, bro?”
“Well, you know,” Leo began to brag, leaning back and folding his arms behind his head. “A magician never reveals his secrets. Well, you know, wizard.” But he froze when his wand fell out of his sleeve and onto the grass. He quickly picked it up and tucked it behind his back, smiling innocently, but Quentin was already on his feet.
“Secret, my foot,” he cried. “You’ve been transfiguring the cards, haven’t you? This whole freaking game. You cheated!”
“Sure I did,” Leo replied. “How else could I win?”
“Oh, I’m going to kill you, Scott,” the troop leader growled, jumping up and chasing Leo in a circle around the bed while Jack and Oliver cracked up and Danny just tried to stay out of the way, but they stopped dead as a new voice, angry, slurred, and confused pierced the tent.
“Are you now, Mr. Townsend? Perhaps Mr. Scott isn’t the only one you’d like to kill today?”
The boys all looked up to see a dirty and battered Scoutmaster Hasselberry standing just inside the tent flap, with Crowley behind him at safe distance. That was probably because of the horrid stench that assaulted all their nostrils.
“Ugh, wow,” said Jack, holding his nose and fanning with his hand. “What is that? It smells like a latrine in here.”
“Aha!” Hasselberry cried, the streamer of toilet paper still hanging off his head blowing precariously as he jumped forward and raised a grimy but accusing finger. “A good joke, Mr. Ferguson, but not good enough. So you admit it, then? And don’t try playing dumb with me. You’re not nearly as good at it as I am.”
“You can say that again,” Leo said, raising an eyebrow at Hasselberry scorched and soiled uniform and the wooden toilet seat hanging around his neck. “What’s going on with you, Hasselberry? Is it Dress Your Scoutmaster Up Like an Idiot Day and you didn’t tell us? Oh, sorry. That’s every day.”
“Just give up the innocent act, Mr. Scott,” Hasselberry snapped, his eyes glinting in an especially unhinged manner. “Nobody believes it. You know, you wouldn’t be the first scouts to try and murder their commanding officer at this camp.”
“As sad as that is, I actually believe it,” said Oliver, his head perking up. “But hold on a second, Hasselberry. Who said anything about murder?”
“You did, Mr. Mack.”
“Uhh—no. I’m pretty sure you did.”
“What the scoutmaster means is that someone is trying to kill him,” Crowley said sternly. “Multiple times now, in fact. First, there was the exploding latrine.”
“Exploding latrine?” Jack snickered. “Well, that explains things. Nice.”
“Then, there was the toothpaste that caught fire.”
“I really want to know how he found out about that one,” said Leo.
“And finally, on our way over to your troop, someone tipped over the flagpole and nearly impaled me,” Hasselberry finished, glaring at them defiantly. “Well, I survived your insultingly simplistic attempts at homicide, you pathetic peons. And now I’ll see that you get the worst punishment there is.”
“A slap on the wrist and immediate cessation of chocolate rations?” Danny squeaked hopefully.
“No, Mr. Falco. Expulsion. Plain and simple expulsion. Not to mention the federal detention, if you’re lucky. The BMA doesn’t take kindly to attempts on the lives of government officials.”
“Sir,” Quentin began, “I really don’t understand what’s going on—”
“There’s a first,” Oliver chuckled.
“—but I can say with absolute certainty that no one in my troop had anything to do with it,” Quentin finished, giving him a dirty look. “No one in Jackalope would resort to something as insane as this just over a simple disagreement.”
“Dude, quit lying to the guy,” Leo sighed. “He almost got blown up. But take my word for it, Hasselberry: nobody in this tent is trying to kill you. We may be a little crazy, but we’re not nuts.”
“A likely story, Mr. Scott,” Hasselberry shot back. “You and your classless confederates are the one group of people in this camp I have specifically targeted this entire summer. You’ve just finally decided to get me out of the way in a last, desperate attempt to avoid your inevitable defeat, court-martial, and humiliation.”
“Hasselberry, I can promise you this,” said Oliver, rolling his eyes. “If we really wanted to get rid of you, we’d be way more creative about it. Murder’s just not our speed. It doesn’t take any imagination. And besides, it’s a lot more fun to keep you around where we can just torment you all the time and show everyone what an incompetent boob you are.”
“What I think Mack is trying to say, sir,” said Quentin irritably, “is that we’re not the ones behind this. Somebody else has to be doing it.”
“Then who is it, Mr. Townsend?” Crowley demanded, raising his eyebrows expectantly.
Jack, who had been sitting quietly, deep in thought, for the past few minutes, suddenly raised his head again, flipped his cap around, and grinned.
“Sounds like you need some help, sir,” he said, giving the two officials a casual salute. “No problem. Detective Jack is on the case. I love a good mystery. You know, like that really sweet one about Roger Rabbit.”
“Jack, I’m pretty sure that was a cartoon,” Danny said, but Jack ignored him.
“Yep, that’s me. Professional nosy guy. Just give me a few days, sir, and I’ll find out who’s behind this stuff.”
“Mr. Ferguson, offense completely intended, but you are probably the absolute last person I would ever consider for a private investigator position,” Hasselberry scoffed.
“I wouldn’t be so quick on the trigger there, Hasselberry,” Leo cautioned him with a sardonic grin. “You might not get another offer like that. I dare you. Name one person in this camp who’d want to do that for you. Somebody you haven’t ever insulted, pissed off, or given any kind of reason to despise you in every way.”
“Well, I certainly—” Hasselberry blustered, but trailed off as the enormity of the problem occurred to him and his jaw went slack. “Umm—I think—erm—”
“Come on, dude,” Oliver encouraged him. “Just give us one name. We’ll even believe you. Well?”
“Well, give me a minute,” the scoutmaster growled, his face turning red and a vein pulsing in his neck.
“You can’t think of a single person, can you?” Leo snorted with laughter. “That’s pathetic, man. Seriously.”
“Oh, all right, all right,” Hasselberry said, putting his hands up to their mouths and his eyes narrowing at Jack. “You slackers have made your point. You’d better be as good as you say, Mr. Ferguson, because if you aren’t, I may just have to go back to the more convenient explanation: that it was you and your malcontent friends who did this. You have 72 hours.”
He turned and stalked out of the tent, with Crowley tagging along at his heels, as the other Jackalopes turned to look at Jack, who was playing with his blazer’s zipper as though nothing had happened.
“Wow, Jack,” said Danny. “Do you really think you can figure it out in three days?”
“I hope you know what you’re doing, Ferguson,” Quentin agreed. “If you screw this up, all of our butts are going to be on the line.”
Leo turned to Oliver.
“Think this might be fun?”
“Duh,” Oliver replied with a grin. “It’s Jack. Solving crimes. How could it go wrong?”
“Don’t worry, you guys,” said Jack, looking confident and rubbing his hands together. “I got this. I watched a lot of Law and Order back at home. Plus, I was going to be pre-law. You know, if I ever went to college. And I was always good at guessing who did it in those Scooby-Doo episodes. Now let’s get down to business.”
Standing behind his customary counter in the mess tent, the scout cook held up his hand with wide and nervous eyes.
“Uhh—that’s far enough, sir. Your usual?”
Crossing his arms and glowering, Scoutmaster Hasselberry tapped his foot on the ground and barely restrained the urge to shout.
“Yes,” he muttered, through gritted teeth.
The Sphinx scout bobbed his head in recognition.
“Of course, sir. Pork chops with extra fat, Brussels sprouts with bacon, and mashed potatoes with a spam garnish, coming right up. If you’ll just have a seat over there.”
He waved a hand toward the far corner of the tent before busying himself with his cooking griddle again. Rolling his eyes, Hasselberry turned and tromped over to the table, where a group of Centaur and Quetzal scouts were already sitting. At the sight of his approach, the scouts all got up, picked up their trays, and without another word, bolted for the exit as quickly as they could. Hasselberry took his now empty seat just as a wobbly tin tray with his piping hot meal on it floated over his shoulder and clattered down unceremoniously in front of him.
“Will that be all, sir?” the KP scout shouted across the tent.
“If it’s not too much trouble, cadet,” Hasselberry growled, “I’d like some ketchup as well.”
The scout paled.
“Umm—we’re fresh out, sir. Sorry.”
With that, he too made straight for the door, forgetting the rest of the grumbling lunch line. Hasselberry grudgingly took his seat and picked up his fork, only to be interrupted by Crowley’s insistent tapping on the mesh wall of the tent several feet away.
“Err—sir,” he said hesitantly, “when would you like to go over these fitness reports?”
“When I’m good and ready for them, Crowley,” Hasselberry said, glaring at him. “Will you stop that and just come inside? You look ridiculous standing out there. Well, more ridiculous than usual.”
“Sorry, sir,” Crowley replied, running a hand through his greasy black hair and forcing an apologetic smile. “I just feel it might be best to keep my distance at the moment. I have this preoccupation about wanting to live as long as possible.”
He flinched back as a flying relish jar hit the canvas.
“Get out of my sight, you treasonous twit,” Hasselberry shouted, banging his fists on the table. “Get out!”
Crowley beat a hasty retreat and Hasselberry sighed, calming himself and preparing once again to take a bite. But that was when Leo, Oliver, and Danny trooped into the mess tent.
“Whoa, slow down there, chief,” said Leo as the three boys took a seat on the opposite side of the table from him. “Shouldn’t you be more careful about stuff like this? I mean, that food might be poisoned or something. Who knows?”
Torn, Hasselberry looked down at his beautifully prepared food, then back at the boys, then down at the tray again.
“Here,” said Oliver, beckoning with a finger. “Slide it over. We’ll test it for you. No charge.”
“And when they say ‘we’, sir, they mean them,” Danny added to clarify, laughing nervously.
Hasselberry scowled as he pushed the tray over and Leo and Oliver picked up some forks, diving right in.
“I suppose this means you rejects are the only ones not afraid to be around me,” he said. “After all those attempts to kill me, no one else in this cesspool of a camp will get within spitting distance of me. And believe me, I’ve tried it.”
“Nah,” said Oliver with a shrug. “We figure you’re pretty safe as long as you’re hanging around with awesome guys like us that people actually like.”
Hasselberry’s eyes narrowed.
“Suddenly, dying seems to have become infinitely more preferable as an option.”
“Hey, man, it’s your funeral,” said Leo, as he and Oliver shared a laugh.
“Very funny, Mr. Scott. Remind me to slap my knee later. Where is your resident village idiot, Mr. Ferguson?”
“We don’t know, sir,” said Danny, concerned. “Right after we talked to you three days ago, he just disappeared. Something about deep cover. We haven’t seen him since. I’m actually starting to get a little worried.”
“Danny, calm yourself,” said Oliver. “It’s Jack we’re talking about here. I’ve been worried about the guy since the day I met him. But he knows how to take care of himself, though. I mean, I think. Is he housebroken?”
Just then, the camp’s PA system suddenly cracked and came to life.
“Attention. Would the following people please report to Scoutmaster Hasselberry’s office: Leo Scott; Oliver Mack; Scoutmaster Rudolph von Hasselberry; Daniel Meredith Falco; Sam Falco; Assistant Scoutmaster Regulus Crowley; Tessa Stone; Chad Fordman; Lucas King. That is all.”
“What in Merlin’s name?” Hasselberry exclaimed, pushing his bench away and standing up. “Who’s using the PA? I’m the only one allowed to do that. And who’s calling a meeting? I’m the only one allowed to call meetings!”
“Well, I guess we’d better find out,” said Oliver, standing as well along with Danny and heading out of the tent. Leo followed, but not before sliding the empty, cleaned plate back over to the incensed scoutmaster.
“Oh, and the food was all great, by the way,” he smirked. “Just thought you’d want to know.”
Minutes later, the portal inside the office materialized and the nine people who had been called all entered, with Hasselberry fuming at their head.
“Now, what is this all about?” he asked. “I demand to know who has been using the announcement system and calling meetings without my authorization. Whoever it is will certainly be in for a rude awakening about how procedures are meant to be followed and obeyed at this camp.”
From the other side of the room, with his sneakers up on the scoutmaster’s desk and glass of liquor in hand, Jack grinned and waved at the crowd.
“Hey, guys. What’s happening?”
“Jack?” Danny’s face lit up upon seeing his friend. “Oh, man. I’m glad you’re okay. Where have you been?”
“You better have a good reason for pulling this crap on me, Ferguson,” Chad said threateningly, tugging his red blazer over his broad and sweaty shoulders. “I was leading my calisthenics class. That those bums skipped out on.” He shot a poisonous look over at the Jackalopes.
“Oh, sorry we missed your morning hernia clinic, Chad,” said Leo.
“Sir, I resent Scott’s use of the word ‘we’,” Quentin spoke up, primly adjusting his glasses. “To think that I, as a responsible troop leader, would ever consider skipping out on such an important event as a fitness regimen, is utterly ridiculous.”
“Quentin, remind me, how many push-ups can you do?” Oliver grinned. “Like, one?”
“Nah,” said Leo. “He does negative push-ups. That’s when instead of doing a push-up, you sit down on the couch and have a beer instead.”
“Danny and I were just going over some calculations for some upgrades to my power gauntlet,” Lucas spoke up. “That work is highly sensitive. I really don’t like being interrupted.”
“I was in the middle of knitting a new scarf,” Tessa said, hands on the hips of her gym shorts, and raised an eyebrow at the couple of people who gave her weird looks. “What? I have a life, too. I’ve got hobbies. It helps me relax.”
“And I was doing—umm—other things,” Sam murmured, shifting his feet uncomfortably and doing his best not to look at Danny. “What’s the deal, Ferguson? I’ve got a Jamboree to get ready for. We all do.”
“And what, may I ask, is the deal with this?” Hasselberry bellowed, throwing up his hands. “Sitting in my chair? Drinking my 100-year-old scotch? That bottle was given to me by the head warlock of the Curse Removal division. It costs more than you’ll ever make as long as you’re alive, you slacker. Did you think I wouldn’t mind that?”
“I mean, maybe. But I know I didn’t mind. And I figured as long as one of us was reasonable about it—”
“Mr. Ferguson, I insist you tell us what all of this is for, or I will be forced to—” Crowley began, but Jack abruptly jumped up from his chair and leveled a serious stare at the assistant scoutmaster.
“Sit down, Slim Shady,” he said. “This is a crime scene. I’ve been working on the mystery of who’s trying to kill Scoutmaster Hasselberry, and everyone in this room is a suspect. Nobody’s going anywhere until I find out who did it. Speaking of, how do we know you didn’t do it? Everybody knows you want the scoutmaster’s job. Maybe this is just your sick, twisted way of getting it?”
Unaccustomed to Jack’s tone but accustomed to taking orders, Crowley did as he was told and sat without further comment.
“I think we’ve got another crime on our hands,” Leo snickered as he and Oliver laughed quietly, supporting each other to help them stand up. “Who calls their kid Meredith? Nice middle name, Danny.”
“Hey, shut up,” Danny whined. “It’s not funny. It was after my grandmother.”
That, of course, just made Leo and Oliver laugh harder. Hasselberry, meanwhile, was less than amused.
“You’d better have an answer for me, Mr. Ferguson,” he said. “Your time, and my patience, are both up. And I shouldn’t have to remind you of what happens if you fail.”
“Wait a minute,” said Tessa, her blue eyes widening. “Did you say all of us are suspects?”
“That’s right,” said Jack, folding his hands and pacing back and forth before them on the carpet. “I narrowed it down from everyone in camp to all of you. It took a lot of work, believe me.”
“How did the undercover stuff go, then?”
“Huh? Oh, right. Yeah, I was totally doing that. And other things.”
“Hold up, slacker,” Chad grunted. “How come you get to call the shots? How do we know you’re not the one who did it?”
“No, I considered that,” said Jack, shaking his head, setting his drink down and starting to pace back and forth. “But I don’t think so. Still, I promise I’ll be asking myself some pretty tough questions later on.”
“Yeah, right,” the Centaur Troop leader scoffed. “This is bogus. I’m out of here.”
He turned around and walked toward the portal runes on the wall, but ended up just giving a grunt of pain as he smacked right into the very solid wood.
“Not so fast, Chad,” said Jack, pointing his wand at the other scout and grinning. “You know what they always say. Methought he corrected—uhh—methanks he prosecuted—actually, I don’t remember exactly what it was. But basically it’s whoever complains the most is guilty.” His eyes narrowed. “Plus, I disabled the door so the guilty party couldn’t escape. Who would ever suspect the head of the scoutmaster’s favorite troop? You’re an ambitious guy. Maybe you just thought it could be another step up for you if he was out of the way.”
Everyone turned to look at Chad, who instantly went pale and began to shake.
“No, it wasn’t me,” he said. “I swear to God, I don’t know anything. Sir, please, don’t listen to him. I didn’t do it.”
“You’re right, Chad,” said Jack with a quick nod. “You didn’t do it. Whoever put this plan together would need actual brain cells.” He turned to Leo and Oliver. “And why assume there was just one bad guy? Why not a pair of partners in crime? After all, everyone knows that you two and the scoutmaster don’t get along.”
“Dude, whose side are you on?” Leo hissed. “We didn’t do it. You know that.”
“Truth and justice don’t have a side, buddy.”
“Oh, God,” Oliver groaned.
“But we also have to remember that the attempts on the scoutmaster’s life were made in several different places in camp,” Jack continued gesturing wildly as he moved. “So the person who did it would have to be quiet enough, and maybe small enough, to move around unnoticed. There’s only one person in this room who can take a bath in a bucket. Isn’t that right, Danny?”
He spun toward Danny, who made a face of alarm.
“What? Me? I’m not short.”
Seeing everyone else’s looks, he laughed nervously, shrinking down below the collar of his blazer.
“Oh, and I totally didn’t try to kill the scoutmaster. Yeah. That too.”
“Okay, Jack,” Tessa said, rolling her eyes before looking over at Jack expectantly. “Are you going to ask me any questions?”
“Nah,” the Jackalope said dismissively. “I ruled you out pretty much right away, Tessa.”
“What? Then why am I here?”
“I just thought you’d have fun watching me work. Sorry it’s kind of a group date, but still, I thought after I saved your life you might be more into that whole idea. What do you think?”
Tessa mouth worked silently as words completely failed her.
“Also, you’d need a cold, cunning, and calculated mind to pull off something like this, and to never have any second thoughts or regrets.” Jack changed his focus yet again. “Anything you want to share with us, Lucas?”
Lucas thought for a minute.
“No,” he said simply.
“Oh. Okay,” said Jack, disappointed. “Honestly, I was kind of hoping you’d give me the answers for tomorrow’s exam. Plus, show them the thing you found. You know, the landlines.”
“The what-lines?” Hasselberry growled, folding his arms and wrinkling his brow as he grew even more annoyed. “This is preposterous. Mr. Ferguson, you know as well as anyone there are no telephone communications in or out of Camp Prospero. I fail to see the point of any of this. I’m beginning to think you’re just deliberately wasting my time.”
“Actually, sir, he means leylines,” Lucas clarified, stepping up in front of the group and extending his arm. The filigree gauntlet of metal clamped onto it shifted and reshaped itself, forming a rough screen that a holographic projection sprang forth from: a miniature display of the campgrounds. “In my study of magic and its related physics, I did some reading about invisible lines of magical force that run all around us. It’s part of how wizards can draw their powers from the natural world.”
He jabbed a finger at the display, and a web of fine laser-like lines appeared overlaid on the camp map, with dots popping up at several different locations.
“As you can see, I made some calculations based on the locations of the previous attempts on the scoutmaster’s life, and they all sit directly along the leylines. Furthermore, my scans indicated they had all recently been tapped into and manipulated.”
“That’s why nobody can figure out who did it,” Sam said, nodding. “They were using the leylines instead of their own magic. But tapping into them would take some serious skill, and powerful magic. I’m not sure I could even do it.”
“There’s a first,” Danny muttered under his breath, and Sam bit his lip guiltily. Hasselberry, meanwhile, shook his head and scoffed.
“Yes, well, I knew all of that. But you still haven’t answered the question, Mr. Ferguson. Who is responsible? I want a name, now.”
“Okay,” said Jack, taking a moment to stroke the scruff on his chin before snapping his fingers. “I got it. How do we know you didn’t try to off yourself? That way, you could blame it on us and get Jackalope Troop expelled, just like you wanted.”
“But then I wouldn’t even be alive to enjoy it,” the scoutmaster protested. “That’s insane.”
Jack threw up his hands and shrugged.
“Yeah, I guess so. Oh, well. I tried. It was just a shot in the dark. Pretty cool one, though. But I have to admit, I’m starting to think it wasn’t any of us.”
“Really? You don’t say,” Hasselberry said, his voice dripping with derision. “What lead you to that brilliant feat of deduction?”
Jack pointed casually toward the window, where unearthly green flames were starting to lick at the glass.
“Oh, you know. Someone’s trying to kill us.”
All at once, the entire office shuddered as though coming apart at the seams. The display on Lucas’ wrist device lit up, beeping a frantic warning as the Sphinx scout’s eyebrows shot up.
“Oh, dear,” he said. “If I’m reading this data correctly, there’s another leyline directly under this office, and it’s being tapped into as we speak.”
“Hey, you mean someone’s trying to blow us up?” Leo asked. “That’s not very nice.”
“Yeah, dude,” Oliver agreed, joining most of the others in searching around the office for an exit and failing to find one. “How come you’re so calm about this, Jack? What’s with you?”
“Meh,” the other boy said, shrugging his shoulders. “I already almost got blown up a couple times this summer. I figure, been there, done that. I’m kind of over it.”
“Well I’m not,” Chad moaned, pounding on the wall with all his strength. “We’re trapped. Oh God, I’m going to die with a bunch of losers.”
“Hey—uhh—guys?” Danny asked. “I think I might have an idea. We could—”
“Shut up for a second, Danny,” said Leo. “Let the big boys talk here. Takes one to know one, Chad. I’m not too happy about dying in here with a total jerk, either, but you don’t see me calling people names.”
“You take that back, slacker,” Chad hissed, getting in Leo’s face and raising a fist.
“What are you going to do, Chad?” Oliver challenged him. “Beat us up right before we’re all incinerated? Good use of time, idiot.”
“Right,” said Danny, trying to raise his voice a bit this time. “So could we, like, stop arguing about how we’re going to die and do something? I was thinking maybe—”
“Ferguson, just reopen the portal,” Sam interrupted him, pulling out his wand as ribbons of energy began to crackle through the air around them. “Whatever spell you used, undo it, or we’re all going to be toast.”
“Okay, okay,” Jack sighed, taking his own wand out of his pocket and waving it. “Maybe if you all would stop freaking out, I could actually concentrate on the—” He trailed off as he poked his wand into the air several times, but nothing happened. Even the runes carved into the wand refused to light up, leaving it just a normal, not-at-all-special pencil. “Huh. That’s weird. It’s not working.”
“Come on, Jack, quit messing with us,” Tessa shouted over the noise as another minor earthquake shook the office. “Get us out of here.”
“I’m not, I swear.” Jack frowned as he clenched his other fist and tried to summon up another spell, to no effect. “I can’t even use my water magic. You know, I feel like this happens to me a lot.”
“I think that may have to do with the leyline activity,” Lucas noted clinically, consulting his readings again. “The eruption of energy is causing a disruption field that’s negating your magic. Unfortunately, it appears the disturbance will reach critical mass in less than 60 seconds.”
“Gee, thanks for the update Mr. Robot,” Quentin grunted, pulling his leg back and trying repeatedly to kick a hole through the wall. “I’m so glad we have you around to tell us these things. Feel like maybe helping me out here?”
“He’s right,” Sam said, shoving his wand through his belt and scowling. “My spells aren’t working, either.”
“So, you guys can’t get it up, huh?” Leo laughed and exchanged a high-five with Oliver. “See what I did there?”
“Sure did, man. I figure that’s a good enough joke to go out on.”
“You two are a lot of help.” Sam threw his hands up in frustration. “Figures. I’m going to die because you thought it would be fun to play detective, Ferguson. I’ve so had it with you and the rest of your moron friends screwing us all over every chance you get. Do you ever think about anyone other than yourselves?”
“Shut up, Sam,” Tessa snapped, jabbing a finger into his chest. “Quit ragging on Jack. He didn’t know this would happen. Maybe if you’d stop blaming everyone but yourself for a minute we could all come up with something instead of just bickering about it.”
“Guys, seriously,” Danny shouted, his face starting to turn red, and not just from the heat. “I think I might have an idea for—”
“Be quiet, Mr. Falco!” Hasselberry rumbled. “This is your fault, Mr. Ferguson. You are the root of all of this. If it wasn’t for your utter incompetence and lack of foresight, we would never have been put in this compromising situation in the first place. Not only have you failed to uphold your end of our agreement, but you’ve ensured that I suffer the worst of all possible fates: to die in the company of subordinates. If there is a life after death, I swear on Merlin’s grave that yours will be the shortest in the history of eternity after I kill you a second time!”
But before anyone else could make another move, Danny stomped his foot on the ground hard as sudden and unfettered rage bubbled up inside him.
“God damn it,” he shouted, clenching his fists and gritting his teeth. “Quit ignoring me!”
Just as the air inside the office grew brighter than the sun and began to hum with power, a wall of rock punched through the wooden floor from all sides, enveloping the scouts and their superiors in a cocoon of earth. The entire treehouse-like structure exploded in a ball of brilliant greenish-blue fire, the charred and smoking remnants pelting down from the air as the tree it had sat it tipped over and fell to the ground with a crash. In its place, only a thirty-foot tall pyre of rock stood now, its outer shell blackened but otherwise completely structurally sound.
In the pitch darkness inside, there was a clamor of voices and shouts of pain as people bumped into each other. Finally, Sam managed to whisper a minor invocation, and a light appeared on the tip of his wand, filling the space with enough glow that everyone could finally see themselves again.
“Okay,” said Leo, blinking in surprise. “Not that I’m not happy to be alive or anything, but what just happened?”
“No clue,” Quentin breathed, leaning on the rock wall around them to steady himself and breathing a sigh of relief. “I thought we were goners for sure. Are we sure we’re not dead? Nothing personal, but stuck in a small, confined space with you guys forever is kind of what I always dreaded hell would be like.”
“Perhaps there’s something we can agree on after all, Mr. Townsend,” Hasselberry growled, casting a baleful look at him.
Jack, on the other hand, stepped over to support Danny, who was standing in the middle of the circle bent over and panting with exertion.
“Hey, buddy. Did you do this?”
“I don’t know,” Danny managed to stammer out, sweat pouring down his face. “I just got really angry, and I felt that tingly feeling like I used to with magic, and then this happened.”
“Sweet. Guess this means you’re not a water mage after all.”
“Quite,” Lucas agreed. “From that height, and with the disturbance in the leylines, that really was an impressive display, Danny.”
“I think that’s the human calculator’s way of saying thanks,” Oliver chuckled, slapping Danny on the back so hard it nearly made the younger boy fall over. “Earth mage, huh? Welcome to the team, buddy.”
“Yeah,” Danny mumbled, his eyes rolling back in his head as he collapsed into Jack’s arms. “It was nothing. Okay, I’m lying. I’m going to pass out now.”
“How about that?” Tessa observed, shooting Sam a significant look. “Your little brother saved all of us, Sam. Not such a screw-up now, is he?”
Sam didn’t make a move toward Danny as the others all gathered around him, but looked a this brother with a mix of concern, guilt, and perhaps a newfound surprise and respect.
“No,” he said, barely audible to anyone but himself. “Not so much.”
“All right, then,” Hasselberry growled, pulling his wand out from its holster under his shoulder and raising his hands. “I’ve had just about enough of this. Enjoy your momentary reprieve, you slackers, because soon I’ll be making sure you curse the day you walked into my camp.”
He barked the words to a spell, and boxy runic patterns appeared around his hands as his wand lit up and cracks began to appear in the earth shell around the group. Sunlight pierced through as the rock crumbled and fell away, and Hasselberry lowered his hands as the column they were standing on sank with a rumble back toward the ground. A few scattered scouts watched the whole thing in slack-jawed amazement as the scoutmaster stepped onto the truly solid earth again and surveyed the wreckage that was once his office.
“No. This will not do at all,” he seethed. “Mr. Ferguson, you and your confederates have failed to produce the culprit behind these heinous acts, as I ordered. Worst of all, you ruined a priceless personal sanctuary that has given me great joy over the years I’ve served here—anytime I didn’t have to deal with you deplorable scouts. I therefore have no choice—and tremendous pleasure, let me assure you—to charge the members of Jackalope Troop with these attempts to sabotage my leadership and end my existence.”
Most of the group erupted into protest, with Leo, Oliver, and Jack all dropping the unconscious Danny onto the ground to throw up their hands and shake their fists. Even Crowley showed a bit of consternation as he wrung his hands at Hasselberry’s side.
“Sir, they did prevent us from being atomized,” he whispered. “Perhaps that should count for some small bit of leniency.”
“Yeah, what he said,” Leo added. “What are you doing, man? All of us were there. Jack proved we weren’t the ones doing this.”
“I can’t believe I’m agreeing with Crowley, dude, but you can’t hang us out to dry now,” Oliver said.
“I can and most certainly will, Mr. Mack,” the scoutmaster sneered. “I may have stared into the face of death itself today—a death that would have been completely the fault of you Jackalopes—but if anything, it has only deepened my resolve. Mr. Ferguson, you failed to live up to your side of the agreement. You’ve presented me with no culprit, and caused massive damage of government property to boot.”
“Oh, yeah, Hasselberry?” Leo shot back, raising a fist. “You’re government property, too. How much will it add to the tab if I break your face?”
He was restrained, struggling and cursing, by Lucas, Oliver, and Quentin as Hasselberry gently chided him.
“Words are the weapons of the weak, Mr. Scott. Who better than an empty-headed loudmouth like you would understand that? I, on the other hand, prefer actions. I’ll see you all at the court-martial, you slacker slime. Best have your bags packed before you show up. If I’m in a good mood, I might even let you go back and get them before you’re thrown out of my camp. Crowley, Fordman, and Falco, you’re with me. Move out.”
He gave the Jackalopes his best and most victorious smile as he turned and strode off across the compound, with his assistant, Chad, and Sam close behind, though Sam hesitated for a moment, looking back at his brother once again with a long and regretful sigh.
In his wake, the group of scouts sat once again in silence as they absorbed the latest bit of news.
“Well, there it is,” said Quentin, sounding as vacant as he looked as he sank to sit on the charred grass. “That’s it. Game over. We’re history. And I really thought I was actually going to make it out of here this time, too.”
“No way,” said Tessa, shaking her head and setting her jaw firmly. “I’m going to talk to them. You guys saved all of us, and it wasn’t your fault. They can’t kick you out now. I’m sorry, Jack. Just hang in there.”
“Huh?” Jack asked, jolted out of his far-away look of contemplation as the Centaur girl ran off. “Oh, sure. Thanks. Later, Tessa.”
“Hey, man,” Oliver said, putting a hand on his shoulder. “You okay? Don’t worry, we’re not going to get expelled. Me and Leo have a plan.”
“Sure do,” Leo said through gritted teeth. “And then we’ve even got a backup plan that doesn’t involve us actually trying to murder that scumbag in his sleep. Seriously, for a guy who’s too clueless to tell which end of his wand is dangerous, how come he always manages to shoot us right in the foot?”
“You said it,” Oliver muttered. “Good to know that even a near-death experience doesn’t make Hasselberry any less of a jockstrap.”
“Sounds cool,” Jack said, still in zoning out. “I was just thinking. If it wasn’t any of us, who could’ve been messing around with leylines? Okay. It must have been someone pretty powerful, and good with magic. Maybe with the kind of training only big money can buy. Plus, it would have to be someone who hates Hasselberry even more than us. But then—”
He paused, thinking hard on it, as Lucas toyed with his goggles and wrist device and cocked his head expectantly.
“Then what? Do you have any hypotheses, Jack?”
But Jack only shrugged and shook his head.
“Nah. Forget it. Never mind.”
Several yards away from the remnants of the tree and office, a dark and brooding Drake Masterson emerged from behind a supply tent. Shoving his wand back into its holster with a shaking hand and breathing hard with exertion, he glanced around to make sure no one was watching as he quickly darted away from the crime scene.
Check out Kyle Robertson’s new novel, Camp Ferguson, available online now at Amazon.com and via Kindle devices!