by Mel Gilden
Chapter 1: Reed Gladstone, Agent of MANTICORE
When Reed Gladstone's parents decided that he spent too much time inside playing with his XDepot game, "Martin Trent: Agent of MANTICORE," they signed him up for a few weeks at Camp Judson Steel, a fancy co-ed summer camp in the mountains.
"It'll be good for you," his mother had said. She was a clinical psychologist and knew these things. She thought so, anyway.
Reed wasn't so sure. As a matter of fact, he wasn't sure at all. His parents were often busy with their own lives, and it was a rare evening when all three of them had dinner together. Now it looked to Reed as if they were trying to get rid of him, at least for the few weeks he'd be at camp.
Reed's parents had obviously gotten the summer camp bug from Butch's parents. Reed anticipated nothing but trouble in the weeks ahead, but unless he ran away from home or handcuffed himself to the piano in the living room, he couldn't see any way to avoid it.
"I don't think it will be good for me," Reed said. "You told me yourself that Butch Fitch will be there. He hates me, and I don't think much of him either."
"You need to give him a chance," his mother, the shrink, said.
"How much of a chance does he need?" Reed asked. "I've known him since I was three."
He had learned to be philosophical about Butch's activities, but that didn't mean he enjoyed them.
"All I have to show for Butch's chances is the bruise on my arm where he likes to punch me."
"We've seen it," Mr. Gladstone said, getting a little huffy. "Leave it alone and it will go away."
"That's not the point, Dad. I want Butch to go away."
Mrs. Gladstone shook her head. "Going to Camp Judson Steel could be your opportunity to become great friends with him."
"If I live that long. You don't have to send me away if you want to be alone. Why don't you just lock me in my room for a few weeks?"
That ended the discussion.
Reed's parents tried to jolly him along on the drive to the airport, assuring him that he would have a wonderful time, and that he needed to be a better friend to Butch—just the sort of things desperate parents always said.
Mr. Gladstone gave him a going away present as a peace offering. It was a book he had found in the 25¢ bin of a used book store, and thought Reed would really like—or so he said. It was called Your GHOST in Peace and War! and was written by Elvira Eustis Abercrombie.
Reed had heard of GHOST, the General Headquarters of Special Tasks. His father said it was an organization of expensive rent-a-cops, but Reed wasn't so sure. Its hulking black windowless headquarters was a sinister 20 story presence downtown. Reed imagined that MANTICORE must have a headquarters that was a lot like it.
"Awesome, Dad. Thanks," Reed said, actually pretty pleased. He had not expected such a cool gift from his parents, whose presents generally ran to socks and underwear.
Who knew what sort of secrets such a book might contain?
At the airport, Mr. Gladstone dropped Reed and his mother at the curb, then drove off to drive around the parking lot (much cheaper than actually parking) while Reed's mother got him checked in with a pretty lady dressed in the uniform of the small local airline Reed was to fly on.
The two women ignored Reed while they talked for a few minutes about the arrangements that had been made for Reed's comfort and safety. He might as well have been invisible, which Reed thought was actually pretty cool. He considered just sneaking away, but decided the fallout from such an action might be more trouble than it was worth.
At last Mrs. Gladstone seemed satisfied. She signed an electronic tablet presented by the airline lady, kissed Reed on the forehead, and strode out of the terminal holding a tissue to her nose.
"Shall we go?" the airline lady asked.
Reed shrugged. He knew a rhetorical question when he heard one.
"Come on," she said and gave him a thousand kilowatt smile. "You don't want to be late for your flight."
Says you, Reed thought as they walked off together.
The airline lady got Reed quickly through airport security, which was pretty cool: something Martin Trent might manage—and a moment later they were hurrying along the concourse past a line of gates to the one where he would board the plane for the little mountain town of Zircon, where he would pick up the bus that would take him to Camp Judson Steel.
At their gate, the first airline lady introduced him to another airline lady. This one was older and plumper, and had lots of curly red hair. She was sitting in one of the waiting area chairs with a magazine in her lap. The first airline lady introduced her to Reed, shook hands with him as if he were an adult, and hurried away.
"Have a seat," the plump airline lady said. "Take a load off."
When Reed sat down next to her, she smiled at him, making her eyes crinkle, and she handed him a white cardboard box.
"You can eat this any time you want," she informed him, "but you'll have to be finished before you get on the plane." She looked at a tiny watch on her wrist. "Maybe fifteen minutes."
"What is it?" Reed asked as he took the box and looked at it suspiciously. It could be anything from a dozen bars of soap to a surprise bomb from FERRET, MANTICORE's mortal enemy.
"Turkey," she said, and then frowned. "I think."
"Okay," Reed said.
He sat down and shoved Your GHOST in Peace and War! by Elvira Eustis Abercrombie down into his carry-on luggage between his feet. He was eager to look at the book his father had purchased, but he was hungry too.
Knowing they wouldn't allow him to eat on the plane, he opted for food. The box contained a sandwich which seemed to be mostly turkey, a bag of potato chips, and an apple. It was okay, about what one might expect from a meal delivered in a cardboard box.
At last Reed's flight was ready to depart. The plump airline lady went to speak to a pretty flight attendant. It was obvious they were talking about him. At last the airline lady left, and the flight attendant escorted him aboard the small airplane before anybody else. She settled him into a seat near the center of the plane.
Reed noticed that he was surrounded by agents of FERRET. The big man in the loud sport coat who sat two rows up always smiled even when there was nothing to smile about, and he was reading a magazine written in some language other than English. Reed didn't even recognize the letters.
The family behind him made Reed suspicious, too. Reed didn't know what the woman carried in the baby blankets, but he didn't think it was a baby. Even after they had been flying for half an hour, the kid never made a sound. It wasn't natural.
Now that he had time, Reed eagerly inspected the book his father had given him. Immediately he had second thoughts about what an awesome and cool gift it was.
Figures, he thought.
The book looked as if it had been knocked around quite a bit, and according to the copyright page it had been published many years before Reed was born. The pictures in it were paintings in muddy colors that showed kids from an earlier era—the boys wore shorts and ties even when they were just hacking around, and the girls always looked as if they were ready for a birthday party. The type was big, and there wasn't much of it on any page.
Apparently the book was for little kids. In it Bob and Susan, the main characters, went on a tour of the GHOST Building. That still looked the same, anyway.
Mr. Smith, an alias if Reed ever heard one, showed Bob and Susan around. The kids got very excited about everything they saw in the GHOST Building—even the organizational flow chart that illustrated who was who's boss. Reed yawned.
He read the whole book twice, hoping he'd missed something, but he hadn't. The pictures and agent adventures seemed pretty tame, and he felt that the absence of a discussion of the big black headquarters building was a real defect.
It was pretty obvious that his father had been right: GHOST was just a bunch of rent-a-cops.
And the flight attendant kept interrogating him, obviously speaking in code.
"Pretzels or nuts?" she asked. "Would you like something to drink?" she asked another time.
She wanted answers, but Reed refused to tell her anything. "Under torture," he said, "I tend to scream a great deal and reveal nothing."
"Excuse me, sir?" she said, looking genuinely puzzled. She was good. She was very good.
"Root beer," Reed said. "In a dirty glass with a human hair in it."
He was one tough dude, all right.
She smiled, pretending that Reed's demand was a joke.
"Plastic okay?" she asked, and gave him a plastic cup full of ice and a fizzy dark brown liquid. It could have been root beer, Reed supposed. It tasted like root beer.
Darn clever, these FERRET agents.
The flight to Zircon took about an hour, and it was bumpier than any ride he'd ever had on a jet. He didn't think they were going to crash, but he had to concentrate on keeping down the box lunch he'd eaten at the airport. Slowly sipping the root beer helped. He didn't need the barf bag, but he kept it handy.
The country below him became mountainous and it was covered with pine trees. The occasional lake shone like a mirror. Roads wound through the countryside like brown threads.
After the pilot announced that they would be landing in ten minutes, the big man walked unsteadily up the aisle—probably heading for the tiny bathroom at the back of the plane.
Would he do what most other people did in there, or did he have a more sinister purpose?
He stopped at Reed's seat and played with his red bow tie. The red tie clashed badly with the pink in his sport coat, making the pattern in the coat seem to vibrate. He couldn't be a good guy, Reed thought. All good guys were snappy dressers.
"Hiya, sport," the big man said. "Traveling alone?"
"I'm being met at the airport in Zircon," Reed assured him. He wanted the big man to know that somebody would notice if he went missing.
"Sure you are, sport. Sure." The man laughed and continued his journey to the bathroom. Later, when he came out of the bathroom he spoke briefly to the flight attendant in whispers. She nodded. Reed had a bad feeling about this.
Chapter 2: Cookie
At last the plane touched down at a tiny airport—really no more than a big concrete field with a building at one end and a lot of private planes parked along the opposite edge. The wheels of Reed's plane squeaked as it slowed to a stop in front of the building, and two members of the ground crew rolled a stairway to the door. Reed chuckled as he escaped from the plane with his life.
He had foiled FERRET again!
With his carry-on bag over one shoulder on a strap, Reed followed the other passengers into the terminal building. (It occurred to him that "terminal" was a bad word for spies on dangerous missions.) The large waiting room was nearly empty except for the shifty characters he'd arrived with.
A slim young woman with dark hair, wearing a work shirt and tight jeans over cowboy boots approached Reed. She was holding a big sign that said CAMP JUDSON STEEL
"Camp?" she asked. Her sweet face was full of intelligence and good will. All in all, she looked like a movie star, or a model in a make-up advertisement—and she was certainly too old to be a camper. Though she was a girl, Reed liked her immediately.
With a shock, Reed returned to the real world. The big guy in the loud sport coat was just some traveling salesman. The family with the baby that never cried was just that.
The flight attendant waved and smiled at him as she passed and went into the airline office.
Suddenly he was just some kid on his way to summer camp.
"Yes," Reed said.
"Big yellow bus right outside," the woman said. "Do you have all your stuff?"
"Not yet," Reed said.
Before retrieving his luggage, Reed went to the bathroom. Who knew when he'd have a chance again?
On the way out of the bathroom, he glanced sideways at himself in the mirror.
Suddenly, he turned and with one hand outstretched for balance, raised his other hand as if it were a pistol and fired at his mirror image. Blam! He looked pretty good. He was ready for FERRET. But was he ready for Butch Fitch?
A man in a blue running suit—an agent of FERRET or just some guy who liked to run?—came into the bathroom and seemed astonished to see Reed with his hand still upraised in the BLAM position.
Reed hurried from the bathroom and went to find his luggage.
Much to his relief, his suitcase was on the cart someone had brought in. He pulled it free from the other luggage, nodded at the pretty woman in the plaid shirt, and walked out to the street where he boarded the big yellow bus.
A thin guy in a red lumberjack shirt was sitting in the driver's seat sort of whittling at his left thumb with a pen knife. He nodded to Reed as he clambered aboard.
A few seats were taken by fairly normal-looking kids, each one sitting alone except for a couple of pretty dark-haired girls who giggled together in back.
Reed sat down on one of the long empty seats with his carry-on on his lap, and managed to slide his suitcase underneath. Behind him, the two girls were engaged in conversation about the cute guys they'd seen at the various airports they'd been through that day.
As Martin Trent, agent of MANTICORE often said, the girls were getting on his last nerve. Girls usually did. If this was what camp was going to be like, Reed was sure that by the end of summer even his last nerve would be worn to a frazzle.
Outside the window, life—or what passed for life at the Zircon Airport—continued. Across the street was a big field planted in some bushy green shrub. Part of the field was being watered by a sprinkler system while a man drove a tractor down a dirt road that ran along one side of it. A forest of tall trees began beyond the field. Reed hoped this wasn't beautiful downtown Zircon.
Reed heard another plane land—he couldn't see it because the terminal building was in the way—and soon two more campers climbed onto the bus. Both of the boys had buzz cuts, and were dressed in what looked like brown and green camouflage pajamas. Instead of a suitcase, each of them carried a long green bag almost as big as he was. They looked as if they'd stepped off a Marine recruiting poster.
Great. Reed felt much safer now.
The two sat together near the back of the bus, causing hysterical delight on the part of the two girls. The two boys took no notice.
By ones and twos the bus filled with boys and girls, and soon Reed was sitting next to one of the few empty seats. There was a low murmur of conversation among the kids who had arrived together, and some of the strangers were getting acquainted. The two girls in back were on a low boil, giggling only occasionally.
At last the pretty woman with the CAMP sign got onto the bus.
"This bus is going to Camp Judson Steel," she said. "If you're going somewhere else, you're on the wrong bus."
This received a few chuckles, but nobody got off.
"Okay, Charlie. Take it away."
The driver pulled the door closed using a handle on a complicated series of levers. A moment later the engine roared, he let down the parking brake with his right hand, and they were booming down a two-lane highway.
The pretty lady strolled up the aisle, and though the seat next to Reed was one of the few available, he was still surprised when she actually sat down next to him and smiled. He smiled back while he noticed that her dark hair was gathered into a ponytail that dangled to the bottom of her neck.
Girls with ponytails weren't so bad.
Ordinarily, Reed would have been too nervous to speak to an older girl who was a stranger, but this day was different. She did not know him. Nobody here did. For all she knew, he might be a close personal friend of Martin Trent of MANTICORE, a guy who could handle a twerp like Butch Fitch with one hand while holding a cold drink in the other. He would be bold and resolute.
Yes, he would talk to this girl.
"Hi," Reed said.
"Hi," the woman said. "My name is Betty Saltman, but everybody calls me Cookie."
"That's a nice name," Reed said, wondering how someone who was nearly an adult could stand being called by such a silly name. "My name is Reed Gladstone."
"Gladstone? Like the Prime Minister of England?"
Reed admitted that it was.
"I'm supposed to be a great-great grand-nephew or something." He did not tell her that his middle name was Ewart, like William Ewart Gladstone, who had been Prime Minister of Great Britain late in the nineteenth century. He hated that name.
Sometimes it seemed as if his parents had a streak of cruel and weird humor.
Reed noticed that Cookie smelled really good—not like perfume, but just clean. Was that her natural smell, or did she use some kind of really great girl soap?
"Cool," she said. "Is this your first time at Camp Judson Steel?"
"Yes it is. What about you?" Gee, he was slick.
"This is my second summer. I'm supposed to make sure everybody who is going to camp gets on the bus. Once we get there, I'll be in charge of the kitchen."
"Among other things."
Reed relaxed into his seat. If Butch let him live, this summer might not be so bad after all. Meeting Cookie was a good sign.
A lot of the kids took video games from their packs, and played them instead of looking out the window.
The MANTICORE game was popular that summer, and Reed could tell by the dialog and electronic noises that that was the game some of the kids were playing. Reed liked video games himself—the MANTICORE game in particular, of course—but there was a time for everything.
This was a time for collecting new experiences.
They traveled for a few minutes before they struck downtown Zircon, which consisted mostly of individual small businesses. Apparently no one here had ever heard of shopping malls.
The town wasn't exactly deserted—people were walking up and down Main Street—but there were no real crowds anywhere. The Hotel Zircon was the biggest building in town—five stories with a front designed to look as if it had been built for a western movie.
All in all, Zircon was a sleepy little place—a city out of time, the present time, anyway. If he lived here, Reed figured he would be bored crazy in a week.
The bus slowed at a flashing red light at what must have been the center of town, and moments later they were out the other side, suddenly driving along another two-lane highway through a dark thick forest.
It looked like the kind of place where jabberwocks roamed or witches who lived in houses made by Sara Lee waited for lost little kids. The engine groaned as the bus negotiated the winding road, snaking around switchback after switchback, rising higher into the mountains.
While staring out the window, Reed could not help thinking about Butch, his fears growing stronger as they traveled.
Though he did not believe it likely, hope lived in him that Butch had missed his flight, or perhaps that Mr. and Mrs. Fitch had decided to chain him up in the backyard for the summer.
Reed kept telling himself he could handle anything that happened, that everything would be all right.
Unless Dr. Big somehow got involved. Dr. Big always meant trouble, and he was as invincible as he was unpredictable.
Dr. Big was an old family joke, no more real than Martin Trent. Reed had been two or three years old when he first blamed Dr. Big for a missing sock.
Over the years Dr. Big had taken the rap for broken shoelaces, slippery spots on the floor, and peanut butter sandwiches dropped peanut-butter-side down.
"What are you mumbling about?" Cookie asked pleasantly.
"Nothing," Reed said. "What do you think of this forest? Pretty spooky, huh?"
"It's not so bad," Cookie said. "You'll have a chance to hike through it, if you want."
A moment later she pointed out the window at a small parking lot at the edge of the road.
"That's Dead Man's Lookout, the highest point on the road. It means we're almost at the camp."
They passed the viewpoint quickly and a few miles later the bus pulled up to a building that looked like a two-story log cabin. A porch went all around the second floor like the brim of a hat.
There was more traffic here than there had been at the airport or any place in town. Three other buses nosed in among the dozens of cars that were parked every which way in front of the log building. Adults and children were unloading bags and suitcases, hugging, saying good-bye. Some kids were even crying—parents, too. It was quite a zoo.
"Who invited all these people?" Reed commented, and was delighted when Cookie laughed.
The bus jerked to a stop when the driver yanked back on the hand brake and flung the door open. Cookie got to her feet and turned to the passengers.
"Okay," she cried. "End of the line. Everybody out. Head for the administration building. You'll be okay."
The noise of people and automobiles entered the bus as the bus's passengers, each burdened with baggage, descended to the ground. Soon the bus was empty except for the driver, Cookie, and Reed.
"See you," Cookie said and she ran off so quickly that Reed thought he might have offended her in some way. He shrugged. Martin Trent of MANTICORE wouldn't worry about stuff like that, and neither would he. Besides, he had other concerns at the moment.
Chapter 3: Trouble as Usual
Reed followed the crowd of kids into the administration building, where he checked in at a horseshoe-shaped desk behind which a number of adults who might have been in college waited with clipboards.
A pimply-faced boy (last name E through G) gave Reed a cabin assignment, a map, and an invitation to something called a mixer, which would be held in Morganthal Hall that evening after dinner.
Reed emerged from the other side of the log building into bright sunshine. Before him was a big dirt field that extended to hills on two sides. Against one of the hills was a big construction project surrounded by a chain-link fence. Whatever it was would be built part way into the hill. Straight before him, cabins were scattered across the hillside among the trees.
He was in Cabin 27.
A scrawny boy with red hair was concentrating so hard on his cell phone that he nearly bumped into Reed.
"I'm suffocating here," the kid said. "I haven't had a text message since I arrived, and I'm not getting a signal."
A tall boy who seemed to be all knees and elbows walked up to them and said pretty much the same thing. They walked away engaged in a technical discussion of what might be causing their problem.
Reed took out his cell phone and saw that the campers were right—there was no signal at all. He'd never been so cut off from everything he knew. The idea of being without any way to communicate with the outside world was kind of scary and it brought on the pressure in his chest that meant an asthma attack was starting.
Reed attempted to distract himself by turning his map so he and it were facing in the same direction and began marching across the field toward the cabins.
Suddenly he was jumped from behind.
Reed whirled to confront Butch, who was now pounding him on the arm. Then he got Reed's head under his arm and gave him a good long noogie. All the while Butch laughed.
Reed struggled, but without effect. Apparently, just being a friend of Cookie's was not enough to insure an amusing summer.
At last Butch let him go and backed away to join a few other boys, all of whom were having a good laugh at Reed's expense. Other kids wandered past them, shaking their cell phones or concentrating on their maps.
"I see you made it okay," Reed said.
"What did I tell you?" Butch said to his new admirers. "Reed is always polite. He's a good boy. Maybe that's why his mother calls him Button."
"Button!" one of the boys cried. All of them laughed and repeated the word again.
Reed figured his nickname would be all over the camp by sundown. Knowing that the more he protested, the more the name would be used, he decided he'd just have to live with it.
"Enjoy your little victories while you can, Butch."
Reed had no idea what that meant, but he hoped it sounded threatening.
Butch lifted his fists, and Reed took a step back, making them all laugh again.
They all looked up at the speaker. It was a woman dressed in a drab outfit and clunky old-lady shoes. Her salt-and-pepper hair was drawn into a neat bun, like a fist at the back of her head. She had a square jaw, and cruel slits for eyes. She stood on the porch at the back of the administration building, the side that faced the big field and the cabins.
At the moment, one hand rested on a telescope that stood on a tripod set up next to her.
"Yes, ma'am?" Butch said.
Reed had a lot of respect for any woman who could get Butch to call her "ma'am." She was nobody to mess around with.
"Come up here immediately, Mr. Fitch. Through the entry hall of the administration building and up the stairs. Camp Commandant's office. I'll be waiting for you."
"What does she want?" one of the boys asked.
"Who knows?" Butch said offhandedly. "She probably wants some advice on how to run the camp."
"And how does she know who you are?" another boy asked.
Butch frowned and an expression of worry crossed his face.
"Mr. Fitch," the woman called again in her flat, cold voice.
"I'm not through with you yet, Button," Butch said to Reed, and ran toward the administration building.
Without another word the woman went back inside.
The others laughed as they scattered, leaving Reed to stare up at the telescope on the porch. Butch's new friends, as goofy as they obviously were, had asked some good questions.
But so what? Unless the woman was chewing Butch out for bullying another camper, their meeting seemed to have nothing to do with him.
He turned toward the hillside and searched for the path to Cabin 27.