by Ed Harley
Author’s note: Arthur Liggett, the occasionally heroic star of The Not so Secret Agent is back, starring in a newly declassified adventure that takes place early in his second year as a Danubian criminal.
Experience the excitement as Arthur performs manual labor in a national park! See his struggles with disgruntled rangers, needy campers, drunken Frenchmen and angry horses! Awkward conversations, embarrassing failures and devious plots unfold as epic mysteries are revealed!
Arthur vs. Authority is not a sequel or a prequel; it's a side adventure that fits in chronologically between chapters 10 and 11 of The Not so Secret Agent. And just to be difficult, I wrote this story in reverse, with chapter one occurring after chapter two and so on.
It should be noted that EC is the sole creator and reigning monarch of Danubia; I just hold a small lease in the eastern provinces of his fascinating country.
Chapter One: Arthur vs. Authority
[One morning in July, 1993]
Ranger Miksutivosk ducked his tall frame and stepped out on his porch. He let the screen door slam shut behind him, not caring if he woke his daughter or not.
This was his place. The park's facilities were the finest in the Duchy and he was in charge of it all. It had taken twenty years of service to rise to the top; and now a scandal threatened to take it all back. He needed someone to blame.
The ranger leaned over the rail and spit on the grass; then his eyes were drawn to a long metal- topped building on the far hillside. Horse pens surrounded it on two sides and thick hedges along the east and south. It was the campground's stables; residence of twenty-three horses and one devious foreign criminal.
* * *
Criminal # 88588 was the prime suspect and the only suspect. At first light Ranger Miksutivosk and two maintenance workers entered his small dark room for a full inspection.
Somehow, the ranger just knew this criminal had gotten out and caused the disturbance that had disgraced him so badly… but how? One of the staff had opened the door to his quarters not two minutes after the sirens first sounded and he found the criminal sitting right there on his cot.
The door to Criminal # 88588's quarters had been locked from the outside and the little square room was windowless with thick walls; but Ranger Miksutivosk knew this was not a normal criminal; this was the convicted American spy: Liggett.
Arthur stood aside as the angry ranger and his two underlings entered his room with lights, a pry bar, pick and shovels. They searched his empty buckets; looked inside his orange work boots, and rummaged through the small box of personal items he was allowed.
The ranger that Arthur thought of as 'Hook' scanned suspiciously through Arthur's notebook as if he could read English. They went as far as prying the plastic stoppers out of the ends of his cot's aluminum frame in search of contraband.
They prodded and probed the cracked but thick and solid masonry walls then they started digging. Using pick and shovel they excavated holes in the floor looking for tunnels or hidden objects. They dug down a half a meter beneath where his cot used to sit, found nothing, then moved over some and tried again, and again found nothing; then Hook thought of something. The ranger left the room.
The two handymen leaned on their shovels and waited for the boss to return. They had the same shade of dark brown hair cut short and parted the same way, they talked alike, did the same maintenance job; it was hard for Arthur to keep them straight.
They were about Arthur's age; he saw them around the camp pretty often, sometimes working under their direction mowing grass, or doing repairs to the park's older buildings. They would talk to him some, especially if he acted interested in their favorite pastime.
“So," Arthur asked, "who won the game yesterday?" He hadn't been surprised at all to find a soccer field at the campground; Danubian men and boys were nuts about soccer. The staff would meet three days a week for a game after supper, usually going staff vs. campers.
“We did fairly well." The young man spoke with practiced restraint.
“Oh, come on, you're so modest, you guys really crushed your opponents last time I watched; I thought the other team was going to cry!" A few months earlier Arthur learned that Danubians aren't supposed to brag about victories and he had been trying to get them to ever since.
“Well, we were very fortunate to win," the Danubian shifted uncomfortably. "But we play for the enjoyment of the game and the spirit of competition not to... uh crush the other team."
"But that game wasn't very competitive, was it? You guys dominated; it must have been fun to break your opponent's spirit as the crowd cheered."
“Well, we uh..."
The conversation ceased as Hook came stomping back into the building; he carried a long metal device in his hands and gave Criminal # 88588 a superior look.
Ah-Ha! A metal detector, thought Hook. Bet you didn't think of that.
You've clearly underestimated my paranoia, thought Arthur.
The same scene played out again and again. The device beeped, frenzied digging commenced, and they found a rusty nail, bolt, or piece of wire. After digging holes at five different locations they stopped.
"Ranger Miksutivosk," Arthur asked with a dangerous amount of sarcasm in his voice. "Did you lose something? Perhaps if you told me what it is you're looking for I..."
Hook snapped: “Kneel and be silent!"
Arthur was kind of glad he had his face in the dirt; it was getting awfully hard not to laugh.
Hook still wasn't finished though; he noticed the triangular metal vent four meters above Arthur's cot. He had Arthur and the two underlings follow him outside. Hook demanded that one of the maintenance crew hurry off to fetch a ladder.
The young handyman, who was getting pretty annoyed by this point, climbed four meters high and looked the vent over.
He tugged on it. "Sir, Criminal # 88588 couldn't have gotten out this way, it's nailed on from the outside."
Hook fumed and stomped off; and Arthur went to see what was for breakfast. He was pleased; it was a hot barley cereal served with butter, a loaf of pan-fried bread, and some excellent black currant jelly- a fine breakfast for a hero or a victorious villain, either one.
* * *
[Four hours earlier]
Arthur sat on his cot and waited. His pulse thumped from both excitement and exertion. On the other side of the door, horses stomped about in their stalls; they were agitated from being awakened in the middle of the night.
Outside, a door slammed shut, startled voices cried out, a dog barked, and someone threw open the gate at the far end of the stables. Light shined under the door to the square windowless room and across Arthur's toes, keys rattled, a padlock snapped open and the latch folded back.
The youngest ranger opened the door and shined his flashlight in Arthur's face. His light roamed quickly about the small square room, searching canvas cot, masonry walls, sawdust floor, rafters five meters above and a cardboard box of Criminal # 88588's personal possessions.
Arthur appeared concerned. "Sir, is there a fire?"
The light was in Arthur's face again. "I don't know... get your boots on."
Arthur figured it was between one and two o'clock in the morning. The campground and park offices were lit up brightly by emergency lighting set on five-meter-high poles. Arthur followed the ranger down the main road toward the pavilion.
Most of the campers had gotten up. They stood half-dressed, sleepy headed and confused; shining flashlights around, talking rapidly, trying to yell above the sirens. Children clamped hands over their ears and stared wide-eyed, or ran about laughing like maniacs, others held on to their parent's legs and cried.
Seconds later the sirens shut off, but down toward the marina a curious scene was drawing the attention of campers and staff alike. Arthur and the young ranger moved to get a closer look. Flashlights darted, people whispered, and stared at a couple naked people walking sheepishly up the ramp from the now well-lit marina.
The man was a well-known and respected member of the staff, but the ranger was not looking so dignified right then. A few steps back walked a young woman; her skin was almost inhumanly red, she kept her eyes lowered and took quick steps.
Arthur knew the man as Ranger Miksutivosk but he thought of him as Hook due to his ridiculous mustache and goatee. The woman he didn't know. Both looked so embarrassed, but as Arthur had found out over the past thirteen months; it is not actually possible to die of embarrassment.
Arthur caught an angry glare as the naked ranger slinked on past. He bit his tongue to keep from looking too happy. Revenge was sweet, though dangerous.
All members of the staff, including Arthur and the naked ranger, had assigned responsibilities in an emergency. The entire campground would be searched until everyone was accounted for; Arthur went to check on the animals. Hook, being the senior official and top dog, had the most to do. There were roll calls, and phone calls, and questions to be asked and answered; though no one would dare ask him the one question they were most curious about.
Half an hour later the "all clear" message was broadcast over the P/A system, the situation calmed down and Arthur went back to his bunk. Before going to sleep he wondered if Hook had a good explanation.
“Perhaps,” Arthur speculated, “Hook and the woman both independently decided to go for an early morning swim and just happened to misplace their clothing. Hmm... Probably not a story the wife's going to buy!" Arthur laughed until it hurt.
* * *
[One hour earlier]
Arthur watched and waited. Perched four meters up on the south side of the horse stable, he had a good view; a view that faced a pond, a pasture and just over the treetops he could see a house on the hill, the residence of Ranger Miksutivosk.
Danubians were extra stingy with their electricity; nearly all lights were turned off at night. The campground was quiet and dark, a perfect night for a little mischief. Arthur shifted to get a better look, muscle and skin complained with every motion, but he was too focused and excited to care about the pain.
A light came on in the ranger's house and quickly off. Arthur could barely make out a dark figure passing in front of a white retaining wall.
"Well," Arthur whispered to himself. "Here comes our hero now, Hook's going for a late night swim."
Arthur leaned out and turned his head to the right. There, not twenty meters away, another smaller figure walked past the stables.
“Perfect timing, the leading lady has just arrived. We now have our two stars and the setting... I'll provide the plot." Arthur rubbed his hands together deviously, as all villains do.
"These two think they're in a romance, but I'm afraid it might turn into more of a comedy."
Arthur reached his right hand out, running his fingers along the rough lumber beam three meters above the floor, carefully locating the shaft of a broken screwdriver. Reaching up he grasped a coil of rope and threw it down the outside wall.
"Act 1, Scene 1." Arthur whispered. "Our diabolical but strikingly handsome villain emerges from his lair. Aaaannnd Action!"
Arthur gripped the screwdriver between his teeth and the rope in his fists; pulling the rope snug he leaned back with bare feet against the stones of the outside wall and lowered himself quietly to the ground. The dark form of the main office was fifty meters past the far end of the horse pen.
Arthur found the building's breaker box at the back; he couldn't make out the individual circuits so he pulled the main breaker down to the off position. He crept along to the east side of the main office, climbing up on the wrap-around porch.
With the crime rate so ridiculously low, Danubians didn't put much effort into security, the doors were usually locked but the windows to the main office never were. Arthur slipped the flat screwdriver underneath the window screen, popped it loose, raised the window and crawled inside.
It was even darker inside but Arthur knew the place well. The staff always thought it was a good idea to have the foreign criminal clean up the office. He had cleaned this particular room several times from floor to ceiling- including the metal control box mounted on the north wall.
Arthur opened the lid, inside were two toggle switches; one labeled: emergency lighting and another labeled: sirens. Arthur flipped both to the on position and left the building, shut the window, replaced the screen, and walked quickly toward the marina.
“Act 1, Scene 2," Arthur whispered to himself as he rounded the rock wall at the docks. "Meanwhile, down by the lake, the lovers were apparently having a pretty good time, said the narrator. Little did they know the villain, who's a damned good baseball player by the way, was closing in."
“Could it be? asked the villain. Is that a pile of their clothes I see on the boardwalk?"
Arthur crawled stealthily along the wooden planks, until he could reach his victims' clothing. He couldn't help but notice Hook and his lover groaning and writhing about, doing all sorts of dirty obscene things in the sands below, oblivious to his presence.
“Like a puma in the grass, the villain stealthily crept toward the marina..." Arthur paused; sides spasming, he clamped a hand over his mouth to suppress a fierce bout of laughter until he was able to calm down and continue narration.
"The villain just thought of something extra... uh villainous to do.”
He tucked their clothes under the seat of a water patrol boat; and spent a moment imagining the embarrassing conversation that would take place in the morning.
Arthur watched and waited; after a few minutes the lovers got up, went for a swim, then embraced one last time on the bank.
Arthur heard a few frantic whispers as they started looking for their missing clothes. It was time for action.
Arthur turned and ran back up the ramp. Unfortunately for Hook the paved boat ramp and walkway was the only access through the five-meter retaining wall. Arthur looped around the perimeter of the park, back to the stables.
He scaled the wall, climbing back inside the triangular hole just below the ridgeline. The triangular metal vent was taken down; it hung from a wire fastened to a rafter in Arthur's little room.
The vent had been a pain to remove from the inside. Using a hacksaw blade, Arthur had spent hours perched on a beam sawing those five big nails in half; he needed it to look unaltered so he had glued each nail head carefully back in place.
Arthur crouched on a beam three meters above the sawdust floor and located the pilfered tube of adhesive he had saved for just this sort of occasion.
“Act 1. Scene 3: The villain springs the trap, unleashing his evil plan, evil and brilliant plan on the unsuspecting… uh... campground."
Arthur squirted some glue from the tube onto his finger and then he spread the adhesive in a band around the wooden vent frame. Speed was critical to this part of the plan; he had two minutes before the glue started to dry.
Arthur stopped in the dew-covered grass at the back wall of the park's main office. He took one deep breath, closed his eyes, and grasped the main breaker between thumb and forefinger. He pushed it upwards.
All the lights set on poles around the campground flickered and a dozen sirens screamed to life. Arthur had to go a longer route back, sneaking through the hedges at back of the horse pen.
He tugged himself inside the vent hole, turned and quickly pulled in the rope. He unhooked the vent from the rafter, turned it on edge to get it back outside and then pulled it tight against the frame for half a minute to let the glue set.
Arthur had used a knot that untied with a pull; Arthur dropped the rope, and lowered himself to where his foot rested on the end of his upturned cot. Once he was on the dirt floor inside his little room, Arthur tossed the rope, screwdriver, glue, and wire in his stash; a hole almost waist-deep right in front of the door.
He dumped one bucketful of soil on top, stomped it down, threw in a couple rusty nails and then dumped another two buckets full of soil in the hole. Arthur jumped up and down on it a few more times and then raked sawdust over the top. Then he put his cot back on the floor.
It was done. Exhausted; Arthur sat down, breathing hard. Who knew evil was so strenuous?
Chapter Two: Arthur vs. Dignity
[Three days earlier]
Four steps to the south- turn, four steps to the north- turn, four steps to the south- turn. Arthur paced back and forth in his little dark room until the small toes of his right foot met the aluminum leg of his cot.
Arthur hopped on one foot unleashing a stream of vulgarity. Right then he wanted his foot to stop throbbing, he wanted out of the locked room, but most of all he wanted revenge.
Arthur hated Hook; the man was such a hypocrite. The ranger had punished Gretya so cruelly for her behavior, but Arthur knew his big secret: Hook wasn't nearly as faithful as he let people believe.
Back before they locked his door every evening, Arthur had spent many nights outside. Sometimes he scaled a tree and climbed onto the roof to get a better look around the campground.
On certain weeknights Arthur noticed a light briefly coming on in the ranger's house about one AM. Then, at about the same time, a woman walked by, using a trail that passed by the horse pens and skirted the main campground.
Even on the darkest nights she never carried a flashlight. Being a curious sort, Arthur just had to know; so one night he had followed her all the way down to the boat docks. Hook had been waiting.
Arthur had seen Hook’s wife several times; she was an unusually tall woman, every bit as tall as him. This mystery woman stood a head shorter.
Arthur felt behind him and sat on his cot. Faint bands of light projected onto the east wall, moonlight through gaps in the vent. Arthur looked up at the vent, thinking.
“Bastard called me a dishonored, deceitful, stupid spy?”
Stupid!" Arthur sprang up pointing his forefinger; staring furiously at the wall pretending it was Hook. "That's it! My two days of good behavior are over!"
* * *
[Four hours earlier]
It was another fine day in June; the place was a large campground set in the expansive wilderness twenty-five kilometers east of the dam. Clear sky, hot and sunny; the campers loved it. Criminal # 88588 didn’t. He was engaged in the hard work of clearing dead leaves and silt out of a culvert near the lake.
He glanced up as two young women jogged along the path for the third time in an hour; it was hard not to look, they were completely naked except for socks and running shoes.
One had the tightly braided hair; the other was maybe a year younger; her loose brown hair showed she was still in high school. Time slowed- they stopped just a few meters away, breathing fast- naked breasts jiggled in time with their swelling and contracting chests. The older one whispered in the other girl's ear and playfully slapped her bottom as they turned toward their tent.
They didn't get dressed though. Arthur's breath hung in his throat when they returned with two beach towels, and a bottle of suntan lotion.
The younger girl flopped down on her stomach, the other knelt by her side to apply the lotion to her back, drizzling it generously down the girl's spine. She squealed at the sensation of cold cream on her warm skin.
The older one ignored the girl's protests and began massaging her shoulders, neck, and back; and then she picked up the bottle and squirted a glop of white lotion onto her friend’s bottom.
Careful not to waste a drop, she drew a forefinger along the crease, gathering lotion that had collected between the younger girl's buttocks. The girl shifted, making a gentle mmm sound and wiggling her hips as her older friend rubbed lotion over her upper thighs and bottom cheeks.
She was meticulous and thorough, long sensitive fingers spread a slick coating of lotion so the wet curves of her companion's skin reflected white in the mid-day sun.
Arthur couldn't seem to concentrate on the culvert anymore. He stood in mid-shovel; his eyes pulled involuntarily toward a sunny spot in the grass. He could have sworn the older one glanced at him mischievously, and then... Oh god... I can't look at this!
She shifted to better reach her friend's legs and then she gently but firmly tugged her friend's thigh just above the knee, parting her legs, exposing her friend to a complete stranger and a convicted criminal.
She looked at him directly this time, smiling wickedly, then squirted more lotion in her hand and smoothed it seductively up and down each thigh, moving higher with every stroke.
The older one shifted position, leaning back more, spreading her own knees wider in the grass, before going back to massaging her friend. She locked eyes with the criminal and squeezed a cheek in each hand, spreading the girl's buttocks completely open to his view. Bright sunlight fell upon the pink slit of the girl's pussy and a white drop of lotion had run down to collect on the tiny pink star of her anus.
Arthur could see the girl's excitement, the wetness between her legs... that of her older friend too. The older one smiled wickedly and licked her lips. Her full breasts undulated as she massaged, teased and exposed her companion. Her once shy hazel eyes were now focused unabashedly on him as if she was offering her young friend to him... use her that look said... use her mouth... use her pussy... her ass..."
"Criminal # 88588!" The ranger's angry voice slapped Arthur back to reality.
The girls wrapped up in towels and jogged away; giggling and glancing back a couple times. Arthur looked down.
"Oh shit!" Criminals weren't allowed to cover themselves and he didn't have anything except a shovel anyway; and that would maybe look even worse.
Hook was mounted on his terrible black horse. Several other riders followed; tourists going on a trail ride.
Arthur's shovel handle slipped and fell loudly on the rock path. He stepped out of the ditch, skin burning with shame. The tourists whispered, pointed and stared.
“You will stand right there,” Hook ordered. “Is that clear Criminal # 88588?"
Arthur wished his erection would go away far quicker than it was, bobbing in front of all these people, pointing northward like some humiliating compass needle. "Yes sir, I understand."
Hook's expression shifted; less angry, crueler. He turned to address the tourists.
"This is Criminal number 88588, a dishonored young man who continues to disgrace himself.”
Hook turned to Arthur: “These people are minding their own business and you stand there like that, disrespecting them. You owe them an apology."
Arthur wanted to crawl inside the culvert and never come out again. The smirking, giggling group of wretched tourists and the hated ranger stared at him, waiting.
Arthur turned in their general direction and cleared his throat. "I...I apologize for my disgraceful behavior." Arthur looked to Hook to see if that was enough.
“Get down on your knees and apologize properly. Show these people the respect they deserve and apologize to each one... and Criminal number 88588, be sure to look them in the eyes."
Arthur got down on his knees and looked at the first smirking face. "Sir, please forgive my disgraceful behavior." He looked up at the giggling woman mounted beside him. "Ma'am, please forgive my disgraceful behavior..."
After thirteen apologies, hook still wasn't through. Hook dismounted and demanded Arthur kneel down to him, with his forehead on the ground, knees wide apart.
Hook mocked: “Perhaps you recognized this dishonored criminal from the news; this young man is the convicted American spy. He's not so dangerous, in fact, this criminal is awfully stupid. He can't follow the simplest instruction. Criminal # 88588, why don't you tell us why you were punished this week?"
Arthur spit out a response: “I violated my curfew sir." Walking around in public with his butt and thighs all purple and blue was humiliating enough without being displayed like this to the wretched tourists. Arthur burned with embarrassment, he could feel them all staring, hear crude remarks from some of the men and laughter from the women.
"I do hope the police straightened out his behavior this time." Hook laughed to the crowd. "I've never seen an animal that required so much beating." The ranger mounted his horse. "Stand up Criminal number 88588, there are others you need to apologize to."
Hook had Arthur walk to the campsite of the two 'innocent and virtuous' sunbathers and apologize to them and their extended families. Everyone looked contemptuously at him, or laughed at his predicament... after a miserable fifteen minutes Hook sent him back to work. The ranger rode off making snide remarks to the other riders, getting laughs at the criminal's expense.
Arthur worked hard, trying to wear himself out and forget about what had just happened but he couldn't stop thinking about it. He felt like such an idiot for letting some bitches tease him for a cheap thrill. He should have known. No free Danubian woman has to chase after a lowly male criminal; he was the only one in danger of getting screwed that day.
Chapter Three: Arthur vs. Honesty
[Three days earlier]
The criminal hung his shovel and pickaxe in the tool shed and carried a galvanized metal bucket and a two-liter jug of pink soap over to the concrete slab.
He slung off his orange leather gloves and unlaced his equally orange work boots; all four items had # 88588 stamped on them in black ink. He threw the government issued equipment by the fence and turned on the water spigot.
On such a hot day the cold spring water was really refreshing; he soaped up with a generous amount of liquid horse shampoo.
Right in the middle of his bath a couple Danubian tourists, just back from a trail ride, opened the gate and walked down the stone path. As the man and woman got closer they frowned at him, whispering to one another, looking all indignant and superior.
Arthur snapped in English: “Haven’t you ever seen a guy take a bath before?"
Arthur dumped a bucket of cold water over his head. Most of the water intentionally missed him, hit concrete and splashed widely. He wiped soap off his face and turned to watch the couple pick up their pace and hurry off.
“Gloating bastard," Arthur fumed, "strutting around here in his pants... and his shirt and stuff! And that stupid bitch... just taunting me with her cotton socks... comfortable tennis shoes... pockets..."
“Someday I'll have pockets!" A couple horses rose up from eating hay and turned their heads in his direction. "That's right, I'll get a... a vest, with pockets all over it... front and back, and then I'll put on a pair of pants! And a belt and then..."
The rant went on until most of the horses moved to the other side of the pen and his skin started to itch. Arthur glanced around; he was relieved that no one had been listening to or watching his outburst.
Arthur looked at the horses and proclaimed: "There's nothing wrong with talking to yourself, everybody does it. Just... um... out in the sun too long, working too hard, not getting enough sleep... that's all. Yep, I'm perfectly normal, average really." Arthur waved to the horses. "Nothing to see here, move along."
Arthur rinsed off the dried soap and by that time he was getting hungry. Wet skin dried quick as he walked down the worn rock path that zigzagged through a stand of pines and ended at the low wide building that held the kitchen and dining hall.
There were several campers leaving and several staff going in the front door. Arthur entered through the kitchen; criminals like him ate either out back by the chicken coop or standing in the kitchen if it was cold or wet.
Arthur walked through the service area where the cook doled out food to a line of campers over a waist high counter. The cook was a large sturdy built woman, with a broad friendly face and some gray in her tightly braided black hair. She was energetic despite her age, despite being overworked; and always happy to talk to staff and campers. Arthur thought it was extra peculiar how she talked to him, a convicted criminal and a foreigner, as if he were family.
The cook smiled warmly, pausing with a tray in one hand and a ladle in the other; she shook her head.
"I'm so behind today... Akthur, could you go in the storeroom and bring out more trays?"
The storeroom had one doorway that faced the kitchen and another that opened into the staff dining room. Arthur heard Hook's distinctive voice. Through the sizable gap between door and frame he could see Hook, a couple other rangers, two handymen, and various family members seated at the same long table. Gretya sat opposite her father.
Hook berated his daughter in front of everyone, calling her stupid, disrespectful, dishonored and he kept saying something about protocol and his table. Arthur took an angry breath. Gretya must have finally broke down and told him about the boyfriend. Gretya looked so small and frail.
Arthur turned and quickly grabbed an armful of aluminum trays; best not to keep the cook waiting, she was one of the friendly people at the camp, and the food was really good.
The cook thanked him as he placed the stack of trays down on the countertop, calling him by the Danubian word for son. As he waited for her to get caught up Arthur thought over the whole situation with the ranger and his daughter. Hook had punished his daughter severely for sneaking around with a boy, Arthur wondered what would happen if the tables were turned. It would be awfully interesting to find out.
Arthur ate his supper standing on the back porch and then he carried his tray and empty glass inside. The cook was putting away leftovers.
"You want more Akthur?"
"No ma'am, I'm full."
"Come here, eat some more, you too skinny" She chided. "Let Langka put some meat on your bones. Here, have more desert, Akthur," She raked a pile of blackberry cobbler into his empty tray. "This make you strong like bear," she winked, "or fat like pig!"
Arthur finished desert though just barely, when she tried to push more on him he had to be firm. "No ma'am, please... if I eat any more I won't be able to move and I have a lot of work to do."
“What work? You work all day."
“I have to haul water up to the stables."
"What, water pipes break up there?"
Arthur felt a little shy. "No ma'am, it's... uh... punishment for breaking another regulation. I have to fill a big horse trough with creek water every day this week."
“Akthur," The cook frowned. "I worry about you. You good boy; why you get in so much trouble?"
Arthur looked down, scratching at the back of his head. "Um... I don't know... my mother used to say that I have a talent for being difficult," Arthur grinned. "Or maybe I'm just not very bright."
“Bah..." She waved a hand dismissively. "Akthur, you not dumb. Difficult... mmm... maybe. What you do this time?"
“Curfew violation," Arthur shrugged. "I really didn't think it was that big of a deal... but it turns out they're pretty touchy about me wandering around unsupervised, you know, outside the collar zone." Arthur put his empty aluminum tray by the sink.
She glanced down at his marked skin, frowned. "Hmm hmm hmm... It looks like the police be mad at you too."
Arthur nodded. "The police are always mad."
“Well..." She smiled in her casual good-natured way. "The police have hard job, they do their best."
“Yes ma'am." Arthur agreed. They had beaten him several times; the police, most definitely, do their best.
As Arthur walked back up the forested hill toward the stables, he just couldn't stop thinking about the ranger and his daughter. It would feel so good to get back at Hook for filing a complaint with the police, for slapping him around, for all the extra work, and for the cruel treatment of Gretya.
Arthur considered the girl: "The worst part is that she probably thinks she deserves it, Danubians are so weird like that. Would it kill them to have some self-pity or bitterness? It's so frustrating to have to avenge a girl who doesn't even know she needs avenging!"
"No," Arthur folded his arms and stopped at the brown wooden gate of the horse pen. "I'm not going to do it. It's not my business. I barely know the girl. I have nothing to gain. I'm not going to start another scheme... not after the way the last plan failed."
He was firmer with himself this time. "I'm going to be a good obedient criminal just like my spokesman wants... reform myself... I'll get on the right path... the correct path... I just need to stay on the damned path!"
* * *
[One day earlier]
Gretya lugged the galvanized metal bucket along, setting it down every ten meters or so to rest worn out arms. Fifty meters back, Arthur also climbed the forested hill, hauling water up the narrow dirt trail one bucket at a time. He was quickly gaining on her as the distance Gretya carried her burden became shorter and shorter.
Then the exhausted girl stumbled but managed to not dump all the water. She leaned forward with hands braced on her knees, breathing heavy, frowning at her soggy feet.
Gretya took a sharp breath when she heard the criminal approach, then relaxed as she recognized him. Loose strands of brown hair stuck to her wet forehead.
Arthur set his water down on the trail a few meters below the teenager. For a while they smiled stupidly at one another catching their breath, too exhausted for much conversation.
Arthur recognized the girl but they had never spoken more than a greeting. Gretya looked about fifteen, with big brown eyes, wide mouth, dark brown hair down to her elbows, a slight frame, and shoulders obviously not built for heavy loads.
"Have to carry that all the way back to the camp?"
Gretya nodded shyly. "You too?"
He smiled. "Every day this week," Arthur gestured to her bucket. "There seems to be a lack of creativity around here."
"Yes, father's treating me like a criminal now!"
Arthur enjoyed the sound of her laugh.
She stared down at her drooping socks and bit her lower lip. "Uh... Criminal # 88588," Gretya looked up apprehensively. "Thank you for not telling my father... you know... when he questioned you."
Arthur shrugged. "Well... I didn't think anyone else needed to get in trouble over that."
She started to say something and then lowered her eyes.
“What is it Gretya?"
"You um..." Her voice trembled. "You didn't get in trouble with the police because of us did you? The switching, I mean?"
“No no," Arthur lied in a panic. Feeling dangerously close to some kind of Danubian honor trap, he scrambled to think of something quick. The last thing he needed was to have the teenage daughter of Ranger Miksutivosk feeling indebted to him. Hook was suspicious enough already, and plenty angry.
Arthur looked the girl straight in the eyes. "Gretya, it had absolutely nothing to do with you or your boyfriend. I got in trouble for being outside my quarters at night; I would've got that anyway."
Arthur's sudden laugh startled Gretya and moved the conversation along. "You know, that was the third time I've had to go before a judge since my trial? I think they're starting to realize it was a mistake not to execute me!"
"Don't say that," Gretya frowned. "Your life is a gift from the Creator; I believe that everyone has something special about them... something that they're here to do. You have a purpose to fulfill, to live your life and love people and be loved and... and to find your Path in Life."
Even though her words sounded hopelessly naive in the way that only teenage girls could manage; Gretya’s kindness did make Arthur feel better, it was nice to be talked to like a human being for a change. Arthur nodded slightly and waited, seeing how there was something else she wanted to say.
“His name's Dietrikt," Gretya spoke softly, looking more and more depressed. "He... he hasn't sat at my father's table. My parents would be furious... it's not honorable what I've done."
“So why not ask them to invite Dietrikt?"
Gretya sighed. "My father expects me to marry another young man... the son of a businessman he knows, he's from Rika Chorna."
“I didn't know you had arranged marriages here."
“Um... not arranged but... it might as well be... father can turn away any boy I might want to see. He would never accept Dietrikt anyway... he um... he's a Westerner."
“No... Um, you know... a Westerner, from the western provinces around Danube City. My father would never let me see a Westerner. I mean, don't misunderstand... I'm proud to be of Eastern descent ... my family has lived here since King Vladic's Betrayal and the Exodus from the South... "
Gretya veered off into a long defense of both herself and her secret boyfriend who, she said, was a good person despite being from the dreaded West. Arthur listened to the girl go on and on; if there was one subject he was thoroughly tired of hearing about it was the idiotic five-century-old feud between Danube City and Rika Chorna.
To hear Easterners tell it, Danube City was populated by weak kneed dandies who spent their days bowing down and kissing the toes of the corrupt Grand Duke and his ridiculously dressed court of royal hangers on. From some of the unflattering pictures Arthur had seen in the newspaper the 'ridiculously dressed' part was accurate, but the rest of the feud seemed awfully stupid.
“Criminal # 88588," Gretya said at last. "I really didn't expect you to help us but I appreciate it; I'm so glad you didn't tell father." Then quickly: "and I think it's not right the way they treat you. You don't seem that bad... bad as they said you were, corrupted I mean... um... I mean you're not like I was expecting, you know from what everyone said about you."
Watching the girl blush amused Arthur. "You expected the dangerous spy, or the evil criminal mastermind? I hate to disappoint people but before I was arrested my criminal activities were stuff like driving over the speed limit."
"You had an automobile in America?"
"Sure, a big red Chevy pickup truck with tinted glass and a big loud sound system; had a boat too, kind of junky but it was fast enough for skiing."
Arthur pointed to a long scar along his left forearm. "See that? Hit a log in the water the summer before last, fifteen stitches, but at least it didn't damage the skis- those things are expensive. I had a friend who was in veterinarian school so the stitches were free and the boat was... the boat... um" Arthur stopped, eyes darting. "Wait a second... What the heck happened to my boat?"
"You lost your boat?"
“I gave most of my other stuff to my sister after my arrest, but... hmm... strange that I didn't think about the boat until now." Arthur shrugged it off. "Well, maybe whoever has it's having a good time."
Gretya frowned. "It must be terrible going from all that you had in America to this."
"It has been hard... the restrictions, the pain, the humiliation..." Arthur paused as if thinking something profound. "It's like being married, maybe."
"What is... is it... did you mean that marriage in America is like being a criminal?"
"Well no..." Arthur shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. "I was just making a joke."
"Do Americans do that, say something false and laugh at the person they deceived?" Gretya stiffened at the perceived insult.
"No... I mean... you have it backwards, see when you tell a joke like that you assume everyone knows it's not true, it isn't what you really mean; so you're not trying to deceive them you're trying to surprise them with..."
Arthur sighed and decided to give up on the explanation. "Gretya, I didn't mean to offend you, I guess some things just don't translate."
The girl's eyes narrowed, concentrating on a foreign concept. Gretya finally cracked a smile; visibly eased, she shook her head. "You're very weird, Criminal # 88588."
“I hear that a lot."
“My father doesn't want me talking to you."
“I also hear that a lot... people avoid me, that's why I'm here working for the MNR... private employers don't want to hire me."
“They’re afraid, afraid of you?"
"I suppose... people know what my former employer did, they think I'm the same as him, but he's dead now and I'm stuck here to play the villain and take the blame. To most people I'm the enemy, and it's not going to be easy to change their minds."
Gretya looked down sadly and murmured: "People get blamed for a lot of things that's not their fault sometimes."
Arthur figured the girl was referring to herself more than him. He prepared himself for a rip tide of teen angst, but it didn't come.
Gretya stayed quiet for a moment, and then she smoothed back strands of her hair out of her eyes. "Criminal number 88588, do you mind if I call you by your name?"
“I’d like that Gretya, call me Arthur if you would... but around the staff, especially your father, you should probably still use the number." Arthur caught himself feeling exuberant over something as simple as some teenager he barely knew calling him by his real name, it was a really stupid thing to get excited about but it did feel good.
After several repetitions they settled on the close enough pronunciation then it was time to get moving.
Gretya struggled to walk up the slope. Arthur felt sorry for the girl; having to live in the same house with Hook would be rough; the ranger was a natural bully who didn't mind putting her down in front of other people. The girl's mother worked most of the week in Rika Chorna; so Gretya got to spend her summer vacation with dear old dad.
Arthur couldn't help but like Gretya. Consequently, he was starting to feel guilty for accidentally ruining the teenager's fun with Dietrikt and getting her in trouble. From the stiff way she walked, he figured she had gotten some pretty severe punishment in addition to the chores.
The extra work, the fresh set of welts on Arthur's skin, and some of Gretya's troubles were all unfortunate side effects of his latest plan failing miserably. Everyone thought it was a simple curfew violation. If the police had known what Arthur had really been up to the consequences would've been considerably worse.
"Let me help," Arthur offered. "I'll carry it up to the clearing, it's easier for me to balance anyway- that's why they don't let me use two. It's alright," he shrugged. "I'm used to this sort of work by now; it takes about twenty trips to the creek to fill that trough up."
“Twenty! I was complaining about two." Gretya was thankful for the help; she smiled as she walked in front of the criminal up the shaded path toward the edge of camp.
Chapter Four: Arthur vs. Sanity
[Two days earlier]
Criminal number 88588 climbed to the highest point, a rocky clearing at the end of a forested ridge. There was a rickety wooden fence and a rusty tin-roofed shack.
Ceret sat in his usual spot; a place with an impressive view of the campground and the choppy blue lake beyond. Arthur nodded and latched the gate behind him.
Being a gracious guest, Arthur had brought a gift. He placed a red apple on the stump for his companion to enjoy. "I brought that for you... cook had some left over."
Arthur studied Ceret's long face as he ate. Old weathered skin hung slack about the mouth and eyes, but he held an expression that hinted at a quick and alert mind; his eyes almost glowed, reflecting orange sunset. Ceret's tattered gray beard wafted in the warm breeze.
"Just got back from Rika Chorna," Arthur started. "They really didn't have much on me; didn't have the horse tested or anything. Got charged with a curfew violation but that was it."
“It was a little after dark when that cop marched me into the police headquarters and up to my spokesman's office so there wasn't much staff around. That policeman had other things to do, I guess. He left me in the custody," Arthur chuckled, "of an accountant! Of course she didn't have handcuff keys on her but she didn't mind me standing up either."
“Friendly lady; looked just like an accountant is supposed to: conservative dress, inky fingertips and eyeglasses. She was there to balance Spokesman Ralkliv's client accounts.
“You know, she even let me take a look at my own account. It was interesting; the Ministry of Justice kept track of everything, from my toothbrush to the rolls of electrical tape I use to repair my lamp cord."
Arthur grinned at Ceret. "I've really got to stop breaking that lamp! Anyway, we talked quite a bit until my spokesman arrived. It was getting pretty late by that time; he basically gave me a disgusted look, took off the handcuffs, and sent me home.
“Spokesman Ralkliv was obviously tired last night but this morning he was in top form. The lecture was so dramatic that I almost wanted to stand and applaud. Now that I understand his native tongue, I can really appreciate the quality of his speeches. His arguments are clear, his timing's crisp, his message is really inspirational; Ceret, you should hear him go on!
“The subject of this particular speech was on the importance of making an effort to reform myself, so that I can meet society's expectations and live the correct way on the correct path and so on. I was getting really pumped up by the end of the talk but then he started asking a lot of questions about the disturbance.
“I needed an explanation for why I was going outside in the middle of the night so I just said that I like to look at the night sky. But he keeps asking me more questions and uh... I, well… I don't know why I said it, but I mentioned something about UFOs."
Arthur made an exasperated gesture with both hands. "He looked at me like I was crazy! Can you believe that?"
"So a little while later, an armed guard escorts me down the hall to the office of the staff psychiatrist. The guard sits me down in front of his desk. Ceret, I swear upon the whole compost heap that this doctor looked just like Joseph Stalin. Anyway, he questions me for about five minutes and I try to respond in the way I think a normal sane Danubian might.
“That didn’t go over so well. I could see that he was getting frustrated and I was getting worried. At this point Stalin gets up and walks into an adjoining room... I was curious to see if he went to fetch a straightjacket or something to beat me with.
“Instead, he came back with a stack of cards. I recognized them from TV, it was that... Roarsh... uh Rochok... er... the inkblot test. I knew that crazy people are supposed to see disturbing or violent images so when he showed me a card I would tell him it was a picture of something pleasant. That one's a rainbow, that's a four-leaf clover, a crescent moon, that's a star and so on..." Arthur leaned a little closer to Ceret. "They don't sell Lucky Charms here."
“After the test Stalin leaned back in his chair, smoothing down that brushy gray mustache of his while peering deeply into my eyes like a communist Dracula. Then he got up like he just thought of something and opened a filing cabinet drawer. He removed an orange folder.
“Ceret, as you know, I’ve always suspected that all my mail was examined by the government but now I know for sure. Stalin pulled out a translated copy of one of the letters that I wrote to my sister and one she wrote back."
“I didn't appreciate some yahoo reading my mail, but being a piece of government property, I had no right to complain. I just had to go along with it and answer all sorts of stupid questions. Do you know how hard it is to explain a conversation between me and my sister to somebody who has no concept of sarcasm?
“I mean, this guy asked me questions like: 'Why aren't you concerned that your sister is a mentally disabled prostitute?' Or: 'why do you and your sister hate each other and wish to kill your mother?'
“I mean... what's wrong with these people? Trying to be totally honest All The Time... It's... It's completely unnatural! And if this doctor had to spend some time with my mother, well maybe then he would understand.
“In a while he made up his mind and diagnosed me with a mental disorder. Stalin said that I have difficulty distinguishing reality from fantasy. Stalin thinks I need therapy! Can you believe that?"
Arthur suddenly found the whole situation to be riotously funny. He folded over and laughed until his sides cramped.
"So… uh… in about a month I get to go see him again. I hope he shows me more of those inkblot cards, I kinda like those.
“So Stalin signed a form and sent me on my way. The good news was that I'm not all that insane; the bad news: I was cleared to see the judge.
“Spokesman Ralkliv accompanied me into the judge's chambers. He was the same man that I saw after the sleepwalking disturbance in September. I'm getting to know the criminal court judges all too well!
“It was a minor violation; but the judge made the point that mine was also a repeated and willful violation of the rules so he ordered a penalty that was..." Arthur winced, "worse than I expected."
“I wasn't going to give in easy this time; I was going to be brave.” Arthur shook his head in disgust. ”But I went from quiet determination to despair in right about 1.4 seconds. I never remember how much it hurts."
Arthur blinked the moisture out of his eyes. "Ceret… I… I'm no tough guy, got no tolerance for pain."
"I'm such an idiot; when it got real bad I even started praying. I tried all the deities and prophets I could think of: Jesus, Loki, Buddha, Mohammed and uh... that one that looks like an elephant… can't think of its name. I skipped the Danubian one; I'm pretty pissed at that one, besides..." Arthur scoffed: "I'm not going to pray to a god that doesn't even have feet!"
Arthur continued in a quiet gloomy tone. "Anyway, after some recovery time I caught a ride back up here with a delivery truck, the cops didn't send a guard or even put handcuffs on me." Arthur's voice hardened. "I guess they think this beaten dog doesn't have any bite left in him."
Ceret perched on his waist-high stump and Arthur stood in silence looking down on the campground; minutes passed then he walked stiffly toward his usual seat, a foot-high stump.
Arthur's mood lifted. His life had become simply too ridiculous to not laugh at it. The bitter mixture of failure and suffering would always be the mother's milk of comedy and, if nothing else, Arthur had those in abundance.
Arthur flashed a mischievous smile. "I guess I could finish the story; tell you how my perfect plan unraveled... you'll excuse me if I stand?”
“Hmm, where were we?” Arthur began, “Oh... the horse and the teens."
“Okay, I'll admit it; I had no contingency for the hallucinating horse scenario..."
* * *
[One day earlier]
Ceret acknowledged Criminal # 88588 in his subtle way and then he settled back down. Ceret was like that; calm and steady, a good listener.
Arthur was tired and worried; he didn't usually want to share his thoughts but the harshness of his life was wearing more and more on his mind. A couple weeks earlier Arthur started visiting old Ceret, a spiritual advisor of sorts who was a fixture around the campgrounds.
"You know how I said that it couldn't get worse?" Arthur asked. "It did. Not to turn into one of those self-obsessed whiney types but I... this is really hard..."
Arthur sat sullenly on a foot high stump, rested his chin on his palm and his elbow on his knee.
"I just wanted to improve my life in some little way... just a little harmless manipulation. Was that so wrong? I mean what else am I supposed to do if everyone's already made up their minds about me? I just wanted to do something heroic, something that might impress people..." Arthur leaned close and whispered: "And by people I mean the criminal court judges."
“See, I figured that instead of waiting for the chance, why not be more assertive and create an opportunity? Isn't that more impressive anyway? I mean, any yahoo can stumble into an emergency and do something heroic. When they're interviewed on the news, what do these heroes always say? Something like: 'I didn't think about it, I just ran into that burning building and rescued an arm full of babies.' No planning, no preparation, they just act on instinct.
“But how many people would go to the trouble to both cause and resolve the danger? I ask you that. See, that takes both courage and planning. It's a public service really... perhaps my act of... uh... benevolent treachery would draw public attention to a real danger that they've been ignoring. Really, Ceret, I might have been saving lives!"
Dour Ceret glanced at Arthur, seemingly unconvinced.
“See, everyone wins; I get to play the good guy, improve my reputation, maybe get some switchings canceled; and Danubians get a feel good story, the satisfaction of seeing how their system reforms even bad criminals like me. It's a public service, really."
"Not buying it, huh? Well, I'll tell you what happened last night and then maybe you'll understand. None of my plans ever went so bad. I spent so much time going over it; observing and planning; it seemed like a slam-dunk… ended up more like a technical foul." Arthur kicked at the dirt in frustration. "And that's two free-throws plus possession!"
He shook his head. "The idea came into my head about a week ago."
“You remember the kids, the scouts in the ranger's class? They had just gotten to the part of their course where they go out into the wilds and catch fish or gather mushrooms and edible wild plants. Today was the part I had been waiting for; they were going to prepare a meal from all that stuff."
"See, all the work that the ranger's don't want to do, they normally give to me, so for the past week I've been like these scout's personal slave or something; but that was perfect because it put me in position to play the hero. I just needed to make one little change to the menu in the middle of the night without anyone noticing. But last night," Arthur groaned. "My plan unraveled almost immediately."
“I set out after midnight, holding the secret ingredient in my right fist as I crept carefully out of stable. I needed to get to the south without walking through the middle of camp so I doubled back through the horse pen. The night was so dark that I didn't see that evil black horse coming, just heard the thump of hooves behind me and felt the impact. I went sprawling in the dirt.
“Then it was right on top of me, probably moving close for a bite. I rolled under the fence to get away and noticed that my hand was empty. I had dropped it! I must have crawled around searching for ten minutes but it was gone, just gone!
“Then something cool and wet fell on my lower back. I turned around and that damned black horse was right behind me. Soapy foam hung from its lips, its breath was hot, and its skin was wet. I stood up and it lunged at me.
“Ceret, I just couldn't believe it. That dirty horse ate my secret ingredient!
“I didn't have long to worry about that though... I got over the gate in time, but then so did the horse: bucking and running erratically but still fast. I sprinted down the western trail and hooked left into the woods.
“A hundred meters off the trail I stumbled into a grassy clearing... where the power lines come across from the north. I heard a girl scream. I got to a standing position and saw I wasn't alone. Two teenagers were together on the ground.
“Arms flailed helplessly, the girl continued screaming; the guy's head whipped back as he spit out an angry and fearful mix of curse words and gibberish.
“There was a crash of branches breaking; I looked over my shoulder and managed to say: 'I'd run if I were you!'
“This morning I found out who that girl was. Ceret, it couldn’t be any worse." Arthur touched the bruise on his forehead. "They got me up early this morn..."
All the loudspeakers crackled with static. Arthur flinched as his story was rudely interrupted by an administrator's harsh voice over the P/A system.
“Attention. Criminal # 88588; you are to report immediately to the main office."
Arthur stood. "That would be the police arriving." He forced a laugh. "They just love me and wanna be around me... like mosquitoes."
“I’ll finish up the story tomorrow, I guess... if I'm able. Oh yeah," Arthur picked up a plastic bag off the ground: "Brought you a carrot from the scraps."
Ceret leapt off the stump; his hooves narrowly missed Arthur's toes. The big goat devoured the carrot in just a few seconds and then sniffed Arthur's hands looking for more.
Arthur wiped goat slobber on the grass and scratched Ceret's tall furry ears right behind the curl of his horns. "Sorry dude, that's it. You get scraps and I get spiritual guidance."
Ceret licked at the empty plastic bag in Arthur's hand before settling down to rest. Arthur closed his eyes, going over his memorized one more time and then he hurried off toward the cluster of park buildings to the south.
* * *
[14 hours earlier]
It was an uncomfortable early morning meeting. Arthur assumed he would be questioned about the rampaging horse, so he had prepared a variety of explanations for his part in that fiasco.
What surprised Arthur as he entered Hook's office was the teenage girl seated on a folding chair along the wall. The girl sat with her legs pressed together, the simple light yellow dress she wore came down to her knees; plain brown shoes were flat against the floor.
Arthur's pulse increased greatly as he had an unsettling thought: that girl he had seen making out with a boy in the forest had looked an awful lot like Hook's teenage daughter!
One sharp look from the ranger conveyed how much trouble he was in. Arthur carefully lowered himself and knelt on the hardwood floor in front of the ranger's desk, trying to think instead of panic.
“Criminal # 88588 kneel upright." Hook hung his wide brimmed green hat on the wall and walked to within two steps of the criminal; the ranger's voice was precise and exacting with obvious anger behind his words. "I have some questions I want answered regarding this disturbance last night."
He nodded at the girl. "This is my daughter Gretya; I believe you two have met."
Arthur briefly looked over at the girl. Gretya blushed but kept her eyes down; she had both hands in her lap, nervously twisted at the yellow fabric.
"Yes sir, I recognize her."
“Yes, I thought you would. Did you also know that my daughter was out late last night? I caught her trying to sneak back into my house after this disturbance of yours. This dishonored girl refuses to tell me where she was last night."
The ranger wasn't going to be concerned about the horse at all; Arthur's practiced explanation could be thrown out the office's open window. Hook's face reddened as he waited for response. Arthur thought he should say something.
"Sir, it saddens me to hear that there's some discord in your household..."
If Arthur had been wearing a shirt, Hook would have grabbed a fistful of cloth and hauled him to his feet. As it was Hook grabbed at Arthur's neck, Arthur flinched back, the ranger slapped hard, grazing the left side of the face while growling a curse. Hook connected solidly with the back of his hand the second time, a third strike knocked Arthur sprawling on the floor.
“Father, father please!" Gretya stood pleading. "He didn't do anything!"
Hook took a step back, breathing hard but regaining some composure. "Gretya, go back to the house." He turned on his daughter as she hesitated: "Now!" Hook gripped Gretya's left arm and forcefully walked her out of the building.
Left alone in the office, Arthur clutched his stinging face and looked down the hallway. He heard them outside: the girl sobbing and Hook's loud angry tone.
Arthur's whole face, especially the left side stung; he wiped the back of his hand across his nose to check for blood. He blinked rapidly to clear his vision and looked down the hall, waiting, listening.
Sobbing faded away, a door opened and shut, he heard footsteps. Arthur got back into position on his knees and stared straight ahead at the ranger's old gray metal desk.
Hook stalked his way slowly back into the room, stopping a couple steps behind Arthur.
"Criminal number 88588," Hook said after a long silence. "Did you touch my daughter?"
“No sir." Arthur shook his head vigorously and swallowed hard. "I swear on my mother's grave I didn't touch her."
The black rotary telephone mounted on the south wall rang. Hook turned to answer and Arthur began breathing again. After a brief angry exchange Hook hung up the phone, grabbed his hat and turned to glare down at the criminal.
“Dishonored criminal spy," Hook spit out the words. "You are dismissed for now but I will be sure to let the police know about your disrespectful attitude and your curfew violation; then I'm going to go have a talk with my daughter. I will find out what happened, Criminal # 88588, and if you're lying to me I'm going to make your life miserable."
You'll have to get in line: thought an already miserable Arthur.
Chapter Five: Arthur vs. Tourism
[Two days earlier]
Arthur crested the last ridge where the trail turned northward and thankfully started to go downhill again. The straps from an overloaded backpack rubbed his shoulders raw and the canvas bags he held in each hand made his arms go numb after a while. The miserable five-day camping trip was almost over and Arthur was ready to get back to camp.
Thirty five-kids and one ranger marched in front of him, one mounted ranger rode behind. It was late in the day, still half an hour's walk from the campground; Arthur turned and asked the ranger for permission to go relieve himself in the woods. The ranger stopped his horse. "Alright, but make it quick."
Arthur set down the heavy pile of supplies and stepped into the wooded thicket. As soon as the ranger was out of sight, Arthur sped up and doubled back to the edge of a horse pasture north of the trail. Breaking a stick into a sharp point, he went to his knees in front of a tough waist-high weed with pale blue flowers.
Arthur dug to either side then he yanked the plant out of the ground. He snapped off the dull white root, set it aside, and then filled in the hole around the plant, and scattered dry leaves over the disturbed soil.
Arthur scratched the root's surface, sniffing its acrid harsh odor. It was one wild plant that he recognized immediately, at first he was surprised to see it in Eastern Europe, but he guessed it was an invasive species that had spread worldwide. The weed was common in fields back home... Arthur remembered his uncle telling about the peculiar effects it had on a cow of his that ate some of the leaves.
Locoweed, devil's trumpet, jimson weed: many names for the same toxic plant. To most it was just a tough weed common along fields and roadsides, to the rancher it was a poisoning threat to livestock, and some reckless people even used it to get high. Criminal #88588 had something else in mind.
* * *
[Seven days earlier]
Khoras showed up early for his Friday afternoon shift. He hummed a tune as he walked toward the maintenance shop, but then he paused by the amphitheater to watch the ranger's class of about thirty kids.
They had all their scout gear spread out on the concrete benches, along with books and samples of rocks, plants, and insect collections. The only adult present was the criminal, standing by the stage, looking frustrated.
Khoras waded through the raucous group to see what was going on. "So Criminal number 88588, are you teaching these students?"
“Hardly… Ranger Kerkyra found out that I have a college degree in science back in the US and she made me into her assistant for the course." Arthur sighed. "It doesn't help at all; I mean all their coursework is written in Danubian... It's so embarrassing; I have to get twelve-year-old kids to read to me. They probably think I was arrested for being too stupid to live unsupervised."
“No," Khoras smirked. "I'm pretty sure they know what you did. Maybe it's not America, but we still have TV here, you know. You're probably the only spy we've ever caught."
“I wish they'd catch another one and get the spotlight off me for a while." Arthur sighed. "I know they made a big deal out of it, but all this worry about me is way overblown. Why should anyone be afraid of me? I've got to be the worst spy ever. I get caught on my first mission; worse, I didn't even know I was on a mission."
Khoras tilted his head curiously. "How could you not know?"
"I didn't want to ask too many questions and mess up the deal; I was thinking more about the money."
“You had a good job; what did you need all that the money for?"
“I didn’t need it exactly... but I wanted it. I didn't have any definite plans except..." Arthur couldn't help but snicker. "I wanted to do some traveling, thought I might take off and spend some time overseas!" Arthur tapped the collar. "This wasn't what I had in mind at all."
Khoras looked concerned. "What about your family? You would leave them to go overseas? You’d be alone, unmarried?"
“I’ve been on my own for years." Arthur explained. "I liked it. I was free to go where I wanted, do what I wanted. I had some friends, and a girlfriend but nothing to hold me down."
“Has your lady friend visited you since your arrest?"
“Her?" Arthur chuckled. "That girl stayed too drunk to find her way to the airport, let alone here. I figure she just liked me because I bought her stuff." Arthur shrugged. "I liked her anyway,"
Arthur put his hands up as if griping two spheres. "Her butt was perfectly symmetrical- as a man of science I can appreciate that sort of thing; it belonged on a statue or billboard or something. The other thing I liked about her was that she laughed at my jokes. Her name was Charlotte."
Khoras shook his head disapprovingly. "At your age, you didn't plan on marriage?"
Arthur shrugged. "Charlotte was what Americans call a party girl; fun to date but not the sort you marry. See, in America it's not like here at all; you don't have to get married, a lot of young people, men and women, live alone or stay together for a while then go their separate ways. You don't have to spend much time with your family either... I mean, I haven't been to my mother's house in over three years... aside from my sister, I'm not very close to any of my family anymore... strangers almost."
“American freedom sounds lonely."
Arthur started to argue but just glanced over at the scouts instead.
Khoras picked up one of the scout's workbooks and thumbed through it. "You've been here what, a year?"
"You said you couldn't read this?"
“Uh a little, my spokesman says that I’m at the reading level of his five-year old girl.”
Khoras shrugged, still grinning at Arthur and the pack of rowdy kids. "I guess you're nearly ready to go on the big hike."
“I am?" Arthur asked.
Ranger Kerkyra arrived to start her class and the handyman excused himself. Arthur waited for the ranger to tell her criminal assistant about the big hike, the five-day excursion into the wilderness.
Arthur wasn't sure if he wanted to go or not; but one thing that criminals didn't have to worry about was making decisions. The rangers would no more ask his opinion than the cook would ask a chicken whether it wanted its head chopped off or not. Kerkyra said: 'You're coming with us.' and it was settled.
That night Arthur thought about the scouts. He resented the little devils; they showed him no respect at all. The kids knew he was the lowest social class: a collared criminal; worse a foreign criminal, worse still that he was the enemy spy, disliked by almost everyone. The kids picked up on that quickly and became pests in the way that came natural.
Arthur sometimes considered revenge but gave up on it, though annoying, they were just a bunch of bratty kids and not worth his time. Still, he somehow never got around to warning them about the wasps that nested in the canoe racks or the thickets of stinging nettles that naked swimmers discover along sandy stream banks.
But as August ninth got closer Arthur found himself getting more and more civic minded. He badly wanted to do something in service to the Duchy, something heroic that his spokesman could use to get a switching canceled. He hoped this camping trip would provide the opportunity; maybe some kid would fall and need rescuing. Maybe he could protect them from something.
Were there any dangerous wild animals in the forest that might want to eat children? He could only hope.
Another possibility: it was well established that kids will stick about anything in their mouths; maybe they might eat the wrong plant or mushroom... Arthur imagined himself stepping in heroically to prevent such a tragedy.
"Fat chance of that happening,” Arthur scoffed. “Hmm... but there might be a way of nudging the odds... say... if some hypothetical villain secretly put something toxic in their collection of edible wild plants and then waited for a dramatic moment, right before the meal was to be prepared... a noble and virtuous hero might swoop in to save the day."
“Ooh!" Arthur felt a chill run across his skin or perhaps the beginnings of a rash. "That's a classic hero move: saving children. A hypothetical criminal would have to get rewarded for that!"
* * *
[Three days earlier]
The campers were so damned needy... so willing to flag down the criminal and make some stupid demand. They asked him for help like he a choice. It didn't matter to them if he had to work extra hours after supper to finish up jobs because of their constant interruptions.
“Would you carry my luggage?" Asks some lazy woman who's been sitting on her butt all day.
“Criminal, could you fetch us some water?" Asks a smirking young man with four gigantic plastic containers beside him.
“Could you help us with our tent?" Asks a married couple who were baffled by the complexities of an A-frame tent.
Then the kids arrived, a busload of them; most looked to be in their early teens. They were enrolled in a class taught by one of the rangers. They did coursework having to do with plant ID, natural history, wilderness survival, and ordinary scout type stuff.
One day after work, Ranger Kerkyra called out to Arthur. "Criminal number 88588," she said. "Stop a moment, I wish to speak with you." Arthur cringed; nothing good ever came from an official calling you out.
He was tired, hot, and really dirty. Arthur turned to face the ranger. Her eyebrows arched and mouth smirked as she looked him over, disapproving of his appearance.
Arthur watched her expression. Although rangers were public officials and all, he usually didn't kneel unless they insisted. She didn't give the order or nod at the ground expectantly; instead Ranger Kerkyra got right down to business.
“Criminal number 88588, I heard something." She looked skeptically at the dirty creature in front of her. "I don't know if it's accurate... but I heard it mentioned that you had a university education back in America, a focus in science. Is that true?"
Standing there, naked and covered in all sorts of grime, Arthur had to admit that he didn't look all that scholarly. His day had been spent with the maintenance crew, replacing old cast iron sewer pipe underneath the dining hall. The worst parts of the job were, of course, given to the criminal. Black mud, rust, grease, and other unidentified stuff streaked his skin; it was going to take a lot of horse shampoo to get that scrubbed off.
Reluctantly, Arthur told the ranger that the rumor was correct; though dirty and smelly, he was, at least educated.
She looked conflicted for a moment, maybe deciding if such a filthy animal could be capable of rational thought. Then she made up her mind, nodded quickly, and gave Arthur the good news. He would be her assistant in the scout's wilderness course.
She seemed eager then, speaking rapidly, telling how she had it all figured out. It was, she said, a simple matter of rescheduling his workday to allow another ten hours per week to help with her class. Arthur noticed that during this talk she never said she would replace the other work, just add to it- but nobody ever said that being a collared criminal was easy.
* * *
[10 Days earlier]
Arthur grumbled but still walked toward the mouth of Corpse Creek. Two hundred meters ahead the stream ran swift, narrow and deep under an arched stone bridge before it spilled into the Black River Reservoir; beyond the bridge was a popular hiking trail that climbed atop the rugged cliffs north of the campground, where the trail wound amongst vertical spires of white quartz sandstone that Danubians called The Finger bones. Whoever named these features must have been awfully depressed, Arthur thought, or scared.
Arthur had watched this particular bridge every day for the past week. He was so tired that he was tempted to skip it; nothing had happened so far but he would nearly die if he missed it. Ahead through gaps in the trees Arthur saw movement, he picked up his pace but not enough to draw attention.
There was a figure on the bridge. "Wait a second," he said to himself, "a young man wearing a yellow shirt and a red beret… Oh Hell! Not yet!"
Arthur saw the scene unfold, unable to stop it. The French tourist backed up against the knee-high rail, fumbled with a disposable camera, flailed dramatically, fell off the bridge, splashed into the water and screamed for help. The swift current pushed him out into the lake.
Arthur sprinted toward the commotion swearing under his breath. "Damn it, I'm not even ready..." Then just as he got to the bridge Arthur's heart sank; a swimmer was in the water halfway out to the flailing Frenchman already. The rescuer was nude and wore a temple collar.
Arthur wanted to stop and throw rocks at the drowning Frenchman but he forced himself to act normal and concerned, running down to the shore and helping the swimmer drag the Frenchman onto the bank.
A crowd soon formed around the rescuer and rescuee. Arthur watched with disgust as the Frenchman loudly gave his thanks to the brave and selfless swimmer who had saved his life, the guy was really laying it on thick, playing up to the crowd. He acted drunk.
Arthur left the scene; he just couldn't take it anymore. It was time to go back to the stables anyway, yet more work to do, but no matter how much he tried, he just couldn't force it out of his head.
“I can't believe it!" Arthur fumed. "That stupid drunken Frenchman... I'm the only fucking criminal in this park and he can't pick me out of the crowd? Mistakes a penitent for me! Just find the naked guy wearing orange work boots and the big metal collar with numbers on it! What's so damn hard about that?"
“And that penitent," Arthur clenched his fists. "That guy stole my drowning victim! Now he's probably going to get public recognition, a reward, they'll probably give that bastard a parade." Arthur kicked at the dirt. "He's using my five-hundred dollar French drowning victim and I'm not getting jack!"
The more Arthur thought it over the worse he felt. Two smuggled letters, his sister's hard work finding a willing tourist, and the Frenchman's five hundred dollar fee: all wasted. It was nearly July and getting uncomfortably close to August ninth and a trip back to the Police Headquarters.
Arthur had figured that if he could publicly save the life of another human being (even a Frenchman) the criminal court judges would have had no choice but to reward him for that act of heroism. But his plan failed miserably and time was running out; he knew he’d better think of something quick. Since being a hero didn't work out Arthur decided to take off the kid gloves and slip on the gloves of villainy!
Copyright© 2012 by Ed Harley. All rights reserved. I welcome your comments. Email me at email@example.com