Chapter 3, 7: Happy Campers
There was a car, finally, to take them from the ferry dock to the wharf where the Paradise Valley Camp boat would pick them up, which was five miles north of town on the oil-slicked dirt road that ran along the edge of the hill beside the lake. Below them, wherever the trees opened up, they could see orchards and houses on the flats along the lake, all broken up by ditches so deep and water-filled that they were practically canals, with, in fact, canoes and boats tied up along the sides here and there. Geithner’s Strike, at least in the part next to the lake, was like Venice, Charlotte thought. Well, if Venice was a half-finished town on the edge of the frontier of everything.
Okay, it wasn’t really a car. Actually, it was a beaten-up old Volkswagen van that hadn’t got the memo that the 60s were over. Three girls and a guy could just barely fit into the camping compartment in the back, perched on tan benches and love seats and the like. Their luggage went in a wooden trailer in the back, and Dr. Cambridge sat in the passenger’s seat, making small talk with their driver that could not be heard in the back over the howl of the engine, although it was drowned out whenever the road got clear enough for them to speed up above 30, or had to go up a hill.
Before they got on what might laughably be called the open road, though, they had to get through Geithner’s Strike itself. The town had looked a Wild West set, at least once up on the first bench level above the lake, after maybe a 40 foot climb up a hill on a street that was actually paved with asphalt. That is, it had two-storey frame commercial buildings with big porches and hand-painted signs.
It was also awfully familiar to Charlotte, who had spent a lot of time in the near-ghost town of Gennessee, Washington, hanging out at her grandfather’s restaurant, the Golden Dynasty. The old Golden Dynasty, the one that she remembered from the 1970s, had even looked like those buildings, with a big dining room and kitchen on the main floor, and family apartments on the second floor. Although the apartments were preserved as a shrine to her late aunt, and her grandfather had lived in an apartment building he owned in Oroville.
Those were thoughts that left Charlotte halfway between happy and sad. Like family did to everyone, she guessed. Gennessee was a sad place, because it was dying. On the other hand, family was about love. Or it was supposed to be.
Geithner’s Strike wasn’t dying. There was a mansion going up right along the road up from the ferry.. Charlotte had a good chance to watch the builders as the van crawled along beside the commotion of the construction, which reached out way into the road.
But when she said so, Bruce just shrugged. “Lots of rooms you never go into.”
“But it’s not really yours,” Charlotte pointed out, lying on the tan foam in the rearmost compartment of the van. “There’s your sisters, and your half-brothers, and your cousins, and their kids. . . “
“It’s not like we only have one mansion,” Bruce said. “At some point, the damn things just keep on piling up. We have awful luck about buying real estate where the price is going to go up.”
“You should get a place in Geithner’s Strike, then,” Charlotte said. “Look at the place.” And it was true. When they finally got by the horse-drawn wagon that was dumping gravel, half on and half off the street, they climbed the last bit onto the level and entered “downtown” Geithner’s Strike. It was crazy. There were people and horses everywhere, wandering around on the street as though they’d never heard of traffic laws, with cars and trucks and bikes and motorcyles threading their way through.
It was hard to believe that it was safe, and apparently someone agreed. The Heights Road up from the ferry ran by five stores on either side and then met an even wider, four-lane main road, (‘Main Street,’ of course. Dora rolled her head to the ceiling of the van and said, “The names, the names, make it stop!”)
and stopped for a traffic light. “See that,” the driver shouted, waving like a tourist guide. “A real life stoplight, just like in Landing Town. Only one in the Valley.”
It was a very impressive intersection. There was a big stone building opposite them, with a sign that read “Landing Bank,” that looked like some kind of Roman temple. Beside them to the right was an even bigger brick building that seemed to say “Government” work. Its sign said “Colonial Office,” and Charlotte could read a directory at its big, glass double doors that announced that it held the Colonial Bank and the Bureau of Investigation office. Opposite it on the other side of the street, was the Post Office, built in the same impressive, brick-faced style. Apparently it also had telephones and the telegraph. Finally, ahead of them and to the right, was a big building with turrets and towers that looked kind of like a shrunken parliament building: Geithner’s Strike City Hall.
Unfortunately, no one told the people in the street that their job was to make a good impression.. The street they were on kept going straight, and Charlotte could see that it was sloping upwards, and really began climbing up to the next bench two blocks further on, turning a corner in the shade of some trees in a way that suggested that where it was going was far more interesting and worth exploring than the road up the valley and out of town, which they were trying to make a left turn onto. A team of oxen apparently agreed, because they were trying to drag a heavy-looking wagon through the intersection. The lead animals were on the road beyond, and having trouble with the slope. Needless to say, they didn’t clear the intersection in time for the light.
So now there was a steady lineup of pickups and cars on Valley Road with a green light, and a straggling line of oxen blocking the intersection. Most of the cars looked like they were the same make, only fixed up into sedans and pickups, and most of the drivers were patient enough. Some weren’t. A few began honking. The oxen ignored it. The Mayor’s Hummvee waited, patiently, in the tiny parking lot in front of City Hall that kind of ruined the effect of the architecture, for a gap in traffic to squeeze. An impatient driver in a bulbous, rust-coloured pickup began to edge out of Main Street northbound, as though to make a left-hand turn onto Heights Road as soon as the oxen were clear.
Then he stopped-swerved-fishtailed frantically, as though he’d seen something crazy. Which he had. Charlotte’s Eight Spirit Dragon danger sense pulled her eyes back in time to see a certain candy-apple red Porche, come howling up the empty left lane of Heights Road, pushing 50 in heedless regard. Somehow, the pickup got out of the way, at the expense of somehow riding up on the curb of Main Street and highi-siding its front axle with a screech that she could easily hear over the engine. The Porsche spead out of the intersection, still accelerating, hitting the corner up Heights Road so fast that for a moment Charlotte braced herself for the sound of another crash. It did not come. The Porsche, whatever you thought of the driver, was a very good car.
And now they had a traffic accident in front of them, right in the middle of Geithner’s Strike’s rush hour, with the baking Long Lake Valley sun beating down on them. Awesome. Then came a quiet knock from the back of the van. Charlotte twisted in place, then squirmed around, pushing Bruce as she slid by his oversized body. “Get out of my way,” she said, in a funny way. She hoped.
John the Ostler was at the back window of the van, standing out in the street from the sidewalk in front of the Colonial Office. There was a little wooden knob on the rear window, and when Charlotte cranked it, the window came down, just like a side window. Was that even safe? Charlotte wondered.
“Fancy meeting you here,” Charlotte said, then grinned, because it was totally obvious that John was a CBI agent, and the CBI office was in that building.
“Of course he’s here,” Bruce said, squeezing his fat head up next to Charlotte’s. Well, not actually fat. Metaphorically fat. “He’s a Colonial.”
“I knew that,” Charlotte said.
“And I knew you knew that. That was the joke.”
“What joke? You’re a joke.”
“No, you’re a joke.”
“Holy Moley,” John said.
“Holy what?” Bruce asked.
“It’s something we say around here. Look, can you two stop bickering like you were related or something, so we can talk?”
“Yessir, Agent?” Bruce drew out the last to suggest that maybe John could tell them his last name at some point.
“Just call me John, Mr. McNeely, Miss Wong.”
“How do you know our names?” Charlotte asked.
“Let’s say that I have my means. And also that your chaperone is a blabbermouth.”
“But aren’t you taking charge of the Geithner’s Strike CBI Office this summer. Because of the Someone-Tried-To-Steal-The-Important-Mail-That-Was-Actually-On-Our-Wagon Investigation?” Bruce asked. “How will we be able to help you with your investigations if we can’t go to the counter and ask to talk to, you know, ‘Agent Elrond’ or whoever?”
“Agent Elrond?” John prompted, sounding puzzled. Charlotte grinned at Bruce’s joke. It was funny because Hugo Weaving played ‘Elrond’ in the Lord of the Ring movies and ‘Agent Smith,’ in The Matrix.
Possibly, however, John hadn’t seen those movies, on account of living on a different planet and everything. “Okay, no, I’m not taking charge of the office. The guy in charge is perfectly capable, and I’d just blow my cover and limit my freedom of movement. Also, and I hope this doesn’t sound too selfish, I wouldn’t be able to hang out with Kieran without starting rumours. This country is way out in the backwoods on the whole tolerance thing. And you can call me John.”
“Aside from that,” John the Ostler said, “Good guessing. Yeah. We’ve got a special package down in the vaults of the Colonial Bank, and it can sit there until we have the security to move it.”
“We could move it tomorrow,” Charlotte said. “You got regular superheroes, why not use them?”
“Well, thanks for the offer,” John said. “How do you feel about carrying 25 tons of gold and 200 tons of silver down to Landing Town?”
Charlotte didn’t say anything. That was heavy metal. Mental Arrowsmith guitar riff!
“Thought so. We’ll move the package with the season’s gold haul. When the Narrows floods. Either with the fall rains or the freshet next spring. Either way, the river will be deep enough to float an armoured gunboat, and there’s nothing up there that can mess with CSS Warrior. By that time, hopefully the laptop's owner’ll have showed up to make sense of it.”
“Who’s that?” Bruce asked.
“Need to know,” John said.
“Mike Suzuki?” Bruce asked.
“Nice try, kid. Even if you’re right, that’s a lucky guess,” John answered.
Bruce shrugged. “Detectiving runs in my blood. Package looked like a laptop, and there was supposed to be electricity at the XYZ this summer, so he could use it for his field research. If he was doing field research. Which I figure he was, what with cats being too smart and clones who are supposed to be programmed to be good citizens turning muggers. Or outlaws, depending on whether this is the 50s or the Wild West. Both? Muglaws. Anyway, this is a tiny place. There’s only 1.2 million people in the Colony. How many genetic researchers with modern equipment is that?” Bruce finished, or stopped talking, or ran out of breath, or all three.
“This stinks of a conspiracy to do forbidden genetic research.”
“Conspiracy,” John snorted. “That laptop’s worth half a million gold dollars on this planet, kid. There’s your conspiracy.”
“Yeah, Bruce, try not to let your imagination carry you away,” Charlotte said.
“Way too late for that,” Bruce said.
That was weird. Charlotte stared into Bruce’s face, waiting for him to come unglued and explain what he meant, but he just clammed up, even though his face turned beet red under the scrutiny. Boys!
“So I’ll see you kids around,” John said, just as the engine of the van caught and they began pulling away from the curb. The oxen were out of the way, and traffic was moving again.
Finally the van turned off the Lake Highway, which is what Main Street turned into at the edge of town, and headed down a hill to the flats, and a little disk of gravel in the middle of the trees with a floating wharf sticking out of it. There was only one boat at the wharf, with shiny metal trim and an honest-to-god pink boat, with ‘Paradise Valley Camp’ written on its side in curly, artistic letters. Four picnic tables tucked in under the shade of the trees in two rows. One in each row was occupied, one by two men, the other by six teenaged girls and a man. Two horses were tethered by the men’s table.
Oh. And there was a canary-yellow Humvee parked on the gravel, facing towards them. One look at the man at the girl’s table, who was wearing a bright yellow blazer over a white shirt and grey pants, topped with what looked like a chauffeur’s hat with a neon-yellow band told Charlotte to look closer for the series of dents and dashes that checked the Humvee’s front bumper.
“If one of those girls is named ‘Brittany,’ I’m going to upchuck,” Dora announced.
The van pulled up to the picnic tables. Charlotte kicked the van rear window just right, and it flew open. She slid out, feet first, the Pearl Harmony, in its umbrella sheath, clenched in her hands. Brittany she could take, but if one of them was named “Ke$ha,” beheading her would just be a mercy killing.
Mr. Dvorak got up as they approached. “Ah, it’s the new girls! A parade of pulchitrude in neon narliness! Charlotte, Dora., Rose, meet Brittany, Britt, Tiffany, Tiff, Kendra and Ken! Brittany was going to be Peach Festival Queen. You know, before.”
The tallest girl of the 6, which was to say, a little shorter than Charlotte, was a blonde in a frilly yellow tank top and electric blue pants tucked, despite the heat, in spite of the heat and the irregular surface, into things that looked like Uggs crossed with sandals, turned a sidelong glare at Mr. Dvorak, who pretended to ignore it. Brittany, Charlotte thought. Got it.
“Gag,” Dora said, softly.
“Double gag.” Said Rose.
“Oh, hey, Brittany, Britt, Tiffany, Tiff, Kendra, Ken,” Charlotte said. “Don’t worry, we’re not going to enter your pageant.”
“Of course!” Probably-Brittany said. “This is your first year at the camp, isn’t it? There’s all kinds of outdoor activities that you three have to get caught up on! Far too much to have time to doll up for some silly pageant.”
Which is what she said, but Charlotte wasn’t born yesterday: “You? Win the crown?” That was what Brittany meant to say. Probably with a ‘butch’ thrown in. Charlotte threw a mental ‘skank’ right back at Brittany, in the safety of her head where it didn’t matter that it was mean and unfair and unfeminist, and she felt better. Though not as much better as if she could just let loose.
Mr. Dvorak looked at Charlotte, and back at Brittany, and shivered in obvious delight. “Oh, this will be a golden summer!”
“Char-Char?” Said a familiar voice. Charlotte looked around. Bruce was up on one of the horses. One of the men from the other picnic table was on the other one. He was wearing a fleece-lined jean jacket, in spite of the heat, and a battered cowboy hat pulled down over his unshaven face. “Tom here says that we have to leave now if we’re going to get to the line bivouac by dark. We won’t be back at the camp ‘till next week. Could you, um, I know it’s a lot to ask—“
“Spit it out, boy. Ain’t got all day,” Tom interrupted.
“Could you look after my luggage?”
“Is it okay if I throw it at someone?” Charlotte asked.
“Don’t start a fight, Char-Char. You’ve got to live with these girls. They’re probably perfectly nice without Mr. Dvorak stirring the pot.”
“Easy for you to say, Bruce. You don’t. You’re a boy, so you get to go have an adventure. I’m a girl, so I’m supposed to get a pageant gown and learn to sing Colony the Beautiful, and accompany myself on the piano.”
“Eh,” Tom said, “Can get ‘nother horse.”
Charlotte thought about it for a moment. No, she’d have to leave Dora and Rose. “No, we’ll play the hand we’re dealt. For now.”
Tom spat on the ground. Not because he was chewing, but because he was the kind of guy who spat. “Probably as well. Adventure’s going to come to you, I think.”
Regretfully, Charlotte turned from the ride to the high ranges to the pageant girls. She hoped so. She sure as hell hoped so.