You would think a government funded training camp for special agents who dealt with weird and bizarre investigations would be held is a highly funded and beautifully decorated mansion. This place reeked of sweat and soiled underwear. I didn’t understand the implications of the stinky, tighty-whities until I’d been there a few hours.
The bus had dropped me off at the front of a dilapidated shopping mall. The kind where a big-box-store once provided a small town with all the amenities housewives and children could fantasize. It was the trees growing through the roof that clinched the ambiance. Bricks with cracked mortar dangled from every corner and the windows were either covered in newsprint or plywood. I’d seen plenty of low-rent places in my life, but this relic to urban sprawl made a junkyard feel uptown.
It was Monday and I stood facing the weather-beaten Foto Hut poised along the edge of the parking lot. Chain-link fencing encircled the property and funneled visitors to this ad hock security station. Visible through the scratched and hazy Plexiglas window sat a woman. Strobe effects from an overhead florescent light shifted her eyeshadow from orange to blue. She opened the window as I approached.
“Hi.” I put a big smile on my face. “I’m Rye.”
“We’ll aren’t you just precious.” Her bouffant hairdo, towering more the twenty-inches, shimmered with every word.
“Yes, ma’am. I suppose I am.” I ran my fingers through my dark-curly hair. “I think I’m supposed to check in here?”
She looked me over from top to bottom, spending a little too much time on the bottom. “Can’t help you, baby. I’m here to make sure the local children don’t get eaten by the guard dogs.”
I glanced at the dogs lounging next to her hut. Ten or so dachshunds nipped and tussled with one another.
“They look like bruisers.” I dropped my rucksack on the ground and leaned against the customer counter affixed to the window ledge. “What do you feed them, hotdogs?”
“Don’t go with the humor, baby. You don’t have the gift.” Her eye lashes batted, and an overpowering scent of cigarette smoke radiated. “Like I said. I sit here to keep the boys and girls from being eaten. Now go away. Unless… you know, Rhonda gets powerfully lonely all by herself.”
She picked up a cigarette from the pack on the counter, struck a light, and pulled a long drag. The ember glowed and wiggled down half the length of the smoke.
“Sounds inviting.” I reached out and adjusted one of the curls from her hair. “Maybe on the way out.”
“Your loss.” She reached for the window.
I jumped back as the opening closed tight.
The dogs took notice of the sound and wobbled over to inspect me. Dark-damp noses pressed through the fence links.
I knelt and reached for the nearest pup. Friendly eyes and wagging tails thumped as I spent a moment petting each animal.
Rhonda opened the window. “Don’t pet the dogs.” She pointed to a faded handwritten paper, thumbtacked to the outside wall. “You might lose your hand.”
“Oh, I think it’ll be alright. They seem friendly enough.” I stood and hefted my pack. “How about letting me in?”
“Your funeral, pretty boy.” She dangled the cigarette from the corner of her lips as she swung a lever inside the shack, unlatching the gate.
I stepped through. It took a moment for my vision to clear. The building in all its dilapidated splendor still loomed, but the open parking lot had morphed into an expanse of bombed out pillboxes and barbwire. Several groups of people, all wearing gray-industrial jumpsuit sprinted and climbed across the killing zone.
I took a step back, out the gate opening.
Rhonda opened the window. “You only get one of those. You going in or out?”
Her cigarette dangled, threatening to drop a load of ash. Bright red lipstick stained the filter.
“In, but later.”
The gate slammed shut. The parking lot looked like a parking lot. All was quiet in this corner of suburbia.
I dropped my pack beside the gate. “Where’s the nearest grocery or convenience store?”
“Chow’s in an hour. You can eat when you get inside.”
“I think I want something now. Which way?”
She flipped a finger in a noncommittal direction. “Three blocks.”
“Thanks.” I hoofed it down the street.
It didn’t take long to find a gas station with a selection of reheat burgers and beef jerky. At the counter, I picked up a pack of smokes. The clerk gave me a funny look at the two bags full of food.
Grabbing a sack under each arm, I headed back.
Reaching the hut, I unwrapped the burgers and jerky, and tossed one bag full over the fence. The dachshunds attacked with the ferocity of piranha.
The window rattled open and Rhonda’s painted nails tapped a different paper tacked to the wall. “Don’t feed the dogs.”
I pulled the smokes from my shirt pocket and placed them on the counter. “For the pretty lady.”
The window snapped closed.
With the rucksack slung over my shoulder, a grocery bag full of burgers and jerky, I approached the gate into the parking lot. “Let’s do this, Rhonda. Open her up.”
“Your funeral, sweetie boy.” She reached over and pulled the lever.
I stepped in and once again, the parking lot morphed into something reminiscent of a World War One trench battle blended with inner-city riots.
The first five steps were easy.
The sixth step came with a realization. I may have overestimated the effectiveness of my bag of food.
The dachshunds were no longer cute, ankle biters. In their place stood a dozen snarling guard dogs. The breed resembled a cross between a wooly mastiff and Sherman tank. Leather and iron barding protected the hound’s shoulder and neck. And given a saddle, I probably could have ridden one.
These puppies were zeroed in on me and not wagging their tails.
“Here doggie, doggie.” It’s all I could think to say as I took a couple of tentative steps toward the building.
Rhonda retracted the lever and the gate swung closed.
I took another couple of steps. The hounds took three.
The background noise from the training field faded. All eyes turned toward me. Three separate groups of jumpsuit-clad trainees stopped their work to watch.
I waved at them, did a little bow, and tossed a burger to the rear of the lead dog.
Snarls and growls emanated from the pack of hounds as they wrestled for the treat.
I took another couple of steps. All the while, keeping my concentration locked on the lead dog. I made certain to not make eye contact with the alpha male.
He raised the fur along his back and lowered his head with teeth showing. So far, he’d not made a sound and I hoped we could come to an agreement before this all fell apart.
Reaching in the bag, I grabbed more treats and tossed one to him. He eyed the food and gave the jerky a sniff. A couple of dogs flanked him, also sniffing the offering.
A little rough math deduced I needed about forty treats, if I could get five steps per snack. I had twenty.
The onlookers started chanting. I couldn’t understand the words at first, but after a couple of times around, “eat, kill, eat, kill…” So much for support from the peanut gallery.
Time to change tactics. I judged my distance to the closest group. I could reach them, if they didn’t move.
I started to move and toss burgers and jerky. First, I would take a step or two and throw food, or I would throw food and walk, continually changing the pattern. To my surprise, the alpha dog moved along with me, never getting any closer or further away. It got me thinking about what Gael had said a few days ago, “Camp was to teach me about the weird and bizarre.”
Would the trainers at Special Camp really put me in the situation where a pack of dogs would chew me to bits? I bet not. It was a ruse, at least I hoped.
To play it safe, I dumped the last of the food on the ground along with the sack and casually walked toward the main door.
The onlooks raised their voices. “Kill, eat, kill, eat…” Adding the thumping of their boots to the effort.
I stopped and turned to face the dogs. Alpha Male stayed his set distance away from me.
I did another wave to the watchers and knelt. “Here puppy, puppy.” I clapped my hands together.
The illusion vanished, and I found myself trampled by a swarm of nipping and yapping dachshunds. We played rub-my-tummy for a couple of minutes before I rose and continued to the door.
As I approached, a frail looking man who could have passed for more than a hundred-years-old stepped out to greet me. His long, silver hair flowed down his back.
“Sir.” I stood in front of him. “Rye Ironstone reporting for training.”
He tossed a jumpsuit to me. “Ironstone, you’re late. Drop your gear and strip.”