Though adequately armed, both Justin and Shades wished they had landed here before Sarna. Despite driving tougher bargains than most of the other shops on the island, the prices were still more reasonable than any they had encountered with the ruthless Bodeen arms merchants. While their own weapons themselves were sufficient for self-defense purposes, there was something Shades wanted to look into.
That, and one thing they had come to notice about one another was that none of them turned down an opportunity to check out any new weapons that came their way.
The proprietor turned out to be a frumpy, middle-aged man with a shaggy mop of curly dark hair and a hang-dog face whose eyes were anything but trusting. His gaze flicking back and forth between a yellowing newspaper from some other realm, and watching his sales floor like a hawk now that he had visitors, between swigs from a beer can sitting openly on the counter. As if to remind anyone who entered that there were no laws here, no cops, no courts.
No hospitals, either.
A point Shades took to heart, for Rude Bones warned them this Gloomy Gus kept a sawed-off disrupter rifle under the counter. And was known to have used it on several occasions against would-be robbers and unruly customers. Fair play, he figured, as the whole weapon-carrying thing cut both ways.
“Since this place does business with pirates,” Justin speculated as they walked down the center aisle, having heard of ‘neutral ground’ shops, “do you think they’ll have…”
He trailed off as Bandit stopped short, sniffing the air as a low, menacing snarl issued from under the front counter, the sound bringing all of them to a halt.
“Hey, why’re you bringin’ that thing in here?” Gloomy Gus demanded, glaring at the big cat from over the top of his paper. “Just ’cause there’re no laws around here don’t mean there’re no consequences, either.”
From around the counter strode a pudgy pit-bull wearing a spiked collar, growling low and threatening, Bandit slowly edging in front of Max in a defensive posture.
“Butch ain’t too fond of other animals,” he warned them, “and once he snaps, even I can’t stop him.”
“I see…” Max was fast concluding that, even in a land with no laws, it was probably unrealistic to expect his feline friend to be welcome everywhere they went. Turning to Bandit, he said, “Let’s go. This is his territory.”
“I think I’ll be taking my leave, as well,” Ma’Quiver seconded. “An after-breakfast stroll sounds refreshing.”
“You do that,” Shades said absently, relieved to resolve things peacefully, since he still had unfinished business here. “I’ve got something I want to look into while I’m here.”
“Same here,” Justin added as Max and Ma’Quiver eased Bandit back out the door. “See ya later.”
Once the big cat was out, Butch settled down, grumbling as he crawled back onto a lumpy old pillow near his master’s chair.
Though Shades didn’t particularly like to ditch his friends after that, he was also curious about that newspaper, in addition to his original business. Among all the events abroad, he wondered what could have happened in another realm that a Gloomy Gus like him would find so fascinating. Casually edging closer to the counter, glancing at various pieces of merchandise, he caught a glimpse of the headline.
ELYRIA VANISHED! ENTIRE ISLAND GONE! in enormous bolded print, most of the front page splashed with a photo of what appeared to be an empty expanse of water.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” Shades brought up, “might you tell me where that paper’s from?”
“What business is it of yours?” he demanded.
“Just simple curiosity,” Shades replied. “I’ve always had an interest in the bizarre and mysterious, and I’d like to know how an entire island disappears.”
“Camcron made it disappear, that’s how,” Gloomy Gus muttered, folding the paper. “This is from Eelya. For all I know, anymore it might be the last copy outside of there, the only record of what happened to Elyria.”
“Camcron?” Shades gasped, not expecting to hear that name again so soon. “That would explain a few things, all by itself.”
“What did those bastards do this time?” Justin muttered, recalling their fun stay in St Lucy all too well.
“Wait a minute!” He simply looked back and forth between them. “Just what do you know about Camcron?”
“I know they like to toy with small towns with faltering economies,” Shades informed him. “Only weeks ago, we got stuck in the Isle of St Lucy, where one of their ‘Research Institute’s’ little science projects kept the same day on repeat loop, over and over.”
“There was this underground lab, and all these computers and shit,” Justin added, “and every time we tried to leave, we had to start all over.”
“Hey, you’re not just pullin’ my leg here, are you?” His eyes narrowed. “That old pirate didn’t put you up to this, did he? Just ’cause he thinks I’m paranoid?”
“No, I’m serious,” Shades assured him. “The only thing Rude Bones said about you was that you were packin’. I wish I had some kind of proof, but tell me, what did they do in Elyria anyway?”
He seemed to look inward for a moment before he answered.
“I suppose, but I want to hear about your experience in… St Lucy, was it, first. By the way, the name’s Wilkins. Russell Wilkins.”
And so Shades and Justin introduced themselves. They spent an hour or so telling him about Project Pythagoras and its aftermath. The more they explained about Adnan’s Academy and Sheriff Boggs, the more Mr Wilkins started taking them seriously, his knowing nods and scowls suggested that he was no stranger to Camcron’s ways himself. Shades especially was increasingly certain that his account would also be from personal experience.
As they talked, Shades examined Jolly Roger’s selection of holsters, finding several shoulder and sling holsters that would be well suited to concealed carry underneath his denim jacket. Though he had every intention of honoring the local accord on weapons during his stay, at least as long as things remained peaceful, it was their dislike of open carry that inspired his decision to try concealed in the first place. Reflecting on events in St Lucy, Bodeen and Centralict, as well as future destinations, he wondered why he hadn’t seriously considered it sooner, back at the Tradewinds Mercantile District, if not the market of Kon Miribar.
Justin too, apparently, from the look on his face.
Along with dropping off their supplies, the other thing they went back to the ship for was to retrieve his power pistol. Now he handed over his power clip to Wilkins as he tried on different holsters and tested out his draw with his own gun, and his jacket on. Even when his own curiosity wasn’t getting the best of him, even when Justin kept his sticky fingers in check, even when Max’s socially awkward misunderstandings weren’t drawing hostility, hell, even when the locals had no beef with Bandit, the four of them still seemed to function as some kind of trouble magnet. He no longer needed to be sold on the value of having more than one ace up his sleeve.
Shades had narrowed it down to two choices by the time Wilkins began his recounting of the last days of Elyria.
“You see, back then,” he explained, “Sheridan was an old fishing town, but for a time they had a prosperous trade in outside goods as well. But you know how it goes, when business gets slow, greedy merchant bastards take the money and run. Then somebody got the bright idea to try tourism.” He snorted. “Don’t know whose brilliant plan that was. The only place I can think of that any tourists would actually want to see wasn’t even on Eelya. It was on Elyria, a clifftop called Land’s End, that I used to hike to as a boy, but I doubt too many folks would go out of their way to see it.”
“So that’s why you’ve hung on to that newspaper all this time,” Shades observed: “You used to live there, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, I grew up there. For over twenty years, Elyria was my home,” Wilkins told them. “The place was so small, it only had one town, Sinclair, but most of the island was scattered settlements. I watched the place go downhill since I was a kid, finally got to where I had to work over in Sheridan just to make a living. By that time, it was becoming obvious to even the densest fool around that the tourist thing was doomed from the start. That’s about when Camcron showed up, promising to ‘revitalize’ Sheridan.”
“And let me guess,” Justin speculated, “they set up a research lab on Elyria, didn’t they?”
“You bet your ass they did,” Wilkins muttered. “They ran my grandmother right out of her home. Some shady realtor sold the place right out from under her, somehow tricked her into signing something. Built the ugliest excuse for a building on five generations of my family, to say nothing of Grandma’s gardening. It was simple, but she took good care of it…
“Anyway, the point is that for all their talk, they never did jack shit for most of us. Sure, they poured a small fortune into local coffers, but the only ones who even saw any of it were corrupt officials and businessmen who were all in Camcron’s pocket. It was really more like hush money than any real contribution to the community, and before long, they just seemed to own the place. And there were always weird rumors about that ‘research facility’ of theirs, especially near the end of the whole mess, but if they were just rumors, then why was the Institute so determined to shut people up, huh?”
“I think I’m beginning to see a pattern here,” Shades commented. “That’s exactly how they leveraged everyone back in St Lucy.”
“And that was when it happened,” Wilkins explained. “I was working over in Sheridan, over in the harbor, when I heard the commotion. Elyria disappeared. An entire island, disappeared. Not sank, not exploded, not flooded, just gone, empty ocean, as if it never existed. My home, my shop, my family, my girlfriend, my entire life, all vanished in the blink of an eye…”
“Damn…” Justin breathed. Once upon a time, he would have thought this guy was yanking his chain, but after the Institute demonstrated that it could make an entire day repeat itself again and again, he found that photo on the front page frighteningly believable.
“And let me guess,” Shades intoned, “Elyria was never seen again?”
“Not as far as I know,” Wilkins answered. “Not many travelers through here been to Eelya, and none of ’em have ever seen Elyria. Apparently, they don’t talk much about it with outsiders, but back then it was the talk of the town. It’s almost a sick joke, how that could have made a tourist story… Still, I did hear a lot of fishermen stay away from the area where Elyria used to be, and I can’t say I blame them.”
“I wonder what they were trying to do there…” Shades mused.
“Project Parabola….” Wilkins hissed. “That was what they called it. They had an office in Sheridan, but the night after Elyria disappeared, there was a fire. The whole place burned, every scrap of every document, and their ‘Representative’ was found dead the following morning.”
“Just like that head researcher… Grady, I think his name was,” Shades thought aloud. “His corpse was still fresh, barely a day old, as if his killer set Project Pythagoras in motion and skipped town in a hurry. Now I wonder if their experiments are really ‘successes’ or just sabotaged. It looked like there was some kind of internal power struggle there…”
“And this whole Geist business,” Justin muttered. “What the hell was that all about?”
“Geist…” Wilkins looked over at Butch out of the corner of his eye. “I’ve heard the name a couple times, always in spooked whispering, but I’ve never heard of anybody who’s ever seen him, or actually knows anything.”
“Yeah, only the people who called on Grady’s phone to warn or threaten him ever mentioned Geist by name,” Shades recalled, “and they both made a pretty big deal out of him, like he was some kind of enforcer or something. Though I’m glad he never showed up while we were there, I still can’t help but wonder…”
“Yeah, same here,” Wilkins concurred before continuing his tale. “With nothing left for me in Elyria, I decided to ship out. Back then, I was going to make my way to New Cali, give those Camcron bastards a piece of my mind, but along the way, it bothered me more and more that I had no evidence, and word was that Camcron was in the business of covering up these sort of shenanigans, so I went looking.
“I found out that their ‘Projects’ are spread way apart, in far-flung realms, and often years in between. There was Elyria, I’ve heard talk of one in a place called Sinovia, and now you tell me about St Lucy. I only found one other place some years ago, Parker Pines, a small town where they were just starting up one of their ‘research facilities’ so I decided to stick around, see what happened.
“Of course, I told some folks about what happened to Elyria, but nobody listened to me. The local police threatened to run me out of town, the mayor’s secretary called me a crackpot. And the only person who’d listen to me was an old man whose home Camcron bought right out from under him, the local government tripping over their own feet to get their hands on that ‘development money’ before the neighboring town. Another ‘tinfoil hat’ nobody’d listen to.”
“Hard to say which one makes a harder case for himself,” Shades remarked: “the outsider, or the long-time resident who got the short end of the stick, and whose reputation, I’m guessing, didn’t exactly lean toward credibility?”
“You got that right,” Wilkins snorted. “Ended up living out of a truck with his dog, he camped near the construction site, as close as he could get without the cops runnin’ him off anyhow. Snuck into the place a couple times while they were still building it, telling me about strange machines nobody in those parts had ever seen before. The second time, he brought a camera, but their private guards broke it when they caught him. After that, we were going to sneak in together, try an’ find something that would convince the people just how dangerous their research was.”
“Were?” Shades raised an eyebrow.
“Well, that was the plan,” Wilkins admitted, “but when I went to meet him that night, he didn’t show up. I looked around, and when I found him, out in the woods nearby, he was dead. Not a mark on him, but stiff— petrified— with the most awful tormented look frozen on his face! I ran all the way back to the truck, where I found his poor dog, just sitting there, whimpering and whining like I’d never seen a dog do before.
“Though the poor mutt looked unharmed, he acted as if he had been beaten within an inch of his life. After that, I took his truck and skipped town. Lived in it all the way back to the coast. After that, I was afraid to stop anywhere for more than a few hours, so certain they were looking for me, too. Looking back, I s’pose I just helped them cover up his murder, but I was too scared to stick around and find out. I took the first ship that would take a dog, and I’ve taken care of Butch ever since.”
“I see.” Shades had noted, over the course of that last account, that poor dog becoming increasingly stressed, as if his keeper wasn’t the only one digging up unpleasant memories.
“Kept him with me all these years,” Wilkins patted him on the head, reassuring him, “but I’ve never heard a peep about what became of Parker Pines. I just keep an ear out for anything about Camcron, but most folks just say I’m paranoid. It’s nice every once in a while to hear you’re not crazy— hell, I might even give you a discount on that holster.”
“Cool,” Shades replied.
“Who knew that whole mess back there would actually turn out to be worth something?” Justin wondered aloud.