tea and conversation
The lone man, clearly past middle age, with a scruffy nest of greying hair and stubble, stopped short a moment as Justin joined his friends on deck. Even in the dull grey light of that clouded sky, his black-and-red checked flannel coat stood out even when he stood still. Then, if they weren’t mistaken, his hesitation seemed to pass as his eyes settled on Bandit, and he made the rest of the way over, waving to them casually.
“Ho there! I don’t get too many visitors out here,” the old man called out. Pointing back the way they had just come, he told them, “If you’re looking for the Isle of St Lucy, it’s that way.”
“Thanks, but that’s alright,” Shades assured him. “We just came from there, and were looking to see what was out this way.”
“I see,” the man replied, seeming to relax a bit more at these visitors’ casual demeanor. “I’m afraid there isn’t much out here anymore. Not since the school closed down, at any rate.”
“We were just passing through,” Max told him. “My name’s Max,” and seeing this fellow’s lingering gaze fixed on his feline friend, he added, “and this is Bandit.”
“Shades MacLean,” Shades introduced himself, already quite certain this guy knew nothing of what just transpired back in town.
“Justin Black,” Justin shrugged, figuring that, with the others’ names, the damage was already done.
“You can call me Donaldson,” he told them. “So, what brings you to the Isle of St Lucy?”
“Well, actually…” Shades thought fast, digging through his wallet for his photo of John and the band. Fishing out the picture, he handed it to Donaldson, saying, “I’ve been looking for an old friend of mine. His name is John Doe. You haven’t seen him, by any chance?”
It started drizzling even as Donaldson shook his head no.
“Well, no need to stand out in the rain,” Donaldson invited, gesturing for them to follow. “I live alone out here now, so I don’t mind the company. Why don’t you all come inside, and we can talk?”
“Why not?” Shades saw no horn in Donaldson’s offer.
Justin, meanwhile, took one last look over his shoulder, in the general direction they just came from, before joining them.
“Of course,” Max knew all too well what it was like to live alone. I wouldn’t have minded more visitors… Then, almost as an afterthought: “Can Bandit come, too?”
“Yes, by all means,” Donaldson replied as he led them up several steps onto the front porch, past a dark-stained wood plank picnic table off to the side. A set of carved wooden wind-chimes tinkled as he opened the door. “I don’t know what kind of cat that is, but we used to have a dog, Daisy…”
On the inside, Donaldson’s place didn’t look nearly as Spartan as its exterior would have suggested. For such a remote location, the old man clearly had at least most of the modern conveniences, an old-fashioned woodsy atmosphere permeated both the interior and exterior, a mix of items that would look almost antique by Shades’ standards, as well as decorations that had an almost “native” look about them, though he had no clue where exactly they might be native to. The whole place definitely carried a woman’s touch, yet showing distinct signs of more recent occupation by someone who had lived alone for a while, rustically decorated to a degree that hardly seemed the style of a bachelor or a hermit.
As they sat down in the rather spacious living room that occupied most of the first floor, Shades spotted several portraits sitting on the fireplace mantle, what appeared to be a somewhat younger version of Mr Donaldson, as well as a woman of similar age, a little boy, and what looked like a Gold Lab; while most of them appeared to be set here on this island, and a few from St Lucy, several backgrounds included a building that looked to him to be a school of some sort.
While his human friends seated themselves in several chairs that looked comfortably worn enough to have hosted plenty of company over the years, Bandit curled up on a corner of a large area rug that struck Shades as just such a natural place for a pet to hang out around guests.
“I’ll be back in a moment, Donaldson said, stepping into a kitchen that was likely the other main room on this floor. “You like tea, right? The Missus used to make the best tea, but mine’s not so bad either.”
Justin was the first to notice the small table off to the side with some radio gear sitting on it, likely for emergency use out here. He quietly pointed it out while Donaldson was out of the room, Shades quickly thinking to shush Max for fear he might say something out-loud. So they waited in silence as the minutes piled up, trying not to look directly at it lest Donaldson see them eying it when he returned.
A few long minutes later, Donaldson came back in with several ceramic mugs of tea, saying, “I already had pot boiling earlier, so I hope you like it.”
“Thank you,” Max replied. Tea of any variety was a rarity in the Islands, so for him, this was a treat he hadn’t enjoyed in many years.
Justin nodded, even as he carefully sniffed it, trying to figure out what it was.
“Sorry to impose,” Shades told him as he took his cup.
“Not to worry,” Donaldson said as he went back to the kitchen to fetch some honey and cakes. “Anymore, I always make more than I meant to…”
“Bitter…” Justin muttered. “You got anything else?”
“Here,” Shades told him, handing him the honey, “try adding some of this.”
Seeing Bandit watching the cakes intently, he turn to Max, saying, “Don’t worry. They should be alright. Daisy always ate plenty, and it never did her any harm.”
“Thank you,” Max replied, handing a couple to his feline friend.
“So, you’re searching for an old friend?” Donaldson asked. “Or are all of you looking for him?”
“Oh, just me,” Shades replied, “and actually, I’m looking for two people. John’s just the only one I have a picture of. The other’s a girl named Amy, but I’m guessing you probably haven’t met her either, have you?”
“No, I’m afraid I haven’t,” Donaldson shook his head after listening to Shades’ description. “So, what do you guys do?”
“Well…” Max found himself at an uncomfortable loss for any legitimate occupation their activities fell under, “we travel around on the Ocean…”
“Seeing the sights and meeting the people,” Shades filled in, not wanting Justin to panic again. Especially since he seemed to be struggling not to look at the radio. “You know, doing the odd job here and there to pay the bills.”
“It’s always been our dream to go out and see the world.” Max sounded much more confident this time, and even Justin seemed to relax somewhat.
“Well, it’s important for young people to have goals,” the old man conceded, a wistful look crossing his face for a moment. “Then again, aside from the ancient Shrine of St Lucy, there aren’t any sights to see in these islands anymore. Trade has been in decline for a long time, and the one offer to revitalize St Lucy only seems to have made things worse.”
“What happened?” Shades asked, the strong impression settling on him that this fellow had something to get off his chest.
“Well, for starters, I’m sure you must have seen another island out that way,” Donaldson explained. “Adnan’s Island. There was a school out there, and I used to teach at it. It was the pride of St Lucy.”
“Was?” Shades intoned, wondering why he kept referring to it in the past tense.
“You see, Adnan’s Academy was a kind of boarding school, where the youth of St Lucy studied for weeks at a time, it was supposed to be our hope for future generations, but as time went by, the administration became more and more ambitious. Of course, I’ve a had a lot of time to think about it these days, and while we may have been able to afford it back when the economy was better, I believe our biggest mistake was getting too comfortable with the way it was run. Perhaps if I had convinced the others of the need to scale back a bit, we wouldn’t have ended up like this…”
“What happened?” Max asked.
“I suppose we knew it was too good to be true,” Donaldson sighed, “but the school was already in trouble before that, due to lack of funding, and it was only a matter of time before we got shut down if we didn’t do something. That was when Camcron Industries came in with an offer we couldn’t refuse.”
“What kind of name is Camcron anyway?” Max wondered aloud.
“From what I understand,” Donaldson mused, “they’re some big corporation from New Cali. I guess they’re into a bunch of different fields, and the Research Institute that set up shop here was some kind of subsidiary of theirs. The funding they proposed was enough to keep the Academy in the black. Much as I hate to admit it now, even though I didn’t really trust them, the only other choice would have been to dismiss a lot of folks and cut classes back to less than half of what they used to be… so I went along with the rest of the administration, and I’ve regretted it ever since.
“Sure, with the Institute’s funding came new installments to the rest of the campus, and at first the only catch was the construction of the Camcron Building. They just had to build it right in the middle of the island, right in the big field behind the main Academy building, but that was just the beginning.”
“So what were they doing out there?” Shades, of course, had read of his fair share of scandals and shenanigans, so he was already quite suspicious of any corporation just waltzing in and offering to help people without pretense. After all, last he checked, even philanthropy had a tendency to come with hidden strings attached.
“I don’t rightly know,” Donaldson confessed. “The building itself was reserved for only the Institute’s projects. Even we weren’t allowed to see much of the place. I’m not really sure what they were researching in there, but they sure seemed to have a lot of specialists on staff, and they were pretty vague about just what they specialized in. I got ahold of a document once that mentioned certifications in various sciences, especially physics. No matter what they were doing in there, it could just be me, but that building just does not look right on Adnan’s, just doesn’t fit…”
“But what happened to the school?” Shades asked.
“It shut down barely a fortnight after I left,” the old man replied. “I was getting more and more concerned about how the entire school seemed to rely on Camcron after a while. I guess I underestimated just how dependent everyone had become, and my attempts at investigating things on my own— fruitless as it was— ended with the rest of the administration turning against me. I suppose they were looking out for Adnan’s in their own way, but in the end it gained them nothing.”
Ah, fun with office politics… Shades decided to keep that thought to himself, having learned more about it than he cared to after leaving the easygoing atmosphere of Master Al’s shop for the non-stop rumor mill of the service sector.
“You see, not long after I resigned, the school just simply shut down. Not even any advance notice. No explanation given, but the last time I was in town, I was told Camcron just pulled the plug, and by now the whole thing was so far in the red they couldn’t keep the doors open anymore. That was a couple days ago, and I’ve heard no further word.
“It’s the end of an era— even I went to school there when I was a boy.”
“Why would they do that?” Max wondered aloud.
“Probably did whatever they came here to do,” Shades muttered. Yet, at the same time, there was something about this that didn’t quite add up, making him wish Donaldson knew a little more. “Leaving someone else to clean up their mess…”
Shades yawned, wondering how he got so relaxed so soon after a run-in with the law. As he took another sip of his tea, a horrible thought occurred to him. Tried to recall how many old tales involved travelers being drugged by over-accommodating hosts, even as he swallowed another sip. Had to admit, it would be a safer way to deal with three potentially dangerous visitors: just dope them up, then get on the radio after they nodded off…
On one hand, he could taste nothing odd, and Max, who had already finished his tea, was still awake enough, but on the other hand, he knew some drugs took longer to take effect than others. A quick glance down at his own cup revealed that he had already downed most of his, so at this point he found there was really nothing any of them could do about such a scenario anyway. If nothing else, for once he took some comfort in Justin’s edginess, as his friend kept glancing out the front windows at random intervals.
It was in the midst of this pause that Justin realized he gotten so wrapped up in the old man’s story, he was no longer sure anymore just how long he had gone without checking out the bank of windows looking out on the dock out front. Which he had specifically chosen his seat to take advantage of. A quick look outside revealed the waters out front to be as unoccupied as he remembered them to be, much to his relief.
“By the way,” Donaldson asked him, making Justin start in spite of himself, “are you expecting somebody?”
“Um… no…” Justin stammered, wanting to kick himself for dropping his guard like that. “I was just… ah…”
“We kinda ran into some trouble back in St Lucy.” Max was growing tired of deceiving the old man, he was quite sure by now that there was no harm in telling the truth.
“Max!” Justin demanded, “What are you doing!?”
“It’s okay, Justin,” Shades tried to reassure him and Donaldson, “it’s not like we did anything wrong. You see, Mr Donaldson, there was this robbery at the general store while we were there, and a fight kinda started…”
“Was anybody hurt?” Donaldson asked.
“Well, I imagine the robbers aren’t feeling so smart right about now, given how quickly they got busted,” Shades told him, “but the sheriff tried to arrest us, too, probably thought we were accomplices or something…”
“But you aren’t,” Donaldson started out with a measure of certainty, but faltered with, “are you?”
“Hell no!” Justin’s eyes blazing with indignation as he spoke.
“It was a hectic situation,” Shades jumped back in, “and we, well, kinda panicked and ran away, but at least no one got hurt. Well, besides the robbers.”
“I see,” Donaldson said after a moment of thought. “If you were robbers, I doubt you would have mentioned anything about a robbery, or just sat down for a cup of tea. But tell me, why did you run away if you committed no crime?”
“I don’t like guards, or cops, or whatever,” Justin answered. “They always think I’m guilty, even when I didn’t do a damn thing… Where I come from, they treated me like a criminal just for living.”
“He had no parents and lived on the street.” For Max, it was still a hard thing to imagine.
“I guess old habits die hard,” Shades sighed, “though the more I think about it, the more I’m sure that sheriff would’ve been trouble even if we had surrendered. After that, I guess we were all a little worried he’d come after us or something.”
“Oh, you don’t need to worry about Sheriff Boggs.” Donaldson clearly seeming to know of whom they were speaking. “When Camcron showed up, one of the first things they did was start paying off the local authorities, I’m sure of it. Boggs hasn’t lifted a finger outside that town without their say-so ever since. And you don’t have to worry about me, either. You tell the truth too easily to be outlaws, so I wouldn’t turn you in to the likes of him.”
Justin visibly sighed with relief.
“By the way,” Max asked, since Donaldson brought the subject back up again, “what’s going on at the school anymore?”
“Nothing, so far as I know. No one goes out there anymore. Heh, I might just go back out to Adnan’s and take a look around some time. I bet I could live out there and no one would notice.”
“Why are you telling us all this?” Justin figured part of it was just the old man getting something off his chest, but he also wondered if there wasn’t some other reason now that this turned out not to be a diversion while the Harbor Patrol showed up.
“I suppose I just wanted to talk to somebody, and you boys seem trustworthy enough. You do strike me as the inquisitive types, though, so I thought you might find it interesting. I’m no longer the Headmaster, and I see no harm in taking a look around, seeing if those Institute people left behind any clues of what they were doing.”
Shades could tell this fellow’s story had already piqued Max’s curiosity, though he still wasn’t sure what Justin’s angle on this was. He himself was intrigued enough to pay this island a visit. In fact, he was pretty sure that was the old man’s intention.
“The place isn’t haunted, is it?” Justin asked point-blank.
“Haunted?” Donaldson looked confused for a moment, then started laughing. “Good heavens, no! Of course not! I not only taught there, I also went to the Academy myself as a lad. I’m sure the children may have their own spook stories, but I can assure you all of it is just silly childish superstition.”
There was an awkward pause that finally ended with Shades standing up and telling their host, “Well, it’s been nice talking to you, but we should probably get going.”
“Well, I hope you enjoyed the tea, and the conversation.” Donaldson also seemed to take that silence as his cue.
“We did. Thank you.” Max arose, as well, taking that same unspoken cue that it was time to leave. “I wish you luck, whatever you decide to do next.”
“It was nice talking to you,” Shades added. A little odd, but… “Maybe we’ll drop by again some time if we happen to be in this neck of the woods.”
“Same here,” Justin put in hastily as he joined them, Bandit stretching and bounding after them.
“I hope you have a better luck at your next destination, my young friends,” Donaldson told them as he opened the door and saw them off.
As they made their way to the Maximum through the misting rain, Shades’ glance happened to fall upon a pair of oak trees near the homemade swing set. Arrayed between them were two large whitewashed planks sticking out of the ground, with a smaller one off to the side. He could see words painted on each one, but at this distance he couldn’t read what was written on them, though he could hazard a guess.
It drove home to him just how lonely this Donaldson fellow must be these days, and it made him feel even worse than he already did about his suspicions of the tea.