"Somehow I knew you would end up here. Always a troublemaker." But the smile playing at the corner of his lips softened the gruffness. "How have they been treating you?"
"Like it's the Hilton, sir. Room service is a bit slow, though."
"Isn't it always." The colonel gestured to the guard to open the cell. "Follow me, Sergeant Brust."
"It's Mr. Brust now, sir."
"Whatever," he said with a frown, turning away. "We've got to talk."
The guard interrupted. "Should I handcuff him, sir?"
Ben gave Colonel Matson his most innocent look.
"Yeah," Matson said. "You'd better. There's no trusting civilians."
"All right," Ben said, standing at mock attention. "You win. Sergeant Brust, reporting for duty."
Nodding, Colonel Matson waved the guard away. "C'mon, then, Sergeant. We're going to my office."
Ben followed him out of the prison, and after a short drive, they arrived at the Administration Building. The colonel's office had not changed. Same walnut desk with stained coffee mug circles; walls festooned with banners from the Old Guard; trophies lining the side wall. During the ride over, Ben could tell from the hesitancy in an otherwise ebullient man that something of importance was being withheld.
The colonel ushered Ben to sit, then Matson leaned on the edge of his desk and studied him. The colonel's face was stone. Ben tried not to squirm under his gaze. Finally his old commander spoke, his voice tired, "What the hell happened to you? The best of the best, and you just disappear."
"I had a better offer."
"What? Guiding yuppies with midlife crises on little thrill tours?"
"I prefer to call them 'Adventure Vacations.' Besides, I earn enough to help keep my dad's sheep station afloat."
"And earned yourself a bit of a reputation. Quite the cave hound. I read about that cavern rescue in the States. Big hero, huh?"
"But that's not why you left here. It was Jack, wasn't it?"
Ben's face went cold at the mention of his friend's name. "I believed in the Guard. And honor. I believed in you."
Colonel Matson grimaced. "Sometimes political pressure bends rules. Distorts honor."
"Bullshit!" Ben shook his head. "The prime minister's son deserved every inch of the pummeling he got from Jack after the shit he tried with his girl."
"A prime minister has powerful friends. It couldn't go unpunished."
"Bloody hell!" Ben slammed his fist on the arm of his chair. "I'da done the same. His court-martial was a travesty." Ben stopped, swallowed hard, then continued in a quieter voice. "Jack was stripped of everything that made him a man. And you wonder why I left?"
Matson sighed, seemingly satisfied. "Then the balance of fate has shifted your way this time. Now the political pressures are aligned to help you."
Ben's brow furrowed. "What do you mean?"
"I should pretend I never received this letter. As much trouble as you caused, you sure as hell deserve a couple years behind bars."
"A command from the Home Office. You're to be set free."
What joke was this? They were just going to let him walk? Ben watched a worried look pass over Matson's face. "What's up, Colonel?"
"There's a catch."
Of course, Ben thought. There always was.
"You must join an international expedition. A professor somewhere in the Americas has requested your expertise in cave exploration. Some hush-hush operation. No other details. They'll waive all charges and pay you for your services." He slid a sheet of paper toward Ben. "Here."
Ben quickly read the letter, and his eyes caught on the figure at the bottom of the page. He stared at all those zeros, daring them to change. This couldn't be right. After this, he could own his sheep station free and clear. No more shady tour operations.
"Almost too good to be true?" Matson leaned forward, his hands on Ben's shoulders. "But impossible to pass up."
He nodded, dazed.
"Something tells me you had better watch your ass, Ben." Matson strode to the chair behind his desk and sat. "The big boys are playing with you, and they have a tendency to roll over the little people. Remember your friend Jack."
Ben stared at the number at the bottom of the page, drawing a breath. Too good to be true.
Back in his cell, with an arm draped over his eyes, Ben drifted to sleep and was soon lost in a nightmare he hadn't had since childhood. He found himself, a boy again, threading his way through meter-wide columns of damp stone inside a huge cave. He knew this place. His grandfather had once brought him here to show him Aboriginal petroglyphs.
It was the same cave, but now the rock columns sprouted fruit-laden branches. Curious, he reached for a red pulpy gourd, but it was just beyond his reach. As he was pulling back his arm, he felt eyes drilling into the nape of his neck. He whipped around, but no one was there. Yet now those eyes were all around him. Just at the edge of his vision, he spotted motion from behind a large rock cylinder.
"Who's there?" he called, racing to peer behind the column. Just more empty space. "What do you want?"
The word "ghosts" came unbidden to his mind.
He started to run…
He felt something following him, calling him back. He ignored it and ran, searching for an exit. The pillars closed around him, slowing his progress. Then he sensed a soft touch at the back of his neck and heard garbled words whispered in his ear.
"You are one of us."
He screamed, bolting out of the dream.
He woke on his cot, his heart still racing, and rubbed at his temples. Bloody hell. What brought back that old nightmare? He closed his eyes, recalling that the nightmares had first started after an argument with his grandfather in an Aboriginal cave outside of Darwin.
"No, it's not true," the thirteen-year-old Ben had yelled, tears welling at the revelation.
"Yes, it is, young man. And I don't take to being called a liar." His grandfather's wrinkled leather face frowned at him. "This was once the ancestral home of my grandmother," he repeated, then poked him in the chest. "A direct relative of yours."
The implications that he could have Aboriginal blood running through his veins had horrified him. He and his friends had always made fun of the dark-skinned Aboriginal kids at school. And now, in a single heartbeat, he had been lumped in with them. He shook his head. "I am not a damned darkie!"
A stinging slap to his cheek. "You'll respect your ancestors."
Even now, he cringed at the memory. As a youngster, this heritage had shamed him. Aborigines, at the time, were considered second-class citizens, only slightly above animals. Luckily, diluted by generations of European blood, his blighted heritage was an easily kept secret. Except from himself. It was then the nightmares had started.
For countless nights, he'd awaken with his sheets clinging to his sweating body, tears coursing down his cheeks. Clenching handfuls of sheets, he would pray no one would learn his secret.
Over time, he had matured, even come to respect and appreciate his unique heritage, and the dreams had eventually faded away, like old toys put in cardboard boxes. Forgotten and no longer needed.
He shook his head. So why now? Why dredge up this old childhood terror?
Must be this bloody cell, he concluded, and burrowed deeper under his ratty blanket. Well, thanks to that timely letter, he would soon be rid of this damn place.
Thirty days later, his mysterious benefactor telegraphed Black Rock, and in twenty hours Ben found himself upgraded from his cramped cell in Australia to a suite of rooms at the Sheraton Buenos Aires in Argentina.
Ben tested the bathwater with his foot. He cringed at the heat, then smiled. Ahhh, perfect. After a month in the Black Rock prison, a month of tepid showers that barely penetrated the layer of grime caked into his pores, a full hot bath was just possibly orgasmic. He stepped into the tub and settled himself into the steaming water. He tapped the button for the jets. Tickling sprays massaged him from all sides, creating a gentle whirlpool. Definitely orgasmic.
He sighed, leaning back into the tub and allowing his body to relax and float in the jets.
There was a knock on the door.
Ignoring it, Ben slipped farther into the jets.
The knock came again, more persistently.
Using his elbows, he raised himself higher in the tub. "Who is it?"
A muffled voice replied, "Excuse me, sir, but Dr. Blakely requests your presence in the Pampas room on the main floor. The other guests are arriving now as well."
Ben rubbed his red eyes. "Gimme five minutes." He pushed out of the hot tub, the chill air raising gooseflesh on his bare legs. After dressing in an old brown tweed suit, Ben proceeded to the conference suite.
To his relief, the antechamber to the auditorium was set up with a mobile bar. A bartender hustling hooch paraded behind a shelf of bottles. Already a good number of men and women stood gathered in small groups.
He glanced around. No one looked his way. So much for the warm greeting. After searching the room one final time, he decided a whiskey would help his outlook on this "party." He stalked over to the bar.
"Your pleasure, sir?"
"Whiskey and a beer back." He leaned his elbow on the black Naugahyde padding that edged the bar and watched the room. It was not his kind of crowd. No loud laughs, no spilled drinks, no angry drunks. Boring. After dumping the whiskey straight into his stomach, he slapped down his shot glass, squeezing the burn, then settled in with his beer.
From behind him, he heard a woman's voice. "Whiskey. Neat, please."
He turned to see who had a similar taste in beverages. Whiskey-drinking women were as scarce as hen's teeth. He wasn't disappointed.
She toyed with the drink set before her, long fingers, short nails, polished. No rings. No wedding band-good. She stood as tall as him, surprising for a woman. Her skin was bronzed, a coppery rich hue that spoke of days under the sun. But what most caught the breath in his throat was her black hair, trailing in lazy curls to her waist.