- Chapter 2
Copyright LC Cooper, April 01, 2012
Published by LC Cooper at Smashwords
Smashwords Edition, License Notes
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.
The roadside sign announced,
Welcome to Manton
pop. 352 (and growing)
Where men come to be men
On the corner opposite the sign was one of those old-time gas stations – the kind with the manual gas pumps and a couple of seated codgers playing chess inside the dusty service bay.
"Hey, that's cool," I remarked, pointing and politely waving as a guy, who had an oil rag hanging out of a back pocket of his bib overalls, leaned against the front-door's frame while he read what looked like a magazine.
"That reminds me," said Eric as he tapped the clear plastic of the truck's fuel gauge, "don't let me forget to stop here for a fill-up when we leave next week. Did you notice that the next closest gas station was nearly fifty miles away?"
"Yeah, I saw it at the base of the mountain range. You can bet I'll be sure to remind you as we leave. I don't think it would be fair of me to steer while you push your empty truck those fifty miles." That response got me a playful slap on my arm. I was glad to see Eric being playful again.
We drove another ten miles without seeing any signs of life. "Man, this place is in the sticks, isn't it?" I asked.
"I suppose. When I spoke with Sammy, the owner, he said he built the place to be remote and secluded."
"What else can you tell me?" I eagerly asked.
"As you read on the sign back there, this is a man's town. We won't really be camping as much as just hanging out with a bunch of guys, all doing guy things like fishing, watching sports, drinking, playing video games, and whatever else we want to do. It's like one gigantic man cave," Eric said, fondly patting his truck's dashboard. "Oh, crap," he shouted as he yanked the steering wheel hard left. "Nearly missed the turn," he muttered.
"I saw a busted-up sign just before the turn, but I thought it was junk."
"Yeah, I saw it, too, but as shot-up as it was, I didn't pay it any attention." Eric had a puzzled look on his face.
"Oh, nothing, I guess. Security must be pretty tight out here, which is a good thing."
"Why do you say that?"
"Those spikes that shred tires, like the kind you see at the gates of car-rental agencies, are all along this road."
"Manton's townsfolk must have had problems with locals stealing trucks and boats," I surmised.
"Makes sense … oh, there it is!" Eric exclaimed.
From a thickly-matted roadside cluster of trees, a well-manicured meadow emerged. Within its center sat a rustic cabin. The exterior was a combination of aged, gray timber and flat sandstones beneath a gabled roof. The broad wrap-around porch could easily accommodate dozens of guests for evening cookouts. When the weather turned ugly, I bet it was the place to be to hang out and b.s. about sports. Rocking chairs rested against the cabin's walls, inviting visitors to relax and enjoy the deck. A flagstone walkway connected the cabin to the crowded parking lot.
Eric pulled into one of the three remaining empty parking spots. "Hear that?" Eric exclaimed, "Nothing but the sounds of men being men."
Rolling our windows down, and with the wind blowing toward us, loud laughter and music greeted us. I felt exhilarated, and a grin spread across my face. This was the perfect escape.
"C'mon, grab your coat. We need to go get registered," Eric cheerily said as he rolled up his window, jumped out of the cab, and locked and closed his door. The breeze was chilled by the nearby lake, an effect that had Eric scrambling to get inside his Tartan wool jacket.
I put mine on, too. We both grimaced and snorted at the same time as we recalled all the teasing we'd received over the years because we wore identical green Tartan jackets. I never cared; our coats symbolized our close friendship. Although comfortable around each other, I could tell by the expression on Eric's face that it probably wasn't the best idea to plow into a testosterone-laden weekend wearing matching ensembles. I shuddered, now wishing I brought my denim jacket instead.
Relieved to have made it to the front porch uncontested, as soon as we pushed open the creaky, solid oak door, we rushed inside the cabin and tore off our jackets, tucking them under our arms. I raised a judgmental eyebrow when Eric went one step further and turned his wool coat inside out.
No one was in the lobby, though we heard male voices coming from other rooms in the building. Eric said he wasn't surprised as check-in wasn't until 3:00 p.m., and we were early. Ready to get the week of fun and relaxation started, we anxiously paced the room and frequently drummed our fingers on the massive countertop, which we assumed was the registration desk. Still, however, our signs of impatience remained unanswered. Bored after only a few minutes of this regimen, we forced ourselves to slow down and absorbed the cabin's ambiance – look at the pictures and wall hangings, stare out the windows, walk in and out the front door, rock in the chairs outside – whatever we could think of to kill more time before check-in.
All out of fresh ideas, Eric rested his elbows on a windowsill and peered out the window in search of distractions. I plopped down into one of the two rocking chairs in the cabin and warmed my hands in front of the lobby's fireplace.
"Come here," he excitedly said. "You should see how clear and blue the lake's water is! I bet you can see fish twenty feet down."
With a huff, I pushed my road-weary body out of the comfortable chair and ambled to an adjacent window. I said, "It must be pretty cold out on the lake today. I only see one empty fishing boat out there."
"Yeah," replied Eric, "but do you see all the guys fishing from the banks? It looks like the bank off to your left is pretty popular. Maybe we can hit it at dusk."
"Sounds great. Gotta admit, though, I didn't pack for really cold weather. I don't want to get caught out next to the lake after dark. We'll freeze our nuts off."
"Wait a minute – you still have yours? I thought you had to give yours up as part of the divorce settlement," Eric joked.
"Nope," I deadpanned, "Beth removed them within days of our wedding. So, Natasha let you keep yours?"
"Naw, after losing my job, I only get to visit them on the weekend."
We sounded like nervous and giddy frat pledges. It was sickening. Thankfully, the creaking front door distracted us from another round of lame insults.
"Oh! Hello. Heh, I wasn't expecting new guests for at least another half hour." The man rushed over to where we stood and stuck out his hand. "I'm Sammy Faulkner, the owner and …" He stopped talking when he realized we were staring at his outstretched hand. It was soaked with a mixture of blood and a whitish chemical. Without realizing I had done so, I stuffed my hands into my jeans' front pockets. Eric stopped his approach and moved to stand slightly behind me.
"Oops, sorry, boys. Just got in from dressing a deer. I thought I'd have time to get cleaned up before checking you two in. I guess we'll save the handshakes until I get this mess cleaned off me, eh?"
We both mumbled in agreement, barely concealing our disgust.
"Don't let my current condition fool you boys. I run a top-notch operation. As you can hear, Manton is filled with nothing but guys having a great time. I'm certain you'll fit in perfectly and quickly. Why, I'm willing to bet that before the night is over, you won't even remember this awkward moment." Sammy flashed a good-old-boy smile, gave us a wink, and backed out the door. As he walked along the front porch, he peered into the window and politely hollered, "Hang tight, gents. After washing up, I'll be right back to check you in. Sorry for the weird introduction, but welcome to Manton – my own little man cave."
Eric and I exchanged startled glances, but then realized just about every guy on the planet was tossing around the "man cave" phrase. It was a bit chilling, though, going from Eric's slobby version to Sammy's lavish one.
In response to Sammy's comment, Eric and I nodded and meekly waved our agreement. We weren't thrilled with standing around any longer in the empty lobby after spending nearly a day on the road, but we didn't have any real reason to gripe. We were jittery and excited to get on with our relaxing vacation in Manton.
I strolled back to the window where Eric and I first watched the shore-side fishermen. The empty boat out beyond them on the lake sure did look inviting. "First thing in the morning, I want to get on that boat and get fishing," I giddily said.
"What?" Eric somewhat hollered, his voice slightly muffled. "I didn't hear you. What'd you say?" he asked as he backed out of a closet-sized room that was down a hallway. He had a strange, distant look on his face as he returned to the lobby.
"Geez, Eric, I turn my back on you for an instant, and you wander off like some kid looking for trouble."
"Sue me – I'm curious." He paused and flipped his hand over his shoulder, motioning toward the open doorway he just left. "You've gotta see what's in there. Creeped me out at first."
"What are you rambling about?" Curious to see anything that made Eric nervous, I was quick to breeze by him and through that doorway.
"Crap!" I exclaimed. "Is this some kind of weird joke?" I bent down to get a better look while Eric flipped on the light switch behind me. "It's like they were the models for one of those …"
"… Dogs Playing Poker paintings," Eric wistfully added, also bending down to get a better look. "Wow, they're so lifelike."
Apprehensive, but stupidly curious, I tentatively reached out my hand, as if one of the dogs would come to life and snap at me.
Both of us nearly jumped out of our skins when a booming voice cackled, "Fooled you, did they?" Sammy, so it appeared, had snuck into the lobby via a back door. His actions and our reactions told me we weren't the first guests he'd startled with this setup.
"Don't worry, boys, they won't bite," he chuckled while rummaging through a short stack of papers on his desk.
Eric was still entranced. Once he opened his mouth to speak, I understood why. "They're so real – so lifelike," he admiringly said. "Adam and I have several trophies in our homes, but I can't say I've ever seen taxidermy as lifelike as this."
"Thanks, I suppose," Sammy replied with an impish grin, "but technically, it's not taxidermy. To be able to produce scenes like the dogs playing cards, a taxidermy license is the first of many, many required certifications and specialized … well, let's just call them skills." He studied our confused expressions before adding, "Mine is a process far better and longer-lasting than taxidermy." He paused for effect and drew in a deep breath. "It's called plastination."
Eric and I wrinkled our brows and glanced at each other. I saw in his face that he was beginning to question his decision to come here.
Sammy seemed to read Eric's expression as well because he loudly blurted, "Hey, what's say we get you boys checked in and on your way. No point in you wasting your week listening to me rattle on about my former career. If you want to know how I created that scene," he said, pointing down the hall in the direction of the dog display, "I'd be glad to talk with you about it over a couple of beers."
"I'll pass, but thanks. The dogs Creeped me out. Not sure I want to know the details," I grumbled, rubbing my still-queasy stomach. "You got any Pepto behind the counter?" I asked, hoping to change the subject away from his freaky dog scene.
Sammy reached under the countertop, rummaged around for a moment, then pulled out a small packet labeled antacid. "This should do the trick," Sammy said as he gently tossed the packet to land in front of me. He explained away his perfect strike with, "During the winters, when everything's frozen over, I have a lot of down time. As you can see, I spend a bunch of it flicking cards into a hat."
It was obvious Eric was getting impatient because he interrupted by saying, "What do we need to do to check in? I saw that empty boat out on the lake, and I'd like to get fishing before dusk."
Sammy's reply of, "It's a new fishing boat – good choice. You know, now that you mention it, I bet you two will look great out there," was a bit unnerving, as was his thin-lipped grin.
Even though I elbowed Eric, he didn't catch any of Sammy's response because he was too busy completing the stack of papers Sammy handed him. I could tell Eric was still thinking about the dog display though. While he signed and initialed page after page, he said, "Sammy, I've got to hire you to build me something like that with my next deer. can you handle it?"
I startled when Sammy replied with, "Not a problem for me. I'm quite capable of making displays using … large figures." He and I exchanged a glance, from which I had an eerie thought. He smugly grinned when we again made eye contact.
Sammy noticed my nervousness and dismissed it with a whispered, "Gotcha!" and then he and Eric shared a laugh at my expense. "Don't worry, son," Sammy smirked, "you're too puny. I'd have to throw you back and wait until you got bigger." Again, Sammy and Eric chuckled, but I, by then, was fuming.
Eric patted me condescendingly on the shoulder and said, "Take it easy on the little guy, Sammy. Remember? I told you this trip is his fiftieth-birthday present, and that it's been a tough year for him."
"Aw, I was just funnin' you there, Adam," Sammy said with a broad grin smeared across his face. He pulled two large metal boxes from beneath the counter and set them loudly atop the countertop. "Enough of this jawing." He rattled the two small metal cases while saying, "I know this is gonna sound strange, but You'll need to drop all your personal effects in here – wallet, car keys, and particularly any weapons."
Now it was Eric's turn to act nervous. "What's this all about?" He jammed his hands into his pants' front pockets, blocking their contents from escaping. He said, "I don't see any reason …"
"Theft, Eric – I have to ask all of my guests to do this because we've been experiencing more than our fair share of break-ins lately. Seems some locals watch for when guests leave their cabins and then break in and ransack the place. The sheriff and I haven't caught anyone yet, but it's only a matter of time. As a precaution, then, I insist on gathering up all the personal stuff so you are guaranteed to get every bit of it back when you leave. Unhappy guests don't come back, and quite a bit of my business comes from repeat customers."
Sammy shifted his gut so it rested against the counter's edge. "See, it's like this - after you drop your stuff into these boxes, I store them in the walk-in safe behind me." He pointed to a large, dark cavern at the end of the hall behind where he stood. "Notice the heavy steel door? It's the same kind that banks have. I beefed up security, even adding security cameras here and there …"
"Which also explains those strips of tire-shredding spikes we saw as we drove in," Eric interjected.
"Unfortunately, yes. A few of the local thieves drive souped-up hotrods, which used to give them quite a head start. The tire spikes are my equalizer."
"Has all this helped?" I asked, incredulous that such a remote retreat, filled with men and catering to men, would have any burglary issues. I thought any thief would be scared off by all the testosterone. It was my belief that criminals target the weak and unaware, and not a bunch of drunk guys itching for a fight.
"I know what you're thinking, Adam, so I'll put it like this," said Sammy, rubbing his beer gut as he gathered his thoughts. "You guys come here expecting a good time, so your guard is down, especially when we all get to drinking. So many customers' vehicles were getting stolen or their cabins were ransacked. I was losing both new and repeat business." He leaned in closer, as if to share a secret with us. We responded in kind. "Personally, I think the sheriff and his posse are even in on it, so I had to take matters into my own hands or risk losing my business."
"In that case," said Eric as he heaved his massive set of keys into an open bin, "let's get this party started!" The keys were followed by his hunting knife, wallet, and mobile phone.
Sammy closed the bin's lid and clamped it shut before padlocking it. He handed Eric the padlock's key, turned to me, and asked, "And you?"
Reluctantly, I tossed my set of keys and wallet into the other bin.
"Anything else?" he mumbled, peering over the counter at me. I shrugged and shook my head, "no," which prompted Sammy to say, "Suit yourself." He began to close the box's lid and then blurted out, "By the way, mobile phones, even satellite phones, won't work out here because Manton's electric generators are old and rickety. They create an insane amount of radio waves that distort and interrupt cell phones. If you have a contact list, apps, or anything else you care about on your phone, you may want to lock your phone up, too. You aren't gonna need it out here anyway."
I meekly slid my hand into the container, dropping into it the mobile phone I palmed.
"Good lad," Sammy smirked.
I mumbled, "If this place is so great, why do I feel like a prisoner?"
I was embarrassed that Sammy heard me. He replied with, "Manton's security is really no different than what you'd find in any popular tourist-resort, son. Just as I do, they warn you to lock up your valuables. Why, did you know that on Hawaii, since it's an island, every criminal has a copy of a key for every rental car?"
"Oh, come on," I sneered, expecting to hear a tall tale.
"No, I'm serious. The bad guys realized long ago that there are only so many rental cars on the islands. They roam, looking for the cars that match their set of keys. Within seconds, they swipe everything out of the trunk, while you're inside, checking into your hotel. Neat, huh?"
"This place has problems like that?" I asked. "How can you afford to stay in business with so much rampant crime?"
"Oh, there haven't been any break-ins here for a long, long time. In fact, I can't even remember when the last one occurred, but it's my job to ensure your safety and that you have a great stay. I want everyone to have such a good time that they never want to leave."
"Okay," interrupted Eric, "let's stop the positioning and get on with the partying."
Sammy locked the box containing my things, dropped the key into my outstretched hand, turned around, and carried the two boxes into the darkened vault. Eric and I relaxed when we heard them slide into place. We watched as Sammy swung closed the massive bank-style steel door and spin its equally-massive lock's wheel. "There, all set."
"Wow, that's an elaborate setup you've got there," Eric said with admiration. "Do you open and close it every time someone checks in?"
"Heck no," Sammy said with a slight laugh. "It's close to quitting time, and I'm not expecting any more new guests tonight, so securing the vault saves me a little effort later this evening as I lock up."
Weary of all this security babble, I asked, "What's next?"
Sammy slid two clipboards onto the counter, right in front of us.
"Glad you asked. This here's our standard registration paperwork. Please complete the first page, filling in your contact info, license-plate number, all the usual stuff, and then sign it at the bottom."
"Didn't I already give you this info in the first set of papers you handed me?" Eric huffed.
"No, not really," Sammy replied. "Those were for the background check, mandatory fishing and boating licenses, and a certification that you're old enough to drink."
Eric and I exchanged grimaces, the kind borne from familiarity and frustration of having teenagers driving. Ignoring Eric's agitation, I followed up Sammy's comment with, "And the second page?" I asked, as I scribbled my details onto the form.
Sammy sighed and scrunched up his face, as if expecting another protest out of me. "Page two contains our disclaimer, along with a waiver that you must agree to and sign before you can stay even one night in Manton."
Eric and I flipped to the page and scanned it for any oddities, which, of course, we found.
"Good Lord …," I stammered as I read.
"Look, fellas, this is a man's town. You get a bunch of guys together, throw in some booze and a big helping of masculine things to do, and, unfortunately, someone's bound to get hurt every once in a while. The disclaimer and waiver protect me and the others in Manton from getting sued if things get out of hand."
"Yeah, that's pretty much what I'm reading here," I mumbled. I turned my head to look at Eric and sarcastically asked, "I didn't expect to vacation in the freakin' Roman coliseum, battling with a horde of gladiators."
"Geez, Eric, how'd you two ever get to be friends?" Sammy snarled, looking to Eric for camaraderie.
"Adam, stop challenging everything and trust me. Just sign the stupid form and relax, would you?" Eric angrily whispered. "We're gonna have a great time, as long as you stop whining."
"Fine," I huffed, scribbling my signature, acknowledging that I release Sammy and Manton, Inc from any liability for harm, injury, or death, or any other loss that might occur during my stay.
* * * * *
Chapter 3 will appear here tomorrow night. Thank you for reading this story. I would greatly appreciate your feedback!