“This confounded structure is going to be the death of me!” Petharic muttered as he kicked at the confusion of canvas, mesh-netting, stakes and wooden poles. “Nothing seems to line up properly.”
“Where is an urchin when you need one, eh?” Emerson commented dryly from within the confines of his cage.
“What?” Petharic did nothing to disguise the loathing from his glare.
“An urchin would have that tent set-up in a second.” Emerson taunted.
“So, what are you trying to say?” intoned Petharic with aggressive defensive intensity.
Emerson shrugged, “I’m not saying anything…” he replied, dropping his voice for maximum passive-aggressive injury… “just that a kid could put it together, that’s all.”
Petharic stormed the cage waving the sharp end of the stake in Emerson’s face. “You talk entirely too much for someone in as much trouble as you!” Petharic regarded the stake he held in his hand as if only now seeing it for the first time. With a look of bemusement, he threw it to the ground. “Just keep the snide comments to yourself,” he pointed, “or you just might find yourself gagged.” Petharic returned to brooding over the tangle of tent parts.
Emerson hardly dared breathe for fear of giving away the fact that Petharic had left the sharpened stake, forgotten in his haste and anger, lying by the edge of the cage. Ever so quietly, he reached his arm through the space between the slats of wood… he pursed his lips in frustration as it caught about halfway up the forearm. He’d need to be about a foot and a half closer in order to retrieve that stake. With sudden inspiration, he gripped the sides of the cage with his hands and jumped. It worked. The cage had actually inched forward. The stake was almost within reach. Two more jumps should do it.
“Did you hear something?” Petharic turned.
“A noise, did you hear that noise?”
“No…. was there a noise?” Emerson asked shrugging his shoulders, “I didn’t hear a noise.”
Petharic regarded Emerson with narrowed eyes. “Things might go a little smoother for you Dr. Lighthouse if you would only choose the path of honesty.”
“Honesty has such grey areas along the margins.” Emerson Lighthouse willed himself to not look at that stake. “I mean… how is one to follow a path so ill-defined as that?”
Petharic regarded Emerson with the expression one might don upon detecting something unpleasant in a befouled chamber pot. “There is nothing grey about honesty. Honesty is the only true course, Dr. Lighthouse.” He spoke slowly with an almost righteous cadence. “It is not that difficult to follow the only true course.”
“Oh come on… only true course… that is such a meaningless statement. You know very well there are an infinite number of ‘only true courses’… all existing side by side, yet separate, in some sort of fractal universe. Not one of them is right, they just… are.”
“I have no idea what you are talking about and can only conclude that you are under the amaazement…” Petharic stretched that last word in order to match it with his finger-gesture quotation marks… “of your medications.” He looked as though he were about to say something more when he slapped at the side of his neck. “Damnation! These flies are maddening.” Petharic returned to the ruins of his tent, his fly-induced interjection effectively ending the conversation.
Taking advantage of Petharic’s distraction, Emerson jumped the cage an inch closer to the stake. Once again Petharic looked up having thought he heard a sound. Emerson looked back nonchalantly. With the mesh lining from the tent tucked under one arm, Petharic walked back to the cage. He stopped just in front of Emerson, bent down and picked up the stake.
“I’m impressed. Look how close you came… consider it a job pretty well done?”
Emerson’s nonchalance took a sudden turn to sullen.
As Petharic regarded the stake as he asked, “What were you planning to do with this?”
“Poke it in your eye as you slept.” Emerson said. “Is that honest enough for you?”
Petharic put the stake in his jacket pocket then threw the mesh lining from the tent over the top of the cage as if he were wrapping a present. He then staked each corner deep into the ground. “There, let’s see you move that cage now.”
Emerson chose the low road: “Please accept my congratulations on getting the tent up.” His sarcasm carried the bitter edge of mockery, “I’ll sleep well tonight all comfy under my mosquito net.”
“You know what… I should just shoot you.” Petharic said with such conviction that Emerson was foolish not to believe it immanent.
“Yeah, you’d like that wouldn’t you. But you can’t kill me. Your primary mission is retrieval… and I have something you want.” Emerson taunted boldly, “So, you need me.”
Petharic aimed the Colt at Emerson’s leg. “I just said I should shoot you, I didn’t say anything about killing you.” Petharic pulled the trigger.
Emerson screamed. Not because he had been shot (Petharic, in fact, had missed) but because the sound of the gunfire startled him so. Emerson was about to fly into a tirade of retaliatory curses when the words caught in his throat. Before him, not more than ten feet away, Petharic began to gyrate in a grotesque choreography… arms flailing, body twisting at impossible angles… it was as if he were fighting off demonic possession. The night quite suddenly seemed to take on a sinister quality as a profound darkness fell upon them.
Horrified, yet ashamedly fascinated, Emerson watched from beneath the safety of his netting as a shadowy, undulating cloud filled the air, enveloping everything around them for hundreds of yards in all directions. It was a swarm of some form of tiny carnivorous fly… millions, perhaps billions, of them… filling the air with a high whiny buzz. Though miniscule in size, in such numbers the results were quite impressive: they left nothing but clothes, bones and hair in less than two minutes. A shiver ran down Emerson’s spine as he noticed (in what little light the coals of the fire pit were able to cast) that the cloud had taken on a most unsettling hue of pink… more pronounced directly above the remains, dissipating back to black the further out one looked. It was only a matter of moments before the cloud had departed as if being absorbed by jungle itself. In their wake, an eerie, unnatural calm settled upon the scene. Emerson, no longer in such a hurry to escape the confines of his cage settled in to await the rising sun.