The sight that greeted Ray Holt's eye was a horrifying one. So much so that he had to blink several times to confirm that he hadn't, in fact, stepped to a nightmare world when he crossed the threshold of the club house of the Brooklyn Wilderness Rangers Troop #99.
The room looked like every other Wilderness Ranger Troop common room he had ever encountered: faded industrial green walls, dingy white ceiling tiles, and a scarred lineoleum floor. Except that someone had hung hideous fairground blankets along the walls, so the room appeared to be draped in the pelts of cross-eyed wolves and murderous unicorns. Except that the ceiling tiles had so many pencils, pens, darts, screwdrivers, and dear God, were those knives? embedded in them that they were starting to droop.
Except that the linoleum floor, contrary to expectation, was sparklingly clean, shining even. A floor off of which one could eat, as Kevin might say. The reason for this was as unwelcome as the condition of the floor was pleasing. Holt briefly considered stepping back into the hall.
“...AAAAnnndd they're into the final lap! Diaz has the lead but Peralta is in hot pursuit.”
One of the racers was providing narration as he edged around his competitor. The Rangers lining the walls cheered loudly, shouting names and encouragement. Holt spied one girl working her way through the crowd, taking notes on her phone and pocketing dollar bills. Another young woman stood apart from the crowd, her arms crossed, a disapproving look on her face.
“Peralta takes the lead!”
“Asshole! Total foul,” shouted the female racer. She kicked out and her heavy boot caught the boy in the thigh.
“Diaz, clearly a sore loser, assaults the competition.” Peralta's narration continued even as his leg buckled.
The boy began to lose his balance but managed to break through the party-streamer finish line before toppling off the floor polisher. Diaz jumped from her vehicle as soon as she crossed the line. The unmanned polishers continued their forward trajectory until they crashed, unnoticed, into a sofa. All attention was on Peralta and Diaz.
He was being helped to his feet by a younger boy. No, Holt realized, not younger, just shorter. The short boy was bleating “great race, Jake” and “good job” as he lifted Peralta to his feet. He was completed unaware of the danger approaching from behind.
“That was a foul, Peralta!” Diaz raged. The short boy turned to face her, but she brushed him aside with one shove. “Shut up, Boyle.” She stood tall, an accusing finger jabbing at the Peralta boy's face. “You side-swiped me. Total foul.”
“Ro-sa, Ro-sa, Ro-sa,” Perlata sing-songed. “A love-tap, perhaps, but not a foul. You're the one who did violence unto my person.” His wide mouth turned down in a pout. “I'm hurt. Like actually hurt,” he continued, his face lively again. “Are those boots made of lead? I think I've got a fractured tibia.”
“Actually, Jake, the tibia is one of the bones of the calf.” It was the judgemental brunette. “And if Rosa had fractured your femur, you wouldn't be laughing. Or standing up.”
“Thank you, metaphor police,” Peralta said sarcastically.
“That wasn't a metaphor. A metaphor is a non-literal comparative phrase that suggests similarity.”
Peralta stared at her for a moment, mometarily speechless, then shook his head. “Whatever, Santiago.” He turned back to Diaz.
The tall girl's expression hadn't changed. Holt wondered briefly if the glare was Diaz's default expression, but dismissed that thought as uncharitable. Still, Peralta seemed remarkably untroubled by her anger. Of course, Peralta appeared to be a bit of a fool.
“You steered into me on purpose.”
Diaz's single-minded pursuit of justice was admirable, Holt thought, although kicking another Ranger in the thigh was something he couldn't condone.
“On purpose? That would be unsporting.”
The boy's exagerrated look of innocence was comical, but Holt was starting to suspect that false innocence was an expression Peralta often wore.
“I appeal to the judges,” Peralta announced.
Groans rose around the room. The Rangers shuffled about to reveal two older boys sunk deep in battered easy chairs. One was clipping his toenails. The other was asleep and, bizarrely, not wearing a shirt.
“This is ridiculous,” Santiago announced. “They didn't see anything. They couldn't have seen anything. I say we let Sarge decide.”
There were murmurs of agreement from the crowd. Peralta and Diaz stared at each other wordlessly. Holt wondered what the relationship between the two might be. He'd heard that many of the Rangers in this troop had been together for years, coming up through the ranks of Explorers and Trail-Blazers together. From the silent conversation going on, he felt it safe to assume that this pair had history.
“Okay, Sarge, make the call. I'm getting old here. And bored.” The girl who had been making book stepped out of the crowd. “Mostly bored.”
A tall black boy pushed away from the wall near where Holt stood. He wasn't much older than the others, but his cap had the triple star badge of a Sargeant Ranger. That would make him Terry Jeffords, Holt realized in surprise. The boy had been an Explorer in one of Holt's first troops, a kind-hearted, chubby, emotional child. Now he was taller than Holt and built like an advertisement for fitness equipment.
“Jake, there was only one rule,” Jeffords said. “Pad to pad contact is a foul. Doesn't matter if you meant to do it,” he added as Peralta started to protest. “And a foul is a forfiet. Rosa wins.”
To Holt's surprise, the cheer wasn't from Diaz but from the bookie.
“Mama's getting a new purse,” she announced.
The brunette, Santiago, cleared her throat meaningfully, then choked and coughed. The bookie watched in amusement for a moment before pulling out a roll of bills and handing it over.
“Thanks, Gina,” the girl wheezed.
“Santiago! You bet against me!” Peralta's look of dismay seemed genuine.
She rolled her eyes. “Of course I did. There was a rule, Jake. You never follow the rules.”
Peralta glared at her for a moment before breaking into a wide smile. He held up his hands in surrender. “Okay, truth. Whatever.” He turned to Diaz. “Good race. Go again?”
“Yeah, fine,” she agreed. Her glare turned to a smirk. “This time, no rules. I'm gonna kick your ass.”
They turned towards the floor polishers, which were still wedged against the sofa.
Holt realized that it was past time for him to put a stop to this foolishness. He took a step into the room and opened his mouth to speak.
The sofa burst into flames.