Tilting his head back as he drove his sedan, Coach Dan addressed Butch and The Bird. “Think you’ll like this scrimmage, my friends. We’ll be in what they call the Field House, which was the first gym at the Academy. That’s where the basketball team used to play before they built the court. The Field House is nice and spacious, plenty of room for multiple simultaneous bouts.”
“What’s wrong with the Field House?” In the passenger seat of Double-J’s coupe, Rex sounded like he legitimately couldn’t understand his friend’s complaint.
“I just resent the second-class treatment.” Double-J twisted the end of his moustache. “Seems to me, it’s all about money. They can’t charge admission to fencing tournaments, nobody comes.”
“It’s a sham, really.” Annie’s voice interrupting from the back seat. “It has everything you want in a sport – fast action, the drama of the duel, colorful personalities. It’s really like tennis.”
“Except you get to use a better weapon!” Rune’s comment drew a laugh from Rex and Annie, and even a smile from Double-J before he continued in his dismissive tone.
“Don’t kid yourself. There’s no way fencing will ever become popular in our society. Seems to me, the major sports, the ones corrupted by money and greed, they’ve already bought up all the space in society’s tiny attention span. Society will never accept fencing, doesn’t deserve it either.”
“So we’re better off in the Field House anyway.” Rex wasn’t sure if he was asking a question or making a statement.
“Didn’t say that. The court’s not being used today, no reason we can’t use it. But they choose to insult us, seems to me. That’s what pisses me off.”
Rune leaned forward, his thin nick protruding from his winter jacket like a flower stem. ‘You guys going to compete in foil?”
Coach Dan cleared his throat. “Foil contest’s always first, and run all morning. After a lunch break, epee will start, then about an hour after that will be sabre. Since I know some of you need to get back earlier, I’ll leave right after foil ends. I already talked to Double-J, since he needs to stay until the end anyway he’ll take anyone with him who wants to stay.”
“What the hell would I want to do that for?” Double-J stared out his right at nothing, Rune’s question no longer of interest.
“Yeah, I’m doing foil,” Rex’s response as much to Double-J as it was to Rune. “You know, I’m looking forward to facing Francis again.”
“Francis Pine?” Annie sounded incredulous. “I thought he graduated.”
“Oh yes, the Academy will be there in full force today. I want you to watch one of their foil fencers today – his name is Francis Pine. If you meet him, call him Francis, not Fran, definitely not Frannie. He made it to the quarterfinals in States last spring, and he’s got the skill to win the whole thing this year. Watch him, see how he moves, how he handles the blade. He’s a very skilled fencer, and I know our team’s got a lot of respect for him.”
Double-J snorted. “Nah, we have to deal with Frankenstein for another year.”
Annie’s objection (you really shouldn’t call him that) was cut off by Rune, who leaned forward with his stem neck, cleared his throat, and with an anxious glance in Annie’s direction, sang:
Oh muh darling, oh muh darling, oh my daaaaah – ling Franics Pine
You have lost and suck forever
Dreadful saaaaw – ree Franics Pine!
Rex laughed aloud, and Annie smiled and nudged Rune with her left arm, Rune answering with a forceful nudge of his own. Double-J smirked. “That’s cute, Rune. And I’ve got a bad feeling you’ve got a lot more where that came from.”
“I have no idea how Rune will do,” Coach Dan answered Butch. “We’ll have to see. Now Annie, I think you’re going to see something special from her today.” The Bird said she hoped Annie wouldn’t get hurt. Coach Dan looked up into the rearview mirror, darted his eyes in the reflection of they young girl’s face. “You’ve been to practice, you know everyone’s safe. Worst you get in a fencing bout are a few bruises.” Butch turned to her — “You’re not talking about fencing, are you?” The Bird shook her head.
“You’re there every day?”
Annie nodded in response to Rex’s question. “After school, there’s a section of the gym that Gandy doesn’t use for classes. It’s great for practicing footwork. You should come sometime — all of you.”
Rex shook his head, thanked Annie but said he couldn’t accept her invitation to practice in Gandy’s gym, didn’t know anyone who could give him a ride home. “I live pretty far out, you know.” Double-J offered a quarter-turn of his head and a smirk which gave the impression that her invitation was as appealing to him as the prospect of having dinner with an unpleasant relative.
Annie turned to Rune, and while she had no idea what his reaction would be, she certainly had not anticipated to see the anxiety on his face. He composed himself, shrugged. “I dunno. We’ll see.”
“Annie knows how to take care of herself,” Coach Dan’s reassuring voice doing little to settle The Bird’s sudden anxiety. “She’s a Hutchinson, after all. Her family’s always been successful. Achievement is in their blood.” Butch tapped the rear of Dan’s seat — “Isn’t her father running for office?” — Coach Dan replying that yes, that was the rumor.
“So tell me,” Double-J’s grinning playful as he looked up at Annie’s reflection in the rearview mirror, “how long will it take your family to sell that land once your old man gets elected?”
“Who said anything about selling land?”
Double-J shook his head dismissively, like a tennis player letting a hard return from his opponent sail out of bounds. “Please. Everyone knows what’s going on, Hutchinson. Right, Ankiel?”
Rex stoicly turned his gaze away from Double-J, who, seeing that he wasn’t going to get an answer, looked up in his rearview at Rune’s reflection. “Banks? You’ve got this one figured out, right?”
Rune looked at Double-J, then Rex, who seemed intent on ignoring this part of the conversation, and finally Annie, whose eyes simmered with indignation.
“I . . . don’t know – ”
“OK, I’ll be the one to spell it out for you.” Double-J’s voice rose in the manner of an evangelical preacher as he continued. “The Hutchinsons own all this land outside of town -– we’re talking hundreds of acres. Developers have been after them to parcel it out, sell it for retail and housing developments, but they’ve always said no. Am I not right?” He raised his right hand off the steering wheel, as if signaling for an amen, receiving only a silent nod from Annie. “Oh, your family talks about how they’re conservationists and all, want to protect the –” and now Double-J spoke with an affected accent, rolling his eyes up — “beauty of the area –- but that’s not their true game. It’s all about the bridge.”
“Bridge?” Rex’s tone was uncharacteristically sarcastic. “You mean the project they’ve been talking about for a few decades?”
“Exactly. Old man Stephen’s in the back pocket of the Chamber of Commerce, he’s done a good job blocking the bridge from being funded, which is why her father’s running against him.” Double-J thumbed past his shoulder in Annie’s direction. “The minute he’s elected, boom, the Department of Transportation finally gets state funding for the bridge they’ve wanted to build for decades. Of course, they’ll need land to build it, and guess where that will come from?”
“My father’s always fought the bridge, just like Stephens.” Annie threw her body back into her seat.
Rune cleared his throat. “And . . . and aren’t there laws against politicians writing legislation that benefit them financially?”
“Exactly!” Annie nudged Rune hard in the side. Rex also turned to him with an appreciative nod.
Double-J muttered something about holding companies, then turned his attention back to the road.
“Are you OK?” The Bird nodded in response to Butch’s question. “You don’t look comfortable,” concern in Coach Dan’s voice after taking a quick look back at her. The Bird shook her head. Pause. “Do you need to go to the bathroom?” Coach Dan asking in his most paternal voice. She nodded. “That’s OK, we’re ahead of schedule.” Coach Dan turned into the gravel parking area next to a roadside convenience store.
“Did they just pull off?” Rex pointed ahead and to his right. Double-J looked, nodded, said he needed a pit stop as well.
Coach Dan turned to the sound of tires scrunching the loose gravel, and smiled as he saw Double-J’s car. “Let’s make this quick, everyone.”