BEN ARCHER AND THE STAR RIDER
CHAPTER 1 The Animal Whisperer
The half-open briefcase revealed row upon row of stacked dollar bills, ready for use.
The man on the white leather sofa showed no interest in it, however. His eyes were glued to a TV screen placed on a white stand. He pressed the buttons on his handheld gaming control, watching intently as his avatar got slammed from all sides by the enemy. His concentration did not waver, even when a servant slipped into the room and stood by his side.
The servant with a clipped, dark-brown beard, whispered something into the man’s ear, then waited patiently beside him.
The man’s fingers froze on the gaming control, the game forgotten, while his avatar got trampled under the words: **GAME OVER**.
He leaned back into the sofa, rubbing his smooth chin, before picking up a different remote control and pressing the play button.
“Thank you! Thank you!” A woman appeared on another TV screen and grinned at the audience. She sat in a plush armchair on the set of a television program called Charlie’s Chit-Chat Show, the name of which was sprawled on a glittery background.
“I’m so glad you’re here to welcome a special guest tonight. He’s a young boy who comes to us from Canada and who recently made headlines when he was photographed in a rather unusual setting. But let’s ask him to tell us his story. Please welcome, Benjamin Archer!”
Applause followed, as a boy entered the scene and sat opposite the blond host. His brown eyes matched the colour of his hair and side fringe, which was combed to the side, though, unfortunately, it seemed the show’s makeup artist hadn’t had time to tame a rebellious mesh which stuck out from the back of his head. He wore jeans and a navy-blue shirt under a dark grey hoodie that was unzipped at the front.
The show host crossed her slim legs. “Hello, Benjamin. Thank you for coming out here from your native town of Chilliwack on the West Coast of Canada.”
The boy cleared his throat. “Um, thanks. And, um, people just call me Ben.”
“Right you are, Ben. Many of us have seen the stunning pictures taken of you by the famous reporter Jeremy Michaels from the Canadian Provincial Times. But for those who don’t know what I’m talking about, let’s take a look.”
The glittery screen disappeared behind her and turned into an image of the ocean, the waters of which crawled with the most unusual gathering of sea creatures, ranging from whales, to orcas, to manta rays. Several similar images scrolled before the audience, who let out exclamations of wonder, not only because they were so spectacular, but because, in the midst of each one, Ben Archer bobbed in the water.
“Isn’t that amazing?” Charlie gasped. “Benjamin… Ben. I think I voice everyone’s question when I say: What on Earth are you doing in those pictures?”
A ripple of laughter flowed through the audience.
“Um… it’s a gathering of animals that live in the ocean. They come together like this, once every couple of years, but it had never been recorded before.”
“But you’re in the middle of it all! Weren’t you terrified?”
“I was, at first, until I understood what the animals wanted of me.”
Charlie grimaced. “Ah, yes. These images are astounding in themselves, but it seems there’s more to it than that. You claim that you can actually talk to these animals. Some people are even calling you an ‘animal whisperer’. Why don’t you tell us about that?”
The boy shuffled in his seat. “An animal whisperer? Yeah, I guess you could say that. It happened about a year ago. I started hearing my dog’s thoughts…”—his voice faltered—“…then other animals started talking to me, like crows, whales, bees… They all told me the same thing. They are sick. And we’re making them sick. It’s not just that we’re destroying their habitat and causing their numbers to dwindle, it’s that more and more are showing signs of illness that will spread like wildfire if we don’t do something soo…”
“Wait a minute, wait a minute!” Charlie interrupted. “Go back a bit. You said ‘other animals started talking to me’. Do you realize what you are saying?”
The audience laughed a little too hard.
The boy blinked at her, a touch of annoyance creeping into his face. “Yes, that’s what I said. Animals speak to me, and I can speak to them. I have offered myself as a translator between humans and animals, and they have accepted.”
The host waved her hand at him as if he were going way off track. “Ben, hold it a minute. You do understand that claiming to be an animal whisperer is a little hard to swallow for us folks here. Tell me, how old are you?”
“Thirteen. Almost fourteen,” the boy said.
“Okay, now listen. Before you say anything else, you will agree that we need to see some kind of proof of this superpower of yours. It’s one thing to see these incredible pictures, but I thought we could do a little test, right here, in the studio. What do you think?”
The crowd whistled and cheered.
The boy tensed. “What kind of test?”
Charlie laughed. “Oh, nothing serious, I promise.”
As she spoke, a spotlight came on and illuminated the right side of the stage, which was separated from the center by a curtain that dropped down from the studio ceiling. A man came into the spotlight, rolling in a small table with a cage on it. A white cat stared out of its bars.
“Ooh!” the audience cooed.
Charlie grinned. “Ben, we have a real, live animal behind that curtain…”
“You mean the cat?” Ben interrupted, his face slightly flushed.
“Wow!” the audience laughed, with sporadic clapping as some hadn’t quite caught what had just happened.
“Yes, well done!” Charlie grinned at the audience. “I promise, this is all happening live. Ben didn’t know about this.”
Excitement built as another animal was brought on stage.
Charlie waved her hand at the crowd. “Don’t say anything! Let’s give Ben a chance.”
The boy’s slumped face indicated he was no longer enjoying the show, but he had to go along with it. He correctly guessed the tortoise, followed by the bunny and then the snake.
The audience buzzed while Charlie giggled. “How fun!”
“Yes,” the boy said without conviction. “And now I need to tell you how we are endangering the lives of…”
“Oh, hold on a second, Ben. We only have a couple more minutes. This is the last one.”
The audience, hyped up by the game and eager to see more, cheered as a beautiful, brown horse was brought on stage. Its ears flicked back and forth on its head.
“Come on, Ben, we’re counting on you,” Charlie beamed as if she could see the number of viewers watching her show going off the charts.
This time the boy stood, a look of worry on his face. “You should get that horse off the stage,” he said.
The horse pawed at the ground and pulled at its bridle, giving its handler a hard time as he tried to keep it in tow.
Charlie clapped her hands in delight.
“No, really,” Ben warned. “The horse is scared. She can smell the presence of the snake.”
He had barely spoken when the animal reared, knocking over its handler. It crashed through the curtain into the glaring spotlights, neighing with fear.
Charlie shrieked and fell off her armchair.
Ben jumped in front of her, placing himself between the host and the terrified horse. Lifting his hands high, he stood his ground before the animal, which shook its mane to-and-fro let out a shrill whinny.
The boy didn’t move an inch, while Charlie held her hand to her heart, mouth agape and eyes almost popping out of her head.
The brown mare pawed at the ground, its skin gleaming in sweat as it snuffed loudly through its nostrils.
The audience watched, aghast, as the boy presented his hands to the horse, palms outstretched. The animal backed up a step, body trembling, ears flat. Then it approached the boy, gave a kind of bow and rested its snout in the boy’s hand.
The boy’s tense body relaxed. He approached the horse and began rubbing its neck, talking to it in a soothing voice…
The man on the white leather sofa pressed the pause button, freezing the screen on the boy and the horse. He glanced at the money-filled briefcase, deep in thought. Then with the smallest gesture of his hand, the servant sprang into action, locked the lid of the briefcase and hurried down a gloomy corridor to a back entrance.
Two heavy-set men in business suits waited in the glaring sunlight.
The servant handed the briefcase to one of them and said in broken English, “You get other half after it is done.”
The one holding the briefcase glanced at his partner through black sunglasses.
The servant straightened, his face reddening. “You have Master’s instructions,” he insisted. “He wants the boy.”