Silver Linings 1 (Part 4)
A Whateley Academy Adventure
by Bek D Corbin
October 17th, 2006
“Miss Wickham, WHY do you hate Humanity First!?” Herb asked Karen in her study at Wickham House. “Do you LIKE the idea of normal, everyday boys and girls being crippled and killed when super-powered whackos decide to turn a school playground into a combat zone?”
Karen ignored the baited second question. “I don’t hate Humanity First!, Mr. Tellock,” she smiled. Then she dropped the smile and glowered at Tellock. “I don’t trust you. And I will not stand to be insulted, let alone bullied or shaken down.”
“Insulted? Shaken down?” Tellock waffled, “How are we-”
“You come into my house and tell me that I have to give you at least six figures to help the Goodkinds take over Cincinnati. That’s an insult and a shakedown, and I won’t stand for it!”
“The Goodkinds? How do they come into this? This is purely a charitable contribution!”
“Oh, PLEASE! Everyone with a lick of sense knows that Humanity First! is just the Goodkind’s goon arm.”
“Now, Humanity First! is a legal, absolutely independent, non-profit organization committed to-” Tellock gritted his teeth as Miss Wickham interrupted his spiel.
“Save it for the PTA! I know better! I’ve kept the Goodkinds from just rolling into Cincinnati for years! I know how they work, and I know how Humanity First! works. It hasn’t escaped me how after Humanity First! becomes really powerful in an area, that Goodkind Industries and its thousands of fronts suddenly grow a hundred-fold, while their competitors are harassed into bankruptcy.”
“Humanity First! does NOT harass!” Tellock shouted. “Our first, last and foremost concern is the SAFETY of normal-” he grimaced as she cut him off again.
“I’m not saying that you’re not slick about it!” Karen snapped. “I’m just saying that I know how you operate.”
“Oh, so you’d prefer that MURDERERS like Doctor Diabolik were allowed to-” he started, but was imperiously interrupted again.
“Oh, so you’re saying that HUMANITY FIRST! ran off Dr. Diabolik?” Karen cut in snidely. “Silly me, here I thought that Captain Patriot did that. So, you’re saying that Humanity First! showed up and picketed Dr. Diabolik’s looting crews, and drove him off that way. Fancy that…”
“If we can STOP deviant freaks like Dr. Diabolik before they start-”
“Doctor Diabolik is a mutant? First I’ve heard of it. My understanding is that he’s a devilishly intelligent, but otherwise baseline human. Or do you consider a well-developed intellect a deviant trait? Yes, I can tell that you do…”
“Doctor Diabolik isn’t the issue here-” Herb hedged.
“Then why’d you bring him up?”
“The point is that Humanity First is an independent organization that is beholden to no one except the Law-” he snarled as Wickham cut him off AGAIN.
“Of COURSE you have no formal connection to the Goodkinds! Their goons never do! The Goodkinds didn’t massacre 37 striking textile workers in Stotham, Massachusetts in 1889! Federal troops did that! Oh yes, Col. Edgar Goodkind, who was supposed to be retired, was leading them, but it was still Federal troops! And the Goodkinds didn’t set the Shermer Flats on fire in 1903 to clear out all the poor people living there, so they could buy land close to the railroad tracks for their new factory cheap! No, a gang of thugs did that! A gang of thugs that nobody ever heard of before, or heard from again! The Goodkinds just hired the Pinkertons to keep the fire trucks out of the flats!”
Tellock put his hands in his pockets and decided to wait out the storm.
“And the Goodkinds didn’t blow Grantville, West Virginia into a hole in the ground in 1911, because the Grantville mines had accepted a labor union! No, that was a freak accident - that could only happen with over four thousand pounds of TNT planted in very precise locations! And the Goodkinds didn’t murder everyone in Santa Mira, California in 1934 - just for the oceanfront real estate! No, that was an epidemic! A strain of some mysterious flu that no one ever heard of before and will probably never hear of again! In fact, important Goodkinds just HAPPENED to be in the area buying up land, and arranged for the very first medical support, their own people, who said exactly what the Goodkinds wanted them to say, even though nothing they said has stood up to modern epidemiological evaluation! And the Goodkinds didn’t burn out the Clayton family in Jefferson, Mississippi in 1948 because the Claytons owned land that had the Goodkinds wanted - no, that was the Klan, another recipient of the Goodkinds’ generosity.”
Tellock stood his ground. “Okay, you want facts and figures? How about this - a 24% reduction in violent super powered crime in Cincinnati since Humanity First! opened its doors here in 1986. Longer sentences for convicted super powered criminals, thanks to H1! lobbying.” Tellock started pacing back and forth, ticking off items, “Proven faster response times for SWAT units called to super-crimes. Post-Traumatic Stress counseling for the victims of super-crimes. More funding for Police Power Suit units. THAT is what Humanity First! is REALLY about, Miss Wickham. The People. The simple, everyday Joes who can’t leap over tall buildings with a single bound.”
“Do you want to check your crib sheet, Mister Tellock?” Miss Wickham said with a wintry smile. “I notice that your lobbying doesn’t include pressuring Goodkind-owned insurance carriers to honor their Superhero/Supervillain Damages policies.”
“The Goodkinds HONOR those policies!” Tellock shouted.
“Yes, after a minimum of five years, during which time 40% of the policy holders stop pressing their claims.”
“The Goodkind groups came forward with the money within a WEEK of Dr. Diabolik hitting!”
“Yes, because a federal judge issued an emergency order, instructing them to pony up within 96 hours, because just such a case had been settled in his court involving the Goodkinds trying to wait out policy holders. And they were STILL three days late.”
One of Tellock’s primary principles was ‘if you’re losing, change the game’. “I keep TELLING you that this is NOT about the Goodkinds! This is about letting Humanity First! protect the community by making sure that superhero groups like SPECTRUM are responsible to the community!”
“SPECTRUM is responsible to the community. The DA overwatch sees to that.”
“I’m not talking about a bunch of bureaucrats! I’m talking about a community-based board-”
“You’re talking about setting Humanity First! up as a privately run inquisition with de facto official powers, and no need to answer to City Hall, the Law or the Electorate, and don’t tell me that Humanity First! doesn’t work that way, because I know better.” Herb started to rebut that, but Karen mercilessly cut him off again. “MISTER TELLOCK, no matter what you say, Humanity First! is joined at the hip with the Goodkinds. The Goodkinds have been using Humanity First! as a Trojan horse for years, and using you people to pressure local businesses into toeing the Goodkind line, or else.”
“Businesses like the hundred or so Wickham-owned and run firms around the Tri-State area?” Tellock asked archly.
“Precisely,” Karen purred with an acid smile. “And don’t tell me that the Goodkinds are good people. I know the smell of them; they smell just like my family - a pack of sharks with sharp teeth and big appetites. However, we’re local sharks, and we know where the bodies are buried.” Wickham leaned back in her chair and glowered at Herb. “Tellock, you came in here making noises that not giving your people that money would result in Humanity First! branding the Wickhams as being ‘Pro-Freak’ or whatever your term was. That is extortion, pure and simple. But for you to come in here, in effect telling me to PAY for the privilege of letting the Goodkinds roll over me and my family? That is INSULTING! Now leave! Before I call the police!”
Herb started to retort, but Karen fixed him with an icy glare and pointed imperiously for the door. Herb stuck his hands in his pockets and stomped out of the study. It was like the fucking bitch knew what cards he was going to play, even before he did! It flickered across his mind that she might be some sort of mind-reading mutant, but that thought flickered right out of his head without leaving a lasting trace.
Stacy and Lauren watched as Mr. Tellock trudged out of Karen’s study and headed toward the front door. Usually, Karen either showed visitors to the door out of courtesy, or at least had someone see them out if she was too busy. Mr. Tellock, on the other hand, she let see himself out. Stacy and Lauren poked their heads into the study. “Ah there you are,” Karen said with a far gentler mien. “You were listening, of course.”
“Ah, we weren’t eavesdropping,” Stacy stammered.
“Then how are you supposed to learn anything?”
“Who was that guy?”
“Oh, that was Herbert Tellock, Humanity First!’s ‘liaison with the business community’, which is another way of saying that he makes five going on six figures a year as a professional beggar and extortionist.”
“Humanity First!?” Stacy asked, feeling a chill go down her back. “What did he want?”
“Well, in so many words, he wanted me, as a major contributor to SPECTRUM, to put pressure on *ahem!* ‘them’ to get rid of you, and for me to pay close to a quarter of a million dollars to help fund H-One’s efforts to keep Cincinnati a ‘Mutant Safe’ area. By which he means ‘safe FROM mutants’, not ‘safe FOR mutants’. While he didn’t put it in quite those words, he made quite sure that it was understood that if I didn’t pony up, that H-1! would spread it around that the Wickhams were ‘Mutie-lovers’ or some such tripe, and generally black-list us out of town.”
“Does Humanity First! really do all that stuff for the Goodkinds? Y’know harassing people out of business and stuff?”
“Oh, I overstated it. I had to. I had to make Tellock think that my real concern was the Goodkinds trying to gain a hold in the Tri-State Area.”
“Well, I couldn’t very well tell him to cram it, that I was a member of SPECTRUM, and I wasn’t about to let him and his sleazy cronies bully me into kicking you out on the street. I needed a reasonable excuse to not only refuse to go along with them, but oppose them. And the Goodkinds are obnoxious enough that they make for a good excuse.”
“So… what are you gonna do?”
“Well, first of all, I’m not going to throw you out on the street, just because a pack of middle-class yahoos make mean noises at me! I may not be the cast-iron bitch that Granny Isobel was, but I am NO WIMP! And I’m not paying out any money, either. I’m going to send a copy of the conversation that I just had with Mr. Tellock to the Better Business Bureau and lodge a complaint against Humanity First! for coercive solicitation - or whatever the term for a shakedown is these days. But I can’t let it slide at just that. I may have to do something… terrible… I may have to unleash a horror that may undo years of good works…”
She picked up a phone and made a call. “Hello? Kenneth? This is Aunt Karen. Start making calls; we need to have a family meeting. This is important. No, it’s not about my will, it’s really important. Humanity First!’s flack, Herb Tellock, was just here in my study, throwing his weight around and making threats. I think that the Goodkinds are warming up to make a move against us. We’ve got to send the message that we won’t let ourselves get pushed around. No, I don’t intend to go head to head with the Goodkinds. That would be fighting on their terms. No, we go after their goons, Humanity First! H-1 is smaller, more vulnerable, and to be perfectly honest, they started this, so they should be the ones to take it in the neck. Taking out H-1 would deprive the Goodkinds of a major asset in the Tri-State area, without requiring retaliation from the Goodkinds. And Ken? While we’re at this, I see no reason why we shouldn’t make a profit on it. Ken? Ken? Please… You’re drooling… Ken, just make the calls, and get everyone here for dinner. Feel free to brainstorm on the way.” Karen put down the phone and shuddered. “The horror… the horror…”
The protests by that church from Kansas were embarrassing. Worse, it was Stacy’s first real look at people who hated mutants. Not just unsure of how to take them, or were afraid of them, or had complicated feelings, but really hated mutants. The radio DJs made jokes about them, and there were a couple of snarky editorials about people from Wichita who came all that way to tell them how to run their town. But none of that meant anything when Stacy walked into SPECTRUM headquarters. She could feel their hate burning into her skin like acid, and worse, she knew that they felt totally justified in spitting at her, and that they knew that God was pleased with them for doing it. Lauren also made jokes about it, but Stacy’s faith in herself was shaken.
It was shaken even worse when Captain Patriot started getting flack from the Press about whether she was a mutant or not. They made it sound like her being a mutant was something that SPECTRUM should be ashamed of, and Cap was ducking the issue. The people on the radio and TV who’d just been saying such great things about her did this complete turn-around and started making the same noises. Cincinnati sort of closed itself away from her.
There was a really tense moment when the MCO showed up, saying that they had to talk to Stacy. Stacy got a bad feeling off of them. They had the same sort of look that those Easterbury church folks had, but they weren’t as open about it. They were closed off and icy cold, and they looked at Stacy like she was a fish that they were about to gut. Mr. Larribee, SPECTRUM’s lawyer, sat with her while they interrogated her. And yes, they didn’t interview her, like they said they were gonna do; they interrogated her. Like she was suspected of something horrible, and they had two strikes on her, and need a third strike to put her away forever. Mister Larribee kept interrupting, saying that this question was improper, and that line of questioning had already been answered, and the other question was badgering.
Finally, the MCO guys said that this was getting them nowhere, that they’d have to take Stacy to their headquarters for further questioning. Mr. Larribee calmly reminded them that they had no right to take Stacy into custody.
The MCO guys started talking about ‘Standard Operating Procedure’. Mister Larribee pointed out that the MCO was a private organization, and its SOP was meaningless when it came to taking a civilian minor into custody.
The MCO guys said that they routinely cooperated with local law enforcement in this way. Mr. Larribee countered that an illegal procedure that was routine was still illegal.
The MCO guys started saying things about ‘obstructing justice’. Mr. Larribee pointed out that you could only obstruct justice by preventing an official investigation by duly authorized officials from finding the truth, and the MCO was not, as he’d pointed out before, a branch of any level of government.
The MCO guys got up, said that she was coming with them, and any attempt to stop them was resisting arrest, and pulled guns. Captain Patriot walked in, and took the guns away from them. Then he looked one of them in the face and asked, “What’s your name?”
“I’m Field Operative William Harris.”
“Really? ‘Cause you look a LOT like a MCO goon named Lyle Rainey who came in here and gave me all sorts of assurances that a young man named Charlie Denver would be given every legal benefit. And then he and his partner took Charlie off, and nobody ever heard from Charlie again. And the MCO said that they’d never heard of Charlie Denver or Lyle Rainey or his partner. I gave Charlie my word that nothing bad would happen to him.” Harris started to give Cap some shit about being sloppy, and it not being the MCO’s fault, and Cap picked him up off his feet by his tie. “I wouldn’t be all smart-mouthed, if I were you, Harris. ‘Cause you just tried to abduct a minor with lethal weapons. Now, either you aren’t MCO, and the MCO office will say that they’ve never heard of you, in which case you’re looking at a LOT of jail time, or you are MCO, in which case your entire organization is in a world of trouble, for felonious conduct.
“Now, you and your buddy are gonna sit there and wait for the State Troopers to come pick you up. You’re under Citizen’s Arrest for Kidnapping, and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony. And while you’re sitting here, waiting to find out where you’re going to be spending the next 10-to-life, you might want to think long and hard about what you know about Charlie Denver and Lyle Rainey.”
It didn’t work out that way. The State Attorney General decided that the MCO guys had badly overstepped their authority, but there was no sign of any intent to commit a crime. Which confused Stacy, until Karen explained that the Attorney General didn’t want to piss off the MCO, which had a lot of heavy backing, and was notorious for fucking over officials who got in their way.
Prescott: ‘And this is ‘Mornings with Marty’ on WFRP, I’m your host, Marty Prescott. We have a great lineup today, folks, starting with none other than the Silver Ghost and her parents! Yes, that’s right, her PARENTS! It seems that they’ve been looking for her for months, ever since her mysterious powers first manifested themselves. Frank, Debbie, welcome to the show.’
Debbie: <gushing> ‘Oh THANK you, Marty! We’re glad to be here. We really DO need the chance to clear the air.’
Frank: ‘Yeah, it’s been an uphill battle, but we finally managed to track down our little girl. And that was only the beginning. Y’see Lauren.-’
Silver Ghost: <flat, persecuted tone> ‘That’s NOT my name.’
Prescott: ‘Of course not! To make it clear, the Silver Ghost’s parents are using aliases on the air.’
Frank: ‘Yeah, y’see ‘Erin’ here had a kind of fit when her powers first hit. I mean, it was WILD! Stuff flying around the room, tables and chairs lifting off, all that kind of stuff! Poor Lauren didn’t know WHAT was happening! She wound up hitting herself on the head with something in the whole mess, and when she woke up, she didn’t recognize anyone! She had a panic attack and lit out the window. That was four months ago!’
Silver Ghost: <same slightly disgusted tone> ‘These people are NOT my parents.’
Debbie: ‘You see? She doesn’t recognize us at all! We hired private investigators to look for her, and contacted ALL the runaway assistance programs and everything, and all that, but it wasn’t until that Doctor Diabolical attacked Cincinnati that we found out where she was!’
Silver Ghost: ‘I KNOW who my parents are. They kicked me out when I manifested as a mutant.’
Debbie: ‘We did NOT kick you out Sweetie! You were just real confused from that bonk on the head. She was always real touchy if she got left out of anything…’
Prescott: ‘Now, to head off the obvious questions from listeners, these people DO have Birth Certificates, School Records, fingerprint records and many photographs of themselves and the girl we’ve come to know as the ‘Silver Ghost’. Now, Frank, I understand that you’ve been contacted by some Hollywood producers.
Frank: ‘Yeah, well, you know how it is. The thing here is that this has been very hard on my family. The private investigators didn’t really DO anything, but they get paid anyway, and they weren’t cheap. And I lost my job, and Debbie’s been on unpaid sabbatical while we were looking for Erin, so we NEED the money.
Debbie: ‘But the good part is that we can finally clear the air with the MCO and get back to our real lives.’
Silver Ghost: <tones of horror> ‘The MCO?’
Frank: ‘Now, Pumpkin, it’s nothing major. They just want to ask you a few questions and do a few simple harmless tests…’
Prescott: ‘I don’t believe it! The GREEN WITCH herself has just shown up in the studio!’
Green Witch: ‘Hello, Marty.’
Lawyer: ‘We have a Restraining Order against SPECTRUM!’
Prescott: ‘By the way, for our listeners, that was just Lloyd Grover, Frank and Debbie’s lawyer. He’s with us, here in the studio as well.’
Green Witch: ‘No, you have a restraining order PENDING the judge’s signature. Which she hasn’t signed. And she’s left for the weekend.’
Prescott: ‘You’re here to dispute these people’s claim to being Lauren’s parents?’
Green Witch: ‘No, I’m here because there’s someone that these people really SHOULD see. Or, at least, she should see THEM.’
Loud, harsh, Rural Working-Class Female Voice: ‘YOU! I KNEW it was you three s**t-talking scumbags! That restaurant was all my family HAD until you three talked us into that bull-s**t ‘Community Pool’!
Frank: ‘I have NO idea of who this woman is.’
Debbie: ‘This is SLANDER!’
Lawyer: ‘This is just a CHEAP TRICK by the Green Witch and SPECTRUM to discredit my clients!’
Green Witch: ‘No, this is Lorette Scanlon from Mount Erie, Illinois. It seems that five months ago, someone convinced her and several of her neighbors to pool their property together into a single holding, as a way to prevent the B&O railroad from using Eminent Domain to leverage the land their homes and businesses were on out from under them. Then, they sold the whole package to the B&O and ran off with the proceedings.’
Lawyer: ‘These sort of ambush tactics will NOT stand up in court, and we WILL sue!’
Lorette: ‘Oh, I don’t need to go to court! I can wring your f*****g necks right here, a*****e!’
Frank: ‘She’s just an impostor that the Green Witch has hired to smear our good names!’
Green Witch: ‘Let’s leave that aside for the moment. Let’s see what my OTHER guest has to say.’
Debbie: ‘Oh, Crap.’
Guest: ‘Hey, Chuck, Lamar, Ruby… You, ah, all missed our last scheduled appointment. Ah, right. Mister Prescott, I’m Larry Gamble from the Illinois Department of Corrections. Here’s my badge and ID. These three people that you’ve been talking with are Chuck Huxley, Lamar Garnock, and Ruby Pryor. I’m their parole officer. They’re all about three or so years late for their last appointments with me, and they’re in violation of their parole for leaving the state.’
‘Lawyer’: ‘Hey, Larry, this isn’t what it looks like.’
Larry: ‘You can tell me all about it on the way back to Joliet. Now, here’s the deal - you can either stand still while I put these handcuffs on you, or I can deputize these three ladies to help me cuff you. Your call.’
Debbie: ‘Look, Larry, you’re making a mistake-’
Lorette: ‘I say they’re resisting arrest!’
Stacy asked, “So, do you think that the MCO really put those sleazebags up to pretending that they were my parents?”
Azure shrugged. “Who knows? On one hand, I wouldn’t put it past the MCO. On the other hand, most con artists aren’t really all that bright. With most grifters, it’s more a matter that they’re willing to screw over anyone regardless of how much they hurt them. No matter what W.C. Fields said, not only can you cheat an honest man, but it’s really easy. Most victims of con games are people who are up against it, and can least afford to lose the money. Or in Lorette’s case, her business. So, they could just be using the MCO as an excuse.”
“But why would they want to shaft ME like that?”
“Money. Bragging Rights. But for the most part, I’d say that they’d do it just for the thrill of getting over on a ‘real live superhero’. For my money, that’s the real reason why most professional crooks do it - the thrill of the ‘Big Win’. God knows, for most of them, the money sucks.”
Stacy was about to ask how that incident affected her with the local DA, when Karen and the Golden Knight drone walked in with a short, rather boyish looking man in an Army uniform. “Stacy! Good news!”
“Humanity First! is in bankruptcy?”
“Still working on it,” Karen admitted. “No, all that kafuffle with those three con artists brought you to the attention of the Army!”
“The Army? They’re gonna DRAFT me?”
“No, but we ARE willing to TRAIN you,” the soft-spoken man said, stepping forward. “Stacy, I’m Major Burghoff from Project: OlymPYC.”
“Sort of. It’s olym-Pee-Why-Cee. That’s for ‘Paranormal Youth Cadets’. Some pencil-pusher trying to be cute. Stacy, there ARE other high-school age kids with strange powers like yours. Not just like yours; they’re not all mutants. There is a LOT of weirdness out there. But, like you, they’re just KIDS. They don’t really know how to control these powers. OlymPYC is a training program for kids like you, to help you learn to safely control your powers.”
“And the Army is running this?”
“Well, it’s set up like a military academy. Cadets, like it says in the name. You’ll have structure, like in a military school, with training, and with regular school work. You’ll be with other kids your age, who also have powers, but with the kind of discipline and structure, so the older kids don’t push the younger ones around too much. We find that discipline helps kid focus, and concentrate on doing the right thing, rather than just kicking around, thinking up ways of pushing each other around.”
“So, you’ll be teaching me how to shoot guns and stuff?”
“And the martial arts, and a lot of other things. Stacy, learning how to fight properly is KEY to learning how to NOT hurt other people. With your strength, you have to know how important it is to use just enough power. Do you really KNOW how to use ‘just enough’? Do you KNOW how to use your powers in ways that they won’t run away from you?”
“How long would I have to stay at this school?”
“Until you finish high school.”
“Do I have to join the Army or something, once I graduate?”
“Well, the Army would expect something back in exchange for the costs of training, but it would only be for a reasonable period of time. You should be able to get right into college after you serve your hitch.”
“How long would this hitch be?”
“Well, with your powers, we’re hoping that you’d decide to go for a career, but the Army’s willing to settle for the standard enlistment term.”
As Stacy and Major Burghoff talked, the Green Witch sidled over to the Golden Knight and whispered, “Cal, are you recording this?”
[Had it running since I first talked to him]
[Salesmen who specialize in face to face sales hate talking over the telephone. Reading body and face language is half of what they do]
“You think that he’s scamming us?”
[He’s a recruiter. Recruiters are salesmen. Salesmen lie.]
“So, what do we do? Telling the Army to piss off is practically giving the MCO written permission to drag Stacy off. And Stacy’s a pretty easy sale. Just look at him pushing her buttons.”
[I just told Cap, Azure, Red, and the Streak to get in here.]
[Karen, THIS is how you deal with salesmen…]
Major Burghoff hated dealing with superheroes. Reading guys who wear masks and trying to get an idea of what they want to hear is a bear. And dealing with the Knight guy in the golden armor was like trying to make a sale over the phone when the yoyo on the other end of the line wasn’t giving you any clues whatsoever. And there were SIX of them! And every time that he thought that he had a line on what one of them wanted, one of the others jumped in and took it in a totally different direction. He was starting to lose track of what he’d promised. He wished that he could get the girl alone. He was sure that he’d had her at first, but the more he bounced around with these idiot long-john jockeys, the more he got that he was losing her. Then she broke off his latest attempt to take control of the pitch and said, “Well, I’m sorry Major, but I just don’t think that I’m Army material. I mean, I just wouldn’t be able to get with the whole military school thing. I mean, I’m just way too, y’know, big a wimp.” She finished with biting her lower lip and looking at him with big blue eyes that silently pleaded, ‘please don’t get mad at me?’, half little girl, half sexy teenage babe.
Okay, nice-nice wasn’t working. He tried bribery. Not working. He mentioned that the Army could protect her from the MCO. The MCO wasn’t really a big problem for her at the moment. He fished around for some special favor that he could do them; nothing. He hinted that they could be making some serious problems for themselves by not playing ball. They got nasty and called the CO of the nearest Army base and started asking some unfortunately direct questions. He tried getting tough, which turned out to be a very BAD idea with superheroes. He tried bullying the girl, using her apparent timidity. That turned out to be a VERY bad idea. Finally, Burghoff made a few excuses and left. GOD, he hated dealing with superheroes!
“Ah well,” Karen sighed. “That could have gone better.”
“I’m sorry,” Stacy moaned.
“Why were you so dead set against this guy?” Azure asked. “Okay, I mean, he turned out to be a creep, but at least at first, I liked what he was saying.”
“Yeah,” Stacy agreed. “That was the problem. He was saying what we wanted to hear, not what was so.”
“Oh? How do you know that?”
“Oh, he’s just like Danny, my old boyfriend. He knows how to figure out what you want to hear, and then twists everything, even in his own head, so it all fits. But he always has in the back of his head what he really wants. And all that Major Burghoff really wants is getting the credit for recruiting a powerful metahuman for OlymPYC.”
“You’re… very certain of that,” Red Thunder said, giving her a measuring look. “Why were you so sure?”
“I… sort of… got the impression. He thought just like my old boyfriend, so I knew what I was dealing with.”
“You can read minds?” Blue Streak asked.
“READ?” Stacy squeaked. “Naaawwwt so much. I just get… y’know… these impressions. Sometimes they’re right, sometimes, I’m just, y’know hearing what I want to hear.”
“Really?” Karen asked, interested. “This… complicates things. Even further. Oh, don’t worry, Stacy! You’re not at fault here. No, both Cal and I had Major Burghoff pegged, even before you started talking with him. But if the MCO gets wind that you’re telepathic, things could get very hairy. Telepaths scare politicians a lot worse than people who can blow up buildings just by looking at them, don’t even begin to. So, let’s just keep this under wraps, hmmm?”
“I wasn’t telling anyone.”
“I wasn’t talking to YOU, Stacy,” Karen gave a stern glance at the other members of SPECTRUM.
Oct. 20th, 2006
Halloween was one of the big affairs at the private school that Lauren went to. “It is SO COOL. First, we help chaperone a Halloween party for first and second graders from affiliated schools, and when the munchkins go off to trick or treat, we have our own party,” Lauren explained. “And it’s not the usual ‘throw something together’ or ‘get something from Walgreens’ Halloween party. Nope, at Mansfield, we pride ourselves on coming up with PRIMO costumes, hand-made, tailored, the whole schmegeggie.”
“What happens if two kids come wearing the same costume?”
“It’s first come, first served. So the kids who really care about it prepare TWO costumes before, and they get a friend to see what’s already been claimed.” Lauren sniffed. “Of course, you can go in with a costume that someone else is doing, but if your costume doesn’t rock theirs off the dance floor, you’re just marking yourself as a loser.”
“Another reason to have two costumes,” Stacy said, seeing Lauren’s point.
“Yeah. Though, to be honest, there are SOME girls, y’know, it doesn’t matter how hard your costume rocks, if they came in with it first, you’d better go change.”
“The ones with the black belts in social skills?”
“Oh yeah. And at this school, we’re talking trash-talk NINJAS!” Lauren did a few joking chops in the air and yowled like Bruce Lee. “So, wha’cha going as?”
“Me?” Stacy gleeped.
“Sure! Miz Wickham okayed it with the headmaster.”
“And he agreed to let me come?”
“If Miz Wickham asked him to, he’d let a wild grizzly come to graduation. That is, if he knows what’s good for him, and believe me, he knows.”
“Wow,” Stacy said, overwhelmed. “I’ve never been to anything like this.” Actually, Stacy had been to her share of such parties as Stanley. George hadn’t minded it if Stanley had gone and had some fun. As long as he didn’t have to pay for it. Or go himself. Or hear about it afterwards. But that had always been cheesy things at the VFW hall, thrown together by the parents to keep the kids in line. This was a real party with fancy costumes, thrown by the kind of people who got all sorts of social points for throwing great parties.
And there would be boys at this party.
Odd, Stacy had been a boy all her life until six months ago, and as Stanley, he’d regarded hanging out with boys as a penance, only slightly more pleasant than being around George when he was bored. But the idea of being around boys - when she was a girl for all intents and purposes… Okay, not between her legs. Yet. If ever…
She locked up for a second, and had a mild panic attack. What would she wear? How would she act? What would she do if a boy came up to her and started to talk to her? The only boy who’d shown any interest in her before was Danny, and he was a selfish, irresponsible, manipulative, lying JERK! Who’d have thought that she’d miss him so much?
Oct. 21st, late at night
The launch came quietly down the Ohio river. A touch too quietly for one in the morning. The skies above roiled with clouds that rumbled with the suggestion of thunder and rain. The tall, dark, elegant woman on the deck of the launch looked sourly up at the unseasonable clouds and muttered in Italian, “Once, just ONCE, I’d like to slip into this miserable backwater without dogs barking, or church bells ringing, or statues weeping, or walls bleeding, or rats coming up in swarms through the pipes, or SOMETHING!” But her anger just seemed to feed the storm, which let loose with a bolt of lightning and a peal of thunder that rolled over the water.
The launch pulled up to a dock on the prestigious Mt. Adams Yacht Club, where an old man in a wheelchair sat, waiting for them with obvious ill humor, with a much younger man with a superior smirk standing at his side displaying a considerably better mood. The old man was at least eighty, and he wasn’t enjoying his ‘Golden Years’ in the slightest. He was the ‘withered old vulture’ type of senior citizen, emaciated and shrunken, the only hair on his head the bushy eyebrows that accentuated the malice in his grey eyes and the buzzard-like cast of his face. “Welcome back, Lady Jettatura,” he grated through his oxygen mask.
“It’s nice to be back,” she purred with a refined cosmopolitan European accent. “And you’re looking well.”
“Ah,” he snarled. “Humor.” He glowered up at her as she smiled sardonically back.
Waiting as her piles of luggage were loaded off the launch onto the deck, she asked, “So, what arrangements have been made? I do apologize for the elaborate measures, but if my dear old friend the Green Witch finds out that I’ve returned, well, it will completely ruin the surprise, no?”
The tall, lithe man answered, “You have a choice of a boathouse over the water, or a houseboat with an attendant boathouse. They’re both rather comfortable… well, at least, for Cincinnati…”
“Hmmm…” she mulled over the choice. “A boathouse or a houseboat…” she brushed the issue aside. “I’ll take the boathouse. I may be confided to the water for the moment, but I refuse to tolerate cramped quarters. And what about the hired help that you’ve arranged?”
The man in the wheelchair grunted with harsh amusement. “Oh, our local contact’s ready and raring to go. He’s champing at the bit to become a real live supervillain. He’s been making a few feeble ploys to get his first, ah, payment in advance.”
“Do you think that we can trust him?”
The old man grunted a laugh again. “If we could trust him, then we wouldn’t have any use for him, now would we?”
“No, I guess not,” Lady Jettatura sighed. “Do you think that he can produce the goods?”
“Oh, absolutely. He knows the territory, he has the organization, he knows the measures necessary, and I’m certain that he’s ruthless enough to pull it off. And his payment might even come in handy, should any idiot in spandex come along to try and mess things up.”
“Very well. Do you have the things that the doctors will need?” she asked the younger man.
“Oh yes. When Dr. Diabolik blew through here, the black lab that I was negotiating with took a major hit in their inventory. They need, and I DO mean need a fresh infusion of cash to stay afloat. We could bargain them down further, but I think that throwing them a bone will pay dividends in cooperation and silence.”
“Ah, excellent!” Lady Jettatura purred. “I love negotiating with desperate people. Very well, Jack, cut the deal. Major, I think that we can front your man his payment. The other materials won’t raise that big a fuss, so we’ll use mundane channels to get them in. Well! First, let me send out one of the invitations…”
She searched around among her luggage and found two small boxes with handles on them. Opening up one, she produced a crystal phial with an attendant eyedropper. The other one held a small crocodilian, too small to really tell its breed, but just large enough to hold in one hand. Cradling the little lizard in her left hand, she filled the eyedropper with fluid from the phial and carefully put seven drops into the reptile’s mouth. Its eyes started to glow a golden light, and Lady Jettatura raised it up to level to her face. She spoke to it in a lilting tongue that none of the men could understand. The tiny crocodile closed its mouth and nodded. Then Lady Jettatura gently lowered it into the Ohio River. “Well, that should give him time to prepare… So! Show me this boathouse…”
“Okay, I’ve got a list of the costumes that girls have definitely said they’re gonna be wearing,” Lauren said.
Stacy looked at the list. “Awww Maaan! All the cool costume ideas are already taken!”
Lauren humphed, “So what else is new? Okay, so remember, this is gonna be the first time that these kids are going to meet you, so it’s first impressions time. We gotta pick out something that’s memorable and jazzy, but not geeky, lame, or slutty.”
“How do you do ‘jazzy’, but not ‘slutty’?”
“It’s a balancing act,” Lauren admitted. “The mean girls will probably slam you anyway, but there’s no sense in giving them ammunition.”
“Howsabout a Star Fleet uniform from Star Trek?”
“The original series, Next Generation, or what?”
“The original series. Y’know, minidress, boots, way-out hairdo?”
“Too geeky.” Lauren paused. “Hell, Trekkie is almost the definition of geeky! How about going as the Silver Ghost?”
“Tempt fate much?”
“Okay then, how about Dynawoman? She’s a blonde, and she’s got a great look, and nobody’s called dibs on her!”
Stacy worried her lip. “I think that we should stay away from the whole ‘superheroine’ thing. How about a nurse?”
“Too lame. Catwoman?”
“This girl Abby already called dibs on Catwoman.”
“Rats! Okay, how about…”
The maintenance dock of the boathouse was littered with technical equipment, and the two ‘doctors’ were having a professional disagreement. At the top of their lungs.
“No, no, NO!” Dr. Tenebros yelled, “If anything, you’ve made it more jejune!”
“’Jejune’?” Dr. Strega screeched back. “What kind of feedback is ‘jejune’?”
“It’s the sort of thing that anyone with a single artistic bone in her scrawny body would intuitively understand!” As though Dr. Tenebros had any right to call Dr. Strega ‘scrawny’. He was positively emaciated, and the way that he flailed his long bony arms around only called attention to his hypocrisy.
“Don’t give me that, you art school dropout!” Dr. Strega hissed. She was almost as pale as Tenebros was, and would have been quite attractive, if not for a hungry, predatory leanness in her features, and an unsettling streak of madness in her intense green eyes. “These images were compiled from a detailed analysis of phobic imagery culled from the popular media for the past twenty years! They are arranged for the optimum subliminal impact!”
“And THAT is why they are so BLAND! They’ve SEEN all of this! They KNOW it!” a sneer crossed Tenebros’ long thin face, which was only accentuated by the tall, high silk hat that he habitually wore.
“Then they’ll KNOW to fear it!” Strega’s black pageboy haircut bobbed as she hissed like an angry cat.
“NO, they’ll KNOW that a commercial will come on in a few minutes and they can go to the bathroom!”
“We’re talking about children, not a screening of New York film critics!”
“Yes,” he drawled grandiloquently, “we ARE talking about your esthetic compeers…”
“That was uncalled for, Dr. Tenebros,” Lady Jettatura said with silky, calm authority, as she glided up to them and looked at the hologram. “Uncalled for, and unhelpful. You sound like a pretentious sophomore art major, trying desperately to convince his classmates that he has taste. Your comments are so vague and subjective that they could mean anything. A true artist has respect for the technician.”
“Yes,” Dr. Strega snarled, “Well put. And we don’t really need him. My synthetic manifestations are every bit as useful as his psychic constructs.”
Lady Jettatura sighed, “No, Dr. Strega, while Tenebros’ fear-works require a significant presence of abject fear, once they get going, they far outclass your manifestations in terms of destructiveness, initiative and durability. HOWEVER,” she said, turning to the smirking Tenebros, “first they have to get going. THAT is where Dr. Strega’s constructs shine. They don’t need to be primed, they are at their peak performance immediately.”
“Yes, a molehill peaks early as well,” Tenebros muttered.
“Now, now,” Lady Jettatura chided them both. “I recruited both of you because you’re supposed to be professionals. Act like it. And, truly, there’s no real rivalry here. I’ve taken into account the peculiarities of both your types of manifestations, and applied them to their best advantage. Any confusion between the two sets will only work in our best interests.” She looked the CGI figure up and down. “Still, that being said, I do have to agree with Tenebros, Doctor Strega. It… lacks a certain something… It’s like a mass market Halloween decoration, ‘scary’ but not really frightening.” When Tenebros smirked, she added, “And as for you, please! ‘Too jejune’? What sort of direction is too jejune? What is she supposed to do with that? Her tools work with things like ‘taller’, ‘shorter’, ‘thicker’, ‘darker’ and so forth. Any poseur can throw around arbitrary terms like ‘ethereal’ or ‘riveting’. An artist uses the tools that he has, he doesn’t pout because they don’t meet his standards. Strega, break that figure down to its basic visual components, and let Tenebros play ‘Mix and Match’ for a bit. Like one of those Colorforms sets they used to have. Let him play for a bit, and see if you can give form to his art.”
Lady Jettatura stepped away from Strega’s workstation with a gusty breath of exasperation. Sometimes she wondered if superheroes had to put up with this sort of juvenile behavior. And, speaking of ‘juvenile’, she heard the loud sounds of motorcycles. She snapped her fingers, and two of the henchmen that the Grand Hall had provided opened the doors to the boathouse. Eight bikers on Hondas slowly rode into the boathouse, followed by a pickup truck with something covered by a tarp on the bed. One of the bikers, a large, brutal-looking man who was obviously trading on his vague resemblance to pro wrestler ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin with his shaved head and goatee beard, stepped off his bike and glowered at Lady Jettatura. “So, ‘Dark Claw’,” the lady said, wryly playing with the pretentiousness of the name, “did you have any problems with the, ah, ‘delivery’?”
Dark Claw gave a nasty smile and held up his left hand, which was covered by a large, vicious-looking metal gauntlet that would have been more apt on a heavy metal rock poster. “Naaahh… piece’a cake, with this.” His smile, such as it was, faded. “Now… where’s the rest of my payment?”
Lady Jettatura snapped her fingers imperiously, and two of the Hall’s legionnaires wheeled a large trunk in on a hand truck. Lady Jettatura snapped her fingers again, the locks popped open, and the lid of the trunk swung open. Set into dark blue velvet cushions were a black metal helmet and breastplate of sinister cast, with a matching gauntlet for the right hand and a set of vambraces set into cushions lining the inner lid. Dark Claw’s eyes popped, and despite himself, he gave an appreciative coo.
“An excellent blend of ancient enchantment, old-fashioned craftsmanship and the latest metal-working techniques,” Lady Jettatura said in the tones of a museum docent. “It comes with a matching enchanted titanium chainmail surcoat with a gelatin-pack lining for optimum protection without a threat of overheating. Bulletproof up to sniper round level threats at 1000 yards. Enchantments make the wearer resistant to flame and frost attacks, and wearing the helmet should make you resistant to most acids and caustics, both liquid and vaporous. Wearing the entire set will increase your strength by at least 1,000 pounds in terms of lifting strength, and also add to your speed and agility.”
“Does it come with a cape?” Dark Claw asked like a girl asking a salesman if a dress suited her.
“Of COURSE it comes with a cape! With the high sinister collar and everything!” Lady Jettatura assured him.
Dark Claw was almost drooling, and reached for the helmet, but just as his hand was almost touching it, the lid slammed shut. “Not yet,” Lady Jettatura said with a chilly tone to her voice. “You get the armor for your second part of the deal. This is just to prove that it’s here, and we’re dealing in good faith.”
“That was NOT the deal,” Dark Claw snarled.
“Yes, it was. The gauntlet is the power source for the rest of the armor. You have that. Everything else is details.” Dark Claw blazed some energy with his gauntlet, and started to say something no doubt stupid, when Jettatura fixed him with a glare that stated, ‘do you honestly think I’d give you a weapon that you could use against me?
This led to a very awkward moment, with Dark Claw standing there, losing a lot of face in front of his crew, and Lady Jettatura glaring at him, unwilling to let him off the hook. The moment was broken when the Major was rolled into the area by one of the Hall’s legionnaires. “If I might have a moment of your valuable time,” the old man rasped.
“Of course,” Jettatura said, all sweet graciousness. “I’m not doing anything important.” She turned and walked away from Dark Claw and his gang, casually dismissing them all. “Yes?”
“Things are developing according to schedule. Jack is picking up the chains at the shipping office. Five 1,000 gallon vats of *ahem!* ‘batter’ have just arrived, and I’ve put some of the boys to packing it in dry ice. I assumed that you’d want it frozen until the morning before. Or, did I presume too much, my Lady?”
“No, no, well done, Major. Anything else?”
“Three more things. First, I’ve had my men scouting the area for suitable sites. We’ve narrowed it down to four potential locations. Here are the gematriac, logistical, legal and situational of each site.” He handed over four dossiers over to Lady Jettatura.
“Very good,” she murmured as she skimmed over the contents. “I’ll go over these when I have the time. Very efficient, Major. And what’s the next matter?”
“We’ve scouted the region for front targets, using ease of acquisition (after all, we ARE talking about Dark Claw here), transit to the potential sites, visceral impact, plausibility, and proactive restriction as our criteria. We’ve come up with these.” He handed her three dossiers.
“Very good,” she murmured, skimming over the files again. “Not bad… OH! VERY Good! And… okay…” She handed him back the second file. “This one. Perfect! I couldn’t have come up with a better option myself. Yes, let Dark Claw handle this one, and let him keep the money. The lure of that much loot on their first big job should keep those gutter-scrapings in line. And what’s the last matter, Major?”
“I understand that the New York chapter is still deciding who the ground forces commander will be for that big strike you’re planning against the *ahem!* Atlantic Heritage Trust.”
“Yes?” Jettatura said, being willfully oblivious.
“I understand that it’s down to the Anti-Paladin, Balor, and myself.”
“And, Balor’s not a leader of men, he’s field artillery. He’s a joke. But the Anti-Paladin’s not.”
“Really? Bishop Brimstone was talking about bringing in his Savage Six.”
“Bringing in the Six would end up with them destroying everything that we’re trying to steal. Brimstone was only saying that to wrangle some buy-off for himself. So, it’d be the Anti-Paladin or me. My Lady, I want that job. Can I count on your support?”
Lady Jettatura gave him a smug little feline smirk. “Not to worry, Major. Do a good job here, and I’ll put in a good word for you with the Executive Committee. As for now… well, Dark Claw is being obstinate. See to it that he and his errand boys keep to the schedule.” With that, she stalked off to her apartment.
The Major gave a gesture to the Legionnaires accompanying him, and was pushed over to where Dark Claw and his gang were still standing. “Why hasn’t that been unloaded?” he snapped, indicating the long box still on the bed of the pickup.
“Do it yerself,” Dark Claw snarled.
“And what’s got your panties in a bunch?”
“This ain’t the deal we agreed on.”
“Yes it is,” the Major said brusquely. “This is how things are done in the big leagues. You get what you earn. We’ve been more than generous. We fronted you that gauntlet, when you didn’t really need it to obtain the box. You still have two more things to fetch, before the big show. You’ll see the armor once the other two items have been delivered.”
“Yeah?” sneered one of Dark Claw’s flunkies. “And what about US? We took the same risk as him, and we ain’t got shit for it. What’s in this for US, hunh?”
The Major smiled sinisterly. “An excellent point, young man. Sergeant! Show these men our ‘good will’.” The sergeant and another legionnaire wheeled out several crates on dollies and opened them up. In some of the crates were helmets and body armor sealed in plastic bags. In other were bullpup configured assault rifles. “This vest is rated to fifty caliber. Do not get SHOT by a fifty caliber. It will stop the bullet. It will not stop the force of the bullet from squeezing your lungs out through your assshole. The armor is also treated with anti-caustic coatings. It includes gelatin padding undersuits to cope with shock and overheating. The helmets have integral gas masks, UV goggles, communications links, and heads-up tactical displays, including targeting aids and IFF.”
At the Major’s signal, one of the Legionnaires took one of the assault rifles out of its Styrofoam casing and assembled it. “This is the FN Herstal M19B MSSW, or Modular Squad Support Weapon. It a fires a 4.73 x36mm caseless round from a removable 160-round ammunition cylinder. It comes with an ARG-C N/D 1.5X scope with a choice of aiming reticules, and an integral laser spotter. The sergeant has equipped it with an underslung combination electrical prod and pepper spray dispenser. The prod has two settings. A mild shock that’s just enough to get people’s attention when you jab them is the default. When you hit that button,” the sergeant indicated a button on the grip, “it increases the voltage to 450,000 volts. That’s enough to faze a full-grown bull. Be careful with that. The ‘pepper spray’ is a nasty little caustic that the Hall likes to use. You’d be surprised; I’ve seen big tough guys who shrug off .45s cry like little girls when that gets in their eyes.”
“WHOA!” one of the bikers guffawed with appreciation. “Hey, I think I LIKE you, Old Man! You don’t mess around!”
“You approve,” the Major growled, “My life is complete. Gentlemen, for your participation in our mission, you’ll each be paid $1000 up front and another $1000 upon completion of the mission. You’ll also be allowed to keep the weapons and armor. HOWEVER, that is contingent upon your staying around and actually DOING the job. If you decide to bug out at any time, make no mistake, the Grand Hall can and WILL track you down and extract the full value for what was provided out of your hides - and souls. Dark Claw, your men will be taken to a firing range by the sergeant, and they’ll be instructed and drilled on the proper handling of these weapons. YOU, on the other hand, still have two items that you promised, but have yet to provide.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Dark Claw grumbled. “So exactly what do you want?”
“FIRST - we need a young woman whose innocence has been tainted, but not completely shattered. She must still have hope and some faith. She must be neither a virgin nor a mother. She must be in good health, not an addict, and not insane. SECOND - we need a man whose life is wracked with guilt, self-loathing and regret, but will not repent. He must weigh at least 200 pounds, though more would be better, have the use of all his limbs and senses, and all the teeth in his head. Both of them must come to the place designated willingly. That they stay willingly is irrelevant. You have until sundown, three days from today, to deliver them. Just before the sun goes down, but not afterwards. That is VERY important.”
Dark Claw smirked and crossed his arms. “I know just the guy. As for the girl… well, I don’t know right now, but I know where to look.”
“Good. I recommended you for this, Dark Claw. I have a lot riding on this job. Don’t screw it up for me. If you do, there will literally be HELL to pay.”
As if on cue, several distorted figures that resembled men who had been flayed alive with hooks and spikes driven through their flesh rose up among Dark Claws’ goons and laid long clawed hands on their shoulders. Most of the goons flinched and a couple screamed.
“Well, I have to hand it to you, Tenebros,” Dr. Strega said from her workstation, “That design actually IS creepy.”
October 31st, 2006
“Are you sure about this, Lauren?” Stacy asked. “I mean, ‘Xena, Warrior Princess’ was cancelled five years ago.”
“Which just means that nobody else will be wearing it,” Lauren said as she adjusted the fit of the ‘brass’ breastplate on Stacy. “It’s kind of sexy, but not slutty.”
“Then why don’t you go as Xena, and I go as Gabrielle? At least I could wear my own hair.”
“We’re in high school - people saying that we might be lesbians might not be the social poison that two boys getting fingered as gay is, but it sure won’t do us any good. Hey, you could still go as Supergirl!” Lauren was wearing a ‘Batgirl’ costume, albeit one with a ragged skirt. “Then we’d sort of match!”
“Nah, I’m staying away from superhero stuff,” Stacy insisted. “I’m on pretty thin ice after the Dr. Diabolik thing.”
“What? I’d have thought that after what you did, you were in like Flynn!”
“I WAS, until the MCO and Humanity First! started kicking up a fuss, and those creeps claiming to be my parents popped up. As it is, I don’t want to give Karen or anyone the idea that I’m all hot to be a superhero.” She held up the ‘cute cowgirl’ outfit. “And what’s your backup?”
“Bride of Frankenstein.” She tugged on the wig. “If I gotta make a quick change, will you help me with the makeup?”
“Sure!” Stacy peeped. “So, before we go, are there any social landmines that I should keep an eye out for?”
Lauren thought for a moment. “Okay, the biggies are the Bramlin Girls.”
“Don’t ask me, I dunno what that’s about. They’re these three girls with serious cases of ‘our shit don’t stink’. MAJOR ‘toods. Abby, Marika and Hayley. Two blondes and a black chick. Abby called dibs on Catwoman, Marika is going as Elvira, and Hayley’s going as some Atlanta superheroine called ‘Green Blaze’.”
“Ever notice that there are a LOT of ‘green’ superheroes’?”
“You’d know better than I would. Now, the thing to keep in mind about the Bramlin Girls is that while they got the ‘High School Royalty’ thing down, they’re not really all that MEAN. I mean, they don’t go looking for people to shit on. You don’t mess with them, they probably won’t even notice you. PROBLEM. Abby’s boyfriend, Kirk, is a stone-cold douchebag, and it’d probably be his idea of a good time to flirt with someone just to get Abby’s hackles up. Marika’s between bee-effs at the moment, and Hayley’s the ‘boyfriend of the week’ type. Just stay away from the Batman who’s around Catwoman a lot, and you should be cool.
“Oh! And there’s Jennilee. She’s going as…” Lauren paused to recall, “Cinderella. Evil Stepsister is more like it. Now SHE is downright mean. Not really as good at it as the Bramlin Girls are when they get nasty, but she actually enjoys giving people shit. Just… don’t talk to her. If she tries to talk to you, just… ‘accidentally’ spill something and make an excuse.
“Let’s see now… Benny the barnacle probably won’t try to latch onto you, as it’s only a Halloween party. Probably won’t even come. Aannd… Oh! Corey! Corey Griswold. Tall, good-looking, on the baseball and basketball teams. He’s one of those ‘God’s Gift’ kind of guys. Avoid him if you can, and if you can’t, DON’T go off alone with him. It doesn’t matter how long, just don’t be seen going off with him. If you do, no matter what happens, by this time next week, he’ll be saying that you two had a Roman orgy, all by yourself.”
Stacy curled a lip. “Oh. One of THOSE guys…”
“Hey, every school’s got its share of yahoos, and them’s ours.”
October 31st, just before sundown
Dark Claw climbed out of the Audi and looked westward. The sun was just beginning to set. Perfect. The old man had said that the timing was very important, and Dark Claw believed him. The old man was as decrepit as you could get without having to stay at a nursing home, yet there was something about him that Dark Claw respected - and feared. The old man wasn’t afraid of anything, and he acted like he could step on Dark Claw and his crew like bugs. The Legion of Terror guys treated him like he was large and in charge, and none of them struck Dark Claw as wussies. He knew what he was getting into, and he knew that it had its own set of rules. He had every intention of obeying those rules as closely as he could. At least until he had enough real power that he could start writing rules of his own. “Okay, it’s cool. C’mon, we don’t have a lot of time until the party starts.”
Three people got out of the Audi. While the guy who got out of the side front seat was dressed like a biker, it was pathetically obvious that he was just a pimp trying to look tough. He looked more like George Michael in his ‘rocker’s revenge’ days. And the 18-year-old (if that) girl who got out of her cramped seat in the rear was just as obviously his whore. But the obese thirty-something man who squeezed himself out of the rear seat, which he’d taken up most of and almost mashed the girl against the far door, didn’t seem to fit any obvious role. He looked at Dark Claw with a gaze of equal parts anxiety and eagerness. “Are you absolutely SURE about this?”
“SURE,” Dark Claw said with a grin and a deep sardonic chuckle, as he fingered the gauntlet on his left hand with the forefinger of his right. “Believe me, this is a Halloween that you’ll NEVER forget.” He turned and knocked on the boathouse doors. When the door opened, he said to the man inside, “Tell her that we’re here. Oh, and have someone park the car.” He tossed the guy the keys to the Audi. Then he led the three into the boathouse.
The boathouse had been adapted into a temple of sorts, with an altar on a platform arranged above the water within the sheltered dock. The doors were closed, the windows were drawn close, and the only light in the place came from hundreds of candles lit all over the place. “Just what are we gonna be doing here?” the girl asked in a shaky voice.
“Nothing for you to be worried about,” Dark Claw said as he scanned the darkness. “Ah, here’s our hostess now. I’ll let her take it from here.”
“Ah, Dark Claw,” Lady Jettatura purred as she wafted up in a set of flowing black robes. Her hair was contained by a filigree metal mesh headdress, which had an even finer metal mesh veil drawn across her face, leaving only her lustrous dark eyes visible. A large ruby stone was set on her brow, matching all the other red gems that she wore as part of her costume. She was toying with a large golden ankh. “You’ve arrived. Will you introduce your ‘guests’?”
“Of course. This is Candy,” he gestured at the girl. “This is Thad her *snerk!* ‘boyfriend’,” he nodded at the pimp, who was grinning at what he thought was easy money. Then he waved a hand at the fat man, who was fidgeting with a mix of anxiety and anticipation. “And this is Jasper, who is a, ah… man of… appetites…”
Lady Jettatura looked at Candy and took her face in hand. She turned the girl’s face this way and that and tersely said, “Speak.”
“What do you want me to say?” Candy asked with a very Middle American accent. Dark Claw had pegged her as yet another Minnesota girl who came down to Cincinnati instead of going directly to New York for some reason or another.
“That will do,” Lady Jettatura smirked. “As will you. You do understand that you’re here entirely at our disposal? You understand that you’re expected to allow us to do anything, and I DO mean anything we want to you?” Candy nodded, but the Lady insisted, “Say it.” Candy said ‘Yes’, and that was it for her. The Lady barely wasted a glance on Thad’s cheap pretty-boy looks, but gazed long and hard at Jasper. She peered deep into his eyes, and ran the small finger of her left hand across his puffy cheek. “Yes. You will do nicely. Jack, pay the man.” Jack seemed to materialize out of the darkness with a smirk on his face. He reached into his jacket and handed Thad a thick envelope. “First, a drink…”
A servant in livery appeared out of nowhere with a tray of wine glasses. He served Lady Jettatura, Jack and Dark Claw first, and then Jasper, Candy and Thad. Thad smacked his lips at the taste of the smooth rich wine. Oh yes, there was money here, he could smell it. “So, exactly what are we here for?”
“Later,” Lady Jettatura purred. “Now, these gentlemen and the young lady have to change.” Jasper tried to wheedle some sort of assurance out of Lady Jettatura, but he allowed himself to be herded off, leaving only the Lady and Thad in the gloom. Thad tried to chat the lady up, but she returned his overtures with a chilly glare.
When Jasper returned, he was wearing an outfit that displayed far too much of his flabby physique for anyone’s comfort. What he wore was a vaguely Egyptian outfit that consisted mostly of a waistcloth, a head-cloth, and sandals, with an elaborate set of gold and jeweled bracers, cross-straps, belt and collar. Candy came back wearing a simple white silk gown that looked more like choir practice than a wild party.
Candy looked around. That Jack guy was wearing a close-fitting red leather suit with black boots, gloves and utility belt. In his hands he carried a Mexican carved wood ‘red devil’ mask. But Candy realized that it only looked like carved wood. It must have been rubber or something, because when Jack put it on his face, it flexed and moved like it was his real features. Then he pulled some bit of stage magic, and a pitchfork appeared in his hand out of a puff of smoke. That ‘Dark Claw’ guy was wearing some funky suit of black armor with a breastplate and bits of chain, a nasty looking helmet, a spooky-looking red cape with one of those fancy high collars, and natch, that stupid glove thing that he thought made him look so tough. Then a bunch of guys in black or red body armor - the real kind of armor, the stuff that you see SWAT use and like that - came out of the darkness. The guys in black armor had nasty looking assault rifles in their hands, but the guys in red armor weren’t carrying anything. That was, until Jack thumped his pitchfork onto the ground, and more pitchforks appeared in the red guys’ hands. One of the guys in red armor was pushing this really withered, really nasty-looking old man in a wheelchair. The old man looked like a snapping turtle with sore feet. His body was all used up, but there was a hella lot of grit and strength still in his steady but cold gray eyes. “What IS this?” Candy whined.
“Not to worry dear,” the Lady cooed reassuringly. “All that you have to do is set the tone for our little soiree.”
Candy didn’t like the sound of that. She may have come from Karlstat, Minnesota, but she’d heard about some of the weird kinky shit that rich people in big cities got up to. “Is this gonna hurt?” she asked in a quavering voice.
“Don’t worry, you won’t feel a thing,” the Lady said. “All that you have to do is read this on that platform and stay there until the ritual is over.” The Lady handed Candy a piece of really rough feeling paper with words on it that she couldn’t read.
“What IS this? I can’t make out heads or tails of it,” Candy complained.
“It’s phonetic,” the Lady explained. “Just read it as it looks. You don’t have to understand what it means, you just have to say the words.” The Lady coached Candy a bit on a few of the word, to be absolutely certain.
Candy looked at Thad and asked, “Are you sure about this?”
“Sure I’m sure, babe!” Thad assured her with a confident grin and a thumbs-up.
Candy stepped on the platform to the part of the diagram that the lady told her and read out the part written on the paper. It was harder than she thought it would be. She was having a hard time concentrating. She managed to finish without completely screwing everything up, and looked at the lady. “Stay there,” the lady said. She stepped onto the platform and poured some kind of sand or something in a pattern on the diagram. Then she pointed a finger at the powder and a little fire shot out from her finger, lighting the stuff so that it smoked, like incense. She raised her arms and held out another piece of paper, and yelled out something in some language that Candy couldn’t even guess at. Then she snapped her fingers, and one of the guys in red armor brought her this little kid goat, couldn’t have been more’n six months old. The armor guy held the goat, exposing its stomach to the lady. The lady held up her hand, and the nails on her hand suddenly grew, like, ten inches or a foot or shit, and looked real sharp. She slashed the little goat with her nails, opening its belly with a single swipe, sending blood and guts all over the place.
Then a gout of fire shot up in the middle of the diagram, and Candy knew, just knew, right in her gut, that she hadda get the fuck out of there while she could, SCREW what Thad said! But she couldn’t move. She had a sense that there was something in that fire, something unclean and vicious and evil and hungry, and she didn’t want anything to do with it.
But instead of this icky monster, this short, kinda runty looking guy walked out of the fire. His face was long and sad-lookin’ with a big ol’ nose and a small mouth. He looked like a used car salesman, almost a twin for the guy her dad bought his Toyota from in International Falls. He wore a loud checked jacket over a black shirt that was open at the collar, showing off some cheap gold jewelry. He was wearing sunglasses, a big Rolex watch and had a pretty obvious comb-over haircut. He was carrying some kind of suitcase. And yet, there was something about him, something like a big ol’ wildcat that didn’t sit right with the way he looked. “Heeeyyy… Cosima!” he greeted the lady with breezy cheer. “Howya doin’? I haven’t seen you in a dog’s age, howya been?”
“It is the appointed time, and the appointed place, and I have the coin. Have you the goods?”
“What? No ‘hey, good to see you, yer lookin’ well, how’s the kids’? Where’s that famous European courtesy and grace?”
“Spoiled entirely by exposure to Americans,” she replied. “Let’s get to the point, we have many things to do tonight.”
“Okay, fine, BE that way.” He opened the suitcase and took out a thing that looked like it was some kind of figure made from fired red clay. It was all scrunched up and nasty looking, but Candy didn’t see why these people were so eager to get it. “There! Just like we agreed. And believe me, the Green Witch will jump backwards through flaming hoops to keep THIS bad boy from showing up in town again!”
“She’ll recognize it?” the Lady asked cautiously.
“Oh, you betcherass! Last time this hardass showed his ugly mug in Cincy, he ripped Gee-Dubya’s buddy Graywolf into a thousand itty-bitty bits and wiped his ass with him. Greenie and Grayboy was real tight. Greenie was all *snerk!* ‘tore up’ to see him go like that. She went to a lot of trouble to throw this back into the Pit. She won’t like seeing it again.”
“And will he cooperate?”
“Oh YEAH. He really liked Cincinnati the last time he blew through. He’s really looking forward to a return trip. He’ll do as he’s told.”
“You know, Dealer, this would be a LOT easier if you simply TOLD me where the bitch keeps her lair,” the Lady said, like this guy was making her work too hard.
“Hey, I’d LIKE to tell you!” the Dealer insisted. “But I can’t! When I cut the deal with her great-whatever-granma, she insisted on a clause where I couldn’t rat her or any of her kids or any of their kids out. Seems she didn’t trust me. Painful, painful is what it is, the lack of trust in the world, even back then. But it’s been a LONG time, and I want what’s due me. So I ain’t screwin’ it up by giving that green bitch a way out on a technicality. BUT…” he grinned, “there ain’t JACK in our agreement that says that I can’t make deals on the side, or WHO I make those deals with.” He gave her a raking look. “Still, I can’t just GIVE this to you. For this to be legit, it’s gotta be a deal. And a deal means I get paid, y’dig?”
“I understand,” the Lady said with a sigh. “You want your coin. But, as I said in the FIRST place, I have the coin.” The lady walked up to Candy, who was trying to run with everything that she had, but she couldn’t move worth shit! “Well, you DID say that we could do anything we wanted with you. And what you read from that paper? That was a proclamation, stating that you gave up all personal rights to your Immortal Soul.” She took Candy by the hair and pulled her head back, forcing her mouth wide open. The lady made her nails grow again, only this time just the middle and fore-fingers. She stuck the nails way down deep in Candy’s mouth and fished around. Candy felt the two nails rattling around inside her, and they latched onto something that Candy didn’t even know she had. They latched on, took hold and with a few yanks, pulled it loose. And that was the last thing that Candy ever felt.
As Candy just stood there, staring blankly at the air, Lady Jettatura pulled from her mouth something that looked like a small fluttering moth with dingy wings. Keeping the ‘moth’ pinned between her nails, the Lady handed it over to the Dealer. “Your coin, Sir.”
The Dealer closed his hand around the ‘moth’ and smiled. “A pleasure doin’ business with ya.” With that, he disappeared in a downward motion, leaving a large scorch mark on the platform.
Lady Jettatura picked up the clay figure, put it in its case, and said, “Well, now that that’s over… Major? Are you ready?”
“I’ve been waiting patiently, my lady,” the Major said with a glad air that was normally foreign to him.
“CANDY!” Thad yelled, “What the FUCK did you do to CANDY?”
“We took her immortal soul,” Lady Jettatura said matter-of-factly. “Weren’t you paying attention?”
“WHAT? You think that you can just buy someone’s immortal soul? For five thousand lousy BUCKS? I WANT MORE MONEY!”
“Dark Claw?” the Major said as his sergeant shoved his wheelchair up onto the platform. “Deal with this.”
A streak of energy followed Dark Claw’s fist as he pounded Thad to the ground with a single swipe. “Putz,” Dark Claw said as he looked down at Thad at his feet. “What did you think you were dealing with?”
Lady Jettatura stifled a laugh as she looked at Dark Claw taking the envelope with the money from Thad’s pocket. “I can see why you chose him,” she whispered to the Major as he settled his chair over the scorch mark. “He’s absolutely adorable!”
The Major merely grumped and positioned his chair exactly over the scorch mark that the Dealer had left. “Just… do it.”
Lady Jettatura merely shrugged and flicked her finger five times, sending darts of fire in a circular pattern around the Major. Lines of flame connected the columns of fire, forming a pentagram. A vague haze of infernal heat surrounded the old wreck of a man, who removed his oxygen mask and raised his arms making mystic gestures with both hands. “ABAMAGA! I still live! The pact is still valid! By the pact, I call upon-
Arzazarel for Cunning!
Barbaricia for Imperviousness!
Arremer for Viciousness!
Malaforgia for Fury!
Acthros for Relentlessness!
Grom for Might!
Angallant for Speed!
Deliver, or renege and surrender all claim to my soul!”
The parties mentioned responded, as a sheet of sulfurous flame enveloped the Major. There was a short scream of pain, which was promptly replaced by peals of deep, rich throaty laughter. When the flame subsided, the wheelchair was still there, but the old man had disappeared. In his place was a tall, handsome, powerfully built man in his prime. He wore a red short jacket with a high collar that had ‘horn’ points which rose up behind his head, over a black high-collared bodysuit with a red trident that showed through the gap in the jacket. He wore black gauntlets and red boots. His face was that of a handsome conqueror, with a goatee over a square jaw, an aquiline nose, and wicked eyebrows over dancing black eyes. His hair was thick, black and lustrous, and swept back from his face with two tufts that vaguely resembled horns. With a rich baritone voice, he proclaimed, “I AM MAJOR TERROR!” With a smug grin, he added in an inside voice, “HELL, I love saying that.”
“Good to have you back, Sir!” said the Sergeant as he sketched a salute. The rest of the Legion of Terror all snapped to attention and saluted, fists on chests.
“Oh, it’s good to be back,” the Major returned the salute chipperly as he stepped down from the platform. “The only good thing about being that old man is how great it feels to get back to this… Very well, bring in the forms.” As Major Terror supervised, his Legionnaires brought in very large Styrofoam forms that they assembled into large blocks. They sealed the seams with duct tape and then brought in a cart with several levels of stacked buckets on it. From the buckets they poured a thick, syrupy, dull pink goo into the blocks.
“W-w-what IS that?” Jasper asked Jack in an awed whisper.
“They’re molds,” Jack answered matter-of-factly. “The goo is what’s called ‘paut’. You know all those stories where the wicked witch makes a figure out of dough, or clay, or wax, or something like that? Well, that’s what they’re referring to. It’s an alchemical brew of potential flesh - I think that the closest technological analogy might be Stem Cells - it’s like liquid flesh that hasn’t settled into being muscle or bone or nerve or what-all.”
“What are they doing with it?”
“What else would you use liquid flesh for? Make bodies.”
The legionnaires finished pouring the liquid and retreated from the platform. The Major copped a pose, let out an unintelligible cry, and hellish flames sprang up around him again. Strange shapes flitted about him, and then entered the blocks. The blocks caught on fire and melted, the oozing plastic pouring over the edge into the water in flaming globs. As the Styrofoam melted away, it revealed four vaguely canine forms with horns and powerful muzzles full of wicked fangs.
“Oh, he went for the ‘Ghostbusters’ look again,” Jack sighed. “Ah well, at least those forms are effective, I’ll give him that. Still, I wish he’d go for the ‘Aliens’ form more often. They really scare the piss out of people,” he finished with a nasty chuckle.
The terror-dogs fawned over Major Terror like pups, though they stood five feet at the shoulder. The Major petted them and made them welcome as he would his favorite hounds, Then he pointed imperiously at Jasper, who was watching all of this in a befuddled stupor. “Okay, back to business! Wrap up that bag of blubber, boys!”
The Terror Legionnaires advanced on Jasper, who looked like he was trying desperately to run away, or at least move beyond a quiver. Taking him in hand, they wrapped him in linen bandages that were treated with a strange herbal mixture. They wrapped each arm and leg separately, adding minor talismans here and there. Then they placed a silver cup in his left hand and a copper dagger in his right, and folded his arms, and proceeded to wrap him entirely, turning him into an obese mummy. As a last measure, Lady Jettatura placed a lapis lazuli lozenge in his mouth, and had them wrap over it.
Then Lady Jettatura opened another case and extracted a chased gold-and-jade mask of a crocodile’s face. She slipped it over Jasper’s head and gestured to the Terror Legionnaires. It took eight of them to carry him up to the edge of the platform, but they got him there. Major Terror was holding a full grown Nile crocodile (stolen from the Cleveland zoo), and placed it on Jasper’s chest as they were wrapped together in a final layer of linen. The Major picked up a brass bell and hammer, but looked at Lady Jettatura. “You’re sure that you wouldn’t prefer to do the honors?”
“I’m saving myself for later,” she insisted demurely.
“Suit yourself.” Reading from a scroll held open for him by his sergeant, Major Terror read something incomprehensible, and banged the bell with the hammer. On the strike of the bell, the Legionnaires threw the mummy-wrapped Jasper and crocodile into the water of the Ohio River. The Major announced the second part of the scroll and banged the bell. The waters inside the boathouse began to swirl with unnatural vigor.
After each stanza from the scroll, Major Terror banged the bell, and each time he banged the bell, the waters churned more fiercely. By the time that Thad shook his head and struggled to full waking, the waters were a swirling whirlpool, and the Major was yelling at the top of his lungs between banging the bell, probably to be heard over the sound of the torrent. The Major wound up the ritual by screaming at the top of his lungs, and banging the bell ten times. The water geysered up, and a huge, scaly, reptilian but still man-shaped form leapt onto the dock in a gush of water. Major Terror barely managed to step back in time to keep his boots from getting wet.
Thad hadn’t been awake when the Terror Legionnaires had wrapped Jasper up in bandages, but somehow he connected the scaly monstrosity with the blubbery perv by the clothing it wore. But where Jasper had been flabby and babyish, this thing looked like it was all muscle and deadly as all hell. It was as tall as Jasper had been, but under its scales, it was trim and powerful. Its crocodilian snout was full of jagged fangs, and there wasn’t anything that even vaguely resembled human awareness in its eyes. It opened its snout and let out a noise that was the hiss of the river through reeds, the roar of the torrent, and snarl of waters at flood, all at once. Major Terror held up a hand and proclaimed, “Sobek! I have summoned you! We will pay the price, IF-”
Sobek - if that was the gator-man’s name - shut the Major off in mid-sentence with a wide swinging blow to the jaw that sent the big man flying. “Looks like this bad boy’s gonna give us trouble!” Jack snapped. “ROAST HIM!” On Jack’s order, the Terror Legionnaires raised their tridents and sent a coordinated gout of flame at Sobek. Sobek hissed at the flames and swept its arms in an arc, sending a wave of brackish water that doused the flame and knocked many of the Legionnaires off their feet. Major Terror flew in, and began to grapple with Sobek, as a corona of hellfire blazed around him. Sobek wasn’t impressed. It tore the Major off of him and tried to throw him in the river. Then the Major’s terror dogs leapt on Sobek and tried to bear-bait it.
The boathouse shook with the roar of Sobek’s fury. Thad gibbered in fear and scrambled over to Lady Jettatura. “You’ve got to do SOMETHING!” he sobbed.
“You’re absolutely right,” she said calmly. She gestured minutely, and bands of scarlet energy formed around Thad. The bands lifted him off his feet and threw him into Sobek’s arms. As Thad screamed, Sobek ripped into him with its powerful jaws and bolted down the bloody flesh. Thad’s screams only ended when Sobek crushed his head with its jaws. Lady Jettatura gestured again, and Candy walked senselessly over to Sobek, where she too was ripped apart.
When Sobek had gorged itself on what body parts it fancied, it returned its attentions to Lady Jettatura and her minions. Lady Jettatura held up the elaborate ankh before her like a crucifix to ward off a vampire. “Sobek!” she said in a commanding tone, and then rattled something off in a clipped language that none of her followers understood. Magical energies flared between the two, and the ankh gave off a golden glow. But, after a furious - if deadly silent - battle, the avatar of the Nile god went down on its knees in submission. Not taking her eyes from it, Lady Jettatura ordered, “Bring in the jar.”
Major Terror nodded for his men to follow her order, and a large alabaster container in the form of a canopic jar with a crocodile’s head on the lid was wheeled in. The Lady gave Sobek another curt order, and the reptilian flowed into the jar as a jet of water. As Jack sealed the lid of the jar with beeswax, the Major looked speculatively at Lady Jettatura and then the ankh in her hand and asked, “So. That ankh controls that beast…?”
“Yes and no,” she allowed. “It allows the bearer to evoke the Pharaoh’s authority upon Sobek, yes. But Sobek only understands Demotic Egyptian.” She raised an eyebrow at the Major. “Do YOU speak Demotic Egyptian?” she asked drolly.
Dark Claw walked up, carefully avoiding the fact that he hadn’t raised a hand to help with the crocodile-demon. “So, what now?”
Lady Jettatura smiled warmly. “Now, it’s time for your big debut. Remember, you’re going out there a nobody, but you’re coming back Public Enemy Number ONE!”
October 31st, Halloween
“Okay, let’s see it,” Karen instructed. Stacy minced in a circle, showing off her Xena outfit, and then Lauren did the same with her Batgirl costume. “Absolutely lovely,” Karen purred in approval, as the two girls glowed, and Mrs. Copley photographed them for posterity. “Now, Lauren, this is Stacy’s first party at Mansfield. She’s going to be a little shy, so I want you to introduce her around, and make sure that she connects with a few people.”
“Yes, Miss Wickham,” Lauren said obediently.
“Stacy, it’s Halloween; it’s inevitable that someone’s going to try and pull something tonight. Normally, I’d say that it wasn’t anything that you’d have to worry about, but I picked up some very nasty emanations a couple of hours ago. I’m going out and seeing if I can’t sniff out what it was. If there’s an emergency - I don’t think that there will be, but I’ve been wrong before. Anyway, if you have to get in touch with me, you can call me on your cell phone. But it had better be important. If it’s really important, really, really important, scroll down the menu to ‘Emergency’ and use that link. It’ll get through to me, no matter what. But, and this is important, I’ll be very busy, so something had better be on fire!”
“Yes ma’am!” Stacy said through clenched teeth, trying to keep a giggle from making her look like a complete idiot. She was SO EXCITED! This was just the kind of thing that she’d always dreamed of doing! A fancy party at a high-class school with boys and dancing and everything!
Lauren and Stacy pulled on coats and got into the back of Mrs. Copley’s car. “I can’t believe that you’re so psyched about this,” Lauren said with amusement in her voice. Lauren just didn’t get it, that Stacy was finally doing the ordinary girl stuff that regular girls got to do, but boys didn’t. But Stacy couldn’t tell her that.
Mrs. Copley pulled up in front of an affluent looking private school and let the girls out. “Why are we here so soon?” Stacy asked. “It’s barely just sundown!”
“We gotta chaperone a bunch of first and second graders from the Beaumont school, remember? This way, the sprouts don’t see the preps, and we get all the lame obligatory Halloween stuff out of the way before we get down to the serious business of PARTYING!”
Lauren guided Stacy to the ladies’ cloak room that they’d be using, which was conveniently connected to the events room where the main party was being held. The ‘haunted house’ was set up in the gym, and they had it set up where the kids had to go through the ‘haunted house’ to get to the main party, where someone with a camera would wait and take their picture. Stacy and Lauren hung up their coats and checked out the spares. “Wow!” Stacy said, “You weren’t kidding! Check out these costumes! And these are just the spares! Check out this Supergirl costume!” It was the ‘cheerleader’ version of the Supergirl costume, with the bare midriff, but the ‘Super-S’ on the chest was first-rate, and the cape, usually the cheapest part of any costume, looked very well tailored, and would probably drape nicely. When you hang out with superheroes, you learn to judge and appreciate that sort of thing.
And the girl who walked in and hung up a nicely done Catwoman outfit on the rack was wearing a better ‘Silver Ghost’ outfit than Stacy had. “Abby!” Lauren said to the newcomer. “I thought that you were coming as Catwoman.”
The girl, Abby, whom Stacy recalled Lauren saying was one of the ‘Bramlin Girls’, the local high school big shots, made a production of trying to remember Lauren’s name. “Oh, Lauren, isn’t it? Yes, well, I was going to go as Catwoman, but our seamstress said that she could put together a killer Silver Ghost costume, and, well, she did!” Abby spun around, showing off her costume. Abby’s seamstress had taken some serious liberties with Stacy’s look. Instead of a silver metallic body stocking, Abby was wearing a silver metallic halter-top suit with long matching silvery opera gloves and thigh high high-heeled boots, over a gauzy silvery bodystocking, with a matching hooded cape that came down to Abby’s knees.
“Aaahh…” Lauren hedged, “Kirk’s not coming as Captain Patriot, is he?” insinuating that Kirk was white, with the uncomfortable implications in cribbing a black hero’s act.
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Abby sniffed. “That would be tacky! He’s coming as the Golden Knight!” she raised an eyebrow at Stacy. “And who’s she?”
“Oh, this is Stacy! Stacy, this is Abby Herbert, she’s a sophomore here. Abby, this is Stacy Conrad, Miz Wickham’s ward.”
Abby paused for a moment. “Miss Wickham has a ward? When did this happen?”
“Oh, a while back,” Lauren fudged, “I mentioned it. Not my fault you didn’t pick up on it.”
“Where does she go to school?”
“I’m being privately tutored,” Stacy said, trying to put a posh spin on her delivery. “Miss Wickham thought that it would be good if I got out and met more people.” Stacy thought that she put a little too much ‘Margaret Dumont’ on it, but she got an impression that Abby thought that Stacy had been born to the purple or something. Adjusting the real metal (but blunt) chakram on the belt of her Xena costume, Stacy turned to Lauren, offered the crook of her arm and said, “Shall we Batgirl?”
Lauren took the offered arm and said, “Lets, Xena!” with that, they left Abby with the other girls in the Cloak Room.
As soon as they were in the Events Room, they dissolved in giggles. “I just barely kept from saying, ‘I’ve always wanted to see how the poor people spend their time!’” Stacy whispered.
“You restrained yourself magnificently,” Lauren agreed. “It would have been funny as hell, but you would’a blown your cred as a rilly rich kid.”
Stacy looked around the event room. It had obviously been opened up and joined with another chamber to make even more room, for an absolutely cavernous space. Refusing to stoop to mere streamers and paper cutouts of cheesy ‘scary’ Halloween images, the decorating committee had gone for a ‘Wizards Chamber’ motif, probably riffing on Harry Potter, which was still very hot and showing no signs of going stale any time soon. The walls were done up in faux-stonework, there were phony ‘stained glass windows’ on the walls, trading off with wall hangings with mystic sigils and bookcases full of arcane things and a few things made of brass that looked mystical. The snacks table was tricked out like an Alchemist’s Lab, and included some stuff that six- and seven-year old kids would probably think was really fun, like sponge cake treats in the forms of little brains, with strawberry filling.
Stacy and Lauren had contrived to arrive just before the last of the setting up was finished, so they got credit for being part of the setup crew. The mingling had already started. There were four ‘Captain Patriots’, probably the four coolest black guys in the school, and they were sort of just standing there, trying to see which of them would pack it in and go change. Looking around, Stacy said, “So, where are the ‘land mines’ you told me about?”
“Well, let’s see… oh, there’s Jennilee, dressed up as Cinderell… ah… no, wait, that can’t be Jennilee, she wouldn’t be caught dead wearing glasses…”
Curious as to who would be so bold as to try to upstage the school bitch-queen, Lauren walked over, and Stacy tagged along. Whoever it was made for a very nice Cinderella, and it wasn’t until ‘she’ spoke up that Lauren made an ID. “Hey Lauren,” ‘Cinderella’ said just a tad too deeply for a girl.
“Spence? Spencer Chase? What-”
“I lost a bet,” Spencer said in an ‘I’ve already explained this a thousand times’ tone.
“Who do you think I lost the bet to? She even insisted that I wear these stupid ‘glass slippers’, which are killing my feet!”
Lauren screwed up her face in sympathy and tried vigorously to keep from laughing. Spencer was caught in the double-bind of not wanting to look completely ridiculous on one hand, and not wanting to look good as a girl on the other. Alas, the boy looked very good in the costume. Worse, he was caught in the additional double-bind of really digging on the fact that he made a good looking girl on one hand, and the quiet agony of looking good and everyone laughing at him at the same time. Lauren introduced Stacy and Spencer. Having found a sister under the skin of sorts, Stacy tried to figure out what to say that could possibly make anything better, without making things worse.
“So, where is Jennilee?” Lauren asked, looking around. “Did she decide to abide by the Truth in Advertising laws, and come as a toxic waste dump?”
“No, she’s over there,” Spencer pointed to where a ‘Silver Ghost’ was speaking rather pointedly to another girl in a ‘Silver Ghost’ costume, sending her back to the Cloak Room for her spare.
“That’s the second ‘Silver Ghost’ wannabe that she’s bounced. I’m starting to think that the only reason she suckered me into this,” Spencer gestured at the pale blue gown, “was so that she could have fun dissing all the other ‘Silver Ghosts’.”
“Oh!” Lauren snerked. “Hey, buck up, Spence,” she said with a vicious grin on her face. “Sweet revenge is at hand. Jenni-Leech just parked her karma in a tow-away zone.”
“Just wait, watch, and enjoy,” Lauren smirked.
But as they started, a tall, strapping good-looking young man decked out like ‘Neo’ from the ‘Matrix’ movies strode up. “Ladies,” he said with a salacious smirk that started off honestly with Lauren and Stacy, and went nasty with a dismissive sneer at Spencer. “Looking good.”
“Stacy, this is Corey Griswold,” Lauren snarked. “He thinks that he’s The One, but I’d say he’s just ‘number two’.”
Spencer tried to stifle a snerk, but failed. Corey snapped, “What are you laughing at, you wimp?”
“Wimp?” Stacy objected, putting all the polish she could on her voice. “He’s going through all of this because he’s honor-bound. A wimp wouldn’t put himself through this. A wimp simply wouldn’t have come.” She finished with her best ‘Xena’ smile.
Corey smirked again, looking Stacy up and down and letting his imagination (and libido) run amok. “Very nice… and who are you?”
“Not now, Corey,” Lauren stifled him, “It’s just about to get good!”
The Bramlin girls had apparently waited together in the Cloak Room, as to make a big entrance. Besides Abby, dressed as the Silver Ghost, there was another blonde girl dressed as the Green Witch, complete with staff, and a lithe African-American girl, dressed as Violet. Boys dressed as the Golden Knight, Red Thunder and Captain Patriot stepped up and took them by the arms. Apparently they really did take Halloween seriously at Mansfield. The six stepped into the room…
…and then Abby spotted Jennilee, wearing her shoddy ‘Silver Ghost’ outfit.
“I knew that I should have brought a camera,” Lauren said under her breath. By the flashes, other people hadn’t made the same mistake.
There was a moment of supreme tension, when you could have heard a pin drop…
And then the first graders arrived.
Despite having both Mansfield’s freshman and sophomore classes, there were yammering kids from at least three different private schools, so the ratio of teenagers to little kids was roughly three and a half to one. And the little ones might have been from affluent homes, but a first-grader is a first-grader is a fifty-pound tornado of refined sugar-fueled chaos. Stacy resentfully wondered if this was the Mansfield teachers’ sneaky way of tiring out the underclassmen before their own party started, as to keep them out of their own kind of trouble. Having to impose order and reason upon chaotic and irrational munchkinoids who thought they knew everything was probably the teachers’ idea of a Halloween prank, too.
Stacy was assigned to look after a ‘Wonder Woman’ named Janice, a miscast ‘Angel’ named Candace, and a far more appropriately dressed ‘devil-girl’ named Miriam. She didn’t need to read minds to know just from the looks on their faces that they regarded her as a pushover, and a fun way to kill time before the trick-or-treating started. Stacy’s telepathy did manage to keep her one step ahead of the three little hooligans, but it couldn’t let her be in three places at once.
Surprisingly, Spencer Chase was able to lend a helping hand. He had his trio of little boys well in hand. Or at least their ears. Spence let the trio of Power Rangers he’d been assigned know that the frilly dress didn’t slow him down in the slightest from grabbing them by the ear and pulling them out of their latest idiocy. “I, ah, have a little brother,” Spence explained with a blush that showed through his makeup. Stacy was impressed. She had two little brothers, but if Stanley had bossed Cody or Wyatt around like that, George would have ripped his head off.
The kiddy party was only scheduled to last for an hour, and then their parents (or au pairs) would show up and take them trick-or-treating. After a half hour, Stacy was starting to think that the Mansfield teachers’ evil plan was working. She left her three little hellions bouncing around in the ball cage, and went over to the refreshment table for some ‘witches brew’ (fruit punch mixed with Seven-Up©, and cooled by a chunk of dry ice). Lauren met her at the table. “Buck up, kiddo,” Lauren said. “Only twenty-five minutes and counting until mommy and daddy come and rescue us.”
But then something odd happened. There was the sound of the outer doors slamming shut, and the metallic sound of them locking. Then in quick succession, the sound of the other open doors slamming shut and locking rang through the school. The doors to the event room closed with a bang, and there was a noticeable dimming of the lights. “Keewwlll…” breathed one of the first graders.
As part of the ‘Hogwarts’ theme, someone had painted an elaborate spooky-looking design, sort of like a mystic circle used to conjure up demons, on the event room floor. The design glowed, and energy crackled within the circle. Stacy, who was having a very bad feeling about this, made out eight figures in the energy display. When the display died down, she saw a bizarre grouping in the circle. Two of the figures were four-legged reptilian things with long horns and muzzles full of sharp teeth. Four of them looked like disfigured men who’d had their skin flayed off, with their eyes and teeth and muscles and things showing, and big hooks sticking out here and there. There was a big guy in black medieval knight type armor who had a flowing red cape with a sinister high collar. He had a really nasty-looking mace in his right hand, but the gauntlet on his left was what really caught your eye.
But the one that really drew your attention didn’t really try to look scary, and he was all the scarier for it. He was tall and thin as a rail. He wore an absurd, noxious green tailcoat with a blaring red shirt, clashing blue vest and trousers, a bilious yellow ascot, and a tall stovepipe hat that matched (if that word really applies here) his coat. His face was pale with paper-like skin, and long and thin as the rest of him. His rheumy eyes bulged and glittered with maniacal glee over a knife blade of a nose above a wide, thin handlebar mustache and a mouth stretched wide in a spraddle-toothed grin. “Hey heidy HI, Kiddies!” the bizarre apparition brayed, “You’re in for a Halloween that you’ll NEVER FORGET! No matter how hard you TRY!”