April 6, 2007
The dapper Sir William Westmore entered the stark, bare meeting room, and held the door gallantly for Suzanna Hagarty. They sat down at the meeting table and waited, occasionally looking at their watches. After five minutes, two girls in Whateley school uniforms, a classically beautiful 'anglo' girl with long black hair, and a not-classically beautiful but still very cute African-American with her hair pulled back into a big poofy chignon and a cutting edge computer console 'gauntlet' on her left forearm, walked in. "Very good," Westmore said suavely. "Reach, Rez, take a seat."
Miss Hagarty leaned back in her chair, and putting some teeth into the Scots burr that she usually softened, said loudly, "And the rest of you can come out as well. Ace. A-Plus. Holdout. Interface." Ace and A-Plus both dropped through panels in the ceiling, and Holdout collapsed the false wall panel that he and Interface where hiding behind, and tucked it away in his belt.
Ace immediately assumed a pose with his arms folded across his chest. "Why'd you ask them here, and not us?" he demanded in his usual 'Clint Eastwood' rasp.
"Because I knew that it was the surest way that all of you would come and eavesdrop," Sir William said puckishly. Then his urbane smile faded and his genial tone went hard. "Which is also the reason why I asked you all here."
"As is THIS," Miss Hagarty reached over to the lapel of Westmore's jacket and pulled out what looked like a straight clothing pin with a slightly oversized head. Then Sir William reached over and pulled a similar pin from the shoulder of Suzanna's tweed jacket. Then she pulled another pin from the cuff of his pants. They went back and forth, producing a small pile of such pins from their clothing. Then Sir William produced a dark grayish pendulum with the astrological symbol for Saturn worked on it in copper. He waved it over himself and then Miss Hagarty, and they each produced a few more pins. The last one was fished out of Miss Hagarty's cleavage, probably inserted into her bra somehow. "Oh!" Miss Hagarty exploded, "THIS! This is the LIMIT!" She gave a shrill whistle directly into the pin and snarled, "MISS QUENTON! You have to the count of Twenty to be in this room, or your internet privileges will be suspended indefinitely! ONE!"
At the count of 'seventeen', Kew burst into the room, out of breath, her face flushed and blotchy with exertion. "I think you need a little less time on line," Hagarty sniffed, taking in her condition "and more in the gym."
"Now that the most egregious- though hardly sole- offender is here," Westmore resumed, "we can start. When I accepted the position as the Cadets' Faculty Advisor, I thought that I'd be leading the UNCLE version of the Boy Scouts; instead I find out that you're trying to install a small-scale POLICE STATE!"
"In other words," Ace drawled, "the Bad Seeds have been complaining to the Administration again."
"Again?" Hagarty challenged, "Try constantly. Hartford is starting to talk about making up a Stock Complaint form for you lot. And it's not just the Bad Seeds, or the Masterminds, or even the Ninjas. The Alphas-" There was a general 'so what?' at the naming of the now-questionable Alphas, "-Venus Incorporated-"
"What?" Kew peeped, "I didn't send any drones in to snoop on the prissy princesses! How-" then she shot Interface a withering glare, which he avoided.
"The overseers in the Workshop are TIRED of finding cyber-bugs everywhere!"
"Are you kidding? Those maniacs NEED to be watched!"
"They are also tired of other students' designs popping up in YOUR WORK, Kew!" Sir William snapped. "And the Mystic Arts department is also very tired of you trying to crack their security. And, kids, Mystic Arts is one department that you do NOT want mad at you! The list goes on and on! Even the Future Superheroes of America are complaining! And... tell me... WHY did you send drones to spy on the LITERARY CLUB?"
"Trust me, Sir William," Ace said levelly, "those girls need to be watched..."
"And the Bad Seeds are up to something," A-Plus said sourly. "They're always sneaking around, keeping whatever they're doing hidden. "
"Of course they sneak around," Hagarty said squarely. "That's what you DO when there are snoops following you around; you try to lose them."
"Kids," Sir William said with a sigh, "has it ever occurred to you that what you're doing is self-defeating? All that you're really doing is giving the Bad Seeds a first-rate education in how to get around surveillance and avoid follows. Which will be very useful for them, when they go on to start careers as super-powered lawbreakers, which they can argue with some justification, they'll have to start, since nobody will let them be anything BUT supervillains!"
"My heart bleeds for them," Ace growled.
"You're trying too hard to be tough, Ace," Sir William said sternly. "What you're not getting is that the Bad Seeds have a right to conduct their lives without being constantly monitored; they haven't committed any crimes!"
"That we can prove," Holdout said coldly.
"And until you can PROVE that they've done anything other than be born to professional criminals, you have no business going through their e-mails! They have a RIGHT to be kids! You do NOT have a right to wiretap them! Even the Police, who have special powers by virtue of their duties, need to get very specific warrants to do half the things that you do out of sheer habit! Chief Delarose has told me that he's spoken to you about this, but you don't seem to be listening. I'll try to come up with some way of hammering this point home. BUT, in the mean time, there are two things that got to get RIGHT NOW. First, you will shut down all your surveillances of the Bad Seeds and the Masterminds, right now. If you start anything, this club's charter will be revoked. PERIOD. Not my call, this comes from Hartford, and Carson's backing her on this. Second, if it comes out that you've used any of the information that you've gathered for your personal advantage, you will only WISH that you were doing detention in Hawthorne. We're not fooling with this one, kids; you are all on thin ice."
The Cadets argued the decision as best they could, but Westmore insisted that being able to just up and walk away from a case was just as much a part of both Espionage and Police work as grilling a suspect. They'd just have to learn to live with the sad fact that the vast majority of investigations went absolutely nowhere. With that, Sir William and Miss Hagarty left them to discuss their options. Which pretty much boiled down to 'ramp down operations and wait for the heat to die down a little'. "And hope that the Bad Seeds don't try to pull something that leaves people dead," A-Plus added sourly.
"Ah don't get why y'all are so dead set against the Seeds," Harley said, sitting back in one of the hard chairs. "Okay, Nephandus is a creep, and that Render guy makes my nose twitch... But She-Beast is too busy to be planning anything, and Winter is trying to get into the Cape Squad!"
"We have a standing offer from the Capes for any dirt on Winter," Interface said. "They gave her a rush challenge, and she blew it big time. Now she's driving them nuts, trying to get a re-do. And She-Beast is just too sneaky. I don't know why I can't read her, but every telepath I've talked to agrees that she is big-time BAD NEWS."
"Really?" Harley replied. "She's been friendly enough with me. And Gloriana, the big news with the Cape Squad, trusts her enough that she chaperoned Jadis and Jobe and the others on two big shopping sprees."
"Which is suspicious, all in of itself," Ace growled. "WHY would Gloriana do that for the daughter of Dr. Diabolik?"
"Ace," Rez said carefully, "both times, Glor came back with a ton of top-end designer clothes. I'd say that She-Beast spent at least five thousand dollars on Gloriana each time, probably closer to TEN. Magni-Girl was really P-O'd that she didn't get to go, both times."
"Not, 'Super P-O'd'?" Hold-out asked puckishly.
"Nah," Rez answered dismissively, "That would have involved posing dramatically, cape waving in the breeze, making declarations of 'JUSTICE!', with big swells of brass music in the background, maybe a apropos crack of thunder or like that. Steff was more..." Rez mimed a brooding pout, her lower lip thrust out sulkily.
"Man, and just when I finally got something GOOD on She-Beast," Kew moped.
"You got something on She-Beast?" Ace asked quickly.
"Ace..." Holdout said warningly, "We're not supposed to do any snooping anymore, remember? At least until the heat goes down a little?"
"No, he said, 'no new investigations until the heat goes down'," Ace corrected Holdout. "This is a case already underway."
"A case we're supposed to shut down," Harley added severely.
"When did they say that?" A-Plus asked.
"Whaddya got, Kew?" Interface asked intently.
"She-Beast is plotting out her fight with that new kid, Nemesis, and she's bringing in an unfair advantage. She and her creepy buddy Nacht have been putting together some sort of special defense-"
"Ah, guys?" Harley cut in warily, "first a' all, Westmore's intent was pretty dang clear: we're s'posed to BUTT OUT of the Bad Seeds' business. Period. Second, Ah don't know that takin' a special defense onto the matt is an 'unfair advantage'. She-Beast is WAY too cagy to pull somethin' that she could get nailed on like thet. And third, even IF it is, whut are we s'pozed t'DO about it? We are NOT s'pozed to use the information we gather for our own benefit, remember? It's IN the Cadets' charter! Like Westmore said, we are on thin ice! We use sensitive information like this, and it's smack clean through the ice!"
Ace started to ask Harley why she was defending She-Beast, when Kew hushed them, "That bug is picking something up again!" Harley started to complain that they'd been ordered to shut down surveillance, but Ace just shushed her as the Spy Kids leaned over to listen to what Kew's cell phone was picking up.
"HEY JADS!" Malachai Diabolik yelled as he and his crew brought their loads into the Enchantment Lab, "Where do you want this stuff?"
"Put it over there," Jadis answered, turning from one of the six dummies that were arranged in a circle near the center of the chamber. "Did you get all the improvements into the suit?"
"Yep!" Mal reached into one of the boxes, produced a chainmail longsuit and held it up. "Bulletproof up to Sniper rounds, insulated against electrical shocks, thermal resistant up to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit, internal air circulation guaranteed, and it shouldn't slow you down that much." He paused and raised the eyebrow over his good eye. "You that worried about this 'Nemesis' doink, that you're gonna wear this into your duel with her?"
"Good Lord, No!" Jadis made a dismissive noise. "Please! I'm just going to be taking THAT," she pointed at one of the other dummies, which had her usual 'She-Beast' costume, a red sleeveless body stocking with a matching half-mask and a black visor, jackboots, opera gloves, shoulder harness and utility belt, "stocked with my usual 'slap down the pest' load of gear."
"I still think that you should change the buckle," Kate 'Nacht' Tvardovski said, running a finger over the brass 'She-Beast logo' buckle.
"Why would I do that?" Jadis asked. "My research into Nemesis' powers finds that she's an Avatar who got used by a Mad Scientist in yet another of those moronic 'manufacture a Force' experiments. The result was yet another of those weird 'demi-force, not quite a spirit' things that are bopping around. She has a lot of magical power, but nada in the way of finesse or control. This buckle's an amulet that will deflect any incoming magical damage. If she had any real knowledge of how magic worked, she might be able to work her way through it, but she's such a rookie, not to mention rage-a-holic, that she'll never do that."
"I KNOW that," Kate growled, "I helped you design this, remember? But we still haven't ironed out that critical flaw that I pointed out last week: the deflection should work perfectly everyplace but ONE." She tapped the buckle. "The center of the effect. If Nemesis hits the buckle square on, not only won't the amulet deflect the energy, but it will act as a conduit, passing the energy through all your other defenses, up to and including the PK shell that devil that your father bound to you forms. If she hits this, you're TOAST, Diabolik."
"Yeah, I know that, Kate," Jadis said soothingly, "and I respect your opinion, and appreciate the concern. But I'm not worried. Like I said, Nemesis is such a rage-a-holic that she'll just go in blasting without really aiming, and besides, she doesn't have the skill or finesse to hit anything that small."
"So... if you're not using any of this in the arena against that 'Nemesis' chick," Buzz asked, "what are you gonna do with it?" He hefted one of the large pieces of high tech gear that Jadis had requested.
"I'm taking it with me down to New York," Jadis replied, and then stopped, annoyed at both Buzz and herself. Buzz was to Malachai what Cutlass, Vipra and a few other wannabes had wanted to be to Jadis: social-climbing villain-in-training sidekick, looking to get a foot in the door with the kid of a big name operator. "IF it's any of your business," she finished snippily.
"So, you planning something big, down in the Big Apple?" Charger, Mal's other 'friend' (read: lackey) asked cagily.
"Oh you better believe that I have something planned!" Jadis said chipperly, "I've got tickets to Jersey Boys!" The news brought the sort of response that had cartoon editors splice in crickets chirping to the soundtrack. "What? Do you have any idea of how HARD it is to get tickets to that show?"
"Come ON, Jadis," Mal said, "You've gotta have something better planned than THAT!"
"MAL, we're hosting Jobe and the Drow for the week that they gotta wait until they're clear to go down to Karedonia for that stupid Betrothal thing that her father is making Jobe go through. Jobe's gonna be bouncing off the walls; sitting on her is gonna be a 24/7 job."
"Then why did you ask me to get you one of these?" Mal held up a Whateley Workshop power tools harness.
Jadis took the harness from him. "This is Stage Two. Let's see: Valence Bonder, Epoxy Gun, Anti-Fire/Freezing/Stabilizing Foam Sprayer, Vibratory Probe, Vortex Pistol, Plasma Cutter, Lubricant Sprayer, Laser Cutter, Ex-"
"Stage two WHAT?" Mal demanded.
"Stage Two Threat Preparation," she explained as she carefully draped the harness onto one of the dummies. "Those two are Stage One preparation; they have the stuff that I normally carry. Useful and street-legal, but not really that dangerous. Stage Two is the step up."
"To Power Tools?"
"To Whateley Workshop power tools," Jadis corrected him. "Remember what that girl Spark did to Iron Star in their Combat Final?"
"Oh yeah, Spark..." Mal gloated, which prompted a sharp poke in the ribs from his girlfriend, Sapper.
"Mal, what's the Diabolik First Rule?"
"Don't get caught?"
"NO, that's the Street Punk First Rule. The Diabolik First Rule is: 'Keep It Legal At All Times'. Okay Mal, why is it that you can carry around all that fancy high-tech firepower that you do?"
"Because they're not legally weapons," he answered. "Technically, something can't be illegal until it's made so by an act of legislation. So, all my gear is legally 'experimental prototypes'- right up until the point when I blow something apart with them."
"Exactly," Jadis nodded. "BUT, that only applies because you're in the Whateley Advanced Technologies program. I don't have that. BUT, on the principle that a baseball bat is sporting equipment right up to the point when someone cracks somebody's skull with it, no matter how dangerous this stuff is- and from what Spark showed us, this stuff is PLENTY dangerous!- right up to the point when I use it on someone, these things are power tools. Which means that I can't be busted for having them on me."
"You are SO paranoid!" Sapper groaned.
"Of course," Kate droned. "But when you stop being paranoid, THAT'S when they get you!"
"Yeah?" Charger sneered, "Then why did you want THIS?" He held up the largest of the selection of Mal's efforts in high-energy ranged demolitions. Mal's only 14, so he was still at that 'Big Boom' stage. He was coming to understand the beauty of precision targeting and threat analysis. But his most treasured possession was still his signed picture of him with Adam & Jamie. Sort of like his dad's picture of him with Armstrong, Aldren & Collins.
"THAT is for Stage Five," Jadis answered.
"What's 'Stage Five'?" Sapper asked, "For that matter, what are 'Stage Three and Stage Four'?"
"Stage Three is for when the kid gloves are off and it's time to get nasty, but a measure of finesse and subtlety are still required," Jadis explained as she draped the appropriate tools and weapons on the dummy supporting her 'Stealth' suit. "Stage Four is for when it's time to put on the Brass Knuckles," she continued as she draped the appropriate gear on the lightly armored 'Special Ops' suit. "And Stage Five," she first put the chainmail, along with the hard plate bits on the last dummy, and then weighed it down with the heavy artillery, "is 'You realize that this means WAR!' This is for when the shit really hits the fan, and what you're packing isn't as important as where you're pointing it."
"You're expecting that much trouble, down in New York?" Mal asked, concerned.
"No, but then, last time I was down there, the only trouble that I was expecting was getting a really cute blouse away from a Long Island hausfrau; instead, we wound up fighting a small war in the Bronx with only what we could pick up along the way."
"And you want to be well armed this time?"
"NO, as a matter of fact, this is more along the lines of taking along an umbrella, on the theory that it only rains when you don't have one; even if you're wrong, well, at least you've got an umbrella!"
"And you're trying to be prepared for any emergency?"
"Yeah, but Hazmat spaced out on me, so there's no way that the combo EVA/ radhaz/ hazmat/ wetsuit is gonna be ready in time." She paused, "Which probably means that the odds of my winding up in the East River have climbed 500%."
"Just remember to wear your rubbers," Kate put in maternally.
Jadis got the armor and gear on the dummies, and was fiddling with them, so they'd fit properly when the time came. Then Kate gave her an *ahem!* that carried more weight than some Supreme Court decisions. "Oh. Right." She finished and then 'packed away' one of the 'Stage One' dummies.
"What did you do with it?" Buzz asked.
"It's the magical version of putting it on the teleporter cradle, like I do with my war gear, so that it's available when the super-weenies think they can jump me" Mal explained. "She got all envious when I came up with a version of the teleport cradle that could handle 16 different slots, with no lag time for shifting loads, so she simply HAD to have one of her own."
"It was a good idea, Baby Brother," Jadis said condescendingly. "And I'm not too proud to borrow-"
"Borrow a good idea."
"Then why didn't you pack away all of 'em?"
"And go into a Challenge Duel after a major magical drain like that?"
"And on that cue..." Kate said leadingly.
"Right," Jadis said, putting those last fine touches on the remaining dummies, "I think that the little noid has stewed long enough." With that, she shooed her brother and his entourage out of the chamber and locked it. She led the troop through the corridors in the general direction of Arena 99.
They went a ways, when Buzz asked, "Hey! What happened to the door we just went through?"
"Door?" Jadis asked with abject unconcern. "What door?"
"There was a door there! We just came THROUGH it!"
"Poor boy," Kate droned with nary a perceptible note of worry. "He's obviously been whiffing too many solder fumes."
Buzz looked after them, but there was no sign of any door, and now that he thought of it, he couldn't remember how he'd gotten IN there in the first place.
Lindsay and Pern were waiting for them at the gate into Arena 99. "Nemesis is in there, and she's really pissed that you've made her wait this long."
"Excellent," Jadis purred. "Just how I want her: Fuming, and not thinking. So, who's shown up to watch the carnage?"
"The usual: the fight fans, the bettors, the people who want to see you get your head handed to you but are afraid to do it themselves, the Cape Squad, the Spy Kidz, and the usual people who are here to see what the new kid can do. I kinda get the impression that she's trying to impress the Capes, but she's been talking with the Spy Kidz a lot."
Jadis nodded, taking this in. "Who's taking bets?"
"Hazard, Boxcars and Risk."
Jadis pulled her money clip and extracted five twenty dollar bills from the clip. "Kate, do me a favor and put this down for me to win with Boxcars?"
"Yeah, but no time qualifiers."
Kate raised one eyebrow, but nodded and took the money.
Jadis took a deep centering breath, let it out and strutted through the door. Ms. Kasai, the Aikido and Crisis Simulation instructor, was standing in the center of the arena, but Nemesis was standing near one of the bleachers with the shield down, talking to Ace and A-Plus of the Spy Kidz. "You're LATE," Nemesis said accusingly.
"How can I be late?" Jadis riposted with a snide grin. "It can't start until I get here." Nemesis was wearing a bright red long-sleeved skirt-dress with a golden Libra on her chest, a white cape with gold trim, and matching boots and gauntlets. "Going for the 'Mary Marvel' look?" Jadis asked chipperly.
"You're going to fight in that?" Nemesis asked, Indicating Jadis' preppy blazer-and-pleated skirt outfit.
"No, I just don't want to have to waste time changing. I'm gonna be heading out for Spring Break as soon as I finish cleaning your clock."
"That is a nice outfit," Nemesis allowed sweetly. Then her smile curdled, and she added, "Pity that it's wasted on a scrawny scarecrow like YOU."
Jadis gave a mock wince of pain, and Ms. Kasai called them to the center of the arena. "For form's sake, I'm supposed to ask you both if this fight is absolutely necessary, and if there's any way to avoid unnecessary bloodshed."
"Hey, _I_ didn't ask for this." Jadis said simply.
"Maybe if I batter his bitch daughter into the hospital, Dr. Diabolik will show up, and I can get justice for my grandfather's death," Nemesis hissed.
"Well, I did say that it was for form's sake," Kasai sighed. "Okay, go to your designated spots, and wait for the signal. Remember, the rules are NO lethal weapons, and when the referee- that's ME- says stop, you STOP. NO attacks past that point. Is? That? Understood?" She finished with an arched eyebrow.
"Understood," Jadis said calmly.
"Understood," Nemesis grated out.
They both moved to their starting circles. Unlike during the Combat Finals, the arena was a plain surface, bare of any obstructions or cover. As the shields rose up to protect the spectators, Jadis produced a spell slip, and 'unpacked' her 'Stage One' costume. She undid the snaps on the holster of a pistol and a few pouches. The countdown to begin started and Jadis was minutely adjusting the fit of her visor when Nemesis jumped the countdown and tackled her at maybe 30 miles per hour. [You were to wait for the signal!] Kasai thundered over the loudspeaker. But the fight was on, and nobody really expected either of them to stop and start over again.
"Owch! Nasty opening move by the plucky newcomer, Nemesis, Campers!"
"Win, Lose or Draw, Nemesis is looking at some Detention for that, Peeper."
"And the Beast loses her with a rolling kickoff- but we WIN! Panty Shot!"
"Peep, you know that Hartford is only letting us do this-"
"And Nemesis closes again, with Fists of Furious Righteous Fury."
"Peeper, that's redundant. Anyway, She-Beast is keeping Nemesis pretty well at bay. Nemesis is plenty pissed, but it doesn't look like she's had a lot of hand-to-hand training, while She-Beast trains with Sifu Wong Ah Lam in Wing Chung-style Kung Fu. She-Beast is doing a pretty good job of keeping Nemesis off-balance and reacting."
"Yeah, but why hasn't Evil Olive Oyl gone beastly on her?"
"Maybe she's giving Nemesis a chance to get it out of her system, while not hurting her."
"OWch! Snap kick to the middle! So much for THAT stupid idea!"
"And Jadis hoodwinks Nemesis with her own cape, and breaks. She's bringing out her whip."
"ooh... Maybe She-Beast will strip Nemesis NAKED, bit by bit, with her whip!"
"Peeper, that's exactly the kind of comment that Ms. Hartford specifically told us to av-"
"But Nemesis isn't playing, and she takes to the air. Okay, she's blasting She-Beast, who's given up the whip and has gone beastly. Zap, zap, zap... All right! She-Beast has sprouted wings and is taking to the air. But what's this? Nemesis has popped She-Beast's beastly bubble!"
As Jadis rose up, Nemesis held off, and carefully aimed. She let off a burst of the golden energy that she created and squarely hit the brass 'She-Beast' logo buckle that showed through Jadis' 'beast-skin'. Jadis let out a howl of pain and the 'skin' immediately disappeared. Jadis dropped a good 12 feet to the arena floor and hit hard. Nemesis dropped, straddled Jadis, flipped her over on her back. "Let's see you joke about THIS!" She blasted straight into the buckle again, and she grinned wide as Jadis shrieked in pain.
[NEMESIS!] Ms. Kasai ordered over the loudspeaker [Break off! Now!]
But Nemesis ignored her, and if anything, seemed to enjoy the sounds of She-Beast's screams. Ignoring Ms. Kasai's repeated orders (and threats), Nemesis blasted into She-Beast's buckle over and over, until she finally stopped only when she appeared to be exhausted. With a deep gusty breath, Nemesis stepped away. [NEMESIS!] Ms. Kasai thundered, [YOU WILL REMAIN EXACTLY WHERE YOU ARE! IF SHE-BEAST HAS BEEN SERIOUSLY HARMED, KNOW THAT EXPULSION IS A DEFINITE POSSIBILITY!]
"I wouldn't go THAT far," a calm voice came from the floor. With a wide 'Diabolik' smirk on her face, Jadis kipped up, apparently not seriously hurt. "Well," she said snidely into Nemesis' face. "Well, THAT was Heroic. Or something. We're in the middle of a fight, aren't we?"
"Do you really expect me to explain it all to you?" In a flicker, Jadis' beast-skin was back up, and she drove the flat of the palm of one hand into Nemesis' solar plexus, knocking her a good five feet into the shields of the arena wall. Nemesis tried to fight back, but between having the wind knocked out of her and having depleted much of her magical energy, the best she could do was struggle to her feet and flail away. She-Beast put her down in short order, and stood over her in victory. Jadis dropped her beast-skin, and reached for her holster. Instead of the gas-gun she'd used in her last Combat Final, she drew a very serious looking 9mm from the holster.
Nemesis gaped in helpless horror as Jadis pointed the gun at her. Jadis' face could have been carved in stone. Then she pulled the trigger.
Nemesis screamed in helpless panic-
- As clear water splashed on her contorting face.
"What? It's distilled water!" As Nemesis gasped in adrenaline shock and unspent horror, Jadis leaned over and said, "Two things, Sissy: First, if I'd been a real supervillain that you'd tried this crap with, your brains would be painting the walls. Second, this IS my 'C' game; if that's your 'A' game, I'm not that worried." With that, she twirled the water pistol, holstered it and strutted out of the arena.
Kasai Tetsuko met Jadis at the door (with Kate, Lindsay and Mal close behind, with Sir William and Miss Hagarty a pace behind them), with a sour look on her face. "Not Funny, She-Beast!" she groused.
"Truth, truth," Kate added. "When you're wearing a skirt that short, there's nothing funny about wet underwear."
"However," Kasai resumed with a more even tone, "this does nicely prove your point. Miss, ah, 'Nemesis'?" Kasai addressed the girl who was still trying to get her composure back, "You only would have targeted She-Beast's belt buckle that way if you believed that it was an opening in her defenses. Did you get information to that effect?" Nemesis nodded her head vigorously. "Did you get that information from the Intelligence Cadet Corps?" Nemesis looked at her uncomprehendingly. "The Spy Kidz," Kasai amended herself. Nemesis nodded reluctantly.
With Zen serenity, Kasai straightened up and looked at where the Spy Kidz were seated in the bleachers. Ace had on his best hardass expression, most of the rest had some mixture of 'what the hell happened?' and 'oh fuck, here comes a train' expressions, and Harley and Rez both had their faces in their hands. "The Intelligence Cadet Corps won't be leaving today for Spring Break. First, you have another meeting with your Faculty Advisors. Then, you'll be spending the rest of the day working off your Detentions. You can catch the train to Spring Break tomorrow." She broke off and helped Nemesis up. "And as for YOU; first, we'll have a nice long talk with Mrs. Shugendo, about exactly WHY you should be allowed to come BACK from Spring Break."
Sir William stepped forward, clapping his hands. "Okay Kids, let's get going. And bring your notes; we're going to go over exactly what you did wrong. In detail." He started to turn to leave, but Ms. Kasai stopped him with a terse 'ahem!' Sir William raised an inquiring eyebrow. Kasai held out a hand. Sir William grumped, rummaged around in a pocket, fished out a wad of cash, and counted out 20 dollars into Kasai's waiting hand.
Kasai took the money with a smile, but still said severely, "That really WAS over the top, She-Beast.
"Well, this was your idea," Jadis defended herself. "Besides, I didn't think that she'd try to KILL me. Heck, as it is, she's lucky that I decided to use clean water."
The Cape Squad quietly got up and inconspicuously left their positions on the back bleachers. They filed out of the gallery without a word between them, until they reached the clubhouse of the Future Superheroes of America. Upgrade switched on the anti-eavesdropping measures, and the Capes settled into their chairs around the obligatory 'round table'. "Well," Gloriana sighed, "I think that we can agree to flush that application."
"I'm glad that you finally agree that rushing She-Beast is a bad idea," Pendragon said with relief.
"She-Beast?" Gloriana echoed incredulously, "I was talking about Nemesis! She's a rager and a nutter! The last thing we need is to get dragged down with her, the next time that she tries to kill someone!"
"She-Beast set her up," Iron Star said severely. "Which just shows how little we can trust Diabolik. If we took her in, she'd have dossiers and analytic breakdowns of all of us within a week."
"She already has them," Gloriana said plainly.
"She told you that?" G-Force asked, incredulous.
"NO," she replied mulishly. "But it's just the sort of thing that she would do."
"She's just paranoid," Magni-Girl grumped.
"So is Batman, and I wouldn't be surprised if Jadis had a can of 'Diabolik Shark Repellant Spray' in her Diabolik copter." Gloriana shook her head to rid herself of that image. "No, when we were in New York, she knew who the current members of the Imperial City Guard, Brooklyn's Sentinels were, and I'll lay you odds she knows who the Flying Squad all are as well, and she had a good idea as to their powers and SOPs. And if she didn't have a complete breakdown and critical analysis of their combat tactics then, I'll lay you odds that she'd got one NOW."
Mr. Mystic looked pensive. "Do you think that you could get a hold of her analyses of us?"
"What 'get a hold of'? Just ask her, and she'll probably tell you everything. Give her a pen, and she'll draw you illustrative diagrams. That girl LOVES to expound; it must be a trait she inherited from her mad scientist father."
"Do you really think we should make Jadis Diabolik a member of the Cape Squad?" Mega-Girl asked with a squeak of uncertainly.
Gloriana let out a long breath and focused. "Look, I can't TELL you to rush her. Even if I weren't graduating in a few months, it would be far beyond my authority. But I do recommend, most highly, that even if you don't bring She-Beast into the FSHA, that we change the way that we deal with the Bad Seeds."
"Hey, somebody's got to keep those creeps in line," Powerhouse said sullenly.
"Maybe," Gloriana accepted, "but we need to drop the 'guilty until proven innocent' approach that we've been using. Yes, some of them are everything that we say they are; Nephandus comes immediately to mind. JOBE: Need I say more? And Silver Serpent? Every time I see her, I get the impression that she's studying me, looking for weaknesses or bad habits, in case she ever has to deal with me. But there's my point: THEY have been studying US. But we have NOT been studying them. I mean, how much do we really know about the Bad Seeds? For instance, we know that Rosethorn gets a new girlfriend every few months or so, and it's all very passionate and romantic and all that, and then it suddenly breaks off. Why? What's going on there? Why does he pick those particular girls? Why does he break it off that way? How do the girls feel about all that? There is something seriously off about that scene of his, and we've just been kicking back and letting it happen without so much as a question."
"You think that we should question the girls that he dated?" Mr. Mystic asked, running a finger over his chin.
"More that someone should talk with them, than a full-out interrogation," Gloriana hedged. "Let's learn from the 007s' gaff, shall we? Chaps, you know how Dr. Yablonski keeps telling us that there's something that we're just not getting? I think that I've figured out what it is: we're treating this superheroing thing like a game."
"Yeah, he keeps saying that, but we're-"
Gloriana cut G-Force off. "NO, we're NOT. On a very real level, we've treated our entire tenure here at Whateley like we were the Legion of Superheroes, and we could trust that the writers- or rather, the faculty- to keep anything really bad from happening to us. People, life DOESN'T WORK THAT WAY! At Halloween, G-Force was drugged somehow and set up; what have we done about finding out who did that? If someone had done that to one of the Bad Seeds, they'd have woken up the next morning with a nasty rash that would get worse and worse until they confessed! Us? We just mooshed around a bit, played detective, and didn't get anywhere, because it wasn't FUN! That kind of amateurishness wouldn't fly for three seconds out in the real world! I mean, how do you think Yablonski got that cybernetic hand of his?"
"What does that have to do with letting She-Beast into the club?" Magni-Girl asked, sneering Jadis' handle.
"Steffi, the Bad Seeds aren't just the children of supervillains, they're the children of professional criminals. With the emphasis on 'professional'. Jadis is the daughter of a supervillain with world-wide recognition, who's managed to operate for over 30 years, and from what I've seen of how Jadis lives at home, he puts the lie to the adage that 'crime doesn't pay'. Silver Serpent is the daughter of a man who's been giving the British seven different kinds of hell for over a hundred years; well... that is, if it is the same 'Iron Dragon'... I mean, who knows? That little weirdo 'Cheese' is the son of Dr. Sinister and the Duchess, who are very big names over in the European crime scene. Nephandus is the son of two players in the international black market. Render's father, Sunder, has gone toe-to-toe with some of the biggest names in superheroing. He's a thug, but he's a thug who works all over the world."
"Yeah, and I've been picking up little hints that Render's looking to step up from his dad," Mr. Mystic said.
"Not the point," Gloriana resumed. "The point is that the Bad Seeds know the supervillain world. And supervillains aren't just a bunch of maladjusted, anti-social desperados!"
"This is your big epiphany from your last shopping trip with She-Beast, isn't it?" Magni-Girl said with a martyred sigh. "We've HEARD it."
"Then WHY aren't we doing anything about it?" Gloriana demanded.
"Why aren't YOU doing anything about it?" G-Force demanded back.
"Because I'm graduating! I can't learn anything in three months! Not and keep up my grades! I'm going to the Sorbonne next year. I had my opportunity, and I blew it! I'm just trying to convince you lot to not make the same mistake."
"Guys," I think that Gloria has a point," Lady Liberty cut in. There was a general 'WHAT?' reaction from the group. "Guys, THINK about it from the Seeds' point of view for a minute, 'kay? Yeah, their parents are scum, I'm not arguing that point; but what does that have to do with the SEEDS, huh? They're just kids! So, their parents are professional criminals, but that doesn't mean they're gonna strap on the black mask the second they graduate! If anything, they'd probably go the other way, 'cause who wants to be 'Doctor Diabolik Junior'?"
"She's got a point," G-Force admitted. "I'm not a big Organized Crime buff, but outside of the Godfather movies, you don't really hear a lot about second generation Mafia guys. The real wise guys usually come up from the streets; the kids of Made Men go to good colleges and become doctors and lawyers and like that."
"Thank you, LeShawn, Amy," Gloriana smiled graciously. "Nice to see that I'm not just talking to hear the sound of my own voice." She turned to the others. "People, THINK about it! The Bad Seeds are always complaining that we won't let them be anything BUT the bad guys; they may not simply be whining."
"Yeah?" Magni-Girl grumbled, "And what about Neon Rose?" she asked, referring to a 'Bad Seed' girl who had had a very bad relationship with Gloriana, but had graduated the year before.
"I..." Glor drawled on it, hating the taste of the words as they came out of her mouth, "I may owe her an apology. I accused her of a lot; I suspected her of a lot more... But now that I look back at it, I never proved a blessed thing against her. She MAY have been too slick for me to pin anything on her; then again, she may simply have not done any of it." Glor trailed off, hating the thought that she might not only have been wrong, but IN the wrong.
"Guinevere," Pendragon cut in with that honeyed baritone of his, "while I admit that this IS a worthy notion, and there is definite merit in the notion of learning more about the Supervillain community while we're here at Whateley... might I point out a few problems?" Gloriana nodded, and he continued. "Well, aside from the material fact that the Bad Seeds by and large massively distrust, bordering on loathe and despise, us, both as individuals and as a group, there is the material fact that they are not particularly trustworthy individuals? Let's look at the Bad Seeds, in terms of people that we can reasonably expect to talk to: Jadis Diabolik? Gloria, that girl is twistiness incarnate! That exhibition in the arena just now? That's her 'C game'; she's proud of that! Can you imagine what her 'A game' is like? We'd never be sure that she's not playing some incredibly convoluted 'John LeCarre' type long-range plan that won't come to fruition until years after graduation, and she's the uncontested queen of the world!"
"Her brother, Techno-Devil, doesn't even bother hiding the fact that he's going into the family business," Upgrade said. "Heck, he's already got two flunkies, Buzz and Charger, and his girlfriend, Sapper, has 'Junior Achievement Femme Fatale' written all over her."
Pendragon nodded and added, "We gave Winter her rush challenge, and we gave her every opportunity to show what she was really made of, and she showed us." He finished with a 'need I say more?' look.
"And what about She-Beast's creepy little friend, Nacht?" Magni-Girl put in. "She made you a bet last month and you won. Has she come through with that?" Steffi ended with raised eyebrows that suggested that she thought that Nacht had not.
"And a matter of fact... YES!" Gloriana answered brightly.
"WHAT?" Arthur and Steffi bleated in shocked unison.
"Nacht got in touch with her guardian, the Los Angeles area superheroine Sunburst, and asked if she could bring a few friends to spend the halt at her place in Malibu. Sunburst not only said yes, but spoke with me, and she's arranging for my family to come and spend the vacation with us in Los Angeles, at her expense! She's flying my parents and brothers in, First-Class, and putting them up at a first rate hotel, all on her!"
"Wait a minute," Scintilla objected, "NACHT'S guardian? Is SUNBURST?"
"She's probably just so happy that that little creep has ANY friends that she's willing to shell out, just to keep that going," Steffi grumbled.
"More or less," Gloriana nodded.
"But... Guinevere..." Pendragon stammered, "I... I thought that we were going to spend the holiday together with our families in Spain!"
"Yes, Arthur, I know... But we're talking MALIBU! My father's been complaining about the costs of flying me back and forth for a short holiday, and my mother's been getting grief from her friends about my going to an American private school. They keep making it sound like I have Downs or something. And this isn't the usual economy junket to Madrid that our families can afford- we're talking MALIBU! And I checked with girls in Dickinson from Southern California, and the gossip sites: Sunburst is A-List all the way! She doesn't know everybody who's anybody; everybody who's anybody wants to know Sunburst! She drops in uninvited to the very best parties and she's welcomed with open arms! Arthur, when she visits Clint Eastwood's restaurant in Monterey, Clint greets her personally! Do you have any idea of what my father would do to meet Clint Eastwood?"
"Arthur, Sunburst knows Scarlet Johansson! A picture with Scarlet Johansson would put my mother at the very top of her Ladies' League!"
"I don't think that was a good idea, Jadis," Lindsay told me with disapproval. "I know that you like to show off how smart you are, but I think that you outsmarted yourself with that one."
"Yeah, I gotta agree with Lindsay on this one," Kate droned. "You got a little too 'diabolik' with her. Now Nemesis looks like she got set up, and you know how the Cape Squad is about us Seeds. And even if she won the bet, I don't think that you made a good impression on Ms. Kasai."
"Maybe," I grunted. "What do you want? They can't all be gems. Still, if it's a choice between being pegged as a dangerous sneak and people getting the idea that I can be pushed around it's... it's complicated, and... yeah... I think that I may have overplayed that one a little."
"Just a little," Kate said with what only people who really knew her would catch as consolation.
"Well... at least the Spy Kidz don't have a license to snoop anymore," Lindsay said helpfully.
"Which they, and the Cape Squad and the Lit Chix are probably reading all sorts of paranoid plots into," I grumbled. I let out a gusty sigh. "So, let's just put this one down as not one of my better ideas. Mia Culpa, Mia Culpa, Mia Maxima Dummy. Well, at least I have a week or so before I have to deal with the repercussions of this brainfart."
I led the girls back to the magic lab. "Hey, at least you have what you need to finish this working," Kate pointed out as we stepped back into the circle.
"And people keep saying that you always look on the dark side," I said as I placed my buckle, which was brimming with piping hot magical energy fresh from Nemesis' reserves of power. Y'see, that buckle doesn't block incoming magical attacks; it absorbs and contains them, but only if the attack hits the buckle square on. And how do you get someone like Nemesis to oblige you by blasting into a teeny little target like that buckle? You (or an obliging dupe) tell her that it's a chink in an otherwise impervious defense.
As I switched outfits with the dummy that now had my preppy blazer-and-pleated skirt outfit draping over it, Lindsay asked, "Why don't you just reverse the spell to change clothing?"
"I wish I knew how," I admitted. "The crux of the magic was focused on me, not the dummy; when the spell relocated my clothing, it just sort of dumped it on the figure. Besides, the basic action of the magic is to bring the suit to me; sending the clothing back is taking advantage of the balancing factor. I have a few ideas on how to double-deck the mechanism, but the math is being a bitch." I paused as I fixed my skirt. "Oh, and by the way- not a word of that to Mal. He'd just be all smug about how science is more reliable than magic, yada yada freakin' yada."
"Ah the joys of family life," Kate droned. "Thank God I don't have any relatives- that I know about."
"What about your mother, the one you're always complaining about?" Lindsay asked.
"She's not an issue anymore."
"What?" I bleated, "Since when?"
But Kate clammed up as we packed away the other outfits. I stashed away the buckle and tried to get some information out of Kate, but she was a mum as a mummy, and had that smug hint of gloating to her poker face all the way over to the cafeteria for lunch.
When we got to the caff, Mal and his boys set off a big whoop to celebrate my 'glorious victory' "Woop! Woop! Woop! Bad Seeds RAAAAWK!"
Not everyone at the table joined in the whoop, but there was a general smattering of applause. "Good Job, Beast!" Render congratulated me.
"Maybe I can change clothes now," Silver Serpent commented, "without that Kew girl commenting on my choice of underwear." And a shower of paper rose petals cascaded down from a circle over my head.
As I swept the little bits of pink paper from my shoulders, Winter said, "Yeah, yeah, that's nice, but let's get down to what's really important: has Gloriana said anything about giving me a re-do?"
"How would I know, Marian?" I asked, "I haven't-"
"Not YOU," she cut me off, "YOU!" she stared at Kate imploringly. "You're taking her to Los Angeles for Spring Break, right? That's got to be worth something!"
"Winter," Kate let just the slightest note of annoyance creep into her monotone, "I'm paying off a BET. A bet that I made because you kept nooging me into it, so Gloriana would be in a position where she'd have to give you another shot. We lost the bet, and now I'm stuck spending Spring Break with three hyper-talkative blondes instead of one!"
"Three?" I asked, wondering if Marian had somehow whined her way onto that trip.
"Misty is going with us," Kate said simply. "I made the mistake of letting her talk to Sunny on the phone, and three hours later, they were still at it, and Misty had an invite to stay with us as well." Kate glared ahead of her with grim stoicism. "It'll be the blonde leading the blonde..."
"What?" I bleated, "But I was counting on Misty to help me keep the Drow Swarm in line!"
"We ARE right here, you know," Jobe snarled from where she was sitting with her three pointy eared confreres.
"Do four drows constitute a 'swarm'?" Bova wondered.
"Do drow even 'swarm'?" Freight Train asked. "I always saw us more as a horde. Y'know, like Mongols."
"Still, I could see myself swarming..." Belphy mused. "If the girl was cute enough..."
I looked around to see who I could ask to help me keep Jobe from pulling a repeat of that cluster fuck with Anti-Champion. Asking Mal to help would be like asking Shemp to keep Larry, Curly and Moe in line. Jay-Arm? Not even as a joke. Thrash wasn't even a possibility. Jobe and the Drow would run Lindsay ragged. Cheese? I shuddered at the thought. And Silver Serpent barely bothered to hide the fact that she regarded going to a Western school as a penance. Ray caught me checking him, and he begged off, "Sorry, Beast, but I have plans for Spring Break. And they don't involve pointy-eared white people with strange ideas about the Black Experience."
Desperately, I looked at Romeo. "I'm sorry, Jadis," he said with genuine regret. "But Mother is expecting me in Karedonia Saturday evening. She says that she has a- and I quote- 'wonderful surprise waiting', and she's arranged a complex passage down there via Halifax." The Romester slumped and grumped, "I just hope that it's only another new 'potential stepfather' who thinks that I'm five years old."
My hunt for backup was interrupted when Vamp slinked up to our table. "Hey Jadis!" she greeted me with her usual breezy cheer. "The general consensus is that you kicked some SERIOUS ass in the arena. And Nerdesis didn't score that many points for the crap she pulled. Okay, the Romanian judge dinged you a few points for the water pistol, but by and large, you came out totally badass!" She shook my hand, and palmed me a fold of bills.
Ah, of course; Vamp must be delivering Boxcar's payoff for the bet. Technically, betting on the duels, grudge matches and combat finals is against the regs, but everyone does it, even (hell, especially) the teachers. But a certain level of discretion is necessary. Vamp is trying to work her way into the cadre of fixers at Whateley. Aside from some very nice moves acting as X-O's agent/manager for her design synthesis shtick, Vamp's been sticking to acting as middleman and delivery girl for the various fixers. This shows that Alex has the brains and discretion- and more importantly, patience- to actually move up into the ranks of the actual movers and shakers. As she's rooming with Trevor Goodkind, who is also making moves in that direction, but doesn't have her patience (or discretion), that may be very important in the years to come.
Then she paused uncertainly and set herself for an awkward moment. "Ah, Jadis, I hate to presume on our brief acquaintance, especially when I don't have any quid pro quo at the moment, but could I ask you a favor?"
"I'm not asking anything of you, per se; I just need a tip: would you happen to know anyone reasonable who'd be willing to trade a few days rent and board for a complete stranger for a Solid, which is all I really have to offer at the moment?" I looked at her quizzically. "Look, I had plans to spend Spring Break in Denver with Tara." Denver? Vamp has contacts in Denver? "But, at the very last second, like 20 minutes ago, this complication popped up- very complicated, family issues, like that, don't ask- and Tara says that it may take her a couple of days to iron out the wrinkles. So, I need a place to hang for a few."
"Why not just stay here?" Winter asked, not catching the nuances of other people's problems, as per uze.
"Well, glossing over the whole 'Total Loser' angle," Vamp drawled, "there's the significant fact that before I came here, I spent almost two months in Jail- Protective Custody, but still, JAIL- I Need Spring Break! Then, there's the very significant fact that I have a certain demented not-quite-senile-and-all-the-more-dangerous-for-it necromantic paranoid psychopath who wants to shove my screaming immortal soul into a mason jar."
"The Necromancer?" Jay-Arm didn't gulp (but just barely).
"Oh? You're offering to introduce me to your parents?" Vamp said in (what I was picking up as feigned) hope.
Jay-Arm gave her a pained grin and lied, "I'm heartbroken, Alexis, truly I am, but my father is very, very paranoid about the students here- he's afraid that somehow, they'll leverage something they learn by staying with us to his disadvantage."
"Oh? This is the first I've heard about it," Winter said brattishly.
"Oh, POO!" Vamp pouted. I'll give her this: she does know how to yank Jay-Arm's chain with style. "Anyway, besides the Cabin Fever factor, I do need to get out of here along with the rest of the crush. With this many weird kids heading out at once, even Darrow would have a hard time keeping track of me. BUT, if I leave all by myself, two or three days later, I'd be a sitting duck. Worse, I could lead Darrow right to Tara's house. Having that scumbag knocking at their door is NOT the housewarming gift that I think would make a good first impression."
"Why don't you just stay with your roommate, Phase?" Romeo asked.
"The Goodthing?" Vamp sneered. "Snootkind is one of the things that I need a Spring Break from! Let's ignore the whole 'Goodkind surrounded by mutants' thing, let's rise above that and give her the benefit of the doubt. Let's even overlook the anal-retentive neat freak element. And DON'T get me started on Brass Monkey! Her whole 'Foodie Fanatic' thing is totally out of control! Okay, so she doesn't want to share her food, Fine! So, she doesn't want to share those overrated Arabica beans, that's her call! But she pitches a snit- fit when I buy some decent Jamaica Blue beans and run them through that grinder of hers!"
"Yeah-up," Mal sighed, "That's Trevor, all over."
"hmmm..." Jobe mused as he poked at her PDA, "Maybe it would perk up Karedonia's international profile if we got into the Coffee business. God knows, their lackluster produce has done wonders for Columbia's standing. Maybe if I acquired a few genetic samples, and isolated the traits for a superior crop that could be modified to thrive on Mt. Wilkins..."
"Jobe," I warned, "there ARE laws against Bio-Piracy."
"WHAT is the harm in my gaining a nice wide selection to allow for the full value of diversity?"
"That's not what you said when your Coast Guard units caught those Calypso Foundation divers collecting samples of those Tactical Urchins you designed."
"That's DIFFERENT! Those are Proprietary Defense Technology!"
"Jadis," Jay-Arm sighed as he took a sip of his own java, "what could it hurt? Karedonia gets another product, the world gets another variety of coffee, and the average citizen learns that we Esoteric Researchers aren't constantly trying to find new ways of blowing up the world."
"But y'are, Blanche, Y'ARE!" Winter sniped in a bad Bette Davis voice.
"Jay-Arm," Ray stepped in, "International Law completely aside, just keep in mind that Jobe would have to taste test the results with unbiased judges. Now, what would be a more logical group to test, than the Workshop kids?" Jay-Arm froze in mid-sip and his eyes snapped open wide with realization. "Now, WHAT do you think the Lab Rats' reaction would be, when they learn that JOBE was messing with the coffee pot, hmm?" Jay-Arm stayed frozen, but he went pale, and a sheen of perspiration broke out on his forehead.
"Nice one, Ray," Thrash said, taking in Jay-Arm's state. "But yer timing's off. No spit-take, so you lose points."
"Jadis," Lauren (that's the Silver Snake to you) offered, "you were just saying that you need someone with you in New York, keeping the Drow in line-"
"What?" Belphy asked plaintively, "You're going to give her a lariat and a cowboy hat, and she's going to wrangle us?"
"-so why not let Vamp stay with you for a few days, in exchange for giving you a hand?" Lauren continued, showing her usual composure and good sense in ignoring Belphy's attempt to compete with Jobe.
"Why do you need help with Jobe?" Vamp asked, kiting a wary sideways look at the Drow Swarm.
"Oh, the Imperial Princess-to-Be is heading down to Karedonia for her Betrothal Ceremony next Saturday," I explained. "BUT, for all his arrogance, Gizmatic isn't fool enough to give a pissed-off mistress of poisons and pathogens a week to target her prospective groom- or HIM for that matter. So, I gotta put them up at Schloss Diabolik until Friday, when we all fly down to Karedonia for the big hoo-hah."
"Jadis, WHY are you putting up with this?" Kate asked me. "The last time we were down there, you made it quite clear that you had no intention of letting Joe Wilkins push you around if you could help it. So, why are you letting him park Jobe and her entourage at your place?"
I gave a duly martyred sigh. "I don't have a choice. This is from the Parental Unit himself. Dr. Dad is trying to work Wilkins for something- maybe he's trying to get the Emperor to keep Baron Blitzen and his merry band of Hitler Jungend from anschlossing the Time Share Lair all the time- and he needs Joe Wilkins to owe him a favor or something. Anyway, the decision was made at a higher level," I let out an annoyed snarl.
"Why doesn't Gizmatic just put Jobe up at a hotel for the week?" Vamp asked.
"Leaving Jobe unsupervised in the state she's in would be Mass Criminal Negligence," I explained. "Possibly Felonious Public Endangerment."
"Okay, but doesn't Jobe have family in New York? What about them?"
"Vamp, families like the Wilkinses are the reasons why hotels- and fortified castles with moats- were invented."
Vamp weighed the prospects for a moment. "Will one of your famous shopping sprees be involved?"
"NO," Winter said repressively. If she wasn't getting to go shopping on Jobe's credit card, then NOBODY was.
"Tell you what, Alex," I offered, "Drow-sitting duty in exchange for Room and Board, a straight exchange, value for value."
She raised an eyebrow at me. "When Tara calls, telling me that it's cool to fly to Colorado, I'll be free to head west?"
"Just help get the Bride-to-Be over her pre-betrothal jitters without releasing the Blob That Ate Manhattan, and we'll be cool."
"Okay, it'll be a little too close to the Goodthing for my liking, but I think that this is the best that I'll be able to scare up at this late date," Alex said with a certain fatalistic stoicism.
"Goodkind?" I mis-repeated, "What does Trevor have to do with this?"
"Oh, he's going down to the Big Apple on some big business thing that he's been cooking up."
"Oh?" Jay-Arm's ears perked up. "The Goodkind is making yet another big financial move? Of what sort?"
Vamp gave Jay-Arm a look of faux-regret tinged with sham passion. "I'm sorry, Jean-Armand... but the Snarkkind has cruelly left me out of the loop for some reason." Surprise, surprise. To hear Trev tell it, Vamp is Emily Purvis, Glen Jacoby, and Flora Moreland, the biggest mooches back at Montessori, all rolled up into one pale wrapper. I don't see it myself; if anything, I think that Alex has been bending over backwards to prove how reliable she is. Of course, Trev would insist that that was a sure sign of a parasite angling to get really deep into your wallet. "Okay, sounds like a deal, Jadis. But I have a bit of business to take care of first. But, do we have a deal? A place to stay, in exchange for backing you up?" She stuck out a hand.
I pumped the hand vigorously. "Deal!"
I hurried into the room that I shared with the Grubkind. Her little buddy, Jade was helping her pack. "The Sheriff on your trail, Sundance?" Goodgrief asked as I quickly pulled my stuff together.
"I got a place to stay, but they're leaving soon, so I gotta haul."
"Who'd be fool enough to let YOU into their house?"
"Your buddy, Jadis Diabolik."
"WHAT? How'd you sucker Jadis into putting YOU up?"
"Chill, Rich Boy, Chill. I'm paying my way, thank you very much."
"Jadis doesn't need a scullery maid."
"Scowering pots and pans would be a relief. I'm Drow-sitting." I spelled out Jobe's- or more accurately, Jadis'- predicament, and our agreement.
"Talk about setting a fox to guard a henhouse," Snobkind sneered. "And what are you doing NOW?" she asked as I scooped my hair up under a stocking cap.
"It's called 'taking reasonable precautions'," I replied with an undertone of 'it's something that I don't expect you to have heard of'.
"Why?" peeped the little one.
"In case you've forgotten it, there's a certain toxically psychotic sorcerer who happens to have a major hate on for everyone in this room, but especially wants to crack open his special private reserve of hellfire for ME? I figure that Darrow's got to have someone watching this heap on the off-chance that he might catch Princess Smokin'hawt alone, so's he can enact a few 'Legend of Zelda' fantasies that's he got. But if his guy happens to catch sight of a certain alabaster vision of loveliness, he's not going to let a chance like that slide, now is he? And the Bad Seeds may be tough, but I don't want to cause Jadis any problems. Jobe's going to be a handful, all by herself, and that's plenty." I started applying the heavy foundation that I'd used back when I was passing myself off as 'Abby Carfax'.
Then Tara came in. "Hey, Alex, no luck. Uncle Darren is still being a pain."
"He's that tied up in knots that you're a mutant?" I asked.
"Not since I started sending money back to the family," she responded with a wry grimace. "No, the word's gotten around in the family that I'm lesbian, and now that I'm a financial asset, I think that Uncle Darren is trying to show me who's boss."
"He got real clout in your family?"
"Not really," Tara admitted. "But he IS family. Give it a couple of days, and Gramma should get tired of humoring him." Then I held up two wigs, trying to decide. "What are you doing?"
I gave her a run-down of my arrangement with She-Beast. "So, Tara... which do you think I'll look dorkier as? A brunette or auburn?"
"If you're going for dorky, just go as you are," Snootkind put in.
"Show me which face you'll be using," Tara told me. I pulled my face into a variant of my 'Abby Carfax' configuration, only with more chin, sharper cheekbones, and a longer nose. "You'd look better as a brunette; go with the auburn."
I pulled on the auburn wig and looked in the mirror. "That is definitely someone with no sense of style or panache; they'll never guess that it's me!" I gave out my evil chuckle of triumph (okay, so it's a work in progress)
Tara asked what the phone number was that I'd be staying at. I told her just to contact me on my cell phone; there was no way that Tara's family wanted the FBI asking why they were calling Dr. Diabolik's house long distance! Tara helped me put together an outfit that lacked my signature flair (talk about a dead giveaway!), but wasn't too dire. I gave Tara a big hug, and told her that I was looking forward to meeting her family. Well, maybe not Uncle Darren, but the rest of them.
On my way out, I made a pit stop. Yes, I did need to make sure that there wouldn't be any awkwardness waiting for the train. But far more to the point, I needed to make sure to tuck an ace up my sleeve.
Or a pair of aces. Namely, Nightgaunt's shadow-traveling gems. I reached up and created a patch of darkness, and the power gems tumbled out of their little pocket universe. It's been tempting to use these things, but, hey, this is WHATELEY, a place where 'weird' is a requirement for admission; if anyplace on the planet would have someone who'd notice these things, it's Whateley. And once anyone did that, it'd be a coin toss as to whether they 'confiscated them for my own good', or just flat-out stole 'em. So I've kept them here, where nobody's twigged to them. But I'm going to need to do some pretty fancy dancing to get off the train in Boston with no one picking up on it, and these are my dancing shoes.
Jadis had told me to meet her and the Bad Seeds in the lobby of Schuster Hall, the main building. Apparently, the Seeds get to leave a little before the main swarm, so they can avoid pinheads trying to follow them home, as to bust the 'Rents and be big hero-types, and Schuster is where the Seeds from the other cottages meet up with the main contingent from Melville. Jadis' brother, Mal, was already there with his two buddies, Buzz and Charger, and his girlfriend, Sapper. There wasn't any sign of recognition from them, so I decided to have a little fun. "Oh Whaow!" I gushed, "Aren't you Techno-Devil?"
I had fun yanking Mal's chain, and getting his girlfriend riled up, until Jadis' little buddy, Kate walked up with two blondes in tow. "Hey, Vamp," she greeted me with her usual monotone, "nice disguise."
"Vamp?" Mal yelped like he'd been scalded.
"How'd you know it was me?" I asked; hey, I don't really have TIME to go and get a better disguise.
"It was obvious that you'd try to disguise yourself heading out; only an idiot would risk being spotted by whoever the Necromancer has hired to watch out for you, or a certain alleged Queen of the Daoine Sidhe. Besides, you're the only one in our immediate circle who's new enough to think that punking Malachi was fun." She gestured at the two blondes. "You know Misty."
Misty gave me a perky 'HI!'
"And the other one is Gloriana. As a punishment for my sins, I've been condemned to Spring Break with these two." She turned to the taller stack of 'Oh Yes!' and said, "This is Vamp; she's the Bad Seeds' expansion team into Poe Cottage. As a punishment for HER sins, she's stuck rooming with the Goodkind."
"Poe Cottage?" the golden girl repeated. "You're rooming with the Goodkind? Is she-"
"Yes," I cut her off. I get this a lot. "Everything you've heard and more. Well, except for the rumor about the killer robot. Haven't seen any sign of that..."
"She's really that bad?"
"Oh, the rest of Team Kimba is worse," I assured her. "Total whack-a-doos. Well, except for the guy, Hank. He's sane enough... for as long as that lasts, hanging around with those girls. Yeah, Chaka's got the big rep for being nuts, but that's more that's she's kinda high on life and being able to kick ass than she's really lost it. Tennyo- and what kind of name is Tennyo, anyway?- now, she's got problems. I dunno what's going on there. She ain't talking, and I ain't asking. Chou? My first night there, she went at me with a SWORD! Fey? That girl's got an imaginary friend that she talks to. And it talks BACK! And sometimes it talks FOR her! Spooky doesn't even BEGIN to cover it! And that little midget she's got?"
"Well, Generator may be a little short, but I wouldn't-"
"Generator? You think I'm talking about the kid, Jade? NO, I'm talking about a real MIDGET that Fey has running around doing chores and shit for her! Don't ask me where she came from! Yea high, russet hair, calls her 'Queen' and 'My Lady' and she talks in this weird accent." I paused for a second. "It sounds sort of Irish, but I'm Irish, and I got relatives from County Kerry that have stopped over on visits, but she doesn't sound like them... much...
"But the kid? Oh, Fey's weird, but Jade is downright BIZARRE! She builds cutesy little plushy robots that run around and do weird stuff! And that spooky ghost thing that she built? She says that it's her SISTER! That DIED! Well, sometimes... she keeps changing her story. And she argues with it! And she keeps shifting from 'I' to 'her' to 'we' to 'they' all the time!"
Then I noticed that there were people listening in, and it occurred to me that I may have gone a little overboard with my rant, and let loose with info that might make my living circumstances even more tense than they already are. So, I gave the assembled congregation a wiseass smirk and added, "OR, I might be having a little fun with you."
There was a noticeable lurch in the audience. Kate held up pieces of paper with '8.3' on it, and Mal gave me a '7.6' for a combined score of '7.9'.
Gloriana was about to give me a furious tongue-lashing (and why does that sound like so much more fun than it would be?) when Jadis and the Melville contingent of the Bad Seeds showed up, with Jobe's drow entourage bringing up the rear. I noticed that Angie, the tall strapping drow, seemed to be loaded down with the vast majority of the luggage. Which, while a mite awkward, didn't really seem to be that big a burden for her. "Hey Vamp," Jadis greeted me. "Nice disguise."
"Why do I even bother?" I slumped.
"What? It's obvious that you're trying to avoid being spotted by whatever informant the Necromancer has watching Whateley. It's a good, sensible precaution, and I for one appreciate not having to cope with whatever craziness the Necromancer might throw at us."
Should I be grateful that I'm traveling with a bunch of supervillains' kids, who clearly operate at several levels of competence above the norm, or worried that I'm in over my head?
"Be grateful," Jadis said, as though reading my thoughts. "Worrying that you're in over your head never helps, and you start seeing things that aren't there." She looked around at the people listening in, "Did we interrupt something?"
"Competitive Freestyle Mindfuck," Mal said in an Olympics Announcer tone, "Vamp just gave a nice exhibition that played well to the room, though I think that she didn't quite Ace the dismount. I give her 7.6"
"I disagree," Kate disagreed in a similar if still deadpan tone. "She did very well, though not Gold-medal material, with the equipment that she had, and she played exceptionally well to the room. Even now, the crowd isn't quite sure whether it was a woof or not, because it plays so well to their prejudices. A good, solid 8.3."
"And what did the Romanian judge say?"
"Who knows? Nobody here speaks Romanian."
"Ah, Jadis? Could I have a word with you in private?" I took Jadis over to the side, and started, "Look, I know we shook on it, and I have every intention of keeping to our bargain, but there's a complication in Boston-" then I noticed that my chosen nook wasn't as secure as I'd thought at first glance; there was a patch of impenetrable darkness in the very corner, and I spotted a boy wearing a hooded cape (yes, I hooded cape; do you really think that I'd make that up?) squeezed into it, being very careful to be absolutely silent. And, YES, I can see into impenetrable darkness. You got a problem with that? With the merest flicker of my eyes at the darkness, and but a moment's bump in my story, I continued, "Stirlitz says that there's been a breach."
Give her this, Jadis picked up, just like that. I guess that for Supervillain kids, paranoia isn't a personality defect, it's an old and trusted friend. "Breach? It's not Tronchinski, is it?"
"No. It's the Twins."
"The Twins? What are they up to?"
"It's the Twins. What do you THINK they're up to?"
"Those two need to be lifted and separated. And what is Gossard doing?"
"Nothing. That's why Stirlitz is worried."
"No wonder. When it comes to the Twins, Gossard has always been more hands-on."
"I was going to wait until Boston, but since it involves... The Twins... I'm going to have to give this to you now." I reached into my purse, pulled out a small packet, and carefully handed it to Jadis.
A tendril of darkness snaked out from the corner and snatched the packet out of my hand. An admittedly very good looking boy, with a face off of a Gothic Romance paperback and a body made for sin (*yum!*) jumped out of the corner and grabbed the packet out of midair. "AHAH! I knew that you were up to something, She-Beast! Now, let everyone see what is so important to... THE TWINS!" He opened up the packet with a flick of his wrists to reveal-
-a sheer black lace bra.
As he stood there, staring at the bra dumbfounded, I stepped forward with a big smirk on my face. With a roguish voice, I chided him, "You naughty, naughty BOY!" and snatched the bra from his numb hand. Okay, so I saw it in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. So sue me.
"And Vamp NAILS the dismount in the Mixed Doubles!" And the Seeds gave Jadis and me a combined score of 9.2. Damn Romanian judge.
Once we were safely in the van and out the gate, I asked, "So, Jadis... who was Cape Boy? And what was all that about?"
"Oh, that's Nightlord," Jadis groaned. "He's got a Batman complex."
"He can't decide whether he's Adam West, Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney or Christian Bale?"
"He's got this thing about being the dark brooding Byronic hero," Jadis said with a sneer. "The only reason that he doesn't spend hours squatting on the gargoyles at the gate is Security won't let him. Anyway, he thinks that he's Batman, so of course, he needs a Catwoman. Guess who he picked?" Jadis indicated herself with a hapless wave of her hand and roll of her eyes.
"At least he wasn't narrating this time," Kate snarked.
"'Narrates'?" then the penny dropped. "Oh. My. Gawd... you mean... he narrates his own 'adventures'?" There were sad, pained nods. I mulled it over. "I don't remember seeing that yutz sitting with the Cape Squad-"
"And you won't!" Gloriana snapped. "We may be a little short on male rushes just at the moment, but we DO have standards!"
"Standards?" Winter grumped, "You mean like Powerhouse?" she finished with a sneer. Then she remembered that she was trying to get in good with the Capes, and fell all over herself trying to make it up to Gloriana.
I was enjoying listening to Winter try to wheedle herself back into the Alpha Capette's good graces (how can you get back into something that you were never in to begin with?) when I noticed the road signs saying 'Dunwich' and 'Berlin'. The one to Dunwich was pointed in one direction, and the one to Berlin was pointed in another. And the van was headed to Berlin. "Hey!" I blurted, "We're going the wrong WAY!"
"No, this is the way to Berlin."
"Berlin? Why would we be catching the train in Berlin?"
Calling the Berlin Airport an airport is like calling a meter maid a Law Enforcement Officer; it's technically valid, but you feel that someone needs to get over themselves. And when Jobe told me that we'd be taking the GizJet, the Karedonian Imperial Air Transport, to New York, I imagined that it would be like a Learjet, y'know, like an executive air taxi, only tackier. Instead, what came hovering down for a VTOL landing was about a 100 feet long, had 6 tilting jet engines (what KIND of jet, I have no idea; they were very quiet), had a hemi-cylindrical airfoil that wrapped around the body instead of wings jutting out from the side, and had a bulbous... thing... sticking out from the nose. Oh, and it was purple-and-white, with gold trim.
Don't look at me that way. I didn't pick the color scheme. And I certainly didn't pick the garish eyesore that is the Karedonian arms, which were displayed on the side and tail.
The interior was more of the same: nouveau-riche overload, with taste-and-restraint deficit disorder. Don't make me describe it; you don't want to know, and I don't want to remember.
As the mobile offense to good taste lifted off, I asked, "Is there any way that we could make a brief stop in Boston? I'm not trying to skip out on you, Jadis, but there's something I really need to take care of there."
"Family business," I said, looking her straight in the eye. "And I'd vastly prefer it that the authorities- either in Boston, or back at Whateley, didn't know about it."
Jadis worried that one over a bit. "That's... gonna be a toughie, Vamp. We're talking FAA here. And while the GizJet does have Diplomatic Credentials, it still has to follow Traffic Control protocols; just stopping in Boston without a plausible explanation isn't advisable. And stopping without a plausible explanation without drawing the attention of the TSA, MCO, DHS, DPA and maybe even the FBI isn't even remotely possible."
Jobe let out a dismissive tisk. "You're over-thinking it, Sheba. The Imperial Parental Paint-in-the-Ass, in typical hard tech geek fashion, has overloaded this crate with every widget, gimcrack, and do-bob he could think of. We're talking everything from incoming-missile spoofing lasers to anti-psionic intrusion baffles to internal rabid vermin countermeasures to drink glass re-frosters." Jobe killed the drink she had, slinked over to the refreshment bar, and put the glass under one dispenser. A spray of superchilled water coated the inside of the glass with frost. Jobe refilled her drink and went over to an intercom. "Cedric? Lay in a course over Boston; we're going to field-test the GizEvac 727."
Wow. That's unexpectedly accommodating of her. Gee, I wonder why everyone says that Jobe's such a raging asshole...
Five minutes later, Jobe had talked Vamp into a jumpsuit with a hood and goggles, with a pouch for the outfit that Alex was going to wear later. "So, you'll take my luggage to your place in New York?"
"Yeah," I assured her, "we'll cover for you by saying that you had to find a lost piece of luggage at JFK. But you'd better hustle and get to my place by Six in the evening; we can't excuse you being out any later than that."
Then the pilot told us that we were over the Charles River, and this was as close to the central Boston urban mass as the deviation in our flight path would permit. Jobe touched a hidden button on a panel, and the panel slid open to reveal a door with a small glass window in it. Jobe opened the door, behind which was a cramped 2.5' x 2.5' x 6' (if that) booth. Jobe shooed Vamp into the booth and sealed the door.
"So, this is a teleporter or something?" Vamp asked through the glass window.
"Dunno," Jobe admitted as she pushed the button. There was a whoosh, and I got the briefest glimpse of Vamp's face going totally blank as she dropped out of sight. I heard a loud shrill scream that faded and cut off with a clang. "Oh!" Jobe said in the tone of realization. "So that's what it is: an emergency vehicle exit system. That's... actually simple and elegant. Good one, Dad."
"Jobe!" I shrieked, "You just dropped Alex out of a jet plane travelling at over 300 miles an hour, at an altitude of at least 15 thousand feet!"
"So? Vamp can glide. Remember that runaround you put her through with that canister?"
"YES. If she remembers that she can DO that before she gains too much velocity from dropping!"
"Oh. Good point."
I screamed half the way down, before I remembered that I could glide. And by that time, I'd picked up too much speed to brake. I managed to steer the direction that I was falling in, but that was it. I headed to one of the taller skyscrapers in downtown, figuring that, well, it was closest. When I had the top of the building well in sights, I started to put on the brakes.
Oh. Right. No brakes. I just barely managed to veer away from that skyscraper, barely missing a spectacularly nasty wipeout by feet. But that just headed me right into the side of the Iron Mountain IncT building. Fortunately, I was heading into the north side of the building, and I remembered that I had Nightgaunt's power gems at, like, the very last second, so just a foot shy of splatsville, I slid into the shadow of the building, and zoomed into the shadowy realm that somehow connects every shadow to every other shadow. Somehow- don't ask me how, I don't know how it works, I don't WANT to know how it works- I managed to shed a lot of that velocity in there, and a while later I slipped back out of the shadows into an alley at ground level, and only hit the wall on the other side with enough force to cripple an ordinary person. I struggled up to my hands and knees and yarked all the adrenaline out of my system. "So," I croaked, "THAT'S why everyone says that Jobe is such a raging asshole..."
I gave myself an hour to recollect my cool, and to replace the good Whateley lunch that I'd lost with an inferior fast food meal. Hey, cheap food calms me down, go figure. Once I was back on my game, I put on my 'Abby Carfax' face and made sure that I was presentable. Then I headed for the Commonwealth Shared Risk Bank, where I kept my safe deposit box. I signed myself into the safe deposit vault and checked out my box. And yes, there along with a few strategic 'mementos' and potential evidence, were twenty rolls of gold British sovereigns (yes, I know, it's too, too 'James Bond', but really, it's a great way to carry around a lot of money in a small space, and sovereigns keep their value like nobody's business), and a few bits of jewelry that were worth $115 thousand and change. Honest, they were gifts, all of them!
Hey, not bad for a kid who won't legally be able to even learn how to drive until October, huh?
I stashed the coins and jewelry in my purse, shut the box and alerted the attendant that I was finished. I was on my way out when my exit was blocked by a tall, thin man in a dark Brooks Bros. suit. "Why HELLO Northrop! It's been AGES! Why, yes, this IS your bank, isn't it?"
"Abby," he said severely. "WHERE have you been?"
"There was a dust-up- you really don't want to know the details, Throppy- and I felt that it would be best if you weren't brought into it."
Throppy paused with that good old Back Bay Bean-eater reluctance to get involved in anything unseemly (or at least to get caught in anything unseemly), which is just SO refreshing in these days of untrammeled extroversion. I keep telling myself. Then he steeled himself and said sternly, "You should have contacted one of us. There have been some... complications, regarding your trust fund, and we need your signature on some documents."
"Oh, I'm sure you do..." I drawled as I pulled out the 'cell phone' that was actually one of Belphy's 'flashy thingies' that she's banging up for the Masterminds, which I borrowed. And, YES, I borrowed it. As in 'I asked and she said yes'. I gave Throppy the priming flash, and as he reacted, I pressed him against the walls of the vault with one hand, looked him straight in the eye and gave him the new, improved, 'now I actually have an idea what I'm doing' version of the old Vamp-razzle. Between Belphy's flashy-thingie leaving him in a state of heightened suggestion, the hooks I already had in him, my improved technique, and the fact that I caught him totally flat-footed, he was putty in my hands. Though I might have to choose a new wording for that; Goodthing would get all squicked out by the phrase. Once I had him well and truly under, I leaned in and purred into his ear, "So... Throppy... what do those papers you and your buddies need really do? What are you really pulling with this 'Trust Fund' scam of yours?"
And the story came tumbling out. Throppy was a little hesitant at first, but towards the end, he was really selling how clever and innovative it all was. I'll spare you the details, but it was nasty, very nasty. And yes, the primary scapegoat in all this sneaky moving of money around was 'Abby Carfax'. I'm going to have to deal with this, eventually. My best weapon in this is, of course, the Goodkind. But you'll forgive me if I have doubts about using a weapon that's as likely to bite ME in the ass as these ratbags. *Sigh* You know, sometimes I surprise myself, expecting better of the Blue Bloods. But so far, the only one that hasn't left me wanting to join the Red Uprising was dear old Pips. I milked Throppy for as many details as I could, recording them on the 'flashy-thingie' which was also a cell phone and a digital recorder, among other things. Then I flashed him with the activating flare, and I tipped out as everything that had happened between the two flares completely disappeared from his short-term memory.
I clipped out of the bank at a brisk but decorous rate, and managed to flag a cab right out the door. From there, I gave the cabbie directions to Charlestown, and a reunion of sorts.
Miranda nee-Kearny O'Brien trudged up the stairs of the house. It was one thing for magazines and such to extol the 'Supermom' who was able to hold down a job, keep house, cook meals, sit on committees, stay in shape, keep up with current national and local affairs, and raise six- no, five- children; it was a vastly different thing to try and live it. Just at the moment, all Miranda wanted to do was kick off her shoes and curl up with a good book and let the world go hang for a change. Not that it was likely that she'd get to do it; there was always some minor crisis, but there was the off-chance, and Miranda felt she owed it to herself to take the shot.
But then, "Mom?" came from Emma's room, "Could you come in here?"
Oh well, maybe it was just a minor crisis. It was only 4 O'clock, so it wasn't likely that it was homework. And maybe it was something that she could do with her shoes off.
But Miranda stopped thinking about her feet the second that she was in the door. There, sitting on Emma's bed, next to Emma with her hand on Em's shoulder in a very 'I'm in charge here' way was a strange young woman, wearing well-cut roan-red hair, a nice dress, good shoes and a pair of sunglasses. Emma looked at her mother with a tense look of fear kept under tight control. The tiredness that had nagged at her was swept away by a surge of pure maternal rage at seeing Emma that way. "Who are you?" she demanded, "How did you get into this house? And GET AWAY from my daughter!"
"I know that I'm doing this wrong," said the woman in a vexingly familiar voice, "but if there's a right way, I'll be damned if I know what it is." As she spoke, the woman took her hand from Emma's shoulder and pulled a wig from her head, revealing a head of fine snow-white hair under a stocking cap, which she pulled off and let her long straight locks fall free. Oddly for a woman so well turned out, she wasn't wearing any makeup, and she was pale, very, very pale. And then the features of her face started to change, becoming strangely familiar. But it was only when she took off the sunglasses that Miranda recognized her.
The woman had red eyes.
Not pink eyes, as most albinos have, but RED eyes.
The only person (outside of cheap fiction) that she'd even heard of who had red eyes was Alex. Her son, Alex. Alex smiled as she saw the connection click in her mother's face. "Hi Mom. Yeah, I know, I was out way late, but I have a really good excuse."
"Alex," Miranda whispered. "But... he said that you were dead!"
"Wishful thinking on his part," Alex smirked. Emma gawped at the not-stranger, not sure whether to be more shocked that Alex was alive, or that he was wearing a dress, or that Mom wasn't ripping him a new one for wearing a dress, or that he looked so good in that dress.
"He said that you were a mutant," said with only a touch less dread.
"And he's right," Alex said as his features changed again, to a more feminine caste, though still, somehow more... Alex. "Which just goes to show that even a stopped clock is right, twice a day."
"He said that you were went crazy and killed people."
"MOM!" Alex sputtered. "I'm surprised at you! You, of all people, should know that Dad is full of dusty farts: shit and hot air." Miranda started to say something but Alex stopped her. "Please. I AM here for a reason, a very important reason. Normally, I wouldn't come anywhere within miles of this place, for various reasons, but just today I learned something real important."
"Important?" Em peeped, "How important?"
"I gotta ask Mom some questions, Em. How she answers could mean that everything we know about this family is wrong. Things could change BIG TIME. For everybody." Then Alex fixed her mother with a piercing gaze. "OR, just one or two of us."
Alex shifted her gaze to Miranda. "Mom, you remember Mr. Delahanty, the Vice Principal at my old school? Have you heard what happened to him?"
Miranda nodded. "I heard that he was arrested for something. There's some noise about him being involved in that big jailbreak a few months back."
"Oh, that's the very tip of the iceberg, Mom," I assured her. "The short form is that he set me up as a drug dealer. Hey, I always told you that he was out to get me, but you wouldn't believe me! Anyway, when his cop relatives threw me in the slammer, my mutation sort of fell out of the closet, and it gets very involved after that. Let's fast-forward through a very hectic and stressful year and change, to where Delahanty gets caught helping out that jailbreak, and I cut a deal with the Boston DA. In exchange for my help with keeping a lid on that whole mess, they arranged for me to go to this place where they're studying my mutant powers, and how they work and all like that.
"This morning, after a lot of harping and second tests and more blood tests with sharp needles than I really want to remember, I finally got a good look at the write up that they've been doing on me. Mind you, they didn't SHOW me this write up, or explain anything; I just got a good look at it. I'll spare you the whole argy-bargy, so here's the short version. While I got this wide range of powers that I can use, there are only TWO mutant traits that make the whole shebang work. One's what they call an 'Energizer' trait, which just means that I can do stuff with electromagnetic energy, nothing really big. The other one's the big one, the one that really makes all the weirdness work. It has a big fancy scientific name, but basically, it's a form of Psychic Vampirism. That means that I can use what people use to read other people's minds, and drain them of their life force. I can use that life force to make myself faster and stronger, and do stuff to my face, and like all that.
"Now, here's the interesting thing: I'm the only one there who has this psychic vampirism thing. Well, at least, so far. But, get this- this psychic vampirism thing isn't new. No, it's very old. So old that it's got its own kicky special name: 'The Bloodline Trait'. But get this, Ma: while they spotted it right off the bat, the reason that they kept me coming back for more and more tests was that they were just so jazzed about having a live member of The Bloodline who'd sit still for their tests, like barium milkshakes and shit." And I knew that Mom was rattled; she'd have clipped me a good one upside the head for cussing in front of Em otherwise.
I leaned in, and said, "The reason that they're so interested, is that I'm not really a mutant. But I'm not what you'd call 100% HUMAN, either. No, from what the report I read said 'The Bloodline' is some sort of stable sub-species of Humanity, with several traits that materially distinguish them from the baseline. That last bit's a direct quote from the report. The key distinction being- you guessed it- psychic vampirism. Okay, apparently, I'm a little weird, even by The Bloodline's standards. But here's the important thing: from what I was able to get from that report, The Bloodline Trait is Dominant- Recessive. That means that most of the offspring that parent has with someone who's not of The Bloodline won't have an active trait, unless the other parent has at least a recessive version of the trait."
I gave Mom the 'don't give me any shit' look. "SO. Mom. You don't talk that much about your family, the Kearnys. And all we ever hear from Dad is how snooty they are, and how they won't cut a working Joe like him a break. So... is there something that we don't know about the Kearnys? Like, maybe they're a branch of The Bloodline? And what is WITH that? 'Cause I seriously doubt that we're directly descended from Our Lord and Savior! Obviously, Doug, Larry and Sherry don't have anything to worry about, but what about Mark and Emma? Do they have to worry about growing fangs, and having Dad take shots at THEM?" I dropped my voice ominously. "Or maybe you have something to tell me about who my REAL father is, hmmm?" I finished this with an artful arch of one eyebrow. Which dropped when I saw the effect this had on Mom. "Mom? Mom, what's the matter?"
Mom had her face all scrunched in, like she was having the migraine headache of all time. "The... Bloodline..." she groaned, like she was fighting something. She repeated that a few times, and she looked like she was in real pain there. Then she fell to her knees.
"Mom?" Em and I tried to help her, but then she suddenly snapped out of it and her eyes popped open wide.
"Omigawd..." she gasped. "Why didn't I put it together before?" She looked at me as though she'd just figured something out.
"Sixteen years ago, when I was working at the Greater Atlantic Mercantile Bank," she started in with a big breath.
"You worked at a bank?"
"Yeah, I worked in Financial Analysis and Research-"
"You worked in Financial Analysis and Research?"
"YES! And, NO, I didn't do data entry or fetch coffee; I did Financial Analysis and Research!"
"Why would they have you doing Financial Analysis and Research?"
"Well, I do have an MBA, you know!"
"You have an MBA? Since when?"
"Well, after I left Boston College to marry your father-"
"You went to Boston College?"
"Will you let me TELL this already?" Mom let out a long breath of annoyance. "ANYWAY, I was working in Financial Analysis and Research, and my division head put me on researching a small Greek-" she waved that aside and started again, "a small firm that was far more profitable and had far more offices in more foreign countries than it reasonably should. It was one of those strange companies where the distinctions between International Banking and Organized Crime get very blurry. The Investments Division was very keen to know if this firm had any connections to something called 'The Bloodline'." Mom went a little sour, "I thought that they wanted proof as to avoid getting entangled with anything illicit, but what they really wanted was a way of putting the screws to them."
She waved that aside, "Anyway, we were well on our way to nailing down the particulars, in a way that suggested that the Brass was looking at having evidence they could hand to the SEC, as a club that they could use in their negotiations. And then, along comes Adrian Darcy."
"And WHO is Adrian Darcy?"
"THAT is an excellent question, Alex. I'm not sure; what I do know is that he was the wittiest, most charming, most desirable man to come my way in a LONG time. He swept me off my feet, dazzled me and bedded me. And then, after a couple of weeks of this, he upped and disappeared on me. And about a week after that, my investigation of that firm fell completely apart in the middle of those negotiations. The Brass needed someone to take the blame, so I lost my job. Your fa- er, Dennis' career with the Union was taking off right about then, and the family was making noises that I should be spending more time with the children and... well, right about then, I started having morning sickness..." she gave me a rueful significant look. "And by the time that YOU were on solids, I'd been out of the game so long, that that was pretty much IT for my career."
"Well, don't feel too bad about it, Mom," I tried to console her. "If my father's abilities are anything like mine, he probably put a mind whammy on you; Mother Theresa wouldn't have been able to resist him!"
Mom let out a sharp laugh. "HA! Mind powers? You think he hypnotized me into that? Hah! Alex, your father was a total FOX! Handsome, with a body made for sin and a smile that would melt the panties off a statue of the Virgin Mary! He was handsome, charming, witty, intelligent, well-read, interesting, and best of all, he understood that there's more to foreplay than, *belch!* 'Well, I'm ready!' And the sex? Alex, it's been 15 YEARS and three kids later, and the very thought of it still brings a smile to my face!"
"Maawwmm!" Emma gleeped, scandalized. There are things that a good little nine-year-old Catholic girl does NOT want to hear from her mother!
Then the door to the room slammed in. "That's enough of that," Dad- or at least Dennis O'Brien- snarled as he pointed a shotgun right at me, never mind that Emma was still sitting right next to me.
"Dennis!" Mom gasped, "What do you think-"
"Shut yer filthy mouth, ya miserable WHORE!" O'Brien roared. In case you haven't heard of it, the Irish are notorious for falling into that trap of dividing women up into 'Saints' and 'Whores'; and any woman with a sex drive is a whore by those standards.
O'Brien chivvied us out into the hallway, where Doug, Larry, Sherry, Mark and Aunt Doris were standing there, gawping at me like I was some sort of exotic animal that had crawled in. Yes, Aunt Doris lived with us; we were that sort of Irish family. The hallway was full of Celtic bickering: Mom yelling at O'Brien for holding a shotgun on us, Aunt Doris yapping at Mom for disgracing the family, Doug demanding what I was doing wearing a dress, Mark wanting to know what was going on, Sherry shrieking at me for being a freak and coming back and embarrassing her. Oddly, it was rather homey.
O'Brien roared for all of them to be quiet. "Doug! Go get Joe Kerrigan and ask him if we can use that back room of his. Larry, go get Sam Fahey and borrow a car battery."
"What for, Dad?"
O'Brien grinned at me evilly and said, "'Cause that freak has a date with some jumper cables. We're gonna find out ALL ABOUT those people what been hidin' him out, and studyin' those power's a'hers."
"What?" Mom yelped, "You can't-" O'Brien silenced her with an expert back of his hand. Doug and Larry looked at each other uncertainly. On one hand, you don't let people smack your mother around. On the other hand, they were raised to respect and honor their father. This was a very awkward moment for them, and I'll give my bro-er, half-brothers a break and allow that they might have done something about it, if not for that shotgun.
"Bad move, O'Brien," I said evenly.
"Yeah?" O'Brien sneered, "What you gonna DO about it, Freak?"
"This." I reached into my purse and pulled out a cell phone.
"WHAT? Yer gonna call the COPS?"
"No." I flashed the 'neuralizer' at him for the priming exposure.
"What was that?"
"Oh, I just wanted a picture of your face when you realized that you hadn't taken the safety off on that shotgun."
He was a tad suggestible from that 'Neuralizer' flash, so O'Brien reacted, and I took advantage of that to drop my Vamp-darkness over the area. But I didn't rush in to take the shotgun from him. Predictably, O'Brien's first reaction was to pull the trigger, so I did a vaulting leap over his head and came at him from behind. I shoved O'Brien down to the floor and got the shotgun away from him that way.
Now, O'Brien was an old-school street brawler back in the day. Doug is six-four, weighs 210 pounds, and played fullback in high school. Larry is six-two, just under 200 pounds, and boxed Golden Gloves. He even held his own with Nate 'the Storm' James, losing in a decision. And I'm five-five, and maybe 100 pounds drippin' wet.
They never had a chance. They were fighting in my darkness, which doesn't slow me down in the least, and they were tripping all over Aunt Doris, Sherry and Mark. I've kicked the asses of professional leg-breakers under worse conditions. Mom, easily having the best brains in the family, did the smart thing and grabbed Emma right off and hunkered down in a corner, protecting Em with her body. First, I drained Doug, the biggest and toughest of the three, weakening him to the point where he'd have had to work up a sweat to open a beer. After that, my biggest worries were keeping Sherry from running downstairs and going for the neighbors, and getting Aunt Doris' cell phone away from her.
At the end of it, I'd drained Doug and Larry, Sherry was trying to get back the wind that I'd knocked out of her, and Mom had Mark in a headlock to keep him out of trouble. If anything, I had the most problems with Aunt Doris, who despite being a good church-going woman who loudly deplores violence, is one HELL of a scrapper. When I dropped the darkness, I had O'Brien by the throat and bent backwards over the banister. "Alex!" Mom snapped, "Don't kill him!"
"Chill out, Mom," I told her, taking advantage of the break to take a whiff of garlic from my inhaler. "I'm not gonna hurt him. But we can't just act like this never happened. The second that I left, Dennis the Menace here would beat the crap out of you- and from the looks of it, I'd say that he's got some experience in that field. That is if he didn't just kill you, and try to blame me for it. We need ammunition, both of us, something that both of us can hold over his pointy little head." Keeping O'Brien well off balance, I placed the fingers of my other hand on his face, and gave him the old Vamp-razzle (improved and refined!). "Okay, O'Brien, what are you ashamed of? What would you rather gut yourself with a dull hatchet than admit to anyone? C'mon, I know you're a piece of shit, but there must be something that even YOU are ashamed of!"
O'Brien fought it, but I bashed down his defenses. He gave up corruption, kickbacks, bribery, influence peddling, coercion, embezzlement, cronyism, vandalism, selling off Union property without permission, and random violence. But, let's be honest, there was nothing there that didn't fall under the heading of 'Boston Politics As Usual'. If anything, I'm amazed that O'Brien's taking home as little as he is.
Oh. Of course. He has a gambling habit. Naturally.
But there was something that he was hiding, something that he was giving up all of this to avoid saying. THAT'S what I wanted. If I had that, I had O'Brien's balls in a pickle jar.
Finally, he couldn't get around me anymore, and he croaked, "I killed Rick Pierce."
"WHAT?" Mom yelped, like she'd been scalded.
"I... Killed... Rick... Pierce..." O'Brien sobbed. "I saw you two... during the Delta Rho party... making out... and... I went... got Kesey's gun... and shot him after he finished up..."
"WHAT?" Mom roared, getting up with a fine Irish fury that would have had even that Kimba chick Nikki Reilly backing down. But she wasn't yelling at O'Brien. No, she was looking right at Aunt Doris, who was looking back at her with just as much venom.
"Who's Rick Pierce?" Mark asked, confused (and for once, I was with the shrimp!)
"Richard Howe Pierce was a medical student I dated at Boston College," Mom ground out through clenched teeth, glaring daggers of pure hate at Aunt Doris. "If that barrel of sour beer over there hadn't shot him, all you kids would be vastly different people named Pierce. You LIED to me... all these years, you've been LYING to me!" she hissed at Aunt Doris.
Aunt Doris snapped back that she had, and she was right to, as it served Mom right for snooting her all those years. Mom jumped Aunt Doris, and this time, I had to pull her back from a killing rage.
I almost didn't manage.
I'll spare you all the pure undiluted Gaelic malice. The Reader's Digest version of it all is that apparently Mom and Aunt Doris had been rivals, all through high school and into college. Don't ask me how; Mom went to a prep school and Aun- er, Doris went to a Catholic school, but somehow they pulled it off. And apparently O'Brien had had the hots for Mom all through the same period. First sign of anything resembling taste that I've ever seen out of the old rip.
Anyway, this goes on all the way into college, where somehow Doris manages to finagle her going to Boston Community College into hanging out at Boston College. SO not the same thing; Boston College is Ivy, BCC is weed. Somewhere in her Sophomore year, Mom hooked up with this Pre-Med student at Raft named Richard Howe Pierce who was apparently the male version of Mom, an 'all that' guy with the added attraction that he was on the Doctor Track. Mom and Doris were in heavy competition for him, with Mom a full lap ahead of Doris in terms of looks, breeding, personality, charm, talent, intelligence, style and good nature; from what Mom says, Doris had an advantage in being willing to do anyone, anytime, anywhere. (Yet another image that I'll never be able to get out of my head!) Doris says that Mom stole this Rick guy away from her; Mom says that Doris was trying to take him away from her just because Rick and she were in love, and it never occurs to either of them that this Rick guy might have been playing both of them. Med Students do have a reputation for that.
So far, so College Romance Novel. Then there's this party at one of the frats in Boston. Doris sleazes invites for herself and Dennis and a bud. I don't know how, I don't WANT to know how. At the party, Dennis stumbles across Rick and Mom doing whatever it was that college students did, back in the Reagan Era. Again, I don't know, I don't WANT to know. Dennis goes totally postal (I assume that heroic amounts of alcohol were involved), goes and gets the buddy's gun, and the gun went off, as guns are wont to do.
Mom apparently is unconscious at this point. I will give Mom the benefit of a doubt, and assume that, as I said, massive amounts of alcohol were involved. Thing is, when Mom comes to and finds Rick D-E-A-D dead, for some reason she jumps to the conclusion that SHE killed him somehow. Doris, who was there to do damage control, jumps on this with both hands and rides it with spurs.
Going on fast forward, basically Doris convinces Mom that she DID kill Rick, and that she (Doris) and Dennis were going to make it all better. For considerations. From there, the details get cloudy (for which blessings, we are duly thankful, Lord). Dennis strong-arms Mom into marrying him and using her family's pull to get him a position with the Union. Doris got her payoff with some scholarship or another, which she blew by being a sucky student, and then she moved in with Dennis and Mom, getting free Room and Board for the next 25 years. And Doris, Dennis and the rest of the O'Briens have been gleefully dragging Mom down to their level ever since.
By this time, Mom and Doris were screeching at each other at the top of their lungs. It took all my strength to keep them from tearing each other apart. Doris said that Mom and her snooty family looked down on the O'Briens as Muckers ('Mucker' being the Boston Irish version of 'the N word' or 'Redneck') Mom screamed back that the O'Briens were everything in the Irish that the Kearnys had been trying to get away from for over a hundred years. Well, they DO both sort of have points there. But Doris had a trump card up her sleeve. "HAH! So what? So, after TWENTY-FIVE YEARS, little miss 'Oh, I'm so fucking SMART' finally has it spelled out for her. So yer fuckin' mutie bastard squeezed it out of Denny? So What? It's your word against ours. So, nancy-boy got it out of Denny with its freak powers? Big Deal! Who's gonna take the word of a gender-bending mutant supervillain over two pillars of the community like Denny and me? NOBODY! And even so, where're you gonna go? Yer daddy is DEAD, and the rest of those snooty Kearnys haven't spoken to you in YEARS! Where are you gonna GO?" she finished with an evil grin.
"She's right, Mom," I said sadly. Then I gave Doris an evil grin of my own, with more fangs. "Fortunately, I have a solution for that." I strode over to where O'Brien was struggling to get to his feet. "Okay, Round-boy, we both know the drill. I'm going in, and you're only making it harder on yourself by giving me guff. You're going to tell me where I can find evidence, PROOF that you killed Richard Pierce. Now say 'Ahhh."
Get this? The doofus still had the gun he used to shoot Pierce, after all these years, in the lockbox in the Rents' bedroom closet!
Mom held up the pistol in a plastic baggie with a beautiful smile of victory. Free at last!
"That don't mean anything!" Doris snarled. "That don't prove that Denny killed Rick!"
"It doesn't have to," I said with all-too due smugness. "All it has to prove is that the bullet that killed Pierce came from a gun that was registered to someone who had NO CONNECTION to Mom at the time of the shooting. She had no motive or access to the weapon. The fact that Da-er, Denny had motive and opportunity, and access to the weapon completely removes Mom from the list of suspects. And I just happen to know someone in the Boston DA's office who'd appreciate a slam-dunk conviction being dropped in her l- ooohh... my gaaawwddd..." I gasped as a few stray pieces fell into place.
"Hah! I knew it!" Doris jeered, "It won't hold water, will it?"
"Doris? There's something that I've wanted to say to you for years..."
"SHUT THE FUCK UP, BITCH!" I gave Doris a smack that knocked her back a good four feet into a wall and left a skank-shaped crack in the plaster.
"Mark! Emma!" I snapped, "Pack some clothes! If there's something that you absolutely gotta have, take it! We're getting out of here NOW!"
"What?" Mom gasped, "What are you going on about, Alex?"
"Things just clicked for a question that's been nagging at me for a couple of months now: Why didn't the Boston DA call you in after I turned myself in?" I spelled out my contentious relationship with Darrow. "So, after I turned myself in, since I am a minor, SOP should have been to contact my parent."
"But... nobody called us," Mom said, not getting my point.
"Yes, they did- they contacted HIM." I pointed at O'Brien. "And he no doubt totally disowned me. Mom, the Cops contacted him and had him come to the morgue to identify my body- long story, very involved, I'll tell you later- the point being, Boston PD knows that I'm connected to the O'Brien family. And given Boston's Finest's long tradition of honesty, incorruptibility and integrity, I'd say that the odds that Darrow knows all about all of you hover at I'd say, oh, roughly... 100%.
"I've been wondering why Darrow didn't try to get at me before. Now I know why: he doesn't need to. He's got YOU, and when he's good and ready, he'll take the lot of you and use you to get at me, one way or another. So, pack some bags, grab whatever you think you can't live without, and let's GO! I know a place where you can hide for a while."
"NO!" O'Brien hollered, struggling to get up from the floor, "Yer not takin' MY children ANYWHERE!"
"YOUR children?" Mom snarled, her Irish up again. "What makes you think that they're YOUR children, eh? WHY d'you think it took Two Years for me to get pregnant, hah? You're not just boring in the bedroom, Dennis, you're completely useless! I've been playing you for a fool from the very beginning! You think that Alex is the only bastard that I've foisted off on you? HAH! You HAVE no children! Even Doug, the big bullock son that you think looks so much like you? Hasn't it ever occurred to you that he looks a LOT like Fred O'Keefe? What, you didn't think that Fred hung out around here because he likes YOU, now did you?"
Mom was enjoying that a bit too much, so I hurried it along. "Okay, fun's fun, but we gotta get going." I gave O'Brien the second flash; when he comes to, he's going to be GOD'S own confused!
"Wait a minute!" Sherry yelled, "I'm not going anywhere with YOU, you freak!"
"So who asked you?" I shot back. "Sherry, you're 17, you're almost an adult, and let's be honest, we've never really liked each other. And this whole ugly scene is YOUR fault. You were the one who eavesdropped on us, and ratted us out to O'Brien over there! Don't bother denying it! Mark knows better'n to go eavesdropping on Em and Mom, and everyone else in this house has footsteps like elephants! You can take care of yourself!"
"What am I supposed to do?" she wailed, doing a 180.
"I'll give you one word: RUN!"
"Okay, Two words: run FAST."
"Where'm I supposed to go, where some freaking mutant necromancer won't find me?" she demanded.
"Look, Sherry, it's not that bad. Darrow doesn't really want YOU, he wants ME. If you head west, say to the O'Briens in Chicago or Los Angeles, and take a few common sense precautions, Darrow probably won't bother looking for you. But if you stick around here, where he knows where you are, and he's probably paid one of Da- O'Brien's goon buddies to keep a watch on you, then he'd be stupid to not to just reach out and take you."
By this time Mark and Emma, who had taken advantage of all that to pack, were ready. I helped Mom throw together a few bags, and I carried everything out back to the SUV. As I paused to wonder whether or not to torch the house, as to destroy anything that Darrow might use to track Mom and the kids, Doris cornered me and demanded, "What about ME? What if this Necromancer asshole grabs ME?"
"I hope he does. I could USE a good laugh."
I scootched down in the well of the shotgun seat, out of sight as Mom drove the SUV out of the yard and out of the neighborhood. "Head north to Marblehead," I told her.
"Won't the Police be after us?"
"I'm a lot more worried about whoever the Necromancer sent to keep tabs on you."
"But with all the screaming and smashing and carrying on? What will the Police think?"
"In this neighborhood? That it's mighty quiet for a Friday."
"Alex?" Mark finally piped up, "Why are you wearing that dress?"
But Em trumped that awkward question when, clutching her ragdoll to her, eyes wide, she piped up and asked, "Momma? Who's my... real daddy?"
Mom vapor locked on that one, so I fielded the ball for her. "Em, Mom was just mad at Dad for playing her like that. Mark, to answer your question, I'm wearing this dress 'cause besides being a mutant and an albino, I'm what's called a hermaphrodite. That means I'm both boy and girl at the same time. So, I understand things about both sides. And I'm telling you, as just such an expert, that when a Man gets mad, really blood-in-the-eyes angry, he tells the truth, no matter how much it hurts him to tell it. That's why Cops are always pushing people's buttons, so's they'll trip up and tell the Cops what they really want to hear. BUT, when a Woman gets good and boilin' mad, she'll say anything, anything at all, as long as it's hurtful. Facts, proportion, sequence, common sense, none of 'em matter; what's important is that it'll HURT and good!" I added primly, "That's why Men have such a hard time taking Feminists seriously."
As Mark and Emma wrapped their heads around that notion, Mom shot me a look of mixed relief, gratitude and exasperation. And I wondered how much of what I'd just said (and how much of what Mom had said to O'Brien) was bullshit. Still, there are things that a 9-year-old, or a 12-year-old (or a 15-year-old for that matter) shouldn't have to wonder about his or her mother.
Once we were out of Charlestown, I crawled out of the footwell and pulled out my cell phone. I speed-dialed Whateley's Emergency number. After slogging through the answering machine tree to get an actual living person I told them, "This is Student File Name: Vamp. V-A-M-P. I have a situation. My family has been exposed, and is in clear but not immediate danger. I understand that the school has a family 'Protection' program? Good. Three people, one adult, my mother, Miranda O'Brien, and two juveniles, ages 12 and 9. We're traveling north from Boston in a white Dodge SUV, license plate number #######. No, I won't be returning with them. I have commitments to keep. Okay, I'll pass that along." I turned to Mom. "They say to keep traveling north until you hit the Maine border. Then call this number," I wrote it out for her, "they'll be expecting you. They'll give you directions from there. But I warn you, it gets pretty Spy Movie from there. Stay on your guard, I can't be sure exactly what will happen."
"Alex," Mom reached over, touched my arm, and gave me the big mother eyes. "You won't be coming with us?"
"Sorry Mom, but in order to get here, I had to cut a deal. And I pride myself on keeping to my deals. And unfortunately, in order to squeeze out from under Darrow's thumb, I had to play it way too foxy for my own liking; my credibility is pretty shot. And the situation that I'm in requires that I beef up my credibility a lot. And, even if all that wasn't so, the girl that I cut the deal with is NOT someone that you flake out on. Ever." Thinking of Jadis, and remembering that business with the gas canister, I recited, "The woods are lovely, dark and deep-"
"But I have promises to keep," Mom continued for me, getting my point.
"And miles to go, before I sleep." She pulled over and stopped to let me out, stopping me only long enough for a last maternal hug and kiss.
As the SUV disappeared down the street toward Marblehead, I felt this odd feeling, as though a great weight was not so much lifted, as shifted, changed but without giving me real freedom. On one hand, I'd just beaten my father, destroyed the links to my past, and left my childhood behind me forever.
On the other hand, I'd just beaten my father, destroyed the links to my past, and left my childhood behind me forever.
"And miles to go, before I sleep," I finished, as I turned to head south to New York to take care of unfinished business.
Friendly tip: You CAN use the Shadows to travel great distances, say with Nightgaunt's power gems or Nacht's innate power. But I wouldn't recommend it. It is freaking COLD! I had to take five pit stops to warm up along the way, and I'm a LOT more resistant to cold than the average guy! And navigating is a real bear. It's not like they have GPS for this, y'know!
Vamp cut it mighty thin, and called at 5:40 to let us know that 'she'd found her lost piece of luggage' and was catching a cab. At 6:15, she showed up at my doorstep full of apologies for being late. She greeted Mrs. Pierson with a grace that suggested that, no matter what Trevor says, she has a nodding acquaintance with good manners. Which is a lot better than some of the nouveau riche snobettes that I've had to deal with. She breezed into the sitting room where the Drows were seated, warily waiting on Jobe's tetchy humor. "Oh, the other babysitter has arrived," Jobe snarled.
"Ah, pre-wedding jitters," Alex breezed confidently. "Fortunately, on my way over, I had the most scathingly brilliant idea!"
"I already thought about a pre-emptive strike on the Imperial palace," Jobe griped, "but somebody won't let me near fissionable materials!" she added in my direction.
"Now, now, Jobe," Vamp said as she sat, removed her wig and let her hair down with a shake, "what you need is something to take your mind off the betrothal ceremony, a bit of hobby work."
"Oh? What? Macrame?"
"Actually, I was thinking about the Karedonian Imperial Wedding Jewels," Vamp shot back with a smirk.
"What Karedonian Imperial Wedding Jewels?" Jobe bleated. "Karedonia doesn't have ANY crown jewels."
"Precisely," Vamp purred as she sat back and gave Jobe a big grin. "I think that that's a tragic shortcoming that needs to be fixed immediately, if not sooner."
"WHY would I want to spend a small fortune on a bunch of sparkly rocks that I'll only wear once?"
"Who says that YOU are going to spend it, hmmm?" Vamp gave Jobe a puckish smile. "And if it's a small fortune, then you definitely need to think bigger! After all, since it's going to be a Karedonian imperial treasure, it only stands to reason that the Karedonian Imperial Treasury will pick up the bill."
"Humph," Jobe grumped. "A bunch of fuss over a bunch of inanimate hunks of polished crystalline carbon and aluminum oxide."
"Jobe, you're the heir to a Monarchy! If you don't have a set of crown jewels that will knock everyone's eyes out, the other Royals won't have any respect for you."
"Yeah, Boss!" Freight Train put in, "We don't want the other Royals looking down their noses at us!"
"At US?" Jobe arched an imperious eyebrow.
Freight Train faltered for a moment, but recovered nicely. "If they're looking down their noses at YOU, then they're looking down their noses at the rest of US." Bova and Belphy nodded in prim agreement.
"Besides Jobe," Belphy kicked in, "haven't you always wanted to wear a tiara?"
"NO," Jobe grumped, visibly retreating into her 'this is only temporary, I'm on the verge of a cure' denial fantasy.
"Besides," Vamp cut in, "Jobe's a Crown Princess... after a fashion... she wouldn't wear a tiara," she put a sneer into the word, "she'd wear a coronet!"
"What's the diff?" Freight Train asked dully.
"A tiara is a semi-circlet, that is, it doesn't go all the way around," Belphy answered Freight Train's rhetorical question. "A coronet goes all the way around." We all gave her the 'what are you talking about?' glare. "What? I'm British, we care about these things! Anyway, coronets go all the way around, and have a number of major jewels, the exact number dependent on your rank; a tiara can only have minor jewels. A coronet does not have arches or a central ornament, which only a Crown has, which is by definition reserved for a Sovereign Monarch. Coronets are reserved for Princes and Greater Nobility, while Tiaras can be worn by lesser nobles, ladies, honorees, beauty pageant winners, and like that. If you're going to get a coronet, Jobe, make sure that you get at least eight major jewels in it."
"And WHY should I get a tiara OR a coronet, either of them?" Jobe sighed.
"For the beauty!" Bova insisted.
"For the status!" Belphy said.
"For the style!" Freight Train urged.
"For the millions of dollars that you can HOCK the stupid things for, if you ever have to cut and run," Vamp said with an evil grin over steepled fingers. THAT stopped Jobe dead in the tracks of her sulk. "After all, that's what Crown Jewels are really FOR, now aren't they? In both History and far too many stories, kings and queens are always using their crown jewelry as collateral for a loan. And the bankers give them decent rates, because they're crown jewels; the king HAS to make good on the loan, or lose all sorts of face. And for a monarch, even a new monarch, one who gained his crown by his own hand, losing face is even worse than dying."
"The Imperial Parental Unit will be pissed," Jobe muttered, half to herself.
Vamp grinned widely, fangs showing. "And this will be a problem HOW?" As that registered with Jobe, Alex continued, "Of course, even with the higher price that you'd get for the value of their being *ahem!* 'crown jewels', you could only reasonably ask for less than a Mil for the coronet, even if you got the eight major jewels, with a field of lesser gems on the band. But then, who says that it's just the coronet? There's earrings, necklaces, brooches, bracelets, rings... and that's just the parure that you could have knocked out in a week for the betrothal ceremony! There's the official Wedding parure, which would, naturally, have to be different from the betrothal parure."
"Well, of course!" Belphy gushed, eyes glittering.
"Much larger, much gaudier," Bova purred with a smirk.
"And of course, there would also have to be a Coronation crown, for when you- or whoever- finally does succeed to the Imperial Throne," Vamp went on smugly. "With all the attendant regalia: medallions, collars, chains of office, orbs, scepters, ritual swords, rings, and all like that. Oh, and a Consort parure for the Coronation, full set, of course."
"Well, of course!" Belphy agreed, "You can't wear the betrothal or Wedding parure to the Coronation! That would be tacky!"
"And of course, there would have to be a similar coronet and parure for the Princess Presumptive," Vamp added, causing Belphy to give a delighted squeal at the thought of swag for her as well. "Again, there would be the set for the Betrothal, and other sets for the Wedding, the Coronation, oh, and there would also have to be sets for more routine Imperial Formal occasions..." Belphy giggled with greed. "Oh, and sets for the Emperor and Empress Consort of course," Vamp went on.
"Well of course," I breezed. "It'll be easier to get Emperor Stingypants to agree to this if your mother is on our side, and she'll BE on our side if there's some bling in it for her as well."
Vamp got up and wafted over to Bova and Freight Train's side, "And of course, you can't have your Ladies-in-Waiting disgracing you at the Betrothal by being at your side with bare heads and necks, now can you?" Bova and Freight Train perked up significantly at the prospect of getting in on the jewelry heist that Vamp was planning. "Not coronets or the major accessories, but tiaras, bracelets, earrings and so on. Enough to keep up appearances."
Freight Train wasn't happy at the thought of not getting in on the heavy quarrying at the diamond mine, but Vamp bulldozed over her objections and wafted over to where I was sitting, "And, of course, while you're at the jewelers, it would be gracious to remember those who have performed meritorious services to the Crown," She smiled broadly at Jobe and draped a comradely arm over my shoulder.
"What meritorious services to the Crown?" Jobe sniped.
"What do you think THIS is?" Vamp replied through her Donna Reed smile.
"And GizDad is really supposed to fork over that kind of money, just for a pile of glitter-crack that will only be used once or twice - if that - in his lifetime?" Jobe sneered.
"So?" Vamp breezed, not breaking that toothpaste ad smile, "You've never heard the saying, 'It's easier to get forgiveness than permission'? What we do, is we go to Tiffany's, then Cartier's, and then Faberge, and set up a competition as to who'll get the contract to design and create the crown jewels. Then somehow the Press gets wind that Gizmatic has allocated a budget of 15 million dollars for the Crown Jewels. Supervillain, Crown Jewels, 15 Million dollars, gorgeous princesses; the Press will be all over it like ants on a dropped lollipop. But there's a certain cachet to spending that kind of mazooma on a status symbol, so Emperor Gizmatic won't be getting totally reamed. AND, even more than the mining or the black mask stuff, Karedonia's main source of income is International Banking and the casinos. GizDad can't afford to be seen as reneging on a promise- or, worse, that he can't afford the costs of the Crown Jewels. The very worst that he could do is call off the Betrothal ceremony, making some sort of excuse."
Jobe's eyes popped open at the notion. "Vamp? I LIKE the way you think..."
Well, Jobe was on board, and the Drow got down to doing what the Drow do best: bicker. Belphy wanted the same number of major gems on her coronet as Jobe, Freight Train wanted to know why Belphy got a coronet instead of just a tiara, and Bova, who has a sneaky habit of quietly getting her own way, was angling for a few concessions on the accessories. Jobe was holding out for a spider theme, which the rest thought a poor idea. With that keeping them busy, I hauled Vamp out of the room, and well out of pointy-earshot.
"Really, Alex, I'm disappointed in you," I said, giving her the hairy eyeball. "You're supposed to be helping keep Jobe in line, not helping yourself to some free bling."
"What? That?" Vamp said with a dismissive laugh. "You honestly expect that plan to work?"
"You don't expect it to work?" I gave her the arched eyebrow of challenge.
"It'll work, but only in the sense that it'll give Jobe something to do besides fuss about this betrothal nonsense, and keep her out of the lab," Vamp said matter-of-factly. "Look, Tiffany's is an expert in dealing with high society flakes who have big ideas about fancy jewelry and no clue how the stuff is actually made. They'll string Jobe along, let her play with the catalogues and stuff, and eventually sell her some over-the-counter bit of glitter to get her out of their hair. The first thing that they'll do is contact the Karedonian ambassador- by the way, who IS the Karedonian ambassador?"
"Jobe's Uncle Ralph."
"Oh. Perfect! Odds are that Uncle Ralph will tell Tiffany's that there's no way that he's okaying 15 Mil for some crown jewelry, but he'll spring for one or two bits of this or that, to keep Jobe quiet. Jadis, both of my sisters had their weddings all planned out by the time that they were Seven, and Bova and Freight Train are already in full giddy bridesmaids mode. They'll keep Jobe busy with all kinds of ridiculous ideas about jewelry design, both of them making noises that it's for Jobe, but looking to get anything they can for themselves."
I gave Vamp a 'yeah, THEY'RE looking for anything they can get' smirk. Vamp just shrugged it off. "They'll keep Jobe busy, and Belphy is already getting in on the act. Right now, Jobe's looking to piss off Emperor Daddy and build herself a diamond-encrusted golden parachute. But when her vanity about her appearance-"
"Which, sadly, the lack of which was one of the few things keeping Jobe's intellectual vanity in check," I cut in.
Vamp nodded, acknowledging the point. "But this time, it works for us. When Jobe's feminine vanity kicks in, and it already is- though, sadly, it's not bringing any taste in with it- Jobe's going to want a full set of jewels for herself, and not to resell. Jadis, she'll be so taken with the sparklies that she'll stop thinking about the fact that she's been promised to a guy who she doesn't even know who he IS yet."
Okay, she had a point there. But weasels usually do, when it suits them. "Okay Alex, it's a tactic. But there's a rather glaring, though hopefully not fatal flaw in your plan."
"Alex, your plan is quite rational and reasonable. But we're talking about the Wilkins family here. And unfortunately, as I've learned from painful personal experience, the Wilkinses are seldom rational and only reasonable under extreme duress. For instance, what if somehow Jobe manages to weasel some sort of uninformed okay out of her uncle?"
Vamp paused and thought for a moment, "Weeelll... in that case, just remember that I'm quite partial to rubies?" she batted her bright red eyes at me for effect. I gave her a 'not funny' growl. "Jadis, what's the reward for a job well done?"
I paused and mulled that one over for a moment. "Another job," I grumped.
"Exactly," Vamp said smugly. "And, as I recall, you're not that hot on the idea of Gizmatic thinking that you work for him."
"So, you're saying play the 'if you break enough dishes, they won't ask you to wash' gambit?"
"Look, Jadis, the odds are that all of this will die in committee, and even if it doesn't, there's no way that Tiffany's is gonna have anything done by the time you have to leave for Karedonia. So, if it does get to that point, which I severely doubt, you can lay the blame on me, as it's my idea."
As Vamp beamed confidently into my face, I just said, "You REALLY haven't spent that much time around Wilkinses, have you?"
The Silent Stalker in Shadows peered intently from his darkling perch at the objective across the street. The inmates of She-Beast's opulent Lair of Evil refused to settle down. Their activity suggested that, indeed, Jadis Diabolik, the daughter of the infamous Dr. Diabolik, was hatching some nefarious plot that might endanger the peace-loving citizens of New York, maybe America, possibly the entire WORLD! The Master of Dark Shadows had to investigate, lest precious time be lost, that might be crucial in preventing whatever depraved scheme the She-Beast was preparing!
Besides, he'd promised his Aunt Gail that he'd be in by 9, when she let him stay with her in New York over the Spring Break.
Sensing that Time was of the essence, the mighty Nightlord roused from his nest, gathered his cloak around him and made to leap across the street to the roof of the townhouse opposite. He focused, back-stepped as far as his perch would allow him to, and dashed headlong into the night! With a mighty bound, he covered the distance between the two rooftops!
Or, he almost covered the distance.
The distance between the two rooftops was 30 feet, and his best distance in the broad jump was 26 feet. An Olympian feat, but still, a good four feet shy of the mark. But the Dark Night Dilettante was prepared! Fighting his way through his panic, he used his psychokinesis to latch onto a nearby lamp-post, using his cloak as a foundation.
Fortunately, he didn't break his neck when the cape snapped taut around it as he fell, and he managed to pull himself up before he throttled to death.
From the lamppost the Cloaked Crusader leapt to the third story ledge of Diabolik's urban stronghold! Wrapping his cloak of shadows around him, Nightlord squeezed threadlike fingers of darkness into the cracks. He used the tendrils of PK force to feel the cracks and crevices, finding the circuitry and bars and catches, and working them until-
-there was a click and six slender rods shot out of the side of the building. They swiveled so that a notch in each of the rods faced Nightlord and sprayed him with a liquid. When the liquid reacted with the bioelectric field of his body, it reacted by bonding with the ambient nitrogen, bubbling up to over 16 times its original volume and becoming thick and sticky. Nightlord struggled against the foam, but only succeeded in dislodging himself from the ledge and falling three stories to the ground. The foam broke his fall (as it was designed to), and enough of the bubbles were burst in the process that Nightlord was able to stagger off into the night. Well, at least nobody had seen the embarrassing incident.
Ybanez replayed the scene for SAIC Crawford. "So, should we try to ID the kid?"
"Naw," Crawford said with a gusty sigh of dismissal. "Our brief is to watch that house in case Dr. Diabolik slips up somehow. And Breaking and Entering is a local beef, so we have no jurisdiction. Besides, after that, he probably feels so foolish that calling him on it would only make things worse. If he has any common sense, he won't show up here again."
"Ah, Boss? He's a 16 or 17 year-old-kid who tried to break into Dr. Diabolik's house. I don't think that common sense is an issue here."