Saturday, September 24, 2016 - early morning
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy
A harsh buzzing sound emanating from a clock-radio on a desk bored into Laura's ear, as if trying its best to cause sufficient irritation or discomfort as to prod her into action of some sort, most likely eliminating the annoying and offensive noise. However, Laura Samuels had always been something of a heavy sleeper, and the first one to respond to her alarm was her roommate cocooned under a pile of blankets on her own bed on the opposite side of the room.
"Laura!" Bailey groaned from somewhere inside her blanket pile. "Laura!!"
Some undecipherable sounds emerged from Laura's bed. "Huh??" was perhaps the closest interpretation of the uttered monosyllabic grunts.
"Wake up!" Bailey growled. "Turn off your alarm!"
"Uh huh," was the reply, but the lump beneath the coverings on Laura's bed remained immobile.
With a long-suffering sigh, Bailey wiggled from her encasing wraps, pausing to shiver a moment at the cool room and reminding herself for the fifth time that week that she simply had to set the thermostat higher before crawling in bed. Archiving that thought into her as-yet-not-active short-term memory, she crossed to Laura's bed and rudely yanked the covers off the blue girl.
Once more, Bailey found herself looking at Laura with mixed emotions. Laura was a sweetheart of a roommate, always considerate of Bailey. She was also almost always so damned happy. And cute, if you got past the pale blue skin and royal blue hair. Laura slept in a teddy that seemed to only be making a feeble effort to be opaque, and she had a delightful young teen figure. For a moment, Bailey considered whether she felt jealous or attracted, but she ruled them both out, settling instead for simple curiosity as the explanation.
"You need to get breakfast. Now."
Laura tried unsuccessfully to grab at the blankets. "I wanna sleep a few more minutes."
"Your alarm has been going off for fifteen minutes! You told me you have to clean Hikaru's room early so you can go for something at the Cody's today, remember?"
The reminder caused Laura's eyes to pop open. " Oh, yeah! I need to get going."
As if a switch had been flipped, Laura transformed from groggy, still-sleepy teen into a racing girl reminiscent of a blue speedster, almost as if she'd had an instantaneous IV infusion of highly-concentrated, high-caffeine devisor coffee. It took her only moments to speed through a shower and her usual morning ablutions, a task made easier by the early hour of a Saturday morning when everyone who could was sleeping late. Back in her room, she pulled on her clothes for the day, and then grabbed a prepackaged granola bar and a backpack she'd pre-filled with what she'd need for the day's babysitting.
"Is that all you're going to get for breakfast?" Bailey scolded.
"I'll be fine!" Laura replied half-heartedly, grabbing a light sweater and dashing for the door. "I'll be back ... whenever!" her last words rang out to her roommate.
Saturday, September 24, 2016 - early morning
Melville Cottage, Whateley Academy
While the laundry ran down in the basement, except for one red and gold silk blouse that Laura had dropped at the dry-cleaning pickup desk, the blue freshman girl straightened up Hikaru's desk as best as she could. To Laura, indeed to much of the M3 team, Hikaru was a walking paradox, both elegant in her formal clothing, while also a bit of a slob in how she dealt with her laundry. Her books were neatly organized by topic, especially the history texts, but the rest of the room looked like a tornado had been the last thing that had tidied the room.
She seemed interested in Laura and her teammates, but in a way that was more like a superior than a peer. In some ways, she was observant of the tiniest of details, but with things that were not of consequence to her, she seemed almost oblivious. Enigma seemed the best word to describe her. How did that line she learned in history go - Hikaru was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma?
Tidying Hikaru's room wasn't a huge chore - a robotic sweeper kept the floors clean, and she didn't have a lot of personal possessions, so Laura had plenty of time to do the laundry and clean before she was expected in The Village to babysit. She was going to organize the desk, but she glanced nervously at the pistol parts that Hikaru had very explicitly told her that under no circumstances was she ever to touch. Still, some parts had a very light coating of gun oil that she knew would stain the desk. For a few minutes, she debated herself - it would be pretty easy to get a paper towel under the parts, but Hikaru would notice and get upset.
Laura decided to talk to Hikaru about it rather than just doing the simple task. Instead, she turned her attention to the rest of the desk; in a corner she put a vertical organizer she'd purchased the night before - with Hikaru's permission and funding. It took a while for her to turn the pile of random papers into something semi-categorized and sorted into the bins; hopefully, the labels Laura put on the bins would make sense to Hikaru and not annoy her.
Laura left the room, returning a few moments with the laundry folded and on hangers. She set the clothes on Hikaru's bed for the moment, then took a fresh set of towels to the bathroom. She couldn't help but cringe at the singed wolf plushy pinned to the wall with a vicious-looking dart. It looked so pathetic and sad, so on a whim, Laura scurried to the bookstore and bought a replacement for the abused plush animal. While not a perfect copy, it looked much cheerier sitting on a shelf than the ragged burned one looked pinned to the wall. Figuring she could try to repair it, she put it in a small backpack she had brought with her. It was filled with a few things she could use to entertain the Cody kids, since she was going straight to a babysitting gig when she finished the cleaning and laundry.
As she hung some outfits in Hikaru's ornate wardrobe, Laura gazed in wonder at a rack near the front, filled with fancy kimonos in all colors and patterns, ranging from simple kimonos that Hikaru called kumon to exquisitely-fancy multi-layered garments like the furisode she'd given to Laura, to extremely elaborate garments that were supposedly old-fashioned court garments for high-ranking and very important people. It looked like there were about six different styles of kimonos that the Japanese girl had; once Laura had ventured a little deeper into the dimensionally-shifted cabinet and found dozens more racks holding possibly hundreds of garments of all colors and types.
With a final glance at the puzzling army uniform hanging on one of the front racks, Laura exited the wardrobe, closing the door behind her. She started when she saw Hikaru looking at the neat and organized desk. Hikaru, too, spun in surprise at the sound. "I'm sorry," Laura apologized quickly. "I was trying to get done before you got back so I wouldn't be in your way."
Hikaru shrugged. "Not a big deal."
"Your pistol parts should be put on a mat or paper towel," Laura continued, which caused Hikaru to look back at the desk. "There's a little oil on them, and it's going to stain the varnish on the desk. And the oil might leach up some chemicals from the varnish, which might gum up things."
"Sensible," Hikaru said, her voice conveying what sounded like approval of the idea.
"Before next time, I can pick up a small mat that will protect the gun and the desk if you'd like." She shrugged. "Whatever you want. I'm pretty much done, so I need to get over to The Village," Laura explained. "Unless there's something else you'd like me to do?"
"No," Hikaru said, not sounding convinced as she glared at the new wolf toy. "Did you ... replace the ... stuffed wolf?" she asked.
Laura gulped; the way Hikaru sounded, she wasn't exactly thrilled about having a new plushy. "Yeah," she admitted. "It ... the one you had looked so ... unhappy!" She produced the ragged dog from her backpack. "If it's sentimental ...." She extended it toward the Japanese girl. "I ... I was going to try to clean it up and fix it," she admitted.
Hikaru looked at the singed plushy, then turned her head to look at the replacement before staring at the burned one again with one eyebrow raised. "Have you been talking to my cousin Kako?"
Laura gawked at her, eyes wide with surprise. "No, I've never talked to or met any of your family. I didn't even know you had a cousin!"
"Go ahead and see if you can fix it," Hikaru answered after a few moments. "Thank you for the replacement." Again, she didn't sound at all convincing.
Laura missed the reticence in Hikaru's voice. "It's nothing. I like to do nice things to make people happy when I can." She put the plushy back in her backpack. "If there's nothing else, I'm going over to The Village for my babysitting job."
"No, nothing else," Hikaru said. "I'd say 'have fun babysitting', but I'm not convinced that's possible."
Laura smiled. "Kids can be a lot of fun. Well, I'll see you later." She practically skipped out the door, leaving Hikaru glaring at the immaculate wolf plushy.
"She'll probably get upset if I use you for target practice, too," she muttered unhappily. "And I don't think I could find a decent excuse for frying your mangy ass!"
Saturday, September 24, 2016 - mid-afternoon
New York City, NY
The man standing in a hidden room staring at a map looked unsettled, like he was anxious or nervous. He stared at the marks on the map while considering his options. "Whateley?" he mumbled over and over, while his eyes darted frenetically about the map before inexorably returning to the mark in the upper New England states. "Whateley?" He shook his head a bit, his eyes continuing their rapid and seemingly random scan across the map. "What ... why ... why does that sound familiar?" No matter how much he thought, the memories wouldn't come; the damned spell - some called it a curse - that kept resurrecting him when he died - stole some memories every time he came back from being dead. The recent mugging and stabbing he'd suffered had likewise taken its toll.
He tried to remember when it had begun, when he'd first realized that for him death wasn't final and his body wasn't aging. Had he made a deal with the devil? He couldn't remember. How many times had he died and clawed his way back to life? At least a dozen times that he remembered. How many he didn't remember remained a mystery. When had it begun? He had no idea. It might have been since the dawn of humanity, or it might have been a few decades ago. He rudely pushed those thoughts aside; he had serious work to do. 'It' was waiting - his destiny, his mission in life. And even that thought was foreign - when had he started this quest? At least four deaths ago. That idea struck him as odd, and he cackled - while others measured lives in years, he measured his in number of deaths.
One thing not known to him was that every time his body had to reanimate itself, the magic also robbed a bit of sanity, but just as a lunatic in an asylum was not self-aware that he was insane, the man wasn't aware of that darker aspect of the spell. Lost in the forgotten memories was an important detail - the spell wasn't a deal with the devil, but was much darker, forbidden magic of the type that men usually avoided at all costs.
His secretary, though, had noticed that he seemed less stable and much more erratic. His demands were far less patient, far angrier, noticeably less tolerant of errors, and he seemed to be changing his mind frequently. While she'd considered him to be eccentric before, now he was quite intimidating. Since he'd been inexplicably absent for a few days, she started to seriously think about whether she wanted to continue working for him, despite generous pay. She was so preoccupied by her thoughts that she didn't hear his door open.
"Call this number," he said, coming out of his office and thrusting a business card at her. "It will probably take quite a while to get through. Tell them 'I have an environmental remediation problem and I need to hire a special janitor'." He disappeared back into his office while muttering about something called Whateley, and the door closed loudly behind him.
About twenty-five minutes later, the phone on his desk rang somewhere under a haphazard pile of papers, gems, and assorted odd things that looked alien and magical. Angrily, he swept everything to one side, then snatched up the phone. "I need to speak with Mr. Oscar G. Rouch if he's not on the can." He waited for the other party to route the call appropriately.
"I need to hire someone to get me inside information." He made it sound more like a demand than a request.
There was a pause while the other person spoke. "A place called Whateley."
Upon hearing the response, his features clouded. "I don't care what it costs!" he snapped.
"From what I hear, you probably have assets there. I need to hire one." The man was getting impatient as he glanced at the map on his wall again, then let his eyes dart around the mess of magical items.
"That's an agreeable fee. Quarterly payment?" He waited for the answer. "In advance?" His eyes narrowed in anger. "When I don't have any results?"
He appeared slightly mollified by the answer he got. "Yes, there might be some special jobs later," he acknowledged gruffly.
From the color rising in his face, he was annoyed by the response. "No, nothing like that."
"Okay, the contract will be for basic surveillance," he grumbled. "If there are extras, I will not provide you exact details. Just a summary."
"Fine. We'll negotiate. But ... if there are a group of tasks, say some financial manipulation ...." He broke off speaking when the other person interrupted, so he had to listen for a few seconds.
"Okay, a fee for a fixed duration will work fine." He looked around his desk frantically, then began to scribble on the first paper he found. "Okay, I've got it."
"Exclusive contract with the operative." Again, it wasn't a request the man made so much as a demand.
"Alright, I guess I can deal with non-exclusive as long as details of my operations are not revealed to anyone else. Reporting general status to you is acceptable," he grudgingly agreed, "as long as he doesn't reveal details of my tasks."
Another pause. "Agreed." He spun his chair to face the computer on his credenza. "Just a sec." He typed frantically, navigating a few sites on the dark web, finally arriving at one that looked like a well-known payment website, where he logged into an account. After more typing, he stabbed the 'enter' key. "You should have the first payment now."
His desire to end the call was emphasized by the way he kept looking at the map. "Okay. Nice doing business." He hung up the phone abruptly, then began to dial a number from the paper. "Hello, is this the satellite office of Space Anti-Matter Waste Disposal Technologies?"
When someone answered, he spoke firmly. "Yes, this is Colonel Mustard's upstairs maid. Is this Puppetmaster?" There was a pause while the person on the other end of the line spoke. "What did the company tell you?" Another pause.
"Yes, it's exclusive. No details to the home office. When I paid, I got your key. Let me confirm it." He began to recite letters and numbers in groups of four until there were nearly two hundred such groups. "You'll get my key in my first message."
Another of the annoying pauses. He was anxious to get back to the magic research he was doing. "No, just basic information to start. Organization, staffing, administration, and security. And detailed information about ..." he spun to the wall and focused on a very detailed topographic map, then traced a spot to his finger. He recited very precise coordinates of the spot his finger rested. "Yes, I know that's Whateley!" he retorted impatiently.
"Also," he added, almost as an afterthought, "any facilities that could be used as a covert base of operations."
He shook his head angrily as if the person on the other end could see. "No, I won't tell you what kind of operation."
"Very well," he answered with a roll of his eyes. "It could take weeks. Long term. I expect your first report within the week." He hung up the phone, then turned back to the map, seemingly already having forgotten about the call.
Saturday, September 24, 2016 - late morning
Cody Apartment, The Village, Whateley Academy
Wyatt Cody was home with his three children and Elaine Cody wasn't, but that didn't strike Laura as unusual; the Codys were both professionals, and both worked at Whateley, so either of them could be home to greet Laura and give her any instructions for the three little trouble-makers. Because of her upbringing, Laura figured it wasn't any of her business what they did, and it would have been impolite to ask. If the Codys wanted or needed her to know something, they'd tell her. Besides, they didn't seem like they had any mysteries or dark secrets, but were very warm and friendly.
"We'll be leaving in a little bit, so the kid's will need lunch. And we'll probably be gone most of the afternoon," Dr. Cody was explaining, "so you might have to get dinner for them, too." He dug in his back pocket as he spoke.
"Oh, that's not necessary," Laura countered as soon as she realized what Dr. Cody was doing. "I can make lunch and dinner."
"Are you sure?"
"It's no problem," Laura reassured him.
"If you're sure. But I'm going to leave you enough to get dinner at The Brown Moose."
Little Steven was running past, and Laura caught his arm. "Not so fast!" she admonished him.
"Laura's going to take us to dinner at the Brown Moose!" he called out to his siblings, ignoring Laura's caution about running so quickly. He twisted free and dashed after his brother and sister. "We're going to the Brown Moose for dinner!"
"Maybe!" Laura yelled down the hall after the excited boy. "If you behave!"
"Kids have selective hearing, you know," Dr. Cody chuckled. His smile faded. "Before you start babysitting, though, you need to run over and talk to Vanessa and Jake." Suddenly, he sounded almost somber, and the look is his eyes bespoke caution.
"Um," Laura was surprised by the sudden change in demeanor, "Okay." Worry wrinkles appeared on her forehead. "Is something wrong?"
"No, but ... just go over. They're expecting you."
Puzzled, Laura nodded and left the Cody apartment. It was only a short walk to the Barton's, and as Dr. Cody had said, they were waiting. She didn't even get to ring the doorbell before the door opened.
"Come in, please," Jake said, warmly clasping her hand. He wasn't wearing his usual Saturday casual clothes; his attire would have been more appropriate for class.
Vanessa Barton, sitting on the sofa, was also nicely dressed. "Have a seat," she invited Laura, gesturing to a wing chair across from the sofa. Confused, Laura sat down, and Jake took a seat on the sofa next to Vanessa. Almost like she was calming her nerves, Vanessa clutched Jake's hand.
"We have something we need to talk with you about," Jake said, his voice ringing with uncertainty.
Laura had a sudden horrible thought. "You're not moving away, are you?" she asked in a near panic.
"Oh, no, no, no!" Vanessa shot back instantly.
"You've been a huge help to us," Jake began to explain. "And, well, we have some news ... that we need to share with you."
"We might be ... I might be ... needing a lot more help from you," Vanessa explained.
"You said you really like taking care of your sister, and you're really good with the Cody kids," Jake continued.
"Yeah, but ...." Laura was thoroughly confused. "I don't ...."
Jake swallowed hard, wincing a bit. "I've told you about ... our old group, the Sioux Falls League."
"Yeah." If anything, Laura's bewilderment only increased. She could see that Vanessa was trembling slightly at the horrible memories that had been dredged up. Laura knew that if Jake was talking about it, there was something very important going on.
"You know what happened to ... John, Dave, and Val, right?"
Laura nodded, not trusting herself to speak lest she say something wrong.
"Well," Jake bit his lip, "we didn't tell you the complete truth about Val." He glanced at Vanessa momentarily. "Her brain was ... wiped ... by that ... thing," he said uneasily. Laura nodded; she'd heard that part of the story. "Because she had been contaminated, they took her to ARC, and since her parents were gone and there was no neural activity, they put her on ice."
"They ... froze her?" Laura gasped. "Like ... deep freeze hibernation?"
"Yes," Vanessa nodded. "After a while, new staff there tried an experimental magical procedure to restart her brain. They couldn't find her records, and they wanted to clear space in the Black Level. It ... it didn't go quite as expected."
Jake nodded. "Because she'd been contaminated by a Class X entity, magic shouldn't have been used. But because the files were damaged in an accident, and new staff didn't know ...."
"Her brain restarted," Vanessa took over the dialog. "But there was a side effect."
"What ... happened to her?" Laura's exposure to magic vis a vis Bianca and Morgana told her that magic and demon stuff did not mix well. The outcome could be horrific.
"As best as they can tell, the magic reset her brain, but it also reset her body some. She demanifested, and regressed to about four years old."
Laura gawked in disbelief. "She's a little girl?"
"She's about five now. As a side effect of the mental 'reboot', she really learned quickly, so she knows as much as a five-year-old or maybe even a bit more, but she's a little behind in her emotional development."
Slowly, the pieces came together in Laura's mind. "So ... you're going to need help ... because ...." Her jaw dropped. "Are you adopting her?" Jake and Vanessa nodded together, which caused Laura to squeal with happiness. She practically vaulted to Vanessa's side to give her a congratulatory hug.
"That's why we're going to need you to help Vanessa some more," Jake continued. "The Codys are going with us today for our final interview with the Department of Children's Services and to finish paperwork, and then tomorrow, she'll be coming home with us."
"We'd like you to go with us when we pick her up," Vanessa added. "And help out the rest of Sunday afternoon if you can."
"So ... I'll be babysitting her some?"
"More than babysitting, I'd say," Jake smiled. He pulled out his phone and quickly pulled up a picture, and then he handed the phone to Laura. "That's what she looks like now."
"Oh, she's so cute!" Laura cooed. For perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes, Laura and Vanessa talked about how Laura could help, as much like a mentor to the little girl, and kind of a part-time sister, while also helping Vanessa.
With a combination of almost giddy anticipation and nervousness, Laura practically skipped back to the Cody apartment. Mrs. Cody greeted her, while Dr. Cody was huddled with the kids – no doubt instructing them on proper behavior with their babysitter.
"You were over at the Barton's?" When Laura nodded, Mrs. Cody smiled. "So, what do you think?"
"I ... I hope I can help Mrs. Barton. If Val is anything like my sister, she's going to be a handful."
Mrs. Cody chuckled. "That's exactly what Ah told Vanessa. But once she makes up her mind, she can be quite stubborn." She fished inside her purse, pulling out some money. "It's a nice day, so why don't you take the kids to the park. If they behave, you can get them ice cream. Wyatt told me he'd said you could take the kids to the Brown Moose if they're good, too, right?"
"Yes," Laura answered simply. "Kids need time to play outside, and today is a perfect day for it."
"You've got our cell phone numbers in case anything comes up." Mrs. Cody turned her head. "Kids, Miss Laura is going to take you to the park. Ah expect her to give me a good report of your behavior while your dad and Ah are gone."
"Yes, ma'am," little Steven said seriously as he stared at Laura with an expression that spoke of his admiration of the babysitter.
Saturday, September 24, 2016 - late morning
New York City, NY
An elegantly-dressed woman strode regally from an elevator in her apartment building as if she owned the world. One step behind her and to the side, another woman walked with an expression of subservience and absolute adoration of the woman in front of her. As they approached an apartment door, the trailing woman darted ahead and unlocked and opened the door for her mistress.
If anything, the apartment was an expression of opulence taken to the extreme; one large stuffed chair sat alone like a royal throne, and all of the furniture looked to be expensive antiques. Paintings in gilded frames hung here and there, adding to the feeling of a palace rather than a penthouse apartment.
The servant woman took her mistress' purse and coat, then after putting them away, unashamedly stripped off her clothes and put on leather fetish clothing, including a collar around her neck. Meanwhile, two other similarly clad women scurried up to the mistress, welcoming her home by hugging her seductively and kissing her in a way that was far more than casual.
"Where's Dupraeve?" the exotic beauty asked as she sat down on her throne. She turned to one of the women who'd kissed her so well. "Get me a scotch, please."
"Playing with Heather and Carrie," one of the other women said, practically shivering as if mere discussion of Nick Dupraeve was orgasmic. "He promised me a turn later."
"He can wait. I had a long trip, and I need some relaxation. Get up here," she pointed to her lap, and the woman scurried up eagerly to sit on her mistress' lap and to start to fondle her.
"What's the word, Freya?" Nick Dupraeve, clad in only a pair of shorts, came into the room with three very attractive naked women, one on each arm and the third half-wrapped around one of the others.
"Very successful," Freya replied with a smile, ignoring for the moment the lovely woman attempting to seduce her. "The only owner on the deed is a widow with a minimal income. The building has been unoccupied since her husband died and the business closed. I was able to persuade the county treasurer to not grant an extension on the taxes, so they'll be taking title on the first."
"And we'll be there to take possession?"
"It'll all be done quietly, out of public view." Freya paused to deeply kiss the woman on her lap. "You're certain of the caves?"
"I checked four geological surveys," Dupraeve replied easily, "and I found maps from a defunct spelunking club. The cave-crawlers' map shows that the cave network extends for miles and miles, and there's a sizeable branch that passes about between a hundred and a hundred-fifty meters horizontally from the basement, and below it by about ten meters. I've been in contact with a mutant we can hire to tunnel to the caverns for us. He can tunnel that far in a few days, and he can also widen any tight spots so we'll have almost a highway right under the wards.
"Good." She wiggled slightly so the seductress in her lap could slip off her blouse and bra.
"Once we're within the wards, I can tie into what's left of my teleporter network."
"What's the latest on that?"
"My contact looked through the security and technology department records," Dupraeve started to say.
"Who is the contact? Is he trustworthy?"
Nick nodded. "The Company vouches for him. From his records, he's extremely good at what he does, and he has no reports of less than one-hundred percent loyalty to his employers. He goes by Puppetmaster."
"Puppetmaster?" Freya asked.
Nick nodded. "Yeah. They put a lot of effort into finding my equipment after I left, and they found most of the teleporters. Over the years, they stumbled into more of them, but there are eight left around campus, including one close to Kane Hall and security. I made a map for us to use."
Freya nodded, letting her hands start to wander on her seat-mate. "I'm not going to make the same mistake I made last time," she vowed through clenched teeth. "We'll take it slowly and deliberately to make sure we have more than enough foot-soldiers and staff under our control. Then we'll make our play." She grinned wickedly. "If Hypnos' Eye really is in the building ..."
"Why would it be there?" Dupraeve scoffed.
"The widow's husband collected a lot of artifacts because he was a mage. He was the last one who had it in his possession, and after he died, most of the relics and artifacts he had were never seen again."
"So?" Dupraeve nodded to the woman who was tugging at his shorts, and she tugged them off him. "At best, that's only coincidental evidence."
"The building plans don't show it, but I uncovered a building permit for a 'sub-basement'. I followed that information to the contractor's records, which had working drawings that show two hidden chambers off the basement. It's a very logical place for him to have hidden his relics. And ... I could sense it." She smiled. "The Eye is supposed to make mental subversion much stronger. Even the vaunted Lady Astarte wouldn't be able to resist!"
Nick Dupraeve nodded. "At least Carson isn't around to fuck up our plans." He nodded at the woman fondling him, and she dropped to her knees.
Freya scowled. "Unfortunately. I wanted to watch her suffer as she lost! She earned it, and I was looking forward to delivering cold, sweet revenge!" She kissed her seductress again. "Go get Tina and Rachel and meet me in my bedroom. Make sure my toys are ready." She grinned at the thought of a little domination play. "In a few days, we take the first step." She raised her glass of scotch. "To success."
Nick nodded. "To the downfall of Whateley Academy."
Saturday, September 24, 2016 - early afternoon
Park in The Village, Whateley Academy
Upset at the way he felt left out of the games Connie and Wyatt were playing, Steven Cody trudged over to a shaded picnic table where Laura was sitting and watching. One of Wyatt Junior's friends had joined them in their play, a boy named Nigel who looked like a normal boy but he was from the neighboring Medawihla tribe and went to the same public school as Wyatt and Connie.
When Laura was first told that Nigel was a werewolf, she thought Wyatt and Connie were pulling her leg, right up to the point where Nigel rolled his eyes and changed into a wolf to show her, at which point Laura had fought to not panic. More precisely, since he was young, his wolf-form was a wolf puppy. It didn't take but a few seconds for Laura to change her mind; Nigel was an adorable puppy, but when she instinctively tried to scratch behind his ears and pet him, Nigel growled and recoiled from her, then caught himself, backed up a couple of steps, and changed back to his boy form, his body flowing like a fluid. If Laura hadn't seen him change with her own eyes, she would have never believed that Nigel was anything other than a normal hyperactive boy. Then her 'protective babysitter' instincts kicked in and she began to worry about the Codys somehow being infected by the wee were.
This caused all four kids to roll their eyes at Laura. "Sheesh, it's not like I run around killing people to turn them into weres," Nigel grumbled unhappily.
"Being a were doesn't spread like that," Connie observed with a knowing smirk. "It's, well, it's complicated. Ask my mom to explain it to you."
"We've been playing together for years," Wyatt Junior added, "and we haven't turned into weres."
"Sorry," Laura apologized, blushing at her mistake. "This is kind of new to me, but I guess it's not to you because you grew up with it." She shook her head. "My mom and sister would say I'm nuts if I told them I was babysitting some kids who were playing with a werewolf friend!" The change and their fascination for old cartoons completely explained why Connie and Wyatt Junior called the boy 'Scooby', a nickname that Nigel seemed to enjoy.
Wyatt Junior and Connie rolled their eyes and went back to playing; Laura's reaction was just plain weird to them, but they'd grown up with mutants and other unusually-gifted people.
The trio turned back to the play structure to resume their game of 'follow the leader', which in Laura's view was getting a bit reckless, only to find a familiar girl sitting atop the structure grinning like she owned the place. "King of the Hill!" she declared with a laugh.
"No King of the Hill!" Laura was on her feet, alarmed by the suggestion of a game that could turn quite dangerous on the complicated, large, and tall play tower. "Don't even think about it, Karma, or I'll tell your mom and dad!"
Karma, daughter of Imp, the art teacher at Whateley, frowned. Then a smile started to spread across her features, alarming Laura, because she'd had more than a little experience with the mischievous girl. "If you do something dangerous ...," Laura continued, trying but failing to sound adult and menacing with her teenage-girl voice. She let the sentence hang as she fished her neural neutralizer from her pocket, which caused the Cody kids' eyes to widen, but Karma stared at it defiantly as if Laura had just said 'I double-dog dare you!'
The kids settled into their original version of "extreme follow-the-leader" game, making sure that it was too challenging for little Stephen to participate. Instead, he went to the swings, and was showing off to Laura how high he could swing. It only took moments for the others to upstage him by running to the swings and starting a contest to see who could jump furthest from a swing.
Wyatt Junior and Nigel had taken their turns; since Wyatt was very solidly built for a kid his age, Laura wasn't quite as concerned as she was about Connie, and if the stories of how quickly werewolves healed, Nigel would probably be okay, too. When Karma started to swing from a standing position, Laura leaped to her feet. Though she wasn't responsible for the girl, she nonetheless felt that as the oldest one at the park, she had to protect the kids.
"Karma!" a woman's voice sounded even as Laura started to open her mouth to speak. Still swinging upward from her momentum, the girl spun her head toward the familiar voice, her hands clutching tightly to the swing's suspension chains. "You know better than that! You know to keep your center-of-gravity low when you jump so you can control your landing and roll so you don't break an arm or a leg!"
Karma eased herself down onto the seat. "Yes, mama," she replied sullenly.
"And since your dad is out of town, you're going with me," Imp added.
A scowl of unhappiness materialized on the girl's face. "I don't wanna go into town," she retorted. "There's nothing to do!"
"I'm not making the mistake of leaving you home alone, and after the last time Donna and Maria watched you, there's no-one left who'll babysit you," the Imp replied. "So go get ready."
Karma jumped from the still-moving swing, landed in a near-perfect roll, and dashed to Laura's side. "Miss Laura can watch me!" she countered, practically wrapping herself protectively around the blue girl.
Laura's eyes bulged. "No!" she protested almost instantly. "I'm already watching three, and Karma is more than a handful by herself!"
"I am not!" Karma protested.
By then, Imp was on the other side of Laura from Karma. "I agree with Laura," she said simply. "After your antics in her lab and the last time she watched you, I'm surprised she isn't running in terror at just the suggestion!"
"I can't handle four of them by myself," Laura glanced at Karma, then reached to her waist and tugged a fish line that was fastened to her belt. Her neural neutralizer leaped out of Karma's pocket. "See what I mean?" She shook her head at Karma. "Nice try."
Imp chuckled. "You should know that she'd be catching onto you," she gently chided her daughter. She turned back to Laura. "Could you get one of your friends to help?"
"Maybe. But ... watching five kids running around a park is a job for more than two of us, especially if two of them are Junior and Karma," Laura countered.
Imp grimaced. "I don't have time to argue, Karma. I've got some items that I have to get to the depot to get shipped today. It's ... extremely important."
"Mama, what if Miss Laura takes us to a movie while you're doing your business?" Karma asked in a sweet little-girl voice.
"Not by myself," Laura countered firmly. "And even if one of my friends is free, I'd have to get permission from the Codys." A thought occurred to her. "Besides, we won't all fit in a car."
"I already checked out a school van to haul the things I'm shipping, so there's room for everyone, even counting your friend." Imp frowned as she thought. "The afternoon southbound train stops at four-ten. It'll probably take an hour and a half to get everything inspected by the stationmaster and properly packed and secured." She glanced at her watch. "That gives us half an hour to get organized. I'll call Wyatt and Elaine to get their permission while you see if one of your friends can help."
"I'm not going unless Scooby goes with us," Wyatt Junior defiantly declared.
"Okay," Imp and Laura reluctantly agreed. "But only if his parents are okay with it," Imp added.
Saturday, September 24, 2016 - early afternoon
Dunwich Theater, Dunwich NH
"We've got this," Laura reassured Imp. Even though she'd been assured that her light-blue skin wouldn't register as something noteworthy in Dunwich, she applied her skin makeup just in case. Morgana was in her more 'normal' form so she wouldn't stand out, either, as if an attractive, shapely girl with long flaming red hair wasn't going to stand out. They stood in front of the theater with the gaggle of kids behind Laura and Morgana. "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a fun movie, we'll get popcorn, and we'll all have a good time."
Morgana chuckled. "The only problem is going to be prying devisor girl out of the theater when the first movie is over. Just our luck it's Gadget Weekend here."
"Yeah, I saw that. There are some good movies," Laura enthused. "I remember ...."
"We're watching the kids, not the gadgeteer movies," Morgana teased her friend. "Besides, it's not like you haven't seen all of them several times!"
Laura stuck her tongue out at the redhead. "I have not!"
"Yeah, right," Morgana replied skeptically. "Who's the bad guy in Spy Kids?"
Laura started at the question, then she shrugged. "Fegan ...."
"What's the coolest thing Q ever made for Double-Oh-Seven?" Morgana interrupted her with another question before she could complete her answer.
It took a fraction of a second for Laura to switch her thinking to the redhead's question. "It has to be ..."
"How many times have you seen Inspector Gadget?" Morgana interrupted again with yet another question.
Laura's jaw dropped for a moment, then she frowned at her friend. "Okay, okay. You've made your point." She glared at Morgana, who had a smug 'I told you so' expression, then she shot a glare at Karma and Wyatt Junior who were chuckling at the teasing. "That'll be enough of that." She turned back to Imp and shifted her thinking back to babysitter mode. "The movie will keep us entertained for a couple of hours. Is that enough time? We could always see another movie if you're still busy ...."
"That should be plenty of time. I will most likely not be checking my phone," she added. "My ... delivery ... is very delicate so I can't allow myself to be distracted, and it'd probably interfere with the signal anyway."
Laura and Morgana nodded, then led the kids inside; Imp had already bought their tickets. Their younger charges made a beeline for the concessions counter, but the older girls headed them off. "Look, get an idea of what you want, and then we'll go sit down." She could practically see the gears turning in the younger kids' minds. "And you are not going to load up on sugar and sweets!"
After a bit of noisy and enthusiastic discussion about what they wanted for snacks, the two older girls herded the five kids into the theater. Having experienced only megaplexes with their dozen or more smaller theaters, Laura was not prepared for the Dunwich theater. With a balcony and balcony-level boxes on the walls and a heavy red velvet curtain across a stage, it seemed way out of date, and even though the seats were worn from decades of fidgeting students and locals, the theater still had class. Morgana and Laura had to settle the inevitable squabble about where they would sit, and then Laura, holder of the funds from the Codys and Imp, made an excursion to the concession stand. Knowing that she was going to have her hands full, she acquiesced to little Steven's offer to help.
As she handed out the popcorn and small drinks, Laura noticed that Wyatt Junior and Connie were fixated on one of the private boxes up on the side wall. "What's wrong?"
Wyatt Junior shook his head. "I don't know. But something feels wrong. Off."
"Yeah," Connie agreed. "Like something ... is up there." She pointed at the box.
Two shadowy shapes seemed to materialize in the fancy seats. "Oh, they've seen us!" one said as it took on the appearance of a translucent old puppet-man.
"Darn. Now they'll know who's throwing peanuts at them!" the other said as he, too, seemed to materialize. "Oh, ho, ho, ho!" the two of them chuckled together at their lame joke.
"What are they?" Laura gawked at the two figures, a little alarmed. While she saw evidence of spirits in avatars around her every day at school, she didn't believe in ghosts.
Karma looked up, then shrugged. "Statler and Waldorf," she answered nonchalantly.
"They're spirits of some kind," Connie observed. "Winnie knows it."
"Who are Statler and Waldorf?" Morgana asked.
Karma gaped at them. "Haven't you two ever seen the Muppet Show?" she asked incredulously.
"I know of the Muppet Movie," Laura volunteered.
"Look! It's a bunch of innocent little kids!" one of the spirits spoke.
"I wonder how bad they were," the other asked.
"What makes you think they were bad?" the first spirit asked.
"If they weren't bad, why would their parents punish them by making them sit through this movie?" "Oh, ho, ho, ho, ho!" the pair chuckled.
"In the Muppet Show, Statler and Waldorf criticize the other skits and other Muppets with bad jokes," Karma explained.
"Did she say our jokes are bad?" the first spirit asked.
"She only says that because she hasn't seen the film to compare the jokes to!" "Oh, ho, ho, ho, ho!"
"I'm gonna tell mama that you have to babysit me so you can see the Muppet Show," Karma said. She sounded as if it was her solemn duty to correct a serious deficiency in Laura's upbringing. At that moment, the lights started to dim. "Mama said that a long time ago, the spirits got stuck here - maybe from a brutal assassination in the box ...," she sounded gleefully hopeful, as if a ghost story of a gruesome death would add to the atmosphere of the old theater, "and over time, all the students compared them to Statler and Waldorf from the Muppet Show, and gradually all the psychic influence shaped them into Statler and Waldorf."
"They're dimming the lights for the movie to start!" one of the spirits up in the box said.
"Really? I thought they were dimming the lights for naptime!" the other replied.
"With this movie, it's the same thing!" "Oh, ho, ho, ho, ho!"
Laura sat back and munched a handful of popcorn. "How is it that you know about the Muppet Show?" she asked.
"Mama likes spending quality time with me watching the classics," Karma observed as she dug for some popcorn from the shared tub. "The Muppets, Roadrunner, Tom and Jerry, Gilligan's Island - you know. The classics." She smirked. "Mama says she studied secret agent and superhero tactics from Get Smart and Super Chicken."
"Shh, the movie's starting."
Overhead, one of the spirits leaned over the railing, looking down at the kids. "No, no! Go ahead and keep talking."
"Yeah. It's got to be more entertaining than this movie!" "Oh, ho, ho, ho, ho!"
The theater hushed - mostly - as the projector flicked on and the movie started. To the relief of all, there were no trailers, since it was a second-run or third-run movie, but there was a Bugs Bunny cartoon, which caused Karma to cheer.
Just before the cartoon ended, there was a bright flash emanating from the projection room, followed by muffled oaths sounding through the now-pitch-black theater. The house lights came up again to relieve the darkness. After about ten minutes, during which a very faint electrical smoke smell wafted through the theater, an older woman walked down the aisle and up onto the stage. "Ladies and gentlemen," she began.
"Is she talking to us?" one of the spirits asked.
"I know I'm the gentleman," the other replied, "so that means you must be the lady!"
"To quote Mae West, 'I'm no lady!'" "Oh, ho, ho, ho!"
The woman on the stage glared up at the spirits; obviously, she knew of them only too well. "We have had a technical problem with the projector. Unfortunately, it will take a couple of hours to replace the burned out parts, so as you leave, we will give you your choice of a refund or a voucher for a future movie ticket. I sincerely apologize for this inconvenience."
The kids collectively groaned, while Laura perked up. "I bet I could help them fix it," she said eagerly.
"What?" Morgana practically screeched. "And leave me to watch over five kids? Like hell you're going to help fix it!"
"But..." Laura whispered "I'm sure I can fix it for them!"
Her friend leaned close to whisper. "Look, Laura. Escorting you to the village is fine. Helping you look after the kids is marginal. But looking after all five of them on my own is classed as cruel and unusual punishment! I already told you I'm not that good with kids."
"Well, let's go, I guess," Laura grudgingly said to the kids, her enthusiasm to help fix something squelched by the truth in Morgana's words - and her rather annoyed tone.
"What are we going to do, Miss Laura?" Steven asked as they trudged up the aisle toward the door.
"First, I'm going to get the refunds," she replied. "Then I'm going to try to get in touch with Miss Imp or your parents to see what they think we should do." As they marched into the lobby, she rounded up the kids and moved them away from the small flow of exiting patrons. After three attempted calls with no answer, but to which she left a message, she sighed. "We'll have to find something to do. Anyone needing to use the restroom, do it now. I'm going to get the refunds."
Laura was just accepting the cash refund when she heard Morgana calling out, "Laura!" She turned to look across the lobby, only to see Morgana with a panic-stricken expression. "What?" she asked, stuffing the cash in her pocket and suddenly not caring if she had correct change.
"They ...," Morgana kept looking around the lobby. "One of them must have put something on my popcorn, because when I nibbled on some it suddenly felt like my mouth was on fire. So I got a drink from the water fountain, and they ... they disappeared!"
"I swear, I only turned my back for a couple of seconds!"
"Karma. It had to be Karma." Laura had a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. "With Karma and the Cody twins, that's about three times as long as they need. One of Karma's known tricks is to put cayenne pepper on food to startle someone long enough to get away with her real prank." She glanced around. "Go check the bathroom and the theater - they might be hiding from us."
"Or up the balcony?" Morgana suggested.
"I can't check the boys' room!" Morgana protested.
Laura shook her head. "There's practically no-one here. Just yell in before you go in. I'll stay here so they don't sneak out behind us."
"Okay," the redhead suggested. "You should go just outside so you can look up and down the streets, too."
"Good idea," Laura replied, looking like she was going to cry. "Dammit! They'll never trust me to babysit for them again!"
Saturday, September 24, 2016 - early afternoon
Alley behind 'Manor of Attire', Dunwich NH
"We're going to get in big trouble!" Steven complained as his older siblings practically dragged him down the alley so they couldn't be seen from the street. Wyatt Junior, Karma, and Nigel were giggling.
"We need to hide somewhere better," Karma observed. "Laura isn't dumb; she'll find us if we don't hide well enough."
"Like where?" Connie asked, looking around. Her eyes landed on an old iron fire escape coming down the side of a building. "Up there?"
Karma looked at the fire escape. "No. The ladder only slides down from weight on it, so we couldn't reach it to get it down."
"If it even slides," Wyatt Junior observed. "Look how rusty it is. Probably not safe, even for us."
"But what about there?" Karma noticed a basement stairway cover angling down from the building.
"We're going to get in trouble!" Steven complained again. "Miss Laura's never going to want to watch us again. If Mom and Dad would even let her!"
Connie leaned over next to Karma. "And this is why we avoid him when we want to have fun," she whispered.
Karma laughed softly. "Sounds like he's got a crush on her, too!"
"Yeah, big time," Connie giggled.
"Look at that padlock. How are we going to get in?" Nigel asked.
Karma smiled broadly, then produced something from a pocket. "Some of my sister's tools," she said as she began to expertly manipulate the lock. In mere seconds, it popped open.
"And your sister taught you to do that, too?" Wyatt said skeptically.
"Some of it. Mama taught me a lot, too." She tugged at the sloped stair cover, and with Wyatt's help, it opened.
"It's dark," Steven worried. "And ... there probably aren't any lights!"
"Scaredy cat!" Nigel taunted the younger boy.
Connie whipped out a cell phone and manipulated the controls, causing the light to come on. "Instant light."
"If the padlock isn't locked, someone will know we're there," Steven came up with a new objection.
"Simple," Karma replied, pointing to a basement window. "You guys go down, open the window, I'll replace the lock, and then I'll climb in the window."
"How will we get out?"
"The window, dummy!" Wyatt Junior shot back at his little brother.
Not convinced yet, Steven nevertheless allowed the others to talk him into going down the basement. The kids were jumpy as the light played around the otherwise dark basement with only a little light sneaking in through the basement windows. "Eep!" Connie exclaimed as a couple of ghostly human-like figures came into the light. She was glad to realize that she wasn't the only one who was jumpy.
"Mannequins," Wyatt Junior said, his voice quavering a tiny bit. He pulled out his own phone and added its light to that of Connie's phone. More mannequins came into view, some attired in long flowing dresses, and others in suits. The dust was thick on the clothing, making them all appear eerie and ghost-like.
"I don't smell anything we need to worry about," Nigel said after sniffing the dank, dusty air. His werewolf senses were far keener than the other kids.
Wyatt nodded, then opened the window, closing it after Karma jumped down. "Whoa, cool!" she exclaimed with a grin as she looked around. She practically danced to one of the mannequins and plucked off a very broad-brimmed fancy hat, coughing a bit as the hat shed some of its accumulated dust. She put it on and grinned. "I'm Lady Chambers," she said, trying to sound hoity-toity. "Welcome to my palace!"
With her inspiration, the other kids began to fool around with the clothing, quickly finding more clothing folded neatly on shelves. There were also dozens of boxes, which probably contained even more clothing, but they didn't open them.
"Oooh! Look at this!" Connie cooed as she plucked up a lacy garment, unfolding it to reveal a dusty red corset with lots of lace and built-in push-up bra. She wrapped it loosely around her waist. "Mom has a couple of these, but she won't tell me what they're for."
"Mama called hers corsets. She said they're for special times with dad," Karma said before frowning. "She got real mad when I tried to put it on," she added.
"Call me Lord Cody," Wyatt laughed as he perched a too-large top-hat on his head.
After a few minutes, the novelty of the old-fashioned clothing had abated some, so the kids started looking around to see what else was in the basement of the old clothing store. On one wall, near a corner, Wyatt hesitated. "Perry doesn't like it here. Something doesn't feel right."
Connie nodded. "Winnie doesn't like it either. She doesn't know what, but she doesn't like it."
Those concerns only spurred Karma to start looking around, closely examining the walls and floor. Her eyes narrowed at one spot, and she reached up to a particular stone that didn't seem quite right to her. When she pressed it, it clicked and then popped out, like it had a catch behind it. Glancing at her compatriots, she tried pulling the odd mechanism. When that wasn't successful, she twisted it, and was rewarded with a grating mechanical sound as a small section of the wall slid outward a couple of inches.
"Secret lab, maybe?" Wyatt Junior speculated, his curiosity at the discovery far outstripping any sense of caution.
"Only one way to find out," Nigel said. He grasped the edge and tugged, and the wall section pivoted silently and smoothly out into the room. Behind it, the small lights of the phones illuminated a stone stairway leading down. "This is cool!" Nigel said enthusiastically.
Saturday, September 24, 2016 - early afternoon
Main Street, Dunwich NH
Laura and Morgana had already trotted up and down the main street of Dunwich, hoping that the kids were in some open area and readily visible from main street. Dunwich was small enough and the main street short enough that it didn't take long to search the whole street. Now they stood outside the theater again near the center of town, trying to figure out what to do. "Where could they have gone?" Morgana lamented. She felt just as responsible for the kids as Laura, and having them disappear left a sickening feeling.
"With Karma? Anywhere." Laura sighed. "I don't suppose you have some sort of super magical spell that can tell us where they are?"
Her friends shook her head. "I wish. Next time we do this - if there is a next time and I'm insane enough to agree to it - I'll get blood or hair samples off them first thing!"
Laura growled in frustration."Next time I babysit them, I'm just going to keep them zapped the whole time." She reached into her pocket to pull out her prop to demonstrate to Morgana what she meant. "Wait, what?" Instead of pulling out her neural neutralizer, she pulled out only the cut end of her security line. "That little brat!" she exclaimed in annoyance.
"What?" Morgana asked, turning to her friend from scanning down the street.
Laura held up the cut end of the line. "She swiped my ...." Her jaw dropped open. "She ... again ...." Her mind raced, and suddenly she dug her cell phone out of her pocket and began to frantically stab at the screen.
"What?" Morgana was still confused.
"Karma swiped my neural neutralizer," Laura said in explanation.
Laura looked up from her phone, an impatient expression on her face. "Again." Morgana still had a confused look. "After last time, I slipped a tracker inside!"
The light came on to Morgana. "So - you can track her?" She smiled. "Damned good thing she swiped it, then!" The two started down the street again, with Laura in the lead following the directions indicated on her phone. Unerringly, they turned down a side street, then into the same alley the kids had gone into.
"They came down here, then ... went inside?" Laura speculated, still studying her phone. She and Morgana looked around. "Not through here," Laura said at the locked basement entrance.
"What about here?" Morgana looked at a basement window. "It looks disturbed."
"That's odd - the signal ... disappeared." Laura frowned at the display.
"Did she find it and turn it off maybe?"
Laura shook her head. "Not unless she took it apart."
Morgana grinned, stepping to the metal cover with the lock. "Easy, peasy," she said, gesturing in a swiping motion to the metal.
"No," Laura shook her head. "We can't just break in."
"Why not? The kids did."
"I'm going to go find a policeman or someone. I don't want to get arrested for breaking and entering. You stay here and wait."
Morgana snorted. "They sneaked away from me once. You want to take a chance that they won't do it again?"
"Point. But with your odd foreign customs and expectations of law enforcement and all that, do you think you can deal with the police and any information they need to help? Remember, they aren't Scotland Yard or your local Bobbies. The locals might be a little ... quirky."
"Okay," Morgana relented. "But if they get away again, I'm going to say 'I told you so'."
Saturday, September 24, 2016 - early afternoon
Basement of 'Manor of Attire', Dunwich NH
"Wow!" Connie gawked, open-mouthed, around the room to which the stairs had led them. It was lit by what looked to be flickering torches, but as there seemed to be no smoke or heat, they weren't natural flames, and given the age of the building, they were probably not electrically powered either. In any event, the flashlights on the phones weren't necessary so the kids switched them off.
"Wow is right," Nigel agreed. "This is way cool!"
"It's like some kind of museum," Karma observed. Centered on one wall was a massive oak desk, next to a spotless workbench with racks and racks of apothecary jars holding who-knew-what. There were papers piled neatly on the desk and in the nooks and crannies of the built-in desktop organizer.
A tall glass-fronted bookcase held a lot of large tomes, keeping them dust-free so their ornate leather bindings with gold and silver lettering was clearly visible. Another antique cabinet, much larger, had strange items behind its doors, an odd assortment of rings, medallions, and unusually-shaped items, some of which looked positively alien in origin. Ever curious, Karma visually examined the front of the cabinet, then the hinges, and finally the knobs. Satisfied that she didn't see anything to worry about, she experimentally touched the knob, recoiling with a yelp and clutching her hand. "It shocked me!"
"Did you think it wouldn't be secured somehow?" Wyatt Junior asked sarcastically. "If you'd have waited a second. I was just about to tell you that Perry sensed some kind of magic security."
"Whoa! Pirate treasure!" Nigel exclaimed from a corner. He stood in front of a pair of large chests that looked straight out of a Hollywood pirate film set, complete with ancient iron locks holding ancient iron hasps shut. He hadn't seen Karma get shocked, and before anyone could stop him, Nigel wrenched at the old locks. To the surprise of the others, the hasp tore free of the chest. With a triumphant grin, Nigel pried the lid open.
"Holy cow!" Nigel mouthed softly as he stared into the chest. It didn't quite look exactly like they would have expected from a pirate movie; while there were some gold coins in a tray, a few necklaces and pendants, a couple of rings, and a couple of shiny gold goblets, most of the trunk was taken up with a few short, oddly-shaped staffs and rods, some robes, and what looked to be costuming supplies.
"I bet it's just props," Connie said skeptically. "Why else would it be here?"
"Pirate treasure?" Steven speculated.
"It could be, except for two things. First, the chest isn't that old. And second, pirates didn't operate a couple hundred miles from an ocean, a sea, or a river," Wyatt Junior retorted to his little brother.
"Yeah," Karma agreed. "It's probably just costumes and props, like for movies and plays."
"But Winnie says there's magic here," Connie countered. "How else do you explain the lights being on and the shock you got?"
Karma carefully picked up what looked to be a cloak or robe from within the chest, nervous about getting shocked again. Getting none, she threw it over her shoulders with a swirl, then picked up a small jeweled and ornamented staff that looked like a royal miter, and threw her head back. "I'm the queen," she said. "Bow to me, my loyal subjects!"
"As if," Wyatt Junior scoffed, but as he turned, he goggled at the girl for a moment. "Um ...." He looked again, shaking his head slightly. Whatever he'd thought he'd seen was no longer present.
Saturday, September 24, 2016 - early afternoon
Alley behind 'Manor of Attire', Dunwich NH
A woman came around the corner walking slowly toward Morgana, with a very animated Laura at her side talking. Though the woman looked about seventy and walked with a limp, she carried herself with dignity and as much grace as an old woman could muster. Morgana hastened to the two, and Laura interrupted her conversation with the woman. "Morgana, this is Mrs. Aldrich. She owns the building." She turned to the woman. "This is my friend Morgana. She was helping me babysit when the kids ditched us."
"Nice to meet you," Morgana deadpanned. "I hope circumstances improve, too."
Laura nodded her agreement. "Anything?" she asked her friend.
Morgana shrugged. "I heard some faint noises, but nothing that I could positively identify as the kids."
The woman frowned and looked at Laura. "Are you sure they're in my building?" She smiled, realizing she'd sounded harsh. "Well, my grandfather's building. He's the one who built the business." She shook her head. "Sadly, there's not much call for the type of clothing the store specialized in."
Laura took out her phone. "One of the kids 'borrowed' something of mine, and fortunately it's got a tracker inside of it. See the path - from the theater down this alley, then they moved inside the building. The tracker is accurate to about four feet," she added before grimacing. "And then the signal vanished."
"So they might not be inside, is that what you're saying?" the woman asked.
"I don't have any evidence that they left," Laura replied uneasily. "It could be that there's something in the building that's blocking the signal. Maybe the materials used in the construction."
"Would it hurt to check to be sure?" Morgana asked.
The woman looked over the two girls with a critical eye, then she smiled again. "I suppose that's better than you two breaking in after them. Very well."
As she fished in her purse for keys, Imp came trotting down the alley. "I got here as quickly as I could," she explained. "What happened?"
As the woman unlocked the back door to the main floor, Laura filled in the Imp on what had happened. They stepped into the darkness of the building, although the main floor had more windows and thus more light than the kids had encountered in the basement. "Sorry, but the electricity has been out for several years." In reply, Laura and Morgana took out their cell phones and turned on the lights. The woman nodded, then led the group to a stairway down. A door at the bottom of the stairs creaked open, and the woman stepped confidently into the room, while Laura and Morgana crept in slowly, looking around.
As they scanned around the room, the woman stiffened. "Look. Someone has been down here." She nodded toward a few clothing items on the floor and disturbed dust on the floor.
Imp nodded. "The clothing - that's not convincing evidence. But the dust ..." She squatted down and looked more closely. "It's been disturbed very, very recently."
"But if they were here, then where are they?" Laura asked, looking at her phone. "There's no signal anywhere else, so I don't see how they could have left."
Imp looked around, then started following footprints around the room. "Something doesn't seem right here," she said. Slowly, she started scanning the walls, looking for .... "Aha!" she declared, her fingers tracing around an outlet at the end of a conduit on the wall. She looked carefully at it from several angles, and then she pulled the outlet downward. There was a low rumble, and a large area of the tiled floor to Imp's side dropped a few inches.
"How ... how did you figure that out?" Laura and Morgana asked in awe of the talent that Imp had displayed.
Imp smiled knowingly. "Secret lairs one-oh-one." She saw a look of utter surprise on the old woman's face. "I take it you didn't know about this?"
The woman shook her head, her mouth agape. "I ... I've never heard any stories about this. This wasn't on the plans that I had to review at the county after I inherited it." She gawked at the entrance. "Grandfather might not have ever told anyone. His death was very ... sudden and unexpected."
Imp turned to the two girls. "Let's see what we have here." She correctly sensed that the woman didn't want to speak further about her grandfather.
Laura and Morgana helped Imp slide the floor panel further down, and then it slid to the side, while in the wall behind it opened up, revealing a steep staircase going down.
"It's a bit steep for me," the older woman said. "Go on."
Morgana gave the hole in the wall a dubious look, before whispering to Laura "You know what happens to girls who go down into unlit cellars in the movies, right?"
Laura gulped and tried to look nonchalant as the Imp gestured to for her to follow. "If you're so nervous, you wait up here."
Morgana rolled her eyes. "Being the one who stays behind doesn't go very well in movies, either. And maybe it would be a good idea if we didn't all go down. You don't know if you can open it from the other side."
Imp rolled her eyes at Morgana's statement. "What good is a secret lair if you can't get out of it?"
Laura gulped and tried not to look even more worried as the Imp gestured to for her to follow. "If you're so nervous, you wait up here." She hesitated, looking down the steep staircase that the Imp was starting to descend.
"Oh, go on," Morgana urged her. "If anything happens ... well, it's only a door."
The Whateley teacher and Laura carefully crept down the stairs, the two cell phones providing illumination. Shortly after they descended, there was a low rumble and the floor and wall closed up again, startling Morgana and Mrs. Aldrich. Morgana crossed to the outlet, now very dimly illuminated without the girls' phones, and she pushed and pulled, trying to force it to work again like it had for Imp.
About five minutes after the floor had closed, it opened again, leaving Morgana wondering if she'd managed to figure out how the secret mechanism worked. When Imp and Laura emerged, Morgana figured that their movement up the stair had been what triggered the secret doorway. Imp manipulated the outlet once more, this time closing the secret passageway again.
"Nobody has been down there for years," Imp reported before starting to search the walls again. "There has to be another one around here somewhere." She saw the looks of disbelief from the girls. "Secret lairs - where there's one secret room, there are usually more."
"There's a lot of old and interesting things down there," Laura said in a hushed voice as the two girls joined Imp in the search. "Miss Imp said she thought some were rare antiques and maybe even some mystical items." It was Morgana who noticed the area of heavily-disturbed dust, and a few minutes later, Imp found the secret door release.
No sooner had the door opened than the sound of kids came forth. "I think we found them," Laura said. "Hopefully they're okay." She scrambled through the secret door and down the stairs, followed by Imp. Behind them, Morgana slowed and helped Mrs. Aldrich, who'd decided to follow since this stairway was far less treacherous than the first stair.
When Morgana and the old woman emerged into the secret room, Imp was scanning one of the bookcases, while the kids sat contritely and silently on the floor, backs against another wall and lined up like suspects in police custody, with Laura watching over them. From her expression, they knew that if she had the means, she'd have handcuffed all of them. And put them in leg irons.
"What is all of this?" the old woman asked as she looked around the mysterious room.
"Did you know if your grandfather was a mage? A magic user?" Imp asked as she continued to survey at the closed bookcases and cabinets.
Mrs. Aldrich shook her head. "No. Not that I know of."
"Well, I'm guessing that he was. I think some of these books are magic tomes, and I'm pretty sure I recognize one or two of the items in that cabinet as magical in nature," she pointed to the larger cabinet full of odd trinkets. "I'm not an expert in magical artifacts, but my guess is that this cabinet has a lot of very valuable items. Possibly in the hundreds of thousands of dollars worth. And these," she gestured at the bookshelf, "may be irreplaceable."
The old woman gawked. "Hun ... hundreds of ... of thousands of dollars?" When Imp nodded, her lip trembled, and then tears started to stream from her eyes. "So I won't lose Grandfather's store because I can't afford the taxes?" Mrs. Aldrich started openly weeping at what appeared to be a last-minute miracle to keep the store in her family.
Morgana gave a meaningful cough. "Uh, Ms Imp? I really wouldn't get too close to any of that stuff in the cabinets or shelves." The Imp turned to give her a questioning look, as the tall girl continued. "There's definitely magic involved, some of the things are quite powerful, and there is some sort of magic shield covering it all. I really don't think we should touch anything until we get an expert to take a look."
The Imp nodded and turned to the woman. "Morgana is only a student, but she's a student Mage. We should do as she says."
The woman had already backed away from the cabinets. "Magic? I never realized grandfather was into anything like that!"
"If you would like, I can get some experts in magic and artifacts to come look at these to get a better assessment and inventory of what's here, and a rough estimate of their value."
"That'd be ... great," the old woman said. "How ... how quickly can they look at it?"
Imp shrugged. "Given what's here, I'll suggest they get here quickly. Maybe by the end of this week if their schedules allow and if it's okay with you." She read the disappointment on the woman's features. "Is that too soon?"
"Well," the woman admitted with a distraught expression, "taxes are due by the end of the month, which is Friday. And the tax assessor told me he can't give me another grace period, so if I can't raise any money by then ...."
"I'll let the experts know as soon as I get back." Imp understood better than the old woman why her losing the building to a party or parties unknown could be a very bad idea. "Under the circumstances, I'll try to get them to come tomorrow, if that's convenient."
"That would be great," the woman looked relieved. "But ... what about selling some so I can pay the taxes?"
"If this stuff is what Morgana and I think it is, they'll figure out a way to help you out in a way that's fair to you."
Relief flooded Mrs. Aldrich. "Thank you."
Morgana was still looking carefully around the room, then stopped suddenly as she looked at Karma.
"Karma? Give it back right now!"
Karma just looked up with her best innocent expression - which didn't fool anyone this time. "Give what back?"
"Whatever it was you took!" the girl turned to the Imp. "I can see the magic, she's hiding something powerful enough for me to see the glow."
The Imp turned and frowned at her daughter.
"Susan Moira Chambers!" Imp scolded her daughter sharply, using the all-three-names-you're-in-big-trouble-now form of addressing her. "What are you hiding?"
The girl sheepishly pulled a small figurine out of her pocket and held it out to her mom. "It wasn't in the cabinets, so it's safe! Like the cloak and wand and stuff we were playing with!"
"It's not yours," Imp scolded.
The older woman smiled a grandmotherly smile. "Since these kids found all of this, I think it's only right that I give them some small token of gratitude."
"But ... they're magic," Morgana warned. "They could be dangerous."
"If they've been playing with them ...," Mrs. Aldrich suggested, "it can't hurt them, can it?"
Imp scowled as she thought; the wrong 'gift' could turn out to be a very bad thing. On the other hand, turning down the woman's desire to express gratitude wasn't exactly good either. "How about this - you and the kids pick out some small items, Morgana can make sure they don't have powerful magic, and we can have them checked by Mrs. Barton when we get back home to make sure they're safe. Is that okay?"
Saturday, September 24, 2016, late afternoon
Cody's Apartment, The Village, Whateley Academy
Like condemned prisoners waiting for their sentences to be carried out, four of the five kids sat on the sofa and in one overstuffed chair. Only Karma seemed unconcerned despite her mother sitting in another chair, facing the kids and staring impassive at them, which Karma knew was a huge sign of disapproval. Laura was pacing nervously, waiting for the Codys to return, while Morgana stood with her arms crossed glaring at the little miscreants.
The uneasy silence was broken by the sound of a door opening, which if anything caused little Steven to flinch nervously. From the sound of their conversation, Wyatt and Elaine Cody were in a good mood, but as soon as they saw the kids lined up on the sofa, the conversation stopped abruptly.
"What did you do this time?" Elaine Cody demanded of her children. Without waiting for an answer, she turned to Laura and Imp. "What did they do?"
Before Laura could start to answer, Karma and the three Cody kids simultaneously began to speak, blurting out anything that came to mind so they could get their side of the story, while Laura struggled to explain over the sound of four insistent children. It was a losing battle.
"Quiet!" Wyatt boomed, and the response was immediate, not only with the children but also with Laura, who flinched at the big man's thunderous voice. "Laura?" he asked, seeing from her demeanor that she'd been as intimated, if not more so, than his own children. "What happened?"
Laura's lip quavered and she looked like she was about to cry. "I'm sorry, Dr. Cody," she began, voice trembling and fearful. "I ... we ... we took them to the movie, but then the projector broke and they couldn't fix it so we were getting ...." Tears were starting to trickle down her cheeks.
Mrs. Cody hastened to Laura's side and wrapped her arm around the poor girl's shoulder. "Laura, you're not the one who misbehaved. And unless you did something really stupid, you don't have to worry."
"But ... I was watching them, and they ran off, and I should have expected something like that and stopped them, and now you won't trust me babysitting any more lost, and I really like babysitting the kids, because even though they're sometimes naughty, they're mostly good and I like you and Dr. Cody, and ...."
"Uh, ma'am?" Mrs. Cody turned to Morgana, who was looking upset. "Please don't blame Laura. It was my fault they got away. They distracted me for a moment - and, well, that was all they needed to vanish. But it was my fault, not Laura's."
"Laura, Morgana!" Mrs. Cody physically moved the blue girl so she was face-to-face with both teenage girls. "Calm down. You're not in trouble!" She glanced at her husband. "Now you've scared them," she chided him.
Imp shrugged when Doctor and Mrs. Cody looked her way. "After I dropped them off at the theater, I was busy with my ... special shipment. I don't know what happened between then and when I got back to the scene," she turned and shot a disapproving stare at Karma, "but I can guess who helped instigate the whole affair!"
"I didn't do ...." Karma started to protest her innocence.
Imp was having none of it. "You'll get your turn to speak. Maybe," she added sternly.
Slowly, fighting tears and frightened that she'd never be allowed to babysit the kids again, Laura recounted what happened, starting with the projector breakdown and continuing to the moment that Imp helped herd the miscreants into the van for the return trip. Morgana confirmed the story almost exactly.
Dr. Cody gave the 'stern glare of fatherly disapproval' to his children, and they visibly flinched. "As badly as you behaved," he started, "I'm tempted to ground you for a month."
"And Ah really don't think it's right that Mrs. Aldrich gave you thank-you gifts after you broke into her store, made a mess in the basement, and then played with potentially dangerous magical artifacts," Mrs. Cody drawled.
"Especially since someone here," Imp shot the gimlet eye at her daughter, "tried to sneak a couple of items into the bag of holding that Mrs. Aldrich so generously gave you."
"Miss Morgana said they don't have magic on them," Karma said defensively.
"I said they didn't have strong magic on them," the redheaded freshman girl shot right back. "There's a huge difference."
"And there's the little matter of swiping Miss Laura's gizmo, too," Imp added, "which is becoming a very bad habit, I might add, of which neither I nor your father approve."
"But ... if I hadn't taken her neural neutralizer," Karma began to counter, but she was hushed by her mother raising a single finger her way and frowning.
"It's true," Laura said hesitantly and meekly. "If she hadn't swiped it, we wouldn't have found them in the building, and we wouldn't have found the secret rooms with all that important magic stuff ...."
Doctor Cody managed a weak chuckle. "It's admirable that you're finding good in the otherwise objectionable actions of your charges," he said to Laura, "but that doesn't excuse their behavior."
"And Mrs. Aldrich would have lost the building, and someone bad might have gotten their hands on the magic stuff ...," Laura added.
"Grounded for ... one week? Or two weeks?" Mrs. Cody glanced at her husband to see if he had the same thoughts.
Wyatt Cody nodded. "Connie, Junior, except for school, you're confined to The Village for a week."
"And even after we find out if your 'souvenirs' are safe for you," Elaine Cody pointed at the small trinkets that were laid out on the coffee table, "you can't use them for two weeks."
Imp nodded. "Your father and I will talk," she promised her daughter, "but one week confined to the village seems reasonable."
"And the devisors and gadgeteers will be able to work in their labs for the next week without worrying about what bits Karma was ... 'misplacing'," Mrs. Cody added with a thin smile, adding air-quotes around the word misplace to emphasize that she knew what Karma did in the labs to entertain herself.
"I may ask Laura to miniaturize her tracking circuit into an implantable size so nobody will lose track of you again!" Imp said with a mischievous grin.
"I suppose that's doable," Laura immediately reflected on what Imp had said. "I'd have to reduce the power a lot so the effective range would be reduced, and make a bio-compatible housing that wouldn't interfere ...."
Imp rolled her eyes and sighed. "That was a joke," she interrupted Laura. Then she cocked her head a bit. "But if you could actually do that ...."
"If you can, sign us up for three," Wyatt Cody said, looking evenly at his children in a way that they didn't know if he was serious or not.
"Let's go see if Vanessa can identify these things," Mrs. Cody changed the subject. "If they are dangerous, we need to find a safe place to store them. Probably in Kirby Hall."
"Besides, she's expecting you," Wyatt added. "She said she needed to talk to you about tomorrow." He shrugged at the girl's quizzical look. "She'll explain."
At the Bartons', Elaine Cody started to explain the trouble that the kids had caused.
"But because of us, Mrs. Aldrich isn't going to lose her grandpa's store, and we also found a secret room full of magic stuff!" Karma interrupted to make sure the positive outcome of the kids' adventure was told.
"Which is why we're here," Wyatt acknowledged. He carefully set the magic items on the kitchen table. "Mrs. Aldrich thought it would be good to give the kids a little token of her appreciation for their help in saving her store." He didn't sound happy with her decision. "I guess she was in a 'grandmother' mood or something."
"I could tell what stuff didn't have powerful magic," Morgana volunteered, "but I'm not good enough to be able to tell what each one does, or even if there is weak magic there."
Vanessa glanced at the items, then at the adults. "So you need me to figure out what this stuff does?"
Elaine Cody nodded. "It may be weak magic, but magic can still get the kids into trouble."
Vanessa nodded. "If you kids learn only one thing today, it should be what your mother just said. Even weak spells can very quickly get you in a world of trouble." Her solemn tone actually seemed to make an impression on the kids. "Okay. Let's see what we've got." Vanessa wheeled her chair closer to the table and picked up the closest item, which happened to be a rather plain bracelet. Concentrating, and closely observed by Morgana, she cast a spell, focusing on the item she held in her hands. After ten or fifteen seconds, she set it down. "This has a regenerating disguise spell. Every few hours, it can disguise the wearer's clothing - kind of like an instant costume change. I don't know how long the spell will last."
"So - mostly harmless?" Elaine asked.
"I want that one!" Karma exclaimed gleefully, practically jumping up and down with excitement, no doubt due to ideas she had of mischievous use of the trinket's magic. "I want that one!"
Imp clamped her hand on her daughter's shoulder. "Absolutely not," she said firmly. "You get in enough trouble without adding magic disguises." When Karma looked up at her, disappointment on her face, Imp continued, "When you get older, I'll teach you how to do disguises without magic. When you're good enough at that, we'll let you add magic." She read the girl's expression. "And no, we're not going to start that tonight. Or tomorrow. Or next week. When you get older."
The next item was a rather ornate mother-of-pearl and silver hand mirror. "Maybe it does the Snow White 'Mirror, Mirror' thing" Connie enthused.
Vanessa did her magic, then set the mirror down. "Sorry to disappoint you," she said to Connie, "but the mirror is a window to the past."
Jake's eyes lit up. "That sounds like a historian's dream - a direct window to past events. Imagine the research ...."
Vanessa shook her head. "Sorry, hon, it's not to 'general' past. More like, to a personal past, like maybe ancestry or something."
Connie wrinkled up her nose. "Sounds kind of useless," she said. "But it's still a pretty mirror. I want it." Since the boys didn't want a girly hand-mirror, and since Karma obviously saw no use for it in her pranking, Connie got it by default.
Next came a curious little figurine, a llama with a head on each end, obviously a 'push me, pull you' creature from the Dr. Doolittle stories. "Oh, this is a surprise," Vanessa said, her voice full of irony. "Not." She smirked. "Just as you'd expect from a Dr. Doolittle creature, it allows some communication with animals."
"Cool!" little Steven called out. "I want it! I'll be able to talk to deer, and squirrels, and cats and dogs, and ...."
"And your pet hamster," Connie smirked.
"The bag of holding is kind of obvious," Elaine Cody observed.
"Maybe," Vanessa cautioned. "Let me check it out. Sometimes these things have hidden traps, gateways, demons hiding inside - general bad stuff." If it was her intention to make the kids nervous, she succeeded; they all backed a half-step away, looking warily at the little black leather bag. After some scrying, she nodded with satisfaction. "It's clean."
"I want it!" Karma immediately called out.
"Did you know that sometimes, a magic bag like this will take a few of your things and deposit them in another dimension, lost forever?" Imp asked her daughter, winking at Vanessa as she spoke.
"But only sometimes?" Karma asked after a moment's thought. "Most of the time it'd be great to hide stuff, right?" Her grin returned. "I still want it!"
"And again, no," Imp replied. "Someday, maybe. But not today."
"Hey," Wyatt Junior turned to his friend Nigel, "you could use it to hide all your Scooby-snacks!"
Nigel looked at him, then grinned. "I'd never run out! Scooby-dooby-doo!" he practically howled like a dog.
Elaine Cody watched the exchange in disbelief, then turned to Imp. "Someday, I'm going to get even for you exposing my kids to that ... cartoon!"
"What?" Imp looked shocked and totally innocent. "Scooby-Doo is a classic! Kids have to learn to appreciate the classics!"
"Last up is this medal," Vanessa noted. She examined it, seeing it was a small, two-sided medallion, with one side being the face of some man, while the other was full of odd symbols and what looked to be Latin writing. "Now what is your little secret, my friend?" Vanessa said to herself. As she probed, her eyes widened, then glistened with delight as a grin spread over her face. "Um, sorry," she said, trying to look neutral, "but this one might be too much for the kids."
Imp saw right through her ploy. "Spill it!"
Vanessa looked at Imp, then sighed. "I had to try." She looked at Karma. "Think of your favorite pastry."
Karma thought, then grinned. "Chocolate éclairs," she beamed.
"Okay," Vanessa replied. She concentrated, holding the medal, and moments later, a small pile of chocolate éclairs appeared on the table.
The kids gawked, and then eagerly grabbed at the treats. Seeing a few extras, Imp shrugged and took one for herself, then gestured for the two girls to help themselves.
"This is a Saint's medal to St. Honorius, the patron saint of bakers," Vanessa explained as she took one of the unclaimed éclairs. "The medal manifests baked goods. I estimate it's good for about one to one-and-a-half pounds of baked goods a day."
"Any baked goodies?" Karma asked excitedly.
"As far as I can tell, yes. Breads, cakes, cupcakes, muffins, croissants, éclairs - basically, if you can find it in a bakery, this medal should be able to manifest it."
"Mine!" Karma declared emphatically.
"No wonder you wanted to keep it for yourself," Elaine Cody chuckled. She looked at her eldest son. "You okay with the costume illusion bracelet?"
Wyatt Junior thought a moment, then he nodded. "It could be fun."
"You can have the bakery medal, then," Imp told Karma. "But the first time you spoil your appetite by eating a lot of baked goods, I keep it for day. The second time, two days. The third time, four days, and so on. Every time I have to take it from you, I keep it for twice as long as the last time. Understand?"
Karma thought a little bit, her eyes widening with surprise as she digested the implications of her mom's conditions. "Yes, ma'am," she said, gulping.
"Now, Laura," Wyatt Senior turned his attention to his babysitter.
Laura gulped uneasily. "Yes, sir?" she replied hesitantly. This was it, the hammer was going to drop. Her babysitting career with the Codys was at an end, and since she'd been in charge when the kids had ducked out, it was her fault, and the Codys were right to not trust her anymore.
"Next time you babysit, you'll know ...." Wyatt cut off his words, staring with concern at the girl, who looked faint. "Laura?"
The girl seemed to be teetering unsteadily. "Wait," she managed to stammer as she caught herself with her hand on the back of a chair. "Did you say 'the next time'?" she asked, astonishment writ large in her expression.
"Yes, of course I did," Wyatt said. "Why?"
Elaine grabbed Laura in a hug. "You scared her," she chided her husband. "Were you afraid we wouldn't trust you babysitting anymore?" she asked the blue girl, her voice warm and full of concern.
Laura nodded faintly. "I ... I messed up," she admitted, nearly in tears. "I ... I figured you'd never let me babysit again."
Wyatt laughed. "These kids are a handful for us," he admitted. "We don't expect you to do better keeping them out of trouble than we've managed! So as long as you learn and don't let them use this trick on you again, of course we'll have you babysit the kids!"
"Now, we have kids to have a little chat with," Elaine Cody said, shooting a glance at her kids that made them all gulp nervously, "and then get them to bed."
"I'm going to be doing the same," Imp agreed.
"So, since Jake and Vanessa wanted to talk with you about something, we'll take our little miscreants home for their talking to." Wyatt said. He looked at the Bartons. "Good luck tomorrow. We'll see you when you get back." They herded their little group and Nigel out the door, followed by Imp and Karma.
"Are you still available tomorrow morning?" Jake asked Laura directly.
"Yes," Laura answered. "What time do you want me here?"
"We'll pick you up at your cottage," Vanessa replied. "About ten?"
"Nine thirty, if that's okay. It's about an hour drive there."
Laura nodded. "I'll bring a few things, then." She smiled and then gave Vanessa a hug. "Good night. I'll see you in the morning." She chuckled. "Mom would say 'sleep well', but somehow, I think you're going to be up half the night with a case of nerves."
Vanessa smiled. "I think you're right. So you sleep well. One of us needs to be rested for tomorrow's adventure!"
Saturday, September 24, 2016, early evening
Between The Village and Poe, Whateley Academy
"Are all your babysitting jobs this ... interesting?" Morgana asked as the two girls walked back to their cottage.
Laura giggled. "No, this one was a little extra challenging. The Cody kids are a challenge, well, the twins are. Steven is pretty well behaved."
Morgana grinned. "From what I saw, I think he's crushing on you."
Laura shrugged. "I don't think so. Anyway, by herself, Karma is a big challenge. Together ...?"
"Exponential increase in the trouble factor?" Morgana speculated.
"At least." Laura frowned. "That little brat keeps swiping my gadgets!"
Morgana laughed. "This time it paid off."
"True," Laura grudgingly admitted. "Maybe I should ask their parents to get them implanted with transponders. Like Kirk and Spock in 'Patterns of Force'."
Morgana turned her head and stared in disbelief at her friend. "You know the episodes by name and plot elements? In small details?"
Laura winced. "Kind of. Mom thinks I can identify an episode of Star Trek from a two to three-second clip."
"Can you?" Morgana asked, shooting a sideways glance at the gadgeteer.
Laura winced. "Um, yeah," she admitted sheepishly. "Most of the time. Except Enterprise. That's ... that's not Star Trek. At best it's an abomination!"
"And that confirms what I've always said - you are a nerd," Morgana said with a triumphant grin.
Acting like a mature person in responding to such petty name-calling, Laura stuck her tongue out at her friend. "Pbthhh. I'm not a nerd." The she smiled. "And besides, if I'm a nerd, what does that make you? You're hanging around in the labs every chance you get, and you talk tech with the guys!"
"I'm ... I'm just curious," Morgana tried to defend herself. "And ... and they give me coffee."
"So, you're a nerd and into tech stuff, or you're a coffee vampire preying on the labs' coffee supplies, or you enjoy having all the male techies drooling over you," Laura countered with a grin. "Which one is it?"
It was Morgana's turn to respond maturely. "Oh, hush! You're just as addicted to devisor coffee as I am, and you like wiggling your little butt and getting all the gadgeteer guys to do things for you, too! And you know it!"
"I do not!" Laura protested indignantly. "That's ...." She abruptly stopped, alert, and slowly scanned around herself.
"You do ...." Morgana halted when Laura firmly gripped her arm and the redhead saw her friend's alert posture and expression. "What?"
Laura gestured for Morgana to be quiet, but after a moment of scanning the area, she sighed and shook her head. "I thought I heard something - like a rustling sound of someone stepping on pine needles and dried leaves."
Morgana looked around, too. "Probably just an animal. Or one of the tribal weres is messing with you."
"No, I don't think so," Laura objected. "Sometimes, it's like ... like ...." She shook her head as she tried to figure out words to describe what she was thinking. "Sometimes, it feels like someone is following me and watching me," she finally said.
"You're just getting paranoid," Morgana tried to shrug off her friend's worries, but she couldn't quite dismiss them. Most of their friends had experienced one kind of harassment or another, including a few ambushes and attacks. "And besides," Morgana added, "you and your roommate are the ones with charmed lives."
"Hush!" Laura snapped, glaring at her redheaded friend as the pair continued to walk. "Are you trying to jinx Bailey and me?" In a momentary silence as Morgana contemplated a retort, Laura's head snapped to look away from the path again. "There!" she insisted in a firm but soft voice. "There it is again. Like footsteps!" She pointed in the direction she was looking. "It sounds like it's coming from over there!"
"I didn't hear anything, and I don't see anything," Morgana replied after looking and listening a couple of seconds. "Don't you have a scanner or something in your pile of gizmos?"
Laura scowled. "No, but that's a good idea. I'll have to make one."
"After you finish PFGs for me and Tia," Morgana reminded her.
The blue girl nodded slowly. "I've already got too many projects lined up. How about you? Can't you ... you know," she twiddled her fingers in a manner suggestive of some cartoons and TV shows, "cast some kind of spell to see if there's someone there?"
"It doesn't work like that," Morgana rolled her eyes. "You've heard me and Bianca talking about how magic works." Although..." The redhead paused, eyes not quite focused as she started the mage equivalent of tech fascination over an interesting problem that Laura was very familiar with.
Laura gave it about five seconds before poking her friend back to reality. "Excuses, excuses, excuses." Laura chuckled. She did know how magic worked; between Bianca, Morgana, and Hikaru, she'd heard more than enough discussions of some of the travails of learning to use - or more properly, to control - magic. "Hey, you know those funny pods I found?" she changed the subject so abruptly that Morgana nearly got whiplash.
Morgana thought for a moment. "Oh, yeah. Those."
"The trees are just a bit off the trail up here. I'll show you." She turned off the path, and Morgana followed after wondering momentarily if Laura was being reckless. After all, Laura had been the one convinced that they were being followed. Then again, the supposed noises had been on the other side of the trail a bit behind them.
"I showed them in the lab, and Horace Bishop - he's a sophomore biodevisor - he said they're cacao pods."
"Cacao pods?" Morgana gawked. "They're tropical! They can't grow this far north."
Laura simply smiled. "Biodevisors," she explained, and that one word said a mouthful. If a biodevisor decided to hybridize palm trees to grow in Alaska, there would be palm trees in Alaska. Normal rules of biology didn't quite apply when biodevisors were involved. So it was very possible that the trees were producing cacao pods.
"Interesting," Morgana said unenthusiastically. "I've got to get back to Poe, you know."
Laura nodded, then slipped off her jacket and slung it like a pouch. "Help me get some more pods. Horace said we can try to make some chocolate and see if these are any good." She grinned as she picked a few pods off a tree. "Because ... you know ... chocolate!"
Morgana joined the effort - the sooner Laura had her makeshift pouch full of the pods, the sooner they'd get back to the cottage. "And I suppose it's okay. But it's not like someone hybridized something really useful like coffee plants."
"Okay?" Laura gasped, feigning total shock. "Okay? You ... blasphemer! Coffee over chocolate? Heretic!" She couldn't help but giggle, and Morgana joined in laughing at the utter silliness of Laura's melodramatic reaction.
"And I suppose you're going to sample this devisor chocolate you and Horace manage to concoct - if you manage to make it, that is?" Morgana was dubious about the prospect of devisor chocolate.
"Well, we'll run some tests on it first, of course," Laura countered. "To make sure there's nothing harmful about it. Standard lab protocols, you know."
"Mark my words," Morgana said with a warning tone of voice as she picked more of the pods, "I bet there's going to be some weird side effect, like growing a third arm or getting an unending rash or something. It's devisor stuff. There's always a side effect!"
"Pfft!" Laura scoffed. "You watch too many B-grade sci-fi movies! It might be the best chocolate ever!"
Sunday, September 25, 2016, mid-morning
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy
"Laura!" Bailey yelled at her roommate, "get the door!" She had her head under her pillow, trying to muffle the noise of the loud knocking.
The blue girl groaned. "Get it yourself!" she muttered unhappily.
"Laura!" The voice calling through the door accompanying the knocking made it abundantly clear who should answer the door. "The Bartons called Mrs. Horton to make sure there was nothing wrong with you because you didn't answer your phone!"
"I told you your phone was ringing!" Bailey grumbled from beneath her pillow. "Get up so Flower will stop knocking and I can get back to sleep!"
"Okay, okay!" Laura grumbled. "I'm up!"
Bailey poked her head from beneath her pillow, then muttering a variety of mild oaths, swung her feet down and lurched to her feet. A couple of steps put her next to her roommate's bed, where she yanked Laura's blankets from atop her. "Get up!"
"The Bartons will be here in half an hour," Flower called from the other side of the door.
Laura swung her legs off her bed, sitting up. "Why so early? They're not supposed to be here until nine-thirty!"
"It's already nine!" Bailey grumbled as she slid back beneath her blankets. "And yes, your damned alarm went off, and you slept through it. Just like you slept through at least three phone calls!" She flopped over, her back to Laura, and pulled the pillow back over her head. "If you weren't up until two in your lab ...."
"It's a very important project," Laura protested, "for Mrs. Barton. I've got to get it finished!"
"You've got to get ready to go with the Bartons right now!" Bailey complained. "So shut up and focus on quietly getting ready so I can get more sleep!"
Twenty-five minutes later, hair still damp because she ran out of time, Laura grabbed her backpack of homework and babysitting supplies and charged down the stairs.
Jake Barton was waiting in the lobby, and he greeted her warmly. "When you didn't answer your phone, we got a little worried because I know you wouldn't miss helping us for the world."
Laura flinched. "I was up late working in the labs," she admitted. "I've got a ... special project that I want to finish as quickly as I can." Seeing Jake's curious expression, Laura grimaced. "It's something special ... I'm trying to make for Vanessa."
"Oh? Is it something you can show me?" He read her uncertainty. "If it's for Vanessa, I can keep a secret, and maybe I can give you some early review and comments."
"I suppose that'd be the best way to do this," Laura acknowledged after a moment's thought. She walked quickly with the big man around behind Poe to a small utility roadway normally used by maintenance and security, to where Vanessa was waiting in Jake's car.
"Ready for an adventure?" Vanessa greeted Laura warmly.
"I should ask you the same," Laura giggled in response as she climbed into the back seat, to which Vanessa smiled nervously.
"We're going to the Arkham Research Consortium. It's about an hour drive. There's a nice little restaurant in Whitefield, which is nearby, and we'll all have lunch there." Vanessa saw Laura's startled look. "Oh, don't worry. ARC houses some seriously weird stuff, and the locals tend to ignore anything that's less unusual than a three-headed demon dog. You'll be fine."
The blue girl smiled faintly. "I always bring my special makeup," she said, "so if I have to .... It only takes me a few minutes to put it on, and I've got my jacket." She absently patted her bag. "I've got some homework I can work on to keep me occupied on the way there," she added. "I've got one slave-driver of a teacher who insists on giving his students tons of history homework every weekend."
Vanessa chuckled. "Oh, the monster! Imagine a teacher giving a load of homework over the weekend!"
"You love history, and you know it," Jake countered in a faux-gruff voice. "And you haven't complained before."
"All that drudgery and toil interferes with all the fun stuff I'm working on in the labs," Laura laughed.
"Just like every gadgeteer and devisor," Vanessa snickered. "I swear, most labcoats would rather invent than eat!"
"Like finger-wigglers don't spend hours and hours in their casting rooms conjuring up hobgoblins and lighting candles," Jake countered. "Do you know how many times she stood me up because she lost track ...."
"I don't think Laura wants to hear about our dating life while we were students," Vanessa interrupted.
"But I'm sure there are a lot of really interesting stories," Laura giggled. "I'd love to hear some of them."
"You have homework to do," Vanessa replied sternly, which left both Jake and Laura chuckling.
Sunday, September 25, 2016, late-morning
Arkham Research Consortium, New Hampshire
As the group - Jake and Vanessa Barton, Laura, some kind of manager, and a nurse - walked through the sterile hospital-like corridors of the upper levels of the research center, Laura grimaced inwardly. This facility was no place for a little girl. It wasn't warm or welcoming or friendly at all; the decor and the demeanor of the staff practically screamed 'mental hospital'.
"It'd probably be best if you wait here," the management type said to Laura when they stopped outside a room. "We don't want to upset her by introducing someone new at the same time as she's facing such a big change."
Laura was winding up to object when she felt Vanessa's hand touch hers. She turned to the older woman and saw her gesturing her closer, so she leaned closer.
"This is their facility," she whispered. "It's best to not make a big fuss."
"They probably don't have little sisters," Laura said with a scowl. "I know what kids can and can't handle. She'll get more upset by a sequence of new things one after another than all of them at once."
"Just let them do it their way, so they don't make bureaucratic roadblocks."
"Okay," Laura acknowledged sullenly. "I can pretend that they know what they're doing."
While the others went into the room, Laura stewed and fretted in the hall, and from the sounds coming through the open door, the little girl wasn't exactly happy. While she wasn't crying, when she spoke, it was in hushed tones and occasionally cracked from nervousness. She wasn't exactly cooperative, and Laura could tell that the adults had no clue how to deal with a small girl.
Finally, Laura could take no more. She boldly stepped through the door after plastering a pleasant smile on her face. "Hi! I'm Laura. What's your name?" she asked cheerfully as she sank to her knees to be more at Valerie's height. As she expected, the girl ducked in fright behind the nurse.
"You can't just ...," the manager started to scold Laura at Valerie's first reaction.
His words choked off when he saw Valerie peek out and her eyes widen. Her jaw dropped and she gawked at Laura, then a huge grin broke across the girl's face and she practically threw herself at Laura, arms outstretched, and she wrapped herself around the older girl. "Blue!" Valerie practically screamed with delight. "Blue!"
The manager's eyes went wide, and the nurse stared at Laura in disbelief. "What just happened?" the nurse mouthed.
"What's your name?" Laura repeated, hugging Valerie lightly.
"Valerie," the little blond-haired girl said. "You're blue!" she repeated.
"Yes, I am," Laura said cheerfully. "Would you like to come with us for lunch? And then we can go to your new home and we can play?" She stood carefully, a little wobbly because of the girl clinging to her, but she steadied herself and carried Valerie over to Vanessa's power chair. She carefully pried the clingy little girl off her, and while still holding the girl's hand reassuringly, set her down on Vanessa's lap. "They told me that you're going to your new home with the Bartons, and that I'll be able to help you and play with you and babysit you," she said warmly.
"Are you going to be my new sister?" Valerie asked cautiously.
"No," Laura admitted, still smiling, "but I help Mrs. Barton - your new mom - all the time, and I babysit some of the other kids, so I visit a lot, and your new mom and dad have asked me to help out as much as I can." She glanced at Vanessa, who was a little uncertain, so Laura guided Vanessa's arm around the girl's shoulders. "Would you like me to help out and play with you a lot?"
The girl glanced up at Vanessa uneasily, but the fear in her eyes was rapidly fading as the warm hug began to soothe her. She nodded carefully, then glanced at Vanessa again to see if she was saying something wrong.
"I'd like that a lot," Laura said with a huge smile, "but only if your mom and dad say it's okay." She kept emphasizing the words 'mom and dad' to Valerie to try to reassure the girl that this was going to be a good and permanent change in her life.
To the utter surprise of everyone, except possibly Laura, Valerie stared at Laura a few seconds, and then looked up with wide eyes at Vanessa. "Is it okay?" she asked simply.
"Of course," Vanessa replied, her voice cracking as tears seeped into the corners of her eyes. She'd never been referred to as mom and was afraid that she'd never hear that magical word. She had no idea how she was going to get the little girl to think of her as mom, but Laura had managed that feat in less than two minutes.
"How old are you?" Laura continued small talk with Valerie.
She held up a hand with her fingers and thumb all outstretched. "I'm this many," she said. "One, two, three, four, five," she counted off, practically beaming with pride.
"Do you need any help getting things packed?" Laura continued, prompting the girl. "Do you have anything special that you want to carry with you?" Before the girl could reply, Laura smiled at her. "My little sister has a little stuffed tiger she calls Stripey. She takes Stripey with her everywhere because he makes her feel good when she's sad."
Valerie stared at Laura, then looked up at Vanessa before slowly climbing down from the older woman's lap. "Miss Ping," she said softly. When Laura nodded, Valerie climbed up on her bed and reached behind her pillow, extracting a decent-sized stuffed panda bear wearing a tiny tropical-print shirt. She carried her toy carefully to Laura, who properly ooh'd and aah'd over the cute little stuffed toy.
"Would Miss Ping like to go get some lunch? Your mom and dad said there's a nice place we can eat." Laura looked wide-eyed at little Valerie. "Have you ever tried a chili dog?" She smiled. "That's my favorite food. They're really, really good! With tater tots," she added. Laura guided the little girl to show Miss Ping to Vanessa, encouraging her to climb up on Vanessa's lap again.
"On the way to your new home," Laura continued, "we can read some books I brought. Do you know any Dr. Seuss books?" she asked. "My little sister loves Dr. Seuss. She's learning how to read them for herself."
Vanessa glanced up at Jake and smiled. She was still terrified of suddenly being the parent of a five-year-old, but with Laura's help, things were off to a good start. He reached down over her shoulder and squeezed her hand reassuringly.
Sunday, September 25, 2016, mid-afternoon
The Village, Whateley Academy
The novelty of riding in Vanessa's power chair on her lap would take a while to wear off, Laura figured, and in the meantime it was good for both of them to be physically close. The emotional connection would take a little more time for all three, and little Valerie would have her challenging moments; after all, she was a young child.
It had taken a little thought, but Laura figured out how Vanessa could push Valerie on the swings; it was a sad commentary on what the girl had experienced so far in her resurrected life that she'd never played in a park or on a play structure or even on a swing-set. So Laura showed her, helped gently push her a few times, and then helped Vanessa maneuver her chair into position so she could push Valerie. To say that the girl was both thrilled and terrified would have been quite accurate, and at times, Laura thought Vanessa was crying out of sheer joy.
Before long, three kids came running noisily and happily out of the Cody home. Their boisterous demeanor frightened Valerie, who retreated behind Laura. Laura scooped up the little girl and deposited her in Vanessa's lap, hoping that she'd cling to Vanessa for comfort instead of her, while Laura strode to intercept the oncoming Cody herd.
"You guys need to quiet down," Laura cautioned them, actually grasping Wyatt Junior's and Connie's arms to keep them from bypassing her. "Valerie has never spent time with other kids, and you're scaring her a little."
"Why?" Steven asked curiously.
"Because she grew up in a special place where there aren't any other children around," Laura explained. "So I want you to be nice and calm when you meet her, and then we'll see if she wants to play, or if she just wants to watch a little bit."
"Why would she just watch?" Connie asked.
"Because where she grew up, they didn't have play sets or swing sets, so she's never played on them. She might be a little intimidated at first." Still holding Wyatt Junior and Connie by their jacket sleeves, Laura turned with the kids and walked them slowly over to Vanessa and Valerie. The girl was clinging to the older woman, watching the newcomers with saucer-eyes.
"Valerie," Laura said in her usual friendly happy voice, "these are your neighbors. You'll probably play with them a lot. This one," she tugged Wyatt Junior forward, "is Wyatt. His twin sister is Connie."
"They aren't twins," Valerie declared softly. "Twins look alike."
Wyatt scoffed at her words, which caused Valerie to flinch deeper into Vanessa's arms. "Not all twins are identical."
"And this young one is Steven," Laura ignored Wyatt and continued the introductions.
"Do you want to play on the play tower?" Connie asked bluntly, pointing to the large and complicated structure.
Still staring wide-eyed, Valerie shook her head feebly. With a shrug, the kids ran to the structure and began to climb around, making the usual loud kid noises that indicated they were engaged in their primary job - having fun.
Within fifteen minutes, Karma scampered to join the kids, pausing momentarily to look at the newcomer before scrambling up the play tower.
Laura noticed that Valerie was slowly losing her fear while gaining some curiosity. "I'm going to call for backup," she informed Vanessa. "If Valerie starts playing with the three Codys and Karma, the group will be a lot more than you and I can handle." She smiled. "And from her expression, it looks like she's going to get curious and join them pretty soon." Laura leaned close to the girl. "How about if you go play on the swing while I make a quick phone call? The other kids won't bother you, and you can have your mom push you."
Laura watched the kids playing as she called Morgana to see if she could help; shortly after Valerie started swinging, little Steven came over to join her since the older kids were doing their 'follow the leader' game again in a way to try to exclude the younger boy. Unlike Val, though, Steven hopped on and soon was swinging high, while Valerie watched with a look of envy that he could do it all by himself while she didn't know how.
"I'm gonna do it," the little girl insisted in a bit of a huff. She squirmed around in the swing as Vanessa reached up to push her again.
"See you in a few," Laura cut off the phone call and dashed to Vanessa's side, squatting down beside the older woman who looked both surprised and a little distressed by the girl's insistence at doing things herself. "Part of being a kid," she explained, lightly touching Vanessa on the arm. "Sometimes, she'll want help, and other times, you'll feel like she's pushing you away." Laura smiled. "That's what Mom told me I did, and what I saw my little sister do." She looked back at the girl, who was struggling to synchronize moving her body and legs to gain momentum on the swing. Frustration started to show on her face as she flailed about without making progress, but instead of fussing, she stopped and studied Steven's motions.
Moments later, Connie and Karma joined them on the swings, while Junior continued to play on the monkey-bars on the structure. The two older girls were quickly swinging higher and higher, watched enviously by Valerie.
"No jumping!" Laura called out sternly to the older kids, having noticed that Karma was swinging like she was preparing to leap from her swing. Karma looked disgusted, while Connie had a look of disappointment. Laura knew she had to nip their overly-adventurous behavior in the bud, and unlike many adults, she knew that 'because I said so' would be an inadequate explanation. "Wyatt, Connie, Steven, Karma! Come with me!" She gave Vanessa a nod to reassure her, and then led the little troop to a nearby picnic table.
"Sit," she commanded the kids, and then at amidst them. "Valerie grew up in a place without any other kids, so there weren't any playgrounds," she explained. "She doesn't know how to play safely on play structures or swing-sets."
Karma frowned. "Was it a prison or something? How could there not be kids or playgrounds?"
Laura ignored Karma's wisecrack. "How long have you played on a playground?"
The girl's eyes widened at what she thought was an absurd question. "As long as I can remember," she replied after thinking a few seconds.
Laura nodded. "Same for the rest of you. I bet you were too young to remember the first time you fell off a swing. You all learned how to fall and land safely from a lot of little falls. But Valerie never did that. If you fell jumping from a swing, you might twist your ankle, but Valerie might break her leg, or worse." She watched the kids' faces as they began to understand. "I want you guys to help her learn."
"How?" Steven asked, wide-eyed at Laura's request.
"Start with small things. Like jumping out of a swing that's only moving a little." She smiled. "Valerie will learn fast. Just ... promise me you'll take it slow so she doesn't get hurt, okay?"
"You guys pick out a movie," Laura directed the kids, who were sitting around the floor of the Barton's apartment, having migrated from the park once Valerie and Steven started to tire. The kids were already arguing about which of the movies the Cody kids had brought they would watch. "We'll make some snacks."
Morgana, sitting in a big chair with kids sprawled all over the floor around her, goggled at her friend. "You're going to leave me alone ... with all these kids?" She sounded more than a little intimidated, probably from memories of the chaotic outing the day before.
"We'll just be in the next room making snacks. If we hear something break, or you scream, we'll be right in."
"By which point it will already be too late," Morgana whined.
"If they get riled up," Laura shot back, "just show them your dragon form again."
"That didn't intimidate them when I did it in the park," Morgana lamented. "All they did was giggle and laugh."
"When a child is amused, he is too busy laughing to cause trouble," Vanessa sounded philosophical.
When Laura and Vanessa returned to the living room, carrying a large tray of somewhat healthy snacks, they found Morgana relaxing in a recliner in her dragon form, with her horns curling out from her long red hair. The kids were raptly watching a movie. Laura looked at the movie, then at Morgana, then back at the movie, and finally gawked at Morgana. "How to Train your Dragon?" she asked in disbelief. "Really?"
Morgana shrugged. "They insisted. Besides," she added, "it kept them quiet, didn't it?"
Sunday, September 25, 2016, Dinnertime
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
"Oh, oh!" Erica said, alarm in her voice and on her features. "Angry smurf coming up the stairs." She looked at Morgana. "What did you do this time?"
"I didn't do anything!" Morgana protested. "When I helped her babysit this afternoon ...."
Bianca rolled her eyes. "That had to be it. You know better than to frighten small children!"
"For your information," Morgana rebutted, "the kids thought I was fun and entertaining."
"So what ...?"
"Hikaru!" Laura growled as she approached the table.
The Japanese girl looked up, her features mostly impassive except for a hint of curiosity. "Yes?" she asked calmly.
"You know I can't take that ... furisode!" Laura blurted out, clearly upset.
"Why not? It's a gift, and it's colors I'd never wear," Hikaru replied.
"Do you know how much that's worth?" Laura exclaimed.
Hikaru thought a moment. "Nagajuban, datejime, hiyoko, good quality silk furisode, high-quality obi with obijime, tabi and zori ..." She shrugged. "I don't know. It'd depend on where and how you got it. You might be able to get it for a couple of thousand maybe."
"A couple of thousand?" Laura gawked at the girl.
"Is that how you pay minions these days?" Tia chuckled.
"You'll have to find some other way to pay any male minions," Bailey commented. "I don't know many guys who would take a fancy silk kimono as payment." Her dry humor elicited a few more chuckles.
Laura ignored her, still glaring at Hikaru. "When I looked it up, I was sure I made a mistake, so I found someone on-line to tell me its value. The obi alone is worth at least eight thousand!"
"Eight ... thousand?" Bianca's jaw dropped. "That's yen, right?"
"No, dollars," Laura shot back. "I can't take something that expensive!"
Calmly, Hikaru took a sip of her drink. "Would you rather I gave it to goodwill?"
"You aren't getting it! I can't take it!" Laura repeated.
"It's ... it's too much! It'd make me feel like I always owe you something, like you've got that hanging over my head forever!"
"Would it make you feel better if I simply threw it out, and you found it in the dumpster?"
"I'm not so poor that I have to go dumpster-diving for clothes!" Laura replied angrily. "But ... it'd be different. It ... wouldn't feel like a bribe. Or leverage over me."
Tia grinned. "So give it back to Hikaru. She'll throw it out, and you can rescue it from the trash. Problem solved."
"Aaarghhh!" Laura tossed back her head and groaned in frustration. "You two are impossible!"
Hikaru continued, unfazed. "If you really think it is too much, consider that you spared me the effort of finding a place to put it without me giving offense to the person who gave it to me." She gave a faint smile. "Trust me, that's not as easy as it sounds, and gifting it to a companion so that she may wear it while I am in my preferred colors and style? Perfectly acceptable."
"But it's still too much!" Laura stormed off, still frustrated at the situation and the way Hikaru and Tia made light of it.
"Someone doesn't appreciate your logic tonight, Tia," Bianca deadpanned. "Must have been a tough day babysitting."
"Some people don't appreciate a little gift," Hikaru muttered, shaking her head.
Erica cocked one eyebrow. "Just how 'little' was the gift? Was it as much as Laura said?"
"I don't know," Hikaru said. "They're all gifted to me, and most of them I'll never wear. I never asked for the cost, and frankly, if I did, the designers would feel insulted."
A few minutes later, Laura returned with her tray of food, still frowning at Hikaru. After a few bites, she set her fork down again. "And just how much is that 'spare' phone you gave me really worth?" she asked.
Laura rolled her eyes. "Do you have any clue about the meaning of 'over-gifting'?" She read Hikaru's quizzical expression. "No, of course you don't." Shaking her head, she dug into her food.
"Well, that was entertaining," Vic said dryly after he sensed that the exchanges between Laura and Hikaru were done. "What's the dinner show tomorrow night?" Erica, Cally, and Tia chuckled, which evinced a frown from Laura.
"Are you trying to bribe me?" Laura finally asked bluntly. "Like everyone says Japan is trying to recruit every gadgeteer they can get? Are you part of that?"
"I heard that urban legend," Hikaru replied with a wry smile. "Bribery is different from thanking you for a job well done and simultaneously having you think well of Japan, true?"
"Someone is getting paranoid, I think," Bianca grinned.
Laura scowled. "I might have to re-think the priorities on the gadgets I'm making," she observed to no-one in particular.
"Oh, come on," Morgana tried to mollify the blue girl. "It was just a little teasing."
Laura sighed heavily, then shook her head as if to clear it. "Sorry," she finally said. "I was up real late last night, and I can't get past an unstable feedback problem on the regenerative plasma trap circuit of the PFG I'm trying to make for you."
"A what?" Erica gawked.
"A battery can only hold so much energy to a force field," Laura began to explain, "so I've got a feedback circuit so when the field absorbs any energy, it directs it into a small plasma containment torus, and then I tap that plasma energy - which can get really intense - to keep powering the field. The problem is that ...."
Bianca rolled her eyes and sighed. "You had to ask, didn't you?"
Laura was so focused on her gadget that she didn't hear Bianca's snarky comment. "... at a certain point, the feedback circuit can't shed enough excess energy to keep the containment stable, and it dumps all the energy in a ... well, kind of a burst of energy."
"A burst of energy - directed where?" Morgana asked.
"Most of the time, it dumps it all into the spot where it's trying to reinforce, which is kind of like a huge blowback to the incident force ..." Laura continued to explain.
"Like - someone zaps you, and when it's absorbed too much energy, it zaps back?" Morgana speculated as to what Laura meant.
"Most of the time," Laura agreed. "But ... about once in ten times, it's kind of random. Like a giant Tesla coil shooting out random energy in random directions."
"So ... if I get this straight, if I were wearing it in a fight, and someone was zapping me, it might eventually counter-punch and hit the attacker?" Morgana postulated. When Laura nodded, she continued. "But sometimes, it's just random bursts of energy?" Again Laura nodded. "And the tenth time, it could hurt anyone on my side?"
"Yeah," Laura grimaced.
"Nine out of ten - I'll take those odds," Morgana said after momentary consideration.
"But we won't," Bianca and Erica objected simultaneously.
"So I'm ...." Laura's eyes glazed over. "If ... if I detune ...." She picked up a napkin and after getting a pen from her backpack, started jotting down notes and equations.
"Well, she's gone for the rest of the evening," Bianca said dryly.
It was only a few minutes, and Laura was left scratching her head. "That just might work," she muttered to herself. As she set the pen back down on the table.
"Good. Make it an energy repeller," Bianca said eagerly. "So I can use it. Unlike Erica, I'm squishy."
"What if you just squirted out the contained plasma in bursts," Morgana countered. "Like Romulan plasma torpedoes?"
"Channel the energy into a beam weapon," Erica countered. "Or a hypersonic pulse weapon."
"Yeah. An overpowered laser would be good," Vic added.
"Or tie it into your neural neutralizer power-pack. You could extend the range and power ...." Erica added.
"And fry someone's neurons from half a block away?" Laura protested in shock. "I do defensive gadgets!" she protested weakly. "You guys are getting way too bloodthirsty with your ideas."
The team looked around at each other for a few seconds. "Do you suppose we should end 'tease Laura night' early tonight?" Tia finally asked with a wicked grin. "I think she's too tired to enjoy our humor."
Laura gawked at her. "Oh, pbthhhh!" she finally shot a raspberry at the rabbit-girl.
Sunday, September 25, 2016, Evening
Labs, Beneath Kane Hall, Whateley Academy
"How many more of these are there?" Horace Bishop, a sophomore devisor who was questioning Laura, held out one of the pods from the last batch she'd brought. He was a little shorter than average and rather thin - if he'd have been that taller and proportionally thin, the appellation 'beanpole' would have fit him perfectly. With a mop of unkempt, scraggly brown hair and a white labcoat with some unknown yet colorful stains, he looked the part of a junior Doc Emmett Brown.
"Several trees," Laura replied. "I couldn't tell because it was dark."
"I've done some research, and whoever hybridized these things was no dummy. There's genetic material from a premium cacao variety called Criollo," Horace explained.
"So ... can we make chocolate out of it?" Laura asked, feeling a little excited. To participate in a project with an older devisor whose specialty was in a different field was a big coup for a freshman. "I looked at the process, and it looks like it's going to take quite a while to make."
Horace shrugged. "There used to be a guy in the labs who was a whiz at fermenting things, like cocoa beans need to be fermented. Too bad he's not here."
"Wait, fermenting stuff? And distilling it, too?" Laura gaped at Horace.
"Yeah. A legendary whiskey-maker. I bet he knew some tricks that could be adapted ...."
"I wonder if that's the guy over in The Village," Laura mused. Seeing Horace's odd look, she continued. "The guy runs the bar over there, at least when he isn't traveling maintaining his distilling rigs. He's kind of uber-rich, from what the teachers were saying. One thing he makes is a devisor whiskey that affects exemplars, so he's in high demand with the faculty."
"So it'll be a week or so to ferment," Horace began to explain.
"Unless the guy in The Village can help," Laura corrected.
"Then a week or so to dry. We don't want to use heat because that can create bad flavors."
"Or maybe freeze-drying? That'd be faster and wouldn't heat them," Laura suggested.
"Everything after that is simple mechanical processing, so ...."
"I'm going to check with the Bartons next time I babysit. If it's the same guy, we might have a way to ferment the beans faster."
"Wait, why are you in a rush?" Horace asked the obvious question.
"What happens if they freeze?" Laura shot back. "If they make good chocolate but the pods get ruined by frost ...."
"Are you thinking what I think you're thinking?" Horace asked with one eyebrow cocked. "Because if you are, I agree completely. If the chocolate is any good, we could make a lot of money." He grinned. "I'm going to do some research on the chemical composition of premium chocolate. We can find a way to synthesize them during the processing."
"Laura?" A deep voice sounded from the doorway, startling the two devisors.
"Dr. Barton!" Laura replied in surprise. "What are you doing down here? Shouldn't you be ...?"
"We took Valerie to Berlin shopping this evening. We wanted to let her help pick out her furniture, and I think we exhausted her. She was out like a light," the big man explained.
"But ... why are you here? You don't work in the labs!"
Realizing that he wasn't a part of the conversation and that he had work to do on their 'operation chocolate', Horace simply wandered out of the lab without saying anything. He was a devisor, not Miss Manners, he figured. He had a project that needed his attention.
"I had to bring a few notes to the office because I'm going to be out for the next few days," Jake explained. "And I wanted to talk to you."
"You could have called," Laura said.
"You weren't answering your phone. Mrs. Horton said you were probably down here, so I figured I'd see if you were around. Anyway, I wondered if you can help again tomorrow evening."
"Sure. I'm glad to help."
"Good. Well, I better get back home before Vanessa starts to worry."
"Yeah, I can understand that. Well, I'll see you tomorrow night then." As she started to turn back to her workbench, she had a thought. "Wait," she called out to Dr. Barton. "I've got a project I'm working on, and, um, it was going to be a surprise, but," she winced, "maybe I should get your opinion to see if I should keep working on it."
Dr. Barton strode to her workbench, his curiosity piqued. "Oh? What kind of project?"
In response, Laura opened a cabinet and pulled out a model she'd created. "I thought that this would be useful to Mrs. Barton." The model was a scale replica of part of Vanessa's car. At first glance, it seemed normal, but a second view showed some significant alterations in the driver's side doors.
"What is it?" Jake asked.
"It'd be easier if I just demonstrate." Laura flipped a switch which caused some indicator LEDs to light up, then she pressed a button on the model base. The doors opened, sliding along the front and rear fenders, revealing the lack of a B-pillar. Next, a mechanism inside the model extended from the back seat area, moving something out and down. Meanwhile, the driver's seat rotated and then moved on an articulated frame out to the side and down, bringing the driver clear of the car and adjacent to the small model of a power chair that had deployed from the back seat and unfolded. The driver would be perfectly positioned to transfer from the driver's seat into the chair. When Laura pressed a second button, the driver's seat rotated back into the car, while the power chair was undocked from its lift, which likewise retracted. Finally, the doors closed back up.
Jake stared, his jaw agape at the model. "You ... made that?"
"It's a model of what I want to make. But ... I wasn't sure if Mrs. Barton would like it or not."
"Laura," Jake stammered, "I ... I don't know what to say! That's ... got to be the nicest thing you could do for her!"
"Watch this." Laura moved the model of the chair a bit, then she pressed another button. The chair docking mechanism deployed, and this time, it was in what Laura called 'seeker mode' whereby it hunted for the chair, docked with it, and then moved the chair to its 'transfer' location. The driver's seat deployed, and when Laura pushed a button to continue, the seat and the power chair were both pulled back into their places in the car and the doors closed.
"Why?" Jake asked, his voice choking. "Why do you want to make this for her?"
Laura shrugged. "I like Mrs. Barton. I like both of you. She treats me the way Mom does, in fact, she reminds me a lot of Mom, and you treat me the way I wish my Dad had. So I wanted to do something nice for you."
Jake Barton stood, staring in awe at the model, the corners of his eyes moist with tears. Laura was a total surprise to him.
"If it's okay, I can have the fab lab start making the parts, and probably in the next couple of weeks, I can have it ready to install." Laura thought a moment. "Modifying the doors is going to take a while, and I'll need the car in the shop for a couple of days."
"Tell the lab to charge my account for materials and parts," Jake said firmly. He saw the girl start to protest, but he held up his hand in a signal for her to be quiet. "It's going to be expensive, and I know you're not exactly loaded, so I'm not going to let you spend your hard-earned money on this project." He smiled at her. "The design, fabrication, and installation time are more than enough of a gift. Now, I better get back home before Vanessa worries." He paused in the doorway and smiled at the blue girl. "If you keep this up, Vanessa is going to try to adopt you, you know."
Monday, September 26, 2016, Evening
The Village, Whateley Academy
"I appreciate you being able to spend so much time helping," Jake said as he greeted Laura at the door of their apartment. "It's ...."
"A little overwhelming?" Laura asked with a smile. Seeing Jake's expression, she chuckled. "That's what Mom said I looked like the first time she had me watch my little sister. It was tough, so I can sympathize."
"As long as Wyatt and Elaine don't say 'I told you so'," Jake said with a smile. "Vanessa is with Valerie, so if you could watch Val while we get dinner ready ...."
Laura smiled. "I've got a better idea." She plopped her backpack on a convenient hall table and shed her jacket. From the backpack, she extracted a book.
"Look who's here!" Jake called to Vanessa and Valerie as Laura came into the living room. Val was sitting on the sofa, while Vanessa was close to her in her powered chair, trying to read a book to the little girl.
Val immediately hopped down from the sofa and dashed to greet Laura. "Blue!" she cried happily as she wrapped herself around the teenage girl.
"Great!" Vanessa said with a sense of relief. "If you can watch her, I'll get some dinner cooked."
Laura shook her head. "Nope." She scooped up the little girl and carried her back to the sofa, still clutching a book in her hand. "I'll make dinner. Mrs. Barton, why don't you move to the sofa? It'll be more comfortable, I think, and easier for Valerie to read along with you."
Vanessa looked uneasily at Laura, then at Jake. "Okay," she said very hesitantly. She levered herself to the sofa.
Laura scooted Valerie to her side, then handed the book to Vanessa. "This is one I used to read to my little sister all the time," she explained to the little girl. "She loves it, and Mom says she's starting to read along. It's called 'Go Dogs, Go'." She opened the book. "I like the pictures and the silly dogs," she added for Valerie's benefit.
"Are you sure? I don't want you to have to ...." Vanessa started to protest.
"I'll make dinner," Laura said insistently, giving Vanessa a firm and determined glance that Valerie couldn't see. "You two read the book."
With a skeptical look, Vanessa opened the book to read to Valerie, while Jake followed Laura to the kitchen. "What was that about?" he asked softly so Vanessa wouldn't hear him.
"I'm not her new mom," Laura said simply.
"So ... you're pushing Vanessa to take care of Val, and you're pushing Val to rely on Vanessa?" Jake smiled. "I bet Wyatt would recognize your ploy in a heartbeat, and he'd approve." He stepped to the pantry cupboard. "What's for dinner?"
"Kids love spaghetti. So I figured that'd be fast and easy." Laura had helped the Bartons often enough to know her way around the kitchen. "I already had dinner at Crystal Hall," she added when she saw Jake eyeing only three place settings at the table.
As she cooked dinner, Laura could hear Vanessa reading, and Valerie giggled at some of the pictures. "That girl dog has a silly hat!" the little girl squealed with delight; from all the times she'd read that book to her little sister, Laura could easily imagine which picture they were looking at.
"The noodles are done," Jake informed Laura, turning off the burner to avoid over-cooking the pasta and then taking the pan to the sink to drain the pasta and rinse it in cool water to stop it cooking.
"I'm almost done with the sauce," Laura noted. "Can you check the garlic toast in the oven?"
Jake pulled a sheet of toasted bread from the oven. "It's done."
"Let's wait a bit," Laura informed him cryptically. Seeing his puzzled expression, she smiled. "Listen," she said in an insistent whisper. "They're almost done with the book." Without any kitchen noises to obscure the sounds from the living room, both Jake and Laura could hear Vanessa reading to Valerie. The girl's excitement at the book was palpable, and more importantly, Vanessa's initial hesitance at reading was almost gone, and her interactions sounded far more animated and enthusiastic.
At the dinner table, it was immediately obvious that if Valerie had previously had spaghetti, it had been cut into pieces or had been little pasta circles which were easily eaten with a spoon. The girl struggled with the long slippery noodles. Even though Laura had already eaten at Crystal Hall, Laura sat with them at the table, and she noticed Valerie's struggles. Before Valerie could get upset, Laura showed her how to twirl noodles around her fork into a big spaghetti ball. Valerie took great delight in this activity, creating big spaghetti balls and then letting them fall off her fork, only to repeat the exercise again, giggling at each of her little 'creations'. A few of them she crammed in her mouth, but it seemed more of an arts and crafts project to Jake and Vanessa.
"Watch," Laura interrupted Valerie's little game. She got the end of one noodle tangled on Valerie's fork, put that into her mouth, and then, with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, slurped in the long, sauce-covered floppy noodle into her mouth. As expected, the noodle flopped around her face, resulting in a spattering of red sauce splotches on her light blue skin. Valerie giggled almost uncontrollably at the spectacle, and then she tried to mimic Laura's actions. It took her a few tries, but finally she got a noodle flopping around as she slurped it. She squealed with delight at the noise and action.
As Valerie happily slurped away, Vanessa turned to Laura, shaking her head. "I can't believe you taught her that!"
Laura smiled. "Sometimes, a meal should be fun. And she was going to learn it eventually."
"She's making a big mess!" Vanessa sighed.
"Don't worry," Laura reassured her. "I'll clean it up."
When dinner was finished, Laura directed Vanessa and Valerie back to the sofa and then she put in a movie. Jake insisted on helping her clean up, but Laura would not permit that and instead practically pushed him to the living room and down on the sofa next to Valerie.
As she cleaned up the cooking mess, Laura started making a movie treat for the Bartons. Once the dishwasher was loaded and running quietly in the background, Laura began doing some cleanup around the apartment, interrupting chores periodically to tend to a batch of caramel corn that she had in the oven.
When the caramel corn was done, Laura shut off the oven, let it cool a bit, and then dished up some in a couple of serving bowls. She gave a bowl to the Bartons to share with Valerie, while she sat with a small bowl in one of the recliners. Partway through the movie, Laura glanced at Valerie because the girl had become quiet. She smiled to see her sleeping in Vanessa's lap.
After helping Vanessa get Valerie ready for bed and tucked in, Jake insisted on giving Laura a ride back to Poe because of the late hour.
"Thank you for your help," Jake said gratefully. "This is a bigger adjustment than either Vanessa or I counted on."
"You'll do fine," Laura reassured him. "Just like most other parents who feel overwhelmed at times."
"When she and Vanessa were picking out bedroom furniture, Val insisted that we get her a bunk-bed in her room," Jake said with a smile. Because he was driving, he couldn't see Laura's face, but he could sense her confusion. "She is pretty adamant that you're going to be her sister so she wants the second bed for you."
Laura chuckled. "I'll help out, but my mom and some in administration might not take kindly to Valerie trying to adopt me into your family! And that's to say nothing of Mrs. Horton!"
Jake snickered at her reply. "We've told her that you'd come over sometimes to help her and us, but that you had your own room on campus and your own mom and sister, so she couldn't be her sister."
"Tell her I'll be her friend," Laura replied.
Jake smiled. "We already did."
Tuesday, September 27, 2016, Early Afternoon
New York City, NY
"What do you mean, the back taxes are paid?" Freya screamed into the phone at her ear, her face turning bright red. She angrily brushed aside the arm of the woman who was attending to her and stood, starting to pace anxiously.
"The owner came in this morning and paid all the back taxes and penalties," the man on the other end of the line tried to explain.
"How?" Freya yelled. "She has no assets! How could she have paid her taxes?"
"She found some," the county tax assessor said simply.
"Where? What happened? This was a sure-fire deal!" Freya stormed.
The tax assessor sighed. "A report from the sheriff's office notes that they've been providing a security detail at the building since Sunday evening. There are no details in the report other than that, so I talked with someone in the sheriff's office," the man said. "A lot of private vehicles have been coming and going around the building starting Sunday evening."
"What?!?" Freya raged. "Who is it? What are they doing?"
"My contact said the party has a very substantial private security force, and the deputies aren't permitted near or in the building."
"What started this whole shit-storm?" Freya demanded. Someone had messed up her plan.
"It may not be related, but there was a report to the sheriff's office Sunday afternoon about some young children who were lost in Dunwich. They were located and the incident closed."
"Where were they found?" There was a huge sinking feeling in the pit of Freya's stomach. It couldn't be a coincidence! But kids? Perhaps, she thought, it was still possible that the secret rooms were still undiscovered, in which case her plans could still be made to work. Perhaps if, instead of buying the building for back taxes, she could lease the building to get at its contents and proximity to the subterranean fissures that were their gateway to Whateley.
"The deputies have reported seeing many items being removed from the basement," the tax man continued.
"What?!?!?" Freya did scream, just before she slammed down the phone - hard. "Aaaaagghhhh!" she vented her frustration and anger.
Nick Dupraeve heard the yelling and came to see what the noise was about. "What's up?" he asked, knowing it was serious from the red-faced, fuming Freya.
"The building deal fell apart. Some kids got lost, and when they were found, the owner somehow managed to pay the taxes. And someone - most likely Whateley staff - have secured the building and are removing items from the basement!"
"Dammit!" Nick swore angrily. "That would have been an easy way inside the wards!" He sighed heavily and shook his head. "Now what?"
Freya shook her head slowly. "First, I get something for this bad headache I suddenly got. Then we start looking for either another way to get that building, or find some other access point to get to the fissures and tunnels." She closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths to calm herself. "Are there any mines in that area?"
Nick nodded slowly. It was time to get back to the drawing board. "I'll start checking the geological records again."
"And look for any buildings - farm structures, dwellings, anything - that are in close proximity to any branches of the fissures," Freya added.
"Okay." Nick could tell from her sudden change of tone that Freya was already coming up with a Plan B. She was not about to be denied her revenge. He was lucky that he could be a part of that so he, too, could avenge himself on that meddlesome school.