The Secret of the Forger's List (Chapter 2)
The Secret of the Forger’s List
A WHATELEY LITERARY CLUB ADVENTURE
By E. E. NalleyChapter Two
Headmistress’s Office, Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy
“It’s exactly this kind of behavior that can land you in serious trouble, Cobalt!” Mrs. Carson told the contrite student facing her desk. “What if someone had been in your landing zone? What would you have done then? What could you have done?”
“I didn’t think about it, Mrs. Carson,” the boy stuttered without meeting her eyes. “We were just having fun…”
“You could have killed someone, Cobalt! You have to think things…” the scolding was cut short by three sharp knocks on her door. Liz frowned; Amelia knew to not disturb her when she was with a student. These kinds of close calls had to be driven in as life lessons, or else bodily injury and property damage would likely follow. “I’m with a student,” she snapped into the intercom.
The doorknob was tried, and when it was found to be locked a dull rattle of keys on a key ring preceded the soft rasp of one being fitted into her door. Mrs. Carson shot to her feet, anger and a bit of fear beginning to overwhelm the annoyance of being interrupted. There were only three people besides her who had a key to her office, and she could think of no reason any one of them would be using it legitimately just then.
The door swung open to reveal a stone-faced Franklin Delarose, his face flushed and jaw clinched. Behind him stood her assistant, her own normally hard features molten as tears flowed down her face despite the handkerchief she was using to try and keep her composure.
Her heart in her throat, Elizabeth Carson was surprised by how calm she sounded. “Cobalt, we’ll discuss this later. Go to your next class.”
“Yes ma’am,” the boy replied, knowing a lucky break when he saw one. He darted from the office.
“Franklin,” the Headmistress asked calmly, “what is this about?”
“Mrs. Carson,” Delarose replied, his voice thick with suppressed emotion. “It is my most unpleasant duty to inform you that an accident has occurred. The… the State Police are on their way; along… along with the Coroner. Will you accompany me to Doyle Medical Complex please?”
“No,” she whispered. “No, not Shelly; Franklin…”
The security chief stepped forward, his arms open in solace. “Liz, I’m so sorry…”
The room spun around the aging heroine and the last sensation she was aware of was the feeling of her security chief’s arms catching her as she fell sideways. The darkness followed quickly and mercifully.
The Back Quad near the front of Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
The winter cold would take a lot of getting used to, despite the horror stories his sister had told him about New England winters. While her descriptions had been full of hyperbole, Steve had to admit they weren’t short on the truth of things. The cold had teeth that were gnawing through the heaviest coat he owned, and while it would have been fine for a chilly, wet Georgia winter, it was woefully short of the task it was being forced into. Stronghold looked up the hill to the back of Schuster Hall to see the school’s flag flapping beyond it in the intermittent breeze, its yellow boarder taunting him.
What use was being able to fly if the damned flag never let you practice?
A particularly Arctic-like gust blew up under the leather bomber he was wearing. Steve had nearly decided to fly the rest of the way to breakfast and hang the risk of pissing off whoever in the administration when he realized the wind that was causing his suffering had voices on it. “What are you three little idiots doing all the way out here?” a voice screeched. “I swear to God if I have to hunt you little twits down one more time, I’m going to kill you! Do you get it?”
Stronghold had nearly decided this wasn’t any of his business until the death threat had been uttered. His head snapped around to take in a desperately beautiful older girl screaming at three little kids, huddled together in terror. Fifteen years of preaching about the honor of Southern Men rose up in the young man, and his feet took him over to the terrified girls in mere moments. His approach was from the older girl’s back, which allowed him to catch the arm she threw up to slap the most defiant of the three who were staring up at her. “Why don’t ya’ll pick on someone your own size,” he growled in the most menacing voice his chattering teeth would allow.
Tansy’s head snapped around to take in the fresh faced boy who had dared to interrupt her. “What’s it to you, hick? Did they run out of corn in the cafeteria and your two brain cells got bored?”
“Ouch,” Nalley returned with a chuckle. “However shall I overcome such a cutting remark?”
“Fuck off, hayseed, this doesn’t concern you!”
“You kiss your momma with that mouth?” Stronghold looked over at three startled girls and smiled his best smile. “You girls go on; Miss Potty Mouth here isn’t going to hurt you.”
“But…” started Irene before Bethany stepped down on her foot, firmly.
“Who can we tell everyone saved us?” breathed the raven-haired young girl. She wished she’d forgotten her glasses this morning as she stared up into the face of a god.
His ego unable to compensate for naked hero worship, the young man from Georgia subconsciously struck a heroic pose and completely failed to notice the pistol Tansy was slowly pulling out of her coat. “You can tell them Mono…Stronghold saved you.”
“Look out!” yelled Clover as she threw herself to the ground. Palantir summoned a bubble from reflex, as Stronghold realized he was about to be shot and yanked Tansy off balance. The force-pulse pistol barked, striking the mystic ball of energy squarely. It pushed the magic sphere halfway across the quad directly into the face of a velociraptor straight out of Jurassic Park, who was wearing the shredded remains of a North Face coat. The ball exploded directly in front of him, knocking him backwards ass over elbows. Even from this distance, Stephen could make out the red UV band he wore that matched the color of the raptor boy’s eyes as he looked about for the source of the sudden attack.
“Oh shit,” whispered Stronghold as he locked eyes with Razorback and the monster roared a challenge. The red-headed young man swallowed his fear and stepped between Razorback and the three little witches. “You three don’t move until this fellow and I get to hammer and tongs then you run like the Devil himself is after you!”
Razorback dropped to all fours and charged faster than any living being had a right to move. Stronghold only had time to throw up an arm to ward off the snapping maw of teeth and the two were bowled over in a shower of snow. “Calm down, son, Ah ain’t looking for trouble with you!” Stephen shouted as the two rolled and trashed. The jaws snapped around his arm, but the razor sharp teeth couldn’t penetrate the PK field that hugged his skin.
“Run!” screamed Clover as she scrambled to her feet and took to her heels.
Bethany hung back for a moment, her eyes locked on one of the two struggling forms that had come to save her. No one had ever done anything for her, let alone get into a fight with Razorback. She didn’t even notice Irene hook her arm with Bethany’s and drag her friend off toward the Crystal Hall and safety. Bethany only had eyes for her hero.
“Calm down, damn it, calm down!” screamed Stronghold as he fought to somehow get a grip on the writhing dinosaur that was doing his damnedest to kill him. Razorback finally got a good purchase on the leather bomber and used it to fling the redhead twenty feet away into the trunk of a hundred year old oak tree that arrested his movement with a groan of protest. “Damn it, son that was my favorite jacket!”
Razorback hissed as he flung the tattered remains of the jacket away and began to circle for another attack. “Ah don’t want to hurt you,” Stronghold warned as he gave ground and kept himself between Razorback and the retreating witches. The Raptor boy snarled and rushed again, but this time Stronghold was ready for him.
At the last possible moment Stronghold leaped and sailed over the attack, striking down with a kick as the head turned to track his movement. Razorback was forced into the ground muzzle first and his movement tumbled him twenty more feet. Nalley’s flight only just got him between Razorback and the Crystal Hall before the Raptor boy was on his feet once more.
“Come on now, there ain’t no reason for this,” he shouted. “It was just an accident!”
His adversary only snarled and charged once more and leapt the intervening twenty feet in a single bound. Stronghold connected with a right cross that launched the other into the abused oak tree with a blow he was certain had broken his jaw. He’d felt the bone break under his fist. But Razorback only roared with frustrated rage and bounced off the tree like a wrestler off the ring ropes to return to the fray.
Razorback turned suddenly, sidestepping the overhead smash Stronghold was fairly certain would have knocked him out if it had landed. Instead, his swing struck nothing but air as the Raptor’s tail lashed into his solar plexus with the force of a runaway freight train. Stephen sailed all the way to Laird Hall to be stopped by the poured concrete wall of the Dojo.
For a moment, Razorback’s eyes were drawn to the movement of the running girls which gave Stronghold the time to fly back at full speed to tackle the rager in a bear hug. “No, you don’t!” grunted Stephen with the effort of keeping the full nelson he’d managed to work the bear hug into. The Raptor roared and thrashed in five different directions at once. It was all Stephen could do to hold on, but he knew if he tried to alter the hold into a sleeper he’d be thrown off.
Suddenly the answer was obvious and his flight lifted the two up into the air. Denied leverage, the squirms became easier to manage, and the snapping jaw couldn’t quite turn around to get at him. “Calm down, boy, it was just a damned accident!” chanted the would-be hero to his struggling captive. But the chant couldn’t hide the fact that now that he had the tiger by the tail, he couldn’t let go, or bring the fight to an end.
As he struggled for something, anything that might get him out of this situation a white and gold blur raced into the corner of his eye. Something struck Razorback hard enough to break his neck and pull him from the surprised boy’s grasp. The Raptor tumbled thirty or so more feet, but even at this distance, Stronghold could watch the broken neck reform, but the immediate crisis was over.
Razorback was out cold.
He turned to thank his own rescuer and words died on his lips as one of the most perfect girls in this ocean of perfect girls he was drowning in smiled at him. “Looks like you could use some help,” the hovering blonde told him as she extended a hand in greeting. “I’m Marty, but you can call me Mega-Girl.”
“Ah…I’m Stephen,” he managed. “Stronghold.”
Marty beamed. “Pleased to meet ya!”
“And I,” drawled the very un-amused voice of Mrs. Carson from below them, “will be seeing all three of you in my office to discuss your detentions.” The Headmistress casually walked over to the stirring form of Razorback and effortlessly lifted the four hundred pound apex predator by the scruff of the neck at arms length. This bent him over backwards, but before he could get any purchase on the ground, she floated upward, taking him with her. A whispered word of power and a sharp tap to the back of his neck caused the Raptor to slump unconscious once more.
The bulk was then thrown over one shoulder like a hunter coming out of the bush with a prize kill. A perfectly sculpted eyebrow rose. “Shall we?”
The two remaining conscious students shared a glance and a shiver before trudging off in the direction of Schuster Hall.
The Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
“Stronghold,” whispered Bethany dreamily to herself as she absentmindedly stirred her cream of wheat. “What a masterpiece.”
“That’s not his name,” Irene told her from across the table. “It’s Mono Stronghold. He said it himself.”
“Don’t be stupid,” snapped Bethany. “What kind of name is Mono Stronghold? He probably just slipped and started to say his real name.”
“His real name is Mono?” asked Estelle with a great deal of worry. “He’s named after a disease? Maybe he was warning you he has Mono. Isn’t that contagious? We should go to the nurse!”
Bethany rolled her eyes in frustration. “His name isn’t Mono and he doesn’t have a disease!” she snapped at her friends. The other two looked down on their trays and conceded the point. “Now, I have information that will help us get our essence out of the Lit Chix.”
“What information?” demanded Clover, her eyes large and round at the prospect of juicy secrets. Bethany preened to be one up on her peer group.
“I know that they’re investigating some kind of blackmail scheme, right here on campus! That they’re likely going to be separated tracking down these so-called clues while they find out some big secret that going to get them all one up on Mrs. Carson.”
“How do you know all that?” demanded Palantir.
“Because Lifeline and Foxfire are in my Mystic Algebra class and I heard them talking about it,” Abra replied with much weight and authority. “All we have to do is follow them around, wait for one of them to be alone and we’ll have our essence!”
“The last time you said that we were writing out the Code of Mystic Ethics twenty times,” accused Clover. “My hand still hurts!”
“It does not!” snapped Palantir. “Besides, we don’t have to take the essence from them.”
“We don’t?” Clover asked, wide eyed. “But, I thought…”
“If Lifeline and Foxfire are involved whatever the others are helping them with must be magical!” Bethany replied. “So, all we have to do is follow them around, let them find this magic secret and then swoop in and score all the essence for ourselves! It’s foolproof!”
“The last time you said that we were writing out the Code of Mystic Ethics thirty times…” groused Clover.
“Never mind about last times!” Abra hissed. “This time for sure. Now, here’s what we’ll do…”
Good Morning Whateley Academy and happy Tuesday, the 16th of January! This is Mrs. Hartford your Assistant Headmistress and these are today’s announcements. The Martial Arts Cheerleaders have graciously volunteered to sell the spare yearbooks to support the 2007 Senior Class Legacy Project. Show your school spirit and buy a set to help fund the senior’s project. A reminder, photo sessions for this year’s book will be held on Thursday February 1st so look your best! Students without a costume will not be allowed to pose for the Alternate ID book. This does not need to be your final ‘look’ so be thinking of something to be included! Registered Clubs who wish to opt out of one or both books must notify the Year Book Sponsor in writing by January 20th.
Murphy fidgeted on the chair and poked half heartedly at the mountain of food she was expected to finish. Part of her problem was she’d never been a big eater and this enforced diet Mrs. Carson had her on to gain weight went against every instinct she had. Even if she didn’t pay much mind to the thoughts of high fashion, she didn’t want to look like Sharisha, or Julie, or any of the other chubby girls on campus. The other part of her problem was the Catholic School Girl outfit she was forced into wearing. The skirt seemed to emphasize her skin and bones legs, the sweater and lace blouse did nothing to flatter her figure and, more to the point the utilitarian factor of the outfit was zero.
This greatly offended her Alaskan sensibilities.
However, her down cast mood was offset by the juicy secret she couldn’t wait to spring on the other Lit Chix who were in the process of getting their breakfasts and hadn’t seen what had gone down. Murphy, her meals picked out for her by decree of the Headmistress, had a tray waiting on her and had seen everything and when the other’s heard, Loophole would just die and giving people shit was one of the few highlights of any day.
So, despite her gloomy mood a smile, tortured and evil plucked at the corners of her mouth when she saw the rest of her clique approaching, trays in hand. “Ah’m not saying it’s a bad idea, Becky,” Elaine was saying to Rebecca. “It’s just hard to film.”
“We could put it on the website then,” the other shot back. “Not everything has to be converted to…why is Joann grinning like an executioner with plans to open a boot shop?”
“That’s a really creepy description,” protested Dee until she arrived at the table and stopped short. “Okay, accurate, but creepy.”
“What’s happened?” asked Maggie with a resigned kind of sigh as she sat down and reached for the sugar to sweeten her coffee.
“It was breakfast and a show,” Murphy grinned as she cocked her head in the direction of the back quad the table the Lit Chix favored sat near. Through the clear crystal the girls could easily see Mrs. Carson walking in a determined way towards Shuster Hall, Razorback over her shoulder like a trophy kill and two other kids walking behind her. “Isn’t that your brother…?” started Maggie as Elaine sank into her chair, her face limp and expressionless.
“Mah life is over,” she whispered gloomily. “As if Ah didn’t have enough troubles, now mah baby brother has gone and put his foot in it with Mrs. Carson. And Ah know the ‘rents will blame me somehow for it.”
“It’s not that bad,” consoled Renae before Joann’s voice cackled with evil glee.
“Oh yes it is,” she said around her black humor. “I saw it all. Your bouncing baby brother just got into a fight with Razorback on a yellow flag day. And from what I could see, he started it.”
“Thank you, thank you so much, Joann, Ah feel so much better now!” Elaine snapped. “Perhaps you can shed some light on why Stephen was feeling his oats to the point he had to pick a fight with one of the worst ragers on campus?”
“Does it matter?” snapped Rebecca. “All I want to know is how much crap we’re going to catch because your little brother had the bad taste to come here and stir up trouble.”
Elaine’s eyes narrowed. “Did Ah give you grief last year about Susan?”
“Who’s Susan?” demanded Stella.
“Becky’s big sister,” replied Babs from sprinkling sugar over her corn flakes. “She graduated last year.”
“My perfect big sister, thank you, and don’t call me Becky. And she didn’t bring Carson down on us…”
“Oh you’ll be fine,” Nalley shot back as she dumped a handful of raisons into her oatmeal. “Ah’ll catch hell from the folks ‘cause Ah refuse to baby sit him twenty four seven, but we all know Carson would never splash damage us because of something he did. Me, maybe, not ya’ll.”
“That’s certainly true,” agreed Maggie around a mouthful of toast. “And from the sounds of things, we’ll be working overtime to get ourselves in trouble hunting down this blackmailer from days of grunge gone by. Anybody thought how we’re going to get Edgar out of Poe?”
“Ah’ve got it handled,” muttered Elaine as Selkie walked up, the smile on her face dying as she arrived.
“Top o’the morning, lassies…wait...what did I miss?”
Headmistress’ Office, Shuster Hall, Whateley Academy
Razorback came to with a worried, birdlike tweet just as the distressed trio arrived at the administrative offices. The young man looked around frantically as Mrs. Carson eased him off her shoulder, and, when he realized where he was and who he was with his manner immediately became sheepish and withdrawn. His human-like hands danced in ASL to the Headmistress who only shook her head and told him, “Wait until we’re in my office.” She then swept the trio into the waiting area outside her office, gestured for them to sit and entered alone.
“We’re in trouble, aren’t we?” asked Stephen softly.
“Ya think?” chuckled Marty. “How’s the neck, Jack? I didn’t clock you too hard did I?”
The raptor twisted his neck until it popped and gave a thumbs up with a soft hoot that brought a scowl from Mrs. Hartford. “Aren’t you three in enough trouble without adding disturbing people who are working to the list?” she demanded. Before either could answer, the intercom on her desk buzzed. “Yes?”
“Would you send in the students now please, Mrs. Hartford?”
“Yes, Headmistress,” Hartford replied, jerking her head in the direction of the office to the students. They stood and filed in, one at the time, the doorway only just accommodating Razorback’s six foot at the shoulder frame. Mrs. Carson had removed her winter coat and snow boots and was seated behind her desk, cornflower blue eyes glowering behind fashion framed glasses.
“Sit,” she instructed, motioning the two more normal students to the overstuffed leather arm chairs that faced the desk. “Mr. Carlyle, I must apologize that I don’t have a chair up to making you comfortable. One is on order, however.”
The Raptor’s hands danced once more before a flat, obviously computer generated voice that was identical to the one used by Dr. Stephen Hawking came out of a speaker on the teacher’s desk. “Think nothing of it, Mrs. Carson. I’ll be fine standing.” Jack’s head turned in puzzlement and his hands danced once more and again the computer asked, “Wow, that’s awesome. When did we hire the smartest man on Earth and where is he hiding?”
Carson chuckled. “Dr. Hawking is still at Cambridge,” she replied. “I had this installed for the benefit of anyone needing to communicate in this office. Now, Mr. Carlyle as you’re the oldest, would you mind telling me what happened?”
The raptor’s eyes locked with the other two students and what appeared to be a mischievous glee lit within them. His hands began to move and the computer generated voice spoke once more. “In the beginning, two hundred billion years ago, the universe was created in a massive explosion we call the Big Bang…”
“Skip a bit, Mr. Carlyle,” drawled Mrs. Carson while she suppressed a very inappropriate smile at the youth’s sense of humor.
“I’m afraid I can’t shed much light on the situation,” the speaker intoned in its mechanical way. “The last thing I remember was being cold and walking to breakfast. Next thing I know you’ve swept me off my feet and were carrying me away. Not that I’m complaining…!”
“That’s quite enough from you, young man,” the Headmistress replied, though perhaps not as sharply as she could have. After her icy stare reminded her saucy student of his place, the gaze moved on. “Miss Penn?” she invited.
“Truth be told, Mrs. Carson, I came in at the end of things,” Marty replied with a shrug. “Stronghold here had Razorback in a full rage out, but there was nothing he could do to close the deal so to speak. So, I popped Jack one and that’s where you came in.”
The Headmistress considered this for a moment before her eyes speared the would-be hero to the floor. “Mr. Nalley, ironically enough your sister and I had a chat on her third day on campus as well. I rather hoped that your time here would be less…troublesome…than hers has been. Would you care to explain yourself?”
For once Stephen realized his next words would likely color his entire tenure at the school and so he chose them carefully. “Ma’am, I’m not looking to be a thorn in anybody’s side. I was just coming to breakfast when I happened upon one of the upper class girls mistreating three little kids.”
“Three, you say?”
“Yes ma’am, three girls. A blonde with a witch’s hat like on Halloween, a red head and a brunette in glasses.”
A sigh escaped Elizabeth. “I know these girls and likely the upper classman you’re referring to. Continue.”
“Well, she was screaming her head off at them and I’d about decided it wasn’t my business, when she threatened to kill them if they ticked her off again. Well, I’m not the sort to let that slide so I told her to pick on someone her own size. Next thing I know she’s got a gun and the little red headed girl has summoned this weird force bubble. I yanked the big girl off balance right as she shot at me and the, whatever it was hit the bubble. That got knocked across the way at, uh, Jack there and knocks him down. I guess that triggered some kind of rager fit in him and well, it was on like…well, we got to fighting so I could let the little kids get away.”
“He was yelling the whole time for Jack to calm down and not fight,” Marty pitched in.
Carson considered this for a long moment before nodding finally. “It would seem what we have here is a true accident. Those are extremely rare. That said, Mr. Nalley despite what your sister may or may not have told you this is not Sky High. What you choose to do with your life after you leave here is not our concern save that you are prepared for anything you may choose to do. I’ll ask you to confine your heroics to your scholastic endeavors. Which would make this the one free pass you get here. If you make a habit of being called into my office, I will find ways to occupy your time and I can guarantee you that you will not enjoy them.”
The Headmistress smiled a rare smile. “You may go. Mr. Carlyle, no points for this; Miss Penn, perhaps you can find someone to introduce to Mr. Nalley that will help him channel his altruistic tendencies.”
Mega-Girl beamed. “Yes, ma’am!”
“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” Carson said weightily. “Go eat it. Shoo.”
The three students quickly filed out, Marty practically skipping with having escaped the Headmistress’ office unscathed. “I’ve got to introduce you to Pendragon,” she told the redhead she was walking beside. “I think you’ll be right at home in the FSA.”
“Is…” the young man stammered. “Is that your boyfriend?”
“Arthur?” laughed Marty. “As if he’d ever let his eyes wonder from Glorianna!”
“Oh,” Stephen replied with considerable relief. “Do…do you like movies?”
Melville Cottage Courtyard, Whateley Academy
“Howser?” Kodiak didn’t need to shout. He had one of those commanding voices that projected out to the nosebleed seats and everyone knew it. While there were few students that ventured out into Melville’s O-shaped courtyard in the winter, there were times when it was a very handy shortcut from one side of the building to the other. Just then, Rick ‘Oiler’ Howser was making use of it for just that purpose.
Rick himself was a big boy, nearly measuring up to the mountain of a man that was Kodiak, while being broader in the shoulder and stocky. The boy was bundled up in a suede coat and his trademark black Stetson. He stopped short when he heard his name called and turned to look for who was hailing him. A somewhat greasy smile spread across his face as he waited for Kodiak to close the distance between them. “Well, howdy, Kody, how are ya’ll?” he drawled out in with his thick, Texas accent.
Rick’s offered hand went unshaken. “So I hear you’ve decided to put in for Alpha,” the Alaskan declared without preamble in his direct fashion. Howser’s grin widened.
“Ah see Aries is still on his A game,” he said with a chuckle. “Yep, ya’ll heard right. What of it?”
“And exactly what does Fantastico think he’s going to get out of you embarrassing yourself…?”
The grin on the Texan’s face went cold. “Fantastico doesn’t have a thought in his head Ah don’t put there. You ought to know that by now, Kody. As for embarrassing mah self, well, that’s up to the other leaders to vote on, ain’t it? Ah ain’t the one who was Freya’s hitman, and there’s plenty of folk been nursing bruises you gave ‘em all kinds of ready for a bit of payback, big man.”
“You need a few more of your own to remind you of your place around here?” growled the primal bear through his avatar. “I’ll be more’n happy to show you how we settle these things back home… again.”
Rick only laughed and slowly shook his head. “You just don’t get it, do you? You can’t win folk over with your fists, bear boy. Maybe this here little shoot’n match is just the thing to get that through that thick skull of yours.” Howser tipped the Stetson and his grin went evil. “And after Ah give you a good thrashing at the polls, maybe Ah’ll take that little Georgia filly you’re so sweet on for ride…” Oiler couldn’t complete his threat for the mouthful of fist he suddenly had to contend with. The punch caught him off guard and sent him sprawling.
“Alright, Cowboy, you want to settle things behind the outhouse, well Ah’m game!” Oiler’s Texas accent only became more pronounced when he shouted, scrambling to his feet.
The two barely had time to cock fists before another authoritative voice echoed through the courtyard. “Oiler! Kodiak!” barked the deep voice of Mr. Forrester as he appeared from through the far door. “What’s going on here?”
The two seniors shot daggers at each other but lowered their fists and stepped away. “It’s all good, Mr. Forrester,” said Kodiak finally. “Just a difference of opinion.”
The House Father said as he slowly approached, Jadis the house fixer just behind. “You have opinions that require fistfights again and you’ll both be cleaning every bathroom in this cottage with a toothbrush.” He stopped several feet short and rubbed his arms. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to this cold. Jadis, you keep these two knuckle heads in line for me. I’m going to go find some hot coffee.”
“Yes Mr. Forrester,” She-Beast agreed, fixing Oiler with her most stern motherly look and pointing to the far door. The Texan got the message and ambled off, brushing snow off his jacket as he went. She watched the House Father go back inside before turning on the would-be Alpha Alpha. “Well, I see your debate skills are as sharp as ever,” she snapped.
“Not as sharp as your tongue,” the senior chuckled affably. “You’re telling on me, now? How are you going to keep your image of intrigue and underhanded businesswoman?”
“’Cast not pearls before swine,’” the other quoted with a half smile. “Are you trying to make more work for me? I always thought the Alphas did subtle.”
“I was being subtle,” Kody shot back. “Well, subtle for him anyways. But, I do appreciate you helping me keep my temper, however you have to do it.”
“You owe me,” the fixer declared.
Mr. Forrester wasn’t making for the kitchen in Melville. Instead he walked with great haste to the nearest bathroom. Once safely inside and sure he was alone, he adjusted his tie in the mirror as his features softened and flowed from the stern, but fair House Father of Melville into those of the ex-Alpha Bogus. “The Don will be interested in this,” he told his reflection before leaving and making his way to Doyle Medical as fast as he could.
Rm 108, Shuster Hall, Whateley Academy
Maggie picked up her pace as the first tardy bell rang. Despite the somewhat far-flung nature of the campus, being late was one of her pet peeves. She nearly collided with Murphy as the two girls sought to enter the classroom at the same time, shoulder to shoulder and it took a moment to sort out whose limbs were whose. “What are you doing here?” demanded the Mage as she gave the multi-hued haired girl a ‘you first’ gesture to enter the classroom.
“Fall out from that thing with Hamper and Damper,” groused Murphy over her shoulder as the two girls found their way to their seats. “I don’t get my pistol back until I qualify for the Federal Concealed Carry Permit.” She reached over and snatched a book for the course from a low bookcase and settled into the seat in the most unladylike manner she could with her clothes still on. “What about you?”
“I’d rather my time in airports be less stressful,” the sophomore said with a chuckle. The second tardy bell sounded which brought both girls eyes to the teacher’s desk which was still empty. “Where’s Mr. Layton?” Maggie wondered out loud. “He’s never late.”
“I hope I’m not too far behind,” Gunnarson replied softly as she opened the book and was caught short. “Check this out!” she hissed as a dark haired woman in glasses made her way to the teacher’s desk without managing to drop any of the books she was over loaded with.
“Good morning, Ladies and Gentlemen,” the unknown adult greeted as she straightened her hair while closing the classroom door. “Mr. Layton, who is also known as Colonel Layton, New Hampshire National Guard has been called up to serve in Afghanistan so he will likely not be back until next year. He does send all his best to you and wishes for you to do well.”
Murphy held up her text book, the fly leaf open. A name instantly leapt off the page at Maggie. The upper lefthand corner had been stamped, ‘This book is the property of Shelly Carson.’ Lifeline rubbed her chin thoughtfully. “You get the feeling we’re being manipulated?”
Murphy shrugged her ignorance. “My name,” the teacher at the front continued, “is Janice Talbert, and I’ll be taking you all the rest of the way through this Paranormal Law class.”
* * *
Devisor Imaging and Planning Lab, Kane Hall Tunnels, Whateley Academy
“Settle down, everybody settle down,” announced Mr. Paulson as he closed the door to his classroom and inspected his student body. Every student was wearing his project, even Jericho managed to be subdued thanks to the plain white paint scheme with an emblazoned Red Cross of his Rafe Armor. “Well, I take it you’re all aware we’re doing a field trial today?” he asked with a chuckle.
The humor fluttered through the assembled students with the exception of the class’ lone female member. Elaine sat in the back of the class, the helmet of her armor on her desk as she tried to remain calm. In her mind, her power assured her of the success of her design even as the memory of the vacuum chamber test tried to do the same. Still, it was one thing to dream about going into outer space, it was quite another thing altogether to actually go there.
“Hardsell?” prompted the teacher to his Student Assistant.
Tom ‘Hardsell’ Hershel stood, his own armor creaking as the cero-plastic plates rubbed against each other. It was predominately blue and black and you could still make out where the POLICE stencil had been over painted at the school’s insistence. Still, that didn’t damper the junior’s perpetual smile as he collected up his helmet. “Okay folks, let’s have a nice, quiet single file line to the Llewellyn Annex and the vehicle bay. Anybody who doesn’t have their field trip permission form on file raise your hand and you’ll be heading over to the library for a study hall. Anybody not telling the truth about their permission slip being on file is looking at two weeks of detention.”
With an aggrieved sigh, Ironmonger raised his hand. Tom only smiled.
“Sorry Dave. Enjoy the Study Hall.”
“Yeah, yeah, you don’t know what it’s like having a lawyer for a dad,” the other groused.
“I’m sure we can all imagine,” Mr. Paulson replied with a smile and a consoling hand on the boy’s shoulder. “But rules are rules son. There’ll be other chances for your dad to come around. Alright people, let’s go.”
“Scared?” asked Jericho as he fell in beside Elaine in a quiet voice.
“Terrified,” the red head shot back as she took the offered arm so that the blind young man wouldn’t need his cane. “Paper and vacuum chambers are one thing.”
“I know the feeling,” he replied with a winning smile in her general direction. “Still, have some faith in yourself. I know you’ll be fine.”
The two completed the walk in silence, finally arriving at the long garage where the school’s vehicles were kept. Two of the groundskeepers were pushing what appeared to be a transparent, vaguely egg-shaped bubble with a box on the back of it toward the doors. The box had the only paint on the strange device; it was yellow and black and marked, of all things, School Bus.
“Okay,” Langley declared, gathering his students around him. “For those of you who haven’t made this trip before, this is the LEO ORB, or the Low Earth Orbit Observation Research Bus. Before any of you wits start cracking jokes, it is not a space ship. It’s a pressured platform, rather like a diving bell. It doesn’t move under its own power, that’s my job. This is your last chance to back out and have a study hall, otherwise, pile in.”
The students quickly made their way through the air lock to the seats in the clear section. As Elaine made to join them, a soft hand on her shoulder stopped her. She turned and couldn’t help starting, finally understanding why Langley Paulson had picked Tin Man as his nom de guerre. The teacher looked like a chrome hood ornament or movie award, his entire form appearing to be made of liquid metal that creaked softly as he moved.
And he was practically naked, his modesty only preserved by what looked like a chrome Speedo.
“You and I are making this trip on our own power, Loophole,” he told her with a silver smile. Elaine forced a nod as the teacher made sure the airlock was secure. “Thanks Stan,” he told the maintenance man before a halo of power left his arm to encircle the LEO ORB. “Radio check,” he asked, eyes intent on Hardsell inside the shell.
“Five by five,” the junior replied from the minimal controls he sat at. “Pressure is holding steady at one bar, ready to go.”
“Loophole?” the teacher invited.
Elaine nodded and pulled on her helmet as she walked towards the open garage doors. The metal man followed, his power pulling the sphere along as he did so. “Stay calm, Miss,” Carmen whispered in her ear as the virtual displays come up and superimposed themselves over her vision. “All systems are nominal and ready.”
“Carmen, how did Ah get mah self into this?” she whispered back as the cold New Hampshire air rushed in through the open doors.
“That will take a while to relate if I begin from the start,” the computer replied deadpan. “Perhaps if I explain, no, there is no time, allow me to sum up…”
“That’s enough out of you, Miss Smarty Pants,” Loophole snapped, resentment beginning to replace the fear.
“Loophole,” interjected Langley’s voice over the circuit. “Clear the air space.”
The monopole drive lifted Elaine’s feet off the ground as she began to float upward. “Carmine-Gallo, Carmine-Gallo, Sierra Lima Hotel 001 calling for Whateley Field, how do you read?”
After a moment, the heads-up display told her she had a good lock on the frequency. A bored sounding voice answered. “Hotel Zero One, Carmine-Gallo reading you loud and clear.”
Elaine took in a deep breath and let it out. “Carmine-Gallo, Hotel Zero One requesting air space clearance on pre-filed flight plan, Hotel Zero One is answering for Sierra Tango Mike 004 and Oscar Romeo Bravo 261, over.”
“Hotel Zero One you’re clear through Angels Fifty and advise Houston LEO Control on 296.8 at Angels Fifty One.”
“296.8 for Hotel Zero One at Angels Fifty One, clear.”
“Oh, and Hotel Zero One, let’s keep things subsonic, this time, shall we?”
A nervous giggle escaped Elaine’s lips. “Ya’ll heard about that, huh?”
“The fine is in the mail,” the voice replied. The ground fell away as the monopole drive artificially over rode the Earth’s magnetic field and the suit ‘fell’ upwards. Mr. Paulson easily kept the sedate pace of three hundred miles per hour she set, the LEO ORB secure in the force field behind him.
“Passing ten thousand feet, pressure seals holding at one bar,” Carmen noted softly.
A jerk of her right index finger both muted Carmen and changed the radio frequency. “Mr. Paulson?” she asked softly as the landscapes blurred into a uniform white and brown of New Hampshire in winter. “Have you ever been in outer space before?”
She glanced back over at the teacher just as he looked up from checking on the odd school bus below him. His lips didn’t move as over the speakers his voice answered. “A number of times,” he remarked casually. “I was part of the team that stormed the moon base Dr. Diabolik constructed in Cronkite Crater.”
“There’s a crater on the moon named after Walter Cronkite?” the redhead demanded incredulously.
The impassive face smiled. “Yes, Sabine C, it’s part of a cluster of four craters in the Sea of Tranquility, not far from the Apollo 11 landing site, actually. The other craters are named Collins, Aldrin and Armstrong. And, before you ask, yes we did actually land on the Moon in ’69.”
“Been there, seen that, huh?” she chuckled.
“We were there already,” Paulson said without moving his eerie smile. “Might as well sightsee and take some photos.”
“Fifty thousand feet,” whispered Carmen.
“Why do you ask?” he asked after a moment of thought.
“Ah, well, Ah have to admit to being more than a little scared, just now.”
“Take deep, slow breaths and try to look up or out, not down.”
Instinctively, Elaine tried to look down and was stopped by the pressure collar that attached the helmet to the body suit, exactly as it was intended to. “Ouch,” she muttered, pleased and annoyed at anticipating herself. A curl of a finger changed the frequency once more. “Houston, Sierra Lima Hotel Zero One calling on 296.8, how do you read?”
“Hotel Zero One, this is Houston LEO Control. Why are you on this frequency?”
“Houston, Hotel Zero One is ascending from flight level 600 to Kármán line on pre-filed flight plan, over.”
A long, pregnant pause drug out before the voice returned. “Hotel Zero One airspace is clear for thirty miles at your current altitude and you’re clear to ascend. Enjoy the view, kids.”
“Hotel Zero One, copy.”
“Sixty thousand feet,” intoned Carmen.
“Look!” Paulson’s voice over the speaker instructed. Elaine looked out to the horizon where he was pointing. At first, she noticed nothing, then slowly, almost imperceptivity the flat line of the horizon began to curve in at the far edges. The blue sky overhead darkened as the curve of the Earth became more and more evident, and stars began to wink into existence. Blue gave way to an endless black above, and below the blue-white glow of the atmosphere of their home planet.
“Kármán line,” reported the computer quietly.
“Welcome to Low Earth Orbit, Astronaut Nalley,” the teacher’s voice said, his unmoving lips smiling at her. “Hardsell, what’s the ORB’s status?”
“Seals holding steady, Tin Man,” Tom’s voice replied. “Atmosphere at one bar, and we’re green and go for EVA.”
Elaine curved her left ring finger. The monopole drive answered her command and went into standby mode. The feeling of gravity vanished and the teenager was floating, looking down awestruck at her home. “Ah can see Atlanta,” she breathed softly. “And all the way down to The Cape!”
“Look west,” Langley instructed her. “The Mississippi River, the Great Plains, even the folks down in Houston who must be laughing at us tourists.”
“Everybody should see this,” Nalley whispered in her reverie.
“At the rate you’re going,” chuckled the teacher beside her, “everyone will.”
Ward 224, Doyle Medical Complex, Whateley Academy
“So I thought you’d like to know right away and I came straight here.”
The Don attempted to get more comfortable on the bed and failed. It was only the second day he’d had that horrific Colostomy bag off, and this was the first day he’d been able to answer the call of nature in the natural way. It had not been a pleasant experience in the least. “You did well, Bogus. Although we have to be careful to make sure no one suspects you’re still working for me. I wouldn’t want to endanger my one true friend.”
Sebastiano kept in a smirk as his little dog smiled under the praise. Soon he would have a full set of chess pieces once again and he’d start pushing back at those who thought they could control him. The warm feeling of being in charge was short lived as he felt a new consciousness enter the edge of his perception. “Someone is coming,” he warned, giving Bogus sufficient time to assume the form of one of the doctors and get to the foot of the bed to appear to be reading his chart.
A soft knock heralded the arrival of a short, reedy boy with thick glasses, his school uniform in disarray due mostly to the laptop shoulder bag he struggled with. “You’re coming along nicely, Mr. Ramirez, but I want you to take things slowly and drink plenty of water.”
The Don smiled his most gracious smile. “Of course, Doctor. Ah, Ringo, isn’t it? Come in, won’t you?”
“Don’t tire him,” warned Bogus on his way out.
Ringo watched the older man leave before swallowing and turning back to The Don. “I trust you’ll forgive me that my hospitality is so sparse,” The Don continued.
“You said you had work?” Ringo asked softly, keeping his distance much like a rat ready to scurry back behind whatever rock he’d crawled out from. Sebastiano carefully kept the contempt he felt off his face.
“Indeed I do,” he replied with a winning smile. “It seems I’m suffering from some terrible prank calls on my phone. The Administration tells me they can’t do anything about it unless I have documented proof. Being the campus expert on telephones, you came highly recommended.”
The boy seemed pleased to have such a humiliating reputation. “What kind of proof are you looking for?”
“I want to be able to trace every call that comes into my phone, without the other party knowing what I’ve done,” The Don said with another smile. “Doubtless you’ll be up against some very skilled technicians, but I must know exactly who I’m talking to, no matter what line trickery or voice masking they’ve employed.”
He gave the nervous boy a measuring glance. “Do you think you’re up for the task?”
The freshman straightened as his technical expertise was impugned. “Piece of cake,” he asserted.
For the first time in the interview, The Don’s smile was genuine. “Excellent!” Soon, Señor X, he thought to himself, soon I will order and you will obey.
Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy
“You’re daft, you keen that, don’t ye?” demanded Heather as she and Loophole walked down Van Buren Avenue towards Poe Cottage.
“If Ah’m cracked, than maybe Ah should move in, right?” Elaine replied with a smile. Heather crossed her arms and looked away, cross.
“I bonny well thought we were past all the whispers and innuendo about me cottage,” she said in a hurt tone. “You dinnae see me yammering to folk unseen, do ye? And not once have ye ever had reason to think I’m radge, now have I?”
Elaine stopped and put a consoling hand on her fellow redhead’s shoulder. “Now, don’t be that way, Heather. Ya’ll know Ah didn’t mean it like that.” The younger girl’s elfin features pulled into a smile at the remarkably tall sophomore.
“It’s important ta me that you and the other lassies know whose side I’m on!”
“It would help if ya’ll would tell us what’s so special about Fey then,” the Georgia girl teased, chuckling at the dismay that spread across the other’s face.
“Don’t ye think if I could redd-up all Becky’s suspicions without a rammy with my own kind, I bloody well would?”
“Yes, yes, Ah know, ‘honor of the fae’ and all that,” Elaine replied as she resumed her walk and zipped up her jacket the rest of the way to stay warm. “Still, be nice not to have Becky going on and on and on about it for a while. After all, Ah’ve gotten more’n a little chummy with Phase and she…he seems to be on the up and up.”
“For a Goodkind,” admitted Heather as she began walking once more.
“Now, see,” Nalley said, shaking her finger at her friend. “That’s just the kind of thing you were boilin’ mah biscuits over. A fellow can’t pick who his parents are, now can he? Maybe Ayla might have grown up to the next Goodkind Anti-Mutant Mussolini, but that’s all changed now, ain’t it?”
“That’s really good alliteration,” groused Heather as they arrived at the cottage and Elaine was reaching for the door before Heather stopped her and took her gloved hand in hers. “You know, it’s nae too late to re-consider this. I have to live here…”
“Would you stop worrying!” commanded the other, opening the door and stepping into the atrium to stomp the snow out of her boots. “You’re carrying on like we’re plotting to knock over Fort Knox!”
“Well…wait, what?” she demanded after trying and failing to puzzle out the American idioms. Heather rushed to catch up to Elaine, but arrived at her side just as the gadgeteer knocked authoritatively on the house parent’s door. “Saints preserve us,” she whispered as the door was opened to reveal the frowning form of Mrs. Horton.
“Heather?” the house mother greeted; a question hanging heavy in the air.
“Hello Mrs. Horton,” Elaine greeted brightly. “Ah don’t think we’ve had the pleasure, Ah’m…”
“I know who you are, Loophole,” the House Mother replied around her smirk and sideways glance. “What can I do for you?”
“Well,” Nalley proceeded, undaunted, “Ah’m working on a sensing device Ah call a tricorder and…”
“That name’s taken, dear,” Mrs. Horton replied.
“Well, actually, Mr. Roddenberry specifically left the technology names as open source for anybody who could make the actual device the name describes, but the reason Ah’m here is Ah’m trying to calibrate some of the sensors against the age of known objects to know if Ah’ve gotten the electronics right, so, Ah’ve been going ‘round the cottages scanning the Cottage Busts. Would ya’ll mind if Ah took some scans of Mr. Poe?”
Mrs. Horton rubbed her chin in thought for a moment before she shrugged and led the girls over a recessed alcove that held the aforementioned statuary. She made an arcane gesture which caused both her hand and the bust to glow for a moment, then fished a remote control from a pocket of her gown and pointed it at the statue. “Let me know when you’re done so I can turn the protections back on,” she instructed before returning to her room.
“Thank ya’ll,” grinned Elaine as she fished a small, beige box from a pocket and opened the bottom third. Immediately it began to emit a series of soft hums and chirps while a screen and a number of LEDs lit up on it.
“That was your devious master plan?” Heather demanded incredulously. “Walk up and ask?”
“It worked, didn’t it?”
Heather looked down at the device in the other’s hand and sniffed. “Did ya have to make it look like one off the show?”
Elaine shrugged as she stepped forward and brought the device closer. “Good ergonomics are good ergonomics. Would you have preferred a black and silver box with a shoulder strap?” Heather only pouted for a moment and said nothing. “Hmm,” Loophole drawled to herself. “That’s odd.”
“Well, Edgar here is actually an elaborate puzzle box. There’s a compartment in his mouth with a sheet of paper in it, for one. For another, this isn’t your original bust.”
“What?” shrieked Heather. “How do ye know that?”
“Carbon 14,” Elaine replied as she stuck her finger in the bust’s left ear. There came a sharp click and the ear rotated backwards which caused the mouth to open. As predicted a slip of parchment was inside that she scooped out. She restored the bust to its original state.
“What the bloody hell does carbon forty hae to do with anything?”
“Fourteen,” corrected Elaine. “Carbon 14 is a mildly radioactive isotope of Carbon that occurs naturally through out the biosphere. It decays at a precise rate, called a half-life, of five thousand seven hundred and thirty years. Whenever something is made, like cast bronze, or eaten, like the contents of the stomach of the Tolland Man they pulled out of the Bjældskovdal peat bog in 1950, the amount of Carbon 14 is frozen. The scanner in mah tricorder measures the half life of the Carbon 14 in whatever Ah’m scanning and compares it to what’s in the air now, with corrections made for delta effects from nuclear radiation. As the amounts are known and different Ah can count backwards and tell how old something is based on that known half-life. This bronze is only about fifteen years old. The cottage busts should date back to the original Whateley Academy when it opened in 1878.”
“So…” stuttered Heather, “you’re telling me that…?”
“Fifteen years ago The Forger stole the original bust of Edger Allen Poe and put this fake in its place,” the sophomore declared.
The woods outside Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy
“I’m cold,” complained Irene as she pulled her jacket closer.
“Quiet,” ordered Bethany, her eyes never leaving the front door of Poe cottage. “Are they still inside?”
“You know my palantirs don’t work inside Poe,” Irene shot back. “I’m going to the Crystal Hall to get something hot. This isn’t fun, Bethany!”
“Yeah!” agreed Estelle as she scrambled to her feet. However, before either could storm off, the doors to Poe opened, revealing the two redheads they had followed here.
“It’s about to be,” Bethany replied with an evil smile. “Let’s go.