a Whateley Universe story
by Bek D. Corbin
Monday, February 19, 2007
It’s about damned TIME! I mean, I’d been their good little mole inside the Necromancer’s moronic ‘Children of the Night’ (you can tell that he’s soft between the ears, just by that name!), I’d set the senile bastard up three times for them, I’d risked more than my life more times that I really wanted to count, and I’d even bagged Nightgaunt all by myself for them. And what did I get for it? Chucked into ‘protective custody’ for weeks. Well, ‘protective custody’ looks a lot like jail, let me tell you. But at least they let me keep my stuff, and I had my own TV (it’s been weeks, I’m starting to worry that I’m getting addicted to All My Children, but for the life of me, I still don’t get Oprah Winfrey), and, huzzah, huzzah, I’m finally getting OUT of here! They’re sending me up to some la–de–dah boarding school out in the wilds of Vermont or somewhere.
But today’s my last day in the Ironbar Hilton, and I’m having that quintessentially female problem: what am I going to wear? Okay, it’s the middle of February in Boston after the coldest and snowiest winter in memory, God alone knows what it’s like up in Vermont or wherever it is. So, obviously it’s not miniskirt weather. Still, I DO have to make that all–important, status–defining first impression, so it’s the glove leather jeans. Ah, leather pants, they make even my scrawny butt look sexy. Black? No. Red? YES! And the matching red leather bolero jacket, of course. The black lace top? No, not in February. Black turtleneck sweater, definitely. And the wide–brimmed hat in almost the same shade as the sweater, to complete the ensemble. Of course, all this screams out for a pair of black stiletto–heeled pumps, but again, Vermont in February; Feragammo didn’t create those heels to go tripping through three feet of snow and slush. And the long black parka to fend off the actual cold, and provide the curtain for the reveal.
That decided, I set about making up my face. When you have thin little white–girl lips like I do, you really do need lipstick, just so that people actually know when you’re smiling. Oh well, maybe the boobie fairy will bring lips too, when she finally gets around to showing up. That done, I worked on my hair for a bit. Oh well, at least long and straight works well with bone white, and my eyes are red, thank you very much, not that washed out pink that most albinos have. It freaks some people right out, but I think that it’s beautiful and the contrast with my white hair is killer.
When that was done, I smiled at myself in the mirror.
YES, I DO have a reflection in the mirror.
As much as I love to complain about this and that, I do admit that I got a pretty good hand, looks–wise. Lean, angular and regal, but definitely feminine. I got just good enough of a hand that I can win with it, if I give it the old attitude.
And, of course, having gone to all that trouble to get ready, the fucking cops are, like, an HOUR late to come for me. So much for the venerable stereotype of the guy waiting for the chick to get ready. I made myself as comfortable on the cot as you can, when you’re ready and raring to leave a place forever. Finally, the door opened, and the guard stuck his head in, and snapped, “C’mon, get yer stumps movin’!” Like he’d been waiting on ME, not the other way around.
I got my stumps moving, fixed my hat properly on my head, picked up my tote, and finally walked out of that steel–lined box that I’d been cooped up in for weeks. The guard made a point of trotting me past the male prisoners in General Population, so they could get their jollies hooting at me like a bunch of apes at the zoo. I just strutted past them all like a celebrity on the red carpet, waving to the paparazzi. The guard took me to the conference room, where ADA Collier was standing there, looking impatient. “Well, O’Brien, this is our last meeting together.”
Yeah, I’m glad to see the last of you too, you mutaphobic bitch. “So, where’s the Magus?”
“The Magus has obligations elsewhere.”
“Then… where’s the armed escort?”
“There’s no armed escort; that would attract too much attention. You’ll be taken up to Whateley by Detective Sergeant Doherty here,” she gestured at the stereotypical Bahst’n Paddy Irish cop who stood there, hands in pockets, potbelly sticking out of a jacket that looked like it had started its career as upholstery for a cheap couch, cigarette stuck in one corner of his mouth, and a look on his face like he’s the one getting shafted.
“You’re kidding, right?” I asked. “You gotta be shitting me! You want me to go to Vermont–”
“Wherever! With only THAT between the Necromancer and me?”
“We have information that the Necromancer will be busy out of town for at least a couple of weeks. We’ve picked up signs that Darrow’s in Virginia, which is why we’re moving you now.”
“Information? From who?”
“From someone who has information about Darrow’s movements, preparations and plans for the immediate future.”
“Oh? Nightgaunt? And you BELIEVE him?”
“McKinnon was part of several planning sessions that Darrow held. Darrow was paranoid enough that he didn’t spell out his agenda, but McKinnon’s information on those preparations that he knew of was detailed and accurate enough that we were willing to cut him a deal.”
I gave Collier a dirty look. “I thought that Boston PD saw McKinnon as a cop–killer, ‘cause he snuffed the original Nightgaunt.”
Doherty shifted the cigarette in his mouth and said sourly, “We DO.”
Collier returned my dirty look, mud for mud. “You know, Miss O’Brien, we at the DA’s office would be a LOT happier about this deal if you were a little more forthcoming with details. You have a tape with Darrow admitting that he killed Phelps Caruthers in order to get a loop over you, and Skyhawk swears that he heard Darrow say it as it was being taped. Fine. But WHY? Why would he go to such lengths to get an unwilling operative? Darrow has done things like that in the past, but he always did it when the person in question had some specific asset that he wanted to exploit: a family link, a legal obligation of some sort, a rare skill or talent, a mystic connection, detailed information, obscure lore, SOMETHING like that. But you? Aside from your mutant power – and a talent for backstabbing – you don’t really have that much to offer. WHY did Darrow want you under his thumb?”
“You’re asking ME?” I yelped. “I have NO IDEA! And believe me, I WANT to know.”
Collier just gave me that disgusted look and pointed me at my luggage, which was piled onto one of those trolley things. “Captain Tilley and SWAT will be riding escort on an armored prisoner transport decoy headed for New York. If Darrow’s hired anyone to take you out, odds are that they’ll assume that you’re being transported in that. Tilley’s got an entire route planned with nice, juicy ambush points, and our local superheroes have agreed to ‘rescue’ the transport if anyone rises to the bait. Personally, I think that it’s a waste of time and manpower. Darrow isn’t going to come after you now. He’s going to wait until he’s got whatever he’s aiming for, or he actually needs you for whatever he picked you for, and THEN he’ll come for you, all in his own good time.” Damn, I hate it when that bitch is right.
Well, I’d been dismissed, and it’s not like I wanted to hang around this dump. Doherty led me out, but I made a pit–stop on the way, being very, very careful that we were passing one particular Ladies’ Room when the need hit me. I took care of some business (sitting down, thank you very much), but after cleaning up (as I left the water in the sink running) I got up on the seat of the toilet and felt around in a patch of shadow in one of the corners, while I called up my own special brand of darkness. And the two large stones that I’d taken off McKinnon tumbled right into my hand. Now, no matter what Darrow pulled, I had an out, as long as there was a convenient shadow around. I tucked the power gems into my cleavage (yes, I have cleavage! It’s not Jessica Rabbit cleavage, but I still have cleavage!) and walked out with the air of someone without a care in the world.
Of course, Doherty had to shit all over my good vibe by grousing, “I can’t believe they let you keep all that shit,” looking at my cart.
“And why not?” I asked in my best ‘gracious lady deigning to speak to the help’ manner, “I paid for it. I even kept the receipts.”
“With stolen money.”
“Prove it,” I said in what I hoped was a steely manner.
“Don’t haveta,” Doherty grinned at me nastily. “The DA already did that.”
“And yet,” I said brightly as we stepped into the alley where Doherty’s car (a raggedy POS, to match its driver) was parked, “I’m the one going to an expensive New England private school, all expenses paid,” I finished up with a smug grin, needle–sharp fangs showing.
Doherty showed what he was made of, first by making me load my own stuff in the trunk of the car, and then snapping on a pair of inch–thick by four inches–wide Messingite© shackles on my wrists. “Gee,” I sneered, “I can just feel the love…”
Doherty took the cigarette out of his mouth and was about to open up with some snarky comment or another when a shadow appeared over us. We both paused, but relaxed when a studly figure in a royal blue outfit with a hawk’s head cowl and wing–cape landed near us. “Oh, wonderful, another freak,” Doherty muttered.
I put on my ‘tragic noble captive princess’ act and made the most of the shackles. “So. Skyhawk. You’ve come to gloat over your victory…”
Doherty palmed his face, but Skyhawk didn’t get the joke. “No, Alex,” he stepped up, totally buying into the script, “I’ve come to tell you that this is a second chance for you. You can leave your old mistakes behind and start a new life, a better life.” Yes, he SAID that. Honest. I swear, I can’t make up hokey drivel like that UP!
I looked up into his eyes, and said, “Well, I guess that you’re happy to see the last of me… And we never really had a chance…” I faltered, lip trembling. Actually, I wasn’t that heartbroken to put Boston behind me, but I was a little curious to see how sharp my claws still were. He looked at me intensely for a moment, and pulled me to his big manly chest. I snuggled into those rock–hard pecs and enjoyed. Oh yeah, anytime I wanted, and he was MINE!
Then Doherty let out a loud, obvious ‘ahem!’ and said in that nasal Shanty Irish tone, “Ah, unless yer waitin’ fer Gay Pride day, I gotta get that BOY up to that school they’re sendin’ him to on the State’s dime.”
Skyhawk broke the clench and said, “Be good, Alex. I will be watching.”
“Oh, I’m sure you will,” I drawled roguishly.
Doherty made a disgusted sound as Skyhawk lifted off with that ‘eagle scream’ sound effect of his. “What was THAT all about?” he asked.
“A six–pack that could play front four for the New England Pats,” I said in a low, gloating tone. I favored Doherty with a bright smile. “Why, Doherty! Are you jealous?”
Doherty snarled, and shoved my head down to get me into the car. “The HAT! Watch out for the HAT!”
They couldn’t have sent me to this Whateley place in the fall, when the drive up would have at least been scenic. NO, they had to send me hundreds of miles over poorly maintained Interstate freeway in the middle of February, after a winter where frickin’ Buffalo is still trying to dig itself out. And instead of that Eye–talian Stallion, Savarese (*yum!*), they hadda send me with this lump of corned beef, whose taste in music seemed to be stuck in the Seventies. I managed to pull my sunglasses from a pocket, put them on and tried to cope with it with a grace that would have made dear old Pip proud.
Now, it’s only twenty miles from Boston to the New Hampshire border, and it’s only thirty miles as the crow flies to Dunwich, the town nearest to Whateley Academy. BUT, that’s as the crow flies, and with the hills and mountains they got in this state, crows don’t fly very straight. Even on the Interstate, it took us freaking hours to get to Dunwich, and Doherty was leaning on the GPS every inch of the last few miles, what with the snow playing merry hob with the signs. But Doherty couldn’t get directions to Whateley on his GPS, and after going back and forth for the better part of an hour, trying to spot a sign or something, he gave up and pulled into Dunwich to (*tears for his manhood!*) ask for directions.
Dunwich was the sort of town where they put the Christmas decorations up in mid–November and didn’t take ‘em down ‘til late March. And it wasn’t just that they were playing the ‘Frank Capra Christmas’ angle for everything they could (though they were), it was that they couldn’t get through the snow to get at ‘em. Doherty spotted a (Diner? Café? Coffee shop?) eatin’ joint called ‘Millie’s’, pulled over to a spot on the street that wasn’t choked with snowdrifts, and got out. He took me with him, not so much so that I could get fed, as that he didn’t trust me in the car alone.
Millie’s was the sort of place that only exists in small, out–of–the–way towns anymore, with fixtures that looked like they’d been installed in the Thirties, and lovingly maintained ever since, ‘cause they knew they’d never be able to afford to replace them. Heck, even the cash register looked to be at least forty years old. Doherty dragged me to a table and waved for the (sole) waitress. She walked up, looked at me in the shackles, and smiled knowingly at Doherty. “Let me guess: you’re here for Whateley Academy, right?” she asked in a tone that spoke of a certain sympathy for his plight. She looked at me and said, “I’ll tell you what I tell all the Whateley kids who come in here: Don’t break anything.”
* * * * * *
After a decent lunch (for HIM, if you’re not too picky about grease), Doherty got directions to Whateley, which somehow manages to keep from being registered on GPS services. We drove a couple of miles along a narrow country road until we came to a large ornate gate in a classic New England fieldstone wall. Looking up at the gate, I spotted a matched pair of bat–winged gargoyles perched atop the posts. There were unnerving smooth blank spaces where the faces should have been, that somehow were more threatening than snarling muzzles would have been. Jerking a thumb at the gargoyles, I quipped at Doherty, “Do I detect a family resemblance?”
“Oh, rich relatives, who won’t talk to you.”
Doherty talked to someone on his cell phone and the gates opened with sinister silence. Doherty drove up to a sprawling Federalist style building and we got out. Doherty opened the trunk for my luggage and gestured for me to get it out myself. I held up the shackles, suggesting that if he wanted me to carry my own luggage, he’d have to un–cuff me. With a snarl, he hauled the bags out by himself and lugged them up the stairs. He asked at the receptionist for a Mrs. Linford and was steered to the proper office. Mrs. Linford was an attractive if very professional–looking African–American woman in I’d say her late forties. Doherty dug into a pocket and produced the proper paperwork, which he dumped on Linford’s desk. “As the dooly auth’rized rep’resent’tive of the City o’ Bahst’n and the Commonwelt o’ Massachewsets, I do remand the cust’dy o’ the pris’ner over t’you.”
Linford took the paperwork and said in a crisp voice, “She’s not a prisoner, she’s a new student in protective custody.”
“Whuteveah.” Doherty patted at his pockets and said in a voice that wouldn’t have cut the mustard in a Junior High school play, “Oh, Gee! I seem to have lost the keys! It looks like the City will have to bill you for those cuffs.” He grinned nastily.
“Not to worry.” I handed him the shackles, dangling from the end of one finger. Doherty took the shackles with an abject failure to see the humor in it and shlumped out the door, and I’m glad to say that that’s the last I’ve seen of him.
I let out a deep breath as I divested myself of the very last of the Boston Legal System and smiled at Mrs. Linford, who was giving me a long measuring look. “So. Alex. I see that you’ve had a rather exciting time, so far.”
“Well, more to the point, I’ve had an exciting life sort of rammed down my throat so far,” I said with what I hoped was a winning smile.
“We don’t have drugs here at Whateley,” she said sternly.
‘Gee, it must be nice to think that,’ I thought snidely but silently. “That’s nice,” I said aloud. “And what does that have to do with me?”
“You were arrested for dealing drugs.”
“Yeah, I was ARRESTED for dealing drugs. But I was never convicted of it, or tried for it, or even arraigned for it. I admit it, I wheeled and dealed back in my old school, but I dealt in scalped tickets, bootleg software and music CDs, gray market fashions and like all that, and I’ll admit that the odd bet was made here and there. But I never peddled drugs or weapons. There were guys who did that kind of thing, and they don’t like competition.”
“That’s not what the Vice–Principal of your old Middle School said.”
“You mean Bullethead? I mean, Delahanty? The guy who’s currently under indictment for Conspiracy to Aid and Abet the escape of dangerous convicted felons from the Massachusetts Max Security lockup in Roxbury? As well as dealing in stolen drugs?”
“An indictment based on a confession forced out of him by threats of violence and worse.”
“Hey, I didn’t threaten Delahanty. The Necromancer did that. I just happened to have a recorder on me and got it on tape.”
Linford gave a nod to acknowledge that. “Yes, well, still you ARE exactly the sort of student that Whateley was created to help in the first place.”
“Wow! You mean this is an entire school full of gorgeous bilateral hermaphrodites? Ooohh…” I popped my eyes wide open, as if enraptured by the possibility.
“NO, it’s an entire school full of adolescent mutants, brought here in the hopes of teaching them how to use their powers responsibly, without having to resort to crime to survive.”
“So, this is a school for superheroes,” I said in disbelief. “Does Marvel Comics know about this place?”
“NO, it’s not a ‘school for superheroes’,” Linford said with a sigh. “Though you couldn’t tell it from the way that some of the students behave. No, we don’t expect you to go out and defend ‘Truth, Justice and Decency’ or anything like that. If you choose to continue your career as a well–heeled prostitute after you graduate, that is your decision to make. We can hope that you’ll take a higher road after graduation, but the choice IS yours to make.”
“Ahem! Excuse me, but as a point of order, let me point out to you that while I DID inveigle several very wealthy men into subsidizing my lifestyle, I never actually had SEX with any of them. Indeed,” I shifted to a ‘Nell, Dudley Do–Right’s Best Girl’ voice, “the precious jewel of my maidenly purity is intact, safe to bestow upon that one special man who makes me his bride.” I hid my blushes and fluttered my eyelashes.
Linford gave me a ‘gimme a break, bitch’ look, and scribbled down a note. “Even so, you, ah, ‘dropped out’ of Middle School and you haven’t kept up with your schoolwork.” She looked at some of the papers that Doherty dropped on her desk. “However, the educational achievement tests that you took back in Boston show that you’re at least at the median level for your grade in the Massachusetts public schools. Still, you’ll be given Remedial Classes for what remains of the Winter Semester, so you’ll be on a par with the other students when the Spring Semester begins.”
“How nice.” School. Bleh.
A blonde stuck her head in the door and asked, “You sent for me, Mrs. Linford?” I shouldn’t say ‘a blonde’; I should say THE blonde. She was the exquisite perfect blonde hottie that Hugh Hefner has spent his life looking for.
“Ah! Here’s your student guide. She’ll show you to your cottage. And out of my hair.” Wow, my luck IS taking a turn for the better!
Then she picked up my luggage. ALL of my luggage. Like it was nothing. Okay, I can lift all my luggage, but it takes some effort. She handled the entire luggage rack like it was a purse. “Okay, let’s get to Poe before class lets out,” she said and crooked a finger for me to follow her. With an ass like that? HELL YEAH, I’d follow her!
When we were out of the building, I asked, “Poe?”
“Yeah, we use the ‘Cottage’ system here. Each of the dorms is a separate building with its own special little thing about it, and they’re each named after a great American author – which bugs the Europeans that go to school here all to hell. By the way, my name is Zoe, and my handle is ‘Zenith’.” She paused and looked around, and then closed her eyes and touched her forehead significantly. “Okay, we’re clear. Now, the fact that they’ve placed you in Poe, and that I’m your student guide, tells me that you were born a boy, weren’t you?”
I looked at her suspiciously. “How’d you know that?”
“Because, every kid in Poe is either gay, lesbian, very bisexual, or…” she paused and copped a pose, “they changed sex due to some kink in their mutant traits.”
I paused and looked at her, agog. Okay, her hair was a little short, kind of shaggy, and she wasn’t wearing any makeup – like she NEEDED it! – and there wasn’t much very femme about her clothes, but… “YOU? Were born a BOY?”
“Yep. We got a couple of Female to Males running around, but it does tend to be weighted towards the MtF. And there’s been a real bumper crop of us this year.”
“There’s an entire DORM full of gender–benders?” I asked, agog.
“No, we share it with gays and lesbians and bis, like I said.”
“And the Straights are cool with this?”
“The other cottages don’t know anything about it, and we make damned sure that they don’t,” Zoe said severely. “There are one or two people in the cott who are open about their sexuality, but Poe has built up this rep as the ‘nutcase house’, so we get to slide on that. Mind you, some of the kids we’ve got this year really do go out of their way to prop up that cover…”
I mulled this over as we walked. Then I noticed that the path was clear. “Wow. You must have a great grounds department,” I noted.
“And a great Maintenance and Repair department,” Zoe answered. “But the paths are clear because of the detention crews. Here at Whateley, we don’t have the kids who get out of line just sit in a room after class – we put them to work, clearing out the gutters, pulling weeds, and clearing off the walkways in winter–”
Suddenly, there was a loud, rather rural voice that yelled, “HEY, BUBBA! Check this out!” On some superb reflex, Zoe pulled me back as a big ball of snow landed near the walkway, followed by two others that managed to land on top of each other, achieving an effect something like what you’d get if Frosty the Snowman committed suicide by jumping off a building.
“HEY!” Zoe yelled in the general direction that the compartmental snowman had come from. “Watch what you’re DOING!”
Two guys hustled up to us from that direction, worried expressions on their face. One of them looked like he’d popped out of a cowboy movie, with a sheepskin coat and a felt Stetson and a soup–plate belt buckle. The other one, who looked like the biggest farmboy of all time, towered over the other one (who wasn’t exactly a shrimp) by at least a foot, and was wearing a thick plaid coat and one of those winter caps with the flaps that guys who just plain don’t care about fashion wear. “Jeez, Zee!” the cowboy said, “We didn’t mean to hurt’cha! Did we hit anyone?”
“No… But what did you think you were doing?”
“Long–distance snowman building.”
“Oh you gotta be kiddin’ me,” Zoe muttered, hand over her eyes. “Shouldn’t you two be in CLASS?”
“Hey, whatt’re they gonna DO? Put us in DETENTION?” the big farmboy guffawed.
“Heeyyy…” the cowboy drawled appreciatively, a smirk spreading across his rugged face, “who’s the new chick?”
Zoe gave out a martyred sigh and said, “Alex, these two are Bronco and Silo. Bronco’s the one who looks like a refugee from a Marlboro cigarette ad, and Silo’s the big goof. Guys, this is Alex, she doesn’t have a codename yet, so–”
“VAMP,” I said, stepped forward and looking ‘Bronco’ straight in the eyes. “My handle’s Vamp.” I smiled, flashing my fangs. “So… BRONCO… are you a… bucking… bronco? Or do you just sit around, twirling your lariat?”
Bronco perked up mightily at that, but Zoe pushed him back with one hand and said, “HOLD your horses, cowboy! Now, why don’t you two just hopalong somewhere? I have to get Alex here settled in at Poe.” Bronco started to say something, but Zoe shut him down with a ‘don’t mess with me, I’m meaner than you are’ look. Bronco smiled and waved, and he and his big buddy walked off with a decided bounce in their steps. As he walked off, Bronco looked back, gave me a big grin and thumbs–up. Zoe gave another martyred sigh. “Why’d you go and encourage them like that?”
“Oh please,” I said with a groan, “I could handle two yahbos like that in my sleep!”
“They’re tougher in a fight than you might think.”
“And who’s talking about fighting?” I said with a confident leer.
Poe Cottage was on a par with the rest of the school, complete with – how precious! – a bust of Edgar Allan Poe in the entry hall. The ground floor of the place looked straight out of an episode of The Facts of Life. And wow, they even have a housemother, just like Mrs. Garrett! Only she was a lot thinner, a lot better preserved, and from the glint in her eye, a lot tougher. “Hello, Alex, I’m Mrs. Horton. I’m the house mother here. Now, before we get you situated, I want to let you know that your condition–”
“Well, it’s sort of hard to miss the albinism,” I cracked.
Horton’s eyes glinted like steel and her smile went just as steely. “I was speaking of your hermaphroditism. Has Zoe told you about our little secret? Ah, good, Zoe dear. Well then, you’re not our first hermaphrodite, or even the only one in residence. And there’s the issue that you’ve been living more or less without a responsible adult in authority,” I was about to cut her off with a crack about the Necromancer, but Horton kept going, with a look in her eye that said she wasn’t having any of that, “and you’ve done quite well, all things considered, playing things fast and loose. Well, things have changed, and you’re safe now. You’ll be sharing this house with many remarkable and rambunctious young people, and it would be best all around if you didn’t make a habit of trying to take advantage of the others.”
“And what would constitute ‘taking advantage’?”
She fixed me with her steely eyes and said, “You know EXACTLY I mean.” She said it with a smile, but I got the distinct impression that Mrs. Horton had me pegged, and could handle me while making tea.
“Understood,” I said with an apologetic smile.
“Excellent,” she responded with a warmer smile, as though to say she’d let it slide, as long as I didn’t try her. Ol’ Bullethead would have snarled and pushed me up against a wall. Darrow would have taken me by the throat and screamed threats at the top of his lungs. Mrs. Horton smiled, never raised her voice, and I took her a lot more seriously than I did either of those two yutzes. “We’re having a rather odd run with sex changes this year,” she continued as though she hadn’t just laid down the law with the ol’ iron hand in the velvet glove. “Normally, we get one or two at the beginning of the year, and maybe another one or two drift in as you did. This year? We had SIX at the beginning of term, and they just seem to keep coming in! Why, a couple of boys in other cottages changed for one reason or another, and we had to move them over to Melville, for fear of blowing our cover!”
“It’s one of the other cottages, dear. It’s the eight–story tall one that looks like a five–star hotel, on top of one of the hills. Yes, you changelings definitely seem to be the order of the day, this year. But, I don’t think there’s anything to it, really. The Laws of Averages are a lot trickier than people think. Sometimes, that’s just the way it goes. I’ve heard that there was a stretch during the Eighties, when there were so few psychics that there was some talk of shutting down the department. And when I first came here, you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting an Avatar. And according to the current theories, Exemplar/ Package Deal Psychics are supposed to be scarcer than hen’s teeth, but I’ve heard that we’re having a run on those.”
“Local jargon, mutant trait labels, that sort of thing. We have a while before the students get here for lunch break. I might as well give you the basics while we’re waiting.”
* * * * * *
“Okaayyy… lemme see if I got this straight… they’re a gadgeteer if their dingus works, no matter who builds it, but they’re a devisor if only THEY can build it, but if they’re a devisor, the dingus can do stuff that’s impossible…” I looked at Mrs. Horton with a touch of panic. “And I’m gonna havta share a ROOM with one’a these whackos?”
“No, you’ll share a room with another, ah, ‘changeling’ is the current euphemism, but the only sex–change devisor we’ve got now is a year ahead of you, and rooms on the floor above. Now, I have to warn you, the current crop of ‘changelings’ have acquired reputations for being both very tough and not very diplomatic. They’ve gotten into more fights, both on and off campus, than the rest of the freshman class put together.”
“So… you’re saying that I’m getting stuck with the local bullies…”
Mrs. Horton screwed up her face and made an uncomfortable noise. “Not so much ‘bullies’ as ‘trouble magnets’. The Japanese have a saying, ‘the nail that sticks out gets hammered down’, or words to that effect. They insist on sticking out, and won’t be hammered down. On one level, you have to admire them their grit, their determination and their loyalty to each other; yet, none of that makes them any less an annoyance.” Then there was some noise out in the common room and she said, “And speaking of which…”
Mrs. Horton went out and asked a girl to get ‘Phase’. Then a short – even shorter than me, and I’m no basketball player – girl with short black spiky hair walked to her office and Horton said, “Phase? This is our new st–”
“VAMP?!?” she gasped, gaping at me with popped–wide weird green eyes. Ah… Fame… she must be a fan…
Mrs. Horton frowned, “I take it you know of her.”
“Know of her?” she growled, going from awestruck fangirl to petite pitbull. “I fought her. So did Ch– Bladedancer. And Carmilla. She’s one of the Children of the Night! She’s a wanted criminal!”
I didn’t like the way that this was going. “Yeah, I was in the Children of the Night – as an undercover mole for the Boston DA’s office. Which is why I’m HERE, those yutzes couldn’t catch a tuna in a fish market! I set up ol’ Coffin–breath for them THREE TIMES, and he still got away! And he KNOWS that I set him up!” I stopped my rant and gave this ‘Phase’ a sharp look. “And what do you mean, you fought me? When? Third grade or sum’thin’? ‘cause I am seriously NOT pegging you, and I got a real good memory…”
Miss Thing cleared her throat and gave me this sexy purr, “Hey cutie, I know games that are lots more fun than playing whack–a–mole…”
Then it clicked. She was that boy–girl in the white outfit that dropped Matterhorn on top of me! “That was you? Shit!” Mrs. Horton frowned at me, “Alex, language please.”
I gave short–stuff the snub that she deserved, “Well I still’d rather shown around that redhead who was goin’ at it hammer and tongs with Darrow. She was hawt.”
Miss Thing copped a pose and smirked, “Next door.”
“Whaddaya mean next door? Next door where?”
She explained, “Next door to my room. Fey and Chaka – the black girl who kicked Lycanthros’ furry butt – are in the next room. Generator – the girl who took out Ironhawk – is down the hall rooming with Tennyo – that’s the Ryoko look–alike who shredded the Arch–Fiend. Lancer – the one who punched Matterhorn and clobbered the Anti–Paladin – is down the hall the other way. And Bladedancer, the Asian girl you slammed facefirst into that car – is my roommate. She’ll be just down the hall, and SO happy to see you again. Plus, Carmilla, who’s Darrow’s niece – believe me, that’s one creepy family – is downstairs some of the time, and in a neighboring dorm some of the time.”
“Huh? She gets two separate rooms?”
“Oh, it’s way weirder than that.”
“Ayla, since you’re so ready to impart your knowledge, perhaps you could show Alex around the campus for her official tour. Then have her over to her meeting at one this afternoon. Chou should have moved her things out by then. We’re putting Miss O’Brian in with you.
“Really, it’s for the best, Ayla. After all, Chou is a girl and she does need to learn how to be a girl. If anything, I think you might be confusing her unnecessarily. On the other hand, Alex here – by the way, dear, would you be calling yourself ‘Alexandra’ or ‘Alexis’ or…”
“Just Alex,” I assured her. “And WHY would she be a better… OH!” Then I remembered the little surprise that ‘she’ had played on me, just before she dropped three tons of overpaid asshole on top of me. “Oh yes, we DO have something in common… This should be interesting…” I ended with a sly grin in ‘Phase’s’ direction.
“It’s not gonna be THAT interesting,” she snarled back at me. “I’ve GOT a girlfriend.”
“Want a boyfriend?” I leered.
Mrs. Horton gave a loud ‘AHEM!’ that that line, while entirely (more or less) in jest, was unappreciated. “Ayla, Zoe and Belle have prior commitments. As you’re to be roommates, why don’t you give her the new girl’s tour?”
“But I have late classes!”
“Phase, I am fully aware that you already have an A+ in your Shakespeare class, so please don't try to convince me you can't survive one excused absence. Oh, and don't forget the Homer Gallery, in particular the–”
“I know, the portrait. And the gold. I can't believe what poseurs the donors are around here.”
“GOLD?” I asked, not getting the joke.
* * * * * *
“Is that gold… REAL?” I asked, gawping at the waist–high pyramid of yellow metal.
“Well, that depends what you mean by ‘real’,” Phase sneered. “It’s 16 karat gold, and judging by that reddish tinge, I’d say that the alloy was copper. Still, it IS one metric ton of the stuff. Of course, Guzman may have used the 16 karat alloy as a way to bulk up the display. Gold’s one of the heaviest elements there is, and a metric ton of it isn’t that large. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the bars weren’t hollow, to bulk it out some more. And the bars are probably arranged on top of a form.” Ye gods and little fishes, I’m in the clutches of a know–it–all. “And over here we have a portrait of Lord Paramount, a graduate of Whateley, who took over a portion of Romania and made it his personal domain. The bust that he’s looking at with such Byronic melancholy is–”
“Prince Vlad Tepes Bessarab, also known as Vlad the Just, Vlad the Impaler and Dracula. He was a Voivode of Wallachia, who lived from 1431 to 1476. Despite being a *ahem!* ‘guest’ of the Turks on more than one occasion, he was chronically their bitterest enemy. He died in battle with the Turks near Bucharest, and it’s generally held that his body is buried at Snagov, an island monastery near Bucharest. Despite first German and then Russian political slanders against him, there were NO folk legends of him being a vampire. Indeed, he’s generally regarded in the region as a great folk hero, both for his efforts against the Turks, and for his even–handed administering of justice. AND, for the record, despite Lord Paramount’s claims, the territory that he’s taken only shares ground with the historical Wallachia at its southernmost frontiers.”
And short–stuff doesn’t have a snappy comeback! I win! Yay me! She gave me this resolute face, like Pip did when he really wanted to tear his hair out and scream, but he wasn’t going to act like the hoi polloi.
Oh please don’t tell me I got stuck with another Ainslee Caruthers. I had the severe misfortune of accidentally meeting several of Pip’s nieces and nephews. Once. That was enough to last me for the next several centuries – not counting the real pleasure it’s going to be, ripping Pip’s bequest to me out of their clutching claws.
Phase finally said, “Yes. I appreciate that someone else around here knows more about European history than ‘the black plague was bad’ and ‘America was in World War II.’”
Wow. This girl has the whole ‘pompous snob’ routine down cold. Rooming with her is going to be almost as much fun as having Darrow burn off the nape of my neck. And if she is related to Pip, even distantly, this is going to be even worse. I asked, “Are we sure I can’t room with the smokin’ redhead instead?”
“That would mean that I’d have to room with Chaka. Not happening.”
I made a ‘pity’ sound and looked at her. “You’re not related to the Back Bay Caruthers, are you?”
She snorted in what for her was probably incredible rudeness. “No, thank God. If I was trapped being related to Vaden and Ainslee, and those other imbecilic poseurs, I’d probably be desperate enough to associate with my sister Heather and my cousin Paris.”
Why did those names sound so familiar? Paris Hilton, natch. So was Miss Thing one of the Hiltons? No wait, Heather… Oh. Heather Goodkind, the supermodel and sucky actress.
Oh no. No way. Don’t tell me I’m stuck with a fricking Goodkind for a roommate when I’m a mutant! Aw come ON, I took care of the karma thing when I spent all that time getting tortured and shit pretending to be Darrow’s little minion!
I tried another tack. “So… not a big fan of the Caruthers clan? Sounds like we have one more thing in common. Outside of Phelps and his cousin Robbins, all the ones I met are pretty much all a waste of space.”
She gave me a look that would’ve made me cringe, if I was plain old Alex back in middle school. But after surviving Darrow and his pack of merry pranksters, I’m a lot tougher than that. She icily said, “Oh. Right. You were ‘engaging in lewd and lascivious acts’ with ol’ Uncle Phelps for monetary considerations.”
Jeez. She was worse than Collier, and that bitch had trained for years to get that ‘tude. “You regard the Boston Pops as ‘lewd and lascivious’?”
“Is THAT what they’re calling it these days?”
“Oh, then you must have been absolutely scandalized by the Monet retrospective at the MFA in Boston last year. And the John Muir exhibit at the National Heritage Trust? Have they NO SHAME? And HOW could Harvard have sunk so LOW as to display those obscene samples of Amish quilting? And the Thesis Exhibit at the Tufts? Where was the Legion of Decency?”
“You did Phelps Carruthers at the MFA?” she said, not sure whether to be suspicious or disgusted.
“I never ‘did’ any of my clients,” I said, putting on my best slightly offended but rising above the insult air. “I just let them THINK that I’d ‘done’ them, and that it was the best sex of their pathetic, blue–blooded lives. And I never even had to do THAT with Pip.”
‘Little Mary Whitehouse’ actually grimaced. “I think that you might want to re–read the laws regarding prostitution and the so–called illegal ‘escort’ services, particularly when also incorporating mutant powers. Let me recommend that you look up Dominatria vs. the State of Massachusetts, or possibly Sexxworxx vs. the State of California.”
I was about to ask how the hell she knew those cases off the top of her head, but then I remembered two things. Goodkind. Exemplar. Mrs. Horton had just told me about the latter, and everyone knew about the former. Even if I couldn’t get my head around an anti–mutant asshat who was also a mutant. “Why would I have to read the laws? The important question is and was, ‘was money exchanged for favors?’ And the answer was NO, I never took money for sex. My clients were simply very generous about things like covering my rent, letting me use credit cards, making gifts, and other things along those lines. It’s an old dodge, but it still works. And, let’s face it, the loopholes are so old and well–worn that they’re practically traditions; nobody’s really interested in closing them.”
After that, the repartee sort of stalled. I looked around the gallery and tried to find something worth asking about. Weapons, vastly obsolete gadgets, some costumes on manikins that really do show off how far superhero couture has come in the past few decades, bits and pieces of dead animals that looked like trophies of hunts in Pellucidar, photographs of people I didn’t recognize and really don’t care about, like that. “Okay, you can put me down as awestruck by the majesty here within. Now what?”
She looked around, checked out this really fancy cell phone/ PDA thing she had, led me out of the gallery, took me down some stairs into a system of tunnels that looked like something out of an old spy movie.
* * * * * *
* * * * * *
After I was walked all over the campus, and feloniously subjected to what Miss Goodthing facetiously calls a sense of humor, it finally came time to get down to the serious business of getting some food into the old furnace. I had a very bad feeling when the Goodthing led me to a building that was an especially brutal example of the Brutalist school, and from there to a particularly bleak example of the ‘tacky linoleum’ school of cafeterias, with that brushed steel lineup of selections. We got into a long, LONG line and I looked at the tables. “MAN, it is crowded in here!”
“We shouldn’t have stopped to talk to Hazmat,” Goodkind said grudgingly. “Though, Anna breaking in every five seconds with a stream of consciousness question didn’t help.” She gave out one of those long ‘alack the day’ sighs. “Well, there’s nothing for it. By the time that we get to the counter, everything that’s even halfway edible will be gone.” And she wasn’t very far from dead–bang right. There was this one big kid who looked like a humanoid killer whale, who was carrying a tray piled heaping high with vittles in each hand, and another balanced on each forearm. Dear Mother of God, he had enough mac & cheese piled up in one bowl to give Russia constipation. “Let’s head back to Poe. We’ve had to put up with this ever since they started the remodeling of the Crystal Hall.”
“Our regular dining hall. It’s… a vast improvement over this.”
“But when am I going to get something to EAT?” I whined. Yes, I know, I know, even I have to admit that I whined. “I didn’t even get what passes for a breakfast in the Boston Muni lockup. And that fat bastard cop who dragged me up here only let me buy a CHEESEBURGER for lunch! At least tell me that there are vending machines around here somewhere!”
“Calm down, I’ve got some stuff in my studio cooler that should tide you over until breakfast.”
Man, this chick must have a black belt in understatement! That ‘studio cooler’ is more like a specialty refrigerator. She had a takeout box of leftover Chateaubriand with asparagus and wild rice that was cold, and even after being heated up in the microwave, was still better than the stuff we got when the family went out to the most expensive place we could afford to celebrate Dad’s promotion. I inhaled that, and a box of a chicken and spiced pilaf that was absolutely delicious, and I was eyeing a third box, when my new roomie rather pointedly shut the refrigerator door.
Even so, I tucked into the pilaf with the happy relief of someone who’s not only been fed, but fed well. I was just about to start on the delicate topic of who got what bunk, and closet space, I looked up and spotted Goodthing sort of silently talking to herself, with a finger pressed to one side of her jaw. Okay, I just gotta know. Through puckered lips, I asked in my sister Em’s best ‘pesky little sister’ sing–song, “Wha’cha deeewwwin’?”
Goodthing snarled, “Getting the team together so you won’t be disintegrated or turned into a slug the first time you walk down the hall to use the bathroom.”
“And who’s gonna be pulling something like th– Oh fuck!” Now, you’d think that having a tongue–dragging redheaded vision of beauty walking through the door would be a good thing; but not when she comes floating in – literally floating – crackling with energy and looking like something out of Aunt Maureen’s old Irish stories about the Sidhe (the ones that Aunt Doris, being a good church–going Catholic woman wouldn’t let her tell while she was around; you know, the really nasty ones) and giving me the ‘YOU HAVE TRIFLED IN AFFAIRS THAT DO YOU CONCERN YOU, MORTAL!’ look.
As I was striving mightily to keep my bowels in check, another six kids, five girls and one really cute guy, all came in, singly and three who came in as a group.
Seven cute chicks (okay, the kid is a little young, but she’s still cute) and a really cute guy, and they’re all giving me their undivided attention. I should be digging on it, big time. But not with the look that they were giving me, like they’d caught me trying to break into their upside–down rocket clubhouse. Even the cute little one was giving me looks that were giving me the creeps! I tried to cut the tension with a joke: “SO…Anyone up for some strip poker?”
Of course, the Goodkind tried to make it all better, “Okay. Alex? This is Hank, codename Lancer. Toni and Nikki, AKA Chaka and Fey, next door. Billie and Jade and Jinn, AKA Tennyo and Generator and Shroud. And my former roomie, Chou AKA Bladedancer.” I turned and pointed out, “Okay, this is Alex. Don’t kill her on sight. Yet.”
“Wow, Ayles, you finally got a roommate who's more white than you are!” the black chick cracked.
And it went pretty much downhill from there. Okay, I did get a little sympathy when I showed them the burn scars my long hair hid that I had from when old Coffin–breath ‘disciplined’ me. The redhead tried to do some magic that she said would heal it, but I begged off on that. “Why?” she asked me, which told me that she hadn’t really been around that much.
“Because there are scars that you want to keep,” I told her, looking her straight in the eyes. “Because they make you remember. It’s not like those are warm, fuzzy Kodak Moment memories, but I need to remember them.”
“Why?” the black chick asked, giving me a look like she was trying to figure me out.
“For the same reasons that people who survived the Nazi Death Camps kept those tattoos, even if there are nightmares attached to them: because some things have to be remembered, because they’re nightmares. So that you know that they really happened, that you’re not going nuts, or that you aren’t making up horrors out of nothing, like some snot–nosed Emo punk from the Burbs. So that people can’t tell you ‘oh, that never happened’, or ‘oh, you’re making a big fuss over nothing’. These scars are why I did what Darrow told me to do. And these scars are why I stabbed him in the back every chance I had, and why I was RIGHT to do it!”
Red flinched from this, but Goodkind gave me a look like she was giving me a thumbs–down for a middle school drama production. Well, screw her. Cheerio my dearie–o, dance and pirouette, toujours gai, and never let the bastards see you cry.
“If it was so bad, why did you hook up with Darrow in the first place?”
“It would have been nice to have the choice,” I said. Seeing that they weren’t getting it, I tried to explain about Darrow and Pip, and the whole thing. I hung there for a moment, trying to find the right place to start, and not finding anything. “Aw Screw It,” I muttered. “Gather around, Kiddies, and listen to your old Auntie Vamp!” I said brightly, crossing my legs and smiling so my fangs showed. “It’s senses–stunning mind–blowing secret origins time!”
“I was born at a very early age,” I started off with a joke, which was immediately shot down by the icy glares of my audience. “I was born to a Working Class NOT–Shanty–Irish–thank–you–very–much family in Charlestown – that’s Charles’ TOWN, not Charleston – which is a part of Boston that’s still very working class and still very Irish. My father is a small–time political flunky and errand boy for the New England Transport Workers’ Union, my mother is a housewife who is strangling on the lace curtains, and I was the fourth out of six kids. We were a large, happy family, because we had each other, tradition, family values, and a scapegoat: namely ME. Y’see, both my older brothers are the big, burly, barrel–chested, bull–necked Mick type Irish, and I’m, well, NOT. Y’see, unlike some of you, THIS–” I held out my blank–white hair by way of demonstration, “–didn’t just drop out of the sky on me. Nope, I was an albino from Day One. Dad had me pegged as a mutant from the second that the doctors handed me to him at the Maternity Ward.”
“So you're a vampire albino? ….talk about redundant,” the cute little one said.
“That’s nice, Vamp,” the studmuffin – Hank, I think Goodkind called him – said, “but what does it have to do with you hooking up with the Dime–store Dr. Doom?”
“Bear with me, it matters,” I assured him. “Like I said, I was the red–headed stepchild – after a fashion. Mind you, it wasn’t beatings and breadcrumbs every day, but I was definitely frozen out. It was like I was only family when there were chores or other scutwork to do. And when I went to school, it was more of the same, only more so. I was the freaky pale kid who ate by himself. I needed something to make me anything other than the community punching bag, so by grade school I’d become the school hustler. NO,” I shot the Goodthing a nasty look, “not THAT kind of hustler! I was the kid who bought cheap and sold dear. I started with counterfeit stickers, and leveraged that into a nice little business in gray–market grade– and middle–school must–haves, and I was starting to move into taking bets, when my middle–school vice–principal decided to get in on the ‘Alex is my scapegoat’ action.
“One day, right out of the clear blue sky, Bullethead – that’s what we called Mr. Delahanty, the Vice–Principal, when he wasn’t listening – calls me into his office, and tells me that he wants me to ‘go undercover’ with a crew of drug peddlers that were working our school. Now, I don’t have a lot of big principles about drugs, but I avoid getting involved with illegal stuff.” I paused as my audience fought back the giggles. “OR, at least, I do when I have a choice in the matter. I gave him a polite but firm ‘no’, and went back to class. Three hours later, Bullethead calls a surprise locker inspection and finds a bag of white powder in my locker. YOU do the math. He had three Boston PD cops right there, and they took me into a room and told me to pretty much to play ball and they’d go easy on me. Now at the time, I thought that it was just Bullethead trying to play hardball. So, I decided to call their bluff, and told them to shove it.
“They weren’t bluffing. They took me to the local lockup, and it was straight into the jug. No booking, no phone call, no call to my parents, no trip to juvenile court. They didn’t even bother to fingerprint me. No, they just tossed me into the holding cell with the animals and left me there. And I’m not talking the juvies, either; I’m talking about the adult offenders’ tank. The second that the guards were out of the hall, *WHAM!* they had me face–down on the concrete and my BVDs down around my ankles. Just as the first guy was pushing his choad up my asshole–” The chick with the weird blue hair clapped her hands over the little Asian girl’s ears. “–something snapped. And it wasn’t my ass–ring. I just pushed him off’a me, grabbed him by the throat, and just sort of drained him. And it was GEEWWWD! It was like you think your first taste of whiskey is gonna taste like, when you’re a little kid.”
“And then?” the black chick asked in a sick voice.
“And then, I ATE them.” They all gave me horrified looks. “NO, I didn’t actually eat them, but I drained them all to the point where they fell unconscious. After that, I’m not really clear on what happened. Y’see, drinking a person’s life–force is kind’a like drinkin’ whiskey: it tastes great, and you want more’n more, but it don’t do a lot for yer thinkin’.
“Anyway, I just sort’a went off–line for a bit. I vaguely remember six big tough guys all screamin’ like little girls, and the guards coming in with nightsticks and shotguns, but to be honest, the next thing I clearly remember, I’m outside the jail, there are a bunch of squad cars parked around me, and I have a SWAT cop in full riot gear by the throat, and he doesn’t look too good. The SWAT cops are in full gear and coming at me with blood in their eyes. So I dropped the guy I was holding and ran for my life. Which was suddenly a LOT faster than I used to run, lemme tell you! I took to the roofs and found that I could jump like fucking Spiderman, and glide! Whoo! Man, was THAT a trip!
“Now, I gotta admit, I wasn’t really thinking. It was all so fucking weird. ‘Cause, what I did next was really dumb. I went home. My ever–lovin’ Da was there – with a shotgun, and some of his buds from the local Humanity First! chapter.”
The guy – Lancer, right – winced. “Your dad is Humanity First!?”
“Yep! Sergeant–at–arms of the neighborhood watch group, and lifetime member since 1992, he likes to brag. Which was right about the time that the family was sure that I wasn’t gonna just up and die on them, relieving them of the embarrassment. Anyway, I managed to get out of there with only a couple of shotgun wounds.”
“Only a couple of shotgun wounds?”
“Yeah, among other things, I’m a lot tougher when I’m all charged up.”
“And why don’t you stay charged up all the time?” The foxy redhead asked.
I gave a snide ‘meh!’ “’Cause it’s like being high on coke all the time. It only seems like a good idea. I ran around for three days all charged up once, and when I finally came down, I crashed so hard that I woke up in the morgue.” <snicker> “I woke up and walked out of the bins, just in time to run face–to–face into my Dad and older brothers, who’d come to indentify my body. Woo! The look on his face!” I stopped and laughed for a bit. “It was totally worth the mess it took to get out of the morgue, the look on his face! Before, he thought that I was a mutant monster; now, I’ll lay you good money that the thinks that I’m some sort of undead creature of evil.”
“Since I had absolute NO money, no place to go, and no friends–”
“There’s a shocker,” Goodkind muttered.
I ignored the peanut gallery and continued, “–I did the only thing that I could think of: I started shaking down the pimps and pushers and other street punks for cash. And I didn’t just shake them down for cash: I also shook them down for information.”
“Information? Information about what?”
“The Boston PD, Bullethead, his family, the local mobs, whatever I could shake out of them. The way I figured it, all the crap I was in, was all ‘cause Bullethead decided to put the squeeze on me, and I was gonna make the fucker PAY for it! Hey, where I come from, if you let people push you around, they will, every day, every way, just for fun, just ‘cause you’re there, just ‘cause they can. I didn’t have any idea of what I was looking for, I just wanted something that I could use to hurt Bullethead, and his sleazo pig family too. Get this! It turned out that Mister ‘Law and Order’, Mr. ‘Long Arm of the Law’, Mister ‘I won’t have drugs in my school’ is the school’s drug connection! He was selling drugs that he got from his family, who got it out of the Police Department evidence locker. Okay, he was retailing it through a bunch of pushers among the students, but he was the one raking in the big bucks! His whole thing about me ‘going undercover’ was just a setup, so he could frame me as the school’s drug connection, and look like a hero to the fuckin’ PTA! He knew that I wouldn’t roll over on any of his pet pushers, ‘cause I made a point of not knowing anything about the local druggies.”
I stopped and fumed about that for a bit. It’s been over a year, and I DID finally get Delahanty, but it still rankles, getting set up like that. “Anyway! While I’m doing all this, I knew that I needed a secret identity. And, since I’d been dipping into my mother’s and older sister’s closets since I figured out how to get away with it – and with a family the size of mine, in a cramped little house, that was no mean feat – I decided to go underground, passing myself off as a girl.”
“How do you know that your family never knew about it?”
“With MY family? HAH!” I threw my head back in derision, and wished that I had a cigarette to flick dramatically. “I know, ‘cause I’m still alive, and even if they hadn’t killed me, they’d never have let me forget it for a second. Anyway, I managed to pull together a look that made me look like one of those waifish little college–age things. Okay, I’ll spare you the gruesome details, but along the way, I discovered that besides draining people and healing wounds, that I could create these weird areas of darkness–” I dropped a darkness on the entire room by way of demonstration.
“Yeah, I know,” the Asian chick (Bladedancer? What kind of name is Bladedancer?) said sourly. “You used it on me, in Boston. AND, you used that freaky sex appeal that you have on me, too!”
“Oh, you mean like THIS?” I dropped the darkness and gave them a jolt of the old Vamp–razzle.
“What was THAT for?” the black chick snarled as she started to get up.
“So that you all know what it feels like,” I said, all reasonable–like. “Now, you won’t have to worry that I’m manipulating you by messing with your emotions. Oh, and I can sort of hypnotize people, same thing, used a different way. Don’t ask me how it all ties together, I just do it.
“Anyway! Er, ah, okay, lemme backspace a litte, so’s you understand what happened. Now, my mom is the quill. She is the whole package. She’s smart, she’s well–read, she’s aware, she’s involved, she jogs, and she’s managed to keep her figure and her looks, even after six kids. Heck, she’s what I want to be when I grow up; well, sans the hod–totin’ husband and the six kids, anyway. I have NO idea why she married him, let alone why she’s stayed with him. I swear, it’s like my dad and his entire side of the family gang up on her, just to keep her down,” I stopped in mid–rant and waved that issue aside. “Anyway, my mom and my little sister Em are the only members of my family that I can really stand. Mom would take Em and me to museums, to readings, to the Pops, the Nutcracker, like all that, and tried to expose us to the finer things in life. She took Dad and the rest of the kids along too, but they’d just whine and complain that they were missing the Celtics. I cannot believe that I am related to that family. The point of this being, that I actually do have an idea as to how to act in polite society,” there was the expected snort from the Goodthing, “and talk about things like the arts and so on. I’ll spare you the details, but I managed to use my various gifts and talents to carve out a rather comfortable little niche for myself as a, ah, ‘confidante’ of a handful of wealthy and powerful men.”
“You mean that you got paid to have sex with a bunch of old guys?” the black chick said, more than a little squicked by the thought.
“Naw, like I told Snootilicious over here, I just put them to sleep, and gave ‘em the suggestion that they’d just had the best Ess–Ee–Ecks they’d ever had.”
“Hold it,” the guy of the group said, “You’re telling me that a bunch of sophisticated, experienced movers and shakers couldn’t tell that they were dating a fifteen–year–old BOY? Oh Come ON, no matter how good you are with makeup, they’d have noticed SOMETHING!”
“Yeah, but I didn’t just rely on makeup and attitude,” I pointed out. “Though, God knows, the ol’ At–Ti–Tude helps. Nope, I got another ace–in–the–hole.” I shifted my face into ‘Abby Carfax’ mode, then did the bit where I slid my fangs in and out, put on my ‘Vampire Scary Face’, formed my claws, stuck my tongue out a foot and a few other tricks. “Don’t ask me how–”
“Yeah, yeah, we know. You don’t know how you do it, you just do it.”
“All that, and she can stand still in a snow drift in the nude and vanish from sight!”
“Hey you don't tell me how to spend my Christmas and I won’t tell you how to spend yours,” I shot back. “Yeah. Anyway, I can make minor changes to my body. They don’t last very long, but I think that they are guiding my development, which gives a girl such hope for the future,” I preened a bit. “So, between all that and good shot of ‘she who dares, wins’, I managed to pull it off nicely.
“Then I met Phelps Caruthers. I met Pip through one of my other clients, and we hit it off slightly. At first, I thought that he was just another Old Moneybag with more ego than brains. But you know how some of ‘the girls’ say that their clients just want to talk? Well, with Pip, it was true! He just… wanted someone to listen to him. And, well, at first, I just humored him, but after a while, we started actually really talking to each other. I dunno what Pip was like at the brokerage – he didn’t talk about that much – but MAN, could he talk about art, history, music, philosophy, letters, all that! He started taking me out to the galleries, to the symphony, to readings, and like that. I was just faking it, and he knew it, and he explained it to me. Along with his MBA and degree in Economics, Pip had two Masters in Fine Arts and Musicology. Not that anyone in his family ever cared. Not about music, not about the arts; hell, not really about Pip.” I had to stop for a moment. How can such sweet memories be so painful?
I pulled myself together. “Anyway, for about nine months, it was SWEET. No school, no putting up with my family, no going to church and putting up with THAT whole scene, no brothers, no local thugs, none of that! I was living the good life, learning more about the arts than some MFAs, hanging out with a genuine gentleman, and at night, I had action as the Vamp, mixing it up with the street elite, and Skyhawk, Speed Queen and Dynaman.”
“Oh? You ever run into the Lamplighter?”
“Yeah. A couple of times.”
“What do you THINK happened? I RAN, screaming like a little girl! That guy’s NUTS!” I waved that aside. “But, of course, since it seems that it’s a crime against God and Nature for Alex to have anything nice, it was only a matter of time before it all blew up in my face. I came back from the opera with, ah, another client, who happened to have a thing for La Boheme, and learned on the 11 o’clock News that Phelps Caruthers, Back Bay Boston financier and philanthropist and all that, had been killed – by the notorious local mutant supervillain known as ‘Vamp’.
“After I finished freaking out, I hit the streets to try and find out who’d framed me. It was a very different scene; the local supers weren’t pulling any punches anymore, the Boston PD had a ‘shoot to kill’ order out on me, and the MCO was playing real hardball. After a week of that, I got jumped by the Children of the Night, and the Necromancer informs me that I’m the latest addition to that bad monster mash of his – OR ELSE. It didn’t take me long to figure out that he’d killed Pip to get me under his thumb; Darrow is HUGE into the whole ‘I’m so EEEEE–vil, bwah–ha–ha–hah!’ bit.”
“Why did Darrow go to all that fuss to recruit you?” the blue–haired anime chick asked me suspiciously. “Why go to all that effort to recruit an unwilling follower?”
“I have NO CLUE! And I really want to know! So would that DA bitch Collier! And the FBI! And the MCO and DPA! And INTERPOL! None of us have any idea why he wanted me that much. God knows, he didn’t any real use for me. At least, not as an agent.”
“Why didn’t you vamp your way out from under his thumb?” Bladedancer asked.
“I tried. That’s how I got the first of these,” I pointed at the back of my neck, and the scars hidden by my long hair. “I tried to figure out what made Darrow tick sexually, and when I did finally find out, I wished that I hadn’t.”
“You don’t wanna know. Believe me, I don’t want to know. If I could hypnotize myself into forgetting it, I would.”
Wishing for a gallon of brain–bleach, I tried to get THAT memory out of my head. “Anyway, aside from letting me live off–base, and allowing me to maintain my clients as ‘Abby Carfax’,” Goodkind snickered at that, but none of the others got the joke, “Darrow pretty much had me under his thumb and at his beck and call. It took me a while, but I managed to figure out how to avoid thinking about my plans to get shuck of Darrow, whenever his pet telepath, Sandra, was around.”
“AKA ‘Lady Darke’. Actually, she’s not a bad person. Pity she’s still under Darrow’s thumb. Still, when you realize that the rest of them – Darrow, Lycanthros, the Arch–Fiend, and Nightgaunt – are all such total ratbags, it’s not all that hard for her to seem like not that bad a person by comparison. After I figured out how to do it without ratting myself out, I started to plan how I was going to get free of those scumbags–”
“Later.” Fey, the hawtsome redhead leaned forward and asked, “Let’s get down to what really matters: what did Darrow want with the Key of Nimue?”
“Key of Nimue?” I racked my memory. “Oh, right, that dingus that Darrow sent those kids into that museum to steal – and then turned right around and broke in himself and stole everything not nailed down. Haw! I was sure that ol’ Coffin–breath was soft as a overripe grapefruit between the ears with that one. Y’know, that was the biggest bitch – aside from the electrical burns – about working with Darrow: most of the time he was, y’know, sort of there, and other times, I’d’a swore that he’d totally lost it and was off in la–la–land. I could pull the most egregious shit on him and get away with it. And then, suddenly, out of left field–” I snapped my fingers, “–BANG! He was totally focused, on the ball, sharp as a razor and twice as nasty, and downright deadly. Made planning anything a real bitch!”
“Fascinating. AND?” the redhead gave me the raised eyebrow, looking like a smokin’ hawt Vulcan.
“I have no clue,” I said with perfect honesty.
“At least you realize it,” the Goodthing said with a snip.
I gave her the ‘Ha–ha, very funny – NOT’ laugh, and explained, “Look, whether he was on his game or not, there was one thing that was perfectly consistent about Darrow: he was paranoid as all hell. He didn’t trust NOBODY. Period. Not even Lycanthros, who was the closest thing that he had to a buddy. And he didn’t trust me, like, at ALL.”
“Thus proving that just because you’re crazy, doesn’t mean that you’re stupid.”
“As I was saying, before I was so rudely interrupted, Darrow left me out of all his planning sessions. It was always, ‘Get ready, there’s the target, do this – RIGHT NOW, or I’ll flay your back!’ It made tipping off Skyhawk a real grizzly, lemme tell you.”
“Skyhawk?” the Asian sword–chick said, “Wait! YOU were Skyhawk’s informant within the Children of the Night?”
“How’d you hook up with a dork like Skyhawk?” the anime–chick asked.
“Well, like I told you, every so often, I’d run into the local superheroes, who seemed to have a problem with me beating the crap out of the Boston street–creeps for some strange reason. My first time up against him, I played the ‘Catwoman’ card on him, and… shave my head and call me Baldy… but it worked! Of course, the old Vamp–razzle helped, but, hey, you’ve obviously met ol’ Skypigeon; he’s got the old ‘knight on a white charger’ mentality, but BAD! I yanked his chain a few times,” I mimed pulling at a chain, and Anime–chick put her hand over her little buddy’s eyes, “and after a bit, we had the old ‘Batman / Catwoman’ thing going on. Getting away is SO much easier when the good guy is trying to save the fair damsel in distress,” I copped a pose with one hand lightly touching my bosom and fluttered my eyelashes.
“And, well, it was fun for a few months–”
“You call dealing with that muscle–bound chucklehead fun?”
“I call dealing with a chucklehead with pecs that you could use to play handball on, and that ASS! Mwah–ha–ha–hah… yummy…” I mimed grabbing some ass with both hands as I made goofy–lust face. Anime–chick covered her bud’s eyes again.
I collected my cool a bit. “As I was saying, it was all fun and games for a few months, but then Darrow came along and dragooned me into his idiot ‘Children of the Night’. Skyhawk took me ‘going over to the dark side’ that way kinda personal, and made it his business to trip up the Nite–Kids whenever he could. Darrow took THAT pretty much as you’d expect, and he started planting some booby traps for Sky that probably would have taken out that booby – and a couple of city blocks as well. I managed to rescue Skyhawk from certain death a few times, and finally got the big dolt to listen to me. He managed to get that bitch at the Boston DA’s office, Collier, to give me a shot. But she insisted that I use my position inside the Children of the Night to give her a bigger bust than me to bring in: namely, Darrow, and as many of his flunkies as we could manage.
“The rest, you all pretty much know about. Each time that we ran into each other, the best that I was able to do was give Skyhawk and the Boston PD a heads–up, and let them know that Dr. Doom–bell was up warming up his hearse. Oh, and I’d trip up Darrow as often as I could. Hell, the only reason that your little blonde buddy got away to warn you about the museum, the first time we ran into each other, was that I managed to distract Darrow as he was trying to dart her in the head.”
“That’s all very nice, but you haven’t answered my question,” the redhead said, sounding like she was the Queen To Come or something. “What has Darrow done with the Key of Nimue?”
“NO, I told you: I don’t know! Darrow kept me out of the loop on everything! He didn’t even let me hang around his lair when I wasn’t going to be sent almost immediately on a mission, so I couldn’t say what he was stockpiling or moving or anything.”
“But you said that the Necromancer kept you constantly under his thumb,” the Lancer–guy said, giving me a suspicious look.
“He did,” I responded. “I’m pretty sure that Darrow had a couple of people in the hotel where I was living giving him information, and he made sure that I knew that he was watching my suite at all times. Still, I was able to find his bugs and watchers and stuff, so I didn’t complain about it too much; it beat the hell out of being stuck in close quarters with Lycanthros, and when he wasn’t trying to get me killed pulling something off, he pretty much didn’t care what I did, as long as I wasn’t poking my nose into his business, or trying to sneak out of town. Not that I minded; the less time that I spent around those creeps, the better I liked it. If you wanna know what Darrow’s plans are, I suggest that you try to talk to McKinnon.”
“And WHO is McKinnon?” the Goodthing asked, rubbing the bridge of her nose.
“Eddie McKinnon? Also known as ‘the Nightgaunt’?” I raised an amused eyebrow. “What? Didn’t Collier tell you that I’d brought in Nighty–Knight, and he was rolling over like rover in the clover? Gee… that’s… No, now that I think about it, that’s exactly what Collier would do.” I let out a long exasperated sigh. “Look, if you want to know what old Coffin–breath had up his armored sleeve, see if you can weasel a little face–to–face time with Eddie McKinnon. He was Darrow’s right–hand man; he knew what was going down. And without those freaky power gems of his, Eddie ain’t goin’ nowhere. Without the power gems and Nightgaunt’s suit, Eddie’s just another thug; he’s no use to Darrow, just a liability, and both of ‘em know it. Eddie is looking to make a deal.”
They looked around at each other. “What are the odds that that Collier woman will let us talk to this McKinnon guy?” the redhead asked the others.
“Almost nil,” my new roommate said with more authority than you’d usually associate with someone breaking in her first training bra. “McKinnon is her best lead for bringing in the Necromancer, which she probably sees as her big break. She’s already gone out on a limb offering Vamp here a deal–”
“Not THAT big a deal,” I cut in, “the whole thing started ‘cause Boston PD egregiously violated my civil rights and put me critical danger by chucking me in that holding cell without due process.”
“Yeah? And how were you going to prove that?”
“What prove? My trail of destruction, the night that I broke out of the stir, started in the Max Security holding cell, NOT the juvie wing! Believe me, if I’da thought of that angle when this whole thing happened, I’d have made a beeline to the ACLU, and saved myself a ton of grief! A kid right out of law school could have gotten me a settlement that would have made me SFL!”
Goodkind gave me an ‘indulging the idiot’ smile, and continued. “So, Collier will be handling McKinnon with kid gloves, and anything that we brought to bear on him would undermine her case.”
“Wait a minute,” Hank said, “I thought that Boston PD considered the new Nightgaunt as a cop killer, ‘cause they think that he killed the original Night–gaunt.”
“They DO,” I answered. “And I got that straight from the horse’s mouth. Hell, it was the only thing that that barrow–trotting yahoo that drove me up here and I agreed on.”
“Exactly,” Goodkind cut in on me, “so Collier won’t want anything contaminating his testimony value. She’s going too far out on a limb, cutting deals to both Vamp and this McKinnon jerk, to have it fall flat because of something that a bunch of mutant kids do.”
The redhead gave out an exasperated snort and glared at me. “I understand your background, but you really don't have to act all skanky like that – you're still just a kid you know.”
“Yah, well I'm not the busty elf babe with that freaky force of presence thing going on that you do! And you can't tell me you don't love the attention or you'd be walking around dressed as a nun.”
“Let’s get down to brass tacks,” the mouthy black chick said coldly. “How long are we gonna have to put up with you, before they move you on to wherever they’re gonna stash you?”
“What ‘move on’? From everything that I’ve heard, this is IT! This is my big reward for putting my alabaster ass on the line all these months.”
“That makes too much sense,” Hank said with one of those ‘ah, man we gotta put up with ALEX’ sighs that I remember all too well from my family. He gave me a bone–tired look. “So, what are we gonna do with you?”
“Cherish me,” I said with wide eyes and a pleading expression, “LOVE me! FEED ME!” I held out the doggy–bag, which was now empty of both chicken and pilaf. “No, seriously!” I said in a regular voice, “FEED me, I’m still starving here!” There was a loud groan, and they started filing out of the room. “Hey!” I called after them, “At least tell me if there are some vending machines anywhere around here!”
“There are vending machines down in the kitchenette, on the first floor,” said a soft voice.
“Oh, thank GOD!” I turned to look into a pair of large round gray eyes. Surrounding the gray eyes was a cute oval face with an upturned nose, good bone structure, and a wide mouth, all framed by long straight fine dark brown hair with bangs that really set off those eyes. The rest of the package was pretty nice as well. Maybe not in the ‘omigawd, yer gawjuss!’ way that the snoot–wads that had just left were, but definitely on a par with Siobhan Flaherty or Colleen Hamish, the competing beauty–queens in my old school. “And who are YOU?” I said giving her my most winning smile (and remembering to pull in the fangs).
“Oh, ah, I’m Tara. Tara Hardy. You can call me X–O.”
“X–O? They call you that because you’re Number One?” She blushed at that and started to stammer. “Joke! C’mon, show me where this kitchenette is, I’m STARVING!” She took me back down to the ground floor, and the kitchenette was just that, with three refrigerators with private noshies marked ‘Touch and DIE!’ And in this place, I believed them! And there were a bunch of vending machines, and a microwave and a toaster oven and all like that. I quickly bought a Baby Ruth bar, which tided me over as I bought the cup of chicken noodle soup, which would tide me over as I heated the bowl of beef stew. I stuck the bowl of stew in the microwave, and asked, “Hey, Tara, you want anything? On me.”
She bought a fudge brownie and joined me as I tucked into the soup. “So, is that any good?”
She shrugged. “It’s okay. I mean, it’s not what you’d get at the cafeteria, but it’s okay for out of a machine.”
“The cafeteria?” I echoed. “It looked like any other school food–itentiary; well, aside from the Maurice Sendak storybook escapees.”
“Oh, the one we’re using now? Oh, that’s nothing. The Crystal Hall, our usual caff, is like totally something else. I mean, before Christmas break, they had a filet mignon that was sooo tender… It was way better than the filet that we got at this one fancy restaurant that we – my family – went to, back in Denver.” She paused, and her voice went flat. “The boys were making hamburgers out of the filet mignon. The cooking staff almost cried.” Then she perked up again. “The Seniors are renovating the Crystal Hall, which is why we gotta use the Dunn Hall caff. I can’t wait until they get finished.”
Our conversation lagged a bit, so I decided to play my big card. I thought that I had her pegged, but her reaction should confirm it. “So, how much did you overhear?”
“What?” she blurted, blushing like a beet.
“How much of my story did you overhear, while I was giving the Babe Squad my senses–stunning mind–blowing secret origin, complete with flashbacks and narrative sequences?”
She blustered a shamed denial, but I just fixed her with an amused knowing smile, and she caved in. “I heard pretty much all of it.”
“Ah, lovely. I’ve told it twice today, and I’m in no mood to repeat it a third time.”
“So, you’re really a supervillain?” Tara asked, like she was meeting a rock star.
“Nah, more like the poor persecuted innocent, on the run from the Law, framed for a crime that she didn’t commit!” I copped a ‘tragic heroine’ pose.
“And what are you gonna do now?”
“Well, they got me fair and square. I ran as hard and fast as I could, but there’s no escape from it. I’m going to have to endure… High School!” I put the back of my hand to my suffering brow and let out a shuddering sob.
“Y’mean, you don’t have any big plan?”
“Sweetie, I just got out from under the thumb of a vicious dementoid, and that took me the better part of a year to pull off, and it came this close to blowing up in my face. I got four years, give ‘er take, of relative safety and freedom, before I gotta leave here. Right now, my prime objective is keeping out of the Necromancer’s hands – or claws – or talons – or whatever he’s got under those freaky gauntlets of his. At the moment, I gotta kick back, take stock, and figure out what I gotta do next. And Whateley’s as good a place to do that as any, and better’n most. Heck, Collier could actually get something out of McKinnon that finally puts Darrow away. Some superhero could bust him and put him away forever. Darrow could finally just up and DIE. Who knows? If there’s anything that I’ve learned as a wily vixen, living off my wits and charms and the weakness of men, it’s ‘don’t plan too far in advance’. Plan one step ahead, keep an eye on two steps ahead, and keep your options open for that third step; past that, you’re locking yourself into an agenda relying on factors that may no longer apply.”
“But what about money?” Tara asked. “I mean, yeah, the government’s paying your way here, but what about after you graduate? Even if the Necromancer’s caught or killed, or whatever, what will you do for money? I mean, you said that your family tried to KILL you!”
“Not to worry, Sweetheart,” I purred, “the bad girl has it covered.”
“Before he died, Pips Carruthers… along with a few other of my, ah, ‘gentlemen sponsors’, arranged for a trust fund that will pay out $250 thousand per annum for me.”
“What’s a trust fund?” Tara asked, obviously out of her depth.
“Well… it’s like a savings account, that pays a certain dividend every year, but can’t be touched, except by the trustees. It’s one of those financial arrangements that people use to get around taxes, the fluctuations in the stock market, inheritance fights, and things like that. It’s complicated, and I don’t really understand all the ins and outs of it. But the gist of it is that while I may not be rich, I am certainly comfortable.”
“A quarter of a million dollars?” Tara peeped. “A YEAR? That’s a LOT of money for this Phelps guy to lay out.”
“True, but he did it with four other of my ‘sponsors’, and I doubt that it was a simple transaction; I have the distinct impression of money being laundered somehow. I’m not worried. They’re probably moving hundreds of millions through my trust fund for some reason, but when the dust settles, my money will be there. At least, it will if Pip’s relatives don’t screw everything up.”
“His relatives? Why would they screw things up?”
“Because they can,” I said wearily. “Tara, honey, the Carruthers are Boston Old Money. They may not have been around when Governor Winthrop started parceling out land around Boston Common, but they were definitely around by the time the place started making money. The Carruthers have a fine old history of making a profit from molasses, rum and human misery, and holding onto every penny they make doing it. I have it on good authority that Wescott Carruthers, Phelps’ grandfather, was buried with a penny firmly pinched between his fingers. They’ll try to screw with the trust fund, because, as you said, it took a lot of money to set it up, and they’d sooner walk through boiling sulfuric acid than let go of that kind of loot. They haven’t found out that ‘Abby Carfax’ and ‘Vamp’ are one and the same person, let alone aliases of Alex O’Brien, but the fact that Phelps set that kind of dough aside for some little snip who didn’t even go to a ‘good school’ is enough that they feel entitled to take it away from me.”
“Well…” Tara said, casting about, “Why don’t you talk to your roommate about it? Everyone says that Phase is hell on wheels when it comes to money. She’s setting up all kinds of deals and corporations and stuff for the geeks down in the Workshop. And I hear that she made a killing on that Marvel thing, and she made tons of money for the Golden Kids, and–”
“You know, the kids from really rich families, who turn out to be mutants. They sort of hang together in some sort of la–de–dah club. Phase got some of them to invest in a big buy–out of Marvel comics, and from what I heard, they made out like BANDITS!”
“Really? Goodkind’s into making deals and like that, huh? Sounds about right. From what Pip let drop, the Goodkinds read their kids the Wall Street Journal for bedtime stories. But I don’t think that it’s a good idea to go owe Goodkind for anything this big… Not that she might not be able to handle it, but she’s been making ‘mooch’ noises about little shit like her food stash. I’d hate to owe her for my trust fund.” But then a light bulb went off in my head. “But, then again, it may be all in the way that I pitch it.” I filed that away under ‘devious plots’. “SO!” I said brightly, fixing my beaming smile on Tara. “So much for my fascinating past and brilliant prospects. What about you? What do you do, beyond listening at doors?”
Tara blushed again and furiously denied being a habitual eavesdropper. I just smiled knowingly as she denied, until she gave it up. “Okay, okay… Look, when I first came here and heard that this was the Gay cottage, I thought that I’d landed in Heaven. Instead, I’m an okay looking chick in a cottage full of fucking goddesses! And Team Kimba is always hogging all the action.”
“Team Kimba? What’s Team Kimba?”
“Team Kimba… Phase, Fey, Chaka… y’know, the girls – and guy – that you just got out of that big meet with? That’s Team Kimba.”
“Yer shitting me,” I said aghast. “Who picked that silly–ass name for them?”
“I think they did. Go figure.”
I waved that aside. “Still, let’s get back to the point: you’re here, so you’re obviously a mutant. What’s your schtick? What do you do?”
Tara let out a long sigh. “Okay, it’s a stock bit, but it’s kind of embarrassing…”
“What? You turn into a poodle?”
“Ah, it’s not THAT embarrassing…”
“You turn into a schnauzer?”
“I don’t turn into a dog!”
“Then what’s to be embarrassed about?”
Tara let out another sigh. “Well, it’s just that other kids who pretty much have the same power do so much more with it! I’m a manifester–” she noticed my ‘huh?’ expression and took mercy on me. “Manifesters just sort of create something out of nothing. They’re not really sure how it works. It can be a lot of different things. As for me, I create what’s called a carapace, or shell around me. It’s looks like I turn into metal.” In an instant, she went from looking like a normal girl to looking like a steel statue of a girl. “But there are a bunch of kids who do pretty much the same thing. There’s a Greek boy called Talos who’s a pretty powerful brick. Thick as a brick between the ears, but he can really dish out the punishment! And there’s Iron Star, who creates a suit of power armor that can fly and blast and all sorts of stuff! And there’s this girl called ‘Cutlass’ who does the same thing as me, but she creates these blades that can cut through almost anything! And there’s a German girl called Panzer who creates a gun that could blast through a bank vault! And all that I can do is–” She held up a hand, and the fingers flowed into a single blade.
“How strong are you, with that carapace up?”
“Oh, I can lift maybe three or four tons, give or take.”
“How tough are you?” I asked. “I mean, how much damage can you take?”
“I’m not really sure. I mean, I avoid getting shot at. I stopped some bullets from a handgun when some nutjob tried to take potshots at me, back in Denver, but that’s not much, especially here at Whateley. And my armor isn’t that good against energy, especially electricity.”
“Maybe. So, are you thinking about a white hat or a black one? Or are you too smart to say?”
“Oh, I’m not thinking about becoming a superhero or a supervillain!” she said hurriedly. “I just… I’d just like to have the option, y’know? I mean, some kids are making some real big money on their mutations, and they don’t have anything to do with the cape set.”
“They do? Well, color me fascinated! How do they do that?”
“Well, there are these three girls – you remember, last Christmas, that Angel girl down in New York that they were making all the big fuss about? Well, she’s here!”
“And they’ve got her healing people here, too?”
“No, they’ve teamed her up with two other girls. One of ‘em sweats this silvery stuff called mithral or something that’s supposed to be really special somehow, and the other one’s some kind of devisor or something, and between the three of them, they’re knocking out big time magical items. I’ve heard some of the magical types say that ONE of the things that they bang out is worth a cool Two Million!”
“Two. Million.” Then a penny dropped, and I remembered something. “Excuse me… but did you say that this girl sweated silver?”
“Wonderful. ANOTHER person I have to avoid.”
“You know her?”
“Sort of. She was involved in one of those cluster fucks in Boston, where I butted head with Team Kimbo.” I scraped the last of the beef stew out of the bowl and deposited it in the trash. I went over to the vending machines and checked the selection in the refrigerated ‘mini–meal’ machine. “What’s an ‘Energizer Pie’?”
“Oh, Energizers – those are the guys who, y’know throw around electricity and stuff like that – and Bricks tend to need a lot of calories. Those are like pot pies, with beef and veggies and like that, but they’re enough to feed three grown baseline men. JJ – that’s my roomie – says that they’re great for a two–in–the–morning munchies attack. Sometimes, she even heats them.”
I shrugged and put in two bucks. It was the basic size and shape of a meatloaf, but the picture on the box suggested a jumbo glutton–size pot pie. “Woof! The instructions say that it’ll take ten minutes to heat in the microwave. You got anything hanging?”
“Well, ‘Tales of the MCO’ is on tonight.”
“You watch Tales of the MCO?”
“You don’t? It’s a HOOT! Did you see that episode last month, where those two guys, all by themselves, foiled that plot by that Doctor Diabolik ripoff they had?” She broke down laughing. Well, I guess that if you look at that show from the point of view of mere entertainment, it IS so bad that it’s good. “Yeah but don’t worry–” Tara looked at her wrist, and from nowhere, a watch appeared, and she looked at it, “– MCO won’t come on for an hour and a half. We got lots of time.”
“What’s that? On your wrist?”
“Oh, I was wearing my watch once when I armored up, and I totally trashed it. Ever since then, I can sort of re–create it with my carapace.”
“And it keeps the right time?” she nodded. “How?” She shrugged. “Can you do that with electronics?”
“Yeah, but it trashes whatever I armor over. I mean, so I’ll always have a radio.” She held up a hand, and a lump appeared and started playing some bubblegum rock. “Big deal.”
“What about something complicated, like a smart phone?”
“Why would I trash a perfectly good smart phone, by trying to copy it? I already HAVE a smart phone!”
REEEAAALLY? Well, that certainly kicked up a storm of ideas in my head. I was about to gently broach the topic, when one of the Asian chicks from Team Kimberly walked in and copped a ‘tude. “Excuse me? Tara? I need a word with Vamp? Alone?”
Tara gave the teeniest–tiniest little barely audible ‘eep’ and carefully walked out of the kitchen. I was just gearing up to ask Miss Sexypants what she wanted, and BOOM! Suddenly I was up against one of the vending machines a good three inches off the ground, sword at my throat, and the Asian chick was up in my face. And not in a ‘let’s get smoochie’ way, either. “Listen UP, Vamp!” she hissed through her teeth, “I know exactly what you’re up to!”
“Hey, look, how was I supposed to know that you were hot for X–O? I just GOT here!”
“I’m talking about AYLA!”
“You’re hot for Ayla? Okay, okay, I’ll stay away! Jeez, she’s not my type, anyway!”
“That’s NOT what I’m talking about! You’re going to try and use that freaky ‘Vamp–razzle’ of yours on her, and get your mitts on some Goodkind money. I don’t give a rat’s ass about her money, but Ayla is my friend. You can play your skanky games with other people, but not with US. Don’t. Even. THINK. About it.” She put some real Tabasco on her snarl with the last bit, and slammed me back into the vending machine, making me see stars.
“Ah, Chew, is it? First, I’ve spent a good chunk of my life with one asshole or another slamming me into stuff, choking the shit out of me and screaming threats into my face. I’m USED to it, and to be honest, you’re not very good at it. Second, while I may not know all the ins and outs of this place, I’ve seen enough that if I tried to mess with anything as major as Goodkind money on the school’s time, they’d just kick me out and send the Necromancer an e–mail. Third, Money–wise, I’m covered. I don’t NEED to scam Goodkind. Fourth, Goodkind’s a big girl; she can take care of herself. And Fifth? Fifth, of that entire crew (well, maybe except for the little kid), YOU are the one that worries me the least; especially after the drubbing I gave you the first time we ran into each other.” I carefully took a hold of the wrist of her sword hand and pried the sword away from my throat.
She stepped away and held the sword up in front of her face. But she wasn’t backing down. “THIS is Destiny’s Wave. It is an ancient sword, in tune with the ebb and flow of the Tao. In Asia, it is as famous as Excalibur is in the West, and far more feared. Wizards fear it. Dark cultists fear it. Saints fear it. Demons fear it. Dragons fear it. GODS fear it. I am the Handmaiden of the Tao. If the Tao so wills it, I would kill you, and there would be nothing that you or anyone else could do about it.”
“LOOK,” I said, looking her straight in the eye, “I know just enough about Taoism to know that one of the big things is that sometimes you have choices and sometimes you DON’T. And sometimes, you have your choices rammed down your throat. That’s what happened to me. I had a whole bunch of shitty options rammed right down my throat, mostly by people who liked to grab me by the throat and throw me against walls. You’re into Taoism? Well then, riddle me this: what do you do when you’re tossed into a nasty situation where you have absolutely NO control over what’s happening?”
She backed off slightly, and said, “You… go with the flow, and try to make the best of things, to the best of your ability.”
“And that’s JUST what I did. If you’re on such chummy terms with the Tao, tell it to give me better options, and I’ll take them.”
“What does that have to do with Ayla Goodkind?”
“You tell me. You’re the one waving cutlery around.”
Her eyes narrowed. “You admit that you’re a manipulator, that you play games with people’s heads and hearts. It doesn’t even bother you to admit it. If you try to play any of your little games with Ayla–”
“IF I was fool enough to try and game the Goodthing, she’d probably drop another eight–ton asshole on top of me. I’m not going to go out of my way to cause her trouble, but I’ll be damned if I’m gonna bend over backwards to make nice–nice with a stuck–up rich bitch.”
“I WILL be watching you, Vamp.”
“You and a bunch of other people. And odds are NONE of you will do shit, when Darrow comes for me.”
She stepped away again, sheathed that sword and walked out of the kitchenette in a brisk march. At the door, she stopped, and without turning she said, “I may not be anywhere near as scary as Darrow or his flunkies, but I can take appropriate measures if it comes to it. My point is, screw with anyone else fine, if that’s your idea of fun; you certainly won't be the first person of your nature to do that. But, screw with me and mine, and I’ll make that Necromancer that you’re so scared of look like a muppet. Outside of that, Alex, have fun here at Whateley, do as you will and have a wonderful life. I just hope we never have to have the other half of this conversation.” She headed out and added, “Oh… the brownies and some of the baked goods are excellent, but avoid the rice crispy treats. They go bad faster than the others.”
Tara came back into the kitchenette a moment later, probably letting Chew get well away. She looked at me, worried, and said, “Are you okay, Alex?”
“Sure! Sure, just put me down as having been duly hazed.”
“Did you mean what you said?”
“About not causing Goodkind trouble? Sure, I–”
“No, I meant about hitting on me,” She blushed, and squirmed a little, and gave me a hesitant yet hopeful look.
“Why SURE, I did honey!” giving her my best Vamp–leer. I took her by the arm and said, “You said that Tales of the MCO was going to come on? Well then, we’d best get a good seat, while the getting’s good, right?” I steered her to the stairs, and Tara beamed at me. As we mounted the stairs, I said conversationally, “Oh, and would you be a sweetheart, and let me know if I’ve got any other potentially deadly rivals in the cottage, hmmm?”
“Well, there IS Sharisha. She doesn’t like white people, and she’s got a real hate on for MtF changelings, and, well, you’re as white as it gets! But then, she really, really hates Chou…”
* * * * * *
Contrary to mass speculation, while I do sleep very deeply, so deeply that on one (previously mentioned) occasion that I was mistaken for dead, I do not sleep like the dead. And yet, despite that, I woke up with the sounds of the wailing of the damned, accompanied by something that sounded like three tomcats of noticeably differing sizes being castrated with chainsaws. I bolted upright and looked down from the upper bunk (think about it; would YOU sleep under someone who could turn super–heavy in her sleep?) to where the little hell–box was spewing its infernal din into our poor beleaguered world. I reached down to silence it with a well–aimed fist, but it was placed just out of reach, clearly with malice aforethought. “WHAT? IS? THAT?” I did not screech. Ladies do not screech. I merely stated it as forcefully as the situation demanded.
“‘Populism for Dummies’,” my new roommate yawned.
“Yes, that’s a given. But what’s that NOISE?” It turns out that the Goodthing is an aficionado of an ‘alternative’ band (one can merely wonder what it’s an alternative TO? Harmony? Melody? Syncopation?) called ‘Brass Monkey’, and the *ahem!* ‘song’ was called ‘Populism for Dummies’. I politely and logically argued for the wisdom of waking up to something more conducive to pleasant thoughts. Like, maybe, nails on a blackboard.
I got down from my bunk and pointedly turned off the noise pollution. Then I slipped on my bathrobe, picked up my toothbrush and paste, and made for the girls’ bathroom to perform my morning ablutions. What I ran into there was a real wakeup. In a family with six kids and two bathrooms, crowded mornings were nothing new; it was one reason why I prefer to shower in the evenings. But I’d never considered the implications of sharing a bathroom with ten–to–twenty girls. Many of whom were standing there, in their bathrobes, for the showers. MAN, the standards of beauty here at Whateley were high! Not that I had anything to worry about, mind you… Still, I changed my sink three times, trying to get the best vantage point for watching the beauty parade.
Then Whatkind walked over, and came up to me and gave me this hard look. “AHEM!”
“Yesh?” I said as I worked the floss for everything it was worth, but not taking my eyes off the mirror – or the ass of that anime chick.
“That’s MY sink,” she said like I’d stolen her seat. I started to argue what was the point? A sink is a sink is a sink. Then it struck me that Thatkind had been here for months, and had probably figured out that that was THE primo girlwatching spot in the bathroom long ago. I guess that did give her some sort of ogler’s rights or something; besides, an argument would only call attention to us. I scooted over to the second–best sink, and went for a second brush full of paste. “Aren’t you finished yet?”
“I have a greater investment in my dental health than you do,” I replied, flashing him a smile full of fangs. Snootkind started a snipe, but we both cut it off to pay full attention as the redhead shed her nightgown and went into the shower. I scoured the ol’ pearlies until I couldn’t make excuses anymore. I rinsed out, but Peepkind was still going strong. So, I snapped to attention and saluted.
“Wha’s tha fo’?” Toothkind said through a mouthful of suds.
“I’m waiting for you to run a flag up that pole.”
* * * * * *
Tara had the good idea to head over to Dunn Hall and get at breakfast before the big crush hit. “Aren’t we going to wait for Phase and the rest of Team Kimba?”
“But Phase is your roommate.”
“Which is merely proof that despite promises of clemency, The Man is still sticking it to me.” I let out a melodramatic sigh. “And not in the good way.”
Two other girls joined us as we headed out, a chunky blonde and a willowy redhead who couldn’t have looked more Irish if she’d been wearing an IRA sweater. The blonde was named Evvie, and called herself ‘Punch’, and the redhead was Heather, and she had a lovely velvet legit Irish accent that my cousin Maeve would committed mass atrocities to have for real. “So, it’s true that you were one of those supervillains that Team Kimba fought down in Boston? Three times?”
I gave them the security approved version of my side of the big brouhaha in Beantown, through the line, and well through the selection of foods. I heaped my tray high, but they didn’t so much as blink an eye at it. Evvie grumbled something about the coffee. Heather said, “Well, at least they have the three varieties, and it’s fresh–ground.”
“Yeah, but after you get used to a good Jamaican Blue/ Tapanuli blend, well…”
“Why do they even serve coffee here? You’d think that they’d want to keep a crowd like this from getting stimulated, not caffeine them up!”
I sampled the western omelet, and found it good. “Okay, enough about me. What are your stories?” Evvie and Heather had pretty bland ‘things were really weird until we found out about Whateley’ stories, and Tara’s wasn’t a lot better, though she did get to meet some of the local Denver superheroes out of it. None of them had any big plans for the future. Well, Heather wanted to be a poet, but that’s more of a dream than a plan.
“I don’t really wanna be a superhero or supervillain,” Tara sighed, “but I really wish that I had powers with more zip. I mean, I’m not one of the Underdogs – thank you, God! – but I got my ass handed to me at the combat final.”
‘Combat Finals’ turned out to be this barbaric thing where twice a year, they made students fight each other in some sort of gladiatorial ring. “Actually, it’s not quite that… Roman,” Heather said. “The thing is, you’re supposed to compete to do something, in these mockup cities with automated robots as ‘civilians’; they say that you’re supposed to work it out as best you can. But, let’s face it, for most people–”
“Most people prefer to work things out by pounding the crap out of each other,” Evvie finished.
“And it’s supposed to give you an idea how you’d fare out in the ‘real world’,” Tara added.
“Well, from what I’ve seen of it, people in the ‘real world’ do tend to descend to ‘pounding the crap out of each other’ at the drop of a hat,” I said. “So, at least they’re on the money there. So, Tara – why’d you get creamed?”
“Oh, I got paired up against this feeb over in Whitman named Tesla. She’s an Energizer, and she used my carapace against me. She magnetized me to a third–story I–beam, so if I dropped my carapace, I’d drop three stories, and left me there!” Tara screwed up her face. “Not only did I get a ‘D’ on my test, but I lost to a scrawny little nothing like TESLA!”
“You gettin’ anywhere with Delta Spike, about that PFG?”
“A PFG is a ‘Personal Forcefield Generator’,” Tara explained, “Little dinguses about the size of a CD player or like that, that generate a–”
“Yeah, a personal force field, yeah, I get that,” I cut in. “So… like she said, any luck with that?”
Tara’s sour expression went even sourer. “Nah. I don’t have the scratch to pay for it, and Spike’s still too fuckin’ broke to let me have one on layaway.”
That reminded me of something that I’d put away for later, yesterday. I chewed it over, and got an idea. “So, Tara… eeeyyyeee… think I have an idea as to how we can get you one of those PFG things.”
Tara’s eyes went wide. “You can do that? You’d do that? You’d pay–”
“I didn’t say anything about paying for it,” I corrected her quickly. Besides committing myself to a bigger expense than I had any real idea of, it could be interpreted as me trying to buy friends. And bought friends aren’t friends. On the other hand, going out of your way to help a bud, now that’s different. “Tara, you can re–create your watch and a radio with your carapace, right? I know that you’re too smart to do it to a smart phone, but did you ever accidentally trash a regular cell phone?”
“Yeah,” she said, “But those were ACCIDENTS!” she added in a tone that suggested that she’d trashed a few phones, and gotten grief over it.
“Okay, can you re–create the cell phones that you trashed?”
“Well… y’see… I gotta sorta remember the thing that I re–create, like the watch and the radio. But there’s a kind of… pattern, I guess that you’d call it, for them, that I use when I remember. And all the cell phones that I wrecked sorta… all… y’know… ran together.” She sort of scrunched up her face, embarrassed.
I paused and considered. Well, it couldn’t hurt to try. “How about we try a little experiment? Nothing really outrageous… just try to recreate a cell phone – not one specific cell phone, just a sort of generic cell phone. Don’t think about it too hard, just… whip one up right NOW!” I gave the little a sharp whip with my voice, and she reacted on pure reflex.
A cell phone appeared in her metal–covered hand. “Sunnuvabitch,” Tara said in hushed voice. She opened the phone and turned it on. “I got a signal!” She looked at the phone and said, “Wow… it’s got all the features that I liked! It’s like all the best parts of the phones that I screwed up!” she opened the menu and looked at the plate. “I don’t believe this! I’ve got messages from November! And September! And August!”
“But you wrecked your cell phones in November, September and August,” Evvie pointed out.
“I know! I must have had them on my cell when I put up my skin!”
Ideas ran through my head like a pack of bikers on a beer run at a brewery after closing. But I went all Dirty Harry on them, and kept my eyes on the prize. “Tara, who would I talk to, if I wanted to cut some sort of deal in that High Tech boobyhatch where the Devicers and Gadgetguys work? Y’know, where they keep the big robot?”
Heather looked at me uncertainly. “Well, Zenith is the Poe cottage fixer, and she usually handles all those kind of things.”
Fixer? They already had people who did this kind of stuff? And each cottage has one? “No, I want to handle this myself, just to get into the swing of things around here. Who inside the lab cuts deals, gets things done, like that?”
They looked at each other and gave a mass shrug. “Dunno. But your roommate Phase would know. She’s got a ton of deals brewing in the Workshop.”
Shit! It gets worse and worse! Tasting ashes and gall in my mouth, I said, “Well, there’s nothing for it. C’mon, Tara honey, let’s see if we this over quickly and maybe get her before her morning coffee kicks in.” Telling Evvie to watch our trays, I led her through the throng to where Team Kimba (Team Kimba? What kind of yutz comes up with a name like Team Kimba?) was avidly discussing… hemlines? Okay, don’t ask me why Goodkind is so concerned about above or below the knee, but here goes. We stepped forward, and suddenly, somehow the conversation was suddenly about ‘Alphas’. Was Alphas a new clothing label that I haven’t heard of?
They all stopped short and looked at us as we walked up. “’Scuze me, didn’t mean to interrupt. Hey, Goodkind, I hear that you’re in tight down in the, what’s it called, Workshop? Who would I talk to get anything done down there?”
She gave me a suspicious look. “Why would you need to have anything done down in the Workshop?”
“Not me, Tara here,” I jerked my head in her direction. She gave the Kimbizoids a bright smile and wave. “She got banged around pretty bad in her last Combat Test–”
“Right. And I thought that I might be able to wrangle a little mechanical advantage for her.”
“You mean, like a holdout?”
“If that’s what you call them.”
“Well, I could–”
I waved Gooddeal down. “I’ll handle it. Like I told you last night, I used to be a wheeler–dealer back in my old school. It’s been a while since I was in the Educational Penal System, and I think that this will help me get back in step. And, maybe prove that I’m not the parasite that some people seem to think I am. So, who would I talk to, down in the Workshop? About cutting a deal to help Tara here?”
Sharkkind mulled it over a bit, rubbed her jaw and said, “Well, the problem is, that most devisors and gadgeteers specialize in this or that. And the best General Purpose devisor in the Workshop also happens to be the biggest thief and plagiarist at Whateley. All things considered, I’d say that your best is She–Beast.”
“She–Beast?” Tara and I asked as one, though in very different tones of voice.
“Yes, she’s the sister of one of the better inventors in the Workshop, as well as being the daughter of a famous inventor. And she’s a personal friend of mine. She wheels and deals, and she knows most of the better inventors working in the Workshop. She’s also the Fixer for Melville Cottage.” There was a flicker of something among the Kimbas. “Well, more or less. She’s a friend of mine. I trust her.”
This ‘She–Beast’ is buds with the Goodthing? Mother Mary, full of grace, that can mean so many things…
Oh well, the Lord hates a coward… “So, where do I find this ‘She–Beast’?”
“Let’s see…” Goodthing looked around. They’re there, over by the wall. They’re the group with the, ah, let’s see, who’s nice and easily identifiable?”
“How about Jobe?”
“Good call, Toni. She’s at the table with the two black elves with white hair sitting with them. Jadis is the one with the horns. Oh, but do introduce yourself to the rest of her friends; I think that you’d fit in perfectly…”
Ah, they must be the Arts & Culture club, or something like that. “Perfect! Thanks, roomie! Let’s move, Tara!” Tara tried to get my attention, but I was too focused on making my first power move at this new school to pick up on it. Hmmm… Jadis… that rings a bell for some reason…
I briskly clipped my way over to the designated table, with Tara in tow. Tara kept trying to tell me something, but I smelled action brewing. I walked up and gave the assembled breakfasters my sunniest smile. “Excuse me,” I looked around. No horns. Crap. “But which one of you is ‘She–Beast’?”
One of them, this chick who’s almost as skinny as I am, and has hair as white as mine, let out this melodramatic moan, and asked, like she was tired of dealing with this shit already, “Okay, and who did YOU lose?”
“Huh? I didn’t lose anybody. The only one I got here at school is Tara, and she’s right here.”
She gave me the gorgon’s glare. “Very well then: what’s your beef with me?”
“Huh?” I let my bafflement show. “Beef? What beef? I just came over ‘cause Ayla Goodkind said that you were the person to talk to, to cut a deal in the Workshop.”
“Goodkind? Why would Trevor refer you?”
The pale, black–haired, gloomy–aspected girl sitting next to She–Beast droned, “Maybe she’s an expert on Lord Byron. Or Bram Stoker. Or Stephanie Meyer.”
“Trevor?” I asked, confused. Who’s Trevor? “No. Ayla Goodkind. Y’know Phase? Well, she’s my roommate, and I asked her.”
“Why wouldn’t he just handle it himself? Trevor’s got a lot of people in the Workshop working with him?” She cocked an eye at me, and I saw the pair of forelocks over her brows; oh, that’s what Snootkind meant about ‘horns’.
“Ah, well, Goodkind may be my roommate, but we’re not exactly on the best of terms right now. She’s a little honked at me about them moving out her old roomie, and we didn’t exactly hit it off, the first time we met. No, I figure that getting a reference to you is just about the limit for her ‘n me.” For some reason, the frigid–faced gothling next to She–Beast relaxed and gave a creepy smile.
She–Beast nodded, and gestured for me to take a seat. “My name’s Jadis. Jadis Diabolik.”
Jadis? Suddenly I placed a face – or at least literary reference – to the name. “Jadis? The White Witch from the Narnia books? What sort of parent gives their kid a name like THAT, on top of a family name like ‘Diabolik’?”
“A supervillain,” Jadis said with a dangerously level voice. “My father’s Doctor Diabolik.”
“Doctor Diabolik?” It took me a second to peg the name. “Your father is that mad scientist who goes around raiding entire cities with a paralytic device?”
Jadis nodded. “Alex,” Tara whispered in my ear, “They’re ALL the kids of supervillains.”
“I don’t really regard my mother as a supervillain,” the snarky little goth–chick droned. “I’d say ‘comedy relief’, but she’s never been that funny.”
“ALL of you?” I looked around the table, and there was a sort of general blank look of, ‘Yes. AND?’ “WOW,” I breathed, “And I thought that I was getting shafted!” There was a general ‘huh?” reaction from the table. I gave them the quickie Reader’s Digest version of my to–do with the Necromancer. “Anyway, after jumping through all these hoops, what do I get for it all? I get put in Poe Cottage, on the same floor as the kids that I’d rumbled with, AND on top of all that, they shove me in the same room with the girl who dropped a freaking GIANT on top of me!”
The absolutely GORGEOUS guy with the to–die–for long red hair murmured, “Yes, I can see how that was hard on you. You’re in a position where people either damn you for being a villain, or they damn you for betraying this Necromancer, when all you were doing was doing the best with the cards that you were dealt.”
I gave him a warm, inviting smile. “Ah, at last, a gentleman! So rare, especially in one so young and handsome…”
Suddenly, a short rubber–faced kid with flyaway hair, wild eyes and a Cheshire cat grin popped out of nowhere between Gorgeous Boy and me. “Why thank you, Ma’amzelle,” the kid said in a puckish bad–sophisticate voice. “And may I congratulate you on your impeccable taste?” he gave me a roguish leer and preened at his mop of hair.
Oh, this shtick. Well, two can play that game. “Oh, and who’s this little cutie?” I smiled broadly and pinched his cheek. He grinned back and suddenly disappeared, leaving a bouquet of paper flowers behind.
“THAT was Cheese,” said another of the boys, in a voice that had the same basic cosmopolitan European accent as the first two, but with the purr of a guy seriously on the make. He stood up and inserted himself into my personal space with intent. “I am Jean–Armand St. Michel–duChantraine.” He stood up, took my hand with a kiss, and stared me soulfully in the eyes. God, this guy had everything except ‘God’s gift to women’ tattooed on his forehead! He was almost as pretty as me! Almost. He had refined pretty–boy features, and long blonde hair pulled back in a braid (!) and he was wearing – get this! – a redingote, one of those old fashioned coats, with a jabot! How this guy manages to keep from getting beaten up every day is totally beyond me.
I gave him my best smoldering pout; if I couldn’t play this yutz like a violin, then I was slipping. I slipped She–Beast a quick look, and she seemed amused by this. So, I got set to give braid–boy the vamping of his life, this chick walks up to me on my blind side and damn near scares the shit out of me with, “So, it IS you!”
I started and turned around to see who was sandbagging me. “Yes,” I said carefully, trying to keep my je ne sais quoi, “of course it’s me; who else could pull off this look this early in the morning?”
“Did you honestly think that you could just come in here, after what you did to me?” demanded this blonde chick wearing a baggy sweater and a flat blank white mask that covered her entire face.
“Oh course I do! Who are you, anyway?”
“I’m the girl that you made a fool of, and left for dead!”
“You’re not narrowing down the field any, you know.”
“I’m the girl that you manhandled and nearly drained of her last drop of breath!”
“Well, it sounds like we had fun, but that still doesn’t ring any bells.”
Almost quivering with rage, the girl yelled, “In BOSTON! At the Indian Legation! I held off you, the Necromancer and his other thug, while the others got away!”
That made the penny drop. “Oh, you’re the Pillsbury Dough–girl! I didn’t recognize you without the parka!” I explained the situation at the Indian Legate a couple of months ago. “Anyway, there’s Bonehead and Nightgaunt, and they’ve got the three other girls dead–bang, and Poppin’ Fresh here is going ‘whaddew I do now?’ That was NOT in the script that I was using, so I improvised, and distracted Nightgaunt enough for the blue–fire chick to turn the situation around. Like anyone sensible, she, the silver girl and the gadget–girl got the fuck out of there, but the One Woman Holding Action here decides to hold Darrow and McKinnon and me back all by herself.”
“Which I would have done, if YOU hadn’t jumped me!”
“Nightgaunt, all by himself could have killed you without raising a sweat!” I sneered back. “At any given time, he carried at least six lethal gimmicks that could have turned you into confetti, starting with Navy issue demolitions packs and a .45! Can you take a .45 round at point blank range?”
“Yes,” she said smugly.
“Can you take a .45 round, point blank – RIGHT IN YOUR EYE?”
“My eye?” she hesitated, suddenly not really all that sure.
“It’s one of his favorite tricks,” I assured her. “And Darrow’s deadlier than Nightgaunt and the Arch–Fiend and me all rolled up into one. I jumped you, so that they wouldn’t.”
“You’re trying to make it sound like YOU were the hero!”
“All that I’m saying is that if I hadn’t stepped in, your silvery buddy would be Darrow’s slave, and the rest of you would be DEAD or worse, ‘cause he didn’t have any use for you.”
“What’s worse than dead?”
“My dear, you really do NOT want to know,” Jean–Armand put in.
“Well… yeah…” Poppin’ Fresh waffled, “If you were being so fuckin’ heroic, howcome you beat the crap out of Foxfire?”
“Y’know, that really annoying chick who makes stuff out of blue fire? The one with the stupid FOX?”
“Oh, is that what she’s called? Oh right – that must have been after I lost it draining you. By the way, how do your powers work? The reason that I chose to drain you instead of the blu– er, ‘Foxfire’ is that she has energy powers, and I got this problem with people with energy powers.” I gave them the thumbnail description of how draining too much affects me. “By the way, Tara? We really should pick up some fresh minced garlic.”
“Well, when I wig out that way, for some reason, a snootful of garlic snaps me right out of it. I don’t think that I’ll wig out any time soon, but then, it’s one of those things that you never really see coming.”
“EXCUSE ME?” Poppin’ Fresh all but screamed, “But can we get back to the fact that you’re a kidnapping VILLAIN who belongs in JAIL?”
I spared Jadis a look. “Do you guys have to put up with crap like this a lot?”
“It happens,” Jadis said with a wry grin. “At least you don’t have complete strangers coming up to you and screaming about how your father killed their entire family, and having to figure out which of over seventeen thousand people they’re talking about.”
“WHAT? ARE? YOU? DOING? HERE?” Poppin’ Fresh grated out.
“Starting classes,” I answered with a pert tone almost guaranteed to drive someone who obviously takes herself too seriously totally berserk.
“Yes, but I won’t be taking any remedial classes, so I don’t think that we’ll be sitting next to each other. So don’t ask if you can copy off my sheet.”
I could hear grinding noises coming from behind the mask, and suddenly, she snapped, “FINE! I can see that you were magnetically drawn to the vilest SCUM at this school–”
“No, the vilest scum is in a Petri dish in my lab,” one of the two black elves said, “and I fail to see how it’s any of your business.”
Poppin’ Fresh went all stiff and stalked off in a huff. Then Jadis, her gothling bud, the slinky brunette, the sk8rat and the studly black guy all held up pieces of paper with ‘7.6’, ‘8.7’, ‘7.8’, ‘7.5’ and ‘7.7’ written on them. Jadis looked at her buddy and asked, “Eight–point–Seven?”
“I’m giving her points for working in the bit about picking up the garlic, and dealing with Jay–Arm,” the bud said in a dry way.
“Not a BAD blow–off for your first time,” Jadis admitted.
“Yeah!” The boardboy gushed, “But nothing beats Jobe’s debut. I mean, it’s hard to top getting someone to go red in the eye AND get them to run from the caff screaming!”
“Really!” the black elf who’d spoken earlier whined, “It was simple glycerin! There was NO REASON to evacuate the cafeteria and bring in a hazmat team!”
“Still, DAMN good showing,” the black guy said. “I’m Render, the punk over here is Thrasher, the silent Chinese chicka is Silver Serpent, you’ve met Romeo and Jay–Arm–”
“ROMEO?” I asked aghast at the poor benighted paragon of male beauty. I laid a comforting hand on his shoulder and cooed, “You poor thing! You must have suffered!”
He gave a shuddering nod. “The balcony scenes are the worst part.”
Render intro’d the rest, and I had a definite sense of having met, if not friends, at least kids who’d crawled over the same kind of broken glass that I had. “Well, it’s been great, and I really look forward to maybe hanging with you guys,” I said, “but I’ve got some breakfast waiting for me over at that table. Bringing the brekky over here would be a diss on the girls over there, and to be honest, I think that it would be pushing our brief acquaintance on this end too. Hey, Jadis, what say we talk my business proposition over later, say in the Workshop?” Jadis nodded, and gave me a lab address. “And Jean Armand?” I gave him a fulminating pout, and left with that.
Tara and I had just gotten to the table, and I was making sure that the hash browns hadn’t gotten cold when a girl with glasses and long dark hair with a silver blaze in it walked up. “Hey Heather, who’s your nooo– omigawd, what are YOU doing here?” she gawped at me.
“What? Another one?” I yelped at her. “What did I do to YOU?” then – get this – a freaking FOX pops its head out of the huge purse that she’s lugging around, and I make the connection. It was the blue–flame girl that I’d done such a good job of whupping down in Boston. “WHAT? Does EVERYONE who doesn’t like me go to school here? If Mary Margaret Boyle shows up in the next five minutes, I’m dropping out!”
“What are YOU doing here?” the chick, ah, Foxfire, yeah, that was her name demanded.
“NO,” I said, serious as a heart attack, “I am NOT explaining all that again, not all in the same DAY! I am expositioned OUT! Tell you what: I’ll write up a FAQ, and give a copy to Heather to give you, since you two seem to know each other. So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to concentrate on eating my breakfast!”
“Well, that’s ONE way of getting her to shut up,” Evvie muttered.
* * * * * *
“Vamp, what are you doing, using my laptop?” Goodthing demanded as she walked into our room.
“I’m using it to write a FAQ,” I responded, not looking up from my work. “At the rate that I’m running into people who demand to know what I’m doing here, I figure that this should save me at least a full day of explaining, in two weeks’ time.”
“Well, use your own laptop!”
“I don’t have one. I’m supposed to be issued one tomorrow.”
“Then use the one down in the library!”
“It’s busy. I asked Mrs. Horton if there was one available, and she told me to use yours.” I gave the sheet a critical look. “Do you think that I should list the part where I never actually had SEX with my clients, or is that TMI?”
“Oh yeah, put in that part about your not putting out for your clients, just using mutant powers to deceive them, in direct opposition to a host of state and federal laws. That will put you squarely in ‘Cruella v Pennsylvania’ territory. A signed confession to mutant grand larceny is absolutely the way to go on these things.”
“You keep trying to make it sound like I did something wrong.” I did not pout. Ladies do not pout. I merely posed my position artfully. I decided to throw Goodgirl a bone. “By the way, thanks for the reference to Jadis Diabolik. You were right; she and her friends are good people.”
Goodkind just gave me a sour look, and took back her laptop and started checking through it, probably to see if I’d been peeking at her files and stuff. “NO, Goodkind, I didn’t go into your personal files; give me a break, I don’t need to go nosing around in your shit.” Hold on, this may be the opening that I’ve been looking for…
“Still I’ve a little something that I’d like to run past you. Several of my ‘gentlemen callers’ are the trustees for my trust fund. Exactly what would you prefer I pass along to them, regarding your divers maneuvers? I mean, we DO have to be careful about those pesky insider trading laws, but still, a girl’s got to make the most of her opportunities as she finds them, no? And, well, you can either regard my sponsors as assets, or you can worry about me spilling details to my trustees. I’m not shaking you down; after all, I’m sure that we can come to some mutually beneficial arrangement, one that puts all those hundreds of millions that they influence at your disposal, hm?”
Goodthing sat back, gave me a ‘what are YOU up to?’ look, and then put on her Class Know–it–all hat. “A ‘trust fund’, eh? Well, you could always recommend Marvel over the short term, but I really think you ought to consider just what that trust fund means. I assume you're nominally the beneficiary, right?”
“Of course,” I said in a perfect imitation of her superior snootiferousness.
She continued, “Then you need to think this over pretty carefully. According to ‘Knight v. Knight’ and ‘Re: Hain’s Settlement’ there has to be an object for the trust, and that object has to be a beneficiary or beneficiaries which are clearly defined or at a minimum, ascertainable in the legal sense of the word.”
“How do you know all… Never mind.”
She added, “I’m just guessing at the moment, but I assume the beneficiary of this trust is one 'Abby Carfax’, which is one place where this trust is likely to collapse or at least be easy to contest in a court of law. You’d need to be able to prove that you are legally debutante Abby Carfax and not some albino mutant named Alex. Otherwise, your… ahem… benefactors could legally have the trust contested and take back all their funds.”
Fuck. This is already more complicated than I like. “Okay. Yeah. I… I’ve been figuring they were using the trust as some kinda blind for some shady maneuvering of some kind.”
She told me, “They’re probably using it as some kind of tax shelter. Now this has to be an express trust, so there has to be a written trust instrument out there. If you can get a copy, you can take it to a lawyer – a lawyer who really knows estate planning – and see if these guys can pull it out from under you whenever they want. It might be that all you have to do is establish 'Abby Carfax’ as a legal representation to protect yourself as the beneficiary. If there are auxiliary beneficiaries, you might have to take steps to make sure they don’t elide you from the trust based on clauses hidden in the instrument, or just plain kill you.”
That sounds way, WAY too possible with my ‘benefactors’. “What do I have to do to make me legally Abby Carfax if I want to stay Alex O’Brien?”
She said, “Whateley can help you with that. Because of all the superhero names and court decisions over the use of noms de guerre instead of their secret identities, there are legal instruments for identifying you with a specific pseudonym for legal purposes only. You’ll have to get some people to identify you as Abby Carfax. The Abby Carfax in that trust instrument. From what you said, Skyhawk, a dozen Boston police officers, and half a dozen Boston district attorneys all know you're Alex O’Brien, Vamp, and also Abby Carfax. Right?” I nodded. “Have Whateley get notarized statements from as many of them as possible. Plus anything else you can think of. Fingerprints from Abby Carfax’s apartment. Anything that was ever used to identify Abby Carfax at the time the trust instrument was established. If you have Abby Carfax set up as a legal alias, then you’ll have adequate legal defense when your 'benefactors’ get around to screwing you over.”
Then Goodthing sort of stopped short, and I had a Miss Marple moment. Goodkind sort of reminded me of Gail MacGowan, the class know–it–all back at Cardinal Spellman Middle School in Charlestown. Every so often, the other kids would pump her for information about a quiz or like that, and she’d give out pretty much on cue, just to show off what a brain she was. And then, after the fact, she’d have a ‘D’oh!’ moment when she realized how much she’d given up. So, the Goodkind can’t help showing off how fiscally savvy she is, can she? I filed that away, under ‘Irregular Resources’. Then I gave Goodthing the smile that I used to reward my benefactors when they brought me something particularly sparkly (and that reminds me: I really do have to get all $115K of that out of that safe deposit box), and said, “Thanks Goodkind. I’ll just assume that if I hear about it out in the halls, that it’s for public consumption. Still, if you ever want to leak anything to the market untraceably, consider me your…” I paused and grinned, “Deep Throat.”
With that, I picked out an outfit for lunch and afterwards. I’ve sort of done the red–and–black, so I decided on a frosty white–and–shades–of–blue combination with ice–blue ski pants, a bulky snowflake pattern sweater, a blue hairband and furry ski boots. I struck a pose and asked, “You like?”
“You’re going for ‘Frosty the Snow Tramp’?”
I walked out of the room, not deigning to acknowledge the feeble snipe.
Walking down the hallway, I realized that I had no idea which was Tara’s room. So, I asked the really cute green girl, who fortuitously came out of one of the rooms. She had an accent that rang a bell, but I couldn’t quite peg, but I decided to leave that for another day. I knocked on the door once and it immediately opened, just as my knuckles were about to knock a second time. “Heywhoareyouohnewgirlhuhheyimjayjay butyoucancallme scramblercauzthat’smyhandlecoolcodenamehuhsowaddyawant?”
“Aah, Is Tara in?”
I gave her a tight smile. “We’ll see.”
“KEWL! IneedaPeffEffGeelikeTaramaybeacrash helmetyouwould notbelievethedings Igottatakemaybesomesmartelyneshoesman Iverunthroughsixteenpairsof shoessinceschoolstartedand–.”
“Look,” I tried to cut in before she started putting in requisitions for power armor, “I’m not taking orders, I’m just seeing what I can do for TARA. I just GOT here, I don’t–”
But that just inspired yet another spew of verbiage that spun into stranger and more distracted (yet implicating) avenues, until Tara pushed past JJ and dragged me down the hall.
“SO, when will I get those Smartelyne shoes?” JJ called after us.
“I didn’t commit to ANYTHING!” I yelled back.
“Yes you DID!”
I was just about to yell back that NO, I HADN’T, when Tara muttered, “Don’t bother trying to get her to admit that you hadn’t. Besides her speed, JJ has the power of overwhelming ditz; by this time, she really does think that you promised her all that stuff, and a whole lot more.”
“Will she remember any of that?”
“Only when it’s convenient for HER.”
“And you have to listen to that all the time?”
“Why do you think I spend so much time in the halls, eavesdropping on SANE conversations?”
* * * * * *
To the amazement of all involved, Tara and I managed to get through lunch without another dramatic confrontation. Okay, there was that one chick, the one with the Hungarian accent, who had a problem with my getting ‘Vamp’ as a handle, when I’d just gotten there. But her friends pulled her off, and it didn’t really get nasty, to the chagrin of a few students who looked like they were making book on it.
Tara and I were contemplating risking the lines for thirds, when I got a page from She–Beast, telling me that was ready to talk. Tara showed me the way through those freaky tunnels, and we only got lost once. The layout scheme for the work bays was every bit as complicated and convoluted as you’d expect from a bunch of tech–rats who needed to show off how fucking brilliant they are, every chance they get. When we finally got to the indicated bay, She–Beast was there with Jean–Armand, one of the black elves, a kid with an obvious cybernetic eye and violently red hair that tufted up into ‘horns’ like hers, and a pretty, rather willowy girl who had the ‘cute brainiac’ look going down. “I invited a few of the Workshop inventors in on this, to hear your proposal,” She–Beast explained. “You know Jay–Arm and Belphoebe,” Belphoebe apparently being the dark elf. Jean–Armand stood, sleazed his way over and kissed my hand. I played along with a Theda Bara snarl of repressed passion. “And this is my brother, Malachi,” the kid with the cyber–eye tried to be all cool and blasé. Nice try, but no bubblegum see–gar. “And this is Tweak,” she indicated the sweet little tech–geek.
Giving the dark elf, Belphoebe, a look, I said, “Okay, before we do anything, there’s something we gotta do, or it’ll just stand there, getting in the way.” I reached over, pulled Belphoebe to her feet and sang, “Eb–boh–nnneee and Eyyyee–vor–eee, living in perfect har–moh–neee…” As I sang, I led Belphoebe in one of those delicate, by–the–hand, ‘gee, we aren’t really being homoerotic’ dances. Jean–Armand and Malachai both just stood there, pole–axed in an adolescent male stupor. Jadis, Tara and ‘Tweak’ stood there, barely restraining giggles. But I got a flicker of interest from Belphoebe, and she was genuinely dancing towards the end of it. I let her go with a twirl, but there was a spark of interest in her eye. I gotta remember that, for later.
Stifling a smirk, Jadis said, “Okay, fun’s fun, but let’s get down to business. You have a proposal?” I introduced Tara, and explained how her powers worked. “Fascinating. And where’s this going?”
“Look, Tara here needs to jazz up her profile. And she can’t afford a PFG. BUT! There IS something that we can do. Tara, tell them about the radio and the cell phone.” She did and there was a general ‘Interesting; and so what?’ reaction. “Okay, as I understand it, you tech types are always trying to put together a better PFG, with better protective value, less visual distortion, holds its cohesion better, lasts longer, yada–yada–yada. You must go through a LOT of prototypes, ones that don’t quite meet your standards and you were going to throw away anyway. Ones that have problems that aren’t a big issue for three or four minutes, but become a real hassle after that. Fields that screw with your ability to see clearly. Units with heat–sink problems. In other words, stuff that you were going to junk anyway.”
Malachai, She–Beast’s brother, said, “So, X–O copies the pattern of the prototype, wrecking it, but she remembers the pattern. So, she gets the pattern. What do WE get?”
“One favor, from X–O here, who will be in a better position to fulfill it. And I’ll be helping her, since I came up with this idea in the first place. And while we’re only asking for PFGs for openers, eventually X–O will be in a market for other hold–outs: sensors, flight packs, strength–enhancing rigs, so you know that we’re not going pull any stupid moves with this. We WILL deliver, no matter what you want. Well, as long as it’s legal. I do draw the line right there; we’re not going to go to jail for a piece of high–tech junk!”
“And I respect that!” She–Beast said smoothly. “Tell you what–” she turned to the assembled inventors and said, “Guys, I’m offering to let each of you off the hook for one favor that you owe me, in exchange for one crappy, slated for the recyke bin–”
“But functioning!” I cut in.
“–but functioning PFG prototype. And for all our sakes, it had better NOT be a devise! Mal, why don’t you pull Project: Refrac/34–j out of the scrap bin?”
“But Jads, that’s only good for three hits! Yeah, it takes the hits great, but it always melts down with the fourth hit!”
“So, X–O can keep track of the hits, ‘melt down’ the PFG formation, and reform it, pretty much from scratch, now can’t she?” Mal nodded thoughtfully, and ambled out of the bay, presumably to fetch something from the scrap heap.
Belphoebe and ‘Tweak’ followed suit, but Jean–Armand stuck around to say, “You know, you don’t have to go through her. If it’s a favor for a favor…”
“Hush,” I whispered, shutting him up with a finger against his lips, “let’s not taint what we could have together with crass commerce.” Jean–Armand scuttled out of the room, leaving me alone with Jadis and Tara. I gave Jadis a measuring look. “So, ah, about Jean–Armand…”
“Oh, keep it up! You’re handling him beautifully!”
“How well do you know him?”
“Enough to keep him at arm’s length at all times.”
“Yeah, well… the thing is, how secure IS he, really? I mean, how far should I let this game go? Don’t let the act fool you, I don’t like hurting people. Well, unless they really got it coming. And this kind of game can really screw people over; I speak from experience.”
“Believe me, he’s got it coming, and more. Keep it up; there’s a one–in–a–thousand chance that it might knock his head out of his ass.”
“Hmmm… oh, while we’re alone– She–Beast, exactly WHY did you buck up my offer that way? Not that I’m complaining, but I do like to have an idea as to what I’m getting into.”
She–Beast gave me an amused smile. “Chill! It just so happens that I happen to have a little something that needs to be taken care of, quietly and discreetly, and it would be best if I didn’t use any of my usual people to take care of it.”
“Nothing illegal, She–Beast,” I said with an icy glare. “I can’t afford to get kicked out of this school.”
“Yeah, you said that. Not to worry.”
“Well then, what is it?”
“Can’t tell you.”
I started to complain, but then a few things started to click into place. “Ahh,” I sighed and nodded with a grin. Tara looked at me funny, but before she could say anything, Tweak walked in carrying something high–techy.
“Okay, I’ve got a few other PFG projects that I’m working on, but this one has definite heat–dispersal problems that I haven’t been able to get around,” she said poking at it. “Okay, the heat buildup isn’t really noticeable for the first 45 seconds unless you’re watching it with thermometer, but over about 273.4 seconds, and you’re looking at burning insulation. And if you need a PFG for that long, you REALLY need the PFG to be working. But maybe X–O’s manifested material will handle that better.”
Belphoebe walked in tossing another similar packet up in the air and catching it. “This doesn’t really have anything wrong with it,” she said, setting it down. “It’s a good, reliable, if rather mediocre PFG.”
“Then why are you offering it?” Tweak asked. “Hey, that looks like one of Wunderkind’s designs!”
“It is,” Belphoebe said with a sigh. “Belphegor swiped it from her last year, and I nicked it from the Pater.” She–Beast and Tweak gave her frigid looks. “What? I didn’t steal it, Pater did!”
“Her father stole it?” I asked Tara.
“It’s complicated,” Tara sighed. “I don’t really get it, myself.”
“Well, I can’t use it,” Belphoebe whined, “It’s obviously Wunderkind’s work, and she’s already gone well past this design, but she’d still blow a gasket if I used it where she could see it, and it’s just cluttering up Bel–naught’s stash, so…”
Then Jean–Armand strutted in holding up a gadget that consisted of two parallel tubes connected by a boxlike thing at the center. “Now, this is an excellent piece of work, if I do say so myself. However, there IS a flaw that seems to be integral to the basic design.” He switched it on, and he went all blurry, like looking through a glass of water. “Now, this wouldn’t be so bad, if it only affected everyone else. But the user is, if anything, even worse off, since everything is distorted.” He shut the gizmo off and handed it to Jadis. “And, it gets worse. Turn it on, Sheba.” She–Beast complied, and Jean–Armand pointed his walking stick at her. A bolt of energy zapped out, and ricocheted off the field, causing it to wobble and distort even worse, like a jiggling piece of jello. “Imagine what that would be like in a combat situation. Still,” he said with a snide smile, “it does conform to one of the acceptable flaws that Vamp mentioned, so at least I can get it to pay off that debt, Jadis.”
She–Beast shut the PFG down and shot Jean–Armand a nasty look. “You couldn’t have demonstrated that on yourself?”
“Why would I ask anyone to shoot at ME?”
Then Malachai came in with yet another doohickey, and he and Jean–Armand and Belphoebe and Tweak all started comparing designs, and terms like ‘broadcast apertures’, ‘counter–winding ratios’, ‘interference integration’, ‘surface topography’ and ‘integrity disintegration’ started flying fast and furious. Then Jadis let out an ear–shattering whistle and said in a tone that my Aunt Doris would have envied, “Techno–babble: DISENGAGE!”
The four tech–nerds all shut up, and She–Beast said, “Okay, there you are. A choice of four perfectly viable – if less than DARPA grade – PFGs. Pick one.”
“Actually, it’s less a matter of choosing,” I pointed out, “than it is which one X–O here can successfully copy.”
Tara nervously pulled me aside. “I’m not so sure about this, Alex,” she whispered. “I mean, copying a radio is one thing, but copying a PFG? That’s a whole different thing!”
“Not to worry, Tara honey,” I assured her. “The way that She–Beast’s got it set up, we pay off the same favor whether you copy it or not. They are all getting what they want, so they won’t hold it against us, either way.”
“Hey, I’m making my bones at this school with this deal. The only one who’ll walk out of this disappointed if you don’t copy any of those things is you. And you won’t really be any worse off than you were before, now will you?”
Tara scrunched up her face and nodded, like she saw my point, but wasn’t happy with it. She picked up Malachai’s dingus, and a metallic sheen covered both her and the dingus. She waited a moment and went back to normal. She handed Mal his dingus back, and he looked at it. He switched it on, and there was a loud SNAP! The magic blue smoke came out of it, which usually means that it won’t work anymore. He tried to open it up, but he said that it was welded shut, and said something about osmotic transfer of materials or something like that. As Mal furiously pried the dingus open with a chisel, Tara held up her hand, and a near perfect copy of the dingus in Mal’s hands appeared. She switched it on, but nothing happened. Tara turned and gave me the ‘anxious puppy’ look.
“Don’t worry, sweetie,” I reassured her. “Just keep trying until you get one to work.” Unfortunately, she couldn’t get any of her manifested copies to work. She slumped, giving the ‘I’m such a loser’ pout, and I comforted her with a hug. Breaking the hug, I said, “Okay, She–Beast… fair’s fair. You delivered, even if we didn’t get what we want. So, what do we owe you?”
Jadis nodded, and pulled out a pad and pencil and started writing. As she was writing, Malachai, Jean–Armand, Belphoebe and Tweak were examining their ruined prototypes with interest. Jean–Armand walked out absorbed in his prototype, and Belphoebe followed, giving me a knowing wink and making the ‘call me’ sign’ behind Jean–Armand’s back as she left. Well, at least something’s looking up! Tweak paused at the door and said to She–Beast and said hesitantly, “Uhm, Jadis? How is Romeo doing?”
“He’s been better,” Jadis said matter–of–factly. “He was a lot worse, right over Christmas. But he’s getting better.”
Tweak flushed and said, “Jadis? Would you tell him? Ah, tell him, that… that I’m sorry it ended that way.”
“I’ll pass that along, Linda.”
Tweak nodded and walked out with a cloud of regrets floating over her head.
I walked over to She–Beast and asked, “Romeo? What was all that about?”
“Oh, she and Romeo used to be an item last year. But she ended it just as we went on Christmas vacation. Romeo didn’t take it well. But then, he never does.”
“So… he’s single then?” I asked, hope fluttering like a butterfly in my breast.
“You’re not his type,” Jadis said with a wry grin as she handed me the piece of paper. “He likes them weedy but winsome, lovely but lonely, poor shy little caterpillars who need his manly help to find their inner butterfly.”
“Oh. Mother issues?”
“Like you wouldn’t believe.”
I let out an aggrieved sigh. “Isn’t that the way it always is?” I took the piece of paper. “Thanks, She–Beast, I look forward to doing business with you again in the future.”
“Call me Jadis.”
I shot a ‘gotcha’ finger at her and motioned for Tara to follow me out. I started to open the folded piece of paper in the hallways, but I noticed the number of drones, ranging in size from a soccer ball to a gnat, flying around and decided against it. When we got outside, and well into the snow, with no inquisitive drones to be seen, I opened the piece of paper. “2:15. The Remembrance Garden. The woods are lovely, dark and deep.” I looked at Tara. “What’s the Remembrance Garden?”
“Oh, that’s a garden over between Dickinson and Holbrook Arena,” Tara explained. “They plant roses and other flowers there in remembrance of students and teachers and other staff members who die here.”
“A lot of people die here?”
“You haven’t heard about burnout? Well, y’gotta remember, one of the things about being a mutant, super powers or no super powers, is that shit happens. Kids can wig out and go berserk, or they can burn out explosively and take a bunch of people with them, or they can just, y’know, keel over and DIE for no reason. So, yeah, it’s an issue here. Still nobody’s done that this year. Though, it was a pretty close thing on Halloween.”
“Halloween? What happened? Did one of those devisors go overboard with the special effects?”
“No. The Syndicate sent an Anti–Grav Dropship Strike Force in to raid the place. We sent them packing.”
“Woof. And I thought that I went to a tough school in Boston! Any idea what ‘the woods are lovely dark and deep’ means?”
“I dunno. It rings a bell, but I can’t place it.”
The Remembrance Garden was a large garden with paths and benches and a fountain, all surrounded by a high hedge. I guess that it’s a popular place for guys and girls (and girls and girls, I hope) to get together to, ah… study… in better weather, but all the beds and benches were covered in snow, and the place was empty. We got there well before the time set, and we wasted some time just standing there, suffering in the cold. Well, Tara suffered, anyway. The cold doesn’t affect me the way that it used to. We were standing there, trying to make conversation in an awkward way about that ‘the woods are lovely, dark and deep’ bit. I got the impression that Tara still felt bad about flunking out on copying the PFGs.
Then a girl suddenly appeared in front of us, like she just popped out of thin air. Which, in this school, could just be what happened. She was taller than me, with dusky skin, a delicate oval face, and large dark eyes with a noticeable red ring around the iris. She was dressed in a white parka with a white knit cap pulled over curling black hair. DAMN fine, if you’re into Princess Jasmine from Disney’s Aladdin. “Sahar,” Tara said in a gasp.
Whatever ‘Sahar’ meant, the girl just raised an eyebrow at Tara and said, “Of easy wind and downy flake.” Just like that, like it was supposed to mean something.
Then I remembered Pip reading some Robert Frost to me, and it made sense. “The woods are lovely, dark and deep,” I recited.
“But I have promises to keep,” the girl continued, like she was testing me on something.
“And miles to go, before I sleep. Miles to go, before I sleep,” I finished the line from Robert Frost’s, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’.
“She–Beast does love to show off how well–read she is,” the girl said with a smirk.
“Well, that IS why we’re here,” I returned. “We do have promises to keep.”
“I won’t ask,” She said in a way that suggested that unnecessary questions were NOT the order of the day, all around. I nodded my understanding. “You’re to make a delivery. It IS legal. But you can expect opposition. Just follow the instructions, and don’t open the package. Oh, and get the package to the proper person.” She handed me a couple of pieces of paper.
I opened up the pieces of paper. One was a map of the campus, with a very tight coordinate grid. The other had ‘J–f/4–6’, and ‘Check out the Glee Club’. Looking at the map, the coordinates were set by letters and numbers, just like most maps. But each square was also broken down into coordinates in the lower case. Tara peered closely at the map, and said, “It’s just near the Crystal Dome, but not quite. I think that it means the Bistro.”
“Yeah, the old cafeteria has a bistro – y’know outside tables, like that? – and a takeout window. I dunno if it’s open or what. I mean, who wants to eat outdoors in this kind of weather?”
“Ah well,” I sighed, “We have promises to keep. And it looks like there are miles to go before we sleep, Tara honey. Miles to go, before we sleep. Let’s go!”
Well, apparently, at Whateley, there were a bunch of people who would eat outdoors in this kind of weather. That crystal dome that grabbed your eye and smacked it about a bit when you looked at Shuster Hall was papered over, and there was the sound of metalwork going on, but someone had brought in a kiosk and was selling hot food out of that to a bunch of kids who were kicking around, showing off how invulnerable they were.
I looked around for anyone who looked like they had anything to do with a glee club, and came up empty. But Tara tapped me on the shoulder and pointed me at a bulletin board under a sheltered area. We went to the food kiosk and bought some pretty de rigueur hot cocoa (btw – GOOD hot cocoa!) and wandered about a bit before moseying (can you mosey, north of the Mason–Dixon line, or is that strictly a suthron thing?) over to the bulletin board. There was the usual stuff, announcements, ads, a bunch of cryptic messages that could have meant almost anything – and a bright red, very new looking flyer extolling the virtues of the Whateley Glee Club. I looked at it closely, and noticed that there was something bulky underneath it. Carefully reaching under the bright red sheet, and felt a small manila envelope under it. I plucked the envelope of the cork board and discreetly pocketed it. “Miles to go,” I muttered, and Tara and I started to make our way out of the general bistro area.
We were almost home free, when a loud bugle–like voice trumpeted, “HALT, EVIL–DOERS!”
“’Halt, Evil–doers’?” I echoed in a pained voice. “Who TALKS like that?” I turned around and fought to keep a snicker locked behind my lips.
And, believe me, it took effort. The guy was tall, with broad shoulders, a barrel chest and powerful arms, and a long handsome face with a powerful chin. Yet for all that, he was frickin’ ridiculous. He was like a live–action version of a cartoon parody of the ‘All–American Hero’, with a chest that was too large for his frame, bulging arms that would have been impressive on a man six inches taller and a hundred pounds heavier, and his CHIN! It must have taken up at least a quarter of his face! And get this – he was wearing blue jeans tucked into bright yellow galoshes, and a T–shirt with a gold foil ‘B’ ironed onto it. And to top it all off – and please, I can NOT make shit like this UP! – he had a CAPE, a yellow cape pinned to his shirt. Yeah! Seriously! He was standing there, in what I guess was ‘Standard Superhero Pose #11’ or something, shoulders thrown back, fist on hip, pointing in my direction with an accusing finger. “Surrender Villain!” he said through dramatically clenched teeth, “Or face the wrath of CAPTAIN BRAVO!”
It was the name, and the deadpan stone seriousness on his face that did it for me. I was briefly able to contain the snicker, but it escaped after a fierce battle, and turned into a flat–out guffaw. I was barely able to contain myself and said, “GOOD ONE! You GOT me! GREAT act, by the way! Though you should’a worn some BVDs on the outside of your pants, just to get the Full Monty. Who set this up? Was this She–Beast’s idea? I mean, it’s GOT to be one of the Bad Seeds, so tell me, who set this up?”
“I’m Captain Bravo! I’m a champion of justice and righteousness! Surrender now!”
TSK! “‘Champion of justice and righteousness’? Aw C’mon, that’s Champion’s line! You can do better than that!”
He stomped over to me and made a grab. “Surrender, and maybe the authorities will go easy on you! Otherwise, you’ll have to face my righteous wrath!”
I jumped back and yelled, “Hey, hey, hey! Watch the hands, bub! You are clearly mistaking ‘fun–loving and carefree’ with ‘has absolutely NO standards!’ Fun is fun, but you’re going way over the line, buddy!”
“This is no joke! I’m taking you in!”
“Of course it’s a joke! Jack, you have a yellow cape stuck on your shirt with safety pins! What sort of DORK would walk around with a cape safety–pinned to his T–shirt?” The confident grin on his face melted off and he went red in the face. As he started to charge, I answered myself, “Apparently, the sort of dork with absolutely NO sense of humor at all…”
‘Captain Bravo’ – If this is a sterling example of the student body, then I’m seriously considering transferring to Romper Room – made a grab for me, which I easily ducked by hopping over his arms and standing on his head. “Okay, I’ll play along. So, exactly what am I supposed to have done wrong, that you’re taking me in for?”
“You’re a supervillain!” he yelled as he made a crude grab for me.
“Yeah?” yelled someone from the sidelines. “So what?”
Deftly dodging his big mitt, I pointed out, “You can’t take someone in just for being a supervillain. You’ve got to have a charge, otherwise you’re committing Assault, possibly Assault and Battery, maybe Assault with a Paranormal Ability, and if this is any indication of your skill, Felony Mass Endangerment and Property Damage.” Captain Bravo swung at me a few more times, but after fighting Speed Queen, Dynaman and a few of the heroes who’d just been passing through Boston, the Crimson Chin here might as well have been lobbing slow balls at me. Still, when he did come down on one of the benches, he did manage to completely smash it, so he wasn’t a complete joke. After one of his (many) over–swings, I kipped up over his head and got behind him. I took a hold of his jeans and lifted him up off his feet. I got him up over my head on his back and spun him around at very high speeds. Then I put him back on his feet. As he reeled with dizziness, I pantsed him, and then pulled his T–shirt up over his head. As expected, Bravo reacted by trying to power his way out of the devious snare. In other words, he ripped his shirt and pants all to pieces getting free of them. As he stood there, shaking the dizziness out of his head, I warmed up with a few ‘mi–mi–mi’s and ‘do–re–mi–fa–so–la–te–do’s. Then, when he had recovered what few wits as he had, I let out a piercing scream, followed by an equally loud, “YOU PERVERT!”
Bravo reacted to this by looking around for the ‘pervert’, no doubt to dish out some swift, merciless justice on him. Then the other kids hanging around started laughing and pointing at him, which managed to penetrate Bravo’s depleted moronium skull. (There is nothing that concentrated adolescent ridicule cannot penetrate!) Bravo reacted by blushing beet red and trying to cover his semi–nakedness with his hands. I handed him his cape, which he snatched from my hands and wrapped around his middle. Then he sort of inched his way out of the plaza. As he left, I shouted after him, “Don’t worry, Bravo! I won’t tell anyone about the teddy bear boxers! Nope! They’ll never get it out of me!”
That earned me a smattering of amused laughter from the crowd, but by and large, they had that ‘Hey, we’re New Yorkers; we see weirder stuff waiting for the bus’ ‘tood, and they quickly went back to whatever they’d been doing before. I turned to Tara and asked, “So, weird stuff like this happens all the time?”
Tara just gave me an odd look and jerked a thumb at the kid who was enacting the ‘Dance of the Hours’ scene from the Disney movie ‘Fantasia’, complete with ostriches, hippopotami, elephants and alligators.
“Right.” Once we were out of eyeshot of the crowd, and I was reasonably sure that no one was watching, I took the manila pouch from my sweater pocket and opened it. Inside was a Master™ key and another piece of paper. It had more coordinates and the phrase: ‘<12” ’ “Well, Tara, it looks like we’re on a treasure hunt. Hopefully, what this key opens will be the thing that we’re supposed to deliver, and not just another key or message.”
“Why would she go through all this whoop and holler, if this delivery is supposed to be on the down–low and up and up?” Tara wondered.
“Well that girl did say to ‘expect opposition’. I guess that this is to give us as much of an opportunity to spot anyone who’s trying to follow us as possible. By the way, Tara; why did you say ‘Sahar’ to that girl? And what’s a ‘Sahar’, anyway?”
“That girl, her name’s Sahar. Well, it’s her codename, anyway. Her real name’s Semi something–er–other. Strange… She’s real tight with Zenith.”
“Zenith? You mean that omigawd–she’s–HAWT blonde who showed me around?”
“aaahhh… HOW ‘tight’?”
“Tight, like in Zoe sneaks Sahar into her room on a pretty regular basis, and Mrs. Horton turns a blind eye. And Zenith’s the fixer for Poe.”
“You mean, they only have one per cottage?”
“Nah, but there’s usually at least one per cottage. Your buddy She–Beast is one of the fixers for Melville, and the word is that she’s got an information network that the NSA would like to tap into. So would your roomie, Phase. Phase’s also putting together a pretty kickass spy network, and she’s making a lot of people nervous doin’ it.” It struck me that Sneakkind wasn’t the only one with a spy network; Tara apparently had keeping her ear to the ground down to an art!
I looked at the key. “This is getting involved. I think we need to take precautions. Come Tara, the game’s afoot!” On Tara’s suggestion, we went to the school store, which like everything else about this school, goes way beyond the dinky closet that Spellman Middle School had, and picked up a few things. I worked for a couple of hours in the Dunn Hall cafeteria, which was almost deserted at the moment, until I had what I wanted.
“What is it?” Tara asked.
“It’s a kludged–together tracker and tracking transponder.”
“You can MAKE one of those?”
“Tara m’love, out in the big bad world of supervillainy, there are things you do NOT want to buy from someone else, and trackers and other things that can be used to follow you are a prime example. We will attach this,” I held up the transponder, which was almost invisible under the stretch of electrical tape that I’d used to keep it together, “to whatever our Maguffin is, so that in case anyone grabs it, we can follow them and get it back.”
“You’re assuming that whoever it is will be able to get it from us?”
“Assuming that your opposition are dummies is the dumbest thing that you can do, sweetheart.”
“What’s the rest of it?”
“The tracker and the tattletale that will tell us if someone’s trying to track our transponder. Which does happen, dear. Let’s roll.”
I gave the map to Tara, who was a lot more familiar with the layout of the school, and told her to shred it if anyone tried to take it away from her. I’d memorized it, and we had another map of the school that we’d bought to use as a reference if the original map was lost. Tara said that the coordinates were on the other side of the campus, near the cottage called Hawthorne, which was near Poe cottage. So, we made out like we were returning to Poe, went in, skipped out the back, and made across the snow towards Hawthorne.
We were just over the hedge behind Poe cottage when a dark streak came out of nowhere, and pegged me hard enough for me to see stars, sending me sprawling face–first into the snow. I heard the sounds of some scuffling, and when I got my face out of the snow, I saw a guy in a white ninja–suit kneeling on Tara’s back, rummaging through her pockets. He was saying in a terse British voice, “What is it? What did she GIVE you?” Tara got her head together enough to armor up and she tried to buck him off, but he did a vaulting flip off her back and pretty much showed off how badass he was.
Bad Move, Ninja–boy. You just told me how you work, putz. I created a field of darkness around us, and went right at him. I should have handed him his ass, right there. The fact that I can see in my darkness while my opponents can’t is a major edge for the kid. But Ninja–boy didn’t seem to be slowed down any. He assumed a stance, and we went at it. I was still a lot stronger and faster than I usually was from the energy that I’d drained from Captain Bravo, but Ninja–boy seemed to know every move that I’d make before I did. Not that it helped him that much; his badass ninja moves were bouncing off my hide like tennis balls. Finally, I got a lucky break. I waded through one of his flurries of rapid–fire punches, went down low, and latched onto his leg. I extended my fangs and gave him a big juicy bite on his right calf. He yelped and managed to get free of me before I could do any real damage to him, and he was over the rooftop and far away before I could do anything. Quick fucker, I’ll give him that.
I dropped my darkness, and Tara was standing there in a defensive posture, looking around in all directions for something to hit or dodge. “What happened?”
“We got jumped.”
“I KNOW that! Where’d that darkness come from? It won’t be dark for at least an HOUR!”
“Oh, that’s my ace–in–the–hole. I can create these areas of darkness. Somehow, I can see in my darkness, just like the bright of day. Heck, I can see in my darkness, even if it’s dark for real. Don’t ask me how–”
“How you do it, you just do it, yeah, I got that before,” Tara said, miffed at me for some reason. “Well, did you get him?”
“Yes and no – he got away, but I took a bite out of his leg. So, do you have any idea who that was?”
Tara looked around nervously. “This could be real bad. I’ve never met him. Well, before, anyway. I think that was Nex.”
“Aaannnddd… WHO is ‘Nex’?”
“Look, there are a bunch of kids who sort of play at being ninjas, using their powers and running around playing pranks and just fooling around and shit like that. But there’s one… Nex… he’s serious as a heart attack about it. He studies the martial arts for real, and the word is that he’s prepping to be an honest–to–god professional assassin. I’ve heard that he’s already taken a couple of contracts. Not actual killings… yet. I’ve heard in the halls that he accepted a contract on Fey, that he was supposed to mark up her face or something like that. Didn’t happen, of course, but that’s just ‘cause Fey got real lucky, and some guy came along out of left field and saved her.”
“And he’s taken out a contract to prevent Sahar’s package from getting through?”
“err… I think it’s worse than that… I think it’s personal.”
“Ah, yeah. Y’see, before… before she hooked up with Zenith, Sahar and Nex used to date.”
“Eeeewww… Yeah, I could see how a guy would get his knickers in a twist, losing a primo girl like Sahar to another girl. Well, at least, unless they let him watch.”
“I don’t think that he knows that Zenith and Sahar are lovers,” Tara said. “It’s more complicated than that. Nex is a little thick about some things, especially Sahar… Though, now that I think about it, how come he hasn’t picked up that they’re lovers?”
“Why would he, if they’re careful about it?”
“‘Cause he’s psychic!”
It turns out that this ‘Nex’ guy was what Tara called a ‘Package Deal Psychic’, which meant that he was telepathic or clairvoyant or telekinetic, but only one at a time. Which would explain why he was able to perform so well in my darkness. Which further suggested to me a way of tripping him up, if he tries anything again.
“You’re right, Tara. If Nex is a mind–reader, why hasn’t he picked up on Zenith and Sahar’s romance?”
“I dunno,” Tara admitted. “But then, the whole setup at Poe’s whack. I mean, with all the mind–readers and magic types and those assholes Peeper and Greasy using uber–tech to spy on us, why hasn’t the Poe secret been blown a long time ago?”
Yeah, that IS weird… but, “HEY, first things first! Let’s take care of this before we go all off on tangents. So! Where should our pickup point be?”
According to Tara, the coordinates were just out to the east side of the building, near the corner. We looked around, but all there was, was snow, a few bushes and a really weird looking snowman that looked like a really flabby squid–man with an octopus for a face and batlike wings, standing in a heroic posture, holding a flag for ‘Miskatonic University’, and pointing with the other clawed hand, with one foot raised on something. I looked around, and didn’t get the joke. “Less than twelve inches?”
“Less than twelve inches,” Tara echoed, “Less than a foot… a FOOT!” she squealed, a penny obviously dropping, “It’s not ‘less than a foot’, it’s ‘UNDER a foot!” she pointed at the weirdo snowman.
I got it! It was under his foot, the one that was so heroically raised on a box of some sort! We brushed away some loosely packed snow to reveal a strongbox set into about five inches of ice, which made the box as secure as an inch of steel would be in this weather.
We had to melt some ice in the lock to clear it, but the key fit perfectly, and we opened the box to find a blank white stock paper box, about eight by eight by twenty inches, and reasonably heavy. We looked for the expected piece of paper that would tell us where (and maybe when or who) to deliver it. Nada. “Wait!” Tara said, “There’s an arrow on the box, pointing to the lid.”
“But we’re not supposed to open it,” I pointed out.
“Wait, there’s a slip of paper tucked under the lid.” She slipped it out the piece of paper. “More coordinates, and ‘the Knight of the Woeful Countenance’. ‘The Knight of the Woeful Countenance’?”
“The Knight of the Woeful Countenance…” I repeated, “That rings a bell…” I almost had the reference, when I heard a sort of buzz–saw noise, and I heard a boy yelp, “FUCK! Stupid ICE!”
Looking up, we saw a boy in a dark blue parka vest over a white hoodie, who was pulling himself up from a face–plant in the snow. “Hey, guy, you okay?” We started to move to help him up, in case he’d been hurt in the fall.
But a familiar voice blared, “DON’T YOU TOUCH HIM!”
Looking up, I saw three figures, one bundled up in a parka with a mask over her face, the familiar cartoony form of Captain Bravo, and a stretcher who was all stretched out, despite the fact that he was stretching out of his warm clothes. Y’hadda feel for the poor putz. Together, they were trying to pull off the ‘Heroic Appearance’ bit, but making a hash of it. “POPPIN’ FRESH!” I said with a broad smile. “You decided to get your superhero outfit and show me!”
The Pillsbury Dough–girl bridled, pointed her finger dramatically and announced, “Don’t you DARE touch him, not after what you did to my poor Greggie!”
“Who’s Greggie, and what am I supposed to have done with him?” I asked. “Or is she talking to you, Tara?” Tara shook her head.
“You ATTACKED Greggie,” Poppin’ Fresh gestured at Bravo, “and TORE HIS CLOTHES OFF! In front of EVERBODY!”
I cleared my throat and said in my most reasonable tones, “Ah, actually, Popsie, what happened was that he jumped ME, and was grabbing at me, right there in front of everybody, and then he ripped his OWN clothes right off! Just go and ask anyone who was there! He was obviously overcome with llluuuhhhssst. But then, who can blame the poor boy?” I copped a pose and preened.
“Lying little WITCH!” Poppin’ Fresh hissed, “I know how to deal with YOU!” she pulled out a large plain wooden cross and presented it dramatically, while reciting, “Potes indicare mihi ut EGO postulo impetro ut risus facilisis quam sumpto de vulpes velit nimis tincidunt scelerisque purus et dolor rutrum lacus, in Hispania cecidit imbrem sero quod maxime campo!” I reeled before the cross, bared my fangs and hissed, and retreated crouching against the snowman, shielding my face with my hands. Pillsbury advanced, holding the cross before her, reciting, “Ego imprimis asked pro meus lavandrium futurus perfectus per susicivus astrum , tamen iustus inviso illa liquidis collarae!”
She had me pinned against the snowman. Tara was trying to fight, but Bravo had her by both arms and was holding her up off the ground. The stretching guy had our box and had removed a cylinder from it, and he was examining it curiously. Then Popsie pulled out a stake and was pointing it at me with intent. “Hey Pucelle!” the stretcher said, “What’s with the stake?”
“What do you DO with Vampires?” she said with relish.
“NO! You can’t!” rubber–boy said, but Poppin’ wasn’t listening. She swung with the stake–
–and I blocked it. “Hey! That’s a PINE stake! Everybody knows that you have to use an OAK stake to put down a vampire!” I took the stake away from her.
Pillsbury scrambled back in surprise, holding the cross in front of her, yelling, “Ab abusu ad usum non valet consequential! Ab actu ad posse valet illatio! Ab ove maiori discit arare minor! Absentem laedit cum ebrio qui litigat! Accusare nemo se debit, nisi coram Deo!”
I caught up with her and grabbed the cross out of her hand. “This is a CROSS! You’re supposed to use a CRUCIFIX! You are trying to hold off a good, churchgoing Catholic vampire with this piece of PROTESTANT crap?” I broke the aforementioned piece of Prot junk over her noggin.
Poppin’ Fresh dug into her parka and pulled out a squeeze bottle of mustard, which she squirted at me. “You got mustard on my sweater!” I said, pulling it out to look at the stain. “WHY did you DO that?”
She goggled at me and stammered, “But… I read that mustard is supposed to keep vampires at bay!”
I gave her the ‘fucking IDJIT!’ glare. “NO. That’s Mustard SEEDS, which are supposed to be sprinkled in a vampire’s path before it returns to its grave at sunrise. The legend says that the vampire will be compelled to pick up and count each and every mustard seed. Besides, that is the dumbest piece of vampire lore that I’ve ever READ! Mother Mary, full of grace, if you’re going to try to use folklore, get ones that aren’t completely brain–dead! Or at least get the braindead ones RIGHT!” I reached out and grabbed Popsie by the throat and started draining her. And, just like the last time, she could have gotten out if she’d actually fought, instead of thrashing her arms around in a panic.
Captain Bravo dropped Tara, and Tara took the opportunity to give Bravo a good one, right in the labonza. Bravo wheezed as the wind was knocked out of him, but he staggered at me to save his nutcase girlfriend (which, when you think about it, is probably the only kind of girlfriend he’d have). The stretching guy tucked the cylinder under his arm and tried to grab Tara as she wound up to clock Bravo another one, from behind. I knew the girl had the right instincts. Of course, since Tara was armored up, that was like trying to tie someone up with soft taffy. Tara tied Taffy–boy up in a bow and took the cylinder from him. The speedster tried to take it back from her, but he made the mistake of running into her. *KLONG!* A smooth, finely tuned machine of clockwork combat precision, these guys ain’t.
Bravo trudged at me, cocked his fist, and I hit him with his girlfriend. Like a bat. Repeatedly. He managed to get her away from me, and gently laid her down on the snow as she groaned. Then morally outraged (again) he came charging at me, threw his big meaty fist right at my face–
–and I caught it in my dainty little hand. Bravo looked at me, totally croggled, across our locked hands. I grinned, showing my fangs. “The phrase that you’re racking that little pea–brain of yours for is: ‘Oh. Shit.’” I pulled him to me with a ‘Lunch Time!’ grin on my face. “Now, give momma some sugar…”
“NO!” Poppin’ Fresh yelled shakily. She wobbled to her feet and glowered at me through that mask. “The rest of my measures may have failed–”
“If nothing else, did any of you yutzes stop to think that THE SUN IS OUT?”
“–but I KNOW that this will work!” She reached back into her parka and pulled out a chain of garlic cloves. She staggered forward weakly, holding the garlic out before her, trying to force me back from her muscle–bound bee–eff. “Your admitted weakness!”
She wobbled over to me and pushed it in my face. I took the chain from her hand and smelled it. “Aaahhh… nice and fresh! Y’know, Tara, we never did go and get any of that minced garlic.”
“What?” Poppin’ Fresh gabbled, “But! But… you said…”
“If you’d been listening, you’d have realize that I didn’t say that I hated garlic; I LOVE garlic! It snaps me out of the feeding frenzies that I go into when I drain too much. Aw, C’MON, do you honestly think that I’d tell a bunch of kids I just met any of my weaknesses? I was just passing along a helpful hint, in case of emergency later. A need–to–know sort of thing. Hey Tara!” I threw Tara the chain of cloves.
Tara caught it, but Taffy–boy, who had managed to untie himself (he’s probably had a lot of practice) took advantage of her distraction to grab the cylinder out from under her arm. “Vamp!” I tossed Bravo aside like an empty beer can and turned to Taffy–boy, and between the two of us, we quickly had Taffy–boy surrounded.
Taffy–boy looked around for options, and saw one. “HYPER! Go long!” He cocked his arm and made like a quarterback, throwing the cylinder like a football. And, give him his due, he didn’t throw it TO the speedster; nope, he threw it in the general direction of the path back to the quad, trusting that his twinkle–toed buddy would move quickly enough to catch it on the fly. He must be the brains of this outfit. Sad, when you think about it.
I did a power–leap in the direction of where the cylinder would touch down, and sent a patch of darkness to cover the area. Now, the thing is, I mixed it up with Speed Queen down in Boston a couple of times, I think I mentioned that; one thing I learned in those memorable set–tos is that speedsters tend to rely heavily on their vision. Navigating by hearing, sonar, radar, and other non–visual means at 100+ mph tends to suck rather badly in an obstacle–rich environment like a city. So speedsters HATE running in darkness.
Sure enough, Hyper stopped dead in his tracks and started waving his hands in front of him. I landed, picked up the cylinder, and calmly walked over to where Twinkle–toes was thrashing around. I grabbed him by the throat and dropped the darkness. “Hi there,” I said with an evil grin, fangs flashing.
“Vamp!” Tara said running my way, “They’re getting UP, and they look PISSED!” And, sure enough, both Poppin’ Fresh and Bravo were indeed getting up, and from the energy shows coming from their eyes, they were indeed pissed and burning some serious fuel for some serious butt–whupping. “Good call, Tara! Armor down.”
“Huh?” But she shed her carapace, trusting that I knew what I was doing. I LIKE that!
I tossed her the cylinder and picked her up in my arms. Then, “*ahem!* mi–mi–mi… BWAH–ha–ha–hah!” I guffawed in my best ‘Evil Genius’ laugh, “FEEBLE FOOLS! You have LOST! Now, there is NOTHING that you can do to prevent my EVIL PLAN from unfolding!” Then I let out another ‘Evil Genius’ laugh as I put every ounce of strength that I had into a superleap that put me on an arc for a flat area on top of Poe Cottage, followed by a rebound well into the main building complex, for a classic laughing villain exit.
“What was all that about?” Tara asked as we glided down to Poe’s roof. “WHAT ‘evil plan’?”
“What? I was just seizing the day! Aw c’mon, messing with those idiots’ heads is a moral imperative! If we don’t rattle some sense into those dingbats’ heads, they might do something really dangerous! Like go into politics!”
I rebounded and landed on top of this tall tower that was pretty central to the entire campus. Then, I spent several minutes breathing very hard. After Tara got her legs back under her, she asked, “How did you DO that?”
“Oh, I can glide a little, and I just used that to steer. Mind you, the Hulk–jumps are the real hard part, especially when you’re carrying–”
“NO, not THAT! When you caught Bravo’s fist and just held it there like it was nothing! Bravo’s a brick! I’ve seen him lift a car over his head like it was a pillow! How strong ARE you?”
“Well, first of all, I really am pretty dang strong, all by myself. Second, I drained both Bravo and his over–upholstered girlfriend a good bit, so I’m a lot stronger than I usually am. By the way, that reminds me: you better open doors, type on keyboards and all the other delicate work for an hour or two. I’m not used to being this strong, and it’ll fade before I get the hang of it. And I’ve got too many broken doors in my past.
“And third, I wasn’t fool enough to play fair with that Muldoon while he was trying to crack open my head. He uses energy somehow to power his strength. But I mixed it up a couple of times with Dynaman, down in Boston, and he uses the same trick with his piston–fists on his power armor. I figured a way to turn the energy he was using against him. It really put a twist in Dynaman’s knickers, lemme tell you! <heh–heh–heh> I’ve never seen a blank faceplate show such total shock in my life! HAH! Always remember, Tara: never let the opposition know what you’ve really got! Either make them think that you’re helpless, or that you could mash them into the ground without building up a sweat!”
Then I noticed that Tara was looking real uncomfortable. “What’s the matter?”
She gave me this ‘Jeez, I don’t wanna talk about it’ look, but I kept on her. “Weeelllll… I just had my first super–fight, and I was fucking useless!”
“What are you talking about? You handled your two guys, no problem!”
“That big goober Bravo had me by the arms and that stretcher totally got the tube away from me! I totally screwed up!”
“Hey things happen. Look, you clocked Bravo when you got the chance, and you took care of business pretty dang good, for your first time. And the important thing is that you didn’t just stand there, going ‘what do I do?’ or pissing on yourself. Hell, my first time against anyone with super powers, I totally wimped out. If I hadn’t been up against a soft touch for the waterworks like Skyhawk, I’d be in jail right now!” Tara gave me a sad, ‘for reals’ pout, and I sort of melted. I gave her a hug that accidentally almost forced her to put up her metal skin in self–defense. She settled for a friendly arm around the shoulder, and it was very cozy for a bit.
Then we remembered that we were on top of a tower in the middle of a New Hampshire winter. “Okay, before we drop to the ground, let’s see where we should go next. The coordinates are right… here… on the map.”
“Oh! That’s Beck Hall, the school’s main library! The next bit must be a message hidden in one of the books!”
“If it is, then Sahar must be pretty sloppy! Hiding messages in a book is a sure way to lose the fool things. Besides, what was the clue again?”
“’The Knight of the Woeful Countenance’.”
“Hmmm… that rings a bell… but why am I hearing show tunes in my head? I mean, I’m fabulous, but I’m not that fabulous! Wait a minute…” I pulled my tracker out of my fanny pack and attached my kitbashed tracking transponder to the side of the tube. I also snuck the disk that I hadn’t told Tara about onto the bottom. Then I checked the tracker and made sure that it was receiving the transponder’s signal. “Well, that’s as good as it’s going to get.”
“Are you sure that’s necessary?”
“You tell me that this ‘Nex’ guy – and what the heck does ‘Nex’ mean, anyway? – takes being a ninja seriously. Well, from what I heard, ‘ninja’ means ‘persistent one’. And Nex has got to know that. So he’s going to keep trying, and we can’t afford to assume that he’ll keep failing. So, we keep his windows of opportunity small and far between, and we make sure that he can’t just disappear with this. There! All set! I’d better hold onto this; we don’t want it getting trashed if you have to put your skin on.” That done, I picked up Tara and we dropped to the ground. We made sure that nobody had seen us, and then we calmly made our way over to the library, to check out some books.
Well, that was the plan, anyway. We’d touched down and gotten ourselves straight and we were just taking those first steps when someone yelled, “HEY! You two! What are you doing?” Tara and I stopped and looked, and two girls, one in a really tricked–out wheelchair rolled up (heh). The one in the wheelchair gave us this sour look like she’d caught us at something and demanded, “What were you two doing in the tower?”
“Nothing,” I said, all grace under pressure, “We weren’t IN the tower, we were ON the tower. I was power–jumping, and I landed on it by accident, and we just dropped down. So, if you’ll excuse us, we have errands to run.”
But Wheels wasn’t done with us. “What’s that cylinder you’re carrying?”
“What business is it of yours?” I asked, “And who are you? Tara? You know these two?”
Tara shook her head. “I don’t know ‘em. I might have seen ‘em around, but I can’t place them.”
“We are the Power Cats!” Wheels’ buddy, a rather cute blonde said with some real vinegar.
“‘Power Cats’? Jeez, watch anime much?” I looked at Tara. “You heard of these ‘Power Cats’?” Tara shook her head. “Are they some kind of student patrol or something?”
“No, those would be the Peacekeepers.”
I looked at Wheels and Blondie. “For the record,” I said carefully, “are you telling me that you have some sort of authority to stop students on the street and question them?”
Blondie twitched her mouth a little and said, “We have a right to ask questions when we see someone doing something suspicious.”
“And you have asked, and we’ve answered, and now we’re going.”
“You haven’t answered what’s in the cylinder.”
“Just because you have a right to ask a question doesn’t mean that you’re going to get an answer. This cylinder is none of your business. Period. Bye!” We pointedly turned and started towards the library, when something grabbed the cylinder out of Tara’s arms. Looking back, I saw a claw and grapple rig dragging the tube through the snow back to the wheelchair. “HEY! LEGGO!” I jumped on the tube and pried the tube out of the claw. “Who do you think you ARE? Tara, hold this–”
As I was just about to pass the tube over to Tara, a blur came out of left field, and someone grabbed the tube at just the right moment, and was gone like a scalded cat. “SHIT!” I did not screech, ladies do not screech, but I definitely vented.
“HEY!” Wheels screeched after us, as Tara and I ran as fast as we could after the blur, “Where do you two think you’re going?”
I picked up Tara and did a power leap to catch up with the blur, who was going up the wall and onto the ledges of one of the buildings. “It’s got to be Nex,” I said. “Okay, quick plan: You armor up, I steer him into you; don’t try to fight him, just keep him from getting away. Don’t bother trying to out–fight him, just guard your eyes and let your armor do the rest. I’ll drop some darkness on him, and get the tube away from him. When the darkness lifts, don’t look for me, just head to the library and try to figure out what the ‘Knight of the Woeful Countenance’ means. I’ll meet you there with the tube.”
It was a good, simple, effective plan. Pity it didn’t work out that way.
We caught Nex while he was prepping to jump from one ledge to another, and sent him crashing down to the ground. He landed like a feather, on point and ready to fight. Tara landed, armored up and all set, and then crouched, arms spread wide, and ready to be the best obstacle that she could be. I dropped my darkness on them, and I was on Nex like a heavy sweat. And that’s where it all went south. I couldn’t touch this guy for shit! I swatted away at him for a solid minute before I realized that my darkness wasn’t slowing him down any. I wasn’t hitting him, and he was hitting me, but it wasn’t affecting me much. Then I noticed that he was wearing some sort of visor, a streamlined, armored model that tapered to a lateral ridge across his eyeline. Gee, a darkness–compensating visual aid, maybe?
I decided that beating this asshole would be hard, painful, not a given, and not really the point, either. Getting the tube was the point, not scattering his teeth. I went for the tube, but Ninja–boy was expecting me. Despite my best efforts, not only didn’t I get the tube, but Nex used my own efforts to throw me around. I tried, really I did, but I wound up only putting a dent in the brick wall with my skull, and Nex was out of there, and out of sight.
I dropped my darkness, and Tara was standing there, still in position, still with her arms stretched out, still ready to do her bit. She looked around, puzzled. “Vamp? What happened?”
“Plan A went bust. So, we go for Plan B.”
“Plan B? We have a Plan B?”
I pulled out the tracker and extended the antenna, so that I could get a better fix on his position. My bug was working perfectly. “Plan B. Tara, we have two advantages over Nex: One, we can track him, as long as he doesn’t remove that transponder I put on the can. Two, there are two of us. The plan is to wear the fucker out. He’s a better fighter than I am, but I can keep draining him every time I lay a finger on him. If we keep him busy, and don’t let him rest, we can run him into the ground. Or, at least until he’s so winded that he can’t keep us from taking the can back. Does that sound like a plan?”
“How about going to Security and getting them to get the can back?”
“That’s a perfect way to get pegged as a loser, Tara. Going to the teachers pretty much just says that we can’t take care of our own business. The entire point of all this is to prove that we CAN take care of our business, and we don’t let people push us around. Nex wants to play rough? FINE! We play rough.” I watched as the dot on my tracker went back and forth a few times, never slowing down. “Predictable. He’s doing the classic ‘ninja evasion’ bit, doubling back and like all that. I think that he’s just about ready to stop farting around and go for wherever he’s really going… and there he goes! Okay, I got an idea of where he’s heading… You ready, Tara?” She gave me a chipper thumbs–up, and I picked her up and power–leaped to head Nex off at the pass. I gave a passing regret to having left Nightgaunt’s shadow–gems in a niche of the girls’ room back at Poe, but carrying them around this place would just be asking for it.
Using the tracker to keep tabs on Nex’s progress, Tara and I set up an ambush. Again, we kept it simple: I’d drop the darkness, Tara would tackle Nex, and I’d get the tube away from him and vamoose. We waited until he was just around the corner, I dropped my darkness, we jumped and– “HOLD IT, TARA!” I said, grabbing her wrist before she could jump anyone. Standing there in a group was a slim boy about maybe my age with dark hair and glasses (middling cute, but I could wrap him around my little finger in, say, five minutes), a short guy who was almost lost in his parka (not enough to see to make any judgment), a tall, busty brunette who was the kind of Italian girl that the Irish boys made comments that started small riots in church (such as, ‘Oh Yeah, I’d tap that!’), oh, and Wheels and Blondie, those two girls we’d run into before.
“HEY!” the bigger boy of the group yelled, “What do you two think you’re doing?”
“HEY!” Wheels said, “It’s those two I was telling you about!” The tall Italian girl stepped to the fore, like she was being all protective.
“Excuse me,” I said in my most ingratiating tones, “but by any chance, did you have a run–in with a guy in a snowsuit and a high–tech set of goggles, say three or four minutes ago?”
“I’ll take that as a ‘Yes’. Which way did he go?” The Italian girl pointed west. “Thanks. He must have planted our tracker on one of them. Fortunately, we have ‘Plan C’.”
“We have a Plan C?”
“There’s always a Plan C.” I switched the tracker, and it sent a signal to the backup transponder on the disk, which I’d planted there just in case someone found the first, more obvious transponder, which was why I made that transponder so obvious in the first place. I got a signal, sure enough, due west and moving at a walking pace. “Okay, let’s motor!”
“Hey!” Wheels said, from around the tall girl, “You still haven’t explained what you’re doing with Nex!”
“You’re right, we haven’t. Let’s GO!” Tara jumped into my arms with the ease of considerable practice, and I power–jumped ahead of Nex’s signal.
When we caught up with Nex, he was sneaking from snowdrift to tree, trying to be all stealthy. And doing a pretty damned good job of it; if not for his heat signature, which I can see, I’d never have spotted him. We agreed, keep to the plan: I’d go dark, Tara’d jump Nex, I’d get the tube away from him and power–leap away. We were watching him to catch him in mid–scurry, and we were just about to nab him, when someone zapped us from behind, and sent us face first into the snow.
We scrambled to face whoever was blasting us, and there, hovering in the air was that idiot Bravo, yellow cape fluttering in the breeze and energy dancing in his eyes, and his over–upholstered girlfriend and his two dimwitted buddies on the ground near him. “HALT, foul villainesses! You will NOT acquire the Zharkov Device! So swears CAPTAIN BRAVO!”
“WHAT?” I did not shriek, ladies do not shriek. I merely posed my question forcefully. “You idiots again? Don’t you dimbulbs have HOMES to go to?”
“Yes, and we will DEFEND–”
“That was a RHETORICAL question, You Putz!”
Bravo took that with all the calm, mature grace that you’d expect; he let out another eyeblast at me. Tara jumped in front of me. She yet out a yip of pain. I don’t think that her armor does a lot against Bravo’s blasts. She cringed as I cradled her in my arms, and I pumped a little of the vital energy that I’d charged up on into her. She relaxed as she got better, but that bit of first aid cost us. Bravo’s speedster buddy – Hyper, I think his name is – did a run–by, splashing us with snow. Poppin’ Fresh charged at me, digging something out of her parka. “Oh, what’s it going to be THIS time, Popsie?” I heckled her. “Silver bullets? You DO know they only work on werewolves?”
“No, this time, I rely on my own inspiration!” she drew something that looked like a flashlight out of her parka and, if I’m lyin’, I’m dyin’, it was a freaking lightsaber!
“As Jehanne La Pucelle, Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans, the Savior of France, bore her sacred blade into battle, so do I bear this sword of holy light against you, foul creature of darkness!”
“Are you sure about that? ‘Cause I don’t remember anything about Joan of Arc having a special sword.”
“Joan found a sword with the pattern of five crosses on it at the cathedral of Saint Catherine de–somethin’erother. As she bore her sword into battle against the Unholy–”
“Well, actually it was against the English, but as a good Irish Catholic, I ain’t gonna argue the point.”
“–so do I carry THIS sword, as I emulate Saint Joan in all ways!”
“Hey BRAVO! You might wanna think about getting another girlfriend, ‘cause this one pretty much just said that she ain’t puttin’ out EVER!”
The speedster shut me up with a face full of snow, and Buffet the Vampire Sater started to lay into me with that lightsaber. Fortunately for everyone’s favorite vampire, it wasn’t a real lightsaber, or I’d be sliced and grilled long pork, sizzling on the snow. And I sizzle quite nicely all by myself, thank you very much! Every so often, she’d lay off and Bravo would hit me with another zap. I was vaguely aware that Tara was grappling with the stretcher, who was doing a much better job this time. Finally, struggling to keep control of myself and all too aware that Nex was using this as an opportunity to get away, I grabbed Pillsbury and snarled into her face, “HEY! PINHEAD! I’m an Energy Absorber, remember?” But she just wigged out and hit me a few more times, and Bravo just blasted me, and weeelllll… from there, it gets a little fuzzy…
I snapped out of it, when I suddenly became aware of a chain of garlic being shoved in my face. “Vamp? Alex? Are you okay?” I heard Tara’s worried voice ask me.
I shook my head – MAN, I hate the adrenaline hangover that I get when come down off one of those goonouts – and said, “Yeah, yeah, just let me get my head screwed on straight.” You can tell that Tara’s a good friend; anyone else would have jump on a straight line like that with both hands. “What happened?”
“You, ah, WON.” Looking around me, I saw that the snow had been torn up something fierce, and Bravo, Pillsbury, Hyper and Rubber–boy were all sprawled out in the snow and muck, and they looked like they’d been put through the wringer. “You dricked out, and were laughing, and you just whipped them like a bunch of little puppies. Then you came at me with this really weird look in your eyes, and I shoved these in your face. JEEZ, you are scary like that, Alex!”
“Yeah, but you should feel the hangover!” *blech!* I looked down and, “AW, MAAAAN!”
“What’s the matter?”
“Bitch totally trashed my sweater! And it’s Angora!” I pulled the parka off Poppin’ Fresh and draped her across Bravo for warmth. Hey, it was probably the closest to getting’ any from her that the big goober was ever gonna get. I pulled out the tracker from my fanny pack and checked it. “Okay, he’s moving, but he’s moving slow, probably trying to sneak past someone. If we really haul, we should be able to catch him before he goes somewhere we can’t.”
“Why isn’t that thing trashed?” Tara pointed at the tracker. “I mean, Bravo and that chick were blasting away at you pretty hard; even the EMP from them should have scrambled that thing!”
I held up the tracker with a grin. “Another handy tip from the exciting world of supervillainy: always build electronics with armor, padding, waterproofing and Tempest–shielding. It increases the costs by at least three times, but it’s worth it! MAN, you people have a well–stocked school store!” I did another superleap and we were in eyeshot of Nex before you could say ‘Jiminy Cricket’. Well, just in case you were saying ‘Jiminy Cricket’. I have no idea WHY you would be saying ‘Jiminy Cricket’, but hey, there you are.
“Same as before,” Tara asked, “You do the darkness, I’m your wall, you beat him against me?”
“Nah,” I dismissed that idea. “It hasn’t worked yet. Needs work. But I got a better idea. You know the Fastball Special?”
“You mean, I armor up, pick you up and throw you at Nex?”
“I dunno, Vamp. I’m not that good with throwing, and I’ve never thrown a javelin.”
“Not to worry, Pookie. I can use my gliding to steer. You just get me there, and I’ll take care of the rest.” A thought occurred to me. “You ever play football?”
“After you throw me, you stay right here, and wait for a long bomb. Then head for the library. I’ll meet you there.” Tara nodded, armored up and picked me up. I stiffened in a classic diving posture, and she chucked me right at Nex. Heck, I didn’t even have to steer that much. Nex sensed something coming, but he didn’t have time to react. I still savor the memory of the look on his face when I hit him. He went down, and not wasting any time, I picked up the tube, cocked it like a football and yelled, “GO LONG!” Tara held up her hands, and I threw her the tube in a pass that my Pop Warner football coach would have been proud of. Or, more accurately, it would’ve stunned the hell out of him. He always told me that if I practiced really hard, really applied myself, really threw myself into the game, I might someday be good enough to warm the bench. Tara disappeared over the hill, and I superleaped out of there before Nex could pull himself together.
I got to the library and had a few very anxious minutes waiting for Tara. Then she came jogging up and we shared a high–five and hug. “TEAM!”
Beck Hall looked like it had been built in the late 19th Century, with that odd mixture of pomp and modesty that a school library of the period was supposed to have. Okay, ‘Knight of the Woeful Countenance’… I know that from somewhere… As we browsed through the stack, Tara actually picked up a few books that she thought looked interesting, but I couldn’t think for this stupid song going through my head! It went natter, natter, natter, but it wasn’t telling me anything. So, I free–associated for a bit. Knight of the Woeful Countenance… Golden Helmet of somethingerother… Little bird in the cinnamon tree… Aldonz– AH! “I got it! It’s Don Quixote! There was this bit where Don Quixote decides that a barber’s brass shaving bowl is this big deal magic helmet, and he goes to the local innkeeper, thinking that he’s the local lord and asks to be made a Chivalric Knight, and the innkeeper humors him, giving him the title, ‘Knight of the Woeful Countenance’!”
“Wow!” Tara said, “You read ‘Don Quixote’? I thought that that was college level stuff!”
I gave her the ‘you got me’ grin. “Okay, I never actually read ‘Don Quixote’. But I DID go see a revival of ‘Man of La Mancha’ with a client, and I thought that the ‘Knight of the Woeful Countenance’ number was great.”
We looked for the library’s copies of ‘Don Quixote’. Nothing. We checked the DVD of the musical, ‘Man of La Mancha’. Nada. We sat down at one of the tables and talked it over. “Maybe someone checked out the copy that had a message in it?” Tara started to say something, but then she stopped and tapped my arm. I looked where she was pointing, and there, on one wall, was a framed poster of the classic pen–and–ink drawing of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza by Picasso.
“And you thought that you weren’t bringing anything to this,” I cooed at her. I thought for a second. I pulled out the map that we’d been using and handed it to her under the table. “Okay, Tara, here goes. Take this map. We split up and go through the stacks. Find a book, any book, and make out like you just found this. No squealing, make out like you’re trying to be stealth, ‘kay? Take it to the photocopier and make a few copies. If anyone tries anything after you make the copies, try to stop them, but make out like you’re afraid to make too big a hoopla in the library.”
She gave me a thumbs–up, and we split up. When I heard the quiet sound of the copier working, I eased over to the print. I figured that whoever had planted whatever there had put in it behind the print, in the easiest and least conspicuous place for me to reach, for the simple reason that that would be the easiest and least conspicuous place for them to reach. Ah, there it was. Sloth, my favorite deadly sin; well, right after Lust and Greed. It would be my favorite, if it tried harder.
Oh God, after all that work, it was another cryptic message; more coordinates, and ‘E=MC2’. ‘E=MC2’? That sounded rather ominously… high energy. I was reacting to that as something zipped out from the stacks and snatched the slip of paper out of my hand. BEFORE I could memorize the coordinates! Now, I’m quick, but there was no way that I could follow a frickin’ speedster. But, the little bastard stopped at the door long enough for me to recognize him as the guy in the parka who’d been with Wheels and Blondie.
I must have made an unladylike loud noise when the runt stole the paper, as Tara was right at my side when we hit the door. “What happened?” I told her. “Shit! Did you put a tracker on the paper?”
“I didn’t have a chance to and why would I? All I had to do was read it! But I never got the chance!”
“Fuck! How’re we gonna catch up with–”
We needn’t have worried too much about catching up with the speed freak in the parka. He was standing right there at front door of the library. With his four friends. The statuesque brunette chica with the ‘I’m tougher than you are’ ‘tood held up the slip of paper, looked at it and said, “This belong to you?” she asked in a snotty (but God’s own gorgeous) voice.
“NO,” I said carefully, “but it IS a message for us.”
“Regarding?” the guy with the glasses said, peering intently at us. Then that blue–haired anime chick, trying to look all librarian–y in reading glasses, stomped up to us, shushed us and told us to take whatever we were up to outside, this was a library, people were trying to read!
To my amazement, they all went nearly as pale as me, and we took it outside. I jerked a thumb back at (Tennyo? What kind of name is ‘Tennyo’?) and started to ask, but Tara just said, “Section 33.” Section 33? Oh well, file that under ‘later’.
Figuring that getting militant on the library steps would be almost as bad as getting nasty inside the library, we took it well out into the snow. “Okay,” Glasses said, starting over from scratch, “What kind of message IS this?”
“If it was the kind of message that we could talk about, it wouldn’t have been left at a blind drop, now would it?”
“So, you admit that it was a blind drop?”
“I think that I’m feeling some of the tell–tale signs of telepathic probing,” I said in a very tightly controlled voice. “Tara, tell me: what are the rules about reading people’s minds against their express will around here?”
From her expression, the penny had dropped for Tara that we weren’t doing anything wrong, we were just repaying a favor, and these – wait a minute, what did they call themselves? Power Cats? Power Cats? Jeez, they need a workshop or somethin’ on team names that don’t suck around here – these Power Cats were pushing the envelope. “Gee, Alex, I’m not really sure… but I’m thinking that there must be a rule against stealing–” Tara paused to frame a proper term for the slip of paper, but she was cut off by a blast of energy that came from the sidelines.
I didn’t whip around, like the rest did, to see who it was. I already knew. I slowly turned around, and sure enough, there they were, the Four Stooges, all pretty much recovered from the battering I’d given them. Well, the other three were; Rubber–boy looked a little unsteady on his pins. “Now, HAND OVER THE ZHARKOV DEVICE!” Bravo demanded of all and sundry.
I turned to the Power Cats and said, “Don’t let him get it!”
“Your vile confederates can’t help you now!” Bravo continued.
“‘Vile confederates’?” Blondie asked in a pained voice.
“I’ve been putting up with that all day,” I said.
“Look,” the boy said, stepping forward a bit, “I’m not sure–”
“Don’t try to talk your way out of it, SCUM!” Bravo bugled (yes, bugled! Don’t ask me how it did it without a bugle, but he pulled it off! If I hadn’t been there myself, I wouldn’t have believed it!) “We caught you RED HANDED, taking delivery of the Zharkov Device from your nefarious henchwoman!”
“Nefarious?” I asked Tara, “Would you say that I’m ‘nefarious’? FABULOUS, definitely, but ‘nefarious?”
“Really? I’d say ‘diabolical’, but that’s sort of spoken for.”
“Really? Diabolical? You think that I’d rate as diabolical? You are TOO SWEET!”
“Oh, will you two STOP being so damned flip?” Joan of Dork marched forward, lightsaber out and glowing, obviously trying to be intimidating. “Just HAND IT OVER, ALREADY!” The hawtsome Italian chick stepped forward and started to say something, but Joanie just slashed at her with the lightsaber, just like that! The Italian babe went back with a yip, but her buds caught her, and she just snarled something that I think was ‘It is SO on!’ in Italian. She let out an ear–splitting shriek, but the guy in the glasses yelled something about not having ear protection, and then the fight was on.
My first reflex was to jump on the slip of paper, and get the fuck OUT of there while the Power Cats were mixing it up with the Just–Nuts League. And I would have done that, but the guy with the glasses pointed at me and said, “One, Two, Three: RED LIGHT!” and suddenly I couldn’t move. I could think, and I realized from a similar experience with Lady Darke that it was some sort of mental block that he’d slapped me with. Well, I couldn’t move, but at least I could keep track of what was going on while I worked my way out of this stupid mental paralysis. I was slightly gratified to see Bravo’s elastic buddy get the jump on ‘Red–Light’ and start to whale the crap out of him before he could concentrate enough to use whatever other mental powers he had. Believe me, mentalists are SUCH a pain.
The screamer was mixing it up with Pillsbury, and doing a pretty good job of it, alternating a few martial arts moves with a good old–fashioned pounding. But, even with the whuppings that I’d laid on her before, Poppin’ Fresh was still fresh and hot and flaky, and the Screamer just didn’t seem to accept that Pillsbury’s lightsaber could hurt her, (though it obviously did) and just plowed into her. You’d think that two girls would know better.
Blondie looked at Wheels and said, “Lightsaber? I thought that you said that only devisers could make lightsabers.”
“No,” Wheels said as she fiddled with stuff attached to her chair, “only devisors can make the power source that you need to power the plasma generator and force field projector that you need to create a lightsaber. And that one’s obviously not very powerful. She’s probably an Energizer, and she’s powering it with her personal energy.” Then, like she hadn’t just been gossiping while she was cobbling it together, she aimed the snarecaster that she’d juryrigged together and wrapped Tara up in a steel cable net. Nice move. Pity that Tara just tore out of it like it was tissue paper.
“Ouch,” Blondie said as Tara stalked towards them. “Let’s see what this one brings to a fight.” She touched me on the cheek. “I heard she took on Bravo all by himself and slapped him down hard.” She got all stretchy and misshapen for a moment, and then she bleached out and – oh my god! The beauty! The glorious splendor! She looked just like… ME! Well, obviously without my exquisite taste in clothing or irreproducible panache, but still…
She took a moment to get used to my unique frame, squared herself off, and sort of marched over to where Bravo was double–teaming on the Screamer with Joan of Dork. She grabbed Bravo’s wrist as he was hauling back to lay one on the Screamer, and tried to hold it. But she didn’t seem to know how to drain him, and however she copied my stunning likeness, it didn’t seem to copy the amount of raw power that I’d absorbed. Useful note to remember, if it ever becomes an issue in the future. But in the meantime, it was painful to watch as my delicious doppelganger got dumped on by that lox Bravo, as he slammed her into the ground, shouting all sorts of moronic platitudes about ‘Righteousness will triumph’ and crap like that.
Hyper, or whatever Bravo’s speedster buddy was called, was zooming around trying to do something, anything – I think that he does that a lot – and Screamer’s little speedster buddy got up in his grill and they started mixing it up. At first, they were racing all over the place, but then they sort of settled into one of those clouds of fists and feet and pain that cartoonists draw.
Having dealt with my bodacious body–double, Bravo gave the Screamer an eyeblast in the back. Tara yelled, “HEY! Leave her alone!” and ran at him, with every sign that she fully intended to hand Bravo his ass. And, give to give Tara her due, she popped the cork out of his bottle a couple of times; pretty good, considering that she was holding onto the tube all the time. Then Bravo got nasty (I don’t think that Bravo handles frustration very well; he just gets nastier and nastier as he keeps failing), and let out with one of his eyeblasts. And, like Tara said, her armor doesn’t handle electromagnetic energy attacks. She went back with a shriek, and Bravo kept blasting her back, until she was flush against Wheels’ wheelchair.
Okay, NOBODY slaps down my girl like that! That was what I needed to snap out of Red–Light’s mind–block. I grabbed him and threw him in front of Tara. Red–Light gave a *gleep!* noise and ducked, barely slowing down Bravo’s next bolt. Tara saw the bolt coming and cowered, holding her hands in front of her just as it was arriving. The bolt splattered against a shield that suddenly appeared in front of her, showing briefly as the bolt hit. Then the entire spherical field interacted rather badly with the power systems on Wheels’ chair. “HEY!” Wheels’ yelped as the whateveritwas that she was juryrigging together short–circuited all to hell in her hands and let out that magic blue smoke. She cursed fluently and creatively as she tried to move her chair, which was apparently slag–welded into place.
Tara stood away from Wheels, and reached out to the very limits of her arm’s reach, and made the field show by tapping it. “What? I did it! I did it! Vamp, I did it! I copied one of the PFGs!”
“Righteous!” I exulted (and I don’t exult that often), “Now, let’s get that paper, and get the fuck OUT of here!”
Tara spotted the slip of paper on the ground, but it stuck to her force field, just out of her touch. I started to reach for the paper, when something hit me from behind, throwing me face–down into the snow. “Vamp!” I heard Tara yell, and then, “HEY!” I was just getting up out of the snow when something forced me face–first back into the slush, and I felt someone rummaging around in my fanny pack.
I did a bucking bronco move to get whoever it was off my back, which worked pretty well. I kipped up to my feet just in time to spot a blurry white figure disappear into the snow. “Vamp!” Tara said, hurrying up to me, the tube clenched protectively in her arms. “It was Nex! He tried to get the tube, but he couldn’t get through my field! But he got the piece of paper! What did he get out of your fanny pack?”
“I dunno, but as long as it wasn’t my Lady Clairol™ SPF–1000 foundation, I’m cool. Still, he got the paper…” I looked around at the sudden silence. Both the Power Cats and the Putz Patrol had stopped fighting – well, except for the two speedsters, who were still going at it, hammer and tongs – and looking at us with hostile intent. “Still!” I said, playing a hunch, “Not a problem! So, Nex has the paper! I read the paper, and I clearly remember that the numbers were ‘J–f/4–6’.”
“No,” the Screamer said, as she held Bravo in a Full Nelson grip, “The numbers I read were, ‘D–e/7–2–4.’.”
“Then Keeewwl!!” I sang as I scooped up Tara and made another classic power–leap escape from encirclement.
“But Vamp,” Tara objected as I crested my leap, “They know the coordinates and–”
“Which would be a problem IF they knew which map we were using,” I pointed out as I landed on one of the roofs. “And, speaking of maps.”
Tara stood down and pulled out one of the copies of the map that she’d made. “Okay… there’s something wrong… the numeral part has three numbers. No, wait, I think I got it… check it out, if you use the first four parts, you get this location here, which is way out in the open, a hundred yards or so from Kane Hall. BUT if you assume that the ‘four’ means ‘four levels down’, then I’d say that you were squarely in the Workshop’s underground complex.”
“Nice thinking, Tara,” I said with a pat on the shoulder. “And that fits in nicely with ‘E=MC2. Damn it. Heavy radiation does nothing for my complexion!” I let out a heavy sigh, but then forced myself to buck up. “Oh Well! Sahar wouldn’t put her whatever in any place too dangerous! Besides, if it’s down in the Workshop, then this might be the last step of this mishegoss, we’ll finally be done with this mess, and I can buy you a hot cocoa to celebrate getting your PFG!” Hot cocoa sounded real good to Tara. I power–jumped us over to Kane Hall, and I bypassed the lock onto the roof, barely breaking stride.
It took a lot of comparing our map to various ‘You are here’ maps in Kane Hall and down in the Workshop proper, but we finally found the spot. The Workshop maps were none–too–oddly compatible with the map we’d been given. And, sure enough, according to the signs in the hallway, we were way, WAY too close to a room with signs saying: ‘Main Power Core. Danger! Authorized Personnel Only! Keep Out, and this means YOU!’ Tara looked at the signs nervously and said in a ‘I’d really rather NOT do this’ voice, “Maybe we should ring, and ask if anyone has something for us?”
“NOT a worry, sweetie,” I said with a smirk. I pointed at a bulletin board in the hallway, and there, next to all the techno–babbly notices and what–all, was a photocopy of the picture of Albert Einstein sticking his tongue out at the camera. And, sure enough, hidden under it was a slip of paper with more coordinates and the message, ‘Grab some lunch’.
Tara looked at the map and immediately knew what it was talking about. It took her a bit to navigate through that freaking MAZE of tunnels back up to Shuster Hall, but she insisted that what we were looking for was behind the doors marked, ‘CLOSED! UNDER CONSTRUCTION! DANGER! DO NOT ENTER!’ We pushed past the doors and whaddaya know, it was under a lot of construction with scaffolding everywhere, and the sounds of work being done. I called out, “Hello?”
The sounds of power tools stopped and someone said, “Go Away! We’re working here!” Someone dropped down into the open area at the center. It was a very nicely made girl in construction overalls, who only needed the overalls to be short–shorts to be a pinup version of a construction worker. “What are you two doing in here? Can’t you read?”
“We were, ah, sent to pick up a message?” I said as confidently as I could to someone who had the vibes that she could tie me in knots without breaking a sweat.
Her attitude completely changed, “Oh, Zenith sent you?” We nodded, figuring that if Sahar was behind it, there was a good chance that Zenith was involved somehow. “Sure, she left a message over there.” She pointed at a chalkboard next to where I assume the food counters had been. Written on it was some more numbers, ‘because I could not stop for death’, and the number 56.
“Because I could not stop for death’?” Tara and I said in perfect unison.
“Because I could not stop for Death/ He kindly stopped for me/ The carriage held but just ourselves/ And Immortality,” the constructionette said in that helpful tone that makes you want to kick them in the teeth. “Emily Dickinson. Y’know, the poet? You’re obviously not Dickinson girls.”
“Nope, we’re in Poe,” I said as I erased the message, after carefully memorizing it.
“AND SOON, YOU’LL BE IN JAIL!” Bravo declared, slamming the doors to the cafeteria open wide with the excessive force that he seems to think is the solution to everything. Then again, he was looking pretty worse for the wear. I was amazed that he had the strength to throw around that kind of force. I started a snide comeback to that, but gave it up as he was too logy to really hear it.
Then Hyper came racing in and picked up a coil of cable with malice aforethought. But the Construction–chick who’d talked to us grabbed him and hauled him off his feet. “What the HELL do you think you’re doing, Frosh–boy?” she asked, looking at him like he was some nasty little bug that she’d picked up off her boot. I liked her.
“GREG!” Hyper bleated, “Shesgotmorebackup! Shesgotmorebackup!” Of course, that was all that Bravo and Joan of Schmuck needed. They came roaring in, with Pillsbury waving that stupid lightsaber around, despite the fact that there was less than seven feet of clearance for the scaffolding.
“Put that stupid sword away you idiot!” I yelled as Joan took a swipe at me (despite the fact that she knows that doesn’t work), hacking a big tear in her parka. I looked down and said in a very calm voice, “You know, I WAS going to give this back to you.”
The scaffolding shook as Pillsbury’s sword cut a few of the supports on her backswing. There were shouts from above, “What the FUCK is going on down there?”
Bravo charged at the Construction Chick yelling, “So, you’re the evil mastermind behind all of this! Prepare to meet JUSTICE at the hands of CAPTAIN BRAVO!”
Construction Chick just twisted out of the way of his fist like a rubber band and said, “Are you on drugs?”
From above, I heard, “CAPTAIN Bravo?”
“Oh, it’s just Bravo, from the Nursery over at Melville,” said another voice. “He’s in the running for the Freshman Class Brain Donor of the Year.” Construction Chick did this thing where she wrapped her entire body around Bravo and did this really weird rippling movement that threw him in one fluid motion that was just SO insanely hawt. I mean, Tara and I talked about it later, and we agreed that guys probably picked fights with her on the off chance that she’d use that move on them.
“Greggie!” Poppin’ Fresh said and got away from me to rush to her boyfriend’s rescue. As for me, I looked at the wreck that she made of the parka, and wondered if it was worth finding something else, or if she’d just trash that as well. Joan of Mook started her backswing, aiming at Construction Chick’s center of mass, but Tara stepped up behind the Jedi Jerkette and grabbed the sword’s hilt while she was off–balance. Construction Chick was a little busy helping to stabilize the scaffolding, so she couldn’t help. Tara and the Maid of Oi Vey wrestled over it, and then it flickered for some reason and went out.
“What did you DO?” Joan demanded as she shook her sword–thing. Then, it sparked and gave out that familiar blue smoke. Joan went “ACK!”
Looking like she was figuring something out, Tara looked at her hand, and it armored up and something appeared in it. She looked at it like she was figuring again, and a glowing lightsaber appeared. “Wow.”
“My Sword!” Joan gasped, “You STOLE my SWORD!”
“GREAT!” Construction Chick said, “Now turn it OFF and get it OUT of here! We have to re–secure this entire section before it collapses and maybe takes the rest of the scaffolding with it! We’re almost done, but if this falls, it could set us back WEEKS!”
“Are you sure you don’t need our help?” Tara asked.
“Do either of you know anything about scaffolding or construction work AT ALL?”
“Then just get OUT of here, and take those idiots with you, before you get hurt!” And she did seem to be straining a bit, so we took her at her word.
“NO!” Bravo said in his best heldentenor, “You vile felons will NOT escape–”
“GUYS!” Construction Chick shrilled, “Get these idiots OUT of here, and help me keep this up, or we’ll lose weeks of work here!”
Three big guys who I’m guessing were Seniors dropped down from the scaffolding around Bravo. Bravo was as big as most of them, but they were moving like they actually knew how to fight. Tara and I didn’t stick around to find out; we’d been told to get out, and we got.
Back in Shuster Hall, Tara looked back and wondered, “I wonder what Bravo and his pals are doing?”
“If there’s any justice in the world,” I said, pulled out one of the maps, “Those guys drafted them into helping repair the damage they caused.”
Tara whipped out her energy sword thing. “I have a lightsaber!” she gleeped.
“This is SO COOL!” she gushed.
“Hey, watch what you do with that thing!” I said. “And put it away; we’re conspicuous enough as it is.” I looked at the map and found the coordinates. “Okay, what’s that building?”
“I don’t need to look,” Tara said with a smirk. “I already know. It’s Dickinson Cottage. The poem, remember?”
“Well, aren’t you clever? So, does that poem mean anything other than it’s at Dickinson?”
Tara just gave a wide ‘dunno’ shrug, but she said, “I know an exit from the tunnels that comes up sort of near Dickinson. We might be able to give Nex – or the Power Cats – or Bravo’s crew – or whoever else is following us around – the slip.”
“Good idea! Are you sure that you’re not thinking about doing the devious supervillainess route after all?” I gave her a quick leer. “I’ve got a black leather bikini that you’d look diabolically delicious in…” Tara gave one of those scandalized yet delighted giggles and showed me the way to the tunnels.
It took a little pushing to get the door to the exit opened. Not that it was locked, but snow always seems to make everything more difficult. We walked across and up the slope of the hill, until we saw the cottage. Tara copped a pose and pointed up the hill. “Because I could not stop for Death…” she recited. Just to the side of the cottage was another snowman, this time of the Grim Reaper, with a scythe in one hand and a book in the other.
“–he kindly stopped for me,” I finished (and dropped the bit about the carriage and Immortality). “I wonder whether Sahar and Zenith built that thing, or if some Dickinson girls did, and Sahar and Zenith just snuck the message on it somehow?”
“Who says that there’s just another message?” Tara asked. “I mean, maybe it’s the end of the line? Hey, Death’s the ultimate stopping point for everyone, right?”
“Yeah, go ahead, say that to someone who’s routinely mistaken for one of the Undead…”
Then we spotted a couple of girls leaving the cottage, and I spotted a few shapes flicker past the windows of the cottage. “Okay, we have a problem,” Tara said. “How’re we supposed to search that stupid snowman without one of the Dickinerds spotting us?”
“She says to the girl who can create abject darkness,” I retorted.
“Ooohhh… big scary field of darkness,” she shot back, “REAL subtle…”
I gave her an approving nod for this show of spunk. (Dear God, I just used spunk in a sentence!) “Yeah, but a static field of darkness would be a lot less of an attention–grabber than two girls climbing all over that snowman.”
“Yeah, but I can’t SEE in the dark, remember?”
“Oh. Right,” I grunted. “Point. Okay, Zenith wouldn’t have given us this drop point, if she thought that we’d get in trouble. So, that means that we should be able to get whatever it is without too much trouble, if we just think about it. Let’s see: the coordinates, that Dickinson poem, and ‘56’…”
Then Tara gave a hoot and jumped up and down. “ooh, ooh! The Book! Since when does Death carry a book? It must be a page reference!”
“Well, in a lot of depictions, it does,” I pointed out, “BUT, since when do people ruin hardback books by putting them in snowmen? Okay, I’ll put up my darkness and get the book. You stand by and cover me.” Tara gave me a thumbs–up. “Oh, and Tara? Lightsabers are real conspicuous.” She gave a ‘whoops!’ grin and doused the lightsaber.
Taking care to put the snowman between the cottage and me, I put up an area of darkness around the Reaper and climbed up. Of course, I was awkwardly balanced, reaching for the book when I heard Tara squeal, “Vamp!” Turning around, I almost fell off the snowman when I saw Nex going at Tara with some kind of electronic prod thing. Tara had her force field up, but the prod seemed to be beating it. Tara had her lightsaber out and was ready, but Nex didn’t seem all that worried. I gave a yell and jumped at them, bringing my darkness with me. Nex whirled around and zotzed me but good with that probe thing.
Oh. Right. Nex has those vision–augmenting goggle things. Don’t you just HATE it when people take intelligent preparations?
I shook the little tweeting birds out of my head and tried to think of what to do. Nex has a weapon that uses energy that I apparently can’t absorb for some reason. And it has reach, and he seems to have a pretty good idea as to how to use it. I need a weapon. Fortunately, there’s a weapon available. I grabbed the scythe (yes, it was a real scythe, and it looked like a real tool, not just a prop), and charged at Nex with it.
Okay, okay, I know, I know… A scythe is a deadly weapon, right? Well, I had no intention of actually hitting Nex with it. The idea was that I’d swing it, and Nex would block it, all ninja–like, and Tara would get away. She had the tube in her tote, and Nex was probably after that. After Tara got away, I’d grab the book and make my own escape.
Well, that was the plan anyway. Nex went along with his part of the script. He parried the scythe with his prod thing, and gave me a rattling kick in the teeth. But I sort of forgot to send Tara the rewrites for our script. She dropped her force field and went at Nex with her lightsaber. Guess what? Nex’s prod thing was able to parry her lightsaber, no problem. Man, I really HATE it when the other side is better prepared than I am! We went at it, and Nex was handling us, no problem. Tara might have done better, but she was fighting only by the light of her saber in my darkness, and I couldn’t drop the darkness, or the Dickinson girls would see the fight, and Security would get involved, and it would be all around double–plus ungood. And Nex had those freaky goggles of his on, so he was probably using his ESP to keep his edge. Hey, he’s got an edge, and he’s using it. I can’t really fault him there; I can HATE being on the receiving end of it, but I can’t fault him.
Tara and I were stronger than he was, but his kung fu was better’n both of ours. Heck, most of the time, he was bouncing the two of us off against each other and I had my hands full trying to avoid hitting Tara. Finally, it hit me that we needed my ace–in–the–hole to work; I needed to take out those stupid goggles. I let one of Nex’s kicks take me back into a snow bank, and scooped up a double–handful of snow. I packed it and let fly. Nex wasn’t quite good enough with his prod, and I smacked him right in the goggles.
Nex’s moves were suddenly entirely on the defensive. “Tara! Go for it!” I yelled and threw myself at Nex. He zotzed me again, but instead of running (as I’d expected her to) Tara shut off her lightsaber and went for a grapple. After I shook those stupid tweeting birds out of my noggin again, I saw Tara grappling Nex’s head. Then Nex and Tara pulled apart, and it got sort of weird. Nex was banging the side of his goggles, like he was trying to get them to work. And Tara was standing there, like she was trying to figure something out. I was about to ask her what was wrong, when suddenly, an exact copy of Nex’s goggles appeared on her face. Nex tore off his goggles and assumed a very defensive stance, like he was casting about carefully for us.
Then I got it: Tara copied Nex’s goggles! And ruined them! Suddenly, this was a whole new fight! I grinned evilly at Tara and picked up the scythe again. Tara turned on her lightsaber and returned my grin, tooth for tooth. We turned and faced Nex. Nex was picking up something with that ESP, ‘cause he went ‘Oh Shit!’ and dropped a smoke pellet and did a ninja vanish.
“This… is… so kewl!” Tara bubbled, bouncing on her toes. “It’s got IR, and UV and Low–light, and Passive Radar and Tac–Ops and everything!” she finished with a squeal. I picked up the book, walked over to Tara and did a bro–fist bump. TEAM!
The book turned out to be a book of Christmas carols, and taped to page 56 was just a slip with some coordinates on it. “The song is ‘Deck the Halls’,” I noted. “Mean anything to you?”
Tara ran through the first refrains and went ‘aha!’ “Deck the halls… with boughs of holly!” she pulled out one of the maps and checked the coordinates. “It’s Lake Holly! There’s a lake near the school, I heard that there are summer camps on the other side of the lake and stuff, but there’s a landing for boats right here,” she stabbed the map, “which is right where these coordinates are!”
“And ‘boughs of holly’?”
“There’s a bunch of trees near there, where kids sometimes go to make out. I guess that’s what they’re talking about.”
“OR, they put up some holly wreaths there over Christmas, and they simply haven’t had a chance to take them down yet,” I mused. “But we still have a problem,” I motioned for Tara to follow me as I started walking casually away from the wrecked snowman. “How did Nex find us?”
“Well, he’s psychic… maybe he’s following us telepathically?”
“In this school? That’d be like trying to follow a tracking device in Manhattan. It’s doable, but it’d be a bear…” Then I snapped my fingers. “He got the paper with the clue and the coordinates on it from the Power Cats, remember?”
“Yeah,” Tara agreed carefully, “But that was for the Crystal Dome. And we didn’t run into Nex there, remember? No… but Bravo’s crew found us, like they were following a trail… How come Bravo and his braindead buddies keep finding us? I mean, Nex could have beat us to the Crystal Dome and seen the message on the blackboard; but how do Bravo and them keep finding us?”
That one stopped me in my tracks. “You’re right. Now, Nex, I could put him down to the fact that he actually has some brains and real skills. But how does a brain donor like Bravo keep finding us? It’s like he has some kind of… tracking… device… on… us…” I wiped the egg off my face and dug around in my fanny pack. “FUCK! It’s gone! Nex stole my tracking device, right out of my pack, when he tackled me at the library! He’s been following us with my own tracking device!”
“But how would Bravo…”
“Nex must be feeding Bravo clues somehow,” I guessed. “He’s using Bravo to keep us busy, while he rests between his own moves. If Bravo gets the tube, Nex knows that he can get it away from that yutz without breaking a sweat. And if Bravo gets the shit kicked out of him, it’s not like Nex cares.”
“But Nex planted your tracker on the Power Cats… Hey, how DID you manage to track him, if he’d shucked the transponder?”
“That was the obvious bug that Nex was supposed to find; I have a second bug planted on the butt of the can, in case anyone decided to check the can for bugs, which he did. And now, he’s using that against us.” I asked for the can, removed the secondary bug, and chucked it into the snow.
“Hey, look at the bright side,” Tara said with a comforting hand on my shoulder. “We figured it out, and we can get to the next drop point without anyone bothering us.”
“Nice thought, Tara, but it doesn’t hold water,” I said. “Like you said, Nex takes being a ninja seriously; he’s decided that he wants this can, and he’ll keep trying until he gets it.”
“And what the hell IS in this can that’s worth all this pain in the ass?” Tara asked, hefting the can and making to open it, to find out what all the hubbub was about.
“NO,” I said firmly, taking the tube from Tara. “Remember what Sahar said? ‘Don’t open the package’? That was part of the bargain, so we don’t open the package. Well, anymore than it’s already been opened. Let’s go and hope that this is the last drop.”
It was only maybe fifteen minutes or so to the place at Lake Holly, but we wasted the better part of an hour wandering around, confusing our trail, doing spy movie stuff to lose any follow, and trying to spot Bravo (there was no way we were gonna spot Nex; give the headcase his due, he’s GOOD!), and we walked through some woods and over a rise overlooking the landing. “Look!” Tara said, “There’s Zenith!” she pointed at the dock, and sure enough, there was Zenith, waiting, arms crossed, foot tapping.
“Thank GAWD!” I groaned, “This thing must be for her. She must have wanted to take possession of it without Nex interfering. Now we can finally get this thing OVER!”
“Yes, it’s OVER!” came a blaring voice that I’ve really come to loathe. “It’s all over for you!” Bravo came flying down, carrying Joan–of–the–knees–welded–together in his arms. Then up on our backside, Hyper came carrying Rubberboy. I guess that this is their idea of strategy and tactics.
“Bravo,” I whined, “What IS it with you? Are you a masochist or something? Is that why you hang out with her? She dresses up as a nun and whips you with a rosary or something?”
“Why…” Pillsbury huffed, “you blasphemous…”
“Oh, HE dresses up as a nun and whips YOU, then?”
Bravo raised one fist unsteadily (I really do think that he needs to go and lie down somewhere), his rage overcoming what little sense as he had, and snarled, “I’m going to–”
“WHAT? Get your ass handed to you again? Bravo, this is getting fucking tedious!”
“Oh? You’ve beaten him before?” came an adult voice that I didn’t recognize. “And exactly how MANY times have you beaten him, young lady?” The voice belonged to a tall skinny black guy wearing what I took to be a security guard uniform. The badge was a dead giveaway. He casually strolled up along with a short beefy white guy, also in a security guard uniform, and the Power Cats.
“Well, now, Proctor,” said his short buddy, “maybe she’s done it so many times that she’s lost count.”
“Like eating peanuts, Gamble,” Proctor said in way that suggests that they did stand–up comedy like this as a part of their act. “You just take one, and then another, and another, and before you know it, you’re up on Aggravated Assault charges.”
“HEY,” I said, seeing getting hauled in on my second day at school barreling down the tracks of a railroading in my direction, “THESE bozos keep dropping out of nowhere and attacking US, just like they just did! They did it at the bistro, they did it in front of the library, they did it in the cafeteria! We have witnesses! Them right there, for one!”
“Yeah,” Red–light said, stepping forward, “but I think that that CAN your buddy is holding has something to do with it.”
“Of COURSE it does!” Bravo said, twitching his face something fierce, “Those two FIENDS have stolen the Zharkov Device!”
“The Zharkov Device?” Proctor said with amusement in his voice.
“They’re Wanted Felons!”
“The charges were dropped!” I snarled, not really expecting anyone to be listening to me at this point.
“Okay,” Red–light said firmly, trying to be the leader–guy, despite the fact that there were two security guards, who looked like they actually knew what they were doing, were right there, “The big thing here is that stupid CAN. Just hand it over, and we’ll see who should be going up on charges.” He stretched out his hand to Tara. Both Proctor and Gamble gave him, ‘and who do you think YOU are?’ looks.
I spared a look down at Zenith waiting by the lake, and sighed, “I really didn’t want it to go down this way…” I stretched out my hand to Tara. “Hand it over, honey.” Hesitantly, Tara gave me the tube. I hefted it, gave it a long last look, and yelled, “GO LONG!” Then I passed it to Zenith in a long bomb that would have made my Pop Warner football team coach proud (no, wait, I already did that childhood trauma, didn’t I?). It was beautiful. It was a perfect spiral. And MAN, did it have hang time!
Wait a minute… even Joe Montana doesn’t have hang time like THAT!
It literally just hung there in mid–air for a moment, and then a white blur banged out of a snowdrift, wrapped itself around the tube, and headed off into the nearest patch of woods. Zenith tore off right after him. I felt my eyes bugging out of my head. I slumped down to my knees into the snow in utter shock. “SHIT!” I did not screech, ladies do n– naw, fuckit, I screeched. After the day I’ve had, Amy Vanderbilt would have screeched.
* * * * * *
The Head Security guy, someone named Delarosa or something, gave me that all–too–familiar look over his desk. “Y’know, O’Brien, for someone on her first day here–”
“Second day,” I pointed out. “I came here yesterday.”
“You’re looking at a lot of trouble,” he continued like I hadn’t said anything.
“Oh? WE haven’t done anything wrong,” I maintained. One of the first things that I learned was never admit that you did anything wrong, especially if you haven’t done anything wrong. “WE were simply doing someone a favor, and THESE wonderful people kept butting their noses into it.” I jerked a thumb at Bravo and his friends, and at the Power Cats.
“And what was this favor?”
“Delivering that tube.”
“Who were you delivering it to?”
“I don’t know. We weren’t told. We simply followed instructions left for us.”
Delarose looked at me with hard suspicion in his eyes. “And why did you follow those instructions?”
“We were told to expect opposition.”
“Do you have any idea as to who snatched the tube?”
“Yeah, some kid called ‘Nex’. He tried a couple of times, but he never got anywhere until those two,” I jerked my head towards Proctor and Gamble, “forced me try that Hail Mary play.”
“I told you not to put that gun to her head,” Gamble sniffed at Proctor.
“Okay, finally, an answer. Now, what was in the tube?”
“Dunno. We didn’t open it.”
“Our principal told us not to.”
“And you trusted this guy enough that you agreed to deliver something, without knowing what it was.” His tone was not one of acceptance and belief.
“Hey, I’m the new kid in school!” I pointed out, “I had to show that I’m reliable.”
Delarose grumbled at me. “And I suppose that it would be asking too much to want to know who your principal was.”
“You are CORRECT, sir!”
Delarose gave that deep martyred sigh that made this whole interrogation seem homey and familiar to me. “Okay, I can tell that I’m not gonna get anywhere with you. But YOU…” he turned his attention to Tara, who was standing there, pale in a total ‘fear–of–authority–figures’ panic.
Delarose wound up to wade into her, and I was getting ready to play defense lawyer with everything that I had, when our dramatic tableau was interrupted by a dulcet voice from the hallway, “Aw, c’mon Delarose! You don’t wanna do that! Look at the kid; she looks like she’s ready to cry!” Zenith walked in, followed by Sahar. “How you doin’, Tara?” Zenith asked comfortingly. Tara gave a squeak of abject relief.
“Zenith. Sahar.” Delarose said in a flat tone of voice. “And where do you two come into this?”
“Simple. We’re their principals.”
Delarose shot me a look. I shrugged. Hey, if they wanted to come clean, fine by me!
“Okay,” Delarose settled in for the long haul. “First things first. What was in that tube that O’Brien passed?”
“A concentrated, gut–wrenching, nose–numbing, Whateley–Workshop grade stink bomb under high pressure.”
“But what if we’d opened it?” Tara asked, almost gagging at the very idea.
“Well, part of this exercise was to get an idea as to whether Vamp could be trusted. If she delivered it without opening it, she’d smell like a rose; otherwise…” Sahar just gave a wicked grin.
Delarose glared at them both. “Are you telling me that you started all this just for a PRANK?”
“Of course not!” Zenith answered like we were at a cocktail party. “Nex has been making himself even more obnoxious than usual. He’s been interfering in my affairs, sabotaging projects, stealing stuff, scaring people away from meetings, setting booby traps, and stuff like this. He’s doing it mostly to put pressure on Semi here, but we’re talking about Nex; he hasn’t gotten violent – YET.”
“And why haven’t you come to Security about this?”
“We just DID. Hey, we’re talking about NEX here! He may be a bedbug, but he’s a sneaky bedbug! He made sure that we knew that something had happened, and that he’d done it, but he never left any evidence that we could take to Security that anything had happened at all, let alone that he was behind it. We needed something where we could prove that something physical was taken, and that Nex did it, as further proof that Nex has been making trouble for us. Now, we have witnesses that Nex intercepted that canister in mid–flight, that he tried to steal the canister multiple times before, and that he used violence in attempting to take it. And, those clowns,” she nodded in Bravo’s direction, “can probably tell you that Nex used fraud, telling them some fairy tale so that they’d try to get the canister away from Vamp and X–O; he probably figured that getting the canister away from Bravo would be a piece of cake, and even if Bravo didn’t get it away from Vamp, he’d keep her busy while he rested between attempts.”
Bravo yelled, outraged, that Captain Bravo was no man’s dupe! Delarose just scowled at him and snapped, “Zip It, Bravo!”
“And,” Sahar continued, “all that you need do to prove that Cyril was indeed the man who snatched the cylinder out of mid–air and ran off with it is come within five feet of him. The recipe that we used is designed to soak through fabric, especially the microfiber that Nex favors, and seep into the hair and skin. It will last for days, and it will only get worse when he washes. You’ll probably find him outside Twain Cottage, refused entry.”
Delarose gave me a ‘well?’ scowl. “And how do you feel about this?”
I shrugged. “I knew that something was going down, but I wasn’t sure exactly what. I figured that it was part of the whole ‘making your bones’ thing.”
“You DO realize that you could have been running drugs or a deadly toxin or almost anything in that tube, don’t you?” he asked with a hard cold glare.
Please! After my Aunt Doris, that was nothing! “No, because She–Beast set up the deal. And she’s the daughter of a supervillain, so she knows that she has absolutely NO SLACK for anything like that. Jadis might have had a hand in planning this, but anything illegal? She’s way too smart for that.”
Bravo and Joan of Dork piped up that Jadis might be smart, but she’d never outrun the long arm of JUSTICE! “I said ZIP IT!” Delarose snarled. “Okay, O’Brien, Hardy, you apparently were simply running an errand for Zenith, and you defended yourself from people who had no authority whatsoever, and less common sense. You can go. But as for the REST of you! Power Cats, I expect Bravo Company to go haring off that way, but you guys?”
“Hey, it was the sort of thing that Team Kimba does all the time!”
“And you want to know what else Team Kimba does all the time? Detention at Hawthorne!”
I spoke up. “Pardon me, but in the interests of justice and fairness, the, ah, ‘Power Kitties’ here didn’t really do anything wrong, either. What Tara and I were doing WAS pretty damned suspicious, and we couldn’t tell them what we were up to, so they tried to find out what was going on. Understandable. And, they never really went over the line about it. They toed the line once or twice, but they never went OVER the line. I gotta respect that. And they only got violent when Bozo Company attacked us all first. And as for THOSE idiots?” I scowled at Bravo Company. “THEY are guilty of Assault with a Deadly Weapon, Attempted Theft, Destruction of School Property and Indecent Exposure!” As Bozo Company squawked about getting stuck holding the bag, Red–light and I shared a look of understanding. They owed us one. Because he and Wheels and the Screamer (it turns out that her handle’s ‘Diva’. Ego much?) HAD gone over the line once or twice, and I was letting them off the hook. Hey, showing a little class never hurts. And it’s never too early to start collecting favors owed.
“Hold it!” Delarose, “What’s this about Assault with a Deadly Weapon?”
“What do you call a light saber?” I shot back, opening my tattered parka to display the ragged remains of my lovely angora sweater.
“But you stole my parka!” The Maid of Ohboyisshedumb argued.
“Well, SOME of us DO have reservations about Indecent Exposure,” I sniffed, giving Bravo the gelid eye. “And there’s the none–too–trivial matter of THIS–” I picked up the stake that Delarose had found in my fanny pack.
“I had nothing to do with that,” Joan lied through her mask.
“Bitch, you made this out of lacquered wood! It would take a sand blaster to remove your fingerprints from it!”
Joan looked at Delarose, “But she’s a VAMPIRE!”
“She’s a state witness in a capital felony investigation, under witness protection,” Delarose grumbled. After a bit more wrangling (Pillsbury has to pay to replace my sweater! <grin!> she’s going to plotz when she sees the receipt!) Delarose let Tara and me go, as he finished laying down the law on Bozo Company.
“One last little thing,” I insisted. I reached over and lifted up Joan’s mask, curious as to what it hid. A rather stock high school cutie face glowered back at me. I reeled with a grimace of revulsion, gingerly lowered the mask, and patted it in place with a shudder. “Tara! We go!”
* * * * * *
It turned out that we’d spent most of the day running around, it was late going on dark, and both Tara and I were hungry from all that running and fighting. So Zenith used her (apparently considerable) pull to get us to the head of the line for dinner, before all the (comparatively) good stuff was gone.
After I put away a plate of steak and potatoes, I looked around for any familiar faces, and I spotted the Bad Seeds at their table. “Hey Tara! Let’s check in with Jadis, let her know that it turned out all right.”
Still jazzed at the thought of three power upgrades in one day, Tara came along gladly. When we got to the Bad Seeds’ table, Jean–Armand stood gallantly (or, at least what he probably took for gallantry) and said, “HAIL, the Conquering Heroine! Heroines.”
“In his own inimitable way, Jay–Arm’s congratulating you on kicking Bravo’s ass,” Jadis explained with a smirk. “Repeatedly.”
“What?” I asked, totally floored. “How do you know about that?”
“Well, after you put on that big show at the Bistro, Hazard – she’s a friend of mine, she’s a bookie here, among other sidelines – decided to run odds on various aspects of your little favor, and she asked Mal here to send a few discreet remote surveillance drones to keep track of you, so she could set the odds accurately.” Mal held up something that looked like a smartphone with a hologram screen that was nine times larger than the unit itself. The hologram screen showed Tara and me mixing it up with the Power Cats and Bozo Company in front of the library. “Of course, it was supposed only be for the bettors, but it leaked out and it looks like it went viral,” Jadis continued.
“Yes, I was meaning to talk to you about that, She–Beast,” Zenith said as she and Sahar walked up to the table. “I am NOT happy about this little development of your buddy Hazard’s.”
“Yes,” Jadis said with a snide sigh that suggested that something was going on between them. “I wasn’t too happy about it myself, until I talked with Hazard, and she told me that little Miss SAHAR had helped her with the logistics.” Jadis shot an acidulous smile in Sahar’s direction, as Zenith spun and gawked at Sahar. Sahar shot Z a ‘whoops!’ apologetic grin. “Don’t be TOO hard on her, Zee,” Jadis said through a clench–toothed grin, “after all, she had to make sure that Nex… and Bravo… and the Power Cats… and Proctor and Gamble all got to their marks on time, now didn’t she? And Vamp and X–O here didn’t make things any easier, not with tracking down Nex, getting that canister back, and generally not going along with the script that you’d written, now did they?” Jadis paused with that big nasty grin aimed at Zenith and Sahar, “I do NOT appreciate being placed in the position of being the fall guy, if Nex had hurt either Vamp or X–O. Or in setting Vamp up to fail by losing that canister to Nex. But then, that was the entire point of the exercise, now wasn’t it?”
“Well,” Sahar whined, “we couldn’t tell Vamp that she was supposed to lose the canister, now could we? Nex is a telepath; in order to be sure that he’d take the canister and open it as soon as possible, he had to be absolutely convinced that Vamp and X–O were totally committed to getting it to wherever we told them!”
She–Beast’s toothy not–smile collapsed into a very real frown. “So, you kept adding more riddles to your stupid paper chase, just so that Nex would have more whacks at them!”
“Well, we were sure that Nex wouldn’t be able to resist using all that scaffolding in the Crystal Dome to his advantage,” Zenith admitted, with that imaginary sweat–drop that you see in all the anime not quite appearing by her head. But not by much.
“Leaving what you were putting Vamp and X–O through aside, do you have any idea of what that did to the betting?” Belphoebe added. “I lost six points when you decided to add that stupid poem riddle!”
“Oh, that explains why the Dickinson girls didn’t do anything when we raided that snowman,” Tara said. “They were probably laying their own odds.”
“Yeah,” Mal said, looking at one clip. “If Wunderkind hadn’t had a UV/IR sensor, that darkness field of Vamp’s really would have thrown a monkey wrench into the betting.”
Jadis started to add something else, but I cut in, “Hey, not to stress, ladies! It’s all geeewwd! Tara and I were the ones who went through the wringer, and Tara here not only got the PFG that she wanted but two other nifty goodies as well. And as for me, well, I think that I’ve proven that I can deliver the goods, no? So! Everyone’s happy. Well, except maybe for Nex and Bozo Company. Like I care. So, as long as everyone keeps in mind that there’s a line between ‘good sport’ and ‘sucker’,” I speared Zenith with an icy glare, “and that I intend to stay well on the ‘good sport’ side, I think we can agree that we’ve wrapped up this bit of business to everyone’s satisfaction.”
* * * * * *
Of course, that wasn’t the end of it. Mal, Jean–Armand and Belphoebe wanted to know which of their PFGs Tara was manifesting, and everyone was ALL interested when it turned out that Tara was running a very efficient synergy of all four designs. LOTS of wheeling and dealing at the table was going down. Not that anything really came of it. Tara would have the design examined by the Workshop faculty, and there was a lot of talk about sharing patents, unique services fees, personal risk fees, and on and on. Tara didn’t follow most of it, but she knew this: she’d gone from a near–nobody to someone with a unique service! And there was real money being talked about! Tara was one happy camper.
Of course, there WAS one other party with a voice in all this that we’d rather overlooked in all the excitement. The second that we crossed the front door, back at Poe, I heard, “Miss O’Brien.” Mrs. Horton didn’t shout or snap or even raise her voice, but there was still the unmistakable sound of the whip being snapped. I turned, and she was standing there, not scowling or tapping her foot or any of the usual theatrics, but still sending the message that the boom was being dropped with Biblical overtones. And I’m talking Old Testament, here folks. “I thought that I made myself perfectly clear, about taking advantage of others.”
“I–eeeyyyeee don’t recall taking advantage of anyone,” I said, furiously trying to figure a way of wriggling out of this one, “At least, no one who wasn’t jumping all over my case whether I wanted them there or not.”
Horton wasn’t having any of it. “Your first day here, and you manage to drag Miss Hardy into one of your inane stunts. If you insist on making a spectacle of yourself, running around on some harebrained bet–”
“Oh, we weren’t a part of the betting, Mrs. Horton!” Tara gushed. She spelled out what happened in the giddiest, most enthusiastic terms possible, finishing with, “And I have a light saber!” <giggle!> “I’ve been trying to get in on the action since I GOT here, but I never got the chance! Now, thanks to Alex, I’ve got people in the Workshop asking me to test their gadgets, and see if I can make them more efficient, and a whole bunch of other stuff! They say that I could make thousands of dollars doing that!”
“Which will probably render the terms of your scholarship null and void,” Horton said like an IRS auditor. “You may find yourself taking some very dangerous risks, just to cover your tuition.”
“NOPE,” I said with perfect conviction. “That occurred to me, and I talked it over with Zenith and She–Beast, and they tell me that there’s a girl over in Dickinson called ‘Britomart’ who has a setup a lot like Tara’s, and she not only covers her tuition and expenses, but she’s helping finance her father’s restaurant renovation. It’s still got to go through the administration, but it looks like Tara could put herself through college in style by the time that she graduates from Whateley.” I ended with a perky smile of confidence.
Horton gave me the glare of DOOM. “And what do YOU get out of this?”
“A reputation as someone who stands by her friends.”
Horton gave me the ‘You only THINK that you’re getting away with anything’ glower. “Very well,” she said finally, shaking her head. “Go ahead.” ‘I’ll be keeping an eye on you’ was unspoken, but clearly understood.
Tara bubbled all the way up the stairs to our floor. The Goodthing was in my room, and Scrambler was all too likely to be zipping in and out of their room at any given minute. So Tara and I settled into the sunroom. I wondered about those hammocks and ropes that were set up in one corner, but I decided not to spoil Tara’s good mood. “This is the best day EVER!” she finished. She looked at me eagerly. “So, Alex, what do we do now?”
“Well, what comes to me are the dying words of Lord Horatio Nelson, at the battle of Trafalgar.”
“Oh? What did he say?”
“He said, ‘Kiss me, Hardy’.”
Slinky, sneaky Alex O’Brien/
Was a gender–bending scandal–maker/
But when Phelps Caruthers died/
Boston said she was an evil breath–taker
The Cops tried to put Alex in Jail/
But she went to town instead/
She really cooked Beantown/
Yeah, she knocked ‘em Undead!
She was a Camp, a Scamp, and a bit of a Tramp/
She was a Vee–Ay–Emm–Pee… VAMP!