Diane Castle / Ayla / Ayla and the Grinch (A Christmas Story)
Ayla and the Grinch (A Christmas Story)
- A Whateley Universe Story
By Diane Castle
I hated leaving everyone so quickly, but limousine drivers and miserable weather wait for no mutant.
I rushed, “Okay, don’t open your presents until Christmas, okay? Make sure everyone else gets their presents too. I’ll see all of you after New Years. Take care. I’ll miss you!”
I gave Nikki and Toni hugs, and I gave Hank a high-five. I gave Chou a hug, and I gave Vanessa a kiss that left me throbbingly hard. I had to run down to the waiting limo, so I missed saying goodbye to Billie and Jade and Jamie and the rest.
I ran out the front door, my steamer trunk in one hand and my backpack-slash-purse in the other. The limo driver stepped out of the warm car, and gulped when he saw me toting a 200-pound steamer trunk like it was styrofoam. But the limo service said that they had picked up students at Whateley plenty of times before, so he had to know what he was getting into up here.
He had the trunk open before I reached the limo. I easily shoved my luggage into the limo’s trunk and hopped into the nice, warm back seat. The driver closed the door for me and hopped in behind the wheel.
I smiled politely, “Yes? That’s me.”
“I’m Jeffrey, your driver. Everything’s already paid, so just sit back and relax. I’ll have you at the Berlin airport in plenty of time, even with this weather.”
“Thank you. I hired your limo service because they have a very good rep around here,” I responded. I mean, there’s no point in being rude to people who are trying to do their job. Particularly when it looks like they’re doing their job well.
He turned the limo smoothly in the limited space (which I doubted I could have managed) and drove off toward Dunwich. He tentatively asked, “Miss Goodkind, if it’s not too much to ask…”
“Go ahead, Jeffrey.”
“Is everyone at Whateley really a mutant with superpowers? I’m new with the limo service, and they warned me, but still, it was a surprise seeing you… I mean, you’re super-strong and stuff!”
“Jeffrey, you can look, and you can talk with your fellow drivers, but you can’t tell anyone. You know that, right?”
“Oh yeah. Sure. I had to sign a whole ton of stuff, and I got vetted by the MCO, and everything. I think if I even tell my wife about this, they can put me in prison until my teeth fall out.”
I smiled gently, “That’s probably right. If the general public knew about Whateley, a hundred thousand Humanity First! bozos would march on the school and try to burn it down. And given what the students here can do, you’d probably end up with a major civil war, and a crater the size of Texas. It would be bad for everyone.”
“Yikes!” he grinned into the mirror.
“This way, the MCO keeps tabs on most of the mutant population of the planet, just by letting them go to high school. And mutants learn to control their powers, so they’re not running around accidentally knocking over buses and stuff. So it’s a good deal all the way around.”
The weather was pretty nasty, so he had to concentrate on the road. I sat back, opened a bottle of Henry Weinhard hand-brewed root beer, and thought about Christmas.
I had spent months stewing about Christmas gifts for my friends, and for Vanessa. I couldn’t spend the kind of money I was used to spending at Christmas time, simply because my friends couldn’t buy me presents like that. It wouldn’t be nice to rub their noses in it like that. Last year, I rented an entire oceanographic research vessel for a week so my brother Paul could do what he had talked about and spend a week diving with the Cousteau family. If I did something equivalent this year for, say, Vanessa or Jade, how would they feel?
So I gave the gift that keeps on giving. (No, not the herpes and syphilis that Tansy Walcutt is probably toting around.) Clothing. Really high-quality clothing. I gave everyone coupons to Cecilia Rogers’ Fabric Boutique. No one needed to know just how much I was paying Cecilia for each of those items, and Cecilia could use the business anyway.
Toni got a coupon for a ski jacket, as stylin’ as she wanted it to be. Nikki and Billie and Hank each got a coupon for a high-end tailored Whateley uniform. Jade got a coupon for three uniforms, since she needed clothes more than anyone else did. I justified it as a present for her, one for Jinn, and also one for Jann. Jamie got a coupon for a special blouse, pants, and blazer all made out of very stretchable, extensible materials for when he/she shapeshifted. Chou got a coupon for two sets of her standard mandarin top and yoga pants, with extras: enough hidden body armor to stop Sledge, secret pockets for stuff like shurikens, and matching shoes (with steel toes and reinforced soles). Vanessa got a coupon for one really fancy outfit, starting from lavish lingerie and expensively-fitted high heels, up through Cecilia’s best replica of Givenchy or Versace. I gave Bunny and Rip and Jody similar coupons for somewhat smaller items.
I didn’t get Sara anything: we weren’t that close, and I figured that a present for a holiday based around someone else’s religion would be a slap in the face for a Great Old One.
If Toni knew how much that ski jacket was going to be worth, after Cecilia put in the Zylor body armor and treated it with Hydrospell, she’d have a fit. But I felt like I could spend that much on her, since she was using her top-secret stash of mithril to buy all of us really nice presents.
I also bought some small gifts for Charmer and Kismet and Verdant, and a number of my other Whateley friends, like Phobos and Möbius and Electrode. Somehow, I had a really sad feeling that Phobos wasn’t going to get many other presents for Christmas.
In my steamer trunk, I had a slightly different set of printed coupons. On Christmas morning, Gracie and Janet and Amy and Tiffany were all going to find that Santa was buying them cars. I already had a nice pre-owned Bentley lined up for Gracie. She had loved her old Bentley - before she had to sell it to make ends meet. Janet had an old Toyota that needed replacing. Amy and Tiffany both had junkers that were so crappy that scrap yards would be turning them away. They were getting much nicer used cars. There was no point in buying them expensive new cars, given that we lived in The Square and they worked in less than high-end jobs. I didn’t want to make them instant targets for car thieves, I just wanted them to be happy.
The weather was pretty miserable between Dunwich and Dummer, but all I had to do was sit back and let Jeffrey do his job. Which he did well. The weather at the Berlin airport wasn’t nice, but at least it was good enough that the planes would be taking off.
Jeffrey smoothly parked in front of the United area. I let him earn his pay, since I wasn’t supposed to be showing off my powers in public places. He flagged down a porter. The two of them heaved my trunk out, and onto a cart. The trunk was seriously oversized, but I wasn’t concerned about paying the overage on it.
Jeffrey waved over one of the security guys, and had a quick conversation. The guy nodded, and let us leave the limo unattended. I had to figure that there would be a little quid pro quo later. Jeffrey escorted the trunk over to the United baggage area, and then led me to the front of the first class line. I paid the overage on my luggage, and got my boarding passes.
Jeffrey even walked me through the terminal and to the security area. I thanked him and handed him a tip that made his eyes bulge. Well, I thought he’d earned it.
I detoured over to the area for the flight crews and special passengers, and I showed the guy my MID. This was the part about which I was most uncomfortable.
Unsurprisingly, at the airport nearest Whateley, the guy who had this job was MCO. And heavily armed. That was NOT a regulation handgun in his holster. It looked like some kind of devisor energy weapon. Plus, his suit looked like he had body armor of some kind under the off-the-rack pants and coat.
And there was a large doorway at my left side, not quite hidden in the wall. I was guessing that we were under surveillance, and a couple guys with massive firepower or maybe even power armor were just waiting to hammer some unsuspecting mutant troublemaker. Given some of the Whateley students who used this airport, I was glad to know the MCO had adequate stopping power. I’d hate to see what would happen to the airport if the MCO didn’t have a hardpoint here, and some prick like Strongarm or some rager like Razorback went postal on an unprepared TSA guard.
The MCO guard ran my MID through his reader and waited for the feedback.
I spotted the security camera, so I gave it a little wave and a smile. Let them make of that what they would.
The MCO guy slowly read the computer screen.
“Phase… Let’s see… Okay. Anything to declare? Any packages given to you by someone else for you to carry onboard? Anything in your carry-ons that’s not supposed to be brought on a commercial airliner?” He stopped to point at a large poster showing all manner of things you would have to be a moron to carry onto a jet these days.
“No, no, and no.”
“Okay. Go over to the scanner. The sky marshal onboard will be notified that you’ll be traveling on this flight.”
I said, “Good. Make sure he has my seat number. If there’s any sort of problem, I may be able to fix it without busting stuff to pieces. Even if it’s external or in a sealed compartment.”
He looked at me like he’d trust me with an airplane in mid-air right after he let Dr. Diabolik take over the controls. Okay, I could take a hint. I shut up.
I walked through the special scanner a couple times, until they finally waved me through.
So I walked past the security point. With my utility belt still on.
Yes, I was wearing my utility belt. I wasn’t taking chances. If somebody tried something at 35,000 feet, I was going to be ready. And if nobody tried anything, I’d still have my utility belt when I was riding around L.A.
The Berlin airport didn’t have a private first class area. Or much of anything, really. So I settled for walking into the airport Starbucks and getting a decent-but-not-great latté to drink while I waited for my flight.
The flight to Chicago was okay. The first class seats were fine. The food was acceptable for airline first class. The flight attendants did a good job, as usual. But the twenty-something ‘earnest grad student’ type sitting next to me was just overbearing.
He was reading a textbook on the Marxist view of music theory, and he felt like he wasn’t doing his job if he didn’t annoy the person sitting next to him. Namely, me. “You should be taking this opportunity to do some reading! Something worthwhile!”
I stared at him, “I have. I read at 3000 words a minute. I finished both books I brought with me.”
He frowned, “You can’t expect me to believe that…”
I glared this time. “I don’t expect you to call me a liar. That’s what I expect. Now hand me that book for two minutes.”
I scanned through the book. It actually took me about four minutes. It wasn’t that deep, but I wanted to read through it well enough that I could argue with him.
I used the Marxist literary criticisms that I had read for World Lit all fall term, and browbeat him. “You can’t believe garbage like this. This is worse than Mueller’s Marxist interpretation of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, which is utterly nonsensical. Mueller implicitly assumed that a writer of the early 1500’s actually thought in terms of dialectical materialism. Mueller framed everything in terms of the class struggle, which is just stupid given the fundamental subtexts of the work.
“Your author is making the same mistakes. While it is blatantly obvious that you should view the works of someone like Kabalevsky as reflecting the class struggle, even if he was a party hack and he’s mainly known for children’s music, that doesn’t make sense in terms of a composer like Vivaldi, because…”
Then I moved to economics, and I beat him over the head with evidence that the Marxist economic viewpoint had proved to be a massive failure everywhere. I hammered on him mercilessly, until he stopped arguing back. He finally gasped, “Are you a teen genius or something?”
“Yes.” Well, I was certainly a something. “As a matter of fact, I’m currently writing four lit papers with Paul Zinn. You know of Paul Zinn, the Yale professor of literature?” I didn’t wait for an answer. I just bulldozed him, “Our first paper is going to be in the Heidelberg Review of Literature Studies, and our second is going to be in the Yale Literary Review.”
That finally shut him up.
Once we landed, I walked off the plane with the rest of the first-class cabin. Then I made my way to the closest Red Carpet Club. Or, as my brother David and I used to call it, the Dead Carpet Club. I checked in with the nice-looking brunette behind the desk, declined her offer of a private room for my ‘special priority’ Red Carpet Club card, and found a secluded seat.
While I sat down and fished out my MP4 player, I thought about things. Six months ago, I would have thought the brunette behind that desk was HAWT. Just smoking. Now I thought of her as ‘decent’. Instead of giving her a solid nine and a half, as I would have done before I knew better, I was now rating her about a ‘7’. My rating scale had changed. Drastically.
Now I had a real ‘10’ in the room next to mine.. and I got to see her showering! Along with a bunch of ‘9’s, and some girls who were pretty definite ‘9 and 1/2’s. I went to classes and ate meals with ‘8’s and ‘9’s and even a few other ‘10’s. (Okay, Majestic was a monumental pain in the ass, but she was pretty damn ten-ish.) And I had a girlfriend who made Halle Berry look plain.
God, was I ever spoiled!
The food in the Dead Carpet Club was about as good as usual. That is, it was way better than what you could pick up while walking down the concourses in the airport, but it wasn’t a five star restaurant.
Okay, so I was drastically spoiled when it came to food, also.
If I had stayed a blonde boy instead of turning into a black-haired intersexed freakjob, I would have been Richie Rich. Well, I would have been the Richie Rich / X-Men crossover mini-series.
I wasted time in the Dead Carpet Club, until it was time to board my flight. Then I walked down to the gate and got in the line for the first class passengers. I had timed it just right, so the line was already moving through the jetway door, and I only had to wait a minute or so before I was walking down to the jet.
The flight was okay. Long, boring, and the movie options were lame. The stewardess wasn’t cute, either. I pulled out my e-book and read a book of modern literary criticisms by Paul Zinn. I had been saving it for the flight home, since I didn’t need to read it for my World Lit course. Then I worked almost all the crossword puzzles I had downloaded onto the e-book.
When we landed at LAX, I got off the plane and took my time in getting down to baggage handling. There was no point in rushing like crazy so I could stand around and wait for twenty minutes while my luggage was manhandled. I paid two porters to get my steamer trunk, and warned them that it was way over-weight. Then I called Janet and told her I’d be ready in a few minutes. She was already in the cell-phone lot, waiting with hundreds of other cars for a call that it was time to go pick up someone at the arrivals areas outside the various baggage claims.
By the time the porters had my trunk, Janet was outside waiting in her car. I let the porters struggle to get the trunk into the back of her old Toyota wagon, and I tipped them.
Janet waited until we got out of the LAX loop - which was more like a NASCAR race at this time of the year - before she said, “Ayla, I’m glad you’re home, but I WISH you hadn’t paid for all that stuff!”
Well, it was her house too. So I had definitely been pushing my luck. But it was easier to buy a vertical freezer (to go in the rec room between the carport doors and the kitchen pass-through) and pre-packed, frozen dinners for five for the next two weeks from Home Bistros Inc., than it was to argue with her about her cooking. Gracie and I were threats to your health in the kitchen, but Janet was just not a good cook.
I said, “Janet, it’s the holidays! You shouldn’t have to cook the whole time!”
She complained, “And the cleaning service was definitely too much.”
I shrugged. Okay, I’d hired a cleaning service to scrub the entire house top to bottom, for the holidays. They should have also put up a six-foot noble fir and decorated it. Janet hadn’t groused about that yet, so I’d have to see it when I got home.
The house looked spectacular. It was cleaner than it had ever been before, and it just sparkled. I hugged everyone, and admired the Christmas tree in the rec room. Noble firs have really strong branches, and I had chosen one on purpose, so that some nice, large, non-electric, non-tacky ornaments could go on it. It looked great. There were ceramic Margaret Furlong angels, and Swarovski crystal ornaments, and hand-blown glass flower ornaments. The whole tree just glowed.
Janet grumped, “We had to put the boxes for the tree ornaments down in your room. And we spent weeks getting it all cleaned out as a special present for you…”
I counted boxes under the tree. It looked like all the presents I had ordered on-line had arrived. Plus, there were a number of presents that I hadn’t ordered. Some of them were for me. Cool.
Tiffany hugged me and giggled, “I always knew it would pay off to get a rich kid to move in with us!”
Amy hugged me, “Merry Christmas, Ayla! I hope you didn’t get me anything too expensive.”
I asked, “You mean I shouldn’t have gotten you that 37-carat diamond necklace?”
Her mouth dropped open in shock. Then she realized that I was kidding, and she laughed, “You little…”
I looked over at Janet, “Where’s Big Sis?”
Janet shook her head in resignation. “Gracie’s out shopping. She’s been a woman for six years, and she still Christmas shops like a guy. I’m surprised she didn’t wait until the 24th, and then go over to Home Depot to buy everyone power tools.”
I knew she was kidding about that. Gracie would never buy women power tools for Christmas. Even when she had been my big brother, Greg had always bought really thoughtful gifts. In fact, I really wished I still had that first edition “A Study in Scarlet” Greg had bought me one year. But I was never going to see that again.
I was never going to see any of my cherished book collection. Not ever again. God, was that depressing.
I carried my trunk in from the car. Tiff shook her head, “You know, I still can’t get over seeing you do stuff like that. Gracie’s little sister is a real, live superheroine!”
I shrugged, “If you think I’m something, you should see the kids I hang with. Imagine Superboy but without the heat vision and super-breath. Imagine a real, live Ryoko from Tenchi Muyo, only tougher. Imagine one of the most powerful mages on the planet, in the sexiest body in the whole solar system.”
Amy said, “They told us about Parents’ Day, but still, it’s pretty hard to believe.”
I said, “Then you’ll really have a hard time believing me when I tell you what’s happened to us just this semester.”
I carried my trunk downstairs.. and froze.
They had completely re-done my basement room.
Before, half the room had been a junk room, half the rest had been an amateur’s badly-constructed version of a full bathroom, and the remainder had been some beat-up old furniture that they had pulled together at the last minute to give me a bed and dresser and desk. It had been lit by half a dozen slit windows up at the unfinished ceiling, and a couple industrial lights.
Now all of that had been replaced. It was all I could do not to start crying in happiness.
The junk had been cleared out. In its place were some nice three-foot-deep industrial metal shelves across the end wall. The shelves easily held everything that was left. That more than doubled the size of my ‘bedroom’.
The ceiling had been finished, and good lighting had been put in. The slit windows had been replaced with some nice frosted-glass panes. The old, damaged furniture had been replaced with a good bedroom set that included a queen-sized bed, a matching dresser and study desk, and some bookcases. The rows of Harlequin Romances had been cleared out, leaving room for me to go book shopping.
The open bathroom area had been remodeled too. Now it was a separate enclosed bathroom. I peeked inside and started weeping.
The bathroom now looked like a real bathroom. Nice granite tile. A jacuzzi bathtub and a separate shower. A heated towel rack. And everything went together, instead of looking like pieces bought at five different flea markets.
And the whole basement had been painted in a nice, safe off-white. Nothing girly or overly saccharine.
It was perfect.
Janet grinned, “Merry Christmas!”
Tiff and Amy chimed in too. “Merry Christmas! We did the painting. It’s not too girly, is it?”
I sobbed, “It’s the best ever. Thanks so much!”
I wept like a girl as I hugged them and thanked them. God, was I embarrassed.
After I unpacked my trunk and backpack, tucked the secret coupons under the tree, and stowed my trunk away on the top shelf of the storage shelves, I came upstairs.
Janet was heating up beef burgundy and noodles for dinner, while Amy was changing to go to work and Gracie was trying to wrap a few presents back in her bedroom.
I took the opportunity to make a phone call that I wanted to be done with as soon as possible.
The overly-chipper woman announced, “Santa Monica Police Department, how may I help you?”
I said, “May I speak with Lieutenant Merrill please? Tell him it’s Ayla Goodkind, from the incident with Sparkler in August… Yes, I’ll hold.”
In only four or five minutes, Lieutenant Merrill was on the line. “Yes, Miss Goodkind? Did you need something with regard to that case? I’m not at liberty to discuss details of the investigation, and you won’t be needed for the pre-trial.”
I said, “That’s okay. My guardians can get hold of me any time, so I can catch a jet back from prep school whenever you need me to testify.”
“Umm, we may not want you to testify at all. It’ll be easier to convict if we.. umm…”
I cut in, “If you don’t have a hideous mutant freak as a defense attorney’s target? Gotcha. I’ve seen how that works. I’m happy not to testify if you don’t need me.”
He just had to ask, “You saw how that works? Where?”
I couldn’t help grinning. “You heard about the capture of the Arch-Fiend? And his ‘Banner hearing’ and big escape and re-capture? That was me and my friends at Whateley.”
I could hear the ‘cop’ in his voice as he said, “Ayla, we talked about this! You can’t go around super-heroing like that! You’re a minor, and you’re not legally deputized, and…”
“Oh, but I am,” I interrupted. “Captain Tilley of Boston SWAT made us legally deputized auxiliaries within the Greater Boston Metropolitan Area.”
He fumed, “But that doesn’t count out here.”
“Oh, I know. I have NO intention of doing any superhero junk here. No ripping up streets, no fighting supervillains, just being home for Christmas, and then I go back to school for winter term. You won’t be hearing from me. I just wanted to give you a heads-up that I was in the area.”
He still wasn’t a happy camper when I signed off.
The beef burgundy dinner was good, but not as good as I had been expecting. Everyone else thought it was great. I was sure it was better than anyone in the house could have managed, even if Tiff could have come close. But I had been hoping for ‘four star restaurant’ quality. Oh well, at least I wouldn’t have to worry about being dragged out to eat at some place like Denny’s.
Amy had to rush out the door so she wouldn’t be late to her job at the Cherry Bomb. I so wished she’d find another job. She was a waitress in a sleazy little costume, but that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was that the Cherry Bomb was a strip joint that showcased transgendered women. The only strippers and waitresses at the place all still had Mister Happy in their panties.
No, the worst part was that Amy was still talking about saving up for breast implants so she could work as a stripper there and make better money. I felt queasy just thinking about it. How could anyone think that getting silicone soccer balls shoved under your skin was a good idea? Amy was cute and petite and slender. She just didn’t need giant boobs that were too big for anyone except Exemplars and porn starlets.
As I helped Gracie put the leftovers in plasticware, I decided. We’d try all the other dinners, and if most of them were good enough, I’d order more for the summer vacation. Otherwise, I’d see about hiring someone to come in several days a week to clean and prepare meals for us.
Janet would probably be fairly unhappy about that, but we’d work something out.
After dinner, we stayed up talking for several hours. I let Gracie and Janet do almost all the talking, so I wouldn’t have to re-tell all my stories when Amy and Tiff were back from work.
When it was my turn, I mainly talked about classes. They were pretty impressed that I’d been able to ace all my courses when I was taking eight classes. But they seemed to think that Costume and Powers Theory would be amazing classes that no one would ever want to miss.
Okay, Costume and Powers Theory ought to be amazing classes that no one would ever want to miss. They just weren’t.
Janet pushed, just like she was really my mother, “So, how were the final exams?”
I shrugged. “I finished up Civics and Business Accounting I in the middle of the term. Then my World Lit course didn’t have a final. If Zinn doesn’t give me an ‘A+’ for that course, then he’s a jerk. He’s got me writing four journal articles for him! No one else is even writing three. Then Powers Lab didn’t have a final. Costume Shop had a really easy final, and anyway, it was only worth about ten percent of the course. I aced the main part of the course. Sixty percent of the grade came from designing a costume for ourselves. Here’s what mine looked like.”
I dug out a photo of me in my Phase costume, scragging Belphegor’s anti-grav chair. Jericho had downloaded it off the Arena’s on-line system for me.
Gracie murmured, “Whoa! You look awesome!”
Janet gasped, “Fucking aye! I’d hate to have that coming after me in the dark!”
Gracie was still staring at the picture as she asked, “So, how’d the rest of the finals go?”
I admitted, “Pretty easy, actually. All of Dr. Quintain’s exam questions came out of one of his three undergraduate-level textbooks, and I’d read all of them. So that test was a cakewalk. Spanish I was easier than I figured, and even the oral exam went really well. I guess I’ve learned a lot more Spanish than I thought.”
It probably didn’t hurt that I’d memorized the entire vocabulary section in the back of the textbook.
“Ito soke gave me an ‘A’ in my Combat Final, because I paid attention to my surroundings and I was ready for any attacks coming my way. Plus, I outsmarted my opponent, so I didn’t have to engage in a battle. And I’m pretty sure I got an ‘A’ in trig, since I know I aced the final. The teacher’s been giving extra homework that didn’t count for a grade, and I’ve been doing all of it. The three toughest questions on the test were all out of the extra homework.”
Gracie gave me a hug and teased, “One of these days, you’re going to get a ‘B+’, and you won’t know how to handle it.”
I didn’t think that getting less than an ‘A’ in a course could be anywhere near as bad as a lot of things that had happened to me just in the past half year.
Bedtime was a GIGANTIC improvement over the last time I had been here. The bed was great. The mattress was brand new. The silk pajamas were comfy. The re-done bathroom was a huge improvement.
The only downside was the lack of unbelievably hot babes cavorting about in the bathroom while wearing hardly any clothes. Somehow, I’d just have to live without that until I got back to Whateley.
I woke up early. I was used to getting up early - even on weekends - at Whateley. And that was three hours ahead of California. I figured it would be a few days before I stopped waking on Eastern time. So I showered, dressed, and figured out what I needed.
I needed books. Lots and lots of books. Gracie and Janet were just going to have to take me book shopping later in the day. I figured that, even after I maxed out the bookshelves already in my bedroom, I had room to put in another four bookshelves along my ‘bookshelf’ wall.
Maybe I’d go on-line later and order the entire “Great Books of the Western World” set. I could probably get them from Amazon for eight or nine hundred bucks, which was dirt cheap in my opinion. Father had the set in his library on the main floor, and I had always blithely assumed that some day they would be mine. There wasn’t much chance of that happening any longer. He’d probably prefer to eat them, page by page, rather than let some creepy little mutant like me benefit from them.
I went upstairs and read “The Joy of Cooking” while I waited for everyone to wake up. There were all kinds of definitions that I needed. Hmm, so that was how you made a roux. That didn’t sound too tough. Oh. So that was how you made a meringue. Granted, some of the recipes sounded disgusting. Like the chicken in aspic, or the sprouts and potato casserole. But that book had more valuable material in it than my entire set of textbooks for Costume Class.
Maybe now I could make a tuna fish salad that wouldn’t make the rest of the house gag…
But instead of thinking about a decent tuna fish salad, I needed to focus on breakfast first. The coffee pot was a lot simpler than my Krups in the dorm, so I made coffee.
Or rather, I was forced to settle for the dark-brown coffee-like substance that Janet’s cheap coffee-maker made from Janet’s instant coffee. I was adding ‘instant coffee’ to my list of oxymorons.
At least it was brown, and fluid, and sugar dissolved in it. Although I suspected the same could be said of motor oil.
Next, I looked in the cupboard for something to eat. Oh God, there was a can of that ‘instant oatmeal’ junk. No one else was up, so I hastily poured it all into the kitchen trash, then put the empty can back in the cupboard. That left me with a choice between the Special K and a box of Grape Nuts. I’d had the ‘Mediocre K’ before. Ugh.
I didn’t realize that the Grape Nuts weren’t grapes or nuts, but something that seemed to be made from processed quarry leavings. Fortunately, when you’re an Exemplar 3 who can go heavier than lead, you can chew up almost anything. Tomorrow, I was going to have toast for breakfast.
By the time I had my bowl and coffee mug in the dishwasher, Janet was up. Gracie got up a while after that. I let both of them shower and dress before I dragged them off to the nearest decent bookstore. The nearest bookstore that had a barista.
I must have spent three hours reading books and making selections. Since I bought several dozen books, the store clerks didn’t mind that I went through another couple dozen without buying those. Of course, they had no idea that I actually read all those books while I was sitting there. It was pretty depressing how lightweight most of the best-sellers were. I had brought my e-reader along, so I picked up six e-books too. There was no way I was going to try to download an e-book over the pathetic internet connection at Gracie’s. I mean, I only had a couple weeks before I had to be back at school.
Lunch back at the house was leftovers. I snagged some of the beef burgundy leftovers, since the alternative was Janet’s meatloaf from several nights ago. The less said about Janet’s faux-meatloaf, the better.
Then Gracie put on some soft jazz, and we all sat around in the living room to talk. Gracie didn’t care about internet connection speeds, or decent food, but as a musician she cared about music. So she had an awesome stereo system, and a slew of high-quality recordings. They were all real LPs or else top-quality CDs. No cruddy tapes for that girl.
“Now come on. I want to hear all about your superhero school.”
I couldn’t help smiling. “It’s a good thing the headmistress didn’t hear you say that. She’s insistent that it is merely a school that trains mutants to integrate their lives with baseline humans. Which is a load of crap, because they go out of their way to teach you all kinds of superhero/supervillain stuff.”
Tiff gasped, “You have supervillains there too?”
I groaned, “Afraid so. We’ve got some kids who are going to make Sparkler look like a cute, fluffy bunny. There are kids there who are already bucking for America’s Most Wanted, or in a few cases, Europe’s Most Wanted. But every time they do something, the Cape Squad learns more about their M.O.”
I said, “Oh yeah. At Whateley, they have a group called the Future Superheroes of America. Everyone calls them the Capes. Most of them actually wear capes. Whateley has most of the cliques that were at your school; just imagine them if super-powered mutants were in them. Venus Inc. is the school models, and let me tell you, there’s a reason they’re also known as the Beauty Nazis.”
Janet added, “Ayla has several team members who make “America’s Next Top Model” look like “America’s Next Bow-wow.” Really.”
I grinned, “Yeah. Fey, in particular. Imagine if you found the most beautiful girl on the planet, only she has supernatural beauty, and a magical glamour that makes even more ‘wow’. If Bo Derek was a ‘10’, Nikki’s a ‘17’.”
Gracie giggled, “It was pretty funny. Every guy we saw was staring at this girl with their mouths open, pretty much incoherent. Most of them were drooling.”
Janet smirked, “I had to whack YOU on the arm a few times too, Miss Perfect.”
I grinned, “That happens. I’ve seen gay guys who couldn’t stop staring at her.” I changed the subject, “So we’ve got the super version of every high school’s Beauty Nazis, and the super version of every school’s nerds - some of these kids make Edison look like a moron - and the super version of every school’s bully bunch, and mutant-powered martial arts nuts, and you name it.”
Amy asked, “So what clubs are you in?”
“I’m in a training group with the kids we told you about. And these kids are tough. They could probably take some of the superhero groups that are already out there. And they’re still freshmen!”
Tiff said, “You mean they’re tougher than you?”
“Oh yeah. You ever heard of The Necromancer and his goons the Children of the Night?”
I got a couple nods and a couple blank looks.
“The Necromancer is a dark wizard who’s been doing hideous stuff since the 1930’s. He’s in the top fifty supervillain threats worldwide. And he has a super-powered team that’s built around a monster theme. He has a super-werewolf, and a vampire girl who drains people’s energy, and a huge demon-thing, and a couple others like that. Plus, when he attacked Boston in October, he had a zombie army with him.”
“A zombie army? You’re kidding me!”
“Unh-uh. I’m most definitely not. A real zombie army. Maybe four hundred of them. I took out over two hundred of them myself. And I’m in the bottom half of the line-up. We beat them like a drum. The ones we didn’t capture had to run away like scared bunnies.”
“Way. There are some seriously bad mamma-jammas on my team. You wouldn’t believe what we’ve already done, in just one school term. I mean, first we were attacked by super-powered mutant ninjas…”
“Oh come on!”
“So then, The Necromancer jumped our friends, and he had his team with him, and he had four professional bad guys along too. Ironhawk, the Anti-Paladin, Jabberwock, and Matterhorn.”
“Wait, Matterhorn? Isn’t he this giant who’s like forty feet high and super-strong and he has snow on him or something? How can you stop a guy like that?”
I couldn’t help but grin. “He’s what we call a Warper in the biz. He warps time and space to produce the results that you see. But I’m a Warper too. Our powers sort of canceled out, and I used him to beat the crap out of a bunch of the other bad guys.”
“YOU beat up a big-name supervillain like Matterhorn? Come on, I know you’re tough, you took out that Sparkler maniac. But Matterhorn?”
“Oh, he’s bad, but when Warpers fight each other, their powers don’t behave normally.”
“…So then I came up through the street underneath him and went through the back of his flying chair and scragged it. It went flying off like a superball, while he screamed like a little girl. When they rescued him, they found out he’d wet himself and crapped in his pants. He had to go to the school clinic like that.”
“And what about your team?”
“Chaka - the martial artist girl? - they gave her a hellacious scenario. I think they were trying to beat some humble pie into her hair. She had to fight a brick, and a giant, and a wizard-deviser kid who’s a known bad guy. Three against one. And the teachers threw in earthquakes and a tornado and everything you can think of. And she kicked everyone’s ass and used the disasters like weapons! It was the most amazing thing you ever saw. They’ll never show footage of it, because you’d never watch a superhero movie and be impressed again. It’d be ‘oh, Superman fought a bunch of Kryptonians and they destroyed several city blocks, big deal, Chaka’s combat final was way cooler…’ and it would ruin the take of blockbuster movies for years.”
“Shroud? They put her up against a frigging fire demon, and she won. Lancer? They put him up against a brick who makes Wonder Woman look like a sissy - and by the way, this brick has a personal grudge against Lancer - and this new girl who’s super-strong, and has uncontrolled magic blasts ripping out of her body. He rocked! Even Jade, who’s like the Robin of our team, she went up against a real, live Lady Lightning clone, broke her arm in the middle of the fight, and still almost pulled it out.”
I grinned, “Yeah, they’re some pretty incredible kids. Even after fourteen years of constant brainwashing that mutants are evil and creepy, I’m proud to call these kids my friends.”
Amy suddenly looked at her watch, “Hey, it’s time for the five o’clock news!”
Tiff said, “How can any news program be as good as this?”
Janet groaned, “And they’re probably still on the Headhunter. I’m so sick and tired of that fucking garbage…”
I had to ask, “The Headhunter?”
Gracie explained, “We’ve got a new serial killer in Los Angeles County. So far, his total’s up near a dozen. That they know about. And he’s fast. They’ve all been killed in like the last couple weeks. And he usually goes for teenaged girls.”
I grimaced, “So the news vampires love him.”
Janet growled, “Yeah, the fucking creeps. Every single news show leads off with the Headhunter, and has more stuff on him later so people will stay tuned.”
Tiff winced, “And it’s so gross! He leaves just the heads, and he’s sucked the blood out or something. No bodies or clothes or anything! It gives me nightmares!”
Amy turned on the television anyway. I guess she was part of the target audience.
Some anchordork with anchor-hair and a Brooks Brothers suit couldn’t wait to tell us, “And the top story tonight: the Headhunter has struck again! Stay tuned to find out all the shocking details!”
“Fucking news vultures,” Janet grumbled, and got up to start defrosting dinner.
So, after drowning in an endless, wine-cooler-dark sea of hypothermia-inducing commercials, the news-heads came back and an overly-perky anchorchick with intensely moussed anchor-hair gleefully announced that this time the victim was a popular fifteen-year-old cheerleader at Inglewood High School.
Tiff gasped, “Oh my God! Inglewood? That’s just south of here! Ayla, you could’ve ended up going to that high school!”
The picture they put up on-screen was of a smiling black girl in a cheer outfit. The girl was wearing too much makeup, and still was never going to look as hot as Chaka. They did a little teaser on the crime, announcing that the bloodless head was found between the high school and the girl’s home, only hours after the girl left school today. Then they claimed that they’d have later news on it: a request from the police for assistance, interviews with friends and family, and reactions of ‘people on the street’. But first! A typhoon in Bangladesh kills 145!
“GAH! I can’t stand this garbage,” I complained. “Janet? You want any help in the kitchen?”
It turned out that defrosting and serving the dinners, and making salad to go with the chicken cordon bleu and sautéed vegetables, was a lot more tolerable than sitting through what passed for the local news.
Serving the dinners basically consisted of my following directions on microwaving stuff and apportioning it out across five plates. I took my time, so Janet would have all the salad prep done before I would have to help on that.
Fortunately for me, Janet didn’t notice my slacker strategy. She was too distracted by the next nasty bit of so-called ‘news’, as some news hyenas force-interviewed a nearly hysterical mother. Janet cursed, “Fucking news vultures! Can’t they fucking leave the family alone for a fucking DAY?”
I was willing to bet that the ratings for these newscasts were nauseatingly high. A serial killer? Hot teenaged girls? Violent, sickening crimes? It was probably news ratings magic.
Gracie snorted and said loudly enough for us to hear in the kitchen, “And speaking of hot cheerleaders and violence, Heather has a movie role. It’s some stupid bit part as a cheerleader in some low-budget R-rated spatter film that’s being filmed on the Paramount backlot.”
“What’s a spatter film?” asked Amy naively.
I answered, “It’s one of those R-rated slasher films with so much blood that it virtually ‘spatters’ all over the screen.”
“Ewww. I’m sorry I asked.”
Gracie uncomfortably admitted, “I, umm, invited Heather over for Christmas dinner with us.”
“And?” I pressed.
“And she was just spectacularly nasty. Even for Heather. She must’ve ranted for three solid minutes about her revolting freak family, with shemale perverts and gene filth and God only knows what else. I finally just hung up on her.”
Great. I hope her character got hacked to pieces before the opening credits.
Janet went into the living room and gave Gracie a big hug. She said, “We don’t need her anyway. We have Ayla and Amy and Tiffany. They’re a lot better. And they’re all nice.”
Me? Nice? She don’t know me vewwy well, do she?
I added, “And Heather would probably insist on bringing her whole entourage. Her personal trainer, and her personal assistant, and her personal maidservant, and her personal pet groomer, and her personal chef, and her personal bottom wiper…”
Amy and Tiff burst out laughing as they finally realized I was just making all that up. Although Heather probably did have all of them except a bottom wiper. Instead, she probably had half a dozen ass-kissers following her around all the time.
Dinner was pretty decent. The chicken cordon bleu was better - relatively speaking - than the beef burgundy. The cheese sauce was well-made, which is one of the key issues with chicken cordon bleu. And the ham was finely sliced and a decent quality. Overall, I gave it a ‘B+’. Which was such a major improvement over Janet’s cooking that I was really pleased with the results.
Amy and Tiffany took advantage of their night off from work to watch Showtime on cable. Probably just to compete with the Sci-Fi channel’s “Battlestar Galactica”, Showtime had a miniseries running. “Caregivers: the Persephone Chartrand Chronicles”. It seemed pretty well done, and the platinum blonde playing Persephone was HAWT. I mean, up in the ‘Mindbird’ class, even if she wasn’t in the ‘Bugs’ class, much less the ‘Fey’ class. I didn’t get why Amy and Tiff were so excited about the series, though. Maybe, if I had seen the first two episodes…
After “Caregivers” ended in a big cliffhanger, Gracie and Janet went to bed. Amy and Tiffany wanted to play one of the board games in the living room cabinet, so I agreed to play Scrabble with them. I even told them that we would triple their scores to make things fair. I even warned them that I’d been learning Scrabble secrets from a major Scrabble shark. I still squished them like little muzjiks (seven-letter word, 79 points).
Tiff just shook her head in shock and asked, “Jeez, were you this smart before you became a superheroine?”
Amy laughed and said, “Next time, you’re gonna have to multiply our scores by five instead!”
Math wasn’t Amy’s strongpoint. If I had multiplied their scores by five, they still would have lost by a ton.
I went to bed before Amy and Tiff were ready to go to sleep. I think they were waiting for me to go downstairs so they could watch something really inappropriate on one of the pay-per-view channels.
As I lay in bed that night, I realized that there was something really wrong with the news information about the Headhunter. Serial killers didn’t kill a dozen victims in ten or twenty days. They typically killed a dozen victims over ten or twenty months. Or ten or twenty years. Unless they were stopped first. And serial killers were consistent. If they only killed hot teenaged girls, they didn’t just decide to go out and do an old lady and a middle-aged man and a couple soccer moms here and there. But the Headhunter had. Also, serial killers were supposed to start out slowly, with huge gaps in between their first few victims.
There was something more going on. Like perhaps this particular guy was a long-time serial killer who had just moved to the area, and had changed his M.O. to confuse the cops. Or maybe ‘he’ was actually an entire family of serial killers who moved around the country, changing their M.O. in each new city. What was the Fox Mulder line? Right. The ‘anti-Waltons’.
Not that it mattered to me. I was not going to get involved. No superhero-ing for this kid. No way.
I woke up early, so I read several books before I went upstairs. “The Fractal Murders” was much better than I had expected. Alan Greenspan’s book was really interesting. I’d have to write him a nice letter about it. The latest John Grisham was just as over-rated as I thought. I didn’t know why I had wasted my money. From now on, I was going to scan his books in the bookstore and not buy them. The Feynman book was excellent. I’d have to get all of his laic books; I was going to have to take a lot of physics before I tackled his textbooks.
Once everyone was up, we had cereal. I had toast, with butter and jam. Gah! Was this what regular people had for jam? Where was the flavor? Where was the richness? Where was the fruit? I had to get some real jam or preserves into this house. A better quality butter would be good, too. And maybe some real bread.
I had already made a pot of ‘coffee’, and we dove into the flat of clementines that Janet had in the pantry. So breakfast wasn’t too terrible.
Then I announced, “Okay, everyone get showered and dressed. It’s time for my pre-christmas present. We’re all going to the nearest book superstore. Barnes and Noble, Borders, Tomes ‘R’ Us, whatever Janet thinks is best. I’m buying. Coffees and as many books as you want. On me.”
Janet said, “Ayla, you don’t have to do this, you know.”
“I know! I just want a cup of really good coffee, and several dozen more books. So I’m dragging everyone else along to aid and abet.”
Tiff said, “Come on, you haven’t had a chance to read the ones you bought yesterday! I mean, how many of those have you read?”
I admitted, “Six.”
Amy grinned, “You know, crack is cheaper than this.”
Tiff suddenly began scratching her inner forearm feverishly. “I gotta have it! I gotta! I NEED it! More books!”
I laughed. “Yeah, that’s me. Next thing you know, I’ll be holding up libraries and making all the librarians read to me.”
Gracie muttered, “You guys are nuts. I’m grabbing the first shower.”
Hmm. Maybe my next surprise ought to be a bigger water heater.
In less than an hour, we were off to the huge Barnes and Noble in Inglewood. The place was a zoo. Well, what did I expect, on the day before Christmas? Seventy thousand last-minute shoppers were cramming into the place to buy their loved ones poorly-chosen books that would be shoved onto a shelf and never read.
I had a latté and forty-seven books. Amy and Tiff each got half a dozen sleazy romance novels. Tiff shrugged and confessed, “I can’t help it! I just love the Christmas romance novels. They’re so.. magical!” Janet got every Jean Auel book they had that she hadn’t read (one) and every Ursula Le Guin ‘Earthsea’ novel they had that she hadn’t read (three). Gracie got Harry Potter 1 through 6, and made me promise not to tell her any spoilers.
“Oh, so I shouldn’t tell you that Snape is really Harry’s dad?”
Amy laughed at Gracie’s expression and kindly said, “She’s just making that up.” Then she paused and explained, “Snape is really Harry’s MOM.”
After we stopped screaming with laughter at Gracie’s face, and we picked ourselves up off the floor, I went over to the DVD selection and picked up the four Harry Potter movies. I figured Gracie could manage to get through all six books and all four movies before mid-summer, when the last book and the fifth movie were supposed to come out. I personally was pretty discouraged about the prospects for the fifth movie, given that they had yanked Steven Kloves off screenplay duties.
I looked at the DVDs. They all came in letterbox format. Hmm. Maybe I ought to buy Gracie a nice 60” flat-panel TV set with DVD player and quad-sound, instead of the big old POS she had taking up too much space in the living room.
After lunch, I got Janet to take me to Video Only to pick up a really good flat-panel model we could mount on the living room wall. I got one that would work with Gracie’s new DVD player and let us patch the sound right into Gracie’s stereo system for optimal sound quality. And I pestered the snot out of the clerk until I had all the mounting equipment and wiring I would need.
Janet retaliated by dragging me off to the grocery store. She said, “I know you’re not interested in this, but you can carry more groceries than anyone else I know.”
I shrugged, “Okay. I guess.”
“Plus, you can use this lesson in real life.”
It was actually a shock. I mean, what was the point in stocking all these different kinds of ‘generic red pasta sauce’ when it was obvious that there were tastier choices just four feet over in the aisle? And why were people buying this bottled glop instead of having it cooked up fresh the way it ought to be done? The way everyone else treated the shelf stocking as normal told me something ugly and disgusting about the way grocery shopping worked in the real world.
That kind of weirdness was everywhere in the store. Twelve different kinds of toilet paper. Six different brands of generic lightbulbs. For God’s sake, people, they’re GENERIC light bulbs! Fourteen varieties of ‘hamburger helper’ products I wouldn’t feed to a dog. Hell, I wouldn’t feed them to Tansy Walcutt.
Even the wine aisle was like that. A gallon container of cheap chablis in a cardboard box? Pardon me while I vomit unobtrusively.
But people were buying that crap like it was going out of style tomorrow. I selected a nice, drinkable Chardonnay and a decent red vin ordinaire that would probably be big hits back at the house. Not that the underage kid in the house would be getting any of them.
The deli section had some baked goods that looked okay, so we bought a tea ring and a big rectangular pan of cinnamon rolls. I was crossing my fingers on their edibility, but Janet seemed convinced that they would be great.
Shopping for vegetables and fruit was just plain frightening. People with runny noses or shockingly poor hygiene were handling these things and dropping them back on top of all the rest of the produce. AND WE ATE THIS STUFF???
Oh my God, that fat broad was scratching her butt!
That guy over by the shallots was picking his nose!
I might not ever be able to eat salads again after seeing this.
I didn’t even want to think about the other end of the vegetable production process, which was liable to be even less sanitary. I focused on bell peppers and carrots and bananas, and other produce which could be cleaned thoroughly enough on their exteriors that they would be safe to eat.
Just when I thought I had found the perfect solution - mixed salad greens already chopped up and stored in sealed bags - Janet whispered, “You have to wash that too, you know.”
Holy crow! I wondered if we could just grow salad greens and cauliflower in a little backyard garden instead.
On the upside, I bought some freshly-ground coffee for the coffeemaker, a couple salad dressings that looked pretty promising, what looked like a pretty decent lemon curd, and some granola cereal that I could put together myself from an array of huge plastic bins. Rolled oats, a couple kinds of chopped nuts, some golden raisins, chopped dates, and diced dried apples. I had to guess at the best proportions to use, but I knew it would be better than that ‘instant goatmeal’ stuff that Janet would make if I didn’t buy this.
Once we got home and I carried in the groceries, I let Janet put things away while I hauled in the new flat-panel television and mounting frame.
Then I had to put up the television. I had an audience, since I was using my powers. I went light with a bolt in my hand, so it would go light with me. I felt through the wall to find a stud, then I sunk the still-light bolt in with my fingers and let it go normal once I let go of it. That was easy, and it secured the bolt in the stud more effectively than drilling a pilot hole and using a socket wrench to screw in the bolt.
“Oh my fucking God!”
“That’s just.. just… Hell, let’s see the next bolt!”
It took me about a minute to get all six securing bolts sunk in the wall. My audience was hardly even done exclaiming by the time I sunk the sixth bolt. After that, it was easy to put the mounting frame on the bolts and get things square for the TV screen.
Then I held the electrical cord, went light with it in my hand, and phased it through the wall too, so only the two ends stuck out, one end just behind the TV where we’d plug it in, and the other end next to the wall outlet near the floor. I did the same trick with the wires to connect up to the stereo, and the wires to the DVD player that was on the shelf with the stereo components. I even took a minute to re-route the loose coaxial cable for the cable service, so it ran through the studs behind the wallboard, instead of laying all over the floor.
When I was done, it looked great. You’d think someone had to have installed it all when the house was being built.
Janet just gaped in astonishment. “That’s fucking amazing!”
We ended up putting the old TV down in my room. I didn’t really want it, but there wasn’t room for it anywhere else in the house. I just took a moment to grab the second run of coax from the cable box, hold it in my hands, go light, and trail it out behind me as I phased through the wall, through the floor, and down to where we set up the old TV.
Janet made a tactical error that night. She assigned me to making the salad. She had to stop me from washing the food with the antibacterial handsoap. “Just relax, Ayla. It’s safe. Besides, you’re super-powered. This can’t make YOU sick.”
“Just because I have some powers doesn’t mean I’m magically protected against salmonella or MRSA or typhoid or…”
She stopped me, “None of that’s going to be in our food, okay?”
I stopped cleaning. I knew I was over-reacting. I sighed, “I’m sorry. I just… I never thought that food in groceries was so… That all those people were touching it… That it would be like that!”
Dinner was the pork tenderloins with red wine sauce from the freezer. That went with sliced carrots and roasted garlic potatoes. I was giving Home Bistro a solid ‘B’ on that meal. Better than the beef burgundy, but not as good as the chicken cordon bleu.
The salad was fine, although I had a hard time eating it and not constantly seeing that fat woman scratching her ass before handling the celery.
The ten o’clock news was more of the same. It was Christmas Eve, and the damned anchor-weasels were still completely focused on the Headhunter. The small clip about midnight services made me think, though.
“Is anyone interested in going to midnight services?”
Everyone turned and stared at me like I’d gone nuts. Finally, Gracie said, “You probably wouldn’t like the Unitarian service at the closest church. We tried it, and it was awful. You’d think they were from Oregon or something. The minister wore a tie-dyed t-shirt and a ZZ Top beard.”
Janet grimaced, “Gracie wanted to try the Episcopal churches, but the ones that are reasonable to go to from here are all ultra-ritzy. They actually expect high-end dresses and heels for women, and really nice suits for men. Do you want to go put on a gaff and lingerie and a dress and heels, and have me do your hair up, just to go to midnight services?”
I winced, “No. Definitely not.” I sighed, “It was just a suggestion. I mean…”
But Gracie squeezed my hand and said, “I know, honey. I know. It’s just not fair. The only ‘welcoming’ congregations around here are so far out they’re practically comedy skits. And the congregations we’d like to go to don’t want us anywhere near them.”
Instead, Tiff found a TV channel showing a midnight service, and we lit candles and sang along with the hymns. Being with my ‘family’ and singing along on the classic hymns was as close to a real spiritual moment as I’d had since I’d last been at church with Mother.
I sure wept a lot during a lot of the service.
For a guy, I mean.
I woke up too early, so I read Michener’s “Centennial” and Pournelle’s “The Mercenary”. It was really sad to see that a big name like Michener was so much more formulaic than a lesser-known author like Jerry Pournelle. This was the third Michener I’d ever read, and it was going to be the last. I could practically predict the plot outline just by writing down the plots from the other two Micheners I’d read. Then I read the Umberto Eco I had picked up. Now that was a good book.
You know, being able to read at this speed had a definite downside. Everyone was still asleep.
I gave up. I showered, got dressed, and went upstairs to try and fix a breakfast that wouldn’t give everyone ptomaine poisoning. I put the cinnamon rolls in the oven to warm them up, and I made some REAL coffee. I managed not to burn the house down either.
About the time that the rolls came out of the oven, looking gooey and smelling tasty, the coffee was ready. And the smells were waking everyone up.
Gracie and Janet came shuffling out of their room, tying their robes about their waists and yawning ferociously.
Tiffany popped her head out of her room and called out, “Are those cinnamon rolls? Real cinnamon rolls?”
Janet said, “Yeah. Ayla baked them.”
“Liar! I just heated them up. The grocery store made them yesterday. So they’ll be safe to eat.”
Tiff laughed, “Oh come on, honey, you’re gonna be a great cook. You just made one or two mistakes.”
I complained, “Oh, you mean like not knowing the difference between a head of garlic and a clove of garlic?”
Amy opened her door and groaned, “Who’s making all the racket?” She sniffed loudly. “And are there enough rolls for everybody? They smell yummy!”
Breakfast was pretty good. Since we had real coffee, I didn’t need to add a ton of sugar to mask the off-tastes and weird overtones you get in instant coffees. I stirred in the cream we had bought the day before, and just enjoyed the richness of the French-roasted Colombian beans. The cinnamon rolls were pretty good too. Not anywhere near up to the standard of, say, our old chef Hermione’s fresh-baked cinnamon rolls, of course. But no store-bought brand was ever going to manage that.
And then, after breakfast, it was time for Christmas presents. Tiff and Amy were getting pretty choked up. It turned out that neither of their families were speaking to them, so this was the first real Christmas morning either one had enjoyed since leaving home. That was just sad. And it made me feel like a real slimebag, since I probably would have treated them the same way.. before I was thrown out of my own home like a leaky drum of nuclear waste.
We started pulling presents out from under the tree, and we just kept going and going and going, like little Christmas-oriented Energizer Bunnies. I was pretty surprised at how many gifts were stuffed under that tree, even though I knew how many of them were from me.
We each ended up with a considerable haul piled in front of us. Everyone else had gift-wrapped presents from me: Belgian chocolates (sugar-free, for Amy and Tiff), Ann Taylor cotton sweaters in their favorite color, and a little personal safety devise I had acquired for each of them.
Each devise was a small cylinder that would clip on a keychain, and would spray a fast-acting, incapacitating agent out in a ten-foot circle around the user. BUT pressing down on the button also stabbed you in the thumb with the antidote, so the agent wouldn’t nail you also. I didn’t like Jobe, and I didn’t trust Jobe, but he was one phenomenal Bio-deviser.
Then there were also the car coupons from me. I couldn’t wait to see their faces.
Amy and Tiff also had a few small gifts from friends, a present from Gracie and one from Janet, and each had a present for the other. Gracie and Janet had several presents for each other, gifts from Tiff and Amy, and some gifts from other friends.
I had presents from Amy and Tiff and Gracie and Janet, of course…
And a FedEx box that Chou had sent from Whateley without telling me. How did that stinker manage to get this done without my finding out? I was so ready to open that FedEx box. If Toni or Nikki had sent me something, I’d have been worried it might be a dress or something. But Chou knew me. I knew she’d never do that.
But there was something I could hardly believe. There were two Goodkind Shipping boxes for me that had been hidden back underneath the tree.
One was a relay that had come to the estate and been shipped off to me. My old pal Jonathan hadn’t forgotten me, even if I had become a mutant. And I hadn’t gotten him a Chanukah present; frankly, I’d been afraid to get him something, and then have it come back with a legal document warning me to stay away from Jon and his family. I ripped the ribbon apart and tore the strapping tape to shreds in my hurry to get the box open.
It was a set of CDs and gamebooks for GEO. I had to laugh. He was still as big a game-nerd as ever. God, I really missed him. There was a typed note too. Since he was blind, he typed everything on his computer. “Trev, I heard that you had to leave Chilton because you manifested as a mutant. Sorry. Given your family, I figure this has to be pretty tough on you. If there’s anything I can do, let me know. Jon.” Along with his note was a hint sheet for GEO, with things to do, things not to do, places to avoid, and three Real Bad Guys to watch out for when playing.
Oh holy crow, wasn’t that Sara’s alias? Was she internationally feared as a GEO PC? Da-yum, as Toni would have said. Well, she was a freaking demon. She ought to be able to play a demonic monster better than anyone else I’d ever met. I wondered if I could talk Sara into doing something extra-nice for Jon’s GEO game character. That would probably be the best present I could ever get for him.
I waited impatiently to look in the other box. Amy oohed over her teal sweater. Tiff gasped over her box of sugar-free Belgian milk chocolates. Janet giggled over the earrings Gracie had gotten her. Gracie must have heard them talking about her shopping at the last minute and buying everyone power tools, because she had found Janet a pair of earrings that looked like little Skil-Saws. Then Gracie opened a present from Janet and found a new set of guitar strings. That earned Janet a kiss that lasted about five minutes.
I had to open the other Goodkind Shipping box. Inside, carefully packed, were a bunch of first editions and rare books from my old room at the estate. And it was signed, “Merry Christmas, from Day & Nee & Paw”. I pulled out the first edition of “A Study in Scarlet” and I burst into tears.
Then I had to explain to Tiff and Amy about the names on the card. “Back when I was really little, when David was still a baby, I couldn’t say all the hard names, like ‘Trevor’ and ‘David’. I called myself ‘Tebber’ and the baby was ‘Day’. Connie was just ‘Nee’, and Paul was ‘Paw’ and Greg was ‘Geg’.”
Gracie burst out laughing as she hugged me. “He was just barely two. He couldn’t come close to saying ‘Heather’. He was calling her ‘Heh’, and Heather was such a snot about it! She was a big, self-important six year old, and she was insistent that everyone call her ‘Heather Marianne’. Or else ‘Princess Parisia’. I think she got that out of a book or something. She spent ages trying to teach him to say ‘Heather’. She’d say ‘Heh-thur’. He’d say ‘Heh-ver’. ‘No. Come on, Trev. Heh-ther.’ ‘Heh-ver’. ‘NO!’ She’d fuss at him until he would run away crying, or Nanny Maria would have to separate them. Paul and I called her ‘Heifer’ instead of ‘Heather’ for years after that. It drove her up the wall.”
Chou’s present was very thoughtful. And very embarrassing.
She gave me a pair of silk pajamas, in a forest green. Which was great. Green was my favorite color.
But the embarrassing part was the note, explaining that the magical runes embroidered on the pajamas would ensure that I didn’t phase out of them in my sleep. The pajamas would magically go light with me no matter what.
Well, the embarrassing part was WHY Chou needed to give me a pair of PJs that I couldn’t phase through. But there was no way on earth I was explaining that to anyone here.
Amy cooed, “Ooh, those are really nice.”
Well, anything that was green was automatically okay in Amy’s book. Especially teal green. Sometimes I thought she’d buy dog doo if it came in a bag that was teal green.
Janet agreed, “Yeah, they are… Hey, why are you blushing so hard?”
As I looked over the magical runes embroidered into the silk, I wondered how much trouble she had gone to, in order to get this magically embroidered. Maybe I should have given her a more expensive gift.
Of course, I surprised the hell out of everyone with my coupons.
Amy gasped in horror, “A new car? All I got you was a Borders card!” She sagged miserably, “And you already bought a billion books.”
I gave her a hug. “Come on, it’s not like I got you a new Corvette. It’s just a coupon for a used car that’s better than what you have now. Of course, a car that’s been in a demolition derby would be better than what you have now…” She laughed. “And you know I’m going to want to use that Borders card as soon as the Borders store opens!”
Tiffany gave me a coupon good for five meals from her. She pouted, “I didn’t know you were going to cater the entire holidays, Richie Rich.”
I insisted haughtily, “That’s Richie Rich, the X-Men crossover.” She laughed. I hugged her and thanked her and said, “I’ll save this for spring holiday or this summer. Okay?”
Gracie and Janet had something special for me. They had wangled me an invite to attend a luncheon this week with the West Coast League. Okay, it would probably be in a room with maybe three hundred other bozos. Probably the governor, and some sports stars, and a dozen movie moguls, and some Silicon Valley dot-commers, and such.
I hugged both of them and told them how cool that was.
I really wanted the chance to tell Sunscreen that her powers testing skills SUCKED, but I would never do that. On the other hand, I might work on getting one of the other members of the League to start doing some powers testing instead…
Janet, of course, fussed when she opened her car coupon and saw that it was for a newer Toyota wagon. But she hugged the life out of me anyway.
So Gracie was expecting something similar when she opened hers up. She wasn’t expecting what she found. Her eyes bugged out and she squealed, “A mint condition three-year-old Bentley Continental GT coupe! YOU DIDN’T!” And she hugged me so hard I wondered whether I needed to go heavy to keep from getting bruised.
Janet stared at me, “Fucking ay! Ayla, how much money did you spend on that?”
I grinned and just said, “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.” I had no intention of telling them how much I had actually spent on it. Janet would have a cow.
Gracie and Janet had a very special present for me. One that I hadn’t thought about needing again.
Back when I had been ‘a Goodkind’, I occasionally was on my own in public. Like when I was at Chilton and went into a store in town. In situations like that, it was often worthwhile having a fake ID, so that I didn’t become an instant target for everyone who had ever dreamed of getting at a Goodkind. Having that last name made you a target for H-One haters and mutant threats and money-hungry thugs.
They had a fake ID for me, just in case of situations like that. I was listed on the ID as ‘Ayla Jane Goodman’, age 15. Gracie showed me a matching fake ID that proclaimed her as ‘Grace Goodman’, age 33, so she could play ‘mother’.
Janet said, “We talked it over. Between the MCO, and those Child Welfare dorks, and the Santa Monica Police, and supervillains, not to mention anyone who might think ‘Goodkind’ means a meal ticket or a bullseye, you need to have this. It’s a nice, safe, non-mutant, non-Goodkind ID you can resort to if you have to.”
I tried not to sound like I was complaining as I said, “But the old fake IDs were legal documents, thanks to Goodkind connections with the State Department…”
Gracie grinned, “Ditto. I called Paul and he had these made for us.”
Amy growled, “I wish I knew whether he did it because he still likes you, or because he wanted to make sure that you wouldn’t show up as Goodkinds if something happened to you…”
After lots of time spent showing each other our presents, and a few people having to rush to their rooms to try on their sweaters and then model them for the rest of the room, we had a late lunch of leftovers. Then we piled into Janet’s station wagon to go get Gracie’s new car.
As the smallest person in the car, I ‘got’ to sit in the middle of the back seat, in between Tiffany and Amy. It was comfy. Not.
After a while, Tiff leaned over and whispered, “Ayla? Did you notice that you ripped the boxes open?”
She said, “Well, you did. I mean, you ripped through ribbons, and you ripped through the strapping tape, and the reinforced cardboard… It was like watching Clark Kent open presents!”
“Oops. I need to be more careful about that.” I hadn’t even realized I’d gone heavy enough to get more strength. Not that I really needed to. Maybe it was my Exemplar 3 muscle, and not extra strength from changing density. I’d have to watch out for that.
We got to the auto dealer and, of course, no one working at a high-end dealership like Mulkey’s Bentley/Porsche was going to waste their time on a ten-year-old wagon full of chicks.
I didn’t waste my time on them, either. I led everyone right through the front office and into the manager’s office.
“You can’t just barge in here, honey.” The too-slick guy in the Armani suit and hair weave stood up from behind his desk to deal with interlopers.
I put my hands on my hips and glared at him. “I’m Ayla Goodkind. As in GOODKIND. I happen to be in a stealth vehicle, but that doesn’t give your flunkies the right to ignore me after I’ve already plunked down money on a Bentley Continental.”
“Whoa! YOU’RE Ayla Goodkind? I expected…”
“Someone taller?” I snarked. “This is for my sister Gracie as a Christmas present, and you’re screwing things up. This does NOT bode well for future purchases from this dealership. And if you REALLY aggravate me, I’ll just buy this entire dealership from that idiot Mulkey, and put you out of a cushy job. Period.”
I watched as he thought it over for a second, accurately assessed me, and went with option #2: Intense Ass-kissing.
After he did everything except offer to give us personal foot massages, I let him show us the car I had already bought for Gracie.
Gracie burst into tears when we walked around the corner and saw her car. A mint condition three-year-old Bentley Continental GT AWD Coupe in diamond black, with Savannah leather interior. It looked as close to her old Bentley as my car-searchers had been able to find.
She hugged me and sobbed the entire time I worked on the paperwork with ‘Mister Hairweave’.
I made sure I was the one who got to ride in the shotgun seat when she drove her new car home. Oh man, what a sweet ride.
Gracie spent the rest of the day giving us rides all over Los Angeles County, and luxuriating in the feel of once again having the perfect Bentley in her hands.
Once again I woke up too early, and I read until the rest of the house started to come out of their comas.
I popped the tea ring into the oven and started some coffee. Then I made a quick fruit salad out of clementine segments, banana slices, raisins microwaved in a little sherry, ruby grapefruit segments, and some shredded coconut.
Amy purred, “Mmm! This is really good! What did you do to the raisins? They’re all plump and yummy!”
Janet leaned forward across the table. “Ayla, this really is good. Where’d you get the recipe?”
I admitted, “It’s as close as I could get to one of the versions of ambrosia the chefs at school sometimes do.”
Gracie goggled, “You have chefs at Whateley? I thought that at Chilton they just picked up the cooks who were so bad they’d been fired from the public schools.”
I laughed. “Yeah, most of the food at Whateley is straight cafeteria junk. You know, stuff that hungry teenagers are going to gulp down. But they have some really talented chefs there too. I think most of their work goes to the private cafeteria for the faculty and staff. But I’ve managed to find a way to get a little tidbit of the good stuff now and then.”
“Just how often is ‘now and then’?” Janet had a tone of voice I would have expected if I were really her kid, and I had just admitted to burning down the admin building ‘now and then’.
I pretended to have to think about it. “Oh, roughly 0.96 times per day for the entire school term. On average.”
The ridiculous level of detail stopped her cold. Well done there, Mister Spock.
The tea ring was pretty decent. It wasn’t as good as the better tea rings at school, and it was miles away from the genuine Swedish tea ring Hermione had once made for Christmas brunch, but it was still better than I had expected for a grocery story bakery.
I enjoyed my coffee while everyone talked about their plans for the week. My personal plans for the week were simple. Buy cars for everyone. Spend time with Gracie. Read. Buy more books.
Gracie had a job on Wednesday. She had some jazz guitar tracks to lay down on two or three songs for a new jazz album Peter Cincotti was doing at the TZI Studios. That would probably occupy her for most of the day, and she was hoping I’d go with her and watch her work. And then she and I had an appointment with Mrs. Westmore of Children’s Services on Thursday morning. Boy, I could hardly wait.
Janet had the week off. The dentists who owned the practice where she worked as a dental hygienist had decreed that the office was closed for the holidays. But they weren’t paying what they ought to. The staff could use up their personal leave or vacation hours, or settle for quarter-time pay for the week. But I had paid off the mortgage on the house, so Janet could afford to accept the inadequate compensation the dentists were offering for the week.
Man, there had to be a better dental practice somewhere in Los Angeles. There had to be a thousand better places for Janet to work. Maybe, now that she’d have a better car, and Gracie had her own car so Janet didn’t need to be able to get to work on the bus some days, Janet would find a better dental practice and tell those guys to go drill themselves.
Tiff had the day off, since her restaurant was closed. She’d be back on waitress duty tomorrow starting with the lunch shift, but she had today free.
Just in case, we’d get her car first.
Amy had the whole week off, and didn’t go back to work at the Cherry Bomb until the 3rd of January. She explained, “Places like the Cherry Bomb do sucky business this time of year, until after New Year’s Day. So less than half the waitresses are on, until after New Years. I dunno how many of the strippers are off, but I know Edie and Neecia are.”
Man, I wished the Cherry Bomb would close for keeps, so Amy would get a job that didn’t make me sick just thinking about her working there. But I was a minor, so I couldn’t buy the club just to get her out of there. I didn’t want to put pressure on all the TG clubs and put a ton of local TGs out of work. I just wanted Amy to have a better job! But she liked working there, and she was seriously thinking about getting breast implants so she could work as a stripper there. I needed to find a way to convince her that this was a dead-end job that was going to go downhill pretty rapidly, as soon as she started showing her first wrinkles.
While everyone else was showering and getting dressed, I called Mike Howell at Howell Automotive in Century City. I had gotten Trin and Macintyre, Planetary Investigative Agents, to search L.A. for me and find the best auto mechanics, so I could get some expert help in evaluating these used cars. Mike had a good rep for spotting problems and evaluating prices. I had hired him for the day. I told him that we’d be at the big Hendricksen Honda/Toyota/Hyundia/Kia dealership in less than an hour.
We drove off. Everyone was pretty nervous about the number of police patrols all over The Square, given the way that the nearby police departments liked to roust TGs in The Square if there was any excuse. Well, the police had made a big deal about really stepping up patrols because of the Headhunter. There was even an MCO dropship that flew overhead while we were on the freeway. That made Amy and Tiffany frantic, since they knew that the MCO had busted The Square once before and done a lot of damage.
Mike met up with us after Tiff and Amy had oohed and ahhed over the cars for a while. He looked over our cars with an expert eye. Gracie’s just-purchased Bentley, and three old junkers.
Janet’s old Toyota wagon was adequate, but Tiff and Amy’s old scrapheaps were in such bad shape that the used car salesman had admitted that they weren’t going to get anything worthwhile out of them. He offered them a flat $100 each to take the things and sell them for scrap. I told them to accept.
We ended up getting Janet a one-year-old Toyota Matrix with excellent gas mileage. Mike said it was a great deal, and the engine was in really good shape. We found Tiff a one-year-old Honda Insight that was priced just a little high. I let Mike and Gracie wear the salesman down. And we got Amy a green Honda Civic that she couldn’t live without because it was ‘just too cute’. Well, it was green. That seemed to be the big deciding point for her.
It was only money, but I still made Gracie dicker hard with those used car dealers, so we got a good price. And I let Mike check the cars thoroughly, so the cars would at least RUN and not fall apart in a month or two. By the time we harassed the dealers enough and got each potential car thoroughly checked by Mike, it was mid-afternoon.
I shook hands with Mike and thanked him for all his work.
He grinned, “I kind of figured a Goodkind would be buying some huge Ford tank or a Caddy.”
I explained, “Not under the current management. Goodkind International currently owns 61% of Toyota, 53% of Honda, and 48% of Mitsubishi. As a result, our policies of energy conservation and auto safety are being pushed by the management of those companies. It’s paying off in terms of international sales. But we only own 22% of Ford and 17% of GM. Neither company’s management has been willing to follow our lead on this, since it would require them to lose out on some short-term profitability in order to renovate and re-strategize, so that they can improve long-term profitability. They’re idiots, sucking up to short-sighted shareholders instead of doing what needs to be done to save the companies (and help the planet in the process). So, as a personal statement, we no longer buy cars from them, and we’ve stopped buying our trucking fleets from them.”
“Wow. I think I’m gonna sell my stock in Ford.”
I smiled, “Good call. I’m currently predicting that over the next ten years, Toyota and Mitsubishi stocks will do the best of all the major auto stocks. However, there are plenty of tech stocks which will do way better than any automotive stocks over the next decade.”
We all split up after that. Amy wanted to go show her car to some of her friends. Janet wanted to take her new wagon out on the interstates and try it out. Tiff wanted to go shopping to make me a really nice salad as a thank-you. I opted to ride home with Gracie in her Bentley. She thanked me all the way home.
While Janet and Tiff prepared dinner - Tiff wanted to do a really nice salad and dessert for me, to go with the pork medallions on garlic mashed potatoes from Home Bistro - Gracie drove me over to a really nice used book store in Inglewood. We were there for nearly an hour, and I bought over a hundred more hardbacked books.
This was brilliant planning on Gracie’s part, because the store closed at six and we had to leave. If she had taken me at lunchtime, I probably would have read and selected books until they chased us out, and we would have been there for almost SIX hours instead.
I got the expected reaction when we got home and I carried in two huge cartons of books.
“Fuck! I can’t even lift this box! You’re cheating again, Wonder Woman!”
“You already bought out the last store, Ayla.”
“Yeah, and paperbacks are a lot cheaper.”
I said, “But I can read the whole book in under an hour, sitting in a library. These are books I want to KEEP.”
“You can read a book like this in an hour now?”
I admitted, “Yeah. That one? Maybe twenty minutes. And there are kids at Whateley who can read a book like that in maybe two minutes. And remember it perfectly.”
“Jeez,” Tiff gasped. “You mutants really are different.”
I grinned, “I don’t know. We have tons of kids with normal brains. And some of them are at LEAST as stupid as regular high schoolers. And I think we have more major fruitcakes than normal high schools.”
The evening news was once again all about the Headhunter. I really hated the way that the news vultures were milking this story for every ratings point they could. The death toll was still ten people - that they knew about - with most of them teenaged girls. Yuck. But sensationalist journalism on stuff like this sold papers, and it sold magazines, and it increased advertising revenue on television programs.
I wondered if there could be any connection between the killer and the big MCO searches. Maybe the serial killer was some mutant maniac? That could explain the speed at which the killer was operating, and maybe the way the killer struck. Not that I was going to get involved, no matter what.
Or was the MCO after me? That didn’t make sense to me, since my last name was embedded in my MID files, and there was another Goodkind living right in The Square. And Lieutenant Merrill of the Santa Monica P.D. knew about us, including where we lived. Surely they’d just come here first?
Also, I couldn’t think of any reason why the MCO would be after me. I hadn’t done anything. I hadn’t even thought about doing anything. And the MCO were the good guys, right?
So why was I worrying?
I got up and read for a while, before making coffee and having some leftover tea ring. By the time everybody had gotten up and eaten breakfast, the tea ring and cinnamon rolls were completely gone. Someone had even picked the icing off the bottom of the tea ring pan. Not to name names or anything, but her initials stood for Grace Goodkind.
Once Gracie was ready and had her gear - and I had my pack with four books in it, just in case - we hopped into the Bentley and drove off to the TZI recording studios. I sat around while she did backup guitar tracks, on and off, for six hours.
It was pretty interesting to watch. I got the producer and sound guy to show me what they were doing in the booth, although I had to use Jade’s mind-control trick. The Big Sad Puppy Dog Eyes.
It worked. But it only worked because those guys thought I was a hot brunette girl. Yuck and a half.
I went with Gracie and a couple jazz producers to a nice café for lunch. They admired her Bentley, and she told them who bought it for her. After that, they were a bit more respectful of me. I think it also helped that I had a serious foodie conversation with the waiter while I decided what to order. I finally opted for the grilled duck breast on quinoa, with braised fresh asparagus. It was pretty good, but the asparagus could have used a little less garlic and a little less lime, so that the sweet taste of the fresh asparagus could have come through more effectively.
After that, it was back to the old grind. Gracie needed a couple more hours working in the studio before everyone was happy. I ended up reading three of the four books. “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” was a fun read, but not worth keeping. On the other hand, “A Brief History of Time” was going to stay on my bookshelves. I had to learn some college-level physics. It seemed like some of my favorite authors had written physics papers. But it was going to take me several years of coursework just so I could get ready to read the things.
We got home in time to see Amy turning on the evening news to catch the latest slimy attempts to capitalize on the Headhunter’s gory doings. The news station had brought in a couple possible eyewitnesses and had composed a ‘police artist’ sketch. The ‘sketch’ made the Headhunter look like a thirty-ish Hannibal Lecter. And that sketch was based on nothing. Frantic ramblings from desperate people who thought they might have seen something that had nothing to do with any of the known deaths. It was just the most sickening kind of pandering.
Janet changed the channel. The other news channel was actually WORSE. They had a Hollywood ‘psychic’ who wasn’t a mutant, and she was as vague as it was possible to be while still sticking to the usual FBI profiling routine. White, male, Anglo-Saxon, between 25 and 40, moderately handsome, yada yada yada.
Janet and I made fun of her while Amy and Tiff listened to her eagerly. I finally told them, “Look, this loser isn’t a real psychic, and she’s a bigger fake than the Piltdown Man!”
“Is he a superhero?”
I just rolled my eyes in exasperation. “Never mind. She’s a fake. She’s just saying what every TV program you’ve ever seen about FBI profilers would say. Only she’s trying to make money off people by conning you all into believing that she’s got any kind of ability. Believe me, I know people who are psychic. She’s not.”
Amy naively asked, “But if she wasn’t real, why would the station bring her on?”
“Money. Ratings. Ad revenue. A total lack of scruples or compassion or character. Look. I go to school with people who are learning how to do this kind of stuff for real, and I know a fake when I see one.”
I kept on the subject all through dinner, and I still didn’t think I convinced her. Which was just depressing. And aggravating as hell.
I was still waking up way before everyone else. I showered, dressed, and read three more books before Janet was up.
There was no leftover tea ring or cinnamon rolls, so I had my granola, which wasn’t too bad. I was going to have to ask Chef Peter how to make it so it would be as good as his special granola mix. I had a feeling from reading “The Joy of Cooking” that I was going to have to make it from scratch, to bake in the honeyed sweetness on the rolled oats and other non-fruit ingredients.
Unfortunately, that morning we had to go see Mrs. Westmore of the Santa Monica Children’s Services Department. Our meeting time was at 9 am. Ugh. Gracie was going to take me down to see the old bat. Janet decided that she was going to be there too. Extra moral support was always welcome, even if it would make things pretty crowded in Mrs. Westmore’s little office.
But that meant that I had to ‘dress nicely’. Which in our household was sort of a code word for ‘dressing up like a girlie girl’. Double ugh. I had a clothes rod, but - besides some pants on hangers and some button-down shirts and a couple coats - all that I had hanging there were my ‘girlie girl’ clothes. Seven nice dresses.
So I pulled out what I was going to have to wear, for as long as the meeting ran. A gaff, lingerie including a pair of navy pantyhose, and the navy dress with princess seams. Plus outerwear: the dresscoat, and a bucket hat so I wouldn’t have to do anything with my hair.
BZZZT! Wrong, but thank you for playing our game! Much to my chagrin, Janet was insistent that I let her do something with my hair too. Triple ugh.
So, after I put on the gaff, the panties, the bra, the pantyhose, and the navy shoes with the inch-and-a-half chunky heels, I had to go upstairs and let Janet muck with my hair for fifteen minutes. She added mousse, parted it on the side, brushed it out from underneath with a roller brush, and fiddled with it until it looked disgustingly like a hot girl’s super-short hairdo.
I absolutely refused to let her pluck my eyebrows or put makeup on my face. “No way! I hate how I look already! If that old bat doesn’t like how I look, I’ll tell her I don’t want to look like the slutty girls at school who all wear too much makeup. I’m not kidding Janet, put down those tweezers, or I’ll go heavy and turn your entire bathroom into environmental art!”
“Fuck! You don’t have to have a fucking FIT about it! It’s just makeup!”
I growled, “How would you feel if I asked you to cut your breasts off and get a sex change?”
“No fucking way! Why would you even ask…”
I cut her off, “How about if I asked you to cut all your hair off and stick something up your privates so people would think you had a dick?”
“For God’s sake! There’s no fucking way I’d…”
I yelled, “Then stop doing this! It feels like you’re asking me to hack my dick off on top of everything else!”
She winced, “Of course I’m not. It’s just makeup…”
I glared at her, “It’s NOT just makeup to me! Okay? It’s something a lot more painful. I don’t want to wear makeup, and I don’t want to dress up like a girl, and I don’t want to look like a girl, and I don’t want to have boobs, and I don’t want this to be happening to me! So stop pressing so goddamned hard!”
There was a soft tapping on the bathroom door.
Janet opened it to find Gracie there, along with Tiff and Amy, who had obviously been rudely awakened by some cranky little snot screaming at the top of his lungs about his physical problems.
Gracie cautiously said, “Is everything okay?”
Janet started to say something, and I cut her off. “No, but I’m not really angry or anything. If I was really angry, you wouldn’t have a bathroom left anymore.”
Amy sleepily said, “Honey, if you’re that unhappy about your body, why don’t you talk to some doctors?”
Tiff yawned and nodded, “Yeah. You’ve got money. You should get yourself a good plastic surgeon and have it taken care of.”
I guess I hadn’t discussed this with everyone. It was too private to tell to everyone. Maybe that was a clear sign that they were girls and I was a guy. I took a deep breath and admitted, “I wanted to. I can’t. I’m a mutant. I’m what we call an Exemplar. Part of that means there’s a sort of ‘template’ for my body, and if I get hurt I slowly regenerate until I look like the template again.”
“Like that supervillain who had his legs blown off and they just grew back in a couple days?” Tiff asked.
“Yeah, except my regrowth would be much, much slower. So I went to some doctors at Whateley, and they said if I had breast reduction surgery, or any other kind of plastic surgery, it would just grow back to the way it was, over a month or two. Only the breasts might come back and be larger. If that’s where my template is taking me. So I could get my breasts cut off, and then endure the post-operative pain. Every month for the rest of my life. But they’d just keep growing back.”
Gracie choked, “Oh God.”
Tiff and Amy went white.
“The doctors say that hormones won’t affect my body. Surgery won’t stick. I went to some wizards. They said they can’t fix me. I tried hypnosis to see if my template could be adjusted. Nothing. I’ve checked on everything out there. Now I’m down to trying to find a world-class bio-devisor who might be able to help me. The best I’ve gotten so far is ‘ask me again in five years when I am less busy’. That, and ‘how about if I just turn you into a black chick with really big tits’.”
Janet began to cry.
Amy whispered, “That’s awful! If I was stuck being a boy, and nothing helped me…”
Tiff finished, “Oh God, I would’ve just killed myself. I thought about it enough times before I left home.”
Janet just wept and kept sobbing “I’m sorry, I’m sorry…” over and over, while Gracie held her.
We were late to our appointment with Mrs. Westmore. I took off my dresscoat, hung up my bucket hat on her clothestree, and smiled, “I’m really sorry, but I had to find a new coat, my old one simply didn’t go with my dress.”
Mrs. Westmore didn’t notice that Janet’s eyes were still sort of red. Even after all the Visine she used in the car.
Then I had to argue with Mrs. Westmore for an hour about my purchases over the past four months. She didn’t understand why I needed to spend sixty-four thousand dollars on un-specified items from an overseas ‘emporium’, or why I had three different cashier’s checks made out to Möbius Utilitarian Inc., or why my clothing bills at Rogers’ Fabric Boutique were so high.
The primary problem was that I had no intention of telling her that I was a mutant, or that I attended a school for mutants with superpowers, or that I had bought a lot of that stuff so I could defend myself in fights against other superpowered mutants.
I ended up doing an imitation of my sister Heather and complaining about the high cost of quality, hand-tailored designer clothing. I lied that the overseas emporium was an access point for European fashion design houses. I lied that Möbius Utilitarian Inc. was a source for high-fashion winter wear, which I desperately needed in the mountains of New Hampshire, during the worst winter in years. I told the complete truth when I said that Cecilia Rogers was possibly the greatest seamstress in the western hemisphere, and clothes from her were worth their weight in gold.
She also wanted me to account for the major purchases. I had to explain the $147,000 as a purchase of a business, even if I hadn’t planned on getting 35% of Peril’s family’s business when I gave him the money. I smiled ruthlessly, “It was a business opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Thirty-five percent of a four million dollar publishing firm with major expansion possibilities? That was worth ten times what I paid for it. In ten years, it’ll be worth a hundred times what I paid for it.”
But when Janet and Gracie saw how much I had spent on the Bentley, they hit the ceiling.
After we wrapped up the meeting with Mrs. Battleaxe, Janet and Gracie walked down the sidewalk a bit to cool off. Okay, so maybe $168,743.93 was a bit much to spend on a car. I thought Gracie was worth it.
I wanted to go home and get out of the dress and heels. But Janet and Gracie wanted to window-shop. Okay, this was something else I was never going to get about women. I knew they needed to window-shop, but I didn’t get it. At least they weren’t maniacal ‘power shoppers’, like Nikki.
We were looking. Gracie and Janet were looking at several mink coats in a store window, while I was looking down at my shoes and wondering how long I’d have to wait before I could get out of this dress and these heels. I wondered if they’d mind if I went down the block to the bookstore there and looked at books while they looked at clothes.
That was when the MCO dropships appeared at either end of the street.
One dropped four squads of MCO troopers two blocks west of us, while the other hovered a couple hundred feet up, only two or three blocks east of us.
Gracie and Janet grabbed me and rushed me across the street, under a marquee, and into the lobby of a theater.
“What’s the deal?” I hissed.
Gracie gasped, “Even if they’re not after you, things’ll be bad if they find you here. If they’re after a mutant threat, and they find ANY mutant, they’re liable to arrest you.”
Janet was even more frantic. “And God only knows if we’d ever get you back once they grabbed you! I don’t want you to be the next Isobel Anaelez!”
I didn’t believe the hateful rumors of MCO ‘disappearances’ of young mutants. But I definitely didn’t want to get turned over to Dr. Emil Hammond as a research project. That seemed like a real possibility if I was picked up by the MCO. After all, the MCO had a lot of research grants with Hammond and Goodkind Research. I said, “So let’s get out of here. I can walk through a few buildings and you can meet up with me four blocks south of here.”
Janet shook her head no, “That’s a bad idea.”
Gracie added, “A really bad idea. You can’t see where you’ll end up when you walk through walls and stuff. Right? You might walk right into an ambush! Or just a bunch of frightened norms. And anyone who sees you might alert the MCO, or H1, or something even worse, like the El Monte Knight!
The El Monte Knight. That was all we needed. I had done a little research on him while I was at Whateley. The El Monte Knight was a majorly-prejudiced vigilante nutbar with major Energizer powers and seriously wicked power armor that probably ran off his own energies. He was suspected to have major Regen abilities too, so he just kept healing up when he got hurt, and it was hell to drain his energies enough to stop him. Add in a big fanbase in the area, plus a ton of support from H1 and anti-gay groups and racist groups in the area. As a result, he was once again out on bail. He’d beaten the rap on every major crime for which he’d been prosecuted, and there had been a suspiciously large number of ‘dropped’ charges too. He was powerful enough to face off against most of the West Coast League, and he’d nearly killed a couple of them in a big fight about a year ago, so I really didn’t want to run up against him.
I groused, “Okay, so what’s your brilliant idea?”
Gracie whispered, “It’s the old ‘hide in plain sight’ gag.”
I looked over at the displays and the registration desk and the people around the desk. “Oh no. Oh no! Anything but that!”
It was the Miss Teen USA Pageant starter set. Miss Teen Santa Monica. And the winner of the contest would then get to compete for Miss Teen California, potentially followed by the Miss Teen USA Pageant.
There were half a dozen teenagers waiting to register, with their mommies (and in a couple cases, what looked like personal trainer types). A few of them were pretty hot. Not in a Whateley sense of the word, of course. But they were nice-looking for norms.
Gracie hissed, “Stop being such a big baby! It’s just a stall. We stand in line for a while, register you as Ayla Jane Goodman and me as your mother, and we end up having to sit around for a few hours while the MCO clears out.”
That didn’t sound so bad. “Okay. But remember, mommy, if you pull anything, that Bentley may go back to the dealer.”
She grinned, “Ooh, you’re a mean little daughter, you know that?”
We strolled over to the registration desk, and we got in line not long after the line shortened down to four girls. With coteries. Two of the contestants wrapped up and hurried through the lobby into the auditorium, so we were suddenly second in line. The mother ahead of us went to work on the forms, while the daughter was left standing there. But the daughter was the perky type, looking around with interest and checking everything out.
Gracie and Janet stepped up when the second registrar called them over. Gracie tackled the forms, while Janet read through all the information as if she really were going to be coaching me through this thing.
It looked like we contestants were supposed to be too stupid to fill out paperwork, or read, or anything. So I just looked around.
‘Perky’ caught my eye and bounced over. Oh my God, she’d gone to the Toni Chandler School for the Chronically Hyperactive.
“Hi! I’m Lisa Anne Lantz. Isn’t this great? Inglewood doesn’t have a place this nice. And mom said the pageants around Beverly Hills are just impossible to win. So we’re here!”
I pretended to be polite. “I’m Ayla Goodman. Pleased to meet you.” Well, I would have been, if she hadn’t been so damned perky. She was cute and willowy. She was maybe an inch shorter than I was.
“Ayla? Oh, I love your name! I just loved ‘Clan of the Cave Bear’!”
I had a sudden urge to walk over and kick Janet in the shin. But I’d just made her cry only a couple hours earlier, so I was going to behave. For a change.
“I do rhythmic gymnastics!” Wow, color me surprised. “What’s your talent?”
Rather than answering, I smiled, “Rhythmic gymnastics? Really? Do you have a routine worked out for a hardwood floor?”
“Oh, sure! I just took out the major tumbling passes. Watch!”
And she proceeded to do a little leap-tumble-and-splits that looked pretty good for a baseline. The last bit, where she jumped up into the air and dropped to the floor in a full split, actually made me cringe. I had to restrain myself from groaning out loud and grabbing my groin.
“LISA ANNE!” her mother snapped. “We need to get moving!”
“Sorry, mom! I was just meeting Ayla!” And Lisa rushed off with her mother.
In a much calmer voice, Gracie said, “Ayla? Are you ready? We need to get you prepped right away.”
The second registrar smiled, “Oh my, yes. We have a little opening dance number at the start of our pageant, and the tryouts and choreography start in only…” She glanced at her watch, despite the fact that there was a huge clock on the wall to my right. “…an hour and a quarter!”
‘Momma’ gave her a big smile and purred, “Oh, good. Ayla Jane is a marvelous dancer.”
I was going to pee in her Bentley’s gas tank if she kept that up.
I was ready to just march right out of there. But MCO troops were moving past the front of the theater. What if they were after me? What if they were after some mutant menace, and I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Janet nodded at the registrar, “Thank you. We’ll get right on it.” I watched as Janet stepped out the theater door.. and was promptly stopped by a trio of MCO troopers in body armor.
Oh crap. I watched fearfully as she had to show ID, and explain what she was doing, and go through some sort of electronic scan.
Could I pass that scan? Could it identify me as a mutant? It shouldn’t be able to. Top-secret MCO documents that Mother had shown me indicated that the MCO hadn’t had any success at mutant-spotter technologies. But my fake ID might not stand up to scrutiny, and that would get me instantly yanked by the MCO.
Did I dare walk out that door and take that chance?
Gracie put her hand on my shoulder and hustled me back across the lobby. At either side of the lobby, there were double doors leading into the big auditorium seating area. We walked down the right-hand aisle to stairs that led us up onto the stage. From there, we were directed through the backstage area.
Gracie whispered, “Okay, now we’re going to find one of the side doors out of the building. You’ll phase through it and tell me whether we can get out that way. And maybe you can go south several blocks from there.”
That sounded good to me. We found one of the ‘stage doors’. It had an alarm on it, and a warning not to open the door without notifying the theater managers first. That wasn’t a problem for me, even if it meant that Gracie would have to walk back through the auditorium without me and exit the way Janet went.
I went light and leaned forward just enough that I could get half my face completely through the metal door. I peeked into the alley.
A squad of MCO power suits were prepping beside an armored MCO carrier and a SWAT van. Oh God!
I told Gracie the bad news. She hustled me across the backstage area to a padlocked stage door that hopefully led into the alley on the other side of the building.
I went light and peeked through the door. Half a dozen MCO guys in body armor were spreading out, moving down the alley and around the corner to the area behind the theater. We were surrounded.
When I told Gracie what I’d seen, she cringed. Then she whipped out her cell phone and had a whispered conversation with Janet. Meanwhile, she led me into the downstairs rooms under the stage and auditorium. We walked past a ‘kitchen’ area full of big bags of staples. The kitchen was probably a rat fiesta. And we ended up at a row of small rooms, all marked as ‘salon rooms’. She shoved me into one and marked the clipboard on the door.
She turned to me, “Okay, we have the room reserved for 90 minutes. Let’s get you ready.”
“What do you mean, Gracie?”
She arched one eyebrow at me. “That’s ‘mommy’ around here. Remember?”
I growled, “What the hell do you mean, mommy?”
She glared, “What do you think I mean? We have to stall for a couple more hours. Minimum. So I’ll get you prepped, and you’ll play ‘pageant contestant’.”
“Oh no. No way.”
She pursed her lips angrily, “Do you have a better plan? I am NOT going to lose you to the MCO! I don’t care if you have to put on a party dress. I don’t care if I have to give away that beautiful Bentley. I don’t care if I have to stick my hand in a garbage disposal! I am going to do whatever the HELL it takes to protect you!”
The raw fear in her face got me to cooperate.
Unfortunately for me, what she had in mind for protecting me was making me passable as a beauty contestant. If you don’t know what that entails, then you’re lucky.
She had me undress and lay down on a salon chair, while she prepared what looked like a basin of molten wax. I mean, that couldn’t possibly be what I thought it was, could it? No. No way. She wouldn’t.
She said, “This isn’t going to be comfortable, but it’s important that we do it. Okay? So just bite down on this towel…”
She took an oversized tongue depressor out of the molten wax and smeared it down my shin. Okay, that was a bit warm, but not too bad. She carefully pressed a rectangular piece of cloth over the wax, rubbing it down toward my foot. She did several more smears of wax, with cloths pressed on top of them. Then she did a couple on my arms.
“Okay, bite on the towel now…”
Ow! OW! OW! OW!
She ripped those things off my skin, tearing the hair out with it! Shit, that hurt! That was definitely not fun. Not unless your idea of fun also included root canal, and being invited over to Hannibal Lecter’s house for dinner.
And women paid people money to do this to them? Were they nuts?
The biggest problem was that, once she had started on my arms and legs, I had to let her finish. You could see where the hair was, and where the hair wasn’t. Maybe, if my hair had been ultra-blonde and ultra-fine, it wouldn’t have mattered. But my hair was all pretty close to black.
OW! OW! OW!
The second biggest problem was that Gracie was probably right. If I was going to have to hide here for several hours, I was going to have to fit in. And the brunettes I had seen - as well as the dyed blondes I had seen - all looked immaculately groomed. Even if a couple of them might have had to go to the dog groomer, because there were some bow-wows in this contest.
OW! SHIT! OW!
She waxed my legs all the way up, and she waxed my arms all the way to my shoulders.
I pulled the towel out of my mouth. “Are we there yet?” I said, in a childish ‘riding in a car’ way.
“Not quite, honey. I’m really sorry. But I need to give you a bikini wax and a facial wax, and then either an underarm wax or shave your pits.”
“Oh crap,” I groaned. “I can see why on the face and armpits, but the bikini wax?”
She tilted the chair back and massaged some icky-smelling stuff into my eyebrows and hair. “Because I have something to cover up your dick. And it’s going to be a lot worse wearing it and getting it off if you have any hair down there.”
“You have something to hide my dick? And you just happen to have it on you? And why is that?”
She pursed her lips, “Because I’ve been carrying it around with me ever since you came to live with me, just in case of extreme emergency. Just in case we didn’t have a choice, and you needed to pass as a girl in something like this.”
“And what is it?” I asked suspiciously.
“Duct tape. Duct tape in an ivory color that ought to be a pretty good match for your skin down there.”
“DUCT TAPE!?!” I stared at her in mixture of shock and revulsion.
She shushed me. “Keep it down, Ayla. Yeah. Duct tape. I’m gonna slide your testes up inside you, which won’t be too bad, and I’ll tuck your dick back between your legs and tape it in place so you have a smooth front.”
“You’ve GOT to be kidding.”
She just glared at me. Okay. So she wasn’t kidding. It still sounded absolutely crazy and impossible to me.
And who knew they even made duct tape in skin tones?
She had me spread my legs, and she painted strips of wax in there.
OWW! OWWW! OWWW! OOOWWWWW!!!
If you’ve never had a bikini wax, you cannot imagine how much it hurts. I thought about going light or going heavy, but either one would probably make things worse. If I went heavy, the hairs probably wouldn’t come loose, and she’d have to do it all over again. If I went light, the wax probably wouldn’t get a grip on me, and she’d have to do it all over again. Or it might hurt even worse!
After the bikini wax, the underarm waxing was a heck of a lot easier. It still hurt a lot, but not anywhere near the pain of the bikini wax. I rubbed a soothing lotion all over while she rinsed the stuff out of my hair and eyebrows.
Then she went to work on my face. She put wax over parts of my eyebrows, and at my temples. Then she shoved the towel back in my mouth.
OW! OW! OOWWWW!! OOWWWW!!
Goddamnit, that hurt! It felt like she had ripped my eyebrows right off my face!
And she still wasn’t done. She tweezed hairs out of my upper lip. I didn’t even know I had any, and believe me, I had been hoping for a mustache or something for a long, long time! She used thin strips of wax to clean the peachfuzz off my cheeks and jaw.
That didn’t hurt nearly as much as I expected. Which probably meant that what I had was pathetically thin and undeveloped.
Then, while I rubbed the soothing lotion on my face and neck, she spread my legs and went to work on my groin with the duct tape.
“Okay, this may be a little uncomfortable…”
She took my left nut and…
…she shoved it up into me. Then she did the same with my right nut.
She pressed my dick back between my legs and smashed it flat with her palm. Then she put a wide strip of duct tape from the bottom of my bikini-waxed pubic hair, back over my perineum, nearly to my anus. She held it flat against my crotch while she added another strip on each side of the first one. When she let go, I looked down.
Holy crow! There was no dick there anymore! I had a flat groin that looked like someone had taped up a girl’s privates!
Then something occurred to me. “Uhh, Gracie, how am I supposed to go pee now?”
“Oh, hardy-har-har. I’m serious!”
She pursed her lips again. “So am I. You ought to be able to go pee. It’ll just be a bit cramped, and somewhat inconvenient. Just sit down, try to relax, and after you go pee, wipe carefully at the back of the duct tape.”
I didn’t think it would be anywhere near that easy.
Just as I was about to bitch at her some more, there was a knock at the door. Oh crap. I carefully pitched my voice, “Mommy, could you get that, please? I ‘m not in any position to greet visitors.”
‘Mommy’ threw a salon sheet over me, and went to the door.
It was Janet. She had a cylindrical cardboard box, a large shopping bag, and something on a fancy hanger inside an opaque gray plastic clothesbag. I realized that I really didn’t want to know what she had in any of those things.
First, she pulled out a small box that held two blobs. Well, that’s what they looked like. Two ivory-colored, skin-like little blobs that appeared to be filled with a handful of jello.
She handed them to Gracie, along with a small spray-can. “Okay, these are gel breast-boosters. We’re going to stick them on you and give you B cups. They’ll never show under the bra I picked out.”
Ugh. I didn’t say anything, but I sure thought it. Crap. And I’d been whining about letting Janet put makeup on my face. All this crap was a thousand times worse.
While Gracie sprayed the backs of the blobs with the spray glue, Janet turned my chair away from the wall mirror so I was facing her. Then she went to work on my face with a makeup kit she’d also bought. She talked to me the whole time, as if I actually wanted to have the stuff put on my face.
“Now just a light ivory foundation… You have such gorgeous skin you really don’t need it, but you need to fit in… We just blend it in with the makeup sponge like this… Now some blusher, but not too much, give me a huge smile so I can get it right… Some bronzer for the temples… You don’t need any contouring for your jaw or nose, so we’ll skip that… Some eyebrow pencil… Now for your eyes, first a highlighting color up to your browbones… Now a darker color in your creases and under your eyes, and we blend it out toward the corners… Then a lighter color over your lids, but we have to blend that in thoroughly… Some eyeliner, close your eyes, yeah, like that… Okay, and mascara, hold your eyes open, no don’t blink, that’s right… No, we need at least another coat of mascara, keep your eyes open, that a girl… Now lipliner, hold still… And lipstick, pout a little more… And a touch of this lipgloss across your bottom lip… And we’re done! Now for the hair…”
It didn’t hurt, like the waxing had, but it was miserable. I was actually letting her put makeup all over my face. It was bad enough being ‘cute’. I didn’t want to think how I was going to look with makeup on my face.
And the makeup just felt weird. Maybe it was the wrongness of knowing I was a boy and having makeup applied to my face. Maybe it was just doing something so different from normal. But the foundation left me feeling like I needed to go wash my face. All the eye makeup made my eyes feel odd.
The mascara was the worst. It was amazingly hard to hold my eyes open while Janet was nearly sticking that thing into my eyeball. And, when she was done, the mascara made my eyelashes so much longer and thicker that I couldn’t help noticing the difference. It was like having fans glued to my eyelids. The eyelashes were constantly there, waving annoyingly every time I blinked or looked up. Still, they beat having the hairs ripped out of your crotch with hot wax.
The lipstick was just.. strange. It was like the first time I ever tried to put Chapstick on by myself when I was about five, and I put about thirty times too much on my lips. My lips felt gooey. They felt strangely fragile, as if the complex layering on them might get smudged or messed up at any second.
By then, Gracie had the gel pads glued onto my A-cup boobs, and a strapless B-cup taupe bra holding everything in place. I had to get out of the chair to slip on a matching thong that sat between my buttcheeks in a really uncomfortable way. Did women really wear these things? On purpose? And then sheer-to-the-waist pantyhose. Okay, I’d had to put pantyhose on before, so I knew what to do on that one.
But the shoes were another matter. Janet had a pair of shiny black pumps with t-straps and three-inch heels. Three inches? I glared at her like she was nuts.
She just said, “You need to blend in. Every girl here is wearing high heels. Every short girl here - which would include you, by the way - is wearing REALLY high heels. Three inches is going to be maybe a little too low.”
“Ugh. Okay, I’ll wear them.” I figured that I could always cheat. If I went a little light, so I weighed maybe thirty or forty pounds instead of a hundred, it would be easy to walk around in the damned things. And if I really had trouble walking in them, I could go light and take the shoes with me. Then I would technically be levitating, even if it would look like I was walking.
I put the shoes on and buckled the t-straps.
Gracie winced, “Ayla, don’t do that in public.”
What? Oh. I was sitting there with my knee pointing way off to the left so I could pull my left foot up and fasten the buckle. Which was not exactly ladylike. I was guessing that only guys and porn starlets buckled their shoes like that.
Janet ran several circlets of hairtape around my hair. Then she pulled out of the cylindrical box a long, full wig of golden-blonde hair.
Oh crap. I was going to have to wear that too. Sitting on the wighead, the wig made me think of Jessica Simpson. Ugh. Well, it could’ve been worse and made me think of my cousin Paris. Still, ‘Jessica Simpson’ hair would certainly help me fit in with the contestants I’d seen so far.
I couldn’t think of any other plusses. I didn’t like that wig, and I didn’t like the thought of having to wear it for a couple hours, even as a disguise.
The hair was long and straight. Well, looking at Janet and Gracie, I realized that the wig hair might fall into the medium-long or medium category instead of the long-hair category. But the hair was mostly straight, and a lot longer than I wore my own hair.
Janet adjusted it on my head and started pinning it in place with beige bobby pins that I could feel were hooking into the hairtape. The wig came down to my shoulders and tickled around my collarbones, but didn’t seem to hang down any farther. It was a golden-blonde, but strands of it were lighter or darker, so it didn’t look like a bad dye job. The wig had a part on the left, with fake skin under the part. The straight tresses swept diagonally across my forehead, and gracefully fell down the sides and back of my head.
When she was satisfied with the pinning, she touched up the wig with a small roller brush and a comb and some hairspray.
She stepped back and smiled, “There! Pretty good, even if I do say so myself. Now all we have to do is get you into the dress, and you’re good to go.”
If she said so. I just felt embarrassed and disgusted. And uncomfortable, since my skin was still kind of sore, and the gel boob pads weren’t really comfy, and what Gracie had done to my crotch was fairly miserable.
Janet said, “You’re sort of hard to fit, even for a girl, I mean, a twenty-inch waist went out with the Victorians. Your waist is small even for the size zero clothing, so I had to get you something that was more spandex-y than you’d want…
She pulled the dress out of the bag. It was teal and black, with a skirt that had soft pleats and an irregular hankie hemline. It had short sleeves and what looked like a medium ballet neckline.
It would have looked gorgeous on Vox, if it had been in her size. It would have looked stunning on Nikki. Of course, everything looked stunning on Nikki, including burlap bags, so maybe that wasn’t a useful reference.
I knew I was going to hate it on me.
There was another knock at the door.
I said a little louder than before, “Mommy, could you get that, please? I ‘m not in any position to greet visitors.”
The voice on the other side of the door called out, “Not to worry, dear! I’m just going around letting all the contestants know there’s a meeting of the contestants about to start in just a couple minutes, so please try and finish up!”
I sighed, “Okay, let’s get the dress on.”
Janet frowned, “It’s not like it’s an iron maiden or anything!”
She unzipped the back and held it for me to step into it. I took Gracie’s arm so I wouldn’t tip over in those high heels. Then I stepped into the dress, being careful not to stand on the skirt. Janet slid it up my torso, and I slipped my arms into the sleeves. She zipped it up the back, fiddled with a little hook-and-eye at the top of the zipper, and adjusted the dress on my shoulders.
She smiled, “Okay, that’s not too bad, is it?”
I grimaced, but admitted, “No, it feels fine.” It did feel okay. It was a sparkly, stretchy weave that clung tightly to all my curves, making me look disgustingly feminine. It didn’t feel tight anywhere, even if it did seem to cling to my butt way more than I wanted.
At least there weren’t going to be any guys standing around ogling me and thinking guy thoughts about my body.
Gracie turned me to face the wall mirror, and for the first time I saw what I really looked like.
I just stared in horror. I looked like…
Goddamnit, I looked like a frigging Miss Teen USA contestant. I looked like a hot, sexy blonde with a slender Hollywood shape in a hey-guys-look-at-me dress.
I looked way too much like Gracie. Hell, I looked frighteningly like Heather, who was a frigging model. I did NOT want to look like a hot babe!
Have I ever mentioned that I really really REALLY hate my body?
Gracie sounded awestruck as she said, “You look great, Ayla. Really great. Heather would just die if she saw how pretty you are.”
I so didn’t want to hear that.
Janet gave me a gentle squeeze on the shoulder and murmured, “At least this way you can hide here for a couple more hours, because the fucking MCO is all over the place. They did everything except give me a fucking strip-search on the sidewalk. And the bald guy I walked past? They put him up against a wall, and they took a blood sample from him!”
I stared again at the wig. “What did you do? I can’t see any trace of my hair.” My jet-black hair should have showed somewhere, even if it was as dark traces under the wig.
“Oh, I bleached your hair so it wouldn’t show under the wig.”
Janet patted me on the shoulder, “Don’t worry. A little black hair dye, and your hair will be the same as ever.”
It had better be, or I was going to.. to… Well, I was going to do something foul to them in revenge. Maybe they’d wake up looking like they were entering a Sinead O’Connor look-alike contest.
At least they finally let me out of that little torture chamber. If that was what women went through regularly, I was damned glad I wasn’t female. And I was NEVER going to ask Vox to get her legs waxed for me, no matter what.
Now I just had to go pretend to be a beauty pageant contestant. I concentrated on smiling, and on walking in those high heels.
Okay, I cheated on the high heels. I went a little light, so that less than my normal weight was pressing down on the balls of my feet. That also made it a lot easier to walk in heels and not wobble. I just wished my butt wasn’t wiggling so much.
On the way upstairs, we heard someone backstage practicing scales on the old grand piano, which was definitely out of tune. Someone else was practicing singing her scales. It sounded like she was in some place that was oddly acoustic, like a tile bathroom. Yet another girl was audibly working away on her tap-dancing. God, these kids were nuts about this stuff.
As soon as I walked up to the stage, I was immediately shepherded back downstairs into the ‘changing room’, which looked to me like a locker room for girls. Each girl had a little private closet about two feet wide, with a narrow bench seat in front that ran across the entire length of each locker row. There was a space for shoes at the bottom of each locker, with another space at the top of the locker, and a closet rod for hanging clothes up. Each closet had a ‘pretty’ pastel-blue plastic locker door that could be locked if you wanted.
There were four rows of ‘lockers’ like that, although the back row was roped off. Apparently there was some horrid mess spilled down the middle of that row. Great, that meant we had to be crowded together in the first three rows.
The ‘shepherd’ was a sixty-ish old bat who looked skinnier than me, and had too much makeup on a face like a prune. She had a beauty mark outside the corner of her mouth, but it wasn’t making her beautiful any longer. She had gray-and-white hair up in a tight angry bun, so she looked like she had gone to the Amelia Hartford Hair Salon. She was dressed in a nice mid-calf Anne Klein and high heels, with what might be a real pearl necklace.
She clapped her hands and called out, “Girls! Girls! Attention, please! I am Mrs. Carter. I am in charge of this pageant, so if you have any problems, please see Mrs. Prentiss... Now, we need to get each of your sizes and measurements, so we can hand out leotards and hats for the opening number. You will change into the outfits and you will all come out to the main stage. We will practice the opening number, and decide who is going to be placed in which row. Best dancers will get front row positions. And remember, this will catch the eye of the judges, so you’ll want to be up front if you can dance!”
Oh boy, I could hardly wait.
‘Mommy’ helped me out of the dress, so I could get measured. None of the real contestants seemed to mind this part, so I had to pretend that I wasn’t really annoyed and really embarrassed.
Of course, that meant that I had to stand around in lingerie and pantyhose with everyone else. There were some nice looking girls, but only a few who looked as good as I did, much less as good as the hot girls at Whateley. If Nikki was a ‘10’, then there were a couple ‘7’s and ‘8’s, but these girls were mostly ‘6’s and lower. There were a couple girls that Sharisha could have given a run for their money.
Oh god, I looked better than beauty pageant contestants. Sometimes I really really REALLY hated my stupid body.
I looked over at ‘Mommy’, who gave me a frightened shake of the head, telling me that we couldn’t duck out yet. Great. Okay, I smiled and politely let some ‘other girls’ crowd in ahead of me.
My measurements were just nauseating. With the little bit of padding in that B-cup bra, I was 33-20-33. The woman measuring us smiled at me and said, “You’ll do great in the swimsuit competition, honey.”
I smiled and thanked her, since vomiting on her seemed inappropriate under the circumstances.
One overblown blond bitch with too much hair and too much eye makeup pushed in front of me and said, “I need the best outfit, because I’ll be in the front row. I’m a great dancer.”
I let her do what she wanted, even though I really felt like getting in her way on general principles. After she snagged the outfit she wanted, she marched off to her locker to get dressed.
I said to the brunette beside me, “What’s the matter with her?”
The brunette was cute, with big brown eyes, plenty of bust for a sixteen-year-old baseline, and a slightly too large nose. She had a silver necklace dangling into her cleavage. The chain had an ornate Star of David on it, and also a silver ‘chai’, that Hebrew letter that looks sort of pi-shaped. She shrugged, “Lots of people don’t handle the pressure well.”
The carefully made-up ginger-haired girl on my other side said, “I’ve seen it before. They don’t win the pageants, and then they get to the top of their age range, and they get desperate. If she doesn’t win this year, she’ll probably be out of the Teen USA age category and into the Miss USA age bracket, and she’s years away from being ready to compete at the top levels in that.”
Well, they certainly had nicer points of view than I did. I smiled, “I’m Ayla. Ayla Goodman.”
Ginger smiled, “I’m Kathy Lee Hurley.” She looked Irish too, from her ginger hair and not-quite-green eyes to her Irish nose and freckles. Well, she had on enough foundation to hide her facial freckles, but she had freckles everywhere else too.
The brunette smiled, “I’m Rachel Greenberg.”
I said, “Nice to meet you. Certainly a lot nicer than meeting JonBenet over there.”
Kathy tried valiantly not to smile at my joke, while Rachel insisted, “Be nice, Ayla.”
Kathy asked, “Are you wearing tape over your privates?”
Well, I was standing there in a thong and sheer-to-the-waist pantyhose, so it wasn’t like the tape was that hard to see. I opened my eyes wide and lied, “Yes! Momma did some research, and she found out that there have been a couple pageants where some creepy guy hid a mini-camera in the changing rooms and took pictures of the girls! She didn’t want me to be exposed.”
They both cringed at the idea.
Rachel asked, “Is that really your mom? She looks so young!”
I shrugged, “Well, this is California, you know. A nip here, a tuck there, some Botox, and she looks twenty-five instead of thirty-eight.”
They seemed to think that sounded normal. Well, we were in Los Angeles, facelift and breast implant capital of the world. I was just surprised that Rachel hadn’t had a rhinoplasty already to fix that nose.
I was fitted with a bright blue spandex outfit that was a short-sleeved neon-blue leotard with a frilly, stupid, hankie-hemmed skater skirt that hardly covered my crotch. The skirt had a ‘patriotic’ hem of red and white stars that just made me feel like I was wearing some of Sparkler’s hand-me-downs. The ‘hat’ was a matching blue top hat with vertical red and white stripes above the brim.
Each of us got a similar outfit. The only differences were that some were neon red, with blue and white trim.
‘JonBenet’ was busy spraying hairspray on her ass before putting on her leotard. Was she nuttier than Majestic? Kathy caught me staring, and whispered, “Old beauty contestant trick. So your leotard doesn’t ride up into your crack and show off too much butt.” Okay, fine. I could appreciate that. But for rehearsals? Get real.
And a girl whose name was apparently Gina Maria Marchetti - what was the deal with all these middle names? - was checking her lipstick and putting Vaseline on her teeth. Yuck! Apparently, this was another beauty pageant trick, to keep all the lipstick and lipgloss off your teeth. Because she was using more lipgloss than some entire third-world nations.
I felt utterly humiliated at putting on a leotard-skirt thing and the black high heels Janet had found for me. But I put on a big, fake smile and walked out with the rest of the contestants to see how little I could get away with.
We went up to the stage, and we met Mrs. Wilson, the woman handling the choreography and the dance lessons. Mrs. Wilson looked like a Hollywood dancer or a Rockette. She had that shape, and those legs, but she didn’t have a ‘Hollywood starlet’ face.
The dance was really simple. It was nothing more than a line dance, with dance steps back and forth across the stage, using a two-step like I’d had to learn in ballroom dance classes when I was ten. Except I was doing this in high heels.
I wasn’t interested in doing much, but it was just so simple. I had the routine down after Mrs. Wilson showed us the first time. Most of the rest of the group was still screwing up after she walked us through it for the fourth time.
Unfortunately for me, my near-perfect memory and my Exemplar kinesthetic skills were too damn good. So I found myself being moved to the front line in between Gina Maria Marchetti and ‘JonBenet’, whose name was actually Mary Sue Roetweller. Mary Sue Rottweiler was more like it. I just smiled and pretended I wasn’t utterly humiliated.
Mary Sue sneered at me, “Your makeup is so pathetic.”
I heard Gina gasp beside me, and Carrie Lynn on the other side of Mary Sue clapped her hands to her mouth in shock. Apparently, this was bad form for beauty contestants. I hadn’t really believed that most contestants were striving for that Miss Congeniality award, but apparently it was true. Mary Sue most definitely wasn’t planning on settling for Miss Congeniality. Was there a Miss Cataclysm award for being the biggest bitch?
I smirked at her, “That’s a pretty desperate attempt to rattle a competitor. No wonder you never win these things.” She looked like I had just slapped her. “Of course my makeup isn’t done well. Haven’t you learned anything about these pageants? This is just to get me through registration and rehearsals. You won’t see my real makeup until the night of the pageant, at which point I’ll look fifty times better than this. You’ll never have the chance to compensate, or to learn new tips from my professional look.”
She actually looked worried. Maybe she’d be so shaken that someone who actually deserved the crown would win.
Once Mrs. Wilson was satisfied with the front row, we needed to step aside so she could work with the other rows, who needed a lot more help.
As we moved off to the side, Miss Prentiss came around with a clipboard. “Girls! Oh girls, could I have a moment of your time?” Which meant: get your skinny little asses over here NOW!
Miss Prentiss checked her clipboard again and said, “I need to make sure we have everything for the talent portion of the pageant. Let me see… Gina, I have yours here… Carrie Lynn, I have yours… Ah, Mary Sue. We don’t have your music for your tap dance routine. Can you or your mother get an audio CD of your music to Mrs. Abrams by tomorrow evening? And remember, your piece will need to be under three minutes.”
“Of course, Miss Prentiss,” the Rottweiler promised. “Mom has that along with the rest of my gear. I’ll make sure she gets that take care of right away!”
Then Miss Prentiss turned toward me. “Ayla? Is that right?”
“You don’t have your talent down on your form.”
I smiled, “I don’t understand how Momma could have forgotten that. She must have been interrupted while she was filling everything out.” I thought about that out-of-tune piano. Of course…
I lied, “I’m a concert pianist. I’m going to play a brief medley of Debussy airs that I put together myself. I composed the bridges. But they’re all well-known melodies, and I designed the piece to run just under two minutes. So is there any chance at all that you could get that piano tuned up by tomorrow or the next day? Because it’s unplayable right now.”
JonBenet the Rottweiler just looked daggers at me. Great, now The Rottweiler thought I was a threat to her winning the pageant. All I needed was that little bitch to try sabotaging me in some sicko way.
Of course, if she did, she’d be in for a pretty nasty surprise or two.
Miss Prentiss called Mrs. Abrams over and asked her about the piano, since Mrs. Abrams was the theater employee who was the liaison for the pageant.
Mrs. Abrams was one of those ditzy women who seem to feel fulfilled if they can get their hair dyed blond and find a good nail salon. She looked like she was going to have trouble finding her ass with both hands and a phone call to OnStar Ass-Finding Services. She had to leave and go look on a clipboard in the office to find phone numbers that should have already been programmed into her cell phone.
While we waited, Miss Prentiss called over the back line and quizzed them about their talents. Since they were on the back line, it was pretty obvious that none of them were dancers.
A plain girl with over-teased brunette hair smiled at me, “Hi! I’m Christie. Short for Christianna. I love my name, because it’s perfect for a good religious girl like me.”
“I’m Ayla. Nice to meet you.”
Miss Prentiss interrupted, thank God. “Christie? Could you stop for a moment? I need you to tell me your talent. It’s not on your form.”
Christie-short-for-Christianna smiled and proudly said, “I’ll be performing a Christian poem, set to my favorite Christian hymn, ‘Rock of Ages’.”
I could hardly wait.
Miss Prentiss went through about half the back line before she got to Rachel. Rachel played the violin, and was going to perform a short classical piece without accompaniment.
Mary Sue couldn’t wait to attack. She purred, “Oh Rachel, is it true you’re trying to get the scholarship money because your daddy ran off with his secretary and left you broke?”
Rachel stood there and took it. “Yes.”
Mary Sue giggled heartlessly, while several contestants around them made sympathetic noises. Apparently, Mary Sue was hoping for a nasty round of support for her cruelty.
I said, “Mary Sue, that’s just plain cruel.”
Gina and Carrie Lynn actually backed me up and told JonBenet that they didn’t like other girls being mean like that. Then several other girls stuck their noses in and supported Rachel.
Christie smiled, “I’m hoping for the scholarship money, too. But mainly I’m in the pageant to bring Christ back into American pageantry.”
Gah! If she got any more wholesome, she was going to knock out the competition by giving them all diabetes.
I just put a big, happy smile on my face. Then I lied and said, “When we saw the pageant would be right here, I thought it would be fun to try it once. And my mom has been really supportive.”
Mrs. Abrams finally came back, and told Miss Prentiss, “The piano tuner was supposed to be here today, so the piano will be tuned before the pageant.”
Hello? Earth to airheads, come in please! The piano tuner WASN’T here. And he obviously hadn’t been here, because the piano was definitely out of tune. I hoped to God that someone competent was handling the piano tuner issue, because there were probably real contestants that were going to need it.
Then we had to go back to working on the choreography. Just to hassle The Rottweiler, I suggested to Mrs. Wilson that those of us from the front row who had the steps down ought to be helping out the ones in the other rows who could use some one-on-one tutoring.
Everyone thought that was a wonderful idea. Just the right thing to be doing in a pageant like Miss Teen USA.
When Mrs. Wilson agreed, I went straight back and started helping Rachel. I watched, and - just as I had expected - The Rottweiler made sure to pick out someone who had no chance of winning the pageant. What a bitch.
Carrie Lynn called out, “Isn’t this fun? Ayla, this was a great idea!”
Rachel whispered, “Thanks. Just thanks a ton. I really need the help.”
I gave her an encouraging smile, “No, you don’t. You just need to ignore hateful jerks and focus on what you do well.”
That idea turned out to be a pretty good stall. I didn’t have to stand there and say that what I wanted most of all was ‘world peace’. I didn’t have to put on a bathing suit, or parade around in an evening gown, or anything. I just had to make sure that I got the heck out of there before anything like that happened!
Then we heard that same loud clapping, coming from the middle of the auditorium seating. It was Mrs. Carter again. “Girls! Girls! Attention, please! I would like everyone to come down here. We’re going to discuss our rehearsal schedule for the next couple days, and the details of the pageant order. Hurry up! Hurry up!”
Great. I could tell she was the type for whom ‘we are going to discuss’ really meant ‘I am going to command you’. I didn’t need to hear any of this. And it might be the perfect opportunity to sneak out. All I needed to do was change clothes and duck out an uncovered side door.
I slipped away to change out of the disgusting leotard-skirt and heels. I was planning on taking a peek outside and seeing if I could sneak away yet.
But as I opened my locker to get my clothes, I heard something. It sounded like several thick drips had just gone ‘splat’ back there in the cordoned-off back row of lockers. How could that be happening if the spill was old, and on the floor?
I stepped back and peered around the corner. In the middle of that back row were four lockers, all in a row, with shiny new padlocks on them. The new goop appeared to have leaked out of those lockers. It had oozed across the narrow ‘bench’ in front of the lockers, and down onto the already-nasty floor.
But there was noticeably more goop on the floor than there had been when I changed in here a couple hours ago. There was something wrong here. I went light and floated over to the shiny-padlocked lockers.
There was a smell coming from those lockers. A bad smell. A horrific, vile stink that made me want to rip my nose off so I wouldn’t have to smell it any longer.
I knew that smell.
Oh. My. Gawd.
I knew that smell, and my nose was too sensitive to make a mistake on this. It was the unnatural stench that those damn Boston zombies had.
I had to swallow hard. A nasty chill ran down my spine. I had to check this out. Something more than a beauty pageant or my personal dignity was on the line here.
Suddenly, what that goop was made of was becoming a lot more important to me. I really didn’t want to get near it. But there was no way I was staying light and reaching through the walls of those lockers without knowing what was inside them.
I reluctantly stood on the floor in the goop, and I went heavy. I squeezed the middle locker handle and ripped it off the locker with a snap.
Inside was a pile of bones. Human bones, mostly still held together by tendons and ligaments. I nearly screamed. Heck, I nearly puked.
The skeletal remains tumbled out onto the floor, and it was all I could do not to yelp and leap out of the way. There was an intact ribcage. Well, it was sort of intact. If ‘intact’ included having a horrendous blackened hole burned right through the back of the ribcage behind where the heart ought to be. It was all I could do not to vomit.
I ripped the handle off the next padlocked locker. Another set of human bones, this time obviously female, with wide hips. And a narrow ribcage with another hideous hole burned through it.
I ripped the handle off the next padlocked locker. A human head stared helplessly up at me. A face that had died in unbelievable agony. A face like a prune, with grayish-white hair up in a tight angry bun, and a beauty mark outside the corner of the mouth.. which was still locked open in a horrific silent scream.
Oh my God!
I sprinted out to the auditorium. What was I going to do? What was I going to say? No one would believe me if I told them the truth. No one would believe that the ‘old lady’ standing among them wasn’t really Mrs. Carter, but someone else. Maybe a Shifter. Maybe a Shifter who was a serial killer, preying on teenaged girls. Oh my god, no wonder the MCO had been called in.
I said the only thing I could think of that would clear the place out.
Mrs. Carter looked up at me, and seemed to stare way too intently. Suddenly, I felt a tickle at the back of my skull, and I saw green and red lines everywhere. Even worse all those lines seemed to be getting sucked toward her.
Oh crap. That meant magic. Not a Shifter, but something magical. The only time I’d ever experienced that before was when Fey fully turned her attention to me, that first day at Whateley.
And if ‘Mrs. Carter’ was sucking in all the ley lines or ki lines or whatever they were, then she was some sort of magical threat. According to Nikki and Toni, Sara naturally did that.
Only, Sara didn’t eat human girls and leave their heads around to freak out the police.
“FIRE!” I screamed it again, this time more desperately. “Get out the front doors! Fast!”
Mary Sue the Rottweiler turned toward ‘Mrs. Carter’ and said, “I think she’s lying, Mrs. Cart..uurk!”
Unfortunately, that was the last thing Mary Sue Roetweller ever said. I didn’t like her, but no one deserved what happened to her.
‘Mrs. Carter’ suddenly flowed like water. Or like a bucket of boiling slime. Her clothes disintegrated as she shifted and grew. Her skin changed from a wrinkled white to an icky red, and then to a hideous color that made my eyes burn. Just looking at her was making my stomach roil.
Mary Sue stood frozen in place, and she screeched out a scream that belonged in a spatter film.
A slimy pseudopod erupted from the thing that had once posed as Mrs. Carter. It wasn’t an arm. It wasn’t anything the least bit human or even animal. It wasn’t even a tentacle. It was something out of a nightmare. I saw it plunge right into Mary Sue’s chest and suck the life out of her. Sometimes I see it in my nightmares. I still can’t describe it any better. It was a color that doesn’t exist. It was covered in a slime that wasn’t slimy. It was a pseudopod whose shape didn’t belong in this universe. Just looking at it made my head hurt and made my stomach heave.
The girls and mothers fled in terror, except for one mother and someone else’s daughter. Maybe they were too close to defend themselves against that thing’s psychic onslaught. Maybe they had too little mental fortitude. Maybe they were just unlucky. They were still standing there, clutching their heads and screaming insanely. More pseudopods exploded outward, and plunged into their bodies too.
What happened next nearly made me heave all over the floor. The thing writhed and grew more, as its pseudopods did something inhuman. It was as if the writhing tentacles milked the life out of their victims. The flesh vanished off the bodies, then the muscle, then the organs, until nothing was left but screaming heads atop collapsing skeletons.
The thing that wasn’t a Shifter turned toward me, and I nearly screamed. It had more than one face. It was nothing but faces. All over its pulsing, slimy-but-not-slimy body were screaming faces. Human faces, horribly twisted into inhuman horrors. “MEAT-THING. YOU HAVE INTERFERED WITH THE PLANS OF BKCRMWDJVG!! I WANTED THOSE VIRGIN GIRLS. FOR THAT YOU SHALL PAY THE ULTIMATE PRICE. I SHALL NOT LET YOU DIE. YOU WILL SUFFER THE TORMENTS OF MY REALM FOR ALL ETERNITY.”
The raw terror and hatred and inhumanity pouring out from the thing shook me. The horror I had felt when I realized that my own subconscious beliefs had warped my BIT into what I was? Nothing, compared to this. The revulsion when I saw what Fireball was becoming? Not a candle, compared to the sickening terror I was feeling.
If I hadn’t spent most of the last four months having to subconsciously block the Faerie glamour of a powerful Sidhe Queen, I think I would have gone insane from the horror and abhorrence coursing through me.
If I hadn’t spent most of my aikido classes partnering a girl with a fear aura and learning how to block that, I think I would have fainted in terror.
If I hadn’t had my dick taped tightly back between my legs, I think I would have wet myself.
Instead, I did as I had done so many times over the past months, and I focused. I concentrated as hard as I could, until I could think again.
And when I could think again, I was REALLY scared. All that time I had spent listening to Nikki and Sara was paying off, in horrible ways. The thing was magical. It had a name. It had a hellish realm. I was facing a real, honest-to-Something demon. Not a Shifter who could be phase-KO’ed. Not a devil that could in theory be killed. But a demon. A magical force which could not be killed.
And I was weak against magic.
I was facing a demon whose touch sucked the life and maybe even the soul out of its victims. My best attacks - going light or going disruption-light before phasing through my opponent - would do little more than make it much easier for this demon to eat me.
I was in major trouble. I needed to get out of here, and fast!
The only problem was that I couldn’t run away. There were people I had to protect. Gracie and Janet, and Rachel and Kathy, and all the others. If I couldn’t slow this thing down, all those people were lunchmeat. In every sense of the word.
It sort-of-turned toward the back of the auditorium, where people were still fleeing out into the lobby.
I couldn’t let it go after everybody. I stepped out of my heels and went heavy. I ripped one of the metal seats out of the auditorium floor and hurled it at the thing.
It didn’t even turn to face me. Well, with scores of twisted faces all over it, I guess it was facing me all the time. At any rate, it swatted the metal seat out of the air like a fly.
It stopped and focused on me. I could feel the mental pressure, despite my most intense concentration. “SO. YOU ARE A WIZARD POSSESSED OF MAGICAL ABILITIES. YOU WISH TO CHALLENGE BKCRMWDJVG. SO BE IT.”
It pointed three.. well.. things at me. Pseudopod-like arm/tentacles. Okay, they were just things that couldn’t be arms or tentacles or anything that I could comprehend. They glowed with a light that couldn’t possibly be light, because it was a horrific black.
I got the hell out of the way.
I jumped. I phase-leapt: I jumped up and toward it, and I went light as soon as I was airborne. I rocketed at an angle upward and toward it, while the energy from those pseudopods blasted a fifteen-foot-wide crater in the seats around the spot where I had been standing.
I went heavy and hit the ceiling right about the same time. I hit hands first, and I hit hard. I was nearly over Captain Creepy. I was heavy enough that when I hit the ceiling and pushed off, I tore up the plaster-and-lath ceiling, and I think I even dented the beams behind the plaster.
I dropped hard. Way faster than freefall. I was maybe a ton, and I had just pushed off as hard as I could, so I was rocketing downward. I hit right where I was aiming. I landed right on top of it. If it had been a flesh-and-blood monster, I would probably have killed it instantly.
I only made it mad.
It roared and smacked me with something that might have been a cross between a tentacle and a giant flyswatter. I suddenly found myself flying through the air even faster than before. I was flung backward so fast that I didn’t even realize where I was going, until I hit something.
I crashed through the back wall of the auditorium, across the lobby, through a couple pieces of furniture, and finally stopped after smashing the ticket booth into kindling.
Oh God, that hurt! It felt like the entire back half of my body had been pulverized. It felt like I had a bruise the size of a tree trunk right across my front, where that thing had whacked me.
I realized that there were screams around me, and then hands were reaching in to help me up.
The lobby was full of contestants and mothers and pageant organizers. What was wrong with these idiots? Didn’t they have enough sense to run from an unkillable demon that wanted to eat them? I yelled, “What are you doing here? Get out of the theater!”
The hands reaching in for me were Gracie and one of the contestants. Rachel. They both looked terrified. They couldn’t budge me. Oh, right. I was still heavy. I weighed nearly a ton. I went normal.
Gracie whimpered, “We can’t! The doors won’t open, and we tried smashing the windows, but there’s something outside the windows too!”
I painfully clambered out of the wreckage, trying not to groan too much. God, did my back hurt! And my butt. And the back of my head. And my front, where that thing had smacked me.
I saw that I had punched right through the ticket booth, and had stopped only because I had hit an invisible wall of force surrounding the theater.
I was weak against magic, and I was weak against force fields, and I was really weak against strong magical force fields. I’d learned that by testing myself with Fey. This was bad.
I went heavy, stepped up to the wall of force, and hit it as hard as I could. It was like punching a brick wall. No, I could punch a brick wall to pieces. This was like punching Lancer. I shifted my stance and tried a series of punches. Then a couple kicks. Nothing.
Rachel looked desperately at me, “You’re a superhero. You have to do something!”
I wanted to explain to her how screwed we were. I was trying to fight a real, live demon from some unknowable kind of Hell. It had magical powers, like energy blasts and soul-sucking and unbreakable force fields. It was a lot stronger than I was. It had just swatted me like a fly, after I gave it my best shot. And it ate virginal girls, probably for really evil demonic rituals. What the heck was I supposed to do against magical powers like that?
I opened my mouth, and I knew I couldn’t say that. They’d panic. I searched desperately for something to say.
I got a quick reprieve.
“You’re a mutant! You can’t be in this pageant! That’s against the rules!” It was Christie’s mother. She was holding Christie tightly in front of her, as if she were using her daughter as a shield.. maybe against me.
I glared at her, “Figure it out. I’m undercover. Didn’t you ever see Miss Congeniality?”
And somehow, the thought of movies cross-percolated to modern technology, which leapt tangentially to something Big-And-Ugly had howled at me. It thought my powers were magic. It didn’t understand technology of this dimension. I could see through the force field.
Electromagnetic waves passed through the field.
“Who has a cell phone?” I asked loudly.
Almost every single hand went up, some of them with cell phones in them.
“Call for help! Has anyone tried calling out?”
And people were whipping their phones open and dialing frantically. Almost every person was getting a tone. I could hear the sounds. Which meant that the magical force field wasn’t stopping phone signals. Not yet, anyway.
I pointed at Janet. “Call the MCO. Tell them I’m Phase, and I’m fighting a real demon, NOT a devil but a demon, they’ll understand the difference, and I need magical backup A-S-A-P.”
I pointed at Gracie. “Call the West Coast League. Try to get Sunscreen. Tell them what’s going on, and that Phase is fighting a real demon, and they need to get as much magical support here as they can, as fast as possible, and their mages need to be prepared to banish a major demon.”
Gracie knew what I really wanted her to do. Sunscreen would remember us. She had done my initial powers testing back in August. And I knew Gracie would be smart enough to give Sunscreen my real name instead of my codename, since Sunscreen knew me as Ayla Goodkind.
The only problem was that I was pretty sure we needed a couple Fey-level mages, and I didn’t think the West Coast League had a real mage. Doctor Arcturus was supposed to have psi and magical talents, but I didn’t think he was anywhere near the Wizard level we probably needed for a freaking demon. The rest of the West Coast League was - as far as I knew - non-magical. Sunscreen was an Energizer, like Golden Girl. Hollywood was an Exemplar and brick, like Lancer. Aquamaster was a water controller, like my floormate Riptide. Valley Girl had some sort of control over soil and rocks and stuff. F/X was a devisor with power armor. Chaney was some sort of Shifter. Beach Bunny was a speedster and had some sort of heat blasts. I didn’t know what Fresno did, or even if he was still with the League.
Damn. If only I had Fey and Carmilla’s cell phone numbers. And some way to get them here in the next three minutes. Assuming they’d drop everything and show up for me.
I pointed at Rachel, who was the only other person in here that I trusted to keep her head and do what I said. “Call 9-1-1. Try to get through to Lieutenant Merrill of the Santa Monica PD, and tell him we have The Headhunter in here with us, and it’s actually a real demon, and it has us trapped in here, and it’s going to try to eat all of us.”
Magic… Magic… What else had I learned about magic?
I turned to the pageant organizers. Mrs. Abrams was standing there, looking like she was about to pee her panties. I focused on her. “Can anyone get to the kitchen area downstairs from out here?”
She thought for a second. “Uhh, yeah? There’s a door over there that goes down to the kitchens for when they serve refreshments in the lobby…”
I snapped, “Get down there. Bring as much salt as you can find. Draw a line - an unbroken line - all the way across the lobby, and then around any other ways into the lobby, like an elevator or stairs or anything. That thing may not be able to cross that line of salt, and there’s even a chance its magics won’t be able to cross the line.”
Christie insisted, “Magic is evil! We shouldn’t do that!”
I glared at her. “You’re damned right this time. That thing in there is Evil Incarnate. And it’s magical as.. well, it’s massively magical. And if you don’t do what I say, you really will be damned, because it’ll come out here and eat your soul right out of your body! So go do it! Now!”
I ran to the huge hole in the wall, and looked. The thing wasn’t bothering to move this way. And why should it, when it knew it had us trapped? It was standing there in the middle of the auditorium, with five or six or seven pseudopods sticking up into the air. Maybe there were more than that. It hurt to look too closely at the thing.
Black energy was flaring and pulsing from the thing, and the energy was coalescing into…
The thing was creating devils, or demons, or manifested matter, or something. Something nasty. Three winged devil things were forming in mid-air out of boiling nothingness. I swallowed hard.
I had to stop those things from flying into the lobby and attacking everybody.
Oh sure, that sounded REAL easy.
Especially since I was batting 0-for-20 so far.
I ran to the lobby doors and went heavy again. I stepped into the auditorium and ripped another chair from the floor. Then I stormed down the aisle toward Captain Creepy.
There were three devils of different sizes forming in the air over the demon. The smallest one wasn’t all that much bigger than me, while the biggest was going to be maybe ten feet tall. All three had scaly red skin and ferocious mouths full of fangs. All three had glowing crimson eyes and three fierce claws on each hand. All three had legs shaped like a goat’s, only hairless. They all had batlike wings about as wide as they were tall. They all looked scarier than Tisiphone.
The smallest one finished forming just before I had the chair ripped from the floor. As I rushed down the aisle, it made a beeline for me.
It suddenly occurred to me that Captain Creepy was forming its devils like this so that it would have Baby Bear ready to fight me while it finished up on Mama Bear and Papa Bear. But that was probably in my favor, too. It meant that I could take these things on one at a time, instead of being gang-fanged.
The first one flew right at me, claws extended and mouth agape. I hammered it with the metal chair and knocked it back.
It flew back maybe fifteen feet before it stopped itself. And it charged me again.
Damn! Why do I always end up fighting super-bozos who are stronger than I am?
I knocked it into the air again with the chair. But it righted itself, took a deep breath, and…
Oh crap, I knew this was not going to be good…
It exhaled this ball of mystical energy that disintegrated most of the chair.
I changed tactics. I phase-leapt right at it. I jumped toward it and went disruption-light, so I zoomed at it at a huge speed. I was going to phase-KO the sucker.
I hit it at two hundred miles an hour - or whatever speed I was doing then - and came to an abrupt, really painful halt. OUCH!!
I couldn’t phase through these things!
I hurt all over, and it was just starting to realize that I was within easy reach.
I went as heavy as I could. My weight yanked it out of the air. I wasn’t bigger than it was, but I suddenly weighed a LOT more. I spun, slinging it around my body, and we smashed into the floor with it underneath.
It roared, and took a ferocious swipe at me with both clawed hands.
I blocked one arm and took the other swipe across my shoulder. I was expecting a burst of agony as the claws ripped through me. But they just skittered off my rock-hard skin.
It stopped and stared for a split-second, as it slowly realized that it hadn’t rent my flesh and bone into bite-sized fragments.
So I punched it in the throat as hard as I could.
It threw me off. I went flying backward, and landed a couple rows over, turning half a dozen metal chairs into something that had been through a car crusher. I rolled to my feet and went for it while it stood there holding its throat in pain. I hoped.
It saw me coming, and leapt for me. I slid to the left, blocked its arm, and executed a quick combination: punch-kick-strike. It crashed onto a row of chairs, but it scrambled right back at me. I slid past its attack and gave it a shoulder-throw into another row of chairs. It just got back up.
That was when I heard the flap of wings coming at me from behind.
I turned just in time to grab one clawed hand and perform a shoulder throw. I slammed it into the floor as hard as I could.
It just roared at me and got back up.
Baby Bear tackled me, and we went rolling down the aisle, shredding the aisle seats and the carpeting, but not doing any damage to each other.
The damned things were stronger than me, but they clearly thought they ought to be slashing and biting, instead of fighting. And at my heaviest, they couldn’t claw me up.
Oh, and their aikido skills were crap. Okay, so there were more advantages to improving my martial arts skills than I had realized before. Because my meager aikido skills were the only thing keeping me in this fight.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Papa Bear sweep through the air in a big semicircle over the stage so it could attack me from behind. I body-slammed the one trying to rip my throat out, and I phase-leapt right at the big one.
Of course, since I couldn’t phase through it, I wasn’t really aiming at its body. I was aiming at its wing. I went heavy just as I hit, and my weight dropped it out of the air. We smashed into a couple rows of down-front seats, with it underneath. I pushed off before it could claw me, and I gave it a swift kick in the nads.
It didn’t even have privates between its legs.
So I kicked it in the ribs and then tried to smash one of its leg joints.
It kicked me and knocked me all the way up onto the stage.
Baby Bear was already winging its way toward me. In fact, it was nearly on top of me, and reaching for my throat. So I grabbed its extended wrist and slammed it into the stage hard enough to splinter the wood.
Mama Bear and Papa Bear were surrounding me by then. I kicked and punched and threw and blocked and did everything I could think of. I was doing my best to go Chaka on them, but I just wasn’t doing any permanent damage. It looked like every time I hurt one of them, it just healed up almost instantly.
And then I saw that Captain Creepy was standing there, in the middle of the auditorium, making three more devil-things.
I threw Papa Bear onto Mama Bear, and phase-leapt up to one of the balconies. I went normal and grabbed the wrought iron railing so I wouldn’t fall.
Fey and the wrought iron benches in the Quad, that first day at Whateley.
Right. Cold iron. Fey had talked about that once or twice.
I jumped over the railing into the balcony. I went heavy and ripped the wrought iron railing off the balcony. I stepped backward so my weight wouldn’t rip the balcony off the wall. And I held the railing like a baseball bat.
The two bigger devils came flying in at me, one right behind the other. I stood there, hoping they hadn’t ever played baseball.
Papa Bear stretched out its claws and opened its mouth in a furious, fanged bite, as it flew straight at me.
I hit it with the wrought iron railing like I’d been hitting homers all my life. Of course, I’d never tried hitting a ten-foot-tall baseball before. This was pretty hard to miss, especially with my Exemplar reflexes.
It shrieked horribly as it went sailing backward right into its buddy. I could see that there was a hideous, smoking burnt pattern across its face and chest, exactly in the shape of the railings and vertical spindles, where I’d whacked it with the railing.
Mama Bear obviously didn’t learn by observing. It flew past the still-screeching devil and attacked me. Or rather, it got a face full of cold iron too.
But they were persistent. They kept coming back. I kept batting them out of the park.
WHACK! “And it’s a grand slam!”
WHAM! “Backbackbackback… It’s outta here!”
SMACK! “Elvis has left the building!”
They didn’t give up. Their burns from the cold iron didn’t heal. Every whack from the railing burned them even more. They just kept coming back for more, even though their fronts were looking nasty enough to make me heave. After five or six whacks apiece, they looked like the zombie version of devils, with chunks burned off and horrific burned lines all over them. And they were tough. The railing was getting more and more bent, until it was hardly usable anymore.
Plus, Captain Creepy down there in the middle of the room was calmly making three more of the damned things. Maybe if I could do something to it, it would lose concentration and the devil-things would have to be re-done from scratch.
Well, it was worth a try, given that all three of the new devils were nearly ready to go.
I gave one more hard swat with the railing to give myself a second, and I tore the railing apart. I tore off the only remaining straight section of the foot railing, and I threw it like a javelin. It hit dead center on Captain Creepy, who screamed out a hideous wail…
And promptly sicked the next three devils on me.
Crap! I was having enough trouble with three of the things!
I yanked two spindles out of the wreckage of the railing, and tried using them as batons. Ito sensei had made most of us work with bokken, so I figured I could do something with cold iron batons.
The big one closed on me first. Maybe they thought I was defenseless without the big railing ‘bat’. Maybe they didn’t think.
As he soared in, he took a huge one-handed swipe at me. I leaned back out of his reach, and as his arm swept by, I attacked with both batons. I hit it everywhere it might be vulnerable. Temple. Elbow. Throat. Bridge of the nose. Across the eyes. Jaw. Ribs. Mouth. Wing. I was a slashing, pounding machine for a second.
It fell back, and fell screaming to the chairs below. It hit with a crash I could hear over the screeching.
The next two charged in, as if nothing had just happened to Papa Bear. It would have been really nice if these things had fear, or even common sense. I used the spindles to block their attacks, which also left hideous burns on them wherever I blocked. Then I struck as hard as I could, as often as I could, until they also dropped back.
By then, the original big one was back in the air and moving in on me, right behind the three new ones.
Damnit, didn’t anything faze these things?
Papa Bear definitely looked worse for wear. Everywhere I had hit was a hideous, inch-deep burn that would have incapacitated something of flesh and blood. How was I supposed to stop these things, if they didn’t have any weaknesses?
The three new devils flew at me, not bothering with synchronizing their attacks. So I had time to block the middle one’s attack and hit it half a dozen times before the large one ran right into its back. I kicked both of them back, and took a shot at the large one’s wing with a spindle. It worked. They tangled their wings, and they fell down to the floor below.
The small one hadn’t learned anything from that. It flew in on me with claws out and fangs ready. I blocked and struck. And struck.
And struck! I was fighting as hard as I could, but the damned things were wearing me down. They didn’t seem to get tired, or to become incapacitated no matter how many cold iron burns I gave them. I tried every dirty, nasty fighting trick I had learned from an entire term with Ito and Tolman.
No matter what I did, I couldn’t damage one of their limb joints for more than a couple seconds. Hitting them in the groin was useless, when they didn’t even have privates. Pressure points and sensitive areas on humans didn’t seem to have any analogues on these things. So what the hell was I supposed to do against things that didn’t have any human weaknesses?
No human weaknesses. Hmm.
As I dropped the little one down to the auditorium floor, I realized that I needed to look for inhuman weaknesses.
The big one with all the burns was back, but the blows I had given it to the bridge of the nose and across the eyes might have blinded it or something. It was homing in on me, but not doing a very good job of it. I helped out by blowing a raspberry at it. It found me by sound, and moved at me. I rammed the spindles into the wall behind me, where they’d be in easy reach.
I let it take one ferocious swipe, and I grabbed its wrist. I used a shoulder throw to slam it into the balcony seats behind me. Then I grabbed the spindles and stabbed it in the chest.
I needed five tries to hit the bullseye. Right about where the solar plexus would be on a human. It convulsed, and began to melt. It melted like a big blob of acid. It melted the floor underneath it. It melted the spindle. I wasn’t sure how big an area was going to melt down, so I got out of there.
I grabbed three more spindles out of the wreckage of the railing, and I phase-leapt across the auditorium to a balcony on the opposite side.
The five remaining devils all came after me, as if nothing had happened to Papa Bear. Their inability to think tactically was an even bigger advantage to me than their weakness to cold iron. I felt like I finally had a shot at polishing the things off before Captain Creepy had another squad ready for me.
I had three spindles from the old balcony. So I left this balcony railing intact for a moment. They would have to soar over it to attack me, and that limited their angle of access.
They all wheeled about in mid-air, some in tighter turns than others, and came for me. But that meant that they were going to reach me at different times, giving me a little time between assault waves.
The two smaller devils had made better turns, and would get to me first. Fine with me.
Both came at me in the official devil attack, with claws outstretched and fangs bared. I gave one a shoulder throw into the balcony wall and staked it to the wall before it could drop to the floor. Then I whirled and caught the other one, throwing it to the balcony floor. As it tried to roll over and get to its feet, I gave it a two-handed stake through the middle, and it started melting a hole in the floor.
The first medium-sized devil almost caught me before I was ready. It had its hands around my throat before I jabbed it through the middle with my third spindle. I dropped onto my back and did a back roll, pulling it with me and staking it to the hallway floor as I rolled over it. It was stronger, but I was heavier. Which was good, because I was so exhausted I could hardly keep moving.
Before the last two got to the balcony, I phase-leapt past them to a balcony on the far side of the auditorium. Hey, it worked really well before.
The big devil was behind everyone else, so it was now closer to me. It wheeled around and came at me. The other medium devil was pretty close behind it.
I ripped up the balcony and armed myself with a row of spindles. The big thing came in swinging. I blocked both swipes with spindles, and stabbed it with both hands. It tried to grapple with me, so I shoved upward and nailed it to the balcony’s ceiling with both spindles.
One left. I looked at the incoming devil, and realized that I had a bigger problem. That freaking demon already had three MORE of its freaking devils ready to go!
It sent its latest threesome toward the lobby.
Oh crap. No one in the lobby could defend herself from one of those monsters. I could hardly manage, and I had superpowers!
The smallest flew toward the Ayla-sized hole in the wall, while the other two flew at the lobby doors on either side.
I grabbed two more of the spindles and, in sheer desperation, threw them like javelins. I didn’t have Chaka-level aim, but my aim was WAY better than it had been before I manifested.
And the devils had no idea about evasive maneuvers.
My first cold iron javelin caught the big one before it was half-way up the aisle. My second caught the middle one before it got within thirty feet of the far lobby doors. They both shrieked and dissolved in mid-air.
My third javelin went nowhere, because the last damaged devil jumped me from behind. The devil wrapped its arms about me and tried to bite through my neck. But the whack on my arm made me throw the spindle right into the floor of the balcony.
It couldn’t bite through my skin while I was still heavy, but it didn’t seem to have figured that out.
“I don’t have time for this crap!”
I did a forward roll, taking the devil with me. And I aimed right for the spindle jutting up from the floor. I stapled that sucker to the floor. The spindle ripped through it, and bent on my super-hard body.
The only problem was that I missed. The spindle didn’t go through its ‘dead-spot’ where a solar plexus ought to be. The spindle missed by about half a foot. It was struggling to pull the spindle out of its chest, and it was definitely not dead. I grabbed another spindle and staked it.
I immediately phase-leapt toward the lobby. I was terrified that the last devil-thing might get Gracie or Janet or any of the girls.
The devil flew into the hole…
And it bounced back like it had been punched by Lady Astarte. The line of salt had to be working. Thank God.
I went heavy in mid-leap, and I dropped down to the floor, crushing a couple more chairs in the process.
Then I saw exactly what I needed. Up by the double doors into the lobby were several pieces of artwork set in shadow boxes. One piece was a big, ornate silver-colored cross. I was going to come back for that as soon as I took care of the immediate threat.
As the last devil picked itself up off the mangled chairs, I leapt onto its back. I was heavy enough that I smashed it face-first to the floor. That gave me enough time to ram a spindle through it. It collapsed and started melting the chairs around us, so I got away from it as quickly as I could.
I rushed back to the artwork near the lobby doors. I smashed the plate glass and grabbed that cross.
Then I turned and faced Captain Creepy. I held out the cross in both hands and marched straight at the thing. It stood there and reluctantly pulled in its pseudopods. It slowly oozed backward a few inches, like it couldn’t leave that spot but was trying its hardest.
I was thirty feet from it. I moved out of the aisle and went right at it. It didn’t blast energy at me. It didn’t manifest demons at me. It just leaned backward like it really wanted to get away from that cross.
I was six feet from it. Three feet. I was going to press that cross against it and burn it the hell out of this realm. I pressed forward to ram that cross into it, and…
It attacked. Half a dozen pseudopods flew out and hammered me into the floor. God, was that thing strong!
The pseudopods wrapped around me and squeezed the breath out of me. I struggled against it, but I couldn’t out-muscle the thing.
But it couldn’t penetrate my skin while I was heavy. That was my only advantage. I could feel it trying to absorb me, but it couldn’t get me while I was as heavy as I could go.
But I couldn’t go normal or go light, or it would eat me. And I couldn’t breathe, so I would pass out in a minute if I didn’t go light.
I was going to be dead in seconds.
I was going to be way worse than dead.
It laughed horribly, “STUPID MEAT-THING! DID YOU REALLY THINK A SYMBOL LIKE THAT COULD STOP BKCRMWDJVG? YOU DON’T BELIEVE ANY LONGER. IT IS THE BELIEF THAT MATTERS.”
It had suckered me. It had pretended to be vulnerable, and I had walked right into its trap.
I struggled as hard as I could, but it was too strong. It was crushing me like a python on a rat. I tried to get one hand free. I doubted I could do anything against this thing, but I had to try. The demon was way too strong. I couldn’t get my hand loose from those unbreakable pseudopods! The searing pain in my lungs grew worse and worse…
“If the belief matters so much, try this, demon!”
It screamed in pain. It dropped me and recoiled.
I gasped for air and looked over at my rescuers.
Christie and Rachel.
Christie and Rachel? Was I hallucinating?
Christie was holding up a big silver cross as if she were warding off Count Dracula. Rachel was holding out the Star of David on the end of her necklace. They were both trembling in terror, but they were gutting it out.
It bellowed, “NOT THE SEAL OF SOLOMON! NO!”
The Seal of Solomon? I thought back to what Nikki had said one time about ancient relics.
Got it. That ornate Star of David was exactly what I needed.
I gasped for air as I struggled to my feet. Damn, I really hurt all over. It felt like my ribs were cracked. They hurt every time I took a deep breath.
Like I had the time to stop and go have someone put a Band-aid on my boo-boos.
I staggered painfully over to where they stood, halfway up the aisle. Every breath hurt like I was stabbing myself in the chest. I put out my hand and said, “Rachel. Gimme.”
She hesitantly took the star off her necklace and put it into my hand. I turned and went heavy, taking the Star of David with me. Then I hurled it as hard as I could, as if it were one of Chou’s shuriken.
One of the things I had learned this fall was that I can make small objects go heavy with me, and they’ll keep that ‘heaviness’ for up to a second after I release them. That one-ounce pendant suddenly weighed maybe a pound and a half. I threw it at perhaps 160 miles per hour, and it cut right into that demon.
And by the way, I highly recommend that you never try hurling anything using a major league pitching style, when you have cracked ribs. The searing pain through my chest nearly dropped me to the floor.
The thing screamed like nothing I ever want to hear again. Waves of something pulsed off of it, making my head throb and my chest hurt. Christie and Rachel passed out from the effect. I grabbed up both of them, slung them over my shoulders, and ran back up the aisle to the lobby. That wasn’t as easy as it sounds, because - even as heavy as I was - my ribs still hurt like crazy. I made sure not to disturb the line of salt, just in case.
Whatever that Star of David was doing, it was definitely ruining Captain Creepy’s magical powers. The force field around the theater was breaking apart, and police were rushing everyone out of the lobby. I turned Rachel and Christie’s limp forms over to a couple SWAT guys. The policemen tried to grab me too, but I just phased out of their grasp.
At the other side of the lobby were three MCO men in full body armor, with two guys in powder-blue MCO power armor right behind them. I ran up to them. “In there,” I pointed into the lobby. “It’s a full-fledged demon. I think I’ve got it temporarily bound, but it’s still dangerous as hell. And for God’s sake, don’t mess up that line of salt.”
I turned to walk back into the auditorium, and I thought of something else. I said to the closest SWAT guy, “Get as much salt as you can and make an unbroken ring all the way around the outside of this building. That may keep it pinned in here. And get the West Coast League, or some super-powered mages, or something over here to banish this sucker. Tell whoever you contact that we’re talking banishment of a serious demon, so they know what to prepare.”
I didn’t stick around to see if he was good with that, or if he was staring at me like I was loony. I mean, if our positions had been reversed, I would have been looking to sign him up for a rubber room. I headed back into the auditorium, with the body-armored MCO guys on my heels and the power armor guys trudging down the aisle behind us.
The three MCO guys in body armor pointed their pump-action shotguns and opened fire. They fired together, marched three steps closer, and repeated. Nice teamwork, guys. The demon didn’t move. I didn’t think the shotgun shells were having any effect on it at all. The demon wasn’t even bothering to get annoyed.
The power armor guys marched down the aisle until they were right behind the body armor guys. Suddenly, the body armor guys moved off to the sides and knelt down behind auditorium chairs to fire more shotgun rounds. At the same time, the power armor guys opened up on the demon, in a nice display of team coordination. One opened fire with some sort of energy weapon that fired bolts of plasma or something. The other let loose with a heavy machine gun and what looked like bolts of electricity.
The demon appeared to ignore what they were doing, although I couldn’t tell. Instead, it raised I-don’t-know-how-many pseudopod-things and convulsed in a way that made my head hurt and my eyes burn.
Waves of invisible force rippled outward in huge rings, almost like the effect you’d see if you dropped pebbles into a smooth, clear pond.
I was heavy, but still the force ripped through me like I was standing in a heavy surf. I staggered, and my head flared in pain. The invisible force swelled over me and made me want to vomit my lungs out.
The power armor guy with the plasma cannon suddenly froze up. He erupted in an explosion of fire that sent armor fragments everywhere. The three MCO guys in body armor all fell to the floor. Flaming metal bounced off me. Other stuff hit me too, but I desperately didn’t want to think about that.
Only I - and the other power armor guy - remained. And he was moving forward. Was that guy courageous, or the dumbest guy on the planet?
As things turned out, the answer was: none of the above.
He marched straight up to the thing. The demon didn’t grab him or attack him or anything. What was going on? The power armor guy suddenly thrust his armored grip right into the demon! Was he nuts?
The demon didn’t do anything. And the power armor guy pulled back.
He had yanked the Star of David out of the demon’s corpus.
Holy crow!! It was mind-controlling him!
And I had figured it out about twenty seconds too late.
He crushed the Star of David in his power grip. Then he turned.. and opened fire on me!
I was already heavy, but the energy blasts and heavy machine gun fire hurt. A lot. It was like getting blasted by Golden Girl and hit by Silverwing at the same time.
I waded right through all of it and closed on him. When I was close enough for him to grab me with his power grips, I reversed his grab and gave him an aikido throw. I slammed him through a couple auditorium seats, into the floor. I hard-phased one arm through him and his armor, and the armor froze up as the circuits burned out and the wearer lost consciousness.
The demon roared at me, “FLESH-THING. YOU ARE POWERFUL. BUT YOU ARE NO MATCH FOR BKCRMWDJVG. YOUR BINDING HAS FAILED. YOU CAN NO LONGER STOP BKCRMWDJVG. YOU ARE DOOMED.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ve been hearing that for hours now, Bucky.”
It pointed upward with five.. no six.. no… Hell, I couldn’t count how many pseudopods it pointed up at the ceiling. I didn’t know what it was going to do next, but I knew it would be bad.
“Get the hell out of the way, kid!” A rough voice screamed at me from the direction of the lobby.
I phase-leapt for a balcony, and about twenty policemen opened fire from the lobby doors and the hole in the lobby wall. They fired on the thing with everything from shotguns to SWAT sniper rifles and sub-machine guns.
It ignored everything the police could throw at it.
But it was focusing on the police. It pointed a few dozen pseudopods at the police, and prepared to turn them into toads. Or take over their minds. Or something else too hideous to contemplate.
I didn’t let it. I hadn’t leapt for a balcony just to get out of the way. I ripped up another wrought iron railing. I pulled the hand railing off, exposing a row of fluted cylindrical spindles.
Also known as cold iron missiles.
I pulled two out and hurled them straight into Ugly’s.. umm.. well, into the main part of his corpus. Gray’s Anatomy didn’t exactly cover this.
It swatted one out of the air, and missed the other. Maybe it could have used some Exemplar reflexes too.
I yelled at it, “Say hello to my leetle friend!” I didn’t expect it to get the ref. I just didn’t want it to focus on the cops.
It screamed in pain as the wrought iron arrow plunged in. The cops kept firing at it, but it was focusing on me. Well, it did something to the police too. A wave of invisible energy rippled out from it, and suddenly all the cops went flying backward into the lobby.
It waved a slew of pseudopods, and the chairs all around it ripped free of the floor to blast toward me.
I already had two more spindles flying down toward Captain Creepy, but they were smashed out of the air by the high-speed chairs. I had two more in my hands, but I didn’t have time to launch them.
I went light. A couple tons of supersonic chairs whizzed through me and turned the entire balcony into shrapnel.
I went heavy, and dropped. There was nothing underneath me anymore, since the entire balcony had just been shredded. Another forty chairs ripped up from a different part of the auditorium and targeted the floor where I was going to land.
I went light again. The spindles went light with me. I could feel it. While I was light, I threw the spindles. They phased through the chair barrage and punched into Captain Creepy. I stayed light, and phased right through the floor, as well as through all the chairs smashing insanely around me. I went heavy and landed hard on the basement floor.
Even when I was under the stage, I could hear the thing scream ferociously. Maybe the spindles hurt more when they were immaterial. Or maybe they phased into Captain Creepy and went normal deep inside him. Or maybe they phased through what I could see and ended up somewhere else, like in another dimension, where they could really hurt him.
At any rate, I finally had a weapon I could use on Resident Evil up there. I just needed more spindles.
I stayed light and sprinted through the walls of the below-stage rooms, aiming for the other side of the auditorium. I cut through the kitchen area, but there wasn’t any more salt lying about. I was pretty sure I could have used a few lines of salt to protect me from that thing’s magics. No luck. I ran to the other side of the auditorium and flew upward to a narrow hallway that led me to another balcony. I went heavy and stepped out onto the balcony.
What I saw there is probably going to haunt me for the rest of my life.
The thing was writhing, trying to pry those spindles out of its body. Ichor or something was spewing out of the places where it was reaching into itself. It was pulling out.. not flesh or bone or guts.. but people. Writhing, screaming, twisting pieces of people were emerging. Eyes. Fingers. Feet. Mouths. Body parts that weren’t supposed to be on the outside of anything. And all those pieces were still alive and still moving. Just looking at it made my head ache and my eyes burn.
I froze. I admit it. If I had been Spiderman or Chaka or someone like that, I would have yelled a snappy “Eat cold iron!” and pelted it with another dozen wrought iron spindles before it could react. But I had to stop and struggle just to keep my breakfast down. By the time I got two spindles pried loose, another fifty or sixty ex-chairs were flying at me at Mach 2.
I went light just before the chairs destroyed the entire balcony, and I heaved both spindles at the thing. It blasted one spindle with a spray of blackness that made me feel sick just looking at it. The other spindle plowed into it and set it screaming even louder.
I ducked back through the wall and headed for the next balcony. I stayed light so I could cut right through the walls.
Unfortunately for me, Evil Incorporated finally started thinking proactively.
As I sprinted for the closest balcony, blasts of black energy ripped through the auditorium walls, cutting me off from the balcony.. and cutting right through me.
I screamed in agony. For a moment, I saw those red and green lines, all being twisted and pulled toward the thing in the middle of the auditorium. Then for a second, I saw - how can I describe this - it was like an overlay of our universe, and the other universe. The hell in which this thing ruled. The place where the vast majority of its corpus and energies and powers still lay. A hellish, inconceivable realm that was its home and was its corpus and yet was completely inside it too. Just seeing that glimpse of the other realm made my nose start bleeding.
Then I hit the floor of the auditorium, along with about fifteen tons of theater wall.
If I hadn’t been nearly-light, I would have been killed. As it was, I disintegrated an Ayla-sized hole in the floor, and the pain from that nearly knocked me out. I forced myself to go light and dive downward.
I floated off to the side before I dared come back up to the auditorium. I couldn’t run. I just hurt all over and all through my body, like I’d been used as an inter-dimensional punching bag. I held as still as I could, and I floated back up to see what I could do.
That proved to be another mistake. The thing blasted me again with that agonizing black energy stuff. I went flying backward, too stunned to focus on my density. I hit the wall so hard that it knocked the wind out of me. Then something massive hit me in the back of the head and I blacked out for a second. I came to just as I hit the floor face-first.
I struggled to get back up, but it hurt too much to move. It hurt too much to breathe. It hurt too much to think. It started to manifest more of those devil-things. I couldn’t possibly fight them off anymore. I couldn’t even get up. I couldn’t even breathe without agony.
Two just-manifested devil-things swooped over and picked up my battered body. Oh God, just being moved hurt more than I could bear! They carried me to the demon. I had to fight it. I had to get the hell out of there. But I was too battered. Too stunned. I was having trouble concentrating, and I couldn’t make my body change density. Just trying to change density was making my head hurt like it was about to split open. I could feel the blood running from my nose and from the corner of my mouth.
It roared down at me, “STUPID THING-OF-FLESH! YOU CANNOT DEFEAT BKCRMWDJVG! MY MINIONS WILL FIND THOSE VIRGIN TEENAGE GIRLS AND BRING THEM BACK HERE SO I MAY COMPLETE THE FIRST RITUAL AND MOVE AGAIN WITHOUT CRUSHING MYSELF INTO ONE OF YOUR PUNY FORMS!”
Oh. So he was stuck in this spot until he did the ritual, or took another human form. That explained a lot.
I groaned, “Lotsa luck finding teenaged virgins around here. This is Los Angeles.”
It yelled at me, “ONLY TWO OF MY VICTIMS WERE THE RIGHT AGE AND ALSO VIRGINAL. AND YOU ARE NOT EVEN FEMALE. I REQUIRE TEN MORE. THEN THE FIRST OF MY RITUALS WILL FREE ME TO MOVE AS I SEE FIT TO FIND MORE, UNTIL I CAN ABSORB THIS REALM INTO MY OWN.”
I spit some blood out of my mouth and gasped, “So, you need twelve teenaged virgin girls for each ritual? Let me guess. You need twelve rituals like that total.”
It roared, “MAGE! HOW DID YOU KNOW THAT?”
Lucky guess. I mean, how many mystical numbers are there, especially if you’re starting out working with the number twelve?? “I read a lot,” I winced. “I’ve got news for you. 144 teenaged virgin girls? In L.A.? You may need years to find that many virgins around here.”
But I had it monologuing, instead of just sucking out my soul and getting down to business.
I lay there, in so much pain that I couldn’t move without flashes of agony ripping through my skull. Just hearing it ‘speak’ hurt my head and made me want to vomit. It hurt to breathe, and it hurt to move my arm, and it hurt to move my hips. It hurt just to speak. Blood was leaking out from my right eye and oozing across my nose before dripping to the floor in front of my left eye. But, as long as I had it talking, I was alive. And it wasn’t getting its tasks done. Everyone else was still alive too.
All I had to do was keep it talking, for as long as I could, before I lost consciousness. And died. Or something much, much worse.
It bellowed, “WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT THE YOUNG VIRGINS IN THIS REALM?”
Its roar ripped through me like a buzzsaw. I stalled, “Obviously, a lot more than you do. Or you’d know better than to be hanging around here looking for virgin teenaged girls.”
It screamed, “I WAS SUMMONED HERE! THE PUNY MAGES WHO OPENED A PORTAL TO ACCESS MY POWER FAILED TO PROTECT THEMSELVES ENOUGH!”
It started monologuing about how it ate the mages that allowed it to poke an insignificant part of itself into this realm, and how it was going to devour the entire planet, and how it was going to suck all of us into its realm.
And finally, there was a commotion behind me, back toward the lobby. I hurt too much to turn and look.
A golden burst of energy hit it, rocking it backward. Then some kind of mystical spell hit it, making my head erupt in pain as red and green lines appeared on everything. I could see that the lines from me were now all flowing into the thing. Double plus ungood, as ol’ Winston would have said.
But more magical spells blasted into the area and made all the devil-things disintegrate. The demon roared and blasted a hideous spray of black energy… And the bolts of hellish black force came right back and hammered it. Whoa! What was that?
Then Sunscreen and Hollywood and F/X were flying around it, blasting away at it from high above, while other West Coast Leaguers were hitting it from closer to ground level.
It fired another blast of nastiness at F/X, but Hollywood intercepted the blast and reflected it right back at the demon. Wow. I didn’t know he could do that. That was Lancer-level power.
Valley Girl was whooshing overhead on what looked like a big boulder, with big rocks floating around her. She was firing those rocks at the demon.
Aquamaster was bodysurfing on a wave of water that was launching jets of water at the thing. The water was splashing off it, pouring all over me in gallons. I wondered if I was going to drown from being rescued.
Then I realized. These guys were all distractions. I could see two mages working away at two corners of a triangle. Doctor Arcturus, and someone I’d never seen before. There was probably a third wizard behind me, at the third corner of the huge triangle.
Suddenly, someone must have given some kind of signal, because everyone darted out of the way. Some kind of spell erupted in jagged green energies all around the demon. Someone was chanting in a language that hurt my ears, while the jagged green energies slowly re-aligned into some sort of cage about the demon.
Unfortunately, I was still inside the cage. I struggled to roll onto my stomach. God, it felt like my ribcage and hips had been smashed to pieces! It hurt just to move, but I still tried to crawl away from the demon.
The green energies began to lock together, while the demon screamed words-that-were-not-words. Its sounds made my head pound. Blood began running from my nose again.
I tried to belly-crawl away. But my right arm hurt too much to use. My left leg hurt too much when I tried to move it. My chest hurt too much when I lay on it, or even if I breathed. My head hurt so much it felt like it was going to explode.
The green cage contracted. It scraped over my head and dug into the floor only inches past me. The demon screamed in fury. The green energy shattered.. and re-formed into a tighter cage.
The demon glowed with that hideous black energy. And it slowly faded away. The green cage shrank until it was the size of a birdcage, and then it shimmered into a solid green ovoid about a foot high.
I looked at where the demon had been, and I nearly vomited. All that was left was a hideous crater in the floor. A crater lined with body parts.
The three wizards closed in, while the rest of the team did overwatch. They performed another series of incantations and spells, until they were satisfied that the realm was sealed off.
Then Doctor Arcturus did something over me with a glowing gem on a chain. After a few minutes, he looked up. “It’s okay. She’s untainted. We got here in time.”
He looked past me, toward the lobby. He called out, “All clear! It’s safe to come in now!”
I turned my head enough to see policemen come streaming in with their guns out, while two medics came down the aisle with a stretcher. Guys in MCO uniforms rushed in and checked on the five MCO agents.. or what was left of them.
The two medics put a neck collar on me before they turned me and put me on my back on the stretcher. Jesus! Just being lifted up was agonizing.
Sunscreen looked at me and winced, “Oh Ayla, you’re not supposed to be playing superhero, honey.”
I groaned, “I wasn’t. I just found it, and it tried to eat everybody, and I had to save them…”
While Sunscreen looked at me and the medics took my vital signs, Hollywood knelt and laid hands on me. Then he concentrated. Was he groping what he thought was a teenaged girl in front of everyone including the MCO? Not likely.
And after a minute or two, I felt better. A lot better. Wow. He had Healer gifts too? Impressive. Good guy to have on a team.
I still felt like crap warmed over, and I still hurt when I moved, but at least I didn’t feel like I was going to die in the next twelve seconds.
The medics said, “Sorry, we’ve got to move her now.” They marched me down the aisle and out one of the side doors into an alley. Then they slid the stretcher into an armored MCO van. The massive doors slammed shut behind me, sealing me in near darkness. And the van drove away.
Why was I in an MCO van instead of an ambulance? I needed medical care. Were they taking me to a private MCO site that would have specialized facilities for mutants?
That turned out to be correct, in a sense. Just not specialized medical facilities.
I could hear that the van had pulled into a garage or something. It slowed, then backed up. The door swung open, and three MCO power suits pointed weapons at me as two guys in body armor stepped in to carry my stretcher.
How long was it going to take to convince these guys that I was one of the good guys? Did they think I was contaminated by that demon or something?
While the three power armor suits kept me covered with what looked like a chaingun, a plasma rifle, and some kind of energy cannon, the two other men carried me down a hall.
I looked up at the one by my head. “I need a doctor.”
“Shuddup, gene filth.”
They walked the stretcher into what was obviously a prison cell for supers. I could see that the door was built like the door to a bank vault. The walls were extra-thick, and the door was a foot thick, with a graduated edge to seal everything in. The massive hinges at the side told me the door had to be even heavier than it looked. They put me, stretcher and all, on a small cot on the far wall.
I groaned, “I need a doctor! I need… I think I need a priest and a mage too!”
They ignored me. The power suits covered me as the two others strained to push the door closed. It hit the frame with a massive metallic thunk, and a feeling of increased air pressure, like the door was air-tight and the cell had no air ducts leading in.
“I think I need a better travel agent.”
I hurt too much to get up and explore my little cell. The thing was about ten feet on a side, with an ‘airplane toilet and sink’ arrangement on the wall past my feet. Other than that and the cot and the door, there wasn’t much to explore. And I just hurt all over, so not moving seemed like my best option.
Plus, the odds that I was being left alone and unobserved seemed absurdly small.
I lay there for what seemed like hours, letting my body heal at its usual ‘slightly faster than baseline but not anything like Jade or Billie’ rate. I wondered how long it would be before Gracie got a team of lawyers on these guys. I wondered how long it would be before they bothered to get me some medical assistance.
I wondered just how tough it was going to be to bust out of here, if I had to. Surely they knew by now who I was, and what I could do. Surely they had plenty of experience in containing Warpers and Wizards. I wasn’t sure what they would need to do to keep a Fey-class Wizard from opening a portal out of here. Or what they would need to do to keep a teleporter like Sara’s pal at ARC from just ‘porting out of the cell. But they had to know that there were mutants who could do that.
As for me, that was trivial. They didn’t even need to put force fields around the cell. All they had to do to hold me was to put a high-voltage electrical grid inside the walls and floor and ceiling. Then I wouldn’t be able to go light and walk out. I also wouldn’t be able to bust out after going heavy, if the walls were half as tough as they looked.
Not that I was going to tell them any of that. They didn’t act like the MCO that I was expecting. Was this a rogue office of the MCO? Surely all the MCO offices couldn’t be like this! The Goodkinds had been working with the MCO since its creation, and I knew damned well what the MCO was supposed to be like.
Only I wasn’t really a Goodkind, anymore, was I? I was a mutant. A gene deviant.
What if some people in the MCO treated mutants in the same way that Emil Hammond did? What if they were going to interrogate me and torture me, instead of working with me to keep people safe?
I just didn’t want to believe that the MCO was really like what my Whateley friends said. I just didn’t want to believe that the MCO was different from what I had always been told.
Well, I also hadn’t wanted to believe in hideous, soul-sucking demons summoned from unspeakable realms by dark magics.
I also wondered if the horror in the theater was what Circe had seen when she advised me to take the magic curriculum. Had I escaped the kind of fate that had befallen Gleaner and Wight and so many others? Or was I someday going to have to face something even worse? Wow, way to cheer yourself up there, Ayla.
After a long time, the door clicked, and clacked, and slowly swung open. A doctor in a white labcoat and two medics in body armor stepped through the doorway.
That white labcoat did NOT reassure me in any way. No, it reminded me way too much of Dr. Emil Hammond. Frankly, so did the doctor. He was maybe fifty and balding right up the middle of his head, so he had a crown of gray hair with a shiny dome sticking up above the hair. He had thick glasses and a hook nose. The two ‘medics’ looked more like middle-aged drill sergeants than medics.
The doctor leaned over me and said, “Hello, Phase. Now, we’re not going to cause any trouble, are we?”
I just stared at him. “Doc, I just got beaten half to death. I can’t even sit up without a lot of pain. I’m not going to cause any trouble at all. I’d be in trouble if your protection was two fluffy bunnies and a joy buzzer.”
He took a stethoscope out and put it in between my boobs. “Can you take a deep breath for me?”
“I really can’t. Sorry. I think I’ve got a bunch of broken ribs.”
He sighed, “We’re going to have to take her to medical.”
The medics nodded at each other and picked up the stretcher. Then they toted me out into the hallway. This time I could see, on the wall beside the vault-like door, a control panel for the cell. A nerdy guy was standing before it, checking indicator lights.
One medic asked the light-checker, “What’d she do while she was in there?”
The checker said, “Nothing.”
“Nothing? Nothing at all?”
“She used up a low level of oxygen. That’s it. So she wasn’t even breathing hard. She didn’t move, she didn’t look around, she didn’t try anything funny, she didn’t use any Warper powers, absolutely nothing.”
I decided not to make the obvious wisecrack. These guys obviously had all the humor of a hive of killer bees.
The two medics hauled me off to a med lab. They put the stretcher on top of a gurney, and didn’t hurt me too much in the process.
The doctor said to two nurses - one male, one female, each the size of an NFL offensive lineman, “You’ll need to undress her for the MRI. Her MID says she’s intersexed, so don’t be surprised when you get down to the underwear. Her picture’s only a month old, so that’s a wig. Get it off. And get anything else off too, so it won’t mess up the MRI. I want a good scan to compare to her MRI off her MID, just in case that demon did something we need to know about.”
“Like what?” the female nurse asked.
He frowned, “Ever see the movie ‘Alien’?”
“Shit!” choked the male nurse.
Oh crap. Just what I needed. Little baby demons inside me, ready to erupt out of my body. As if hanging around Sara wasn’t bad enough.
I moaned, “Doctor Arcturus already scanned me, before your guys put me on the stretcher. He said I’m clean and untainted.”
One of the medics growled, “Like we’re gonna take the word of some stinkin’ mutie…”
I sighed painfully, “Fine. I need an MRI anyway.” Great. This wasn’t the MCO I knew. This was more like I was in the hands of the local H1 chapter.
The female nurse grabbed the leotard-skirt by the shoulders and slid it downward, roughly peeling me out of it like I was a banana. The torn pantyhose went too.
Then I was lying there in a bra and a thong. Talk about humiliating. And after all the times when I was a kid and Mother was telling David and me to wear clean underwear in case we were in an accident. She just neglected to mention that it ought to be underwear for the correct gender.
The male nurse grabbed the wig in both hands.
“It’s pinned down with a bunch of bobby pins, so you’ll need to… OW! OW!”
He didn’t need to do anything. He just ripped it off my head, taking the bobby pins and hairtape with it. If it didn’t hurt too much to move I’d…
The female nurse undid the strapless bra, revealing my boobs and the gel pads. She reached for them.
“Wait a second, they’re glued on, and you’ll… OOWWW! OOWWW! That hurt, damnit!”
Like she cared. Like any of them cared.
She peeled off the gaff, and saw the duct tape.
“Oh no! Please, you don’t need to take that off, bec… AAAAAGGHHH!! AAAAAAAGGHHH!!!! Stop!”
Goddamn that hurt! It hurt enough that I tried to sit up and stop her, which hurt almost as much. And I was left with sticky stuff in my bleached hair, and on my chest, and all between my legs. Like they gave a shit.
They slid me onto the bed for the MRI, and stepped behind a glass partition. They ran me through it several times, which gave me a chance to recuperate from having duct tape ripped off my dick and my perineum. And I could feel it when my balls finally dropped back down. That hurt too.
Once the MRI was complete, I could hear the doctor talking to some MCO suits. “… and look at this. A fracture of the right scapula. You don’t see that every day. And then look here at the occipital lobe…”
The grand total sounded like I ought to be dead. Several times over. Six cracked ribs, two fractures of the skull, a level 3 concussion, one fractured shoulderblade, a fractured arm, a hip fracture, two fractures in my leg, enough energy burns - mostly internal - to cook a steer, hundreds of contusions and abrasions, and some internal bleeding - which fortunately for me had already been healed. Most of the fractures looked as if I had been letting them heal for a good month.
I figured that Hollywood had saved my life with the healing he gave me. Between the concussion and skull fractures and internal burns and internal bleeding, I would have otherwise kicked the bucket while I lay on my cot in that cell.
While I lay there, the female nurse brought me a can of diet supplement ‘shake’ and a straw. At least it wasn’t chocolate. I drank it all while the doctor relayed the details of my medical condition to some guys who probably wouldn’t care if my limbs were no longer attached to my body.
The two nurses dressed me in a smock that pulled over my head. Then the two ‘medics’ carried me down to what was obviously an interrogation room. On one side of the room was a security chair that looked like it was made to hold Lancer. It had massive leg and forearm cuffs that looked like they weighed maybe fifty pounds each. On the other side of the room was a long table with five or six comfortable chairs.
They set me in the chair and locked me in place. Four guys came in and sat down at the table so they could stare at me. The one on my far left was a nerdy middle-aged guy with hardly any hair and a face like a trout. Next to him was a mean-looking bald guy with a head like a bullet. Then there was a tough guy with a crewcut and a wicked scar over his temple right up into his hair. Finally, on the right was a quiet guy in a boring gray suit. That guy worried me. He looked like he really couldn’t care whether I lived or died.
Bullet-head opened a file folder and growled, “Okay. Phase, I want you to tell us everything that happened in the theater, and why you were there in the first place. Summoning up a Tier 3 demon that killed at least seventeen people? That we know about? That’s enough murder charges to put you away long enough for even a mutant to get too fuckin’ old.”
I gave him my coldest stare. “You and I both know I didn’t do any summoning. That thing got summoned before I even left Whateley. And some seriously dangerous dark wizards must have done it. And the thing bragged to me that it ate them. So go yell at whoever was the first appetizer on its dinner menu.”
I concentrated. My head still hurt like blazes, but I was healed enough that I could go light again. I floated up through the security manacles.
“Quick! Get security!”
I floated down and sat in one of the rolling chairs facing the four stooges. “Now, that’s better. Would you like to hear my story?”
They goggled at me as if I were Firesnake, and they were all about to be Purina cobra chow.
I started from the beginning. “I live with my sister Gracie and her SO Janet, in The Square. You should have that in your documentation. We had to go to a meeting with Mrs. Westmore of the Santa Monica Children’s Services Department, so she could be sure that Gracie wasn’t mistreating me or stealing all my savings. But I’m listed as ‘female’ on the state records. As you know from reading my MID, I’m actually intersexed. So they made sure I was dressed ‘nicely’. Meaning I had to put on a dress. After the meeting…”
I told them everything I could think of. Why I was in the theater. Why I was dressed in that stupid leotard-skirt thing. How I figured out that the person impersonating Mrs. Carter was behind the Headhunter murders. How I tried to get everyone out of the auditorium. How I figured out that I was facing a demon. How I fought it and its little friends, and protected the people in the lobby. How I stalled it until help finally arrived.
It turned out that Troutfaced Nerd was their telepath. Non-mutant, of course. He confirmed what I told them. Then the suit on the right insisted that the telepath verify my story more deeply.
I agreed to be scanned.. and I focused hard on images of that demon.
The telepath screamed and grabbed his forehead. He barely made it to the trash can before upchucking. “Oh my God, how did you not go insane?”
I admitted, “I think it was all my exposure to magical and demonic and psi influences at Whateley. I hang with a Sidhe and a demon.”
Bullet-head growled, “Oh come on, kid! You hang with a demon? Who?”
I said, “Sara Waite, AKA the Kellith.”
The telepath gasped in real horror. “Oh. Fuck. The Kellith? And you’re still sane?”
I hurt too much to shrug. “I tried to fight a frigging demon. I think my sanity is pretty doubtful.”
They put me back on the stretcher and carried me back to my cell. I hurt too much to do anything other than lay there and recuperate.
Maybe half an hour later, another team of MCO agents hauled me out to a different interrogation room, and made me tell the whole story again. Like a kid with a near-eidetic memory was going to get tripped up on what he had said before. Idiots.
But they kept at me. A team would yell at me and get me to tell them the same story I had told everyone else. Then they would toss me back in the cell. And maybe half an hour later, a new team would do the same thing all over again.
Every time I was walked past the control panel for my cell, I took another peek. There were switches to power up various types of anti-mutant containment measures. And, since I wasn’t doing anything, people kept switching off more and more of the systems. That was good for me.
Finally, in the middle of my latest interrogation, I heard something that made my gut freeze. The lead interrogator in this pack accidentally leaked some intel. Apparently, the MCO guy who had been thought-controlled by the demon was insane. As in: he clawed his own eyes out and had to be restrained from peeling off the skin of his face. But they were taking down his testimony, such as it was. And he was claiming that I attacked him.
And, just to make things worse, even though this guy was claw-your-own-eyeballs-out insane, they were taking his word for what happened. They were going to believe a clinically insane guy over me.
The other power armor guy had exploded. Two of the other MCO guys were dead. Apparently, one of them would have survived the shrapnel wounds, but his brain had melted from the inside out. And the fifth MCO guy was lying there in a hospital bed, completely non-responsive. He was just drooling and staring at the ceiling.
They kept dragging me out of the cell for more rounds of interrogation. They didn’t let me sleep more than half an hour at a time. Which was fine by me! I didn’t want to be sleeping more than half an hour at a time, because I was having nightmares that would have scared the pants off of Dean Koontz.
Apparently, exposure to hideous demons and such wasn’t good for your mental health. Who would have guessed that?
They took me out for yet another pathetic interrogation. Apparently, they thought that techniques which worked on normals would work just as well on Exemplars. You know. Sleep deprivation, tag-teaming the perp, good cop / bad cop, trying to trip the perp up on lies and evasions… I just told the truth again. It apparently wasn’t what they wanted to hear.
They put me back on the stretcher and hauled me back to my cell. I noted that all the containment measures had been dropped as a big waste of time for a kid who couldn’t get up off a stretcher.
As they dumped me and prepared to shut the massive cell door again, they started to argue about me. This sounded relevant. I decided it was time to start doing something other than laying around and being a good boy. Particularly when I knew the containment measures were now off.
I went light and phased through the cell wall. I stopped when my face was on the other side. I moved down and over to my right, until my face was hidden behind a water cooler. I could hear them and I could breathe. I figured that was all I needed, for now.
“I don’t give a flying fuck about that! The cops aren’t gonna play ball on this kid! This is the same mutie who took out Sparkler this summer, and the fucking local yokels all think she can walk on water!”
“She can. Read her MID.”
“Oh shut the fuck up, asshat!”
“That ain’t helping, Ross.”
“Look. We got a big problem here. The cops all agree with her version of the incident. Hell, they think she’s the only reason they’re still alive and kickin’! They prob’ly wanna give her a fuckin’ medal! There’s no way the Barneys here are gonna let us ‘disappear’ that little bitch without raising such a stink that the MCO won’t be able to get anything done in L.A. County for years.”
“I just got a bigger problem than that dumped on us. She’s a Goodkind.”
“So? Big fuckin’ deal she’s got a last name like…”
“No, you moron! She IS a Goodkind! Look at this!”
“Lemme see! Oh shit!”
“What’s the big deal?”
“Her dad is Bruce Goodkind. CEO of Goodkind International.”
“No fuckin’ way!”
“It gets worse. Her mom? Helen Goodkind. Director of Goodkind Research. Which means she oversees every damn MCO research project they’ve got, and every damn Goodkind research grant we’re in, and she tells Emil Hammond which way to jump!”
“Fuck! How could it get any worse?”
“Dammit, didn’t you read the thing? Her uncle is Herbert Goodkind! If he gets mad at us, there goes all our Knights of Purity resources, and his donations, and everything. Goodkind International and Goodkind Research and Goodkind family donations come to about a quarter of our annual budget, worldwide. If we piss the Goodkind family off, we might as well pack up our stuff and just let the muties take over the planet!”
“You mean we’re gonna have to let that freak-ass gene filth WALK?”
“Yeah. And by the way, the West Coast League’s spokesman told reporters today that the kid’s “quick thinking and mental toughness” kept a fragment of a real Tier 3 demon from getting loose on Earth. O’ course, you can’t believe the WCL. They’re all a pack of slimy mutants. But it’s gonna make it that much harder to disappear the kid.”
“Okay, okay, I get it. We let the kid go. Call the mom, or guardian, or whatever, and let ‘em pick the kid up. Then call down to Roswell and tell ‘em they can’t have this one.”
I slipped back into my cell. I felt sick to my stomach. They had been planning to make me disappear. Which meant that they’d done this before. A lot. Those hideous rumors about the MCO ‘disappearing’ mutant children? They were true. Maybe they were ALL true. I didn’t want to believe it. But I had to, now.
I wondered how many of those kids had ended up as experiments on the slabs of people like Hammond. I wondered how many kids before me had ended up in ‘Roswell’ and were never seen again. I wondered how many of those kids had been tortured to death because I and my family had supported the MCO. I wondered how many kids had died because of my family. Because of me.
I lay there for a long time, trying not to cry, and feeling like every agony that tore through me was well-deserved.
They didn’t interrogate me anymore. It was probably an hour or two before Janet and Gracie showed up, because I fell asleep twice, and woke up both times screaming in terror.
Crap! I just wished those nightmares would stop!
I was really afraid they wouldn’t ever stop.
Finally, the door swung open and a couple MCO hardmen stood there. “C’mon, kid. Yer ride’s here.”
“Could someone help me up? I’m not doing very well.”
Neither of them moved. Bastards. I groaned in pain as I rolled over. Then I leaned against the metal wall and pushed myself to my feet. After that, I limped out into the hallway in nothing but a stupid medical smock. My hips and legs hurt so much that I went a little light, just so there was less weight on my lower body.
I grimaced, “Anyone know what time it is?”
Neither answered. I mean, it wasn’t like I wouldn’t be seeing a clock in the next couple seconds.
They walked alongside me, past the interrogation rooms, past some other cells, and to a security door. I was tempted to just walk right through the door. But I still hurt too much to mess around. I just stood there and waited.
In a few seconds, the door opened, and we strode out into the less-secure areas. Well, they strode out. I limped out. Rows of desks were occupied by armed MCO agents hard at work. Other agents were going through rows and rows of file cabinets.
File cabinets? What millennium were these guys from?
I looked around and saw from the desk clocks and desk calendars that it was 6:34 pm on Friday the 29th. Those pricks had kept me locked up for over twenty-four hours.
By then most of my bruises were nearly gone. My burns and cracked ribs and concussion and fractured bones - and all the other major stuff - were a little better, but certainly not healed. I could really have used a visit from Prism or Fey. Or that brick Hollywood.
I limped my way past all the suspicious, glaring agents, and I was taken to another security door. Janet and Gracie were frantically waiting for me on the other side, along with two lawyers they had used before.
They grabbed me and hugged me like they hadn’t seen me in a decade.
I gasped from underneath the hugs, “Ow! Ouch. Jeez, take it easy! I’m still pretty sore.”
“Oh fuck!” cursed Janet.
“Oh my God!” gasped Gracie. “I’m so sorry! I’m so so sorry!”
Janet asked, “Where does it hurt?”
I limped out the front door of the MCO headquarters, and admitted, “Pretty much everywhere. For getting hugged, my ribs are probably the worst. And my right arm. But my hips and my leg hurt, so walking is pretty crappy too.”
I went almost-light, so I was down to maybe twenty or thirty pounds, and I stretched out my arms over their shoulders. Then I let them ‘carry’ me down a big flight of concrete steps and across the parking lot to the car. My shoulder hurt doing that, but the rest of me liked it. In particular, it was way easier on my hips and leg.
I stretched out in the back of Janet’s wagon and let them drive me home. I went a little heavy, so the bumps and rattles wouldn’t hurt so much. But I made sure I didn’t go completely heavy and do something like bust the shocks under the car. I had no idea how much weight a station wagon could take without collapsing.
Gracie tried to talk, but she burst into tears. “I was so scared! It was awful enough seeing you fighting those.. things, but then the police made us leave, and I didn’t know what was going on, and the West Coast League came in, and then YOU NEVER CAME OUT! We thought you were dead!”
Janet was sobbing too. “Then they all came out - all those superheroes - and.. and you weren’t there, and they didn’t know where you were, and we didn’t know what to do. And the fucking MCO said they didn’t have you, and no one was really sure if they really had you or if maybe some H1 bastards had kidnapped you, and we got our lawyers, and we called Lieutenant Merrill about a hundred times, and we called Paul, and we did everything we could think of, but we didn’t even know where you were!”
Then it was Gracie’s turn to talk through the tears. “And those goddamn MCO assholes! Admit that they had you? Hell, they wouldn’t even admit they knew who you were, or that you were in California! We’ve been fighting with them for almost a day and a half now!”
A day and a half? Maybe it was a good thing they hadn’t known how to get hold of Tennyo or Lancer or Fey. A few people from Team Kimba could have turned that entire MCO hardsite into a pile of rubble.
Janet sobbed, “And after we talked to Sunscreen on the phone, we were just so scared! She told us one of the League had needed to give you healing on the spot, just to keep you from dying right away. And she told us that the MCO survivors were completely insane, and some of the policemen were pretty screwed up mentally, and.. and…”
Gracie wept, “And we were just scared out of our minds! I mean, we didn’t know how bad you were hurt, or if you were somewhere out there dying all alone with no one who cared, or if you’d gone insane from fighting that frigging demon, or what! We didn’t know if we’d ever see you again! We didn’t know if we’d ever know what happened to you!”
Janet cried, “And I’m so sorry about the pageant!”
Gracie choked out, “If I’d known… If I’d even thought it could possibly happen to you…”
They were both painfully remorseful, as if it was their fault that there was a frigging demon lurking in the spot where they tried to hide me. I wasn’t going to let that slide. “Look, you can knock that off. You did what you thought was right, to protect me. I didn’t believe you then, but I was wrong. I hate to admit it, but the MCO does kidnap kids and disappear them. You needed to hide me, even if I didn’t know it. And the place you picked to hide me was really ingenious. It wasn’t your fault that there was a fucking demon hiding in there, getting ready to suck the souls out of fifty kids, plus all the adults in there. And it was probably the smartest place a demon like that could’ve picked, except for a fundamentalist retreat for teenaged girls. If I hadn’t been there at just the right time, it probably would’ve been able to eat those girls and perform a couple hideous rituals, and then everyone on the entire west coast would’ve been in REAL trouble.”
“But you could’ve died!”
I insisted, “I didn’t. And we saved all but a couple of the pageant people. And we stopped a serial killer who was a real threat to the lives and souls of most of L.A. Okay, I got pummeled. I’ll heal up.”
It was about then that I realized something else. The MCO guys never did say how they had tracked the demon down to that general area. But I was willing to bet it had something to do with their psychics like Troutface, and not any brilliant deductions on their part.
Janet and Gracie still cried most of the way home.
One of the things Janet was crying over was that I had missed the ‘luncheon with the West Coast League’. Janet and Gracie were both really upset about that, since that was their other big Christmas gift for me, and it was shot. I had really wanted to go to that dinner and thank the WCL for saving my sorry ass. But with my luck, they would have all chewed me out for playing superhero.
When we got home, Janet pulled into the carport. Instead of clambering out of the back of the wagon and limping through the house, I went light. I floated up through the wagon and through the house, into my room. Man, that was way easier than moving bruised muscles and damaged ligaments and cracked bones.
First, I had to get the glue off me before I showered. Gracie told me that the stuff in my hair would dissolve with a little water and shampoo, so I didn’t have to worry about that. But the stuff on my chest was medical adhesive, and the stuff in my groin was the remains from the duct tape. It took her a few swabs of remover to get the stuff off my boobs, but it took fifteen minutes of fairly painful clean-up with fingernail polish remover to get that crap off my privates.
Man, I was NEVER again going to let her at me with duct tape.
It hurt to shower myself clean. I did my usual power-assisted drying trick, and I limped over to where Gracie was sitting on my toilet with the lid down, waiting for me with my jammies. She helped me into the stuff, and I tried not to groan too much.
Then I limped over and got into bed. I was expecting a dull night down in my room, with everyone else upstairs. I was mistaken.
I figured that out when Tiffany and Amy came banging down the steps like a herd of clumsy camels in tin armor. They were having a little trouble bringing four metal TV trays down the steps. I would have left the trays folded before bringing them down.
Gracie brought down a tray with flatware and napkins for everyone, while Tiff and Amy set the tables up around my bed. Then Janet came down with a breakfast tray for me. It had tonight’s dinner, with all the trimmings. Including a fancy salad Tiff had put together for me. Everyone else had to go upstairs and get their own plate.
Then we had dinner together. On my bed. Fortunately, it was a queen-sized bed, so there was room for everyone to sit on the sides, while I lay limp and sore in the middle like Wiley Coyote after the cartoon finally ends.
As we ate, I slowly told them all about the battle. Janet and Gracie had already told Tiff and Amy about pushing me into the theater, and dressing me up to hide me amongst the pageant contestants, and my suddenly running out and saving everyone from the demon.
Amy turned on the tv, and we watched a bit, as I told everyone about fighting the devil-things.
Then the evening news came on. Ugh.
Al AnchorHair - or whatever his name actually was - beamed into the camera, “And on tonight’s news! Police confirm that the Headhunter has been stopped, and that he was in fact a demon, not a mutant. The West Coast League, along with Professor Lachesis and Planeswalker, and an unnamed minor who stumbled upon the killer, managed to stop him in a pitched battle that destroyed the interior of the Santa Monica Performing Arts Theater. We have footage of the damage inside the theater…”
“Stumbled upon? I figured it out! I… Ouch!” Okay, I shouldn’t have jerked upright while protesting.
The film of the interior was pretty spectacular. It really did look like it was completely destroyed.
Tiff gasped, “Wow! That place looks like you ripped it apart!”
“I had help.”
Janet said, “When Ayla came flying through the wall and crashed through the ticket booth, it was like watching a Superman movie!”
Gracie added, “Except it was scary as hell.”
“And it really hurt.” I added, “I was just lucky I didn’t hit anybody when that demon knocked me through the wall. I was heavy, so I weighed over a ton, and that demon must’ve sent me through the wall at about two hundred miles an hour. Anything that got in my way got crushed like a bug.”
The news vultures also had “artist’s concept” drawings of the demon and its devil-things. God, those drawings looked so incredibly lame compared to the real things.
I complained, “Those are about as close to the real thing as.. as… Okay, imagine the scariest person ever. Hannibal Lecter, Freddie Krueger, whatever scared you the most. Now imagine Janet drew a little picture of ‘scary person’. Is that picture scary, even a teeny bit?”
“Of course not.”
“Same thing here. That demon was so scary that most of the people who got close to it went insane just from looking at it. One of the MCO guys that got too close? His brain melted from the inside out.”
After dinner and clean-up, everyone came back down to watch tv and listen to me talk about the battle. And being held captive by the MCO.
It was really great having everyone wanting to be with me. But when I fell asleep that night, I had more of those horrific nightmares. I woke up five or six times that night, screaming in terror. I know I woke up everyone in the whole house, because Gracie came down to check on me the first time, and Janet came down the second time. Tiff came down the third time. Amy got home in time to rush down after my fifth scream. She was still in her waitressing outfit.
I slept late Saturday morning, because I was only sleeping for about an hour at a time before hideous nightmares would creep up and attack me. And when I got up, I was anything but refreshed.
I limped out of bed, groaned through a painful shower, and hobbled up the stairs. You know, being a superhero was just not everything it was cracked up to be.
While I ate breakfast, I wondered if the horror at the beauty pageant was what Circe had seen in my future. No, she had been expecting me to take Intro to Magic in spring term. Did that mean that she had foreseen that someday I’d have to fight something even worse? Holy crow, I didn’t even want to think about what would be worse than that demon.
And, as if things were too much fun already, I had to go to the Santa Monica Police Department that afternoon. I had a feeling that I’d be about as welcome there as a termite infestation.
Janet picked up a collapsible wheelchair for me to ride in, since it still hurt to walk. I figured it would be a good idea if I showed up at the police department in a wheelchair. It would make me seem less threatening, and I figured they’d be less willing to yell at a girl in a wheelchair.
Well, it was a theory, anyway.
Gracie helped me into a t-shirt and a pair of sweat pants, and I floated out to the station wagon. Janet drove us. When we got to the police station, I let them put me in the wheelchair and wheel me in.
We had to wait about fifteen minutes before Lieutenant Merrill was ready to see us. We were led to a small conference room, where he and two other police officers in suits awaited us. Gracie wheeled me up to the table. Then she and Janet sat on either side of me.
I opened up, “Captain Merrill, I…”
He glared at me. “I watched the tape of you from the interviews of the Sparkler incident. That ‘Captain’ crap worked really well on me the last time. Don’t bother.”
“All right, Lieu…”
He fumed, “Just stop right there. Do you remember what I said the last time, about superheroing in my town?”
I sighed, “Yes, I do. You said, and I quote, ‘We’re not going to charge you with anything. This time. But if you ever pull anything like this without legal authority as a duly deputized agent of the state of California or of Los Angeles County, you’re gonna end up in Mount Prometheus alongside your buddy Sparkler. Got it?’ Endquote.”
He was taken aback by my quoting him, but he got back on track. “And what did you do, only days after getting back here?”
So I told him. “I got trapped by a soul-sucking demon from some kind of hell. My guardians thought they were protecting me by getting me away from the MCO patrols all over the area. Instead, I walked into a Rob Zombie movie. I got the civilians away from it as quickly as I could, and I got people to call for help. They called you, and the MCO, and the West Coast League. And they provided information as specific and accurate as I could manage. Unfortunately, the demon didn’t want to wait for my reinforcements. Not that your men could’ve gotten through its force fields around the theater. Then, when I managed to bind it enough that its magical fields fell, I assisted five MCO men in a delaying action until some real superheroes could get there. According to the American charter for the MCO, section 43, paragraph 18b, a legitimate use for mutant powers is in the express assistance given to MCO teams when faced with paranormal or hyper-normal threats.”
Merrill looked over at the balding guy with the big nose and the more expensive suit.
The guy said, “I’d have to check whether she’s got the reference correct, but she’s got the substance of the clause down cold.”
Merrill glared at me, “I doubt the MCO’ll see it that way after you ripped up one of their power suit boys. Is he going to testify against you?”
I gave him a bland smile. “He’s unlikely to. The demon mind-controlled him, used him to break the binding I had on the darned thing, and then tried to use him to kill me. I knocked him out. But his mind’s gone. Once they got him out of the suit and he came to, he clawed his own eyeballs out and tried to rip the skin off his face. They’ve got him sedated and strapped down over at their HQ. Given that a demon took control of his brain, and he stuck his arm into something that’s not really part of our reality, I doubt he’ll come out of it without years of psi-assisted therapy.”
Merrill asked, “What about the fifth MCO guy? The other one that survived?”
I said, “He’s a vegetable. They said he was staring at the ceiling and drooling, and utterly non-responsive to all stimuli.”
The third guy - the guy with the grizzled buzzcut and the ill-fitting Sears suit - snapped, “So how come you’re not a drooling vegetable too?”
I tried not to sound like I was bragging as I said, “Six reasons.”
“Yes. Six reasons. First, as a member of the Goodkind family, I’ve been given some training in resisting psychic assaults since I was maybe a second grader. Next, I’m an Exemplar 3, and that comes with some psychic protection as well. Third, at Whateley, I have a room next to a girl who has a ‘glamour’. A psychic compulsion to, well, pretty much rush over and worship the ground she walks on. I’ve spent a lot of the year blocking that. Fourth, I’ve spent most of fall term in an aikido class partnering a girl with a fear aura, so I’ve had to learn to block that too. Fifth, I know a girl on campus who’s actually half-demon. She has a demonic aura I’ve had to try to handle at times. And sixth, there are dozens of psis and espers on campus who can’t shield well, or deliberately don’t shield, and I’ve had to work at blocking some of them too. So, as odd as it seems, one term at Whateley prepared me for this far better than I could have imagined.”
Lieutenant Merrill muttered, “I warned you she’d get you sidetracked if you didn’t watch it.”
Buzzcut-guy cleared his throat and got himself back on track. “Look kid, I didn’t want you ta give me a sermon on how come you’re not bonkers! I wanted you ta understand how lucky you are that yer not in a nuthouse fer the rest of yer life!”
I insisted, “I already do. I wouldn’t have been that lucky. The demon told me what it was going to do to me. It was going to suck my soul out of my body and take me into its realm and torture me for all eternity. And based on what I saw it do, I’m pretty sure it was telling me the truth, just to scare the pee out of me. I think that counts as a lot worse than going nuts.”
He growled, “Then why were you fighting it? Are you stupid or something?”
I sighed, “More like desperate, and just plain scared silly.” They all stared at that. “I was just trying to get everyone to safety, and get help. But we couldn’t get out of there! It had a magical force field penning us in, so it could eat us more easily. I tried, but I couldn’t break the field. So then I was just trying to protect everyone until real superheroes could get there and banish it. And I got my ass kicked doing it, too. If the West Coast League hadn’t gotten there when they did, I would’ve died right there. If they hadn’t had a really powerful Healer, I would’ve died on my way to that MCO cell. And if I didn’t have some Regen in me, you’d be yelling at me while I lay in a hospital bed wearing about a dozen casts and a thousand Band-aids.”
But they didn’t want to hear my “I really got hurt and I’m really sorry and I won’t do it again” spiel. They wanted to yell at me for a while. Of course, what they wanted to yell at me was exactly what I was saying. “You got hurt and it coulda been worse.” “You oughta be really sorry.” “DON’T DO IT AGAIN!!”
Then they gave me the “you’re lucky we’re not throwing the book at you” routine for over half an hour.
Like there was any evidence whatsoever that I had committed any crime at all. The only solid thing they had on me was yelling ‘fire’ in a public venue, which was a misdemeanor they’d never be able to prosecute on, given why I had done it. I hadn’t left the scene of a crime, I’d been kidnapped (or taken into custody, depending on your point of view) by the MCO. There was no evidence that I’d recklessly endangered anyone, or destroyed public property. The police videocams of the incident had all melted down from exposure to the demon’s whatever-it-was. The three policemen who had tried to watch me fight the thing were all under sedation and on psychiatric leave. And, even if they did have any evidence usable in a court of law, they’d have a heck of a time prosecuting me for defending a theater full of beauty pageant contestants from a soul-sucking demon.
I just played the good little girl. I stared at the table in front of them, pretended to listen to them ranting at me, and thought about how long it would be before I could be back at Whateley to get some serious magical healing from Fey. Even if I was flying back on the fifth, there was no guarantee she’d be back before Sunday the seventh. Flying back from Kansas City, she’d undoubtedly need to make a connection in Chicago or someplace, so she might not be back at Poe before nighttime. Then she might not be up to expending the effort until the next morning. Okay, I’d figure on getting healed up on the morning of the eighth…
“…And another thing! We don’t like it when we end up having to disagree with the MCO! It looks bad. It makes us look bad. It makes for lots of complaints to guys way over our heads, and those kinds of complaints come down on you like a ton of bricks! It…”
By the time they felt they’d yelled at me enough, it was time to get out in the late afternoon traffic and trundle home for dinner.
That night, I bugged Gracie until she went out and bought some hair dye for me. I was just so sick of having this bleached mop that looked like I was trying to emulate Pink or something. It didn’t take too much prodding, since she still felt horribly guilty about everything that had happened.
She came back an hour later with a box that looked pretty close to my normal black color. L’Oreal Excellence Crème Color, in Natural Black 5. She even promised she’d color my hair for me the next morning.
That night, I had horrific nightmares. Again. About one an hour. I wondered if Fey or Sara or someone else at Whateley could help me stop these things. Because if the nightmares kept up like this, I was going to go nuts.
Gracie must have been feeling extra, extra guilty. Maybe it was my screaming nightmares.
She set her alarm early enough that I was still reading in bed when she got up to make me breakfast.
I had breakfast in bed, then she helped me shower. After that, she took me up to her bathroom and settled me in a chair so she could color my hair and eyebrows back to their normal jet black color.
While she worked on my hair, Janet changed my bed and put the sheets in the washer. Those sheets needed it. I was sweating like crazy when I had my nightmares.
When Gracie was done, I had my black hair back.
With a couple exceptions.
I was going to have to use a special shampoo and conditioner so I didn’t wash the color out before all the bleached hair strands had grown out enough to be trimmed off. That would probably be a couple months.
And now I had sexy, arched, female eyebrows that made my green eyes look bigger and even more female. Which was exactly what I DIDN’T want. Goddamnit!
I had to wonder how long it would be before my eyebrows and body hair grew back. Gracie guessed it would be a month or two. Shit. I wondered if my Exemplar power would speed that up.. or make things even worse.
And then I had to argue with everybody for the entire afternoon about New Year’s Eve plans. They all wanted to cancel their longstanding plans, and sit at home with Limpy, The Wimpy Superhero. Tiff and Amy had expensive tickets to this major TG bash at the Queen Mary, along with new party dresses, and salon reservations, and everything. Gracie and Janet had even more expensive tickets (complete with hotel room) to a New Year’s Eve bash with a bunch of their friends at the Century City Marriott.
They all seemed to think that someone needed to stay home with the beaten-up kid who was having nightmares. I told them over and over again that there was no reason for any of them to stay, and nothing they could do when I had nightmares. Besides, I wasn’t going to go to bed until after midnight, anyway. The neighborhood was probably going to be exploding with revelers of all kinds, so it probably wouldn’t be quiet enough to sleep until one or two in the morning.
Okay, that part was a lie. Given the people on my floor and the stuff they got up to, I’d found I could sleep through nearly anything. Even Tennyo yelling when the J-Team played another prank on her. Even Chaka kiai-ing the heck out of Fey’s latest hobgoblins. Loud drunk neighbors? I’d never notice.
It took me hours to convince them all to go out.
Once they were gone, I carefully settled into my bed with a stack of books. And a big mug of coffee. I really wasn’t interested in sleeping, given how ‘restful’ my sleep had been lately.
So, for New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, I spent the night lying in bed recuperating, while everyone else went out and partied. I mainly tried not to go to sleep, since I was still having hellacious nightmares. Literally.
I left the TV on one of the stations covering New Year’s Eve around the world, and I read a lot.
Everyone had the day off, for the national holiday. It was a good thing, too. I didn’t think that any of them were in shape to go do real work.
Amy and Tiff had wretched hangovers, and were mainly sitting with ice packs on their heads. Amy had gotten home around seven, and some guy had driven Tiff home about nine.
Gracie had a bit of a hangover too, and Janet had a headache. They had shown up after nine, and had been giggly and touchy enough for everyone within miles to guess that they had REALLY enjoyed the evening, particularly after they left the party.
I was lying on the couch in the living room. Everyone else was sitting around the dining room table, supposedly having a late breakfast. Amy and Tiff weren’t up for more than some soda crackers and water. Gracie and Janet occasionally got up and got food for people, or put more ice in the icepacks, or persuaded people to drink more water and more tomato juice. I just lay on the couch, took another Tylenol with codeine, and tried not to move much.
Gracie answered the phone. “Oh! What a surprise… I’m sure you want to talk to Ayla, uhh, I mean, Phase… Oh? REALLY?… When?… Oh. I can get ‘em to do that.”
Okay, it didn’t take Hercule Poirot to figure out who had called, and what was up. Even I could figure it out, and my little gray cells had gotten the shit kicked out of them recently.
There was only one reason that Gracie would think that she needed to refer to me as Phase. She had to be talking to a mutant.
And that mutant had to be someone that Gracie knew, given what she had said, and the way she said it. That limited the number of possible mutants down to one: Sunscreen.
And, if Sunscreen wanted Gracie to do something for her, instead of just talking to me on the phone, then a logical induction was that Sunscreen wanted Gracie to take me to visit her, or else she wanted Gracie to do something so that Sunscreen could come visit me here.
But if Gracie needed to get some people - say, some people with hangovers - to do something as part of this, then it made more sense that Sunscreen was coming here and trying to be inconspicuous about it, so that she needed Gracie to get the rest of the household out for a while.
And, if Sunscreen was coming all the way down here and trying to be inconspicuous, then she was probably in an ordinary car. She wasn’t likely to be soaring over The Square in the League’s Quadro-jet. But that was a long drive, so she probably had company. And in that case…
I grabbed a pad and pen, and made a quick note that I tore off and folded up.
Gracie came into the living room. “Gue-ess who tha-at was!” she sing-songed.
I pretended to look puzzled. Then I burst out in an over-excited voice, “Oh! The Miss Teen USA pageant wants to give me the Miss Congeniality award!”
She scowled, “Come on. Be serious. Take a real guess.”
I pretended to think about it. “Umm, Channel 3 thought I was the cutest mutant they ever saw and they want me to be the new weather girl?”
She rolled her eyes.
I handed her the paper, and she opened it. She gritted her teeth and cursed, “Goddamnit Ayla, sometimes you’re about as much fun as a hernia.”
Janet said, “Well fuck, what’s the note say?”
Gracie walked into the dining room and handed it to her. It said:
Sunscreen called. She wants you to get the rest of the house out of here for a
couple hours so the West Coast League can come talk to me in private.
Janet dropped the note on the table and snapped, “I didn’t know you were a fucking psychic too!”
Amy moved her icepack further back on her scalp and said, “Shhhh!”
I smirked from the couch, “I figured it out from listening to Gracie’s side of the call.”
Gracie sat down and said, “Sometimes, it’s like living with Sherlock Holmes.”
I teased, “Also, while Amy was out last night, she danced with a tall red-haired man who has an artificial leg, and between two and four children.”
“I did? Jeez!”
I apologized, “Amy, I was just kidding. I have no idea.”
She muttered into the tabletop, “Neither do I. I was only gonna have two Cosmopolitans, and I think I had about eight.”
Tiff muttered something from her position face-down on the table. It sounded like “more like eighteen if you ask me…”
Gracie said, “Well, I know just what you need. The hair of the dog that bit you.”
Amy groaned, “Ugh. Okay.”
Tiff moaned, “Can we go someplace where I can get a tomato juice with bitters?”
Janet nodded - really carefully - and added, “Sure. And I want about five glasses of mineral water.”
Several minutes after they quietly left in Janet’s wagon, the phone rang again. Gee, I wondered who this could possibly be.
“Hello, Ayla? This is Sunscreen. Is everyone gone?”
“Sure. They’ll be gone until I call Gracie and give her the all-clear.”
“Great. Is there a back drive to your house, or do we need to pull up in front?”
I gave her directions to our access alley, and I told her how to find our carport at the rear of the house.
And so, about ten minutes later, I found myself opening our sliding door into the rec room, and watching as most of the West Coast League drove up to my house in a big gray SUV with tinted windows. Even after hanging around Whateley, this still seemed really weird.
The SUV had a big cartop carrier mounted on its roof rack. I had a suspicion that there was something potent mounted inside that carrier. Maybe surface-to-air missiles or a plasma cannon. They did have a deviser on their team, so it could contain anything.
The front doors of the SUV swung open, and out stepped a couple who belonged on a red carpet at the Oscars. Hollywood was driving, and Sunscreen was in the shotgun seat. There was no mistaking them, even without their masks.
Sunscreen looked like an awful lot like a slightly younger Nicole Kidman in glamour makeup. Even the casual dress and flats didn’t disguise her good looks. She had told me that she was an Energizer, but I was pretty sure she was an Exemplar also.
Hollywood just looked like he belonged in Hollywood. He had the ‘movie star’ look. He had a strikingly handsome Exemplar face, with a Bruce Campbell chin and perfect white teeth. He had twinkling blue eyes and perfect blond hair. He looked like the star of a movie about movie stars.
And I was stuck looking like a Miss Teen USA contestant who had short hair and no makeup. It was just sickening. And utterly unfair.
The side doors slid open, and a fabulous babe stepped out on either side of the SUV.
On the driver’s side was a hottie who looked like a porn starlet. I mean, she was wearing a shimmering purple ‘fuck me senseless’ minidress with a V neckline that came all the way down to her solar plexus. To go with that, she was wearing black leather kneeboots with five-inch heels. She was nice-looking, but even with all that makeup she had on, she wasn’t as pretty as Sunscreen. However, she had a set of jugs that made Mindbird look under-developed. Those hooters stuck out and up and together like she was wearing a super-duper push-up bra. Even though she was obviously not wearing a bra at all. Man. That was some valley I was staring into. Oh. Right. Valley Girl. I must have been in real agony to have missed those ICBMs when the West Coast League came to my rescue. There were some long-range pics on the internet of her, topless, after she took a major energy blast in the chest from the El Monte Knight last year. Even from a considerable distance, those were some amazing gazongas.
The other woman wasn’t as.. umm.. pneumatic, but was still scorchingly hot. She was a lot prettier than Valley Girl, but more in a Britney Spears-Christina Aguilera way than a Nicole Kidman way. She was dressed casually in a tight “Pat’s Surf Shop” baby tee and lowrider jeans that really showed off her athletic, sylph-like form. She had a flat stomach and petite waist that Hollywood starlets would have murdered to get. Her hair was long and straight, with lots of blond sun-streaks lightening up the rich brown. Let me see, Sunscreen and Valley Girl were accounted for… This had to be Beach Bunny. Wow. Beach Bunny was a speedster whose uniform was a titanium bikini and matching domino mask. And she generated bursts of heat.
Then two completely ordinary guys climbed out of the back of the SUV. The one on my right was an average-looking guy with dark brown hair and horn-rimmed glasses. If he hadn’t been wearing a pendant with a glowing red gemstone in it, I wouldn’t have realized that he had to be Doctor Arcturus.
The other guy was a schlub. Not handsome, not well-built, not muscular, not tall. Not much of anything. Okay, who was left? This definitely wasn’t Aquamaster, who was built like a weightlifter. That left F/X, Chaney, and Fresno. I couldn’t tell. F/X in his armor looked like he was massively ripped. But who needs fake muscles on the outside of titanium-alloy armor? That sounded like over-compensating for something. Maybe this was F/X.
I slid open the door and welcomed them in. “Sunscreen, it’s really good to see you again. And Hollywood. It’s great to see you. I really owe you a big one after our last meeting.”
Hollywood turned toward Sunscreen and hissed, “Did you tell her our real names too?”
Sunscreen gave him a glare and insisted, “I didn’t tell her anything!”
Since I had gotten that reaction, I played it for all it was worth. “And Valley Girl. It’s nice to see you too. Beach Bunny! We haven’t met yet. I’m Phase. Or Ayla, if you prefer. Doctor Arcturus, I really appreciate all your help at the theater.”
The schlub looked at Arcturus and murmured, “Esper talent?”
Arcturus frowned, “No. She’s not using a psi power, or a magical one either.” His gem glowed more brightly for a second. “Oh. She’s using a deductive ability.” He looked at me and asked, “Who’s our final member?”
I guessed, “F/X.”
Everyone relaxed into grins. Which meant I had guessed wrong.
Arcturus smiled slightly, “Good try, but this is Chaney.”
I smiled, “Pleased to meet you.”
He grinned wickedly and then morphed into another person. This person was a couple inches shorter, and definitely pear-shaped, and had a chin like a rabbit. His voice sounded squeaky as he grinned, “Now you’re meeting F/X.”
Arcturus smiled, but said, “Knock it off, Chane. No imitating other team members. You know what happened the last time!”
Chaney sort of winced, and looked uncomfortably over at Valley Girl before reverting to his normal form.
Man, I so wished I knew the story behind that little scene.
I walked them through the kitchen to get them drinks. Sunscreen and Valley Girl took diet soft drinks. Doctor Arcturus and Chaney accepted beers. Beach Bunny settled for bottled water, even though she was really hoping for some chai tea. No one wanted the coffee I had put on. Hollywood wanted the small bottle of white wine spritzer, in a glass.
White wine spritzer? In a glass? Okay, I was not going to start thinking prejudiced thoughts about him. Particularly after he had saved my bacon back in the theater.
But if he admitted he had been in Poe when he was at Whateley…
I settled everyone in the living room. Valley Girl pointedly sat as far away from Chaney as she could. Now I really wished I knew the story behind that scene.
Valley Girl said, “Like, I thought you were like totally super-rich, or like that.”
Yeah. She really said it that way. With a real ‘valley girl’ intonation. Fer sure.
I smiled, “I have some funds. But I’m trying to live simply these days.”
Beach Bunny pointed at the 60” flat-panel tv and the high-end stereo system, “Yeah, I see what you mean.”
I grinned, “But I don’t have two chefs, a valet, and three maids.”
Chaney took a swig of beer and said, “After the team told me some of what you did, I wanted to meet you. Bunny did too. So we tagged along. You don’t mind, do you?”
“Of course not!” I said. “Right now, I’m happy to have all of you here, and just to be in one still-living piece.”
Then Doctor Arcturus put his fingertips on my face and gave me some telepathic psychiatric help while I told them my story. I told them everything, starting with Gracie and Janet over-reacting to the MCO dropships. Getting stuck in the pageant rehearsals. Figuring out what I was up against. Fighting it and its little pets. Getting the crap beaten out of me. And then stalling like crazy until they came to the rescue.
I guess it sounded better than I thought. Several of them looked seriously impressed.
After that, Hollywood had me lay down on the floor, and he gave me about an hour of healing. Valley Girl and Beach Bunny and Sunscreen all decided to sit on the floor around me. That gave me something to ogle. Valley Girl sat on my right, with her legs underneath her and her cleavage aimed right at my head. That was some valley I was looking into.
Doctor Arcturus took the opportunity to fill me in on what they had found out. “It turns out that Converso had slipped into the U.S. somehow. He’s a notorious dark wizard, operating mainly in Western Europe. He’s called Converso because he was a good little Catholic altar boy in Portugal, until he manifested as a mutant. Then he became some manner of demon-worshipper.
“Apparently, he had a meeting here in L.A. with Svipdag and Quimbanda. Svipdag’s one of the League’s long-time opponents. A seriously bad necromancer. Up until a couple days ago, we only had rumors to work with, but we were pretty sure he was from Norwegian stock, and he was rumored to have some demon in his family tree. Turns out that was true, believe it or not.”
I said, “I can believe it.” I wasn’t sure if I wanted to tell them about knowing The Kellith.
He went on, “Quimbanda’s also an import. He’s a diviner from Brazil. Supposed to be really old, but kept alive by dark magics. We turned them up in a rented warehouse over in West Covina. All three of them were dead. Extremely dead.”
I said, “Let me guess. Nothing but skeletons from the neck down, and blood-drained heads from the neck up.”
He nodded, “Right. Guess what they had summoned up.”
I said, “My good ol’ buddy the soul-sucking demon. The thing with a thousand faces.”
Chaney cleared his throat loudly.
“Sorry,” I apologized. “The demon that had mutilated thousands of souls. Is that better?”
Doc Arcturus nodded, “Yeah. Our demon. Their protections were pretty substantial, but there was a flaw in the concrete under them that let the demon get a tentacle or something outside of their defensive pentagram and their other protections. Once that happened without their knowing it, they were as good as dead.”
I told him, “If what that demon said to me is true, they’re in way worse shape than just being dead. It ate them and took their souls into its realm.”
Beach Bunny winced, “Too Much Information there, Phase.”
Doc Arcturus explained, “We found all their clothes and stuff. They changed into robes there, so everything was in a couple piles at the other end of the rented warehouse space. Including their wallets and a couple encrypted cell phones that F/X didn’t have any trouble getting into. So, for the first time, we actually knew where Svipdag lived. We got our police liaison to let us tag along when the police checked his house. It turned out that it was a really good thing the cops had us and Planeswalker there. Svipdag had the place magically booby-trapped. Once we killed that hellhound he had as a guard-dog, and reversed the transfigurations on the first two cops who walked in, the police were VERY interested in letting us go first.
“But it was F/X who made the key discovery. Svipdag had monumental magical protections on his house and valuables, but no regular protection on his computer. F/X was able to un-erase some email messages. Svipdag was working with Converso and Quimbanda as a favor to The Syndicate. One of the Syndicate’s bigshots, a guy named Nimbus, was paying them to do this bit to grant him some sort of dark boon. We don’t know what. But they screwed up, and ended up releasing a portion of a Tier 3 demon.”
Sunscreen took up the story. “We were trying to help out the local cops and the MCO on The Headhunter, even if the MCO never wants to play nice with other children. Especially not mutant children. We all thought we were dealing with a Shifter-5 or Shifter-6 who could turn into non-human forms, like maybe some sort of giant flesh-eating protoplasm. If you hadn’t correctly identified that thing as a demon, and contacted us directly with the key information, and then given us the time to contact two more mages and prepare several banishing incantations…”
I nodded, “Yeah. Captain Creepy would have eaten the entire beauty pageant, and probably been able to complete its first rite, and maybe its second and third rites too.”
She smiled grimly. “And then we’d have had a hell of a time - literally - tracking it down and keeping it from becoming much more powerful.”
After an hour of Healing from Hollywood, I felt WAY better. He looked utterly exhausted.
Doctor Arcturus grinned at him, “Well ‘Wood, I think I’ll be driving back.”
He didn’t disagree. He just sagged back against the couch and groaned in exhaustion.
I looked over at him, “Thanks. Thanks a lot. The MCO guys would’ve just let me die, except they were planning on disappearing me and taking me down to Roswell for experimentation.”
Sunscreen stared at Doctor Arcturus then looked at me. “Roswell, huh?”
Doctor Arcturus asked me, “How do you know that? Or are you just guessing?”
“No, I phased through the wall of the cell they had me in, and I eavesdropped while they were arguing about me. It turns out that no one told them I was disowned by my family. They were too afraid of my parents and my Uncle Herb to do anything to me.”
Valley Girl suddenly looked horrified as she burst out, “Your Uncle Herb? Like, you mean, Herbert Goodkind, and like that? Fer sure?”
I sighed, “Yeah. For sure. Until I manifested as a mutant, I was second in line to take over Goodkind International when my dad moved from CEO up to Chairman of the Board.”
I groaned, “I spent my whole life being told the MCO were the good guys, protecting baselines from crazed mutant threats, and that the MCO would NEVER do something like kidnapping a child. Now I have to live with the fact that my family helped subsidize the kidnappings and probable torture-murders of dozens of kids. I helped subsidize it. I’m an accessory to murder.”
Doc Arc insisted, “No you’re not. You didn’t know. You didn’t believe it could be happening. You were lied to. You were conned. That makes you a victim too.”
I snapped at him, “No. It just makes me a STUPID accessory to murder.”
Doc Arc said, “Look Phase, you’re being too hard on yourself. Life’s hard enough without beating yourself up over things that aren’t your fault, that you couldn’t have known about... And you need to stop superheroing around here. You’re a minor, and there are rules about this.”
I fumed, “Great! I don’t want to be doing this on school vacations! I just wanted to spend Christmas with my sister! I didn’t know I was going to run into a demon from hell! It’s like that deal with Sparkler. She tried to kill Gracie! Then she tried to kill me. All I did was try to keep her from murdering Gracie and Janet and half a dozen cops. And me! I didn’t even know how to control my powers then, or anything! So. You tell me how to keep from running into these one-in-a-million chances!”
Valley Girl said, “Well, like, you don’t run into stuff like this, like, at school, right?”
I admitted, “Wrong. Since I started at Whateley, I’ve fought mutant ninjas from the Yama Dojo…”
“…been attacked by superpowered bullies over a dozen times…”
“…fought the Necromancer’s zombies in Boston…”
“Crap! That was you?”
“…got attacked at Halloween by Syndicate Sabretooths and Chessmen…”
“Oh shit. I heard about that. That was nasty.”
“… went back to Boston to give testimony and ended up taking out Matterhorn when the Necromancer tried to kidnap one of my classmates…”
“… and a couple other incidents, including facing a superpowered lunatic fire manifestor who was either going to incinerate me or leave me with permanent burn scars. She’s now spending a lot of her time plotting how to get revenge on me.”
Doctor Arcturus slowly shook his head. “Phase, I don’t know what to say. If you’re not seeking out these confrontations, then something about you…”
“Or my team,” I cut in.
“…or your team, is drawing these incidents to you. Maybe your life is destined to be ‘interesting’, as the old Chinese saying goes,” he finished.
I groaned, “Well, I’m going back to Whateley in a couple days, so I’ll be out of your hair until summer. Maybe you’ll have to assign someone to watch out for me and keep me out of trouble.”
He frowned, “Phase, do you know how many mutants there are on the West Coast? We can’t watch over all of them. And we can’t put a babysitter on you. Just try harder to stay out of trouble, okay?”
I groused, “I’ll try. But trouble just seems to come looking for me.”
When they left, I got hugs from all the girls. Wow. A big hug from Valley Girl. Most of the guys at Whateley would be jealous.
My nightmares that night weren’t nearly as bad, thanks to all that telepathic headshrinking. I did wake up a couple times, but I don’t think I screamed or anything. No one rushed downstairs to check on me. I took that as a good sign.
I decided I felt up to doing something. Something I had never imagined I would ever willingly do. Not in a million years. I talked Janet and Gracie into taking me to see the Miss Teen Santa Monica pageant, which was being held at a somewhat smaller theater than planned.
Well, they could hardly use the one that we had nearly gutted. I doubted there were more than twenty percent of the original chairs intact in that wreck of an auditorium, huge chunks of wall had been blasted apart, most of the balconies had been destroyed, and the superstructure was probably dangerously weak in places. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were a couple major problems with the ceiling and roof, not to mention that the floor of the auditorium proper was probably unsafe in a lot of places. I didn’t even want to think about what was left after they cleaned up the body parts from that crater the thing had left behind.
Janet was insistent that I ‘dress nicely’, but I put my foot down on dresses. Well, my leg still hurt too much for me to really put my foot down hard. But I convinced her I’d be a lot less recognizable in a business-style pantsuit. That still meant I had to go clothes shopping with both Gracie and Janet. For hours. I ended up with a fairly nice-looking navy blue pin-stripe ensemble with an off-white shirt and a wide knit tie. It fit okay, even if it would really require the services of someone like Cecilia Rogers to make it look ideal.
I was adamant on getting flats. Since I’d had a broken hip and broken leg just a couple days earlier, they weren’t as big of a pain in the tush as they usually were about wearing heels.
After all of Hollywood’s hard work healing me the day before, I actually felt fairly close to okay. Not ‘good as new’ or ‘factory condition’, but good enough to walk around for several hours with the Crazed Shoppers, and good enough to walk from the parking lot four blocks to the theater.
I made sure to sit far enough back that no one connected with the pageant would spot me. That was probably silly, since I wasn’t wearing the makeup, or the fancy blonde wig. On the other hand, Gracie and Janet were recognizable.
The pageant was quaint, and old-fashioned, and amateurish. But, after seeing how much it meant to a lot of these girls, it was more than an out-of-date pageant filled with girls who were never going to be Miss America. It actually meant something to me. I now knew a lot of these girls. Some were annoying, and some were untalented, and some were wacky. But some were wholesome, and some were dedicated, and some were caring, and some were searching for meaning in their lives - even if it wasn’t a way I would have chosen.
I actually found myself sitting there and silently rooting for some of those girls. I actually found myself caring how things worked out, and worrying as they went through their talent portions.
Christie and Rachel didn’t make the final three. They looked pretty shaky even after nearly a week, and I was afraid that it was because of what they had done to save me. Given what that thing had done to the sanity of a trained MCO agent inside protective power armor, I was afraid for their mental health.
I waited until we were back in the Bentley. Then I made a few calls. I made sure that Christie and Rachel both got good college scholarships through the Goodkind Foundation, and that they both were scheduled for free long-term appointments with a good psychiatrist who would actually believe them.
They deserved it after what they had done. They had risked their lives and their souls to face down a hideous demon that a superhero couldn’t stop. Well, someone that they thought was a superhero.
They both deserved the Miss Teen Santa Monica title a lot more than the stupid, talentless bimbos who got the top three places.
The rest of the week just flew by.
The one other interesting thing that I did was spending some time tracking down Brass Monkey. Janet and Gracie drove me around to several clubs, where we bugged people until I was able to find the group, rehearsing in their lead singer Lena Pereille’s basement. Well, it was Lena’s mother’s basement, if you want to know. Yeah, the ultra-cool lead singer for the ultra-hip rock group Brass Monkey was still living in mommy’s house. I bought one of the Brass Monkey posters, and talked them into taking the time to autograph it.
Okay, I offered to buy them new amps for their stage shows, if they would all sign the thing. So sue me. It was worth it. Antenna was going to be so incredibly surprised when I got back to Whateley!
In no time, it was Friday morning, and I was settling my steamer trunk in the back of Janet’s station wagon.
The first day of school wasn’t until Tuesday, but the best airline bookings had been available for today. So I was flying back a little early. The dorm would already be open, so it wasn’t like I would be showing up in the middle of Christmas.
In theory, it should have been simple. All I needed to do was show my MID at the L.A. airport, and be on my way.
In the business world, we sometimes say: “the difference between theory and practice is that, in theory, there isn’t any difference”.
I should have expected that I was now officially ‘flagged’ in the MCO databases. As what, I didn’t know. I didn’t want to know.
I’d better call Paul and have him find out ASAP.
At LAX, the MCO guy directed me off to the side, and a guy in power armor ‘escorted’ me down in the freight elevator to a ‘mutant evaluation’ room.
I was scanned, and re-scanned.
I was questioned. It wasn’t quite an interrogation, since they were all out of rubber hoses that day.
I was strip-searched by a woman who made Rosa Klebb look like a lovely, charming flower of femininity. I deliberately talked to her about the clothes in my best imitation of my sister Heather, including showing her my ‘$4000 genuine Givenchy belt with faux pockets’. She was so busy ignoring my prattle about clothes that she completely missed the fact that I was shoving a devisor utility belt in her face.
At least I didn’t get the cavity search. She looked like she really wanted to give me one, preferably with a Roto-Rooter.
Then I was allowed to dress. I was re-questioned. I was re-scanned. They kept checking the clocks when they thought I wasn’t looking.
I finally said, “Are we done yet? Since your mission goal was to make me miss my flight, and you’ve already accomplished that, I’m assuming it’s time to let me go?”
They chucked me out.
I didn’t bother to tell them that I had reservations on two other flights out of LAX. I’d learned that flying commercial airlines was a crapshoot. There was no way to predict whether any given airport would be socked in on the departure day, or whether any particular jet would be in need of service, or even if any given airlines would still be solvent and free of striking employees on the departure day.
So now I hedged my bets every time I flew: I booked more than one reservation, on more than one airline, through more than one connecting airport. Instead of flying on American through Dallas, as planned, I took a later United flight to Chicago. I just wasted the time until the United flight by sitting in the Dead Carpet Club and enjoying a decent latté and an acceptable breakfast. I entertained myself by reading in my e-book and wondering if the MCO jerks were going to yank me off the United flight.
They didn’t. I didn’t see anyone tailing me or checking that I got on the plane, but an organization like the MCO ought to be able to tail a fourteen-year-old and not be spotted. Not to mention that someone with my abilities could get on or get off any commercial airplane in the world without being detected.
The flight left on time, and I arrived at O’Hare airport in plenty of time to catch my connecting flight into the Berlin airport. I was expecting to see a couple MCO guys in bad suits waiting for me when I got off the jetway, but I didn’t see anyone.
It wasn’t until I was looking for the closest monitors for departure times and gates that I realized two ceiling-mounted cameras were pointed directly at me.
Great. Just great. I gave each of the cameras a little wave, checked my flight information, and strolled off to the Red Carpet Club. I took my time about it, and sure enough, two guys in off-the-rack gray suits converged on me from opposite sides, meeting me about thirty yards before I got to the entry door to the club.
The one in front of me looked like ex-military. Maybe ex-MP, because he was big, and he moved like a fighter. The one behind me had that Secret Service look, including the dark glasses. But that didn’t mean he was really ex-Secret Service. It might mean he had a high-tech visor or comm system. It might mean he was covering up something that would look too distinctive, like a missing eye. Maybe he just thought the sunglasses looked cool. Who knew?
But he had his right hand stuck in his jacket pocket. And there was a bulge there. I was guessing it wasn’t a sack lunch. Just in case, I went heavy.
The one facing me quietly said, “Phase? Could we have a few minutes of your time?”
“Sure,” I said, trying to sound as calm as I could. But I definitely did NOT want to get waylaid so I missed my flight, like at LAX that morning. There was an alternative flight into Berlin airport, but they weren’t stupid. They had to know that I had taken an alternate route this morning. So they had to be checking all possible flights into Berlin, and making note of the ones on which I had reservations.
The one behind me said, “Would you please accompany us to a more private area?”
I turned my head slightly and addressed him. “I’d love to. Let’s go into the Red Carpet Club and talk there.”
The one in front of me said, “Actually, we had a somewhat different place in mind.”
Well, color me surprised.
I smiled up at him, “Yes, I’m sure you do. And I’m sure it’s just as cozy as the MCO holding pens were at LAX this morning. But I’m ready to get some lunch, and I’d rather do it here, where the food’s usually decent.”
‘M.P. Hammer’ - or whatever his real name was - glared at me. ‘Secret Agent Man’ cleared his throat, “You do know that we’re MCO?”
I smiled, but I didn’t let the smile move up to my eyes. “Yes. And I also know the details of the charters for the MCO in the U.S. and most other countries. The MCO is not under the Homeland Security umbrella, and as such, can only operate in airports and similar HSA areas when cooperating with the official agencies in charge. I made nice this morning in L.A., even though I didn’t have to, because I was going through a security checkpoint. But you’re violating airport security rules now. So you can either get some Homeland Security officers and airport cops over here to talk with me - and we all know they’ll just let me walk rather than lose valuable doughnut-munching time - or you can have a thorough chat with me here. In the Dead Carpet Club.”
M.P. Hammer growled at me, “You know, you’re not earning any brownie points with this routine.”
“Let me see…” I pretended to think it over. “What might happen? I might.. end up flagged in the MCO mutant registries… Oh wait! You already flagged me. Because I saved an entire theater of beauty pageant contestants from a demon, and carefully refrained from injuring a mind-controlled MCO guy in power armor, even though he was trying to kill me. What else? The MCO might.. throw me into a prison cell without cause, fail to treat my injuries when I had broken bones and was dying of internal injuries (which is a clear violation of section 37 of the MCO charter), lie to my guardians about holding me (which is a violation of section 21)… Do I really need to go on? If the MCO is treating me as a Class A Supervillain Threat, then I really need to avoid cooperating with you, and I need to have legal representation and a bodyguard with me at all times. Do you want me to cooperate? Yes or no.”
Secret Agent Man stared at me from behind his sunglasses. Then he glanced at his partner for a second. I didn’t see any signal, but they were obviously experienced enough as partners to communicate without me reading them. I was impressed, since doing that usually requires being able to see your partner’s eyes and the small movements on that part of the face, and Secret Agent Man was still wearing his sunglasses.
They looked at me, and M.P. Hammer said, “I think we can live with the Red Carpet Club.”
He walked in with me, while Secret Agent Man stepped away for a moment. I figured he was calling in with an update.
We stepped through the sliding glass doors, and the cute blonde behind the counter gave us a smile. “Good afternoon. Cards, please?”
I pulled my card out and showed it to her. She reacted a little, since it labeled me as a ‘special priority’ club member. “Miss Goodkind, it’s so nice to have you back with us. I’ll make sure that one of the private rooms is available… You and your friend may have room 2.” She handed me a keycard. “That’s at the top of the escalator, past the monitors, and to your right. If there’s anything you require, just let us know.”
I gave her a small smile, “Thank you. And when the Secret Service man in dark glasses comes in, in a minute, would you direct him up to room 2 also?”
M.P. Hammer stopped and pulled an MCO identity card out of his wallet, but the blonde waved him off. “That’s all right, sir. Miss Goodkind’s card entitles her to bring any number of guests along at no additional charge.”
I cut across his big “I will not be bribed” rant and said, “You heard the woman. No charge. No cost. No monetary impact whatsoever. So relax… Now how long is your partner going to be on that phone call?”
He didn’t even blink. I had thought for sure that I’d get a ‘phone call? What phone call?’ reaction out of him. Maybe I’d better stop underestimating him.
He turned to the blonde and said, “My partner and I can’t be her guests. We’ll be using this Airport Security authorization instead.”
The girl shrugged as she took the card, made a note on her clipboard, and handed it back.
We took the escalator up to the Dead Carpet Club. I had to go normal, so I wouldn’t bust the escalator. I’d just have to trust that neither of these guys was going to blindside me. For the next several seconds.
By the time we reached the top of the escalator, Secret Service Man was in. The blonde waved him on through, and he ran up the steps to catch up with us.
I glanced at the monitors, only to find that my United flight into Berlin was listed as delayed by forty minutes. Great. Just great. If these guys were screwing with my flight schedule just to aggravate me…
I led both of them to Room 2. I’d been in the private rooms before when I was traveling with my family and the entire entourage. We usually needed Room 1 or Room 4 at this Club, because - in addition to the family and several servants - we typically traveled with several Goodkind Security bodyguards, at least two executive assistants so that Mother and Father could keep an eye on work while spending time with the family, and usually a teacher for the children. I missed those times.
Room 2 was large enough to be comfortable for a party of six or eight. There were well-designed armchairs, docking stations for four laptops along the right wall, a big-screen projection television on the left wall, and a small kitchenette with pantry and fridge on the back wall.
I walked straight over to the kitchenette, opened the fridge, and helped myself to a bottled lemonade. I didn’t bother to turn my head as I asked, “Can I get either of you anything?”
“No thank you.”
“I’m not thirsty.”
I closed the fridge, put some crushed ice into a glass, and poured the lemonade in. “Suit yourselves.” Like a free bottle of soda was going to completely sway the loyalty of a trained MCO agent.
I sat down in a cushy armchair, put my drink on a coaster at the end table by my elbow, and gestured for them to have a seat. “Now what can I do for you two?”
They didn’t even have to look at each other. “We’d appreciate it if you could go over what happened when you and five trained MCO agents went into the Santa Monica Playhouse, on the 28th of last month.”
I sighed, “I’m never going to get past this, am I? That guy in the power armor is insane, you know. He was mind-controlled by a demon. He stuck his arm into something that’s not a part of our reality. The demon made him think the demon was something rational, while I was the threat. I had that damned thing bound - in a magical sense - and that guy broke the binding, launched everything he had on his armor at me, and then tried to rip me into little pieces.”
M.P. Hammer looked under control, but his voice took on a little growl. “That ‘guy in the power suit’ was a trained MCO officer. He now has to be constantly sedated, restrained, and monitored.”
I leaned forward, “And he’s lucky it isn’t worse! Do you know what would’ve happened to him if I hadn’t knocked him out? When the demon was done using him, it would have eaten him, and sucked his soul into a hell dimension where he would be tortured for all eternity! That thing we were fighting? It was just a teeny, tiny piece of the real demon. It was planning on sucking the entire planet into its realm. It was going to do stuff that would make The Necromancer look like Simon Cowell!”
Of course, they didn’t want to hear that their MCO guy had been easily mind-controlled, and had put a big chunk of the West Coast in jeopardy. And they definitely didn’t want to hear that some mutants had saved the day.
After I went over my story for the third time, I stood up. Neither reacted, much less over-reacted. Even though I was a scary mutant and I had them all alone in a small room. I said, “I have to go to the bathroom. I’ll be back in a couple minutes. You have my permission to search my backpack while I’m gone.”
I walked into the ladies’ room. I wasn’t interested in playing stupid games. I was, however, interested in how well they had planned things. About four seconds after I walked in, a pair of heels trotted in after me.. and didn’t go into a stall.
I did my business and washed my hands afterward. There at the mirror was a thirty-ish businesswoman in an off-the-rack woman’s suit and low heels. She was fixing her makeup. Supposedly. I didn’t know enough about women’s makeup to spot any mistakes, but I had to suspect that she was an MCO agent my two keepers had called in, for just this sort of eventuality.
I smiled at her, “Pretty amazing bathroom isn’t it?” Actually, I thought it was overdone, and too dark. I mean, black porcelain toilets and dark gray tile? Who designed this place? Jonathan Harker?
She lowered her mascara wand and smiled back. “Oh, it’s great. You know, the bathrooms in the main terminals aren’t anywhere near this nice.”
Well, that was true. And the place was about a hundred times nicer than an airplane toilet. I mean, airplane toilets had to have been designed by someone who hated anyone who ever shopped in the “big and tall men’s store”. I was five-foot-nothing and hardly over a hundred pounds, and I thought the airplane bathrooms were too small. How the heck did someone the size of Pendragon use one of those things?
Well, all I had wanted to do was to find out if Agents J and K were smart enough to get a woman agent to cover ‘bathroom breaks’ and such, and who said female MCO agent would be. I had accomplished both goals, so I was done.
I stopped to check my outgoing flight time - the delay was now up to an hour and a half - and then got myself some lunch at the dining area in the club. I noted as ‘Agent L’ popped out of the bathroom - of course - and went to take up station where she could keep a subtle eye on the door to room 2.
I walked back in with my soup and salad, and asked, “Find anything interesting in my daypack?”
M.P. Hammer said, “You knew we wouldn’t or you wouldn’t have given us permission to search it.”
“Of course,” I agreed. I wasn’t going to tell them, but the good stuff was hidden away in my utility belt, along with my weaponry. My credit card wallet, most of my cash in a money clip, my MP4 player, and my Bugs-engineered phone-slash-PDA Christmas present from Chaka.
Secret Service Man said, “You really travel light, don’t you?” Meaning, he had realized that I was traveling with far less than most airline passengers toted around. I had three pounds of stuff in there, while most travelers were lugging around thirty to eighty pounds of junk.
I shrugged. “My clothes and things are in my checked luggage. You guys should have already looked through that, before it left LAX. My e-book has five books and 150 Sudoku puzzles in it. I’ve got a small wallet, a collapsible bottle for water, and four gourmet energy bars. Even if that’s a contradiction in terms. My PDA in my pocket doubles as my phone and email reader and such, so I don’t need to carry a laptop. What more would I need? I’m traveling first class, and hanging out in the Dead Carpet Club in between flights. I can buy anything else I want. I don’t wear makeup. I don’t need to lug a baggie of ridiculously-undersized toiletries around with me. What else would you be carrying?”
But these guys were too well-trained to let me side-track them on something like that.
As I ate my lunch - which was not up to the usual standards of the Dead Carpet Club in O’Hare Airport, much less that of a four-star restaurant - they grilled me about the events in the Santa Monica theater. They were particularly interested in every little movement that the five-man MCO team had made, right up until I had been forced to incapacitate the last one.
It occurred to me that they might be trying to investigate the performance of that five-man team. The MCO did have a fairly-efficient Tactics Bureau that assessed performance against threats, and the MCO’s performance at the theater had to count as a major failure. And I was the only available source of information on the performance of that team, other than one completely insane lunatic who had already gouged out his own eyeballs. The police videocameras back in the lobby area had melted down, so any monitoring gear the MCO guys had carried into the theater had probably fried - or worse - under the influence of that demon. And I had heard that the police who had tried to watch the battle had needed psychiatric leave, so there weren’t any eye-witnesses besides me. I almost smirked at the possible reactions of the L.A. MCO office if they heard that the mutant they had captured and abused was the only verifiable source of intel on their performance in the theater that day.
Secret Service Man started wrapping up when he asked me, “So, could you summarize your personal opinions on the performance of that team?”
I told him, “Good tactics. Well executed. Poor strategy. They executed tactics that would be better suited to fighting an Energizer or Psi or Mage. They ignored the intel I provided, and failed to use me as a resource under the American MCO charter, section 43, paragraphs 18b and 18c, which authorize the MCO to use mutant capabilities in extreme situations. I tried to help, but they not only ignored me, they undid all the work I had already done.”
M.P. Hammer asked, “And why would you be willing to work with the MCO?”
“I take it you were not properly briefed on who I am.”
He looked at me and flatly answered, “Phase. Freshman at Whateley. No wants or warrants. Techniques: physical attack, density change, contact disintegration, physical disruption, various holdouts. Weak vs. magic, strong psi, force fields. The latest files on you say body armor is useless against you, and even a Kennedy-class power suit couldn’t slow you down, much less stop you. That makes you a threat level eight right off the top.”
Man, they were making it sound like I was Champion or something. I insisted, “As I said, you weren’t properly briefed. Not only do I have mutant abilities, but I’m a Goodkind.”
Secret Service Man didn’t react, except to turn slightly to his partner. M.P. Hammer said, “Yes. Ayla Jane Goodkind, formerly Trevor James Goodkind, child of Bruce and Helen Goodkind.”
So he had done some checking after he heard the blonde receptionist welcome me into the club. And he had checked properly, because he had accurate information, as far as it went.
I nodded, “Right. My mutation completely screwed up my body, and I haven’t been able to find a way to get it restored to male. But you ought to have records on Trevor James Goodkind. I have been one of the major supporters of the MCO. In fact, I have personally contributed more money to the MCO world budget over the past four years than all but seven countries. My family contributed more money to the MCO world budget than any single country, even the United States. Just because I turned into a mutant doesn’t automatically change my political views.”
They weren’t buying it, even if they weren’t saying so. But they were polite about it. They thanked me for my time, and left the room.
I waited until they left before I very thoroughly checked my daypack to make sure they hadn’t planted a bug or tracking device on me. Not that I didn’t trust them implicitly or anything…
I listened to Brass Monkey on my MP4 player while I read an e-book on financial planning and long-range asset management. Most of the book was a huge waste of time, but there were several valuable points that the book covered (using way too many examples).
But reading the book and thinking about my visit with Agents J and K gave me an idea. The MCO was expending a lot of resources, and building up a lot of bad relations with mutants, with these stupid MID cards.
But the cards were largely useless. What was the point of having a mutant’s weaknesses listed? Most of the ‘weaknesses’ were useless to any MCO combatants. It wasn’t like some all-powerful PDP/Exemplar supervillain was going to reveal that his secret weakness was chocolate milk. My MID card said I was weak to ‘magic, strong psi, and force fields’. That was strictly true. But what good was it? Everyone was weak to sufficiently powerful magic, even Fey. It was a matter of degree, which wasn’t covered by the MIDs. Everyone was weak to sufficiently powerful psi, even Psis like Solange. And everyone could be stopped by a force field, if the force field was of the right type, and was strong enough. She-Beast’s MID card was a perfect example of ‘lots of info and no utility whatsoever’. About the only advantage I could think of for most MID cards was the threat of a perjury rap for lying on the things.
Sure, I could see some useful information on some MID cards. Is the mutant a known rager, like Razorback? Is the mutant going to have some power that makes him or her bulletproof? Is the mutant going to have some ability or disability that might mean the MCO needed to have CBW gear handy? Both Killstench and Puppet came to mind, for very different reasons.
But the ‘strengths and weaknesses’ part of the MID wasn’t as useful as things the MCO could find out without ever making a mutant reveal private information about his powers. Every mutant in America was supposed to submit an annual (or quarterly) tax return, just like all the baselines in America. Had the MCO ever looked at this from a financial point of view? No matter how strong some PK superman was, he needed to eat, and he needed to have a home, and he needed money to do both.
The MCO didn’t need to know ‘techniques and weaknesses’, unless they had to stop some super-goon whose secret weakness was hairspray. They needed to know how the super-goon was investing his money and how much he didn’t invest, and where he was investing it. That would tell an expert financial analyst what the goon was going to do in the long run! Was he planning on launching an attack against some country? If the MCO looked at what he was doing with his money, they ought to know when he wanted to attack, and where he was definitely not going to attack, and possibly what his target would be. If the MCO had had this kind of information on Paramount or Gizmatic, they might have been able to stop them from taking over entire countries. If they knew this very moment what someone like Dr. Diabolik was doing with his assets, they might be able to figure out if he was getting ready to launch a new attack, and maybe even where that attack was going to be.
Financial information on mutants was probably the knowledge base of the future. But surely the MCO was smart enough to be doing this already. After all, they recruited heavily from the CIA and FBI, and both those organizations had financial specialists who tracked money launderers and such.
Then I wondered if there could be real benefits in actually working with the MCO in tracking the financial status of mutants. Sharing this kind of information with the MCO might make them less worried about mutant threats. Or it might just make things worse. I was going to have to think that over quite a lot before I committed myself either way. If Carson could use the MID as a ploy to get MCO cooperation, then why not use something less threatening to most mutants than their real name and their greatest weaknesses? Maybe Carson would be willing to discuss this idea with me some time…
My flight was delayed even further, so I hung out and read for a couple extra hours. Then I still had time to get somewhat better food around dinner time. The chicken breast with sautéed vegetables was decent, if not up to the standards of a four-star restaurant. Definitely better than the lunch fare.
When it was finally time for my flight to board, I strolled down to the gate. ‘Agent L’ front-tailed me from there to my plane. If I hadn’t spotted her in the Red Carpet Club bathroom, I never would have known that one of the people walking ahead of me was my tail. A front tail is really difficult to do well, but she pulled it off.
The flight from Chicago to Berlin Airport finally left, several hours late. United Airlines had claimed it was ‘routine maintenance’, which any idiot ought to know is a big fat lie. Routine maintenance is done before planes go out on commercial runs, not in the middle of service days. Either they had a mechanical problem they didn’t want to admit, which wasn’t all that encouraging, or else the MCO was burning favors with the entire airline and the airport itself, just to piss me off a little.
Unfortunately, Door Number Two was actually a realistic option, given the way the MCO wasted a dozen agents’ time in L.A. that morning, not to mention three good agents here at O’Hare.
We arrived at Berlin Airport at a ridiculously late hour. I was wondering if I was going to have to call the limo company and cool my heels while they got someone out to the airport for me.
But the limo for me was there. The driver was standing just past the security checkpoint, with a big sign that said, “Ayla Goodkind”. He introduced himself as Richard my driver. He offered to take my backpack, even though it might have been a shoulder-purse. And most men would rather eat live scorpions than be seen carrying around some woman’s purse.
Richard smiled, “Jeff spilled the beans about the size of the tip you gave him, so I think you can expect the very best service we’d give to any Whateley student. Or faculty member. Or visitor. Or world leader. So don’t worry about the time. As for your suitcase…”
I interrupted, “I just have one case. But it’s a steamer trunk, and it’s massively over-weight.”
He grinned, “Jeff told me about that case. It already came in, on your originally-planned flight. I talked to a guy I know in baggage claim, and we’ve already moved it out to the limo. Do want to make a pit stop before we leave?”
Richard waited with my backpack and coat, while I visited the little girls’ room. Most guys would rather shoot themselves than stand around holding a purse, so I was awarding this guy some major brownie points. Then he escorted me out to the curb, where he had the limo illegally parked while a security cop kept an eye on it. He had probably slipped that guy a little something to let him leave the limo there.
Richard opened the door for me, pointed out where the food and drinks were, and carefully closed the door once I was seated. Then he hopped behind the wheel, gave the security cop a sketchy salute, and smoothly pulled out into late-night airport traffic.
This guy knew how to earn a tip.
When we arrived at Whateley, I turned down his offer of help with my trunk. I mean, if I had been Fey, I might have needed the help. No, Fey could have magically cut its connection with gravity and made it follow her like a helium balloon. Okay, if I had been Generator, I might have needed the help. No, wait. Jade could touch the trunk and cast Jann into it, so it barked like a dog and hopped up the stairs on its own. Well then… No…
You know, there weren’t all that many girls at Whateley that would need any help with my trunk.
I gave him an even bigger tip than I’d given Jeffrey, and I carried my trunk up to my room. I just climbed into bed and went to sleep. The trunk would wait until tomorrow morning.
It was good getting up to my alarm clock and walking into the showers.
It was even better having sexy showermates again. Bugs and Scrambler were showering too. And Bugs is always worth seeing. Particularly when I was getting an excited hello hug from her. While she was in nothing but a towel.
I even went to breakfast with them, and got the down-low on their big Christmas vacations.
The ‘down-low’? Man, I’d been spending too much time with Chaka.
Bugs had a great holiday, and her folks took her to five shows that had opened since she left Las Vegas at the beginning of September. Plus, her dad took her over to see Siegfried and Roy, and she had a report on how Roy’s recovering. Man, she loves those tigers. The pictures she showed us were freaky: she looks just like her mom, except younger and shorter. And her mom is supposed to be a baseline? Oh. Her mom is an ex-showgirl. Lucky dad.
Looking at those pictures, it finally hit me. Bugs was one of the hottest babes on campus. And she might not be an Exemplar after all. She’d never said that she was; I’d just guessed based on her looks. But she sure had the right gene pool. I mean, her mom looked like she was in her early forties, and was still amazingly hot for an old lady.
Scrambler had a good Christmas and spent a lot of time shopping with her mom while the two of them wore out the menfolk in the family. It sounded as if Scrambler was an exact copy of her mom too, except speeded up about 5X.
Bugs asked, “So how was your Christmas?”
I shrugged, “Oh, the usual… Spent time with family and friends, went shopping, opened presents, got the crap beaten out of me and almost died fighting a demon that was trying to eat an entire beauty pageant…”
Jay Jay sat there and stared open-mouthed for long seconds, and then exploded, “OhmuGAWD! That was you wasn’t it we were watching all the programs about the Headhunter and it was so scary and then they said the West Coast League and the MCO and a teenaged mutant fought it and that was you wasn’t it wow that must’ve been so cool I just love Beach Bunny my mom likes Sunscreen better and my brothers all have posters of Valley Girl but they’re so stupid and that’s just like guys but Beach Bunny is so rad and I wish I could wear a metal bikini like that but when I tried it I got the worst chafing and I could hardly walk for like three days because the strap between my legs wore right into…”
Well, once Jay Jay got going, there was no stopping her. As usual. And so Bugs and I were overwhelmed with WAY Too Much Information on every single place that she got chafed or rubbed raw. I mean, what would you expect from running over a hundred miles an hour for fifteen minutes while wearing an unpadded, unlined solid metal bikini?
When we finally got back to Poe, I could tell that Tennyo was busy welcoming Toni and Chou back to the dorm. There’s no mistaking Billie’s voice. Only she sounded a bit.. different. Like she’d really, really missed Toni and Chou.
I popped in to see what was up.
“AYLA!” I got a hug that nearly dislocated some spinal discs.
“I’m glad to see you too, Billie. But could you put me down before my cracked ribs re-crack?”
Chou calmly wondered, “Cracked ribs?”
I growled, “Oh yeah, I had a vacation right out of an H.P. Lovecraft novel.”
Toni bounced, “Kewl! Tell us! Then I gotta tell you what happened to us!”
Billie said - more quietly than normal for her - “Yeah, me too.”
Toni said, “Yeah, you gotta tell us how the big Colorado rescue mission went down.”
A big rescue mission in Colorado? Dang! I had missed a lot.
It turned out that Tennyo had a Christmas trip that made mine look like a birthday party. She had to rescue her parents, fight a couple hundred armed loons, plus take on Killbot and a nuclear bomb. KILLBOT!! Holy crow! And a tactical nuclear device! Was that girl tough, or what? And then she got shitcanned: taken away from her family, locked down in Hawthorne for a couple days, and then left all by herself in Poe until we all got back.
And Nimbus had been behind that madness in Colorado too. Which was a really frightening thought.
I told my story to everyone, including all the people that Bugs and Scrambler pulled in. Several girls laughed so hard at some parts that they had to run out and visit the bathroom. Apparently, a boy getting a bikini wax and having to wear a dress and high heels against his will is really funny. It still didn’t feel that funny to me.
Maybe some day I’ll have enough perspective that I can look back and laugh. But for now, that time in the Santa Monica Theater will be right up there with my trip to Emil Hammond’s funhouse.
Chaka and Chou had a really weird holiday, and had to fight off goons too. And that included a run-in with a squadron of the Knights of Purity. That really worried me. That shouldn’t be happening. The Knights of Purity are the good guys. Everyone knows that. Maybe I needed to get a message to Uncle Herb so he could look into that.
But.. would Uncle Herb even accept a message from me now? I hated to think about that. Maybe I’d better route it through my brother Paul.
Hank and Lily had a bizarre holiday as well. And Jamie too. Were we cursed or something? How was it that all these things were happening to us?
Chou just said, “Everything happens for a reason.”
Chaka chimed in with, “Sure! Think about it! If you hadn’t ended up here in Poe, would you have learned enough magic and shielding and demon-lore and stuff to fight that thing?”
I said, “Remind me not to let you two spend Christmas together anymore.”
Tennyo grumbled, “I don’t wanna think about what they’ll be like if they spend the summer together.”
The two martial artists just grinned at each other and high-fived. I took that as a very bad sign.
Then Nikki was back, with Jade in tow. We all met in my room for that story. It turned out that Nikki and Jade had very nearly lost more than their lives to that bitch Hekate. And they had been trapped in a Syndicate hardsite. Could Nimbus have been behind that? Even if he wasn’t, someone with major Syndicate connections had to be. Were we actually up against the entire Syndicate now? That was an even more terrifying thought.
I wondered if there was some higher power screwing with our lives. Or was it because we were hanging with The Kellith and Aunghadhail and The Star Stalker, three beings who could eventually become some of the most powerful creatures on earth? Or was it possible that between Halloween and some other stuff, we had made the Shit Lists of some major Bad Guys?
Were we going to have to deal with badguys like The Bastard and Nimbus and The Syndicate and The Necromancer, in addition to standard freshman coursework? Were things destined to be like this for years to come?
Paranoid much, Ayla?
God, at that point I was just hoping I was being paranoid, and not realistic.
And then, after dinner, I had to go over to admin to get chewed out by Carson too.
“Miss Goodkind, has anyone explained to you that this is NOT a school for superheroes?”
I looked her right in the eye and said, “Yes ma’am. I believe that you have made that very point to me. Four times now.”
She pursed her lips angrily, “Then how is it that an Exemplar-3 who was rated with a genius IQ before she even manifested cannot remember that one simple fact?”
I insisted, “I do remember. And I would really appreciate it if everyone else in the universe would too, and would leave me alone! Do you really think that I wanted to fight an unkillable demon who was about ten times stronger than I am, and was strongest in the areas where I’m the weakest? I nearly died. I nearly had something WAY worse than dying happen to me. I didn’t want to fight that thing! But it had all of us trapped inside a magical force field I couldn’t bust! I called for help. I called the cops. I called the MCO. I called the West Coast League. No one came! What was I supposed to do? Stand around and let that thing suck the souls out of scores of victims so it could perform demonic rites I don’t even want to think about?”
So I had to tell her the entire story. At least she didn’t laugh at the ‘bikini wax’ part. But she made me tell her everything the West Coast League had told me, and she made notes on her pad. I was willing to bet that she was going to call someone in the WCL and check on my story.
Then she made me go over every stinking second at the MCO site. And she focused on something I thought was relevant. “Did you get a sense of whether this ‘Roswell’ was just a codename, or was really Roswell, New Mexico?”
I shrugged, “Sorry, but I have no idea. For all I know, it’s a town named Roswell in Iowa. Or a building named Roswell somewhere in Canada.”
When she was finally done chewing me out, and I was leaving, I thought of something. I turned back, “There’s one thing I’d like to ask.”
She just raised one imperious eyebrow.
“Do you really think that the MCO has ‘disappeared’ all those kids?”
She pursed her lips. “I take it that you always believed the MCO was innocent of all charges?”
My stomach churned horribly. “Yes… I’m a Goodkind. We all believed it. We all knew that what we were told was The Truth. We all believed that the MCO was innocent, and that mutant troublemakers were trying to make them look like murderers.”
She gave me a flat look. “And now?”
“Now I’m an accessory to mass murder.”
She thought it over. “Under the laws of any of the countries in which the MCO operates, what you did in providing funding to a reputable organization cannot technically be considered to be an act that constitutes being an accessory to a crime.”
I grimaced, “I know. But it doesn’t make me feel any better about it.”
She nodded, “Good. Because my estimate is that the MCO is guilty of about ninety percent of those disappearances… And what happened to the other ten percent of those children is possibly something even worse.”
You know, I really wished I didn’t believe her. But she was Lady Astarte. She was Ms. Might. She was what girls all over the world dreamed of becoming when they grew up.
Man, just how much had I changed in six months, that I was believing Lady Astarte without question, and doubting the word of the MCO? That, in itself, was really troubling.
On the way back to Poe, Vanessa caught up with me and gave me a huge welcome-back kiss that really made up for a lot.
I had to tell my story to her and Rip and a couple other kids, once I got back to the floor. And half the girls just about wet their panties laughing at the ‘make Ayla get a bikini wax and dress like a beauty pageant contestant’ part. Was I just being a big whiner about that? What Gracie had done to me still bothered me. A lot.
On the upside, it gave me an excuse to try and talk Vox into spending the night with me. I figured it might even help keep away the nightmares. I did have to beg and whine a lot.
Vox pursed her lips and finally agreed, “Okay, but with pajamas on. Me behind you. And absolutely no hankie-pankie. Got it?”
“Oh, come on, Vanessa! Of course I wouldn’t do that! Like I’d humiliate you by even TRYING something like that with Chou right there in the bottom bunk?”
Chou looked over at us and smiled gently, “And do you think I would let Ayla do a thing like that?”
Chou and Vanessa looked at each other and grinned, “No. Of course not.” Then they burst into giggles.
I mock-frowned, “Hey, no making fun of the kid with the nightmares!”
I put on long pajamas, while Vanessa went to her room for a long nightie and fuzzy socks. It was a reasonable temperature in my room, thanks to the infrared heater in the corner, but it still wasn’t warm enough to forgo long pajamas and my electric mattress pad.
Vanessa showed up in a few minutes. I went heavy, and I lifted her up into the upper bunk.
She murmured, “Ooh! It’s all warm in here! Hey, you have an electric blanket under your sheets!”
I explained, “It’s an electric mattress pad with sensors and gradient zones.”
She shook her head, “Honestly, Ayla, you’re the most spoiled person in the world! I’m surprised you don’t have a maid coming in every night to turn down your sheets and put a mint on your pillow.”
Chou helpfully snickered, “Oh, she does, but after she fell asleep too fast one time and got an earful of melted candy, she nixed the mint on the pillow bit.”
And then it was bedtime. Vanessa, in her long nightie, lying behind me in my pajamas, and holding me warmly. Her lush body, pressed up against my back. All night long. Mmmmm…
Man, that almost made it all worthwhile.
And it worked. No nightmares. Just some awesome dreams. And waking up with morning wood you could have used to split rails.
Now I just needed to figure out an excuse so she’d do this EVERY night for the next several years…