The Secret of the Forger's List (Chapter 1)
The Secret of the Forger’s List
A WHATELEY LITERARY CLUB ADVENTURE
By E. E. Nalley
March 7th, 1995
Clubhouse of F. O. E. in the Tunnels between Dunn Hall and Whitman Cottage
“Those are all marvelous excuses, Peter, but none of them change the fact that Shelley is dead!”
Peter winced as Lindsey’s words struck home, and the panic he’d been fighting welled up inside once more. “I didn’t kill her!” the young man shouted back at her, hoping that increased volume would give his pleas more believability. “The testing process was flawless, we all underwent the procedure, and we are all still alive!”
“All of us except the Headmistress’ daughter,” interjected Tom morosely. “She’s going to kill us when she finds out. Assuming she doesn’t just expel us and hand us over to some MCO backed team of Dr. Mengele types to…”
“Oh stop it, Tom, that isn’t helping!” yelled Lindsey. The brunette took a deep breath to calm her own fears and try to organize her thoughts. “All right, one thing is certain, we can’t continue, at least not here and not now. We can’t risk having Shelley’s death destroy all the work we’ve done. We’ll split up, we don’t talk to each other on campus, we don’t come back here until we all judge that it’s safe, or we graduate and start our work in the real world, away from Whateley.”
“But…” the boys started to protest until silenced by her sharp gesture.
“No!” she snapped. “Tom, you have to cast the contingency spell. We all agree and then we walk away from this place. The work has to continue. That’s what Shelley would have wanted.”
The two boys exchanged looks and finally nodded. “It will take me a minute to get my circle ready,” Tom finally said softly. “Get whatever you can’t bear to be without from here. We won’t even remember this room for a year.”
Arena 91, underneath Kane Hall, Whateley Academy
Lady Astarte didn’t waste any time taking Team Phoenix to school. As soon as the air horn sounded announcing the start of the test she’d hurled a massive energy bolt into Kodiak and sent the senior reeling down the street. He’d slammed into the corner of one of the sturdier looking buildings and had obviously gotten the worst of the encounter.
Her second was blocked by a quickly erected force bubble that, judging by the pitch of his chanting and the sweat pouring down his face was taking everything Bifrost had to keep erect. “Scatter!” Interface yelled as he snatched up one of the bags of ‘loot’ that was the team’s primary objective. “If we stay bunched up like this we’re dead!” He suited actions to words, ducking back into the ‘bank’ that had appeared behind the team.
“As opposed to getting killed one by one!” yelled Zenith to his departing back.
“Argue later!” snapped Loophole as she scanned the street for an idea. There had to be some way to manipulate Lady Astarte’s power set. She hastily thought over what she knew. The magical powers, the energy bolts, the force field… Heck, you could drop a car on her and it would only slow her down.
Her rapidly moving eyes came to rest on a multi-level parking structure opposite the bank that Lady Astarte had her back to.
Drop a car on her…
“Carmen? Can you look through the simulation programs and give me any information on the cars in that parking garage? Ah’m looking for something quiet on the top level, that you can override and drive.”
The voice came back almost instantly. “There is a new Buick with an electric steering-assistance system and electrically-based cruise control. Will that do?”
“Hell yes!” Loophole grinned. “Compute the speed necessary to breach the concrete wall and still have enough momentum to pass through exactly where Lady Astarte is right now. Then start the car up and hit the wall at that speed. Now!”
Even as she finished speaking, a car roared through the rooftop barrier to crash to the street below, hitting on its way down the headmistress who was still hovering in the air. The move caught her off guard as the car smashed her into the asphalt.
Loophole looked around at her teammates. “Now, Ah have another idea…”
“Bifrost, you’re with me,” ordered Kali. “We’ll try to E and E for the time limit to expire. Loophole, you and Zenith try to keep her busy!”
“But…!” started Elaine, but she was quickly cut off by the senior.
“Nobody expects a miracle, Loop, just do your best!” Without another word she broke cover and ran in the opposite direction Interface had gone.
Loophole shook her head as she watched them depart before turning back to Zenith. “No one listens,” she complained as she reached down and picked up two sacks of money. “Say, Z, how tall are you?”
“Five ten, why?” the other replied, casting worried looks at the mangled mound of steel that the headmistress was buried under.
“We’re about the same size, give or take,” the southern girl continued. “See that yellow button on mah left gauntlet? Press it.”
“What will that do?” Zenith demanded as an explosion rocked the arena.
“Win,” the golden-eyed mask replied.
“So,” remarked Elisabeth Carson blandly as she shoved away the Buick that Loophole had undoubtedly contrived to drop on top of her, so she could stand and dust herself off. “Normally you pull me into these little sessions of brutality as a final, Gunny, why the increased pace?”
The voice chuckled through her earpiece as the teacher rose up to capture the high ground once more. “I have my reasons,” Gunny replied. “Are you not enjoying yourself?”
Liz stretched her neck out until it popped, releasing the tension that had been piling up over the weekend. The Astarte Force tugged softly at her perception, letting her find the greatest concentration of souls near her. She began flying in that direction while giving a small shrug of her indifference. “It’s always nice to stay loose and in shape I suppose, but what are you going to pull out to top me?”
“You could lose, you know,” the sergeant’s voice whispered in her ear.
A line of dual-sided rope snapped around her ankle and came taut, jerking her back slightly. Carson reacted, letting loose an energy blast which she scaled down sharply to shove Interface down in a painful-looking tumble of limbs. This was followed by a sharp kick that dislodged the air conditioner unit the line was tied off to and sent it hurtling in the direction of Kali and Bifrost. A whispered word of Power snapped the ten thousand pound test line, and the unit caused no small amount of excitement for the two students where it collided. “I doubt it,” she remarked calmly.
Kali focused her power on the wreckage of the AC unit, causing the protected bottle of refrigerant to burst open, letting loose a dense white cloud of Chlorodifluoromethane. Bifrost had regained his feet and was shouting in a language neither English nor his native Swedish, but was far older and holding far more authority over the material world. The cloud of R22 answered his call and flew up in a directed stream at Liz. “Give Mister Gottfried extra credit for that spell,” she remarked as she held up her hand and caused the cloud to part around her.
“Very nice,” she continued before her own spell inverted the gas into a river of fire she snatched from his control and sent hurtling back at him. “Good team work notation for Miss Tanaka as well.”
The hairs on the back of her neck rose with alarming speed. She spun in time to see a massive chunk of building sailing up at her. Her gesture wasn’t as calm this time, but the rubble was hurled away, only to reveal that the terrifying image of the primal Kodiak was only a few feet behind it. “Well done!” Carson got out before the two collided in mid-air. The half man, half bear monster fastened a death grip on her, intent on riding her down into the pavement.
This unfortunately meant he couldn’t use his arms to inflict any damage as he was so close. Her flight overrode his momentum before they reached the ground. “Redimio,” she commanded her scepter, and practically instantly the senior was bound in glowing red bands.
“How Doctor Strange,” Kodiak snapped.
Carson smiled. “If you’re going to steal, Kodiak, steal from the best,” she told him before a mental command whipped him away into another building on the far side of the arena. A hail of machine-gun fire peppered the back of her hand that held the Rod of Astarte. While the bullets didn’t harm her, the repeated blows to her hand caused her to loose her grip on the Rod. It was whisked away from her as soon as she dropped it by another of Bifrost’s spells. It flew off toward Kali and the concrete wall she stood next to.
Right as it struck the wall, the concrete shimmered, becoming liquid and swallowing the Rod with a wet plop. The wall just as instantly went solid again before it could flow from its place. Elizabeth smiled at her student’s resourcefulness and cracked her knuckles. “Fine,” she said with a smile, “We’ll do this the old fashioned way.”
Lady Astarte dove suddenly to her left, toward the rooftop where a surprised but determined Interface emptied the remainder of his machine gun at her. The rounds flattened themselves harmlessly against her skin as she picked up a bit of speed to regain the element of surprise. Interface backflipped away at the last instant, but Carson didn’t crash into the roof as expected, rather she landed in a handstand that turned into a back flip of her own to give chase.
The two gymnasts flipped and somersaulted their way across the roof, while Interface went through the holdouts in his harness and simultaneously doing his best to stay out of the Headmistress’ reach. Despite the valiant effort, he was surprised by a sudden cartwheel that brought her behind him where she collected a handful of his harness and flung him at Zenith, who she’d seen out of the corner of her eye, two stories below.
The mannequin that was wearing Zenith’s costume collapsed as Interface flew into it, somewhat softening his landing. It was not, however, sufficient to let him stay awake, and with a groan of pain, Interface passed out. Lady Astarte didn’t have time to think long on the oddness of what she’d witnessed as the hairs on her neck were standing up again. “Fool me once, Kodiak!” she yelled as she whirled and whipped the rubble to the side, following it with a massive energy blast. But the big senior wasn’t behind the rubble this time.
Carson saw Bifrost fail to scramble out of the way of the blast in the nick of time, before a crushing blow landed on her cheek and launched her from the roof and into the building across the street. “Shame on you!” roared Kodiak, as he followed the heroine through the hole she’d made. She was amazed for a moment at how quickly the big senior moved, and was still blinking back stars, even as her years of experience let her get close enough for a double kick into his barrel chest that launched him back out of the building, making another hole.
“Still think this is going to be a cake walk?” taunted Gunny in her ear.
Carson chuckled as she got back on her feet and shook her head to clear it. “That one rang my bell for sure,” she whispered as she ran back across the ruined office she’d landed in and launched herself out the window. “Still, Kodiak is a one-trick pony.”
She caught the senior mid-leap to return to the fray, and with a spin hurled him into the one member of Team Phoenix she could see, Kali. Kodiak did his best to soften the blow, but Kali slumped unconscious as he struggled to his feet. Carson didn’t give him time to recover as she swooped down, collected up a double handful of his wrestler’s tights and proceeded to use him as a battering ram through a collection of brick and concrete walls.
The senior punched and kicked furiously, but finally the steel-reinforced concrete of the arena proved too tough for both his back and her flight. The bear form faded as the senior’s gruff features appeared once more, relaxed and out cold. A gesture caused a set of brick hand cuffs to appear in Caron’s hands. She wasted no time locking them in place.
Carson stood up and wiped the sweat from her brow while placing a hand on the wall to steady herself. “I’m getting too old for this,” she told herself with a chuckle. “Now, where are Zenith and Loophole?”
“What?” asked a laughing Bardue in her ear? “Don’t tell me Kali’s little trick has pulled the mystic powers of Lady Astarte?”
Liz rolled her eyes at the military man’s humor as she held out her hand. “Accersitus,” she commanded. A soft explosion of masonry heralded the return of the Rod of Astarte to her outstretched hand. “Not exactly,” she replied as she took off once more. “But it was very clever.”
Once more her mystic senses were opened, and very quickly Liz knew something was rotten in Denmark. Her flight took her to the far side of the Arena from where the fight had been, where a double dozen Catholic school girls were in the process of getting on school buses in front of the ‘town museum.’ One of which, a red head toward the middle of the group, was wearing a mask. The Ant that had been created as ‘Mother Superior’ greeted Liz warmly. “Lady Astarte! Is everything alright? We were just getting the girls to safety as we heard a battle was raging a few blocks from here.”
“Nothing to worry about, Sister,” the superheroine replied as she passed and walked up to Elaine. “But then I don’t think masks are a part of your school’s uniform.”
Loophole grinned up at the Headmistress. “Why, Lady Astarte has little old me gotten under your skin? That you’d be reduced to cheating?”
Carson’s frown deepened to levels that would put the Grand Canyon to shame. “I beg your pardon?”
“Ah’m only wearing a mask because this is being recorded and the arena rules require it. Otherwise Ah am in civilian clothing and fit right in with the girls here. So, you only singled me out because of something were this ‘for real’ quote unquote Ah wouldn’t be wearing, ergo, you, ma’am, are cheating.”
The guffaws that were coming through the ear piece weren’t helping Liz concentrate. “Alright, points to be awarded to Loophole for a very clever piece of rules lawyering. Now, where is Zenith and why can’t I sense her?”
The grin on the red head’s face sent chills down Carson’s spin, though she was well schooled enough not to show it. “If you thought that was good, just wait until I lay this Amicus curiae on you. Zenith is where you can’t get at her, with not one, but two bags of money. And, by the rules put down by Gunny Bardue only one of us has to not be captured for us to win.” She presented her hands together. “So, take me in copper, Ah’ll go quietly. But we won this round twenty minutes ago.”
Carson’s eyes narrowed. “Where is she?”
“Do you admit defeat?”
It was only by force of will that Carson’s teeth didn’t grind. A large part of her wanted to make the self-confident little miss sweat out the remaining twenty minutes of the battle, but the teacher in her was far too worried about not being able to sense one of her students. She could teach that lesson later, the safety of one of ‘her kids’ far outweighed letting Loophole ‘win’ for once. “Fine, now where is Zenith?”
“She’s in mah secure locker in the workshop, wearing mah armor. Ah teleported her, mah armor and two bags of ‘loot’ back there twenty minutes ago. And before you start on me about how this is supposed to test mah powers, let me just say Ah used mah powers. Ah just outsmarted you.”
Elizabeth shook her head slowly. “Loophole, in the real world…”
“In the ‘real world’,” the red head interrupted, “Ah won’t be robbing banks.”
Twain Cottage, Whateley Academy
The man who would be called Monolith stormed into his dorm room in a fury. Fortunately for the furniture, he kept sufficient control of himself to neither throw his book bag onto his bed, which likely would have destroyed it, nor slam the door to the room which also would have likely been the end of the door. Still, he was obviously in quite a state, which drew his roommate from his laptop with a droll smile.
“Bad day?” Steve ‘Mechano-Man’ Tupolo asked with a dazzling smile. Tupolo was a fifteen year old model of the classic tall, dark, and handsome Italian stereotype. He was already six feet tall, broad-shouldered, and possessed of a chiseled physique that Donatello might have used to pattern his Saint George on. As soon as he discovered girls, it was doubtless he’d cut quite a swath through the school.
“What kind of a school is this?” exploded Monolith as he dropped his book bag on his bed and wheeled on his roommate to vent his spleen. “English? Math? History for the love of Pete!”
Tupolo blinked. “Sounds like fairly basic High School stuff to me…” he started before his fair-complected roommate cut him off.
“That’s the point!” Nalley shouted. “This is supposed to be mutant high! The closest thing I get to what should be going on here is my PE, basic power management! What’s worse, Mrs. Hartford tells me I won’t get assigned to a training team until Friday!”
Tupolo kept back the laugh that would only have made the situation worse. “I don’t think you really get what this place is about,” he said slowly. “I mean, yeah the Cadet Crusaders down in New York are more like what you’re expecting, but this is a school after all. You’ve got to learn all this stuff.” The swarthy young man frowned. “Doesn’t your sister come here? Didn’t you talk with her?”
“Don’t start,” growled Stephen as he sank onto his bed and held his head in his hands. “I don’t know what’s worse,” he said after a moment of self pity. “This BS class schedule or the codename I got assigned.”
Tupolo masterfully kept in a smirk. “What did you draw?” he asked innocently.
“Stronghold,” growled Nalley.
“That’s not so bad…” his roommate started, but Stephen would have none of it.
“Gimme a break!” Nalley shouted. “Stronghold? That sounds like some kind of craptastic Disney movie character!”
Tupolo allowed a moment of silence to settle before trying to help his new friend. “Two schools of thought here,” he said finally. “One, you can get bent out of shape about this, which will make you a target of every merry prankster on the campus; and believe me when I tell you our merry pranksters can be vicious. That’s something you definitely want to avoid. Or, two, you can make this your own, do your time and graduate. At which time you’re more than welcome to go track down Mono-whoever, beat the snot out of him and take the handle for yourself.” Mechano-Man shrugged. “Your choice.”
Experimental Weapons Range, Kane Hall Tunnels, Whateley Academy
Elaine’s moment of triumph in the simulator was not diluted in the slightest from the amount of work she had to do between the end of classes and dinner. First she had to do the demonstration classification for her armor, and then it was hightailing it over to Devisor Lab - Vehicle to start on the detention she shared with Murphy on the School’s vehicle fleet. Onerous, but not the worst punishment she could have drawn. This was yet another chapter in the rumor that Mrs. Carson always liked to have the punishment fit the criminals, if not the crime itself.
Now back in the armor and carrying its helmet, Elaine found a pair of men waiting for her, amicably chatting away as she entered. The first was Mr. Paulson, in his ever present school polo and chinos, looking up smiling from the official he was talking with to the doorway. “And here is our Loophole now,” he declared to the other man, who stood scrambled to his feet.
He was a roly-poly kind of fellow, with thinning dark hair, glasses that were too small for his deep blue eyes, and a government-issue suit that was wrinkled enough to appear lived in. He thrust out his hand and for once Elaine was glad of the gloves she’d incorporated into the system. “Special Agent Marvin Teller, ATF,” the man introduced with a fawning kind of enthusiasm that was more than a little creepy.
“Charmed,” managed Elaine as she remembered her manners and hesitantly took the offered hand even if Mr. Teller didn’t know it was rude to force a lady into a hand shake. “What happened to Agent Kenwood?”
“Oh, he’s back at the field office in Boston,” Teller replied, completely missing the reluctance in the school girl before him. “Only fair to let someone else have a chance to see these cool gadgets you kids dream up.”
“Perhaps we should get started,” interjected Mr. Paulson smoothly as he subtly got himself between his student and her somewhat unwelcome admirer. “I’ve got the form 5320.1 Loophole has filled out for the construction of her new weapon here.” Agent Teller took the document with a grin and quickly scanned over it.
“Charged particle?” he asked as his grinned widened. “Man, I love this Star Wars stuff; say do you guys watch Eureka?”
“Loophole’s a little busy with school to watch a lot of television I’d think, Agent Teller.” Paulson replied with a wink in Elaine’s direction the government official couldn’t see. “Why don’t we get you ensconced behind the safety barrier over here and we’ll let her do her thing.”
Elaine got her helmet settled and let it uplink to the rest of the suit before she allowed herself to mutter, sotto voce, “Why do Ah always end up with the creepy ones?”
“Agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have something of a reputation for over-enthusiasm in their firearms work, Miss,” Carmen replied with what might have passed for a chuckle. “If the databases I have access to are correct, Agent Kenwood was overdue for promotion to his next assignment. Luck of the draw I suppose. Reactor is at idle and all systems are nominal.”
“Clear weapon’s safeties for live fire,” ordered Elaine quietly she settled into a firing stance and locked the targeting computer on the targets down range.
“Safeties are clear, targets locked on, system is hot.”
“Loophole, do you read me?” Mr. Paulson’s voice asked in her ear.
“Five by five, Mr. Paulson.”
“Let’s not beat around the bush then, and get this over with quickly. A single shot at max power should be sufficient for Agent Teller.” Elaine sighed before nodding at the logic of the suggestion.
“Wait one,” she replied before she raised her right thumb like cocking the hammer on a pistol to mute the circuit. “You heard the man, Carmen.”
“If it was your intention to only make use of this projector at its maximum, then may I suggest that the power couplings be made of more sturdy materials in the next form,” the computer replied tiredly. “Interlocks released, ready to fire.”
Elaine pointed at a two foot by two foot block of concrete that she’d selected as a target. A pencil thin red beam of a laser range finder helped ionize a path through the air while providing an exact range to target. The monopole drive built a tunnel of magnetism between her finger and the target before flooding the now empty path with energized particles forced in a strictly linear path down the lines of magnetism to a very healthy percentage of c. A flash of heat and light filled the small range as entropy took its toll before the block exploded into several large chunks, the center of which had a four inch perfectly circular hole burned through it.
“Wow!” exploded Teller from the safety area. “Somebody is going to be giving General Dynamics a run for their defense contracts!”
“Re-engage safeties and return defense systems to stand by,” ordered Elaine as she took off the helmet and glanced back at the two men approaching. “Ah don’t suppose it will matter to ya’ll that Ah designed this for meteorite and space debris defense, not as a weapon?”
“It won’t matter as far as the classification goes,” Teller replied with a big smile. “NASA is still a rated government agency for Cat 4 weapons…”
“NASA isn’t the only folk going into space, Agent Teller,” Elaine shot back. “Or have ya’ll not heard of Burt Rutan?”
The Agent shared a confused glance with the teacher before he smiled and patted his student on the shoulder. “Loophole’s suit was designed to replace bulky pressure suits currently used by astronauts, Agent Teller,” the teacher supplied. “It wasn’t intended for military applications, in fact, Loophole and I have had several conversations on how to keep it from military use.”
Teller mopped his forehead with a faded and stained handkerchief. “If this was accidental, I’d hate to think what the little lady could come up if she put her mind to it. Nevertheless, Mr. Paulson, the regulations don’t give me a lot of latitude here. All energy weapons must receive at least a Cat 3 rating. And your student’s prototype put a four inch hole through a two foot block of concrete! That’s military grade no matter how you slice it.”
“But that’s max power!” protested Elaine. “Ah could build in a governor that wouldn’t allow it to accept that much juice and…”
Marvin shook his head. “I’m sorry, Miss. Even if you did, I’d have to rate this Cat 3. There’s no way a weapon this powerful is going to see general sales without an NFA background check.” He sighed as the crushing weight of the verdict settled on the young girl’s face. “For the time being, I’ll certify the weapon as experimental. Mr. Paulson can give you the affidavit you’ll have to fill out. That will give you time to think about it.”
“Thanks,” muttered Elaine softly.
The Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy
“Now,” growled Tansy as she shoved her three most troublesome charges through the double doors from Schuster Hall into the school’s cafeteria. “I am going to eat. And I’m not going to hear so much as a mouse fart from you three through out my meal. Or I’m going to skin you and use your miserable hides for my next leather coat!”
The three junior high girls nodded fearfully enough that the blonde stalked off in the direction of the steam tables before the looks of false fear faded into the kind of suppressed rage that only twelve and thirteen year old girls can muster. “This sucks,” announced Bethany to the general agreement of her friends. The dark haired girl’s eyes fell on the distinct red head at the Alpha table. “She throws Tansy out of the Alpha’s and we have to suffer for it!”
“Well,” Estelle pointed out, “It was really Kodiak who…” was as far as she got before Bethany’s icy stare convinced her that facts had very little to do with her ire just then.
“She gets to sit and the big table and flirt with a senior,” growled Bethany as Elaine laughed at some joke Kodiak had made. “She gets to be queen bee and we get stuck with the Wicked Bitch of the North!”
“I like cheerleaders,” interjected Irene from her admiring of the painting by the door. “My mom was a cheerleader and she’s really…” The blonde traded looks with her two friends. “Well, I don’t like our cheerleaders…”
Bethany shook her head to keep from dropping her jaw in amazement. “Where do you come up with this stuff?” she demanded. “Who said anything about…”
“You mentioned Queen Bee,” shot back Irene.
If Abracadabra’s eyes could roll any further they’d leave her head. “She gets to be important, you dummy! I wasn’t talking about…”
“We have to be nice to her,” Estelle interjected. “When we’re Alpha’s next year she’ll be in charge.”
“Loophole is like a dragon,” Irene declared from the painting.
“What?” her two friends’s chorused.
Palantir nodded and motioned the two next to her and the painting of the dragon sitting regally atop his hoard. “Look at what she did,” the young blond went on her sing song voice. “She didn’t ride out like Smaug and set Lake Town on fire, she was more like Glaurung.”
“Glaurung was killed by Turin,” returned Bethany, but Irene only nodded.
“Yeah, but that was after he conquered and enslaved Nargothrond, proclaimed himself the first Dragon King and even as he was dieing he drove Nienor to kill herself just by talking to her. That’s sneaky,” she declared, looking up at the dragon in awe. “That’s how we have to be.”
“We have to suffer under Tansy because of what Loophole did,” Estelle said slowly. “Her and Murphy. It seems only right that they should give us something for our trouble.”
“Like Essence,” said Palantir. “It’s only fair.”
Bethany joined her two friends in admiring their new mentor’s painting. “Fair,” she replied. “And I’ve got an idea…”
Devisor Lab, Vehicle, Kane Hall Tunnels, Whateley Academy
“Never let it be said that Mrs. Carson does things in a small way,” groused Murphy around the last of the Ranger Cookie bar she was eating. The two girls looked out at the twenty bays of the lab, each full with a member of the school’s vehicle fleet. Six were Blue Bird All American standard School Buses, right down to their black and yellow paint schemes. There were ten Ford Crown Victorias all in fleet white, and four Econoline vans, three of which had been converted to shuttle work in the school’s colors of black and gold. The last had been outfitted as an ambulance and bore the markings of Doyle Medical Center across it.
“This is just the first set,” chuckled Mr. Donner as he dropped a set of keys into Elaine’s hand. “But it will keep you girls out of trouble for the next couple of days I imagine. Lock up when you’re done, Doc.”
The red head sighed as she led the way to one of the bays that held the oldest of the busses. “Let’s start on this one,” she muttered as she tried to get the cover all she was wearing a bit more comfortable.
“Any particular reason?”
“Ah’m home sick,” Elaine replied as she tapped the name plate before working open the doors it was next to. The plate read Blue Bird Body Company, Fort Valley, Georgia.
“Never would have thought a school like this would have cheese wagons,” muttered Murphy as the two girls climbed up into the bus and looked down the double row of green Naugahyde seats. “Guess it’s a requirement. So, what’s this one need?”
Elaine picked up the clipboard sitting in the driver’s seat and read it off. “Oil change, tune up, seats 4 left, 7 right, 15 left and 22 right are all loose and need to be tightened down. Interior/exterior cleaning.”
“We have to have all these done in a week?”
“Technically,” Loophole started, “We just have to do them all this week. She didn’t say they had to be finished.”
“One day that rules lawyering of yours is going to get you into real trouble,” Joann warned. “I just can’t make up my mind if I want to be there to see it myself or not.”
“It’s not mah fault people can’t be bothered to be accurate when they talk,” she shot back while opening the cover of the top of the engine the driver had to climb over to take his seat. “Cummins ISB-10, well at least they’re easy to work on. Ya’ll want to fix the seats?”
“What do I know about this, it’s your bailiwick?”
Elaine rolled her eyes and fitted a socket to a driver handle that she thrust into the other girl’s hands. “You can turn a wrench, can’t you? They’re just bolted down.”
“You’re so cute when you’re frustrated,” Joann chuckled as she squeezed by and walked down the row. “I should have bought my iPod,” she continued in her mock rant until her toe caught on one of the bench’s mounting brackets and she tumbled to the floor in a shout of surprised pain.
“You ok?” shouted Elaine from the nose.
Joann lay on her side, the breath knocked from her and seeing stars for a moment, before she realized what she was looking at. Gasping for breath, she reached under the seat and plucked a faded, yellowed sheet of paper that had been secreted there. “I’m ok,” she managed as Elaine reached her and helped her up into a sitting position. “Anything that can go wrong,” she muttered with a half smile.
“What’s that?” demanded Elaine, indicating the paper in her hand. Murphy shrugged as she carefully opened the folds.
“Dunno, it was under the seat,” she said as her eyes fell on the paper’s contents, a short note printed years ago on a dot matrix printer.
“I know what you’ve done,” she read in a questioning voice. “You might have escaped the freak house, but if you don’t want Carson to know what really happened to her kid you’ll play my game now. I have so many wants and desires I’ve made a list and you’re going to collect them for me. Don’t even think about going to Delarose, or anyone else, that will just get you expelled faster, or perhaps our beloved Headmistress might take off her white hat and dispense a little frontier justice on her own. Either way, you belong to me or all the proof of your little experiments will wind up on Carson’s desk. You’ll find the list of what I want being guarded by the dark mind of Edgar. If I were you I’d be quick about it. The Forger.”
The two girls exchanged a glance before Murphy whispered, “It’s a blackmail note.”
Ward 224, Doyle Medical Complex, Whateley Academy
“Come in,” called Sebastiano as he made a show of wiping the corner of his lip with his napkin. “No need to lurk in doorways, we’re all friends here.”
The twins exchanged looks before making an overly polite ‘you first’ gesture to allow Tansy to enter the room ahead of them. She did so hesitantly, cringing as James asked, “Before we get too friendly, Donny, you still number two in a bag?” A pained look crossed the Don’s face as he pushed the tray containing the remains of his lunch away.
“Fortunately no,” he managed around one of his best smiles. “The joys of modern medicine have lifted that particular burden.” He topped off the glass of Perrier from the bottle before dropping it into the waste bin by the bed. “I’m sure there’s no need to ask why I’ve brought us all together, is there?”
“You’re as big a loser as she is,” Hamper declared jauntily.
“And you want us to witness the founding of your losers club,” piped in Damper.
“At last, somebody for the underdogs to pick on,” they laughed in stereo. The two were a bit unnerved as the Don joined them in their laughter before a dangerous edge entered his voice.
“Hardly,” he drawled thorough gritted teeth. “It isn’t the bottom of this fetid pile of compost’s pecking order that concerns me, but the top of it. A place I mean for all of us to enjoy shortly.”
“And how do you imagine that will happen?” growled Tansy.
“We all have our strengths and weaknesses,” The Don replied in his most persuasive tones. “Weaknesses that were exploited because we failed to work together and because we failed to act when the time was right,” he said, wishing he were well enough to get out of the bed. Static speeches could be persuasive, but he needed to engage all three of his new pawns where their hindbrains would be most vulnerable. “Failures that can corrected now that they have been identified. Fortunately, my good friends, I have a plan.”
Lit Chix Club House, Tunnels below Whitman Cottage, Whateley Academy
“Now, what is this about, exactly?” demanded Rebecca as she looked over the note in its protective plastic sleeve that the girls were passing around.
“It’s a blackmail demand,” replied Murphy somewhat excitedly. “We found it on our detention.”
Foxfire rolled her eyes. “I can see that. But it’s got to be years old and no telling how long it was under that seat where you found it.”
“Eleven years, eight months and a couple of days,” supplied Elaine.
“Do we want to know how you can be so specific?” asked Maggie with a chuckle at her roommate’s expense.
“Ah was able to rough carbon date it with mah tricorder,” Nalley replied.
“You finally got all the bugs out?” Babs asked excitedly, but Loophole shook her head.
“No, but the carbon decay rate is all hard science Ah just copied and miniaturized. That part of it is accurate. More to the point, Ah checked with facilities and this was printed on a Hewlett-Packard 2932A Dot Matrix Printer which the school used from School Year ’87-88 to School Year 97-98. They primarily were used for the library terminals and were accessible for student use of the library mainframe.”
“The paper is what gives it away,” added Dee with a pleased grin of being able to get involved in a real crime drama rather than just writing about them. “It’s Mead light bond perforated computer paper which the school only used in School Year ’94-95, which is the year Mrs. Carson daughter died!”
“Carson had a daughter?” asked Heather quizzically. “That attended Whateley?”
Murphy produced a school year book that had library stamps on it and opened it to a page she had marked. “She’s had three actually; a daughter, Samantha from her marriage to Simon ‘Dr. Arcane’ Stevens who she divorced in ’71, then in ‘78, she married Hugh Wells, with whom she punched out two kids, Shelley and Miranda. That’s her there.”
The book opened to a full page dominated by a portrait of a good-looking young girl with sandy blond hair and her mother’s cornflower blue eyes. She was giving a shy smile to the camera. The page was labeled: ‘In Memory of Our Friend, Shelley Wells-Carson’. There was a montage of other photographs that were more candid and it became obvious that Shelley had a bad case of GSD as her features hardened and then she became a creature of animate stone in the last few pictures of the montage. At the bottom of the page was the text “Rest in Peace, Granite.”
Stella morphed up into her more human form to get a better look before she observed. “This says she died of GSD burnout.”
Dee tapped the black mail note. “Somebody thought otherwise. So I did our due diligence after Elaine called me, and look what I found.” She flipped the book open to the class section and pointed out a photograph of a stunning brunette flattering the camera with a dazzling smile.
“Lindsey Andrews. So what?” asked Stella.
“Looker though,” muttered Heather. “She’d give Tansy a run for her money and I love her smile. She seems so…”
“You’re drooling,” chuckled Rebecca. “So, I repeat our resident tracker, what?”
Dee was enjoying having a secret and was grinning ear to ear as she flipped the pages to another marked section. This time she pointed out a pair of brothers, as different from each other as night and day. Tom Parks was big fellow, square-jawed and clean cut, with short dark hair and sparkling green eyes, where his brother Peter wasn’t as big and squared off, more gymnast to his linebacker, with bright red hair in a mullet that reached his lab coat he was wearing in the picture. “Tom is a mage,” muttered Maggie as she rubbed a finger over the pentacle broach he was wearing on his lapel. “Fairly up there too, by the pin. At least as good as me,” she said rubbing the pentacle necklace she was wearing which was a near copy of his.
“I’m still not seeing a connection,” Stella repeated.
“That’s because you’re seeing the after pictures,” cooed Dee triumphantly as she produced another year book, this one from the year previous and opened it to another set of marked pages. “Check out before.”
A collection of gasps echoed around the table. The Parks brothers weren’t smiling in these photographs. Only Peter’s sea green eyes were recognizable mournfully staring out of a muzzle covered in red fur that was a cross between a weasel and a rat by mixing the worst aspects of each. Tom on the other hand had a face covered in hard bony protrusions that was crowned by a pair of heavy looking devil’s horns at his temples. A pair of tusks replaced his lower canines. Lindsey’s smile was replaced by a cruel raptor’s beak and most of her face was covered in feathers the same color as her chestnut hair would be next year.
“They’ve got GSD,” whispered Babs. “Bad cases too, it looks like.”
“Now check this out,” chuckled Murphy as she flipped the older year book to its last marked page. In it was a photograph of all four looking up from their meal in the Crystal Hall that was labeled ‘The Four Amigos’.
“Ok, so it’s a pretty safe bet who was being black mailed and why,” muttered Rebecca as she rubbed her chin in thought. “Or, at least what your theory is. I’m guessing you feel that somehow they cooked up some kind of GSD cure and tried it on themselves, three got cures and Shelley takes the dirt nap?”
“That’s what the facts seem to indicate,” Elaine said with a nod. “We have no clue who this ‘Forger’ was, but we have an idea. If this note survived, it’s possible that the three survivors did go to Delarose or Carson. By following the clues we might find out what really happened.”
“And that would score us some fairly major points with Carson,” mused Simone softly from her corner. “If she doesn’t already know what happened and just let the year book print a little white lie.”
“Not her style,” muttered Rebecca as her eyes shot back and forth between the pictures. “More to the point, if she knew her daughter died in some half-baked invention test, it would be plastered all over this yearbook as an object lesson.”
“Ok,” said Maggie after a long moment of thought as she looked at the note once more. “So what are these clues you’re talking about? The note seems fairly straightforward, except it seems like the list it talks about wasn’t with it, right? So the trail goes cold?”
“Nope,” Loophole said around her smile. “The note says where the list is. It’s ‘guarded by the dark mind of Edgar’.”
Selkie pulled one of the yearbooks closer and began to flip through it. “Well, it shouldn’t be too hard to track down somebody with a name as odd as Edgar. How many were in the school that year?”
“None,” replied Dee. “I thought of that too, until Elaine pointed out I was over-thinking it.”
“Heather, dear,” drawled Elaine. “Tell me, what’s just inside the doorway of your fine cottage on the right side?”
Selkie looked up, frowning. “Ya kin verry well it’s ta’ bust o’ Poe!” she snapped, her accent thickening a bit with her frustration. Elaine only nodded smiling.
“Yes, the black or dark bust of Edgar Allen Poe.”
The color drained from Heather’s face. “No, ya kinna be serious. I’ll not be party to pinchin’ me own cottage’s bust…”
“Don’t think of it as theft,” soothed Murphy. “More like a loan.”
Melville Cottage, Room 803, Whateley Academy
“You don’t think it’s too over the top?” drawled Kodiak as he rubbed his chin in thought and took in the poster lying across his coffee table. It was a picture of himself in his signature flannel and jeans, hands on hips and giving the camera his most winning, rakish smile. Kodiak, was emblazoned across the top and Your Alpha Male at the foot. Wyatt took another pull on his beer and shook his head. “I mean, it’s this weird cross between beefcake and political ad.”
Flicker rolled her eyes as Aries obviously began to doubt his work and began to look over the poster again with a critical eye. “You think…?” he started before his girlfriend angrily cut him off.
“Would you rather have an all black poster of just your face and Kodiak printed on it?”
Wyatt’s frown deepened. “That’s not funny,” he growled, half his own voice and half the bear within him.
“What?” asked Arnold in confusion.
“Your girlfriend is confusing me with Adolph Hitler.”
“No,” Nancy returned. “Hitler had a moustache.”
“I don’t get it…” complained Arnold.
“Don’t worry about it,” snapped Nancy, never taking her eyes off Cody. “If we don’t get to the printers before they close, it will be Wednesday before they’re back, and do you really want to lose all that time campaigning to the Council?”
Wyatt sighed noisily before draining what was left in the bottle and casually dumping it into a chute in the wall marked Trash. “Fine, go with it. The vote should be just a formality anyway. Aries, where do we stand there?”
“With all the additions you made yesterday, it’s harder to game to be honest, Wyatt. I’m sure we can count on Pendragon, Gadget, Akira and Poise. That’s almost half the Council.”
“Anybody thrown their hat in the ring against me?”
Nancy couldn’t keep the smile off her face. “Oiler,” she said. “And you had to have seen that coming, why…?”
“I don’t answer to you,” the senior growled. He cracked his knuckles. “Fine, if Rick needs a little reminder of his place in the pecking order around here, I’ll oblige him. Get this to the printer and let’s get them up. I’ll take care of Oiler.”
Clubhouse of F. O. E. in the tunnels between Dunn Hall and Whitman Cottage
The Secret boiled and seethed in excitement and frustration. The girls had taken the bait, but now it would take all of its energy to make sure they were led exactly where it wanted them to go. Gathering itself, The Secret hurled itself from the long abandoned clubhouse and roamed the tunnels beneath the school. Onward, ever onward, it made its way through the labyrinth while above ground, the only students out were the Mystic Arts students on their way to classes held at night.
One, a winsome red head whose beauty on campus was unrivaled and whose soul was nearly as old as the foundations of the Earth, paused as The Secret passed underneath her. Had there been something? A presence, perhaps, some omen of ill intent passing her just then? A whispered word of power revealed nothing with intent against her, and the student only shrugged and returned to her lonely trek across the campus.
Below ground, The Secret eased its way up, through soil and concrete until it hovered in the atrium of Poe Cottage. The bust sitting in the alcove would fool nearly everyone, but The Secret knew better and had far more emotion involved to be fooled. It concentrated for a long moment, a deadly cold settling in the foyer as it fought to alter reality. Finally with a soft flash of power The Secret’s work was complete and once more the real bust of Edger Allen Poe resided in its cubby hole; its well-manufactured fake taking its place of hiding in the rafters.
Exhausted, The Secret fell through the floor just as Mrs. Horton emerged from her apartment, rubbing her arms to warm herself. “Those kids,” she muttered to herself as she made sure the door was closed, raised the temperature on the thermostat, and returned to her rooms.