Brian Chupp looked at his ‘Mr. Cool’ suit in disgust. The nitric filter/binder system was completely gummed up by that stupid flame retardant foam. It would take him weeks to clear out the filters. And by then, Jadis would be gone. Who were all those people, anyway? Half of them looked like superheroes, but the ones that actually gave him any problems just looked like regular high school kids!
Then his alarm buzzed, and Brian barely had time to get his suit into his locker before Amber Ponikowski came into the lab. “Why is it always so COLD in here?”
“Well, I DO work with cryonics, you know,” Brian said defensively. Brian tended to be rather defensive around Amber Ponikowski. While she was thin, flat-chested and rather plain of face, she was still the most attractive woman in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, even if she didn’t know it.
“Well then, you should know how better than to waste it by letting it get all over the place, now shouldn’t you?” Amber said with a snip.
Brian just mumbled something that might placate her without admitting that he was in any way wrong, and left the CISE building to try and clear his mind. His latest attempt to impress Jadis Diabolik was a complete shambles. She probably had absolutely no idea of who he was. Exactly how he’d know that she knew and was impressed never really clicked with him. He was too focused on his immediate objective: doing something that would jump out of the headlines, shoving aside that drivel about that bogus angel in that idiotic church!
Brian stopped outside the Center for Integrated Science & Engineering and decided whether he wanted to go off campus to eat, or brave the Student Union. Then he overheard two coeds in Columbia hoodies nattering at each other. “Honestly, Lupe! You’ve been saying that you wanted to go see the Cellini Venus for weeks, so you have to go NOW!”
“Why right now, Giselle?” the other one asked. “It’s scheduled to be on display until February!”
“They’re moving it TONIGHT, after the museum closes at 5 o’clock!”
“Why are they moving it?”
“Well,” ‘Gisele’ dropped her voice, “you know that my Papa works at the French consulate?” she did have a noticeable French accent, Brian noted. “Well, he mentioned that something’s gone wrong with that fancy alarm system that they have at the Griffith Collection. And, after what happened at le Palais d’Lafayette, and the Italians claiming it as a national treasure, the Consul has decided to move it back to France without an announcement. So you’d best go see it before they pack it away!”
“What happened at la Palais d’Lafayette?”
“Oh, it was a HUGE scandal forty years ago! The Cellini Venus was stolen from la Palais d’Lafayette, and it only turned up decades later in the private collection of some American millionaire! If the Cellini Venus was stolen again, in America, it would be a HUGE scandal! The Press would have a field day with it!”
“What’s wrong with the alarm system?”
“How would I know?”
“It would be HORRIBLE if anything happened to the Venus! It’s SO beautiful! I would give ANYTHING to have something so lovely!”
Brian headed right back into the CISE building, bursting with inspiration. It was PERFECT! The question as to WHY two college students would be discussing a sensitive security issue, just as he happened to come along, never occurred to him.
As soon as Brian was back inside, one of the girls reached for her cell phone and said in French, “Sanjay? Pigeon One is one the wing. We practically had to lead him by the hand, but he got the idea. And speaking of that… I really think that I should be the one to handle Pigeon Two. It’s a good thing that he was so gullible; someone played her hand with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer!”
“No, Pilar,” Sanjay sighed. “Mirelle is perfect for Pigeon Two. Besides, we need you to help Mulan with handling Pigeon Three. Mulan will be playing the ‘no speakie Engrish’ card, and she’ll need an interpreter. Besides, that fool FBI agent will be there, and you know how good you are at playing authority figures. And you’re the best person to be the pivot man when the play goes into action.”
Mirelle listened in and stuck her tongue out at Pilar when Sanjay laid down the law.
“I don’t BELIEVE it!” Gryphon was even more enraged after returning to the Cadets’ headquarters. “They’re going to give those scumbags commendations!”
“But Griffy!” Aurora asked plaintively, “What if we’re wrong? The security guy said that that Diabolik girl and her friends were in the office with him when those supervillains attacked!”
“Oh please!” Gryphon said in a disgusted note, “That trick’s so old, even ‘he went that-a-way’ calls it grampaw! You’ll notice that they were very careful to let their favorite goon, the one with the ice powers, get away while they conveniently captured the other two.”
“Griff, that doesn’t make any sense!” Tower groaned. “WHY would Jadis Diabolik leave her name at the scenes of those crimes, like that? That only happens in comic books!”
“Why?” Splendor said as she came out of the shower rooms in her heavy duty armor. Her regular outfit showed off a lot of skin, with a ‘keyhole’ for her cleavage, and lots of leg. But this armor was serious business. “Because she’s a WISEASS, that’s why? She’s an arrogant punk who wants to show off that she can pull something like ripping off Tiffany’s, leave her name, and STILL get away with it! She thinks that because she’s the daughter of an A-list supervillain-”
“B-list,” Burke corrected her. “Very high B-list, but still B-list.”
“Whatever! She thinks that because she’s the daughter of some stupid mad scientist, that she can get away with murder!”
“And that’s another thing!” Tower argued, “She’s the daughter of Dr Diabolik, right? The rest of them are the kids of big-time supervillains, right? WHY would Dr Diabolik, a guy who goes around raiding entire CITIES at a time, waste his time ripping off Tiffany’s and a couple of art museums? He’s major league! He doesn’t waste time with crap like that! It’s not worth his time!”
“We’re talking Doctor Diabolik here,” Burke argued. “He’s an evil genius. Evil Geniuses pride themselves on being inscrutable. And if the parents of all those kids are involved, then it’s going to be MAJOR, whatever it is!”
“LOOK,” Tower said in the voice of exhausted reason, “if their parents were involved, then they’d either be a lot quieter about what they’re doing, or they’d be a lot more ruthless. I mean look at my hands!” He held up his bandages. “That Cutlass chick was cutting me to shreds, and Jadis stopped her! WHY would she do it, if they were there to get something? And if they were there to steal something, then why didn’t they LEAVE with anything?”
“Maybe they did, and the museum just isn’t aware of it!” Tiger Girl offered.
Tower groaned. “IF Dr Diabolik and all those guys are involved, then the only thing that makes any sense is that this Jadis chick and her buddies are pulling some sort of distraction for their parents. That they’re doing the old ‘watch this hand as the other hand picks your pocket’ bit. But WHY would they do THAT? That stupid ‘angel’ over in Hell’s Kitchen has everyone’s attention all wrapped up! Nobody’s even noticing what Jadis Diabolik and her crew are doing- IF they’re doing anything at all. Why pull a distraction, when you’ve already GOT the Ringling Brothers circus out in the front yard?”
Burke paused, hand cradling chin, and mused, “You might- IF you were going to do something to the circus…”
Gryphon came to attention. “You think that Doctor Diabolik has plans for the Angel of Hell’s Kitchen?”
“Can you think of another reason why that DuChantraine kid would be taking all those readings with that phony camera gizmo? Perhaps the whole point of all this is to be chasing the kids around, while the parents are getting ready to strike.” Burke’s fantasy of the bust of a lifetime was back and in full flower.
“Ah, guys?” Tiger Girl interrupted the debate, “We have visitors.” She pointed at the entrance where two young girls in private school uniforms were standing. One was a lovely but anxious-looking Latin girl of maybe 16 or so, and the other was an exquisite Asian girl, maybe 14 or 15, wearing glasses, who hung on her friend’s sleeve and seemed to be on the verge of tears.
One of the keys to a good con is to let your mark sucker himself. Pilar and Mulan played Mulan’s alleged lack of English and Pilar’s alleged lack of familiarity with the details so that the Cadets and their FBI ally wrote the script to suit their prejudices. Pilar only had to tweak it every so often, so that the thrust of their fantasy went in the direction that they wanted it to. Their DeVille Academy anti-telepath training gulled the Cadets’ telepath into thinking that Mulan was simply too terrified and anxious to get any real information from. The file that Sanjay had planted when he hacked into the Cadets’ computer ‘confirmed’ that ‘Ling and Kwai’ (Mulan and Kim) were the children of a Chinese scientist who was in New York for some symposium. The file even had a picture of the happy family (Pilar had photoshopped Mulan and Kim into a picture of a Bangkok politician and his family).
Bit by bit, Mulan and Pilar allowed the Cadets to tease the ‘fact’ that the Bad Seeds had kidnapped ‘Ling’s’ little brother ‘Kwai’, and were holding him at the Diabolik townhouse for some reason having to do with their father. Then they allowed the FBI dupe into working out that some trivial bits of ‘overheard’ information suggest that the Diaboliks’ plan involved a strike at the Griffith Museum, just at closing.
“Okay, so now we FINALLY know what’s going on!” Gryphon said, copping a pose. “Now, we take the fight to the Diaboliks on OUR terms! So, we’ve been taking it in the chops so far. So what? We’ve taken it in the chops before and come out on top. The important thing isn’t to win every time, it’s to learn how to win. And if the Cadet Crusaders are good at anything, it’s learning. This time, we do it RIGHT!”
Pilar wryly wondered if they’d get even more extra credit for gulling not only the Whateley nerds, but some superheroes and the FBI as well.
“Oooo… BOSS!” Cutlass squealed as she clutched the expensive Armani jacket that Jadis had bought for her, “You are too GOOD to me!”
“Don’t call me Boss,” Jadis said almost by reflex. “And it’s nothing. You went the extra mile, going to the Whittier with us. And you didn’t hurt that poor ‘Tower’ schlub. Well, not too much. Think of it as a ‘good job’ token.”
“Yeah and speaking of that,” Ray cut in, “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t spread it around back at school, about us helping catch supervillains. We got a reputation to maintain, y’know.”
“Oh relax, Ray!” Jadis chided him as they walked out of Bonwit-Teller. “Look at it this way- Cyclone and Sabbath were encouraging that idiot Mr. Cool to implicate me by leaving my name at the scenes of his crimes. I specifically told Cyclone to tell Mr. Cool to get in touch with me, but instead he sets up that Whittier job. That comes squarely under the heading of ‘messing with the kid’. So we slapped him down and now he’s heading to the jug. ‘You mess with us, we mess you up’- trust me, Ray; supervillains understand and respect that.”
“I’m not worried about supervillains; I’m worried about Scarlet.”
“Scarlet?” Erzili asked.
“Ray’s girlfriend,” Mal answered as he managed her packages. “They have a very… intense relationship.”
“Well!” Jean-Armand said with hearty cheer, “Now that crass commercial materialism has been sated, what say we turn our attention to more spiritual matters?”
“Danger, Will Robinson, Danger,” Jadis muttered under her breath.
“Oh, come ON, She-Beast!” Jean-Armand wheedled. “Those Kiddie Crusaders don’t dare start up anything with us now! One more incident and we can slap a restraining order and a lawsuit for harassment on their little pin heads.” He paused and mused, “Though, still, maybe I could arrange for that Nightchylde fille to… convince me… not to press charges…” he finished with a roguish leer.
“Buy us something to eat, and maybe we’ll consider it,” Winter said coquettishly. “Maybe.”
Seeing no attempt on Jadis’ part to act the leader on this issue, Jean-Armand gave in to the blackmail, and as he was all too familiar with his confreres’ appetites, he took them to a buffet restaurant. He figured that it was the best compromise between bribery and thrift. The entry price was steep, but Jean-Armand was smug in the wisdom of his choice as he watched the rest of the Bad Seeds demolish plate after plate of food. As he went back for thirds of the filling (if less than gourmet quality) fare, he heard a question in French address to him in a young female voice. “Pardon, but are you Jean-Armand St. Michel-DuChantraine?” He turned to face a lovely young girl, maybe a little younger than himself, with large blue eyes in a delicate face, framed by unfortunately mousy brown hair and large spectacles. She would have been quite the eye-catcher, but from the way she dressed, she obviously fancied herself some sort of scholar.
Relieved that his success with Nightchylde wasn’t some sort of fluke, Jean-Armand smiled and purred, “Why, yes I am! And who might you be my dear?”
“Oh, I’m Clarisse Durant, and I remember you from last year, when your father gave that lecture at Michel de Montaigne University on-” Clarisse rattled on in the manner of enthusiastic young savants.
Jean-Armand listened with one ear, more enjoying hearing a lovely young girl speaking French properly than actually listening to what she was saying. Then, he heard something that tripped his internal alarms. “Pardon… What was that again? No, the other thing…”
“Finish up!” Jean-Armand hissed at the other Bad Seeds over the back of their booth. “An incredible opportunity has just reared its head!”
“What’s up? Are they giving out free angels at St. Gregory’s?”
“Very amusing,” Jean-Armand sneered. “You see that young girl over there? Well, I won’t go into too many details, don’t want to hurt your heads,” he patted Thrasher on the shoulder. “But she’s given me an invaluable clue to a treasure that my father’s been looking for, for DECADES!”
“What is it?”
“Just before the Thirty Years War, Emperor Rudolf II made his court open to all sorts of mystics, alchemists and free thinkers and so forth. One of them, a particularly talented chap who styled himself ‘Naberius’ did a painting called The Feast of the Wise that was described as containing significant alchemical insights to the initiated eye. After Rudolf died, his brother Matthias ordered the painting burned, but it was smuggled to Italy, and from there, it disappears from record. My father has been looking for it for the better part of his LIFE. Now, if what that young lovely over there is true, then The Feast of the Wise wasn’t destroyed, it was cut up into smaller canvasses, something that unscrupulous art dealers have been doing for ages to perk up their bottom line. And it NEVER OCCURRED to my father, the GREAT artifact hunter, that it might have happened. HAH!” he finished with triumphant glee.
“Well GOOD FOR YOU, Jay-Arm!” Mal said. “Go get it!”
Jean-Armand smiled painfully. “There’s a SMALL PROBLEM…”
“Here it comes,” Winter muttered.
“Well, you see, Clarisse, the girl over there, isn’t quite sure exactly which museum in the city she saw the precise canvas at. It seems that she’s been doing the Art Crawl for the last week, and they’re all starting to be a blur… But she’s sure that it’s one of THREE…”
“So?” Ray said. “Have fun!”
“We are NOT helping you steal anything,” Jadis said with finality.
“Steal? I don’t have to STEAL it!” Jean-Armand said in offended tones. “That’s my father’s job. No, all that I have to do is confirm it, find out the name that the painting’s being displayed under, and so forth.”
“AND?” Erzili asked pointedly, picking up from the others that she shouldn’t take what he said on face value.
“Well, Clarisse was convent-raised, and she doesn’t feel comfortable being escorted around the galleries with a man of my raw sexual magnetism.”
“Or, raw something else,” Winter sniped.
“So, I was wondering if you’d chaperone us as we sorted through the galleries?”
“Yer kiddin’ me,” Thrasher said in flat disbelieving tones. “More museums?”
“What happened to your passionate quest for the angel?” Ray asked.
“Bagging one of those angels would be a triumph!” Jean-Armand acknowledged. “But locating the Feast would be something far BETTER- it would be one up on my father!” he finished in tones that would have had a Freudian champing at the bit.
“Okay, who wants to go check out MORE art?” Jadis asked, implying that she wasn’t interested.
“Eh, it would be best if as many witnesses could verify this as possible,” Nephandus wheedled. “It wouldn’t be the first time that my father’s accused me of lying to make myself look better.”
“Translation: it wouldn’t be the first time that your father’s caught you lying to make yourself look better,” Winter sniped. “Well, I’M up for it!” She gave him an acid smile. “BUT, I am looking for a little payback on this…”
“Payback?” Jean-Armand sneered, “As in ‘repayment for the ten thousand I paid EACH of you- up front’?”
“He’s got you there,” Jadis smirked.
“And I DO believe that I’m owed a little something for chasing around after that lovesick little puppy who was making dirt on your carpets?”
“Arguable, but not worth the effort,” Jadis sighed. “SO, more art museums!”
Mirelle had a tense moment as the DuChantraine twit introduced her as ‘Clarisse’ to the other Whateley dupes. Fortunately, the LaClavar boy was too morose to really look at her very hard, so he didn’t recognize her, and her DeVille anti-telepath training seemed to be holding up. She played the giddy art guide with gusto as she towed the Bad Seeds around the Fuller and Batewald museums for hours, always keeping an eye on her watch.
“I’m heading out, Pierson,” Hernandez said. “You need anything?”
“I could use another pot of cocoa in here!” Jobe called from his place in the living room.
“I’ll get it!” Mrs. Pierson called back. “No, we’re fine Gabrielo. I just wish that that Jadis and Malachi would get back.”
“Dinah, think about who we’re talking about!” Hernandez said with a chuckle. “If anything, we should be worried about whoever tries to cross that crowd!”
“Maybe, but there’s something wrong about that whole mess that isn’t sitting well by me. Oh, go on, there’s nothing for it.” Pierson went into the kitchen and got the hot cocoa for Jobe before he made his usual nuisance of himself.
Pierson had just set out the pot for Jobe, when the doorbell rang. Going to the door, she checked the video security monitor first. Standing at the door, eaten up from nose to tail with anxiety was a young Asian boy wearing a suit. Curious, Pierson opened the door and opened it, and her heart immediately melted. The boy looked at her with the face of a fretful angel with huge black eyes that cried out for comforting. “Well hello!” she said, her well-honed maternal instincts kicking in. “And who are you?”
“Is thiss Dyabollikal howse?” the boy asked, obviously not familiar with English.
“Well, something like that,” she admitted with a chuckle. The boy shoved a note at her, as if it would solve everything. Unfortunately, the note was written in Chinese. Or Japanese. Or Korean, maybe. Luckily, there was a number that looked like a phone number. “Hopefully, this number is for a person who has a little more practice with English. Come this way, you can stay in here,” she showed the young boy into the living room and went for the house phone.
“To examine my hypothesis, virus antigen and caspase 3 expression (for apoptosis) was compared in primary mixed, neural cell cultures infected in vitro or prepared from mice infected intra-cerebrally with WT, vaccine, or rodent neuro-adapted viruses. Viral RNA levels were examined in mouse brains by nested and real-time reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction. WT and vaccine strains were shown to infect murine oligodendrocytes in addition to neurones despite a lack of the known MV cell receptors. Unexpectedly, the percentage of cells positive for viral antigen was higher for WT MV than neuro-adapted virus in both in vitro and ex vivo cultures. In the latter, the percentage of positive cells increased with time after mouse infection. Viral RNA (total and mRNA) was detected in brain for up to 20 days, while cultures were negative for caspase 3 in WT and vaccine virus infections. What do you mean, that can’t be right, Van Zandt! Of COURSE, it’s right! I checked my cultures thoroughly! Rats do NOT die in vain in my labs!”
When Mrs. Pierson left, the boy got out of his chair and looked around the room. He studied Jobe, with his arrangement of three running laptops, portable DVD player running some strange twirling image, PDA, three notebooks, seven open textbooks, two notepads, a plate of pastries and one pot of hot chocolate. Jobe studied the boy right back with equal intensity. The boy’s gaze settled on the pot of cocoa. Jobe grabbed the pot and pulled it away. “MINE!”
“Thank Yew!” Mulan said in the approved stereotypically over-cheery manner needed for the role. She even bowed to her own cell phone. Which drew a few odd looks on the street. “We were wondering what hoppen to Kim! We are very busy now- is too much trouble for you if Kim stay there, until we can come pick him up? Thank Yew!” Well, one more piece of the plan was working as planned. She folded the phone, got back on the stolen motorcycle and drove up to where Sanjay was watching Mr. Cool. “Everything else seems to be going according to schedule. How’s our wild card doing?”
“He’s given up on getting his suit ready in time, and he’s just getting one of his earlier prototypes up and running again. He looks like he’ll make his curtain call.” Sanjay explained the layout where he expected ‘Mr. Cool’ to load his rig into his car from his Morningside Heights apartment building, and then got on his own motorcycle and drove off. Mulan settled in with her folding field glasses. The air was getting cold in the lowering dark. But given Ultramax’s notions of ‘chivalry’ back at the Cadet Crusaders, she’d rather be there than with Pilar at CC headquarters.
Sanjay parked his motorcycle near the Griffith Gallery, reversed his dark parka to its brighter side, took an armful of books from the bike’s saddle, wrapped a muffler around his neck, and put on a pair of glasses. Suddenly, he was the very picture of the earnest young exchange student come to absorb all the culture of New York, and looked older and shabbier than he had when he came in a few days ago with the others. Then he made very sure that all the bits of photographic equipment were there and in proper order. If everything went right, he wouldn’t need it. But if he needed it, he’d REALLY need it. Everything was ready, he was set, and he strolled into the Griffith Gallery well entrenched in his role. He nodded his understanding that there was less than a half-hour before closing, and wandered around, pausing to try and sketch a few things. Having made himself a part of the scenery as far as Security was concerned, he made sure of the one thing that he need. He poked around the gift shop for a while, and marveled at the junk that allegedly cultured people would buy. Then he bought a full-sized bonded marble replica of the Gallery’s current star exhibit.
“Are you SURE that this is the museum that you saw the fragment in?” Jean-Armand said in a gusty half-moan, half-whine.
“Yes, yes, I’m sure!” ‘Clarisse’ assured him.
“It’s a Christmas Miracle,” Winter groaned
“We made sure that it wasn’t the Fuller or the Batewald, and these are the only three museums that I’ve been in today, so it has to be the Griffith!” ‘Clarisse’ was chipper, despite the amount of dragging that she’d put the Whateley students through that afternoon. Her cheer wasn’t entirely forced, either; keeping her false persona up so the mopey LaClavar clown wouldn’t catch on had been difficult, and she was only too glad to get it all over with. Soon, it would be over, and she could kick this DuChantraine oaf where he was tender.
Jean-Armand stood the costs of getting everyone in, as he had with the two previous visits. “Please, please, Clarisse, tell me that you remember where you went!” He moaned. “We only have fifteen minutes until closing!”
“Are you sure that you want to be here, Penelope?” Burke asked as the Cadets watched the Bad Seeds enter the lobby of the Griffith Gallery. “I can guarantee you that it’s going to get very dangerous in there.”
“I need to be there,” Pilar breathed, going for saintly with everything she had. “Those fiends have my friend Clarisse with them, as well as Ling’s little brother. Clarisse… Clarisse isn’t strong… she may be so terrified that she’d say that she wasn’t a hostage, if they pressed her on it. She needs to see me, to know that she’s safe.” In truth, Pilar wouldn’t mind seeing Mirelle mashed into a bloody smear all over the Griffith’s marble lobby. But some things are simply too much to ask for.
Mulan drove past Mr. Cool’s car and watched him try to be inconspicuous as he got his erector-set power harness on in the confines of the cramped sedan. She drove a ways and pulled over. “Sanjay?” She whispered into her cell phone. “Pigeon One is ready to fly. Expect him in three to five minutes.”
Yes, I understand, Sanjay replied. When Sanjay signed off, Mulan ditched the stolen motorcycle and hailed a cab. The odds that Option Four or Option Six would come into play were slight, but at least she’d be warm.
Sanjay caught Mirelle’s eye and gave her the agreed on signal, perching his phony glasses on top of his head. Then he casually strolled into the viewing enclosure for the Cellini Venus.
“Wait!” ‘Clarisse’ said, turning the other way, “Now I remember! It was the gallery on the FAR side of the lobby!”
“You said that you were sure that it was on THIS side of the lobby!” Malachi moaned.
“No, I confused that one painting we just saw with one that was near the fragment that you want. I just needed to see that one to remember where the fragment of the Feast is.”
Jadis perked up her ears. ‘Fragment of the Feast’? But according to Jay-Arm, the ‘Clarisse girl’ didn’t know anything about the ‘Feast of the Wise’, she thought that she was helping him track down some painting called ‘The Wedding of Hermes and Aphrodite’. Suddenly, Jadis was very curious as to what new surprises this Clarisse had up her sleeve.
But as the Bad Seeds began to trudge across the lobby, there were sounds of shouting from the entrance. Looking to see what the fuss was, Jadis saw that the glass front was entirely frosted over, and then a figure in a kludged-together power frame with various tanks attached here and there smashed through.
“NO!” Jadis screamed, “Not AGAIN! What the fuck is the matter with that asshole?” Looking around desperately, she saw the entrance to the Cellini Venus viewing enclosure. The Cellini Venus was the most romantic- and valuable- thing in the Griffith at the moment. The Security Architects had been too canny to give a straight line of access from the entrance to the viewing enclosure. They’d also wanted a dog-leg corridor, but the display arrangers thought that the security measures were just this side of ridiculous as it was. Score One for Security. Jadis tore her beret off her head and threw it like a Frisbee, tossing it straight at the white statuette that could just be seen from the lobby.
Sanjay was surprised when the white felt discus flew in, accidentally draping itself across the Venus’ head, and setting off ear-rattling alarms. Still, the DeVille Academy had trained him to cope with that sort of thing, and if anything the alarm, which would have unnerved a normal person, only kicked his adrenaline in. He had already situated himself in one of the three possible blind spots from the cameras (the other security measures prevented 360 coverage), and he stumbled so that one of his books blocked one of the locking insets just as the armored shutter panel dropped down, preventing it from sealing off the Venus. Then he clapped a palm-sized breather over his mouth and activated the seals hidden in his glasses as the tear gas began filling the chamber.
Mr. Cool was totally focused on the task at hand. He ignored everyone in the lobby, and headed straight for the viewing enclosure entrance. He shot a burst of freezing spray right at the entrance door, freezing it open, and slid right into the short corridor. He sent another, more diffuse burst of freezing spray into the viewing chamber, both scattering and weakening the tear gas. Not that he’d known about the tear gas, he was just sending a cloud of fog into the chamber to confuse any targeting systems that might be in there. (There were several.) It just worked out that way. Once inside the viewing chamber, the only person there was huddled on the floor, clutching his face and making painful noises. Mister Cool was on a roll! He quickly sprayed the ceiling of the chamber, locking up the sirens, gas dispensers, cameras and any other defense measures in a layer of ice. Six heavy metal panels had dropped around the statue, but one of them had frozen before it hit the bottom. But the panels were flush with the pedestal. He hit the gap between the shutter and the floor, creating a pillar of ice that forced the metal panel upward.
“NERTZ!” Jadis screamed in frustration as Mr. Cool blithely ignored both her and her attempts to stop him. She ran after him, murder in her heart. But in her rage, she forgot to ‘get beastly’ and when she ran into the corridor she was both blinded by the tear gas that was being evacuated by Mr. Cool’s freezing fog and rattled by the ear-splitting siren inside the chamber. She stopped and coughed, temporarily blinded by the gas. She wrapped her muffler around her nose and mouth, but it wasn’t much help for her eyes. The tear gas had been diluted by the freezing spray, and Jadis was noticeably tougher than the average baseline, but even so, the two irritants stopped her long enough that the corridor’s interior shutter, which had been slowed enough by his frost to let Mr. Cool pass, settled to the floor, locking her out.
‘Clarisse’ let out a scream of utter panic and threw herself at Romeo, tearing at him with her nails.
“LET HER GO!” Boomed a by-now familiar voice. The Bad Seeds turned to face the Cadet Crusaders, who stood in battle formation just inside the entrance, yet again. Winter started to say something, but before she could let her disdain be known, Splendor gave off a blinding strobe of light that filled the lobby. As the Bad Seeds reeled from the stunning flare, Gryphon set off her ‘Gryphon Scream’, an ear-rattling sonic weapon that was not only painful, but caused vertigo and nausea, and induced a reflexive ‘fight or flight’ reaction. The Cadets were, of course, wearing ear protection.
As per their pre-agreed battle plan, after dazzling the entire crew, Splendor let off a powerful lightburst at the smartass who’d given Ultramax such shit at St. Gregory’s and then run rings around Tiger Girl. Splendor’s first burst hit him squarely, and she kept pounding at him. Nightchylde sent an equally effective attack at the smartmouth who’d dumped garbage all over Splendor. Splendor had wanted to be the one to smack her down, but it was agreed that Nightchylde would probably be more effective. Splendor would have to get her satisfaction seeing the bitch hauled off to jail.
Again, according to plan, Ultramax also let off a powerful energy attack, this time at the chick who’d almost carved up Tower, before she could erect that freaky metal skin of hers. U-Max’s blast sent her flying. But he didn’t follow up. He had a score to settle. Aurora sent a disorienting psionic attack at the big black guy who’d curb-stomped Ultramax. As the guy reeled, Tower charged over and got him by the arms from behind. A Full-Nelson would have been better, but Tower couldn’t do that at full height. He held the guy that Special Agent Burke called ‘Render’ for Ultramax, who slammed into him with energy charged fists, meting out harsh vengeance for the humiliation with the globe.
Render suddenly latched onto Tower’s arms, used them to hitch himself up and kicked Ultramax, sending him sprawling. Then he tried to secure his footing on the ground. He could fly, but he’d need all the leverage he could get to handle Tower. But Tower saw that coming. He grew to his maximum height and jerked Render up into the ceiling, battered him a few times, and then threw him down onto the marble floor, cracking the polished stone. Render got up, but Aurora psychically attacked him again, setting Tower up to get him by the arms again, and for Ultramax to resume his pounding.
Rubberboy headed for the black chick, before she could try and pull anything like she did to Gryphon at the Whittier. He wrapped himself around her, not keeping her bound, but giving and re-contracting as she struggled, acting sort of like Capture Gel. As for Gryphon, she was concentrating on the three unknowns, the ones that Agent Burke called ‘Nephandus’, ‘Rosethorn’ and ‘Techno-Devil’. Rosethorn was having real problems with her shriek, so he wasn’t a target. But both Nephandus and Techno-Devil were clearing their eyes and patting themselves down as though going for weapons. “Chrissie!” she snapped, “Go for the sissy with the braid!” She concentrated on the boy in red, and sent her armor’s grappling hook at him.
Techno-Devil parried her claw with a force buckler on his left wrist and pulled out something that telescoped into a sort of high-tech trident. As Gryphon was reeling in her grappler, he pointed the pitchfork at her speaker array and sent an electrical charge through it, overloading its circuits.
“BAD MOVE, ASSHOLES,” he hissed, suddenly looking very dangerous. He reached into his coat, and threw a handful of blunt metal disks that he threw at Gryphon. The sort of ‘exploded’ into robotic spiders, which crawled all over her armor. Some of them turned, scanned the situation and advanced on Aurora. As they reacted to that, Techno-Devil made a gesture, and suddenly the BFG of every FPS player’s dreams appeared in his hand.
Tiger Girl was having similar problems with the alleged ‘sissy’, who was protected by some sort of protective screen. He flailed at Tiger Girl with his walking stick, which was glowing with a deadly green energy. “Nightchylde!” Tiger Girl yelled. “Switch Off!” Then she disconnected from her fight with Nephandus and hand-sprung over to Techno-Devil, binding his weapon, disarming him and throwing him, all in one fluid move.
Techno-Devil rolled with the throw and was back up on his feet, and his PFG going. He started going through his inventory of gadgets, and was cobbling something together as Tiger Girl clawed her way through his PFG and caused it to shatter. Techno-Devil snarled and jabbed at her with his pitchfork, but Tiger Girl was far too fast for him, and she took that away from him as well. Again, she turned disarming him into a duck-and-roll throw, but this time she threw him into Gryphon’s grasp. Gryphon grabbed him by the wrists and held him up off the floor. “Let’s see your buddies grease your way out of THIS, punk!” Gryphon snarled. Malachi activated his patent-pending ‘Anti-Grapple’ charge through his lab coat, but Gryphon’s armor was insulated against it.
As agreed, Nightchylde tackled Nephandus with her dark-blasts. Nephandus increased his shield and set to resist the attack. Nightchylde advanced, trying to batter down his shield. But then, Jean-Armand dramatically dropped his shield, swept away Nightchylde’s darkling energy like a fog and pulled her to him. “Such nonsense,” he drawled deeply. “There are far better things that we could be doing.” Then he pressed his lips against hers. Nightchylde fought for a moment, but then she stopped resisting and melted into his embrace.
“The She-Beast!” Clarisse screamed once the cacophony of Gryphon’s screamed died, even as she was still clawing at Rosethorn. “She’s in the viewing chamber with the Venus! She mustn’t get it!”
“I’m on it!” Splendor shouted, and she flew into the corridor after She-Beast.
Inside the corridor, Jadis had managed to clear her eyes and focus enough that she could pick out one of the spell cards that she was still carrying around. She attached one of the Suspension charms to the interior shutter. As it had with Iron Mike, the Suspension charm negated most of the shutter’s weight. She was able to concentrate enough that she could ‘put her gloves on’, if not her entire beast skin, and lifted the heavy Messingite panel.
Inside, Mister Cool was lifting up one of the panels protecting the Cellini Venus, and he had it up far enough that you could just see the bottom of the white figurine. Jadis was just opening her mouth, framing what to say to get this idiot to stop his inane crime spree, when something hit her from behind, tackling her to the ground. “GOTCHA, BITCH!” Splendor exulted as she lay into Jadis with energy-clad fists.
Fortunately, Splendor’s hand-to-hand skills were on a par with her ranged combat skills- namely, she sucked- and Jadis was able to squirm out from under her without getting too injured. “What-” she yelled as she deflected Splendor’s fists with her ‘gloves’, “is your DAMAGE?”
“The DAMAGE is gonna be the damage I’m gonna do to your FACE!” Splendor hissed back. “Not that it NEEDS any damaging, to make it any uglier!”
Holding onto her temper with both hands, Jadis knocked Splendor away from her and reached for her deck of cards. Maybe there was something left in there that could defuse this idiotic situation.
Romeo looked aghast at ‘Clarisse’ as she struggled in his grasp. “What are you DOING?”
“HELP ME!” she screamed, flailing around, “Somebody please SAVE ME!”
Romeo tried to get her to stop struggling without hurting her, and in the process, pulled the mousy brown hair off her, which dragged her glasses off as well. Romeo stared at her for a second, stunned. Their eyes locked, recognition kicked in, and Mirelle panicked as she sensed his mind intruding into hers.
“YOU! You scheming little BITCH!” Romeo, normally the very soul of genteel restraint, screamed. “You’re DeVille Academy! This, all of this is just another filthy DeVille PLOT isn’t it?” He looked to the viewing enclosure and yelled, “JADIS! It’s the DeVilles! It’s a set-up!”
While it was aimed at Jadis, Rosethorn couldn’t see her, so his warning burst into the minds of everyone in the enclosure. “What the fuck was that?” Splendor stopped for a moment, but quickly launched another blast.
“Jadis?” Mr. Cool stopped just as he was removing the Venus from the pedestal and turned to finally notice Jadis and Splendor wrestling at the entry. Sanjay took advantage of the situation to bolt up from the floor and jab a supercharged hand shocker into Mr. Cool’s back, expertly avoiding any protection from the harness. Mr. Cool jerked and fell to the floor. Sanjay angled himself so the rest of the panels shielded him from the grappling females’ view as he finished extracting the Cellini Venus, the true bone of contention in all this, from the pedestal.
But then, as he was unwrapping the replica he’d bought in the gift shop from its bubble wrap, he heard a female voice say, “Hey, what the fuck is that guy doing?”
Sanjay just barely had time to look up as a black claw shot across the room at him, palm-striking him with the force of a pickup truck, and sending him crashing into the wall behind him. The claw managed to catch the replica in mid-air before it dropped. Jadis pulled the statuette to her and looked at it.
“PUT! THAT! DOWN!” Splendor snarled.
“What are you, mental?” Jadis asked in amazed tones. “Didn’t you hear Romeo? This whole thing is a DeVille Academy set-up! We were set up to fight, so we’d either cover that creep’s break-in, or we’d tear the place apart.”
“Oh, isn’t that convenient?” Splendor sneered. “There’s another thief! Again! Please! You’re repeating yourself! But remember that line- the judge is gonna need a good laugh when he throws the book at you!”
Jadis paused and looked at Splendor. “I know you from somewhere…”
“Don’t give me that crap, you scrawny little witch! Just put the statue back and assume the position! And I don’t mean on your back with your legs spread!”
“You have NO intention of listening to me, do you?”
“Just to your confession, bitch!”
Jadis stalked over to the pedestal and placed the replica and the real Venus on it. If the fight had been good for anything, it had stimulated her to the point where her adrenaline was allowing her to ignore the effects of the tear gas. She pulled up her beast-skin and launched herself at Splendor with a roar. This time, Splendor stood her ground and pounded Jadis with everything she had. Jadis knocked Splendor around as best she could, but Splendor’s armor was soaking up everything that Jadis threw at her. Brute force wasn’t doing the job so Jadis tried figuring out how Splendor could take so much damage while that stupid helmet still let her hair out.
From the three glowing gems on the armor, she guessed that the armor had a force field function built into it. Even so, a weak point is a weak point is something to be exploited before the bitch gets lucky. Jadis tackled Splendor and soaked up a few good hits as she squeezed the psychokinetic fingers of her ‘claw’ past the force field and into Splendor’s scalp. Then she gave a jerk and-
-and the hair came with it.
Surprised, Jadis pulled back and looked at Splendor. Ash blonde hair (with telltale brown roots) poked through where the black wig had been. “Wait a minute!” Jadis gawped. “That hair! That voice! That chin! That obvious boob job! I KNEW that I knew you from somewhere! Geneva Tipton? Geneva fucking TIPTON? How the FUCK did a pampered little spoiled brat like YOU get super powers?”
Splendor stood there, flat-footed. “Now, this isn’t what it looks like, Jadis…”
“That’s exactly what you said, when I caught you stealing my lunch money in Third Grade, you little BITCH!”
“Now, Jadis, there’s no reason to get all upset…”
“How the HELL did an airhead nonentity like YOU become a superhero?”
“Oh, like YOU’RE one to talk?”
Jadis looked at the shining stones set into ‘Splendor’s’ armor. “Those are Power Gems, aren’t they? All your powers come from those things, don’t they? I DON’T BELIEVE THIS! You got all jealous because you heard that I turned out to be a mutant, and you went whining to your rich daddy that I got super powers and you didn’t, and he went out and bought you some power gems, didn’t you? All this is just your way of keeping up with the fucking Joneses?”
“Well, it wasn’t QUITE like that…” Geneva whined. “I was hoping to hook up with one of those hunky superheroes, but I got stuck with these weenie Cadet Crusaders, and most of them are girls, and it’s not like Tower or Ultramax or Rubberboy are much better…”
“That’s how Simone and Kellie were able to sic the Cadets on us, isn’t it? Nobody on any hot line would give those two dingbats the time of day, but hey, they knew a genuine SUPERHERO, didn’t they? That’s all that being a superhero IS to you, isn’t it? A way of being the big dog in that bitch pack of yours?”
“No, I was going to leverage my fame as a superhero into a career as a model or actress or maybe pop star when I got older…”
Jadis dropped her beast skin, but her face was twisted up into a mask of barely contained rage that was, if anything, even more terrifying that the bestial image of the devil.
Still, Geneva managed to keep talking. “Look, this is very important, Jadis. My daddy doesn’t have any idea of what I’m doing, and the person who sold me these gems didn’t know that they were power gems, but they were still VERY expensive, and I never really TOLD him about them, and I just know that if he ever found out, he’d do something really horrible, like cut off my allowance or send me to some horrible school, like the one that you’re going to, and-”
Jadis picked Geneva up with one hand and slammed her into one of the walls. She hissed directly into Geneva’s face, “Okay, here’s what’s going to happen…”
Tiger Girl leapt to ‘Clarisse’s’ rescue but Romeo threw the DeVille girl right into her. “I don’t believe it!” he screamed, “All of this, Mister Cool, the Tiffany thing, the Constable, the Whittier, everything that we’ve been dragged through for the past four days, it’s all been one big SET-UP hasn’t it? You and your stupid snickering smartass friends have been yanking our chains ever since we GOT here, haven’t you? BURN IN HELL! It’s ALWAYS like that, and I’m SICK AND TIRED of it!”
Aurora levitated in Romeo’s general direction, her namesake ‘aurora borealis’ flickering about her head. “STOP!” she said, trying to psychically will him into inaction. “You will stop and put your hands on your head! You have no choice!”
Romeo glared at her, and not only didn’t he give in, he struck back. Aurora suddenly felt an overwhelming sensation such as she’d never experienced before. She was swept up in a rapturous delight at his very presence, his manliness and beauty and sheer utter perfection. Her joy didn’t diminish in the least when he reached into a pocket and pulled out a short cylinder. Not pausing the least in his rant, he snapped an expanding mesh whip at Aurora, pulled her out of the air, and used his PK to power the whip into smashing Aurora into one of the walls.
“If it’s not you DeVille cochons,” Romeo continued, “it’s Linda with her whining ‘but they’re my friends, they only want what’s best for me!’ AND those moronic bands that she thinks are so fucking great! Or her friend Belinda with her snickering jokes about my HAIR! So, I have long hair! So what? I have GOOD hair! And I’m an Exemplar! What about it? Everyone thinks that I’m some sort of soulless egomaniac because I’m an Exemplar! ‘Oh, don’t worry about Romeo’s feelings! He’s an EXEMPLAR, he’s too PRETTY to have real feelings or a real brain, or have worries or anxieties like a REAL person!’”
Tiger Girl kipped up to her feet and leapt at Romeo. Romeo just held up a hand, and Tiger Girl stopped in mid air, her snarl of rage turned into a grimace of surprise.
“Oh Crap,” Winter said as she groggily started to get up off the floor. “Enter Stage Three.”
“And you can’t ever feel GOOD about yourself,” Romeo kept on as he gave a mighty punch right in Tiger Girl’s face, sending her sprawling, “and God forbid that you should ever actually BRAG about anything, even something that you worked really HARD on, ‘cause then you’re just a big egotist who’s all in love with himself, and everything’s a put-down against everyone else, even if all they did was surf the web and cut-and-paste a report, while you actually went to the LIBRARY and did actual RESEARCH and WORKED for the A, because you’re a fucking EXEMPLAR, and everything comes easy for you! Eat shit and DIE, Chelsea, you fucking SLUT! Brains of a cheese sandwich and a face that would blow the lids off manhole covers, and she came on to ME!”
Tiger Girl came back for her third try, this time staying well grounded. She threw a lightning flurry of punches, which Romeo (aided by his telepathy) deflected with casual ease, never even pausing in his tirade. “Oh, and ‘Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo’!” Tiger Girl gave him a crescent kick, which he blocked and held, and returned with a vicious flurry of kicks to her midsection. “Yes, it was funny- the first THOUSAND times I heard it, before I was THREE!”
“TIGGS!” Ultramax yelled, abandoning his pummeling of Render. “Gotcha covered, Babe!”
Romeo did a roll while holding onto Tiger Girl’s leg that forced her to roll with him, which pitched her into the super-speeding path of Ultramax. “Fucking Shakespeare and his fucking BALCONY SCENE! If I get nagged into ONE MORE STUPID BALCONY SCENE in my entire LIFE, it will be TEN too many!”
“Keep talking Fag-boy,” Ultramax snarled as he disentangled himself from Tiger Girl. “I got the cure for ALL yer ills, right here!” He charged toward Romeo at normal speeds, obviously directing his power to his super-strength.
Romeo simply wound his whip around Ultramax’s legs and hauled him off his feet. “And everyone thinks that I’m this big player, trying to bag a new girl every night!” *WHAM!* Romeo smashed Ultramax into the floor with the whip. “PLEASE! My Mother has a new man in her life every other WEEK, and it’s HELL trying to keep them all straight!” *WHAM!* Romeo smashed Ultramax into the wall. “I don’t know what’s worse, that they’re always trying to scam her, or that she’s always trying to scam THEM, or that they’re both always trying to scam ME!” *WHAM!* Into the floor again. “Oh, Romeo, it’s just a GAME!” *WHAM!* “‘And it’s a game where you win a PRIZE!’ Game, my…” Romeo whipped the reeling Ultramax into Tower, making the giant release Render, who was reeling himself. “It’s always one long, involved, nasty SOAP OPERA without commercials!”
Tower put a dazed Ultramax down and went after Romeo. Tower grabbed at him, but Romeo PK-jumped up onto Tower’s shoulder and kicked Tower in the nose. Romeo gave an ear-rattling scream into Tower’s ear, and dropped to the floor. As Tower tried to cope with the mind-rattling ear-ache, Romeo did a jump-kick into the back of Tower’s knee that sent the giant sprawling onto Gryphon. Gryphon released Techno-Devil, who scrambled over to where Winter was trying to bring Render back to himself. “You gonna help Romeo?” Mal asked Winter.
“Like HELL I will!” Winter said, “I ain’t goin’ NOWHERE NEAR him when he’s like this! Last time Romeo went on a tear like this, Damien Faust tried to calm him down, and Romeo broke his arm and three ribs!”
Gryphon tried to cushion Tower’s fall with her armor’s arms, but all she succeed in doing was knocking the wind out of him as her waldos jabbed into his solar plexus. Tower reflexively shrunk down to his normal size and wheezed and retched.
Romeo stalked over to where Rubberboy was still wrapped around a struggling Sapper. “And she’s always draping herself over me, talking in embarrassing kissy-kissy talk!” Romeo grabbed Rubberboy by the neck and slapped him viciously across the face several times. “It was okay when I was LITTLE, and it wouldn’t be quite so bad if she acted her AGE, but she’s forty, looks like she’s twenty-five, and dresses like a nineteen year old TRAMP!” Rubberboy reflexively unwrapped from around Sapper, which Romeo used as purchase to wield him like a whip against both Gryphon and Tower. Romeo used Rubberboy to tie up Tower while the stretcher was still pliant and the grower was standing still. “I mean, it’s just… ICKY!”
Tower suddenly realized that he was bound, and started to grow. “TOWER!” Rubberboy shrieked in panic, “Don’t GROW! It’s me! Don’t GROW! It’s ME! Dontgrowdontgrowdontgrow! *WAAAGH!*”
Romeo rattled Gryphon with one of his ‘Rapture’ attacks and jumped over the top of the power armor to the hatch in the back. “I know she loves me…” He used his PK to undo the latches that kept the hatch shut. “But her love comes with all this baggage and strings and maintenance costs…” He opened the hatch and punched the back of Gryphon’s head. “I mean, all I really want is someone whose love is simple and pure, and doesn’t require that I break international security treaties…” He hauled Gryphon halfway out of her power armor and started to slam the hatch down on her, but caught himself before he injured the girl. “Someone who’ll just be there in the good times and bad,” he said to the back of her head. “Someone who I can trust and respect and adore… Someone I can DO things for, and not have it turning into Grand Opera… Just a simple girl, who I can share the quiet times and the small, simple pleasures with… A lover who’s a friend and companion… Just someone who’ll look at me, and see ME, and not some Harlequin Romance hero… I mean, that’s not too much to ask, now is it?” He turned and plaintively asked the lobby in general, his arms outstretched. Tiger Girl staggered up to him, weakly raising a fist, and Romeo ended it with a snap punch across the jaw. She dropped like a sack of potatoes.
Jadis came bustling out of the viewing enclosure with something poorly wrapped up in her beret. She looked around and started to say something, but stopped flabbergasted by the scene of carnage. “What? The? Fuck?” She looked around, and sort of wandered over to where Romeo was still standing, arms outstretched, as if still asking his question of the universe. “Ah… Romester? You okay?”
Romeo blinked and his face went blank with surprise. Then a radiant smile blossomed onto his face. “Why… Now that you ask… I feel GREAT! Why, I haven’t felt this good in WEEKS!”
“What Happened?” Jadis asked as they walked over to where Mal was trying to wake up a badly shocked Thrasher.
“Oh, this was the DeVilles’ plan all along. They wanted to set up a situation where they could get the Cellini Venus.”
“Yeah, yeah, I got THAT- I took out their inside man. But what’s all THIS?”
“Well, part of their plan was to set the Cadet Crusaders here against us. One of their ‘all paths lead to victory’ scams, I gather. The Cadets here jumped us. Not to worry, we dealt with them.”
“Right.” Jadis said, then remembered her hurry. “RIGHT! Okay crew, let’s MOVE! We gotta get OUT of here!” She hurried over to Thrasher and helped the still-groggy skaterboi get up.
“Jadis, we can’t go!” Mal insisted. “THEY attacked US again! Hey, what are you holding?”
“LATER!” Jadis handed Thrasher over to Romeo and strode over to where Nephandus was still in a passionate lip-lock with Nightchylde. She grabbed him by the back of the collar and dragged him from Nightchylde. “Reel it in, lover-boy, we gotta motor!”
Nightchylde looked stricken and called after him, “Call me?”
Jadis hurried the battered and woozy Seeds out of the Griffith and down the wide stairs. “Hey!” Render called out as his brain started going online again. “JADS! We can’t leave! We’re leaving the scene of a crime!”
“I KNOW that, Ray!”
“Hey, what are you carrying?”
“LATER, Ray!” By this time, they were on the sidewalk. Jadis hurried them along to where they’d left the limo. Which wasn’t there. “SHIT! Where’s the fucking LIMO?” Romeo scanned the area with his ESP and found where the limo driver had relocated.
They’d gotten to the limo, and Erzili was helping Cutlass, who was still jittery from Nightchylde’s blast, into the rear compartment when a brilliant light pinned them against the car. “FREEZE!” the now-familiar voice of Gryphon blared from inside her power armor. Gryphon had the BFG that Malachi had dropped in the lobby trained on them, and the rest of the Cadets were poised in the middle of the street to back her up with extreme force. Despite the smackdown that Romeo had laid down on them, the Cadets still looked a lot better than the Seeds did. The BFG was fixed on She-Beast, and she knew that a blast from that gun would put her down HARD. Malachi was a little fuzzy on the notion of ‘just enough force’.
“Okay, let’s see you bullshit your way out of THIS, Bitch!” Gryphon said in a voice that implied that she was holding onto her sanity with a fraying thread. “C’MON, Let’s see you get away NOW!”
Then a herd of animated snowmen stampeded down the street and trampled the Cadets under their… well, they didn’t really have feet, more like bottom balls of snow. Several of the snowmen were crushed when they collided with the Cadets, but that didn’t stop the rest of them, which just continued, and paved over the junior superheroes with a layer of snow and ice. The Seeds stood there, dumbstruck for a moment
“It’s a Christmas Miracle,” Winter said in awe.
Then Jadis shrieked at them to GET IN THE CAR! Mal fished his BFG out of the slush, and the limo pulled out as soon as the snowmen passed.
Mirelle watched as first the supervillain ‘Mister Cool’ and then the superheroine ‘Splendor’ exited the viewing enclosure. She looked at Pilar, and for once, in the face of abject failure, the two girls operated without any bickering. Pilar headed for the street, and Mirelle went into the enclosure. The pedestal was closed off, and Sanjay was just beginning to pick himself up. “Sanjay?” Mirelle asked as she helped him up. “What happened?”
He groaned and looked at the pillar. “Where’s the Venus?”
“I think that I saw the Diabolik girl leave with something. Neither the other girl nor the chump left with anything, I’m sure.”
Sanjay swore in Punjabi. “Where’s Pilar?”
“Warming up the motorcycle.”
“Good girl!” Sanjay picked up his rig and headed for the entrance at a dead run, pulling his cell phone from a pocket as he ran. “Mulan? Option Six. Blow the traffic lights for the Diabolik’s fastest route back. We’re in transit. Take the necessary measures.”
Special Agent Burke watched with open-mouthed shock as the Diabolik’s limo drove away from the trampled Cadet Crusaders. In- fucking –credible! They had them, dead-bang, and those idiot Cadets STILL managed to let the fucking Junior Achievement Legion of Doom get away! Well, the Kindergarten Krusaders had fumbled their chance, so it was time for the PROS to take over! Time for the FBI to take a direct hand in things! He hitched up his pants and ran out into the street in search of a taxi.
“BOSS!” Cutlass squealed, “you DIDN’T!” she reached out for the Cellini Venus in Jadis’ hands.
“Not NOW, Kayla,” Jadis snarled as she listened to her cell phone ring. “C’mon, c’mon, c’MON! Pick UP, Hernandez!”
“This is SO COOL!” Cutlass gushed. “You jumped on the opportunity and stole a MAJOR art treasure, right out from under the noses of a bunch of superheroes, and they can’t prove SHIT!”
“Don’t be any denser than you absolutely have to, Cutlass,” Render snarled, the pain in his jaw not improving his temper any. “Jads, WHY did you take that thing? There’s no way that you can claim that Mister Cool took it! They all SAW you take it out of the viewing chamber!”
“WHAT. THE HELL. IS GOING ON?” Erzili snapped. “Wot the FOCK is a ‘DeVille Academy’?”
Mal engaged his pain editor and explained what the DeVille Academy was to her.
“I thought that we Whateley kids was protected from this kind of shit,” Erzili said defensively.
Romeo took over and explained, “Not from the Yama Dojo or the DeVille Academy. They’re schools, like us, so the ‘intramural rivalry’ dynamic has been applied. The DeVilles have sort of taken it into their heads that because they rely strictly on training and planning, they’re smarter and more competent than Whateley students are, and they take special pleasure in using us in their schemes whenever they can. When that ‘Clarisse’ girl started screaming to the Cadets to stop Jadis, I scanned her mind.” Romeo made a sick face. “NOT pleasant reading. Short form- they’ve been playing us, Mister Cool, the Cadets and that FBI agent all against each other to get the Cellini Venus. It’s a class project. And the DeVille Academy has strict measures for dealing with students who fail projects.”
“And WHY are you carrying a multi-MILLION dollar statuette away from a place where they KNOW who we are?” Ray asked tensely.
“We need it as a bargaining chip.” Jadis responded.
“They have an agent inside the townhouse,” Romeo explained. “An angel-faced ten-year-old boy, one sure to appeal to Mrs. Pierson’s maternal instincts. They’re covering all the bases on this one, even the chance that Mr. Cool got out with the statue, and would deliver it to Jadis’ doorstep, like he did all the other stuff.” Romeo paused, and said with a heavy voice, “And ‘Clarisse’ thinks of Kim, the boy, as a ‘cold-blooded, vicious, little gutter rat’. Think about that for a moment. I informed Jadis of that while she was inside the enclosure.”
“If we can, we get there before he can do any damage,” Jadis said. “If necessary, we trade THIS,” she held up the Venus, “for three of the very few people in this world that I actually care about.”
“And what about Jobe?”
“If absolutely necessary, I’ll ransom him, too.”
“Jads, Jobe’s there!” Ray pointed out. “Call him!”
“I did- he put me on call waiting.”
“GUYS,” Thrasher said as intently as he could through his grogginess. “We GOTTA save ‘em! Before we left, Mrs. Barnes said that she was gonna make Cashew Surprise Muffins!”
The limo could have made a lot better time, but the very snowmen who had saved the Bad Seeds from the Cadets slowed their progress back to West 71st Street badly. “Stay here!” Render told the driver as the rest of the Seeds bolted up the stairs to the door.
Mal had his BFG out, and when they stopped on the front porch, he said, “Wait! We can’t just rush in there! We gotta do this as a forced entry, staggering-”
“MAL,” Jadis grated, “that would have been a great idea- FIVE MINUTES AGO, in the limo! But NOT on the front steps! Let’s just DO this, okay?”
That turned out to be a particularly poor phrasing of words. The rest of the Bad Seeds rushed in as Jadis opened the door, pushing her inside, in their hurry to seize the high ground. They pushed Jadis in, and they all slipped in a bunch on a nearly-invisible sheet of frictionless plastic. Mal, Romeo, Jean-Armand, Kayla and Erzili all slipped and fell in a heap. Jadis, Ray, and Winter skittered a bit, but managed to keep their footing. Thrasher was completely unaffected and charged ahead, but he was clothes-lined by a thin, nearly-invisible line of plastic stretched across the room, and went down with a yelp.
As the Seeds stumbled about, trying to get their footing, a young Asian girl, who had been clinging to the ceiling, ninja-style, dropped on them. She had two cans of CS ‘pepper spray’ on leashes, and she used them to blind Mal, Romeo and Jean-Armand in quick order. As Mal reacted to his flesh eye being blinded, she expertly disarmed him of his BFG, and leapt off the frictionless sheet, somehow not being affected by it. As soon as she was clear, a brilliant light flashed, blinding the rest of the Seeds. As Ray and Erzili were coping with that, sticky globs of Capture Gel hit them, covering them in a coat of adhesive that didn’t so much harden as got really gummy and kept them from moving effectively.
As they tried to clear their eyes from the spots, the Seeds heard a cultured young male voice say with a cosmopolitan European accent, “Well, well, someone’s been getting by on their parents’ reputation…” Jadis staggered off the frictionless sheet, clutching onto the Venus. She felt someone at her side, grabbing for the Venus. She gave a snap-kick to the side, knocking someone against the wall. Then she put up her ‘beast-skin’. The snide voice said (from further away), “Well… not getting by completely on your father’s reputation…”
“DON’T MOVE!” snapped a younger female voice. Jadis’ eyes went back online, and she saw the young Asian girl, wearing a private school uniform, and standing with one foot on Thrasher’s neck, pointing Mal’s BFG against his head. Thrash wasn’t moving. A Latin-appearing girl of Jadis’ age was standing nearby with a GoodTech™ Equalizer© electrical prod, with the telescoping shaft, and the wide spreading pads with eight shocking prongs each, which explained why Thrasher wasn’t handing the bitch with the gun her ass. A Capture Gel launcher dangled from her shoulder.
Jadis looked around, getting the lay of the land. The blonde who had called herself ‘Clarisse’ was taking cover from the doorway to the living room, and had them covered with a 9mm automatic with a mini-RPG in the barrel. A flash-gun hung from her shoulder. Against the wall, rising from the floor was a handsome young Hindi ethnic boy of about Ray’s age. As he regained his footing, the young man hefted a rifle-like weapon that was cobbled together from bits and pieces of cameras and other photographic equipment. From the look of the magazine hanging from the chamber, Jadis guessed that it was at least as deadly as an assault rifle. Not very good in a stand up fight, but deadly enough in an ambush. “That’s what pathetic about you mutants,” the boy said as he trained the gun on Malachi. “You depend on your mutant powers so much, that you neglect the most powerful traits of all: intelligence, training and discipline.”
#So what?# Jadis rasped back at him through her beast skin. #Anyone can kick ass, when they’re stabbing someone who isn’t expecting anything in the back. But then, that’s what you DeVilles DO, so you have to package it as best you can.#
“NOBODY MOVE OFF THE SLIP-SHEET!” the Asian girl snapped. “Just give us the Venus, and nobody gets hurt,” she said in a more reasonable voice.
#You must be the brains of the outfit,# Jadis said. #Where are Hernandez, and the others?#
“Mirelle, bring them in,” the boy said, affirming his role as leader.
Mirelle left and returned a moment later with Mrs. Pierson and Mrs. Barnes, who were bound and gagged. The mini-RPG was gone from her 9mm, but it was now pointed right at Pierson’s head. “Now. Drop the ugly mutant beast thing, and hand over the Venus.” Mirelle said in a voice that brooked no guff.
Jadis dropped her beast-skin, but held onto the statue with both hands. “You DO realize that you’re not supposed to bring family into these things,” she said, glaring balefully at Sanjay.
“Precisely,” Sanjay said with an acid smile. “And THEY aren’t family- they’re servants. Of course, someone like you probably needs all the family they can get, so they hire the best family substitutes that money can buy.”
“Where are Hernandez and Jobe?”
“Because, Gizmatic would skin me alive if I let his heir die at the hands of a bunch of trainee hirelings.”
“Yes, I imagine he would,” Sanjay smirked. “Something that you’d do well to keep in mind. Bring in the other two.”
Mirelle brought in Hernandez and Jobe, similarly bound and gagged. Mirelle looked smugly at Jadis, but her smugness immediately faded. “Something’s wrong…” she said, intently watching Jadis’ expression. “She’s too calm… she’s pulling something, and getting away with it…”
“Paranoia doesn’t suit you, Mirelle,” Sanjay said with a superior chuckle.
“No, she’s right,” Pilar snapped. “For once,” she couldn’t help adding. “She’s too calm…” Pilar studied her for a moment. “Why did you bring the Venus here? It never occurred to us that you’d be stupid enough to take the Venus from the Griffith.”
“What?” Jadis said with a mocking smile, “You mean that you thought this was a surprise? I mean, once I knew that the DeVille Academy was involved, it was painfully simple. I mean, how obvious can you get? You set up that putz ‘Mister Cool’ and his buddies to think that they can sleaze their way into my father’s good graces with big ticket prizes like the Tiffany jewels and the Constable. Then you stir up the Cadet Crusaders and sic them on us. Then you conveniently arrange for us to be at the Griffith when Mister Cool hits, and for the Keystone Kiddies to be there three seconds later. You wanted us and the Cadets to tear up the place, so that you could get to the Venus and sneak it out in the chaos.”
“You know, it doesn’t count as clever, if your pet telepath TELLS you everything,” Sanjay said sourly. “Now, answer the question- WHY did you take the Venus? We had contingencies for everything else possible. ‘Option 6’ was a catchall, to cover this location in general.”
“Simple. I knew that you had gotten an agent into the house- probably little miss Boom-boom over there with Mal’s gun- and that you’d probably do something like hold Pierson, Barnes and Hernandez hostage unless we stole the Venus back for you. I decided that it would be best if we cut out all the unnecessary steps.”
Sanjay smirked. “You would. Such a good little girl… But then, these are the closest thing to family that you’ve ever known, aren’t they?”
Jadis sneered right back at him. “Oh, I knew that you’d be here. You NEED to get the Venus, don’t you? And not just because you were ordered to steal it by your teachers, no! You need the Venus, because Success redeems a multitude of Sins, doesn’t it pretty boy? You need to get the Venus, because if you don’t, then you have NOTHING to show for bringing my father’s wrath down on the DeVille Academy. Your teachers will be pissed, but if you bring them a few million dollars worth of ransomable marble, then they’ll have to cover for you, to keep face with the rest of the students. But if you FAIL, along with pissing off my dad, then you are well and truly SCREWED, Jack!”
“Business is business- he should know that. We needed the Venus, you were in our way.”
Jadis grinned savagely. “You have NO IDEA who you’re fucking with, do you? You are fucking with DOCTOR DIABOLIK! Nobody disses Dr. Diabolik! EVER! You come into OUR HOUSE and pull this crap? And you honestly think that my dad’s gonna sit still for it?”
“My father has a hard-earned reputation for cruel, unusual and humiliating revenge that Mal and I are VERY proud of! When the Big Man of Berlin fucked with Doctor Dad, he shrunk the Big Man down to three inches tall, and flushed him down the sewers. After Dad got through with the Pirate King, he was deathly afraid of water! When the Fascist Four turned on him… well, you ever heard of a movie called ‘Watermelon Man’? Oh, and you may have heard of the Iron Warlord, big buff macho guy, always wore a lot of armor? Well, he thought that he could get a handle on Dad by kidnapping Mal and me- well, the last that anyone ever saw of the Iron Warlord, he was serving cocktails at a Syndicate party, wearing a French maid’s outfit and a blank smile… Now… think about it… do you HONESTLY think that he’s just gonna let you come in here and jerk his people around?”
“Your SCHOOL will hand you over to my father, rather than piss him off! At least,” she hefted the Venus, “they will, if you don’t have THIS. THIS buys you redemption and safety. THIS is your key to your continued survival.” Jadis’ grin went vicious. “It’d be a DAMN SHAME if anything happened to it, now wouldn’t it?” She gripped the Venus by the ends, as if to snap it in two.
“A poor bluff, Diabolik…” but his smirk was gone.
“Bluffing? You think I’m BLUFFING?” Jadis snarled. “I never bluff. Eventually, somebody always calls your bluff, and then your threats have no weight. NO, you’re bluffing! The only way that you can enforce your will, is to hurt them! You do that, and screw the Venus, you’re FUCKED! You hurt one of them, and my father will send troops to kill five teachers for every one of them injured! How do you think your instructors will feel about that, hmm? And if you KILL one of them, well, then your lovely little fin de siècle school just outside Lucerne, Switzerland will be a fucking CRATER!”
“You’re bluffing,” Pilar said with more confidence. “They’re just servants. He wouldn’t risk that much, just for employees.”
“GOD! You just DON’T GET IT, do you? My father has one of the most valuable assets in the supervillain business- a competent and loyal support organization. You don’t get that by leaving your people twisting in the wind! My father’s core cadre and elite troops are loyal to him, because he got their loyalty the hard way- he EARNED it! His ground troops know that if they get busted on a raid, he’ll get them out. They know that if they’re injured, he’ll get them first-rate medical care! He doesn’t leave people behind, and he rewards loyalty and initiative. They know that if Dr. Diabolik gives his word, then it’s as good as done. But that’s real operator thinking- you wouldn’t know that, because for all your polish and attitude, you’re just a bunch of nasty little street punks with a James Bond makeover!”
Jadis getting more wound up as she spoke. She wrung the Venus in her hands as she got more and more agitated. “And HE’S not the one that you really have to worry about! I AM! You came into my HOME and threatened the people who are nearest and dearest to me! HOW DARE YOU? Win, lose or draw, when this is over, I’m gonna track you all down and RIP YOUR FUCKING HEADS OFF!”
Jadis broke the head off the Cellini Venus.
Sanjay, Mirelle, Pilar and Mulan all stared wide-eyed and aghast, horrified at what She-Beast had done.
Mister Hernandez seized the opening and side-kicked Mirelle while the barrel of her pistol was away from his head. He knocked her away and he ducked and rolled, ridding himself of the binders around his wrists in the process. He immediately hustled Barnes and Pierson to safety. Despite the effects of the CS, Romeo managed to focus enough to psychokinetically whip the slip-sheet out from the Seeds’ feet and threw it at Pilar. Pilar reflexively triggered the prod, which only melted the plastic sheet over the studs, effectively insulating them. Render gave out a roar and charged at Mulan as quickly as the capture gel would allow him to. Mulan reacted defensively and pulled the BFG up from Thrasher’s head, and let off a shot. The BFG roared in the confines of the hallway, almost sending Ray back through the doorway. Jadis dropped the Venus’ head and reached a PK claw out to snatch the assault rifle from Sanjay’s hands.
Jobe freed his hands and found a comfortable seat to watch the fight from.
Cutlass, not quite as quick off the mark, armored up, jumped forward and sliced a big gouge out of Mal’s BFG, not quite cutting it in half. Mal, despite only being able to see out of his bionic eye, designated the girl who still had the capture gel gun available and shouted “REX!” The Robotic Enforcer eXperiment (okay, it was a reach, but Mal was only 11 when he built it because his father wouldn’t let him have a real dog), a home protection unit that looked rather like an oversized toaster with a bear-trap at one end, popped out of a panel in the wall, barking and chomping its bear-trap ‘jaws’. It yammered at Pilar and harried her around a bit until she clambered up on the stairs. She leapt as far across the hallway as she could and still evade the Whateley kids. Or at least, the worst that happened to her was that Jobe touched a litmus strip to her neck as she landed.
Romeo leapt forward and gave Sanjay a couple of nasty savate kicks, which Sanjay barely managed to parry. However, his move made him a clear target for Mirelle, who had the mini-RPG back in her 9mm. She let fly, and it would have hit Romeo square in the midsection, and probably killed him, if She-Beast hadn’t lashed out with a ‘gloved’ hand and snatched it out of the air. The grenade exploded harmlessly in Jadis’ ‘claw’, but she couldn’t catch the following volley of bullets from the 9mm that thudded into Romeo, taking him down. Jadis responded with a backhand that knocked Mirelle to the ground. Jobe reached down and pressed a litmus strip against her brow just before she got back to her feet.
Mulan made a downward gesture and four cigarette lighter-sized cylinders fell on the floor. One end on each popped up and spun releasing a rattling ear-splitting wail. Most of the Bad Seeds flinched as their ear-drums were assaulted yet again, but Jadis managed to put up her entire beast-shell and stomped the shriekers to bits, and knocked Pilar over to the side, where Jobe took a litmus test. The four DeVilles had used their opportunity to good use; Sanjay had managed to retrieve Mal’s BFG and blow REX to bits. Mirelle had Erzili by the throat from behind and had the 9mm at her head. Pilar had gotten Jean-Armand’s walking stick away from him and had him in a similar position, with the head glowing its nasty acid green. And Mulan had Romeo in a similar position with a pair of blades that had also come from her sleeves. “STOP!” Sanjay roared, aiming the BFG at Jadis. He let the Seeds take in the situation. “I think that the situation has changed somewhat, don’t you?”
#Not really,# Jadis rasped. “You’ve pulled off some nice little stunts, but you just can’t get around the fact that it sucks to be you. You’ve pissed off me and my father, and you don’t have anything to take home to Mommy. You can’t keep us down forever, and you have no chance of getting away. You’re riding a tiger, and speaking as the tiger, I’m damn hungry.#
“Not really,” Sanjay said. “A damaged masterpiece is still a masterpiece worth millions, especially if the museum doesn’t know that it’s been damaged. The conditions are the same- give us both pieces of the Venus, and we’ll leave you to oh-so superior lives.”
#Doesn’t work that way, Slick- we need the Venus and YOU, to give to the cops.#
“Do you honestly think that the police will believe a bunch of mutant supervillains, over a clean-cut, wholesome group of persecuted minority exchange students?”
#I think that the footage of you purchasing that replica in the museum gift shop will give the NYPD enough cause to check your passports and origins. And I’m guessing that the Academy doesn’t spend that much giving you punks good legends for when you go abroad#
“Maybe, Miss Diabolik…” Sanjay reached into his bag for one last nasty trick, “but I know something that you don’t…”
Whatever it was that Sanjay was planning would have to wait. At that moment, Special Agent Burke burst through the door with his FBI badge held up in his left hand and his pistol drawn in his right. “FREEZE! Nobody Move! Eff- Bee- Eyaaawwkkk!” He was cut off- figuratively, at least for the moment- when Kim darted out from cover, clambered up his back, and wrapped a wire garrote around his neck. Digging his knees into Burke’s back, Kim tightened the garrote until Burke turned red. Sanjay took advantage of the distraction to take a shot at She-Beast. But Cutlass’ slice at the BFG hadn’t been completely useless. The gun exploded. It still knocked She-Beast back a good five feet, beast-shell or no beast-shell. Sanjay wasn’t hurt by the explosion (Techno-Devil was far too good a designer to let a fusion-chamber breach backfire on him), but he was knocked back for a loop, giving Jobe his chance for that litmus test. Romeo used a combination of PK and training to throw Mulan off his back. Malachi produced something dangerous-looking from nowhere. But Erzili and Jean-Armand were still squarely under Mirelle and Pilar’s control.
“STAWP!” Kim lisped, slurring his words badly. “Nobuddy do nuthin’, or I sqeethe his HAID cleen owff!”
“Burke, you fucking idiot,” Winter said with a disgusted grunt.
“What?” Burke managed to ask, even as he turned even redder from the garrote. “You spotted me?”
“YES!” snapped all the conscious Bad Seeds.
“We made you five seconds after you got on the train in Dunwich,” Winter added.
“Thyut UP!” Kim screamed from his perch in the small of Burke’s back. The Seeds backed off, but kept their marks for a renewed offensive.
“I was wondering when you were gonna show up, Kid,” Jadis said.
“Very Good, Kim!” Sanjay said in his best ‘Pukka Sahib’ manner. “You’ll get a Gold Star for this!” He pulled a handset from a pocket and pressed down on a plunger. There was a loud *bleep!* and a green light lit, followed a second later by a red light. “Now LISTEN UP! Besides letting us in, clever little Kim over there planted several mixed explosive and incendiary packages throughout this house! He paid SPECIAL attention to certain points connected to the gas, heating and sewage systems. If any ONE of those bombs go off, this house will instantly become an inferno! And there goes the only home you’ve ever know, Diabolik! If more than one bomb goes off, this entire house will explode! Some of you freaks might survive, but I doubt that all of you will. And your beloved nanny and the other two will surely die, Diabolik. I think that I’m in charge of this situation.”
“Like you, I never bluff.”
#You and your little playmates would die as well#
“Better a quick, clean death, than returning to the Academy in disgrace.”
“Jadis,” Romeo said in a worried voice, “He’s serious. I can tell, he’s letting me see just enough. And the little boy is very proud of the job that he’s done, planting the explosives.”
“Excuse me?” Jobe casually called out from his chair. “I hate to interrupt the intense drama that you’re playing out, but I’d like to ask a few questions. HEY! Short-Round!” He called imperiously to Kim. “How long have you had slurred speech?”
“Thlurred?” Kim peeped, suddenly all too aware of his pronounced lisp.
“Iiiiii thought so!” Jobe gloated. “Now… how many fingers am I holding up?” He did the bit where he held up four fingers, but kept the little and ring fingers together.
“Excellent…” Jobe purred as he pulled a PDA out of a pocket and made notes with a stylus.
“And were you nearsighted before?”
“I’ll take that as a ‘No’.” He turned his attention to Mirelle and produced some cards with colored dots on them. “Can you see any numbers on these cards?”
“Just… answer the question…”
“There’s a 7 on that one, a 6 on that one and that one’s just dots!”
“Excellent!” Jobe exulted. “You don’t normally get yellow-blue color blindness in females!”
“Try to keep up. Okay, you, Rotus Brotthum… are you experiencing any parasthesia?”
“Paraththethia?” Mulan asked, her eyes popping wide as she realized that she’d lisped badly.
“Ooo… Slurring your speech already…” Jobe jotted down a note. “But then, you were the second one to get here. Parasthesia… you know, ‘pins and needles’ in your hands and feet? Slightly numb in the tips of your fingers and toesies, as well as between your ears?”
“WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?” Sanjay roared, waving his triggering device significantly.
Jadis dropped her beast skin and said with dry relish. “How remiss of me as a hostess. Nameless DeVille punk, allow me to introduce to you Jobe Wilkins, Crown Prince of Karedonia, heir to the Imperial Throne of that country, Geneticist nonpareil, Master of Pathogenic Research and one of the great modern practitioners of the subtle arts of Poisoning.”
“Why thank you, Jads!” Jobe purred. “I always knew that you could be properly respectful, if properly motivated.”
“Poisoning?” Sanjay said. “You poisoned us?”
“Poison?” Jobe jeered. “Well, I DO admit that toxins ARE one of my passions,” he said with modesty (or what passes for modesty with Jobe), “NO… I infected you.”
“No!” Kim bleated from his position on Burke’s back. “HOW?”
“HAH!” Sanjay said, brandishing the trigger again. “It’s a BLUFF! There’s no way that a toxin, let alone a bacteria-”
“Virus,” Jobe corrected him reflexively.
“-could begin to affect us in the time since you got free.”
“Very good!” Jobe said in the tones of a teacher to his class. “That’s because I didn’t infect you just now- I got little Kimmie over there when he came in, and I tagged the rest of you as you came in. Kim was infected first, and since he’s much younger than the rest of you, he’s manifesting the first Secondary Stage symptoms. It’s a kicky little JC variant of the Papilloma strain that I’ve been tinkering with. Completely non-contagious, except under the proper transmission conditions. Begins at the peripheral extremities and works its way up the nervous system.”
“HOW?” Kim demanded, tears in his eyes. “I never let you NEAR me!”
“Now how are you supposed to learn, if I spell everything OUT for you? So, just go over what you did, and the vectors of contagion should be obvious. Work it out for yourself, kid.”
“IT’S A BLUFF!” Sanjay grated, “You’re just using the power of suggestion to get us to imagine various symptoms, so we’ll back down!”
“Yeah?” Jobe mocked. “So, tough guy… Tell me...” Jobe peeked at the litmus strip he’d pressed against Sanjay’s head. “Feeling a burning sensation in your mouth yet? Maybe a metallic taste at the tip of your tongue?”
Sanjay tested his mouth. “More like oranges…” he admitted, his cool beginning to slip a bit.
“ORANGES?” Jobe repeated delighted, and quickly jotted that down on his PDA.
“You infected complete strangers who dropped in with a deadly disease, for no reason?” Mirelle asked, aghast.
“What? You were trying to be subtle?” Jobe mocked, quirking a half-smile. “Someone was yanking the Beast’s chain; that was obvious. Then this angel-faced little fink shows up all teary-eyed and talking bad English with a Korean accent- when he says that he’s CHINESE! He’s wearing an old private school blazer with a new crest, and blank brass buttons. Blank buttons, so that if one of them is lost, it can’t be linked to a private school uniform, almost the polar opposite of the reason why real private schools have their crests on their buttons. The sleeves of the blazer are outsized for him, which would make sense if the entire blazer was outsized for growing room. But the torso of the blazer is well fitted. The sleeves hang heavily, obviously to hold various James Bond-y gadgets like that garrote he’s using. And come ON! What 10-year old goes into strange houses with notes for ‘whom it may concern’? With a .22 automatic strapped to the small of his back? And two Sykes-Fairborne knives in the back of his collar? And mysterious little packets strapped to his ankles? And the Ferragini all-purpose leather athletic shoes, with the steel toe and the ‘Rosa Klebb’ retractable stiletto?
“THEN, this Korean boy’s Chinese ‘big sister’ shows up with a purse full of nasty little surprises, and she makes excuses for the better part of an HOUR. Then the rest of you balanced, ethnically diverse bozos- I mean, REALLY! You look like something off the Disney Saturday Morning cartoon lineup!- show up, with those funky James Bond gadget guns! PLEASE! The only way that you could have been more obvious would have been if you’d been wearing gang jackets with ‘DeVille Academy’ stitched on the back!”
Jobe leaned back with a smug grin with his fingers steepled before him. “I’ve been working on this strain for a while, nothing serious, just a 24th generation descendant of a JC strain of Papilloma that I spliced a few improvements into, just for kicks. It starts with the peripheral extremities, instilling various ramifications of paralysis as it works its way up the nerves- parasthesia, tremors, shooting pains, spasms, numbness, slurring speech, deafness, blindness, and all like that. That is, until it gets to the Central Nervous System.”
“What happens then?” Pilar asked with sick fascination.
Jobe just grinned more widely. “Well, of course, TIME is a crucial element, as is the age of the guin-er, patient. I’d say that most of you have, oh, I’d say somewhere between 20 and 35 minutes before ol’ JC starts setting up shop in your spinal column.”
“What about ME?” Kim squeaked, panicking enough that Burke was able to breathe again for a bit. “How long do _I_ have?”
Jobe got up, walked over to Burke and Kim and said, “Stick out your tongue.” Kim did so, without letting go of the garrote around Burke’s throat. Jobe swiped a litmus strip against Kim’s tongue and glanced at it. “Ten minutes.”
“He’s just messing with our HEADS!” Sanjay screamed. “Do you honestly think that he’d use a lethal bio-agent outside the most strictly controlled laboratory conditions?”
“Never on a Sunday.”
Thus spoke those who knew Jobe best.
“That’s NOT the question that you should be asking yourself, Hadji,” Jobe said, his smirk set in concrete. “What you SHOULD be asking yourself is: Do I get on my knees and beg for the pills with the pretty baby blue candy coating?” He produced a phial of pills and set in on an end table. “Or the cute pink tablets?” He held up a bottle of tablets. “Or the kicky red-and-white capsules?” He held another bottle, this one of capsules. “Now, if you take the RIGHT medication within next, twenty- or TEN minutes,” he nodded to Kim, who was following him with rapt attention, “the JC strain will be stopped before it reaches your central nervous system, and rendered inert so that your immune system will be able to clear it out. But I have to warn you- only ONE of these bottles has the medication that will do the job. One of the other ones is just a sugar pill, a pure placebo. And the last one? That will trigger an… amusing… reaction. So,” Jobe kicked back into his chair, “what am I bid for the RIGHT medication?” he raised his eyebrows, smirked and shook two of the bottles.
Sanjay held up the triggering mechanism. “Aren’t you FORGETTING something? We have explosives rigged all over this place?”
“You mean THESE?” Jobe held up a fan of six open Baby Ruth candy bars. “Now, I have to admit, pyrotechnics are NOT my forte, but even so, I have to admit that I’m impressed. Small, easily placed charges of a C-4 successor plastic explosive disguised as a nougat center, surrounded by a layer of plastic incendiary, coated by a false chocolate plastic shell to contain any free esters that might give it away to explosive sensors. Even the peanuts are chunks of a phosphorus compound that will delay ignition until after imbedding, presumably in a flammable material. Small, effective, inconspicuous, and all in a package that would be utterly unremarkable if found on almost anyone, but especially on children. If you kept them in the wrappers, you could stick them on almost anyone, and they’d never notice it until it went off. And the detonators?” He held up a handful of digital camera chips. “Someone in your ‘Q’ department is really on the ball. I mean, it is just SO GOOD to know that someone else is living up to their hype!”
“How… how did you find them?” Kim asked.
“Kid! You left the candy wrappers all over the place!”
The DeVille kids looked at each other, looking to see if any of the others had any ideas as to get out of this trap.
“So! Blondie!” Jobe prodded, “You tasting metal or oranges?”
“Actually… more like… Plum…” Mirelle responded, not understanding the implications, and very worried by that.
“PLUM! REALLY?” Jobe jotted down a note on his PDA.
Sanjay leapt on the minor distraction. He dashed at Jobe as a knife blade slid out of his left sleeve, and reached for Jobe. Jobe bolted up out of his chair and ducked past Sanjay’s reach, and jabbed his stylus into Sanjay’s left eye. Sanjay barely reacted to the pain of his eye almost being gouged out. He unleashed a flurry of blows that Jobe parried, as a feint for the blade hand. Jobe barely evaded the blade hand and took getting pegged with the other hand in order to take out Sanjay’s left kneecap with a snap kick. Sanjay tried to favor his left foot and went for his backup 9mm, but Jobe used that to take control of Sanjay’s left arm, forcing him to the ground. Then he twisted Sanjay’s arm until there was one snap, then another, and the arm went limp with spiral fractures in both the ulna and radius.
“NOBODY MOVE! FREEZE! FBI!” Men in body armor with ‘FBI’ printed on it bolted through the front door, the parlor door and the kitchen door, all pointing very large bore shotguns.
“Well, it’s ABOUT TIME!” Jadis snapped. “I was running out of material! If Jobe hadn’t stepped in, I’d have had to start telling them about my awkward childhood! What TOOK you so long?”
“Oh, thank you GOD!” Mirelle, Pilar and Mulan rushed to the FBI agents. “PLEASE! We CONFESS!” “We did EVERYTHING! Just get us to a hospital!”
Kim hopped down from Burke’s back and wailed, “I NEED A DAWWK-TAHH!”
Burke croaked as his throat got used to not being garroted and stumbled towards the FBI agents. “Thi- *huuurrrkk!!* cough!* This is MY bust! I’m Special-”
“Yeah, yeah,” said the agent with SAIC on his vest. “You’re Special Agent Douglas Burke. And NO, this is NOT your bust! Your mission was to maintain observation back at Whateley Academy, up in New Hampshire! A post that you LEFT, in complete disregard for established procedure!”
“PROCEDURE!” the SAIC snapped, never lowering his shotgun from Jadis’ face, “You know the stuff that you were supposed to learn about back at Quantico? Procedure, which says that you alert your station supervisor before you pursue a suspect! You do NOT run off, playing Lone Ranger! The FBI is about Procedure and Teamwork, Burke! We do NOT play solo hands, let alone drag civilian minors into Bureau affairs!”
“How did you know who I was?” Burke wailed.
“I, ah, gave him your wallet and ID, after they, ah, dropped out of your pockets,” Jadis hedged.
“You KNOW these men, Jadis?” Jean-Armand said, his hands up in the air.
“Oh, Crawford and the gang? Sure! They’ve been keeping tabs on Mal and me for years!”
“And you know them well enough to pass along that idiot’s badge and ID?”
“Sure! It makes it a lot easier to get things done, and they don’t have to run themselves ragged. They’re also the reason why the NYPD didn’t waste any time bugging us about those ‘Jadis’ signatures. Crawford and his crew told them that it wasn’t us, and returned the Tiffany parure and the Constable when I passed them along, after Mr. Cool dropped them off. Heck, who do you think those Cashew Surprise Muffins were for?”
“Cashew Surprise Muffins?” Thrasher was suddenly awake and up. He scurried to the kitchen, following his nose.
“You’re under surveillance twenty-four/seven?” Jean-Armand asked, fretfully thinking about all the incriminating things that he may or may not have said in the past few days.
“Yeah, that reminds me,” Crawford said, not lowering his shotgun. “Mrs. Barnes, do you think that you could find something else to make? I love those Cashew Surprise Muffins to death, but they’re murder on my waistline. My wife is starting to complain. Well Jadis, I hate to do this, but assume the position and put on the cuffs!”
“Why?” Jadis asked, raising an eyebrow, not her hands.
“You’re Under Arrest! Grand Larceny!”
“NO!” Burke yelled, “That’s MY bust!”
“Shut it, Burke! You’re on suspension for deserting your post, pending an investigation and review. You were on suspension even before you got to New York! If you’d called your superiors in New Hampshire, you’d have KNOWN that, and you wouldn’t have bothered the New York office with calls that they were ordered to not return!”
“Hey, Crawford,” Jadis asked calmly, “what am I supposed to have stolen?”
“The Cellini Venus, of course!”
“I think that I can clear this up. Just don’t shoot me for a second, ‘kay?” Jadis went over to where the pieces of the Venus had been kicked in the fray, picked them up and brought them over. She pointed the base of the statue at Crawford. Stuck to the bottom of the statuette was a price tag saying ‘Griffith Gallery Gift Shop: $125’ and a label saying ‘Heche En Oaxaca’.
“Where’s the real Venus?”
“It never left the Griffith,” Jadis explained. “I put it back on its pedestal and lowered the shutters. It never occurred to Arsene Lupin over there,” she jerked her head at where Sanjay was being both handcuffed and bandaged by FBI agents, “that I’d just LEAVE the Venus there and take this replica that he’d bought to stand in for the Venus. But then, he’s not really very bright.”
“Do you have any PROOF of this?” Crawford asked, diverting but not lowering his shotgun.
“Sure! Call the Cadet Crusaders and ask for ‘Splendor’. She was there, she saw me do it, and she’ll vouch for it.”
“What?” Winter bleated, “Why would Cyclamate vouch for YOU?”
“Because she knows which way the wind blows,” Jadis muttered.
“But you left the scene of a crime, and there’s the matter of your dust-up with the Cadet Crusaders,” Crawford said cautiously.
“A- the CCs jumped US,” Jadis started, ticking things off on her fingers, “not the other way around. AGAIN. Both the Griffith Gallery’s security cameras and the guards will confirm that. B- leaving the gallery was the only way to prevent those CC idiots from starting up again and endangering the visitors and exhibits. C- in addition, there were extenuating circumstances, namely, we had to keep these DeVille shits from hurting Nanny, Barnes and Hernandez! While YOU yoyos watched, and didn’t DO anything, because it wasn’t procedure, no doubt! D- neither of those are Federal Issues, which is all the FBI is supposed to handle. It’s a City matter, and how much do you want to bet that they won’t even bother pressing charges? Especially considering that the DA’s office will be dealing with our lawyers hammering them on the CCs flagrant violation of our rights? So, why give yourself Carpal Tunnel, doing unnecessary paperwork?” Jadis finished with a perky smile.
Crawford grunted and dropped his shotgun. “Well, at least it won’t be a complete waste of time!”
He looked significantly at Jobe. Jobe was gloating into a phone. “That’s right Van Zandt! It deviated enough to cause orange and- get this- PLUM!- tastes in the mouth! Which you said was impossible! TAKE THAT, VAN ZANDT, YOU HACK!” Jobe noticed Crawford, and Crawford extended an open hand. “Oh. Right.” Jobe placed the bottle of tablets in Crawford’s hand. “Two tablets every four hours, for the next two weeks. Oh…” he rummaged around in a pocket and pulled out an ampoule. “This is for the little one. If he gets it in the next five minutes, there’s hope for his sex life.”
Crawford brought the ampoule over to the anxious Korean boy, and wondered how to arrange this, since they didn’t have a Paramedic, and there were Scope of Responsibility issues.
Then Thrasher came tearing out of the kitchen and dove at Kim. “Lemme at ‘im!” Thrasher had to be pulled back.
“You want to skin him alive NOW? What did he DO?”
“Mrs. Barnes made her cashew surprise muffins- AND THAT LITTLE SHITWAD ATE ALL OF ‘EM!”
Mister Cool made his way to Columbia, and got into the SEAS building unseen in his usual way. He stopped over one of the heating vents on the roof, and let it thaw the frost off of him as he stripped off his harness. This took several minutes, and it unfortunately allowed him far too much time to think about his failure. Jadis had been there, she’d been right there, and he’d BLOWN it! She knew who he was, and she knew that he was a failure! The fact that he’d pulled off two major jobs, paid for his rent, tuition, lab expenses, and most of his planned improvements for his power suit, AND gotten away with it, didn’t penetrate into his awareness. Once he was thawed off, he pulled a ‘freeze-dry’ maneuver that he’d figured out that shed the moisture covering him and went into the CISE building.
It was late, but if the SEAS program was reliable for anything, it was that borderline-obsessive lab rats would still be around, even at this hour, even this close to Christmas. So, Brian checked his proximity alarm for the locker where he stored his ‘Mister Cool’ gear. His blood ran cold- or, rather, even colder, as his alarm registered that not only was there someone in the immediate proximity of his locker, but someone had opened his locker! His power suit, and some of the loose gems that that he was waiting to sell, were in his locker. The alarm said that the locker had been broken into in the last 72 seconds, and there was a body heat signature at the locker. Brian frosted up and charged into the locker room, ready to kick some thieving ass!
Amber Ponikowski was leaning into Brian’s locker, a look of shock on her long, angular features. Her large gray eyes, definitely her best feature, were wide with surprise. Brian’s power suit was obvious, even from where he stood. In one hand, she held the bag with the jewels from Tiffany’s, and in the other, she held a handful of loose stones. She turned and recognized Brian through his icy disguise. “Brian? I, I was looking for a… You? You’re a supervillain?” Brian tried to figure a way out of this trap without killing Amber. Then an entirely different look spread across Amber’s face, one that Brian had seen on women’s faces before, but never aimed at HIM. “Oh My Gawd! That is SO HAWT!!”
And all thoughts of Jadis Diabolik slipped right out of Brian’s head.
“Well, I think that we can take this as a lesson,” Jean-Armand said after he finished making his statement for the police officers a good hour after the DeVille kids had been medicated and carted off. “The lesson being, that the Wages of Virtue are writer’s cramp.” He looked at the police detective. “By the way, what took you so long? And, come to think of it, where’s the Press? You’d think that they’d be all over this like maggots.”
“Oh, you want your fifteen minutes of fame, Fancy Pants?” the NYPD detective snickered. “Sorry, no such luck, Slick. All the Media is over at that big to-do over at Rock Center.”
“Rockefeller Center? What’s going on at Rockefeller Center?”
“What? You don’t know about it? It’s on all the channels.”
Jean-Armand sprang for the remote and turned on the TV. Sure enough, almost every channel was covering some sort of screaming emergency that seemed to be centered around the ice rink at Rockefeller Center. He flipped through the channels, trying to get an idea as to what had happened. The result told a surreal, disjointed story with evil Santas, snowmen run amok, some kinky chick in black latex called ‘Bette Noir’, a lot of superheroes, that ‘El Penitente’ guy, and a huge rime-encrusted giant.
“What IS this? ‘A very David Cronenberg Christmas special’?” Winter asked.
Jean-Armand shushed her as the cameras focused on a girl in white, with a glorious halo shining around her head. The girl stood in front of a crowd with a shining, whirling manifestation of some sort growing before her. The circular construct grew until it seemed to fill the plaza. Then the girl unleashed the awesome energy within the construct at the giant, reducing it to a gentle fall of powdery snow. There was some sort of flux of energy into and back out of the ‘angel’, and she lifted off, lighting the start at the top of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree as she flew off. Then the station started showing a clip of some other part of the event. Apparently, the Police were very pissed at the ‘Bette Noir’ chick. “The Angel!” Jean-Armand yelped. “She’s out of the church? Where IS she?”
“Dunno, Slick,” the detective said. “She just lifted off. Didn’t file a flight plan or nothin’.”
“QUICK!” Jean-Armand blared, pointing dramatically towards the door, as thought mustering his troops. “We must FIND her!”
“Not t’night, Josephine,” Ray moaned, “I am BUSHED!” He rubbed his jaw. “Besides, do you honestly think that the Keystone Kadets won’t jump on another chance to jump us?”
“I’m with Ray,” Winter said. “Like my Daddy always told me, ‘Half of winning is knowing when the fight is over’. And it’s over for tonight.”
“NO, Mal, it’s getting late,” Jadis said.
“Jaaadiiisss…” Mal whined, “Not in front of Erzili!”
“She’s still upstairs, washing that capture gel gunk out of her hair.” Jadis snagged Mal by the collar. “Which she can finish by herself.”
“Well, you can head on out, Jay-Arm,” Jobe said as he walked to the staircase, his arms full of laptops and notebooks. “But you’ll have to make your own way down home.”
“C’MON, Kiddies!” Jobe shouted, “Time to get packed and on the road! The Giz-Jet ain’t gonna wait forever, y’know!”
“Oh? When did they call and tell you that the jet was ready?”
“Yesterday,” Jobe admitted. “But I was in the middle of something. I just finished it. Hah! That hack Van Zandt questions MY procedures? HAH!” With that, he headed upstairs.
“But… but… but the Angel…” Jean-Armand sputtered, which didn’t slow the others down in the least as they headed upstairs to pack.
As the limo pulled out from in front of the townhouse, Cutlass adjusted the fit of the jacket that Jadis had bought her. Not that she’d need it, down in tropical Karedonia! She looked smugly at Jadis. “So… Boss… I think that I did pretty well, handling those Cadet punks…”
“Yes?” Jadis said with careful neutrality.
“So… I was thinking… maybe you’d, y’know, sort of… introduce me to yer DAD?” she finished with a beaming hopeful smile.
Jadis gritted her teeth for second, but then a predatory smile spread across her face. “Okay! Why Not? And may Heaven have mercy on your SOUL!”