A Whateley Academy Tale
Diamonds Are a Vamp's Best Friend
by Bek D. Corbin
Monday, April 9, 2007
It was Seven o’clock in the morning, and there was a picket line out in front of my house.
I hate it when there are picket lines outside my house. The neighbors, who are frosty even for New Yorkers, get downright snotty if they have to put up with chanting idiots with signs.
Y’know, the thing that pisses me off the most about those creeps is that if I was half the monster that they were making me out to be, they’d be smoldering piles of bone and ash by now. They say that they’re protesting the Drow being all over the popular media; the incident at the Evrispos Bistro was all over the late Sunday local news, and it even got air on a national level. They say that Sabella Griffin’s shots (bunches of which are already going viral on the net) glamorize mutants, unrealistic expectations for girls, normalizing the deviant, and all that crap. But those idiots out there are really protesting ME, the daughter of Dr. Diabolik.
They’re counting on me not being the monster they say I am, the little shits. It’s a not-very-adult version of the old grade school ‘you-don’t-dare-hit-me-‘cause-I’m-littler-than-you’ ploy. The undersized bullies that use that on the playground have the dubious excuse that they’re 8-to-12 years old. These yutzes don’t even have that.
The pisser being, of course, that I can’t do anything to them. Freedom of Assembly and Speech and all that. I rely way too heavily on the boilerplate and the value of technicality to begrudge them that. And if I use magic, well then things get really involved, and players I really don’t want to deal with start looking into it.
Fortunately, I do have options, and I don’t have to play these asstards’ game by their rules. I have… the Bad Seeds’ Book of Dirty Tricks. Sometime back in the 1970s, early Bad Seeds (or whatever they called themselves back then) shared little secrets, tricks and techniques that they or their parents had come up with, and since you couldn’t always track someone down in a hurry, they wrote them down in a physical book, the first five volumes of which are still down in the Seed’s secret hang. But time marching on and all that, it has since gone online, with an encrypting security program that even Cheese admits is first rate. Since those early days, the Book of Dirty Tricks has grown into a truly awesome compendium of Cons, Swindles, Gaffs, Pranks, Stunts, Dodges, Hoaxes, Tricks, Ploys, Mind Games, Gimmicks, Social Engineering, Shills, Lures, Stalls, Switches, Decoys, Deceptions, Blinds, Bluffs, Traps, Hacks, Gambits, Stratagems and other diverse methods of getting around the blind spots in the human psyche. There are also a wide variety of recipes, formulae, plans, blueprints and programming gags for a wide variety of nasty bits of business. Most of them are sadly obsolete, but you can go back and look at what Bad Seeds of years gone by have come up with, and update them with a little ingenuity. If I have risen to great heights of cunning in my adventures, it’s because I stand on the shoulders of giants. Nasty, sneaky, devious, twisty, underhanded Giants.
Of course, not every Bad Seed can access the Book of Dirty Tricks. You have to come up with a new Dirty Trick, something that the Senior Seeds agree is worthy of The Book. And not just some technological gimmick; it has to be a ploy of the mind, something that has nothing to do with your powers or magic or technology, just a play on the weaknesses and kinks of the human psyche. You’re not really a ‘Bad Seed’ until you find a new gambit, get it vetted by the Senior Seeds, and write your name in the book of Dirty Secrets. I’m proud that I beat Kate by a full week, but Cheese came up with three entries in his first week. Ray took a month, I hear that Jay-Arm took two months, and Romeo took three months, but Mal and Winter still haven’t cracked the book, and Lindsay hasn’t even tried.
I accessed the book online with my Diabolik-phone, and searched for ‘picket lines’, ‘strikes’, ‘protesters’ and ‘public demonstration’. Sadly, the best that I could come up with was a mechanical solution. Not the elegant subterfuge that I’d been hoping for, but even the Book of Dirty Tricks has its limitations. Actually, I had my choice of three mechanical solutions, and decided to tone them down a bit and use them all.
I downloaded the blueprints, and gave them to Mal, with written instructions to say nothing about them to anyone. Hey, I’m not 100% sure about the legality of this, and Crawford would rat us out in a second if he heard us say anything. Printing out the circuits on Mal’s 3D printer took most of the time, and within a half-hour, we had three not-quite-fiendish devices trained on the H1! Noids on the sidewalk. An infrared laser played back and forth across the protesters, stimulating their optic nerves in a way that induced a sensation that their bodies interpreted as intense frustration. A subsonic tone was bounced off all the glass in the area, creating another sensation that their unconsciousness interpreted as extreme boredom. And a low-wattage microwave field washed over them that at higher levels could irritate people’s nerves and produce a sensation like being on fire, instead caused a miniscule irritation, inducing a sense of unfixed anxiety.
There was a fourth design that used three phased masers to create a mixture of ionized nitrogen and other ambient gasses that caused a sensation of claustrophobia, but given New York’s level of air quality, I didn’t want to risk that.
Frustration, boredom and anxiety. It’s a nasty cocktail, and within 15 minutes, the NYPD was breaking up a free-for-all. The News vultures tried to make something of the fracas, but what could you do? A bunch of obviously unstable types venting their spleens on the streets of New York isn’t really that newsworthy. And Mal and Buzz had the projectors knocked down the second that the scuffle broke out, and the energies they projected were quite invisible, so… just another day in Fun City. I watched the newshawks mulling around, trying to find a reason to stretch this out as much as they could- hey, it beat going out and actually finding news- with some satisfaction. Then the crews perked up as a stretch limo flying diplomatic flags pulled up.
“Hey Jobe!” I called over to the breakfast nook, where Jobe, the Drowlings, and the rest of them were busily demolishing the breakfast that Mrs. Barnes had assembled. “Heads up! It looks like your Uncle Ralph is dropping by with some new business. Maybe he wants a photo-op with Mrs. Griffin!” But when I opened the door, instead of a grumpy middle-aged nonentity distinguished only by a push-broom mustache that overwhelmed the rest of his face, and near-Zen levels of meat-cutting skills, a trim, attractive blonde woman in her apparent early 30s bustled in and breezed “Why HELLO Jadis!” She immediately wrapped me up in a big hug.
I have GOT to start checking the security monitor on the front door before I open the door. It’s there, and I keep yelling at Mal and his buddies to check it before opening, but I just keep opening the door, like this was a normal house.
“Missuz Wilkins?” I gasped, icy fingers of pure dread dragging down my normally temperate spine. “What are you doing here?”
“Why when I heard about this ‘Imperial Crown Jewels’ thing that you girls had come up with, well, I- JOBE!” she spotted Belphy who had come into the foyer from the breakfast nook.
“Jadis, what’s the- urk!” Belphy started to ask something but was interrupted as Mrs. Wilkins rushed over to her and wrapped Belphy up in a big maternal hug. Now, between Belpho’s rather… problematic personality, and classic British reticence, I don’t think that Belphy has a lot of context for untrammeled maternal affection. She sort of vapor-locked in a sort of frozen ‘hah?’ expression.
I cleared my throat. “Ah, Missuz Wilkins? That’s… not Jobe.”
Missuz Wilkins broke the clinch, and Belphy gave her a sort of awkward smile, like she’d been caught trying to fool Jobe’s mother or something. “Oh! Then you must be Belphy!” Mrs. Wilkins blurted out. “Welcome to the family!” with a squeal, she wrapped Belphy up in another hug and looked like she was digging in for a stay.
Then Jobe came out wearing a polo shirt and chinos combination that did absolutely nothing for her, with Freight Train in tow in a slightly better outfit, but not by much. “Hey, what’s all the noi- MOM?” Jobe bleated in confusion.
“JOBE!” Missuz Wilkins trilled in yet more maternal joy. Then she paused and looked at me. “That IS Jobe, isn’t it? How many of these did he make?”
“There are two more, but I put my foot down on two of that model.” Hey, it worked as a joke once…
“JOBE!” she let go of a croggled Belphy and launched herself at Jobe, wrapping her up in another maternal stranglehold. Then she realized that she’d left Belphy hanging, and dragged her into a big group hug. Drow strength was nothing compared to the Empress’ maternal grip. “Oh, this is going to be SO much FUN!”
“aahhh… Mrs. Wilkins?” I asked, as this was, indeed, Lorna Wilkins, Empress Consort of Karedonia, and Jobe’s mother and… something… to Belphoebe. “Exactly what are you doing here?”
“Why the crown jewels, of course!” she said, releasing her grip on Jobe and Belphy, who despite their slate-black complexions, were looking a little wan from lack of circulation. “What a wonderful idea! I’m so surprised that nobody’s thought of it before! What’s an empire without some crown jewels? When Ralph called me about the jewels, I just HAD to come up and make sure that it was done right!” She let out a merry giggle. “If we gave JOBE the final word, it would be all SPIDERS!”
“You mean… you’ve okayed the expenditure?”
“Well, of course!” she said with a big Florence Henderson smile.
I heard a sick squeak, and looking over at the source, I saw Vamp standing there, looking pale even for her, with a sick look on her face as it registered that she was on the hook for the moral (if not fiscal) responsibility for expenditures that might rise into the millions, if not tens of millions. “uhm, Exactly how much did you okay?” Vamp asked very cautiously.
“How much?” Missuz Wilkins blew that off with the kind of blithe unconcern that only people who are very, very rich can pull off. “Whatever it takes! The money isn’t important, the really important thing is that we do this RIGHT! Oh, and I get in some quality time with my two new girls!” She gave Jobe and Belphy another big hug, which I think may have cut off Belphy’s air supply. Then Mrs. Wilkins got a better look at Jobe and asked, “And what is this? You’re going out to represent the Empire of Karedonia dressed like this?”
“What’s wrong with it?” Jobe demanded.
“What’s wrong with it? What’s RIGHT with it?” They had a short but decisive, and totally unprecedented for Jobe complete verbal rout as the Empress put her imperial foot down. She marched Jobe up the stairs to find something that Jobe could be seen in and not embarrass the Imperial House of Wilkins. Like clothing could shame Gizmatic.
Belphy, Angie and Bova (come to think of it, what IS Bova’s real name? <memo to self: find out>) started up the stairs, but I took Belphy by the arm and led her off the stairs. I gave Vamp a significant look, and she got my drift immediately, snagging Freight Train by the ear and towing her down the stairs after us. Bova, torn between going up and being a part of Jobe’s action with her mother, or going to see what I was on about, just stood there for a moment. Then she probably decided that whatever I had to say was more important than Jobe’s first encounter with the Mother-Daughter dynamic, and followed us. When I got them into the parlor, where we could talk with minimal chance of accidental eavesdropping, Belphy rescued her arm from my grip. “So! WHY do you want to keep me from meeting the Imperial Presence, Jadis? Or at least the woman who has a good claim to being my mother?”
“Not so much that I want to keep you from meeting her,” I corrected her, “as I think that there are a few landmines that you should know about before you go gaily traipsing over that stretch of ground.”
“Landmines?” Belphy asked, suddenly all caution.
I groped around for a good place to start, and locked for a moment. “Oh well, when in doubt, start at the beginning, and try to cover all the main points,” I hedged. Then, having my anchoring point, I started, “How much do you know about Gizmatic, that is, the Emperor Joseph Wilkins?”
“Well… I know that he was an A-List supervillain-”
“B-list,” I corrected her. “Mid-level B-list, too. And believe me, that’s all for the best. There’s nothing good about being A-List. My father bends over backwards jumping through hoops to keep from being kicked up to the A-List.”
“Let’s see… he founded the Order of the Worn Wrench…” she paused gave me a wary look and asked, “You DO know about the OWW?” I just waggled my eyebrows in a ‘what do you think?’ way. She shrugged and continued, “And from what Jobe says, while he was at Whateley he started a long-running feud with some git called ‘Blue Blaze’ who eventually became Champion-” she paused as she remembered something. With her second-hand recollections conflicting with her real-time observations, she had moments where things just clicked. “Though I still don’t get it- if this Briggs chap was such a complete wanker, why did they make him Champion?”
“Well, I’m not completely sure,” I admitted, “but the options start with they just didn’t have a lot of choices at the moment and couldn’t afford to waste time until someone better came along, and goes through politics, the possibility that Briggs grew up some in college, or Jobe was just being Jobe and put the spin on it that suited her best, or Gizmatic may have been putting a little spin on it for his kid, or that’s just how Joe Wilkins saw it, and the rest of the universe had different opinions. They’re all possible.
“BUT, it does put us in the right place. When Blue Blaze stepped up to become Champion, he went to work for the Chicago DA’s office as a special investigator. It’s a legacy thing. Gizmatic hears about this somehow, and having decided to go Black Hat anyway, decides that beating the crapola out of Champion would look very good on his resume, and it’s not like he didn’t hate Briggs’ guts anyway. So far, so ‘Silver Age Superman vs. Lex Luthor’.
“Anyway, while he was working for the Man, Briggs meets a rather smokin’ lady ADA named Lorna Langtree.”
“Don’t blame me, blame her parents. So, Briggs and Lorna start going out, and Gizmatic learns about it. Being just that kind of guy, Gizmatic conceives a massive passion for his arch-enemy’s girlfriend. And for the next 8 going on 10 years, Lorna becomes the ‘Lois’ in their rather juvenile feud. But then, after a kidnapping attempt, when Champion rescues her and brings her back to Chicago, she swears out a complaint against him! She says that she’s come to love Joe Wilkins, and wants Champion to stay away from them.”
“Wait…” Bova interrupted. “You’re telling us that Gizmatic brainwashed Mr- er, Lorna Langtree into loving him?”
“Well, that’s what everyone thinks, but whatever he did, there was no trace of it, and believe me, they looked. But here’s the kicker: a couple of years ago, before my mutation kicked in, Mal and I were brought down to Karedonia, and we stayed with the Wilkinses in the North Palace. It wasn’t anything big, we’d been there on sort of ‘play dates’ with Jobe since we were rug rats. It was one of those things- Jobe was being, well, Jobe, Gizmatic was being particularly dickish, there were a couple of other guilty parties I won’t name for time’s sake, and I was alone in one parlor with the Empress. One minute she was the cheery little dingbat you just saw, and then? Then it was like a switch in her head was thrown, and suddenly, she was a whole different person. A person who really could not only pass Law School, but get a job at the Chicago District Attorney’s office. And she wasn’t confused. She knew exactly what was going on, and what had happened to her. And she wasn’t happy about it. No, she was pissed! She went off and did… something, I don’t know, and I wasn’t prepared to find out. A couple of hours later, she was back to being the sweet little airhead- or, at least I think she was. I mean, she’s been doing this since before I was born…”
“What?” Belphy yelped, “What about Jobe’s famous regard for people’s Free Will?”
“Where do you think he got it?” I asked. “Jobe may be a self-centered yutz, but she still loves her mommy.”
“Jadis,” Bova asked me, with a note of genuine fear in her voice, “is… is the Empress… sane?” Which, I have to admit is a legitimate concern for her. Telepaths get real worried about being around nutcases; when you’re telepathic, crazy can be contagious. It’s only two letters from ‘psychic’ to ‘psychotic’.
I worried my lower lip and thought that one over. “iiiit’sss tricky…” I fudged. “I mean think about it: how could she be really sane after everything she’s been through? I mean, for the past how many years, she’s been living with a man who she knows brainwashed her. She used to be the kind of intelligent, dynamic, engaged woman that the Feminists tell us we need more of; she was a star at the Chicago DA’s office, a very tough gig just to get, let alone shine at. Now, she’s an over-gilded trophy wife for the man who raped her mind. She loves him, but she also knows that that love is as artificial and self-serving as Union Carbide’s ‘sympathy’ for the victims of the Bhopal disaster. She’s had to put up with Gizmatic at his worst, which would be a bear, even if the love was for reals. And Jobe is her little boy- her spoiled, demanding, shrill, egotistical boy who’s the spitting image of the man who hijacked her life for his own purposes. And she’s had to keep a saccharine smile going through all of that. Bova, I don’t think that sane is really in the cards for Lorna Wilkins. I think that the real question is: ‘is she rational?’”
“Isn’t that the same thing?” Vamp asked, since the others were too squicked to.
“Not entirely. She’s lucid, she’s rational; her methods of achieving her goals are reasonable. But her goals aren’t.”
“And what ARE her goals?” Vamp asked.
“I have NO IDEA,” I admitted. “And that scares the besnoogers out of me.” We stood there awkwardly for a while, as the implications of all that sank in. Then the front doorbell rang. Having already been burned that way today, I checked the front door camera with my Diabolik phone. There were some problems with the router, so I switched to the walkie-talkie bands. The camera showed Mrs. Griffin and a few of her entourage (she seems to cycle through them, except for her secretary, for some reason). “Oh wonderful,” I groaned. “JUST what I need: Two demi-rational queen bees from hell, both of whom seem to think that they’ve colonized MY HOUSE.” Then an inspiration came to me. “Then again… maybe it IS just what I need… Mal, open the door!”
I admit it; I was wondering what the hell She-Beast was up to when she had Mal let the Griffin in. You’d think that a sharp operator like Jadis would keep a lit match like Ms. Griffin away from a powder keg like Empress Wilkins. But no, she greeted the Griffin with a cheery smile and called upstairs for Jobe.
Mrs. Wilkins came down the stairs with Jobe, and I swear it was like two cats suddenly got shoved together. They sort of went all bottle-brushy, and they did everything but arch their backs and hiss at each other. The Griffin opened with critiquing what the Empress had chosen for Jobe to wear to Faberge. The Empress countered that they were going to Tiffany’s, where they already knew people. The Griffin riposted that the best quality- in both stones and press coverage- would come from getting input from the widest choice of the elite of New York’s jewelry community. The Empress scored a hit by smirking and saying that it must suck to be so concerned with what the gutter press thought.
And then the Beast played her card.
Just as the two had maneuvered themselves into positions where they couldn’t back down or lose serious face to a *sneer* intruder, Jadis stepped in. She said that what Jobe was wearing was just fine, but while they did have a commitment to see what Tiffany’s was offering it was in the Empire’s best interests to see what the other candidates could do. She then pointed out that while getting designs for the actual crown jewels was important, they had time to do that, while the real priority at the moment was finding a decent set of Betrothal jewels for Jobe and her handmaids. After all, they had less than a week to do that!
Oh ho, so that’s what Jadis was up to! While she couldn’t order Mrs. Griffin around, and trying to do that with Mrs. Wilkins could get very nasty, she could set them against each other. And then she offered herself up as a neutral third party in judgment that they could try to influence. Jadis steered them into a nice balanced agenda that actually fit into the less-than-a-week available, with neither party giving in an inch. At least, not to each other.
Jadis had them down off the staircase and into the front parlor, and acted as neutral referee to get things back on the rails. It worked because both the Empress and the Griffin were reacting to each other, and not picking up that Jadis was playing them. That worried me; Jadis is slick, but she’s still just a high school kid, and she gets away with lecturing adults way too often. That’s gonna bite her in the ass eventually. Weird, but to be honest, I’m not worried about the Empress twigging to what Jadis is pulling; but the Griffin? She has friends in high places, most of whom would regard how they put the screws to the daughter of a notorious supervillain as a great cocktail party story. And if I learned anything from dear old Pips, it’s that the High and Mighty tend to regard the legal technicalities that Jadis relies on so much as something that ‘the little people have to cope with’. If Mrs. Griffin gets a bug up her ass about Jadis playing her, it could get very brass knuckles, in a town that prides itself on fighting dirty. Jadis is a stand-up chick, and it would suck to see her go down in flames. Especially since my unspoken agreement with Jadis was that I’d help her. The Goodthing already hates my pale ass. He’d really get his boxers in a bunch if his best bud got tossed in the jug on my watch.
So I think that I can be forgiven for paying more attention to the riveting drama before me, and not the front door. There was another ring of the doorbell, and I heard Mal say, “Get that, Buzz.” Okay, Mal is used to having his big sister handle the realpolitik, but even so, if he’s going to become a supervillain like his dear old dad like’s been saying, he should have known better.
I heard Buzz yell, “HEY! What do you think you’re doing?” I turned around just in time to catch a tall, buff-looking guy in a blazer with a WPVI patch on the breast and a microphone in his hand charge through the foyer and into the parlor. A team of people followed right behind him, one lugging around one of those big shoulder-unit cameras with a WPVI logo on the side, another guy schlepping a pair of heavy satchels that were attached by cables to the camera-dog’s unit, a woman who had ‘low level corporate executive or lawyer’ practically printed all over her, and another woman who was the picture of the earnest young intern/ flunky.
“Who are you, and what do you think you’re doing barging into my house?” Jadis demanded.
The lead guy ignored her and shoved the microphone into Missuz Wilkins’ face. “Kent Brockman, WPVI Channel 6 News!” For some strange reason, both the Empress and Missuz Griffin both just stood there and smiled at him. Okay, it wasn’t that he wasn’t worth drooling over: broad shoulders, handsome features and a certain devil-may-care charm; but still he was a reporter! Allowing reporters into your house is like letting cockroaches move in! “Madam Wilkins, exactly what does Gizmatic hope to accomplish by foisting these obvious robotic seduction drones off on New York?”
“WHAT?” Jobe yelped like she’d been burned, “How could you possibly think that these visions of organic perfection could conceivably be synthetic?”
“Please!” ‘Brockman’ sneered, “the chances that these so-called ‘women’ are anything but pleasure androids sent to infiltrate New York’s social elite-”
Jadis pushed the lens of the camera aside and stepped between him and Jobe, who looked like she was gearing up to infect him with something ‘amusing’ on camera. “Look, Mister Bro- hey wait a minute! ‘Kent Brockman’? The newscaster from The Simpsons?”
“Oh THIS again…” ‘Brockman’s’ producer groaned. “Look-”
“And WPVI isn’t Channel Six in New York!” Jadis continued.
“And who said that we were from New York?” the producer sneered. “And isn’t it telling that Gizmatic would choose to launch his latest scheme from the townhouse of Doctor Diabolik?”
“Wait a minute!” Mal said, goggling at ‘Brockman’, “I know you! You’re DOC CAMBION, the Man of Brass™!”
‘Brockman’ stepped back, looked Jobe square in the eyes and said, “Yes, I AM Doc Cambion! And I am here to reclaim that which you have stolen and claimed as your own!”
Jadis stepped forward with a no-nonsense look on her face. “So, you claim that the sapphire is yours? And you have something to back up this claim?”
With a ‘of course I do’ look, Cambion reached into his blazer and pulled out a very official looking piece of folded paper. He handed it to Jadis, who unfolded it and started reading it. Then he turned to Jobe, the Drow, and the Empress and said all official-like, “As Miss Diabolik tries to figure a way to wriggle out from that, what say we try to keep this friendly?” He gave them all a big smile, which had them all creaming in their panties, even Jobe. “You know that you have no real claim to the sapphire, and it’s only going to cause you problems. Just hand it over, and we’ll sign a few documents that we happen to have with us, that will relieve you of any liability in the, ah, ‘misplacement’ of the jewel in question. Just go get the jewel, and we can get this over before any lawyers get involved.”
And spit in my eyes and call me Blinky, if the Empress and the Griffin weren’t going for this! “What the HELL is going on here?” I demanded, stepping between Cambion and the ladies. That is the biggest crock of bullshit that I’ve heard since the last Boston Mayoral election! We are supposed to HAND over a jewel that’s worth literally millions, just because you wave a piece of paper at us? Jadis, what does that paper say that’s so fukkin’ important, hah? Jadis? Jadis?”
Then it sank in that Jadis wasn’t reading the piece of paper, she was just sort of staring at it. “Hey, what IS that, anyway?”
I reached for the paper, but Brockman or Cambion or whatever, took me by the shoulders and spun me so that I was face-to- face with him. Face to delectable face with a man with a build like a fitness model. He gave me a big gleaming smile and said, “Miss, don’t worry. Everything’s fine. We’re just going through all the necessary steps to avoid a nasty, ugly very public humiliation for you and your friends.”
“Y’know,” I said right back into his face, “I don’t know which was more insulting: that line of utter crap, or the sledgehammer influence technique that you’re trying to use on me.” Cambion went ‘what?’ and I used that floored opening to do the last thing he expected: I snapped my head forward, smashing him right on the nose with my forehead.
I’ll give Cambion this: he didn’t react the way I thought he would, and I had to scramble out of his hands in order to get to Jadis and tear that stupid piece of paper out of her hands. And even that didn’t work. So, drawing on dozens of Saturday afternoons that would probably have been better spent doing homework, but were spent watching old movies on WRLP, I did what Hollywood said always worked: I slapped Jadis, HARD.
Jadis startled and snapped, “What? What’s going on?” Score one for Hollywood.
“Cambion wants the Sapphire!” In an emergency, keep it short, simple and to the point.
That seemed to do the trick, ‘cause Jadis snarled and jumped at Cambion, claws first.
Or at least, hands first: that ‘beast-skin’ of hers never went up. Instead, a sort of second skin of black, purple and silver energies went around her. That threw her off her mark enough that Cambion was able to intercept her and throw her into Freight Train, who had inserted herself between Cambion and Jobe. Angie caught Jadis, who looked at herself with surprise and then I barely had time to hear her say, “Oh, THIS again?” Then Cambion reached into his blazer and pulled out a bunch of things that sort of looked like those plastic disposable cigarette lighters. He did something and threw them around the room as far apart as he could. The highest, most rattling, most ear-piercing, shrill yodeling erupted from the damn things. It was God’s own distracting and painful for me and most everyone else, but for the Drow it looked like agony. Those pointed ears aren’t just sharp, they’re very sensitive; something that Jobe probably thought would be an asset when he was doing the pencil-work on them.
“HERNANDEZ!” Malachai yelled at the top of his lungs, “RED SIX!” Then he started to reach for something in his lab coat. Unfortunately, he wasn’t wearing a lab coat. The camera dog spun around and fired an energy burst at Mal, but Sapper threw herself in front of it, taking one for the team. Or not, she’s an absorber; if anything, she was getting a charge-up for the fight. Charge made a, well… charge… at Cambion who tossed his microphone up into the air and punched forward with a flat palm. Charger paused and veered just enough to not so much get hit by that microphone as it dropped, as run right into the mike at 60 MPH, getting knocked for a loop.
Sapper, full of beans from that blast, came charging at the camera-dog in a move where either she got topped off with more energy or she took him out. Instead, the ‘roadie’ reached into one of those carry-alls and chucked something at Erzili that exploded into foam that covered her. Mal slapped on his PFG and game to his ladylove’s assistant. That would have been romantic as hell, if the ‘Intern’ didn’t throw another dingus at him, which also sort of exploded into a web of wires that synched with his PFG and seemed to turn it against him. The ball of his force field became visible, and you could see it start to shrink and threaten to crush him.
Then the lights in the foyer went dim, but spotlights went on painting Jadis and Mal in circles of soft blue light, me and most of the other Whateley kids in pale green light, Mrs. Wilkins and most of the Griffin crew in yellow lights, and Cambion and his crew in red, and targeting dots started appearing everywhere. Then the shutters started to slide down over the doorways to the inner house. Whatever else he may be, Cambion is hella fast in almost every way: before the shutters could shut, he kicked one of the cases that the roadie had hauled in over to the doorway with enough force that his flipped halfway against the doorway going lengthwise, and propping that door open. “FIVE GAMBIT GREEN!” he snapped.
I guess that short, snappy, and concise yet cryptic as all hell orders are de rigueur in the ‘I’m so much more competent than you’ crowd.
Anyway, the intern nodded and scooted over to the doorway, sliding under the propped up shutter. “VAMP!” Jadis yelled, “GET HER!” Yep, short, snappy and concise is all the rage apparently; she didn’t have the opening to be cryptic, and knowing Jadis, that probably bugs her.
“ON IT!” I yelled back and charged across the lobby. Hey, I can be short and snappy with it too! As Cambion’s crew reacted to me, I dropped my special personal blend of darkness, blocking out everything, and making it under the shutter just as the case started to buckle. HAH! How’s that for concise and competent?
When the darkness dropped, Vamp was gone. Isn’t it funny how that works out? Nowhere near as funny was how Cambion and his crew had also moved, while everyone on my side was standing stock still. Well, at least except for the Drow, who were on the floor, holding their hands over their ears. The Cambionettes had all moved and taken some serious defensive positions, including the Producer, who was holding a gun on the Empress and Mrs. Griffin and her cronies. Or at least the Griffin and entourage. The Empress was giving the Producer an ‘are you f******g kidding me?’ look, and the Producer wasn’t sure how to handle her. The camera dog had taken a few shots at what I think were the lobby’s targeting cameras. You never really think about those things until the shit hits the fan. Cambion himself was centrally located in a semi-crouch with his blazer off, and his hand ready to dive to any of several caches or pockets in the blazer or the vest that the blazer had hidden. Or the utility belt that I didn’t notice before. Or the pocketed bracelets strapped to his wrists. Or the thing tucked at the back of his neck. Or whatever was strapped to his ankles.
I don’t believe this; I’m having holdout envy.
Well, the battle belongs to whoever imposes their conditions on the other, so the initiative is imperative. “Charge! Get and smash as many of those shriekers as you can! Buzz! Try to find a counter-frequency, or at least try to drown out that racket! Mal, for the love of GOD, just turn off your PFG!” Jobe and the Drow are out of the fight for the moment, and I just sent the person I was counting to be my good right hand out of the battle. So, I’m counting on Mal’s crew to fight these people.
God, how have I so offended you?
Charge followed my instructions, but Cambion lobbed five golf ball sized ball bearings up into the air, and pegged Charge with three of them as he tried to get to the shriekers, and the camera dog pegged Buzz with a blast. I tried to blast Cambion with my psychokinetic energy, but I haven’t really had a chance to train with it, and the one time that I thought that I might have nailed him, he deflected the blast with an amulet. I’m facing a trained, disciplined and prepared enemy in Doc Cambion.
I hate it when that happens.
Okay, he’s expecting me to keep firing at him at range, since I’m supposed to be all a-scared of fighting hand-to-hand without my beast shell. So I used my PK to zoom up on him and disabuse him of that mistaken understanding- and hopefully a few teeth as well.
BAD idea. Yes, I surprised him for all of a quarter-second, but he recovered without even blinking, used my momentum against me, and threw me face-first into the floor. Owch.
I’m fighting someone who’s better than I am. But as I was gathering my wits, I heard something that really made my blood run cold. ‘Very well, Mister Cambion, you’ve had your fun, and you’re very charming. But if you think that we’re just handing that sapphire over to you, after it’s been claimed as part of the Karedonian Imperial Crown Jewels, then you are quite mistaken.” It wasn’t the words, it was the tone of voice. It was Mrs. Wilkins, but it wasn’t the fluttery, ‘oh-aren’t-you-glad-I’m-such-a-nicer-person-than-my-husband?’ voice that she usually uses. No, this was firm, in control, and a half-octave lower. This was the voice she uses when the mind control isn’t firmly in place. I think that this just got serious.
“Nadia,” Cambion said in an equally flat and no-nonsense voice.
Then I heard the Producer yip in pain and I looked up just in time to see the Empress twist the gun out of the Producer’s hand with her thumb blocking the hammer of the gun, and not only did the trigger guard break the Producer’s trigger finger in the method prescribed to me by my Krav Maga instructor, but I think the exact torque of the twist sprained her wrist as well.
I kipped up to my feet, but Cambion took advantage of that to lay into me in a very quick five-element combination that would have been hella painful if I hadn’t shifted my PK energy to the protective sheath. <memo to self: no matter what Grimes says, I’ve got to get in more practice with my devil-implant out of the equation. Ito’s right: I rely on the beast-skin far too much> Cambion extracted himself from my grip and was reaching for something when he noticed dots were skittering all over him.
“Jadis?” the Empress, who had an eyepiece covering one eye, and was calmly reaching into her purse, “Would you be a dear?” I opened up with a Krav Maga combination, and promptly switched over to a Wing Chung volley of fist strikes. Give him his due, Cambion parried me expertly, but he had to pay full attention to me.
The Empress calmly pulled out a few things that might pass for slightly clunky techno-fetish jewelry. She clipped something onto the lapel of her jacket and slipped a pair of bracelets on her wrist. “Is that supposed to be a threat?” Cambion sneered as he worked to get me off balance. “I know every cheap, ill-conceived, poorly designed, shoddily made bit of inventory in the GizJunk catalogue, mostly so that I’ll know how to get around their glaring flaws. Pitney, deal with her.”
The camera dog, Pitney I’ll guess, turned the camera-blaster on the Empress, set and paused for a moment to aim, and let fly. The blast whizzed past her, not even disturbing a hair. Then lines of light erupted from Mrs. Wilkins’ eyepiece, bracelets and that lapel-clip, and started wheeling around. A group of them gathered at a point near one of the walls and there was small explosion. The volume of shrieking in the room died down a skootch.
“Three, Four, Counter-Gambit Red-Two!” Cambion snapped. The Producer and the ‘Roadie’ scrambled for one of the gear-boxes. Out of sheer force of habit, I tried to follow what they were trying to pull, which is a very bad thing to do when you’re fighting a guy who’s better than you are. Cambion took advantage of my distraction to do something that got past my PK sheath and ringed my chimes loud enough that my concentration wavered. Then he got really nasty and used that to throw a combination at me the laid me down flat on the floor.
As I struggled to get up from the floor, I saw Pitney’s camera-gun fry itself, and Pitney himself looked pretty singed. Mal had managed to get himself out of that PFG/snare and was mixing it up with the Producer and Roadie. He was handling the Roadie no problem, but the Producer was messing him up bad. Seeing that I was too weak and groggy to be a threat anymore, Cambion sprinted for the gearbox that the Producer and Roadie were trying to get to. I struggled to get up; Mal may be a pain in the ass at times, but he’s still my little brother, and no one deserves to get their ass handed to them by their boyhood hero. GizMom didn’t make it easy for Cambion, and before he was halfway there, he was dancing around like Nureyev ducking those beams she was zinging out.
He landed in a defensive crouch, and snarled at Mrs. Wilkins, “Do you honestly think that that trinket can stop me?”
“I think that if you thought that it couldn’t, you’d have already taken me down,” she said coldly. With that, bunches of lines fanned out over Cambion, and puffs of blue smoke erupted from several places, as what I assume were nasty little electronic surprises voided themselves. Cambion reacted to this by trying to save what holdouts he had by doing a high vaulting, twisting leap. The leap would have put him much closer to that gearbox, so I PKed the box over to me. Cambion touched down, but just as he was setting his heel down on the floor, the Empress sent another needle-thin thread of light which hit his heel, which exploded, sending him back up into the air. Cambion recovered in midflight, but he clearly was concentrating on recovering, not planning three steps in advance.
Mal used this to break free of the Producer and Roadie. He called a weapon from his teleport cradle, turned, aimed at one of the shriekers and fired. A three-round flight of mini-missiles zipped out and took out that shrieker. And a chunk of the floor and nearby wall. “MAL!” I snapped, “Switch to a maser! The costs of repairing those damages are coming out of your allowance!” Mal immediately replaced the missile launcher with a combat maser, and used it to take out the Producer. The Roadie was charging at me, so I did the last thing he’d expect: I used my PK to drag him nearer, and slammed him into the gearbox. Then I picked up the gearbox and smacked him with it.
Mrs. Wilkins now had Cambion hopping around like a cricket on a hot griddle, and every so often, something on his person would go up in puff of smoke, and I could just see Cambion counting his options dwindling. His hair went up in flames, so he ripped it off, revealing that it was a hairpiece glued on, covering his real hair and a fried web of electronic… whatever it was- or had been. Mal was jerking around, finding, targeting and eliminating shriekers until that icepick in the ear finally died. The Drow started picking themselves up and that spray of beams from the Empress fanned out to cover the entire room in a way that looked like she was narrowing Cambion’s options even more.
Bova took her time getting her marbles in order, and Jobe was fumbling around for something nasty. But Freight Train blew her ‘I’ve had all’s I can stand, I can’t stands no more!’ whistle, and charged right into Cambion. I yelled, “Get out of there, Angie! You’re only shielding him from the Empress!” And sure enough, that’s how it was at first, with Cambion out-scoring Freight Train on style, speed and strategy. But to my- and far more importantly, Cambion’s- surprise, Angie plowed through, soaked up his punches and kept coming for more. She managed to wrangle Cambion so that he was between her and GizMom, and between them, they started setting him up for each other. Cambion had skill, speed and some killer moves, but Angie could take a lot more damage than he could and when she did hit, dish it out as well.
Okay, I admit that we weren’t just standing around watching the big fight. Mal managed to get Erzili out of that snare, Buzz and Charger had come to, and between them, they’d managed to get the Roadie, the camera dog and the Producer under wraps. I gestured for Jobe and Erzili to cover the front door, in case Cambion decided to cut his losses and split. Then I waved Buzz and Charger to cover the Griffin and her crew, in case he decided to take some hostages. I was furiously trying to second- and triple-guess Cambion’s next move, when the perky little number that Cambion had sent deep into the house wriggled through the gap under the blocked shutter, held something up and yelled, “TAG!”
He accepted a tooth-rattling punch on the jaw from Freight Train, and turned that into a throw. Then he snapped, “Blue-K-K!” Gee, it must be nice to have a well-trained, disciplined backup team who don’t need everything spelled out for them.
Miss Perky threw two things. Cambion caught one of them, but the other was intercepted by one of the Empress’ beams and exploded into a cloud of eye-stinging smoke. Angie tried to grapple Cambion, but he used her own strength against her and threw her into me. He dashed for the camera-dog’s camera-gun, but instead of blasting us, he threw it to break a hole in one of the windows. He then made a running dive for the window, and was out of it before the armored shutter could finish coming down. Miss Perky didn’t quite make it and dove face-first into the shutter. Angie was right on top of her, and from there, it was strictly mop-up.
“Dammit, he’s got the JEWEL!” Jobe snarled, “Charger, earn your keep for a change and go GET him before he crawls back into whatever sewer he crawled out of!”
“CHILL, your none-too-Serene Highness!” Vamp called out from under the shutter. “Hey Hernandez! Will you raise this thing?” It took a bit, but Hernandez managed to get all the lowered shutters up. Vamp swaggered in with a big smirk and held up the sapphire. “Is THIS what you were bellowing about?”
“What?” Miss Perky bleated from where Angie had her arm behind her back. “What did I just throw to Doc?”
“A synthetic sapphire worth maybe a couple of hundred bucks,” Vamp smirked.
“What? How?” Perky asked, aghast.
“Hey, you don’t think that I was groping you in the dark because I think you’re cute, now do you?” Vamp’s smirk spread into a leer that would have gotten her face slapped on general principles.
“Mom, what ARE those?” Jobe asked as her mother unclipped the eyepiece and bracelets and other bits and stashed them in her purse.
The Empress gave a tinkling glass laugh and said in a way that suggested to me that Gizmatic’s programming was in charge again, “Jobe, Sweetie, you don’t honestly think that your father puts the GOOD STUFF where just anyone can get at it, now do you?”
“Well, I must say that I’m impressed,” Mrs. Griffin said as Cambion’s posse were arrested, cuffed and toted off by the NYPD to be booked. “They’re taking this very calmly.”
“They think that Cambion will break them out of jail,” Jadis said clinically.
“THINK?” the Griffin asked, one eyebrow arched.
“Oh I doubt that he’ll even lift a finger to help them,” Jadis said with confidence.
“Why not?” asked ‘Steff’, who’d arrived after all the hubbub was done with.
“First of all, he’ll be way too busy moving his stuff out of the lair he’s using,” Jadis said. “Second, that’s his MO: recruit a bunch of remarkably competent civilians, feed them a line of hogwash, put them through the wringer, and if they’re captured, leave them to twist in the wind.”
“You know a lot about him?” Mrs. Griffin asked. “Then why didn’t you recognize him when he came in?”
“Oh, I’ve never met the man before,” Jadis admitted. “I know all of that because earlier, both my brother Mal and Jobe were HUGE fans of his.”
“I WAS NOT!” Jobe snapped from where her mother was still fussing over her. “I… simply… appreciated his remarkably commonsensical procedure in approaching so-called ‘Supernatural Phenomena’ in a commendably empirical way, instead of buying into all of that voodoo hoodoo bilge the way that you have, Jadis!”
Jadis shot Jobe a ‘yeah, right’ snort and said to the Griffin, “It probably flew way under your radar, but a few years ago, Doc Cambion was very popular on the Pop-Sci circuit. He was a ‘ghost hunter’ and ‘mystery explorer’ and all like that, with the rationale that everything that was supposed to be supernatural could be better termed ‘preternatural’; that is ‘currently not understood, but operating under natural laws and principles that we don’t understand yet’.”
“Which is precisely the proper way to do it!” Jobe snarled. “He didn’t go ‘ooohhh… natural medicine…’ Of course people’s headaches were better after drinking willow bark tea! It’s got high concentrations of Acetylic Acid in it! They’d have felt better if they’d just taken an aspirin!”
“Thank you Jobe,” Jadis said in a way that carried the undertone, ‘Shut up, I’m expounding’. “Anyway, he went around basically doing ‘Scooby Doo on Steroids’, investigating hauntings, curses, monsters, weird phenomena and like that, and finding- or at least presenting- logical, rational mundane answers for everything, which often came down to misrepresentation and fraud, and there were more than a few felony convictions that came out of it, which were made worse by the fact that Cambion kept bringing bright talented young faces along with him, many of whom got hurt, and several of whom DIED on camera.
“This went on for a few years, and then something happening in some place in Spain in the Pyrenees- the little village of Casau, which is part of Vielha e Mijaran, in Lleida province. They were investigating an ancient Roman ruin that was supposed to be haunted by some sort of witch-ghost-hag thing. Short form, it got really nasty and bloody, and the big action hero bolted like a rabbit, leaving three associates to DIE. He lied through his teeth about it and got his camera crew to back him up, but he didn’t know that he was being filmed by a crew that didn’t work for him.
“The footage went viral, and once his escutcheon had been besmirched, an entire army of skeletons came tumbling out of his closet: other associates left to die, slander against innocent people, misrepresentation, bad debts, fraud, reneging on contracts, missing materials, pilfered research, flat-out theft and a very nasty if lucrative side line in low-balling real estate and reselling once the place had been ‘cleared’.”
“But that’s hardly the worst!” Belphy snarled in a way that suggested that maybe Belphegor had worshipped Doc Cambion via the cathode shrine as well as Mal and Jobe. “He…” she choked, “FALSIFIED HIS DATA!”
“Falsifying data is a BIG no-no in Scientific Circles,” Jadis explained to the Griffin.
“If you falsify your data, then it doesn’t MEAN anything,” Mal said, sounding like he was past explanation and well into rant turf. “Science is about finding out the Truth, through means that can be verified! It has to be tested and challenged and proven! And he didn’t just guess or gloss over a few rough areas or withhold certain bits- he just plain MADE SHIT UP, so that people would watch his stupid show!” It’s been years, and you could still hear the heartbreak in his voice. Jobe and Belphy made ‘here, here!’ noises, and there was a weird sense of Science Geek bonding.
Jadis wisely waved that aside, and continued, “Since then, Cambion has popped up here and there, and there’s a sense in the supervillain community that Cambion was using his ‘Science Hero’ shtick as a cover. But now that his cover is blown, he’s still operating as an outlaw. And he still recruits eager talented young academics and scientists, only now he uses the story that he was framed and he needs them to find proof of his innocence; insert three hours of refurbished ‘The Fugitive’ material here.”
“Any idea as to what that mission might be?” the Griffin asked.
“Pretty much the same as before: finding supernatural treasures, locating various texts, acquiring certain materials, and probably putting some supernatural beings in the bag for party or parties unknown.” Jadis paused and showed the spell slip that Cambion had slipped her. “This is a remarkably sophisticated magical effect, which adds another level of hypocrisy to Cambion’s crimes.” Jadis cocked a nasty sneer at her brother and Jobe. “Cambion’s catch phrase was ‘Eventually, Science Explains Everything.’ He insisted that everything labeled ‘Supernatural’ was just psychic powers or unexplained technology or something like that. After all, it’s so much easier to walk off with a supernatural power talisman if everyone thinks that it’s just a prop…” she finished with a nasty purr in Jobe’s direction.
“Well… just because he’s a fraud, doesn’t mean that the principle isn’t sound!” Jobe said defensively. “After all, the best liars build their lies using as much of the truth as they can, right?” And then Mr. Hernandez, the guy that Jadis’ dad has running security for the townhouse walked into the lounge with a face that looked like a gallon of sour milk. Jobe spotted him and jumped on him in true Jobe style. “So! Hernandez! I take it that you’re here to offer your immediate resignation for your abject incompetence and cowardice in this matter? Where WERE you, when we needed you, Man? And where was the oh-so-formidable security system that this place is supposed to be famous for?”
Hernandez walked up, his face going from sour to downright rancid, and said in a dangerously level voice, “The foyer security zone would have worked, IF Cambion’s gunman hadn’t taken out the keystone of the firing array with a single shot. Somehow, he knew exactly where to fire to take out most of the primary active measures. The secondary active measures couldn’t be deployed with that many noncombatants in the area. And even then, he had someone sneak in during all the hubbub to take out my main control panel!” He jerked a thumb at a young looking guy in technician’s grays who was being led off in handcuffs. “So the question becomes ‘HOW did Cambion’s gunman know exactly where to fire? And ‘HOW did Cambion’s sneak know exactly where to find my control panel?” Hernandez stepped up well into Steff’s personal space and went nose-to-beak with She-Who-Insists-On-A-Single-Name. “It seems that SOMEONE told them exactly where to look. Someone with a great deal of technical expertise in Security Electronics and Layout, but only a superficial familiarity with the actual technical details of our array. Say, an expert in electronic site security and layout, who’d only had a casual chance to observe our arrangement. Someone who made very good educated guesses, aided by blueprints to this building, gained from City Hall. Someone who hasn’t gotten LAID since Reagan was president, and was suddenly faced with a remarkably attractive and dynamic man…” he held up a large piece of blueprint, with several handwritten notes. “Tell me, Ms. Wilkins- is this handwriting familiar?”
Steff was, uncharacteristically for a Wilkins, rather subdued and uncommunicative. “ah, Not to make excuses or anything,” I cut in, “but she’s not really to blame. Cambion has an unfair advantage that he used on her.”
“What? An XY chromosome?” Hernandez sneered.
“Okay, you weren’t here, but Cambion had Mrs. Griffin, Mrs. Wilkins and the drow totally drooling at him and bobbing their heads, going ‘whatever you say’.”
“I was not drooling-” Jobe started, but I’ve seen Jadis in action enough to cut that off before she completely derailed it.
“DROOLING,” I repeated, “but Jadis wasn’t having any of it. So he suckered her into reading that piece of paper, which I’ll bet has some sort of spell on it. Then I stepped in, and he tried to take me down with some kind of bullshit mental technique. He knew that the Beast had that demon thing protecting her from mental influence, so he used that spell on her. He probably caught Steff here off balance, dazzled her with his ‘oh I’m so hawt I melt off panties’ gimmick, and sweet-talked her out of the details.”
Well, at the very least, Steff could have been a little grateful!
But instead, Bova cut that off my saying, “Really? A mental technique? I didn’t notice anything.”
“Yer kiddin’!” I shot back. “He was more obvious than a drunk on Saint Patty’s Day, trying to get some action with a ‘Kiss Me, I’m Irish’ button!”
“You have… a demon… bound into you?” the Griffin asked Jadis, stepping forward a little. “you’re.. possessed?”
“Not really,” Jadis quibbled. Then she gave her packaged spiel about how her supervillain father had gotten someone to bind a devil- not a demon, but a devil, don’t ask me why that’s important- and now it affects how her powers work, blah, blah, blah, you know the story.
The Griffin gave Jadis a measuring look and said, “Well, that can definitely put a whole new spin on our presentation! Supervillains spare no one, not even their allegedly beloved offspring-”
“AAAHHH- No.” Jadis said firmly. “We have a saying in this house- ‘Nobody disses Dr. Diabolik.’ Not even his own kids.”
Then Mrs. Wilkins stepped in, and asked what they were talking about, and it got very sticky, what with the Empress having the final say on whether the sapphire would be used for Mrs. Griffin’s charity wingding. It took Hernandez stepping in and saying, “Look, no matter whether we let Mrs. Griffin use the stone or not, you’ve got to move that thing to the Karedonian Embassy.”
“Because our security system just got TRASHED!” Hernandez waved at the damage. “Besides what happened in here, Cambion’s sneak got at the central panel and did a number on it. Right now, we can’t reasonably guarantee either of the Princesses’ safety or the security of that stone. You’ve got to move all three- oh, and those two as well- to a secure location at one of the Wilkins properties in New York.”
“There’s a problem there,” Bova piped up. “You see the problem with looking for safety at one of the Wilkins properties is that Wilkinses go with the property, and there goes safety, right out the window.”
“She has a point, Mr. Hernandez,” Belphy agreed. “As you may recall, the last time we were in New York, Jobe didn’t exactly go out of her way to endear herself to the other members of the family, and given her… nebulous status within the Wilkins Clan, giving the other members an opportunity like that might not be the safest thing to do.”
“That is a FOUL and SLANDEROUS attack on the good name of the Wilkins family ENTIRE!” Steff snarled.
“Says the woman who helped a wanted felon to break into my house,” Jadis said with a dangerously level voice as she shot Steff a ‘Don’t give me shit, I’ve had it up to here with the lot of you’ look.
“I think that you’re all making a huge fuss over nothing!” the Empress said. “The sapphire- and my daughters- will be quite safe here. Well, as long as it doesn’t get out that your security is down. This place’s reputation, along with the threat of the dreaded Diabolik family, should keep most of the creeps from trying anything. At least as long as you get that security gear repaired as quickly as you can, Mr. Hernandez.”
“And hopefully upgraded from this place’s pathetic showing just now,” Steff sneered. “Discard that pedestrian setting that served you so poorly, and let me install a truly inspired new-”
Hernandez stepped back up into Steff’s face and snarled, “If you think that I’m letting YOU slap any of that slipshod GizCrap into MY security outlay, after YOU all but put up ‘sabotage here’ signs everywhere, then you are a bigger IDIOT than that stupid outfit you’re wearing says! If you-”
Jadis stepped in and said, “Hernandez takes his responsibilities very seriously. Hernandez, how long should it take to replace the central panel and get the foyer back up to standards?”
“Three days,” Hernandez said definitively. He cast annoyed looks upwards and said in a louder voice, “Most of that will be getting deliveries here that should be able to get here by this afternoon, but there are PEOPLE who have very strange ideas about the limitations of a surveillance warrant!”
“So, just give me an hour and I’ll-” Steff started.
“NOT HAPPENING,” Jadis and Hernandez said in perfect unison. “Mal, dig into your bag of tricks and put in a few stopgap measures,” Jadis continued. “Nothing radioactive, no nanotech and NO BIOWEAPONS!”
“But Jadis, Erzili and I-”
“Mal, do you want to sleep in this house tonight with a GizSmart AI keeping an eye on you?”
Then Jadis turned to Mrs. Wilkins and said, “Call Ralph at the embassy, and have a squad of guys in GizArmor or whatever come to pick up the sapphire. No matter what measures we put up in the meantime, I do not want that thing in my house tonight. Move it somewhere else.”
“Well… there’s a problem there…” the Empress whined.
“Not interested…” Jadis held the line. “Get that rock OUT of here. Now.”
“You see, Jobe’s little power play with the crown jewels has come at an awkward time and moving the keystone of our prospective collection to any of the other Wilkins properties in New York would be… tactically inadvisable…”
“Put it in a BANK.”
“A Bank? With this family?”
“I’ve put up with more than enough for this trip, I’m not going to put up with any more idiots with Lupin complexes in my house!”
“Oh dear,” the Empress sighed in a way that really made me wonder which personality was in charge at the moment. “And your father’s negotiations with my husband were going so well…”
Jadis grimaced and wiped the egg off her face. Then she looked at Mrs. Wilkins and hissed, “If Baron Blitzen and his Hitler Juvenile Delinquents are still hogging the lair when we get down there for Summer Vacay, rental agreement or no rental agreement, we will start off with warbeasts and finish up with tactical nanite disassemblers!”
“As long as you file an Environmental Impact Report, just have fun!”
Jadis let out a long sigh and said, “Okay, Hernandez, get this thing back into the safe, and find out what that chick did to open it, hah? Charger, Buzz, you stay with Mal and get those security measures up and running. Mrs. Pierson? Would you keep an eye on the ‘Little Rascals’? Oh, and he’s been talking about upgrading the REX [Robotic Enforcer EXperiment] units with AI. Just…. NO.” Then looking around, she said, “Okay, everybody, go upstairs, take a shower, change, and then we head out. There won’t be any peace in this place for at least four hours, so we might as well see what Tiffany’s has come up with.”
“Cartier’s.” The Griffin said solidly.
“TIFFANY’S,” Mrs. Wilkins said even more solidly.
Giving a weary sigh of disgust, Jadis started walking up the stairs. As she climbed she said wearily into the air, “AND CRAWFORD, IF WORD ABOUT THIS FAILURE OF SECURITY SYSTEMS GETS TO THE POLICE, I’LL KNOW WHO TO PRESS CHARGES AGAINST!”
Back at Tiffany’s (it was a battle worthy of epic poems; be glad you weren’t there) Raleigh Holden, the senior client liaison, was sweating. Think about that for a second: he was a ‘senior client liaison’ for Tiffany’s flagship store in NYC. He handled royalty, rock stars and Park Avenue divas with aplomb, and he was sweating. The three designers, who made as much of a production of not being impressed, let alone awed, by anything as any import New Yorker, were subtly huddling behind him. I stood there, feeling good for the first time that day. I’d managed to herd the lowering storm that was GizMom and the Empress of Park Avenue out of the main showroom into one of those discreet meeting rooms. While Mrs. Griffin had been knocked down a peg by Mrs. Wilkins’ show of uber-tech firepower, you don’t get to be the Alpha Bitch of the A-List in New York by letting trivial matters like massive weapons superiority get you down. They were going at it hammer and tongs- in only the most refined way, of course- and the professionals knew better than to get in the middle of it.
I calculatedly bided my time, and when it was just right, I struck. I eased over to Holden’s side and said, “Y’know, I can get them to do this over at Faberge.”
“Of course.” He visibly relaxed. “For a $80 thousand gift certificate.”
“I can’t release that until the final payment from the Karedonian embassy comes through, and the ambassador is being difficult.”
“Oh, I wasn’t talking about that,” I said sweetly. “I’m talking about another gift certificate. I’ll wait for the first one to work its way free.”
“Y’know, it’s not your money…”
“Done.” He gave me a measuring look. “And what would it take to get one- not both, at least not at the same time- of them back here to continue discussions?”
I handed him a card with my phone number and web address on it. “We’ll talk.”
“What are you doing over the summer vacation? Because you sound like you have a real future in customer relations.”
The nice people at Faberge were simply delighted to see Mrs. Griffin and the Empress. For a solid ten minutes, they were delighted. At the end of an hour, I made my move. “Y’know, over at Tiffany’s, they gave me this $80 thousand gift certificate to bring them here.”
“Let me put it to you this way: would you rather I steered them to Cartier’s or Harry Winston?”
“What about bringing ONE of them back?”
I handed him my card. “We’ll talk.”
I seriously considered a trifecta at Cartier’s, but the Griffin’s entourage are the sort of socialites who can only go for so long without liquid fortification. Not that I blamed them.
When we got back, I looked around the foyer and yelled at the top of my lungs, “MAL! I told you: NO AI IN THE REX UNITS!”
“Hello? I’m Doc Cambion. As you’ve no doubt heard on the News, I just made a run at the Diabolik townhouse. I didn’t get what I wanted, and now that the word is out that I’m in town, I have to head OUT of town. But I need a little traveling cash. So, I happen to have some information that you’ll definitely need….”
Again, the Daredevil of Darkness manned his lonely vigil, keeping an eye on Dr. Diabolik’s Diabolical Den of Depravity. He carefully studied the effects of the raid earlier in the day. He’d wait until the inmates of the house had a chance to get to sleep before he tried to penetrate the foul nest of insidious… insidiousness. Besides, his Aunt Gail had allowed him to stay out until 10 PM, seeing how she knew where he was and it wasn’t a school night. He waited until the chill of the evening started to bite into his skin. Then he decided to strike!
But, just as the Night Knight was gaining the proper heading to avoid a repeat of that embarrassing slipup where he almost hanged himself, a cloaked figure silently flew up to the alley side of the Diabolik townhouse and began to prod carefully at the wall. Seeing an opportunity to bypass Diabolik’s security measures- or at least get a better idea as to what they looked like in action-Nightlord made his way to the building across from the townhouse. He watched carefully as what appeared to be an escape hatch built into the wall opened up and the cloaked woman ducked inside, leaving… a broom?... floating in the air waiting for her. He caught the hatch before it could close with his cloak and slipped in after her.
From a position exactly five feet behind Nightlord, a young woman gave a satisfied smirk. She knew that one way or another, she’d find a way to use that dork to get in. Stupid Diaboliks and their stupid electrified mesh lining! But patience, awareness, and a willingness to use the stupidity of others will always pay off in the long run. Normally, she didn’t use a cape- she was squarely with Edna Mode on that one- but hanging out in the cold for hours was even less her style. She’d brought the cloak to keep her warm- and diminish her heat signature. But there were already two mysterious creatures of darkness rummaging around inside the Diabolik house already- a third would create absolute chaos!
And as her Daddy always told her, ‘Chaos is your friend’.
Adjusting the cape so that it wouldn’t slow her down if thing got hectic, she got to the hatch before it slid shut, pulled it back open and slipped in.
The hatch had opened up onto the third floor of the townhouse, probably with the plan that the family would retreat up the stairs in case the Police raided the place. Or at least, knowing the She-Beast, one of several plans in case their individual or collective crimes ever caught up with them. The Mysterious Master of Murk blended into the shadows of the hallway, and silently followed the cloaked woman. She was wearing a black hooded cloak, though he noticed a pair of Ra’s Eyes stitched along the sides of the hood in gold thread. Even with his unparalleled mastery of darkness (at least in the Sophomore year) he could barely make out that she wore a long vest over a bodysuit, and long gloves but short boots, and that practically everything was studded with pouches and pockets, or had something clipped to it Yet, she wasn’t studying a sensor or smartphone or anything like that. Instead, she was carefully watching a thing that dangled three pendulums from a brace, held in her left hand, as she swept in front of her with what looked like… a willow wand?
The woman paused, knelt and looked carefully at a stretch of hallway, slowly waving the wand and watched the effect on the pendulums. She rummaged around in one of her pouches, pulled out a packet and blew some powder on the runner carpet in front of her, watching how it settled carefully. Then she cautiously stepped in a weird sort of sideways dance down the hallway. Nightlord didn’t see what was going on, but he tried to repeat her steps as best he could.
The woman who followed after him didn’t bother; she figured that the yutz had set off whatever there was for her.
The cloaked woman in the lead carefully made her way to the stairwell and avoided walking down those stairs by vaulting over the banister and floating down to the second floor. Nightlord didn’t do the same, but took the stairs. The cloaked woman bringing up the rear knew a good move when she saw it, and floated down once Nightlord had caught up with the intruder taking point. When they got to the First Floor, the woman in the lead made a production out of tracing lines on the doorsill to the basement with her willow wand, and then attaching a large card to the place on the wall before going through the door. Nightlord looked at the card and pulled it away from the wall. He examined it and couldn’t make anything of it. He shrugged and tried to replace it on the wall, but it wouldn’t stick. Then he floated down the stairs after the intruder. The woman in the rear simply phased through the floor down into the basement, though she quickly found that the armored vault area not only had an electrified mesh, but was lined with a fantastically dense osmium compound that was so thick that it would have exhausted her to phase through, and it might have killed her to phase back out again.
The first woman didn’t notice the second one coming down, or Nightlord wafting down the stairs. She was far too intent on the thick vault door. She had put away the pendulum array and was studying the keypad and combination lock on the door through what looked like a monocle on a chain. She placed an electronic appearing device over the dial of the combination lock, and as that worked, she blew some dust on the keypad and made a few passes. Then she pulled out what looked like a smartphone, pressed in a code and then carefully punched in a code, then another, another and finally got the right sequence on the fourth go. It took a while for the gizmo on the combination dial to get that sequence right, and there were a couple of moments when the gizmo flashed a rather unsettling red light, but finally it flashed green. The first woman twisted the lever and carefully opened the door. Nightlord waited a 10-count and followed. The trailing woman cannily decided that it was too cramped, and opted to stay outside and let the first two do all the heavy carrying for her.
The intruder didn’t turn on the light. She didn’t need to. The center of the room was dominated by a pedestal with an under-lit top. Set on a clear Lucite stand atop that pedestal within a tight column of light was a large purple spinel-cut jewel. Lining the far wall of the chamber were rows of obviously armored drawers, six rows of three drawers, each with a combination dial, a keypad, and a keyhole. Quietly, to herself, the woman muttered, “The only thing worse than a paranoid is a clever paranoid.”
The woman produced her pendulum again and started muttering something to herself, her head bent and her eyes shut in intense concentration. The mighty Nightlord saw his opportunity to beat this woman- whoever she was- at her own game, and took it! Reaching out with his shadowy telekinesis, Nightlord ripped the stone off its perch and drew it out through the invisible web of laser tripwires that no doubt laced through the column of light.
The burglar flinched as the alarms went off. She turned around and gasped, “Who? What? You-”
Nightlord didn’t wait around for her to say anything. Before she could react fully, he dashed out of the vault and grabbed the door as to shut it, sealing the burglaress in. But before he could apply himself to close the heavy door, the second woman thundered out from her corner, and tried to deck him. The punch would have shattered his jaw, but Nightlord reacted just in time to slam the armored door into her fist. They met with a resounding clang, and both were shaken and startled by the vibration, which gave the burglar an opportunity to squeeze past the sneak attacker.
The attacker recovered first, despite having hit the door with her hand, while Nightlord had just been holding the door. She snatched the jewel from Nightlord’s hand and dashed for the stairs. Unfortunately for both of them, the two cloaked women were going up the same stairs at the same time, and neither of them was the type to give way to another, even in an emergency. They crammed each other into the sides of the narrow stairway, making it difficult for them to move. Finally, they got to the tops of the stairs and they forced their way, sending each other sprawling into the empty darkness.
Or not so empty darkness. There was a skin-crawling skittering sound, and the darkness resolved itself into a hoard of small hunched darkling creatures that started crawling over both of them. The Follower let out a shrill scream of pure undiluted horror and started thrashing around, trying to get the things off of her. The magical burglar started rummaging around in her pouches, but was knocked off her feet by the Follower’s flailing arms. The sapphire flew out of the Follower’s hand, but the mighty Nightlord snagged it on the fly, and pelted down the hallway.
The magician burglar stopped digging around for a countermeasure and gawped at the hoard of shadow-gremlins, which grew in size, number, intensity and solidity. “aawww…Nooo…” she groaned, her face growing slack under the concealing mask. Then the darklings attacked, and she had to put everything she had into keeping from being torn apart. She threw a handful of powder at the goblins, and managed to get away from them.
She looked around and despaired that Nightlord was already out of the house. Then she heard a thud and crash, and figured that the boy was having more problems in the dark than he was used to. She hurried in that direction, being far surer of her footing in the dark out of years of unaided experience. Then she came to one of the places where she’d scotched one of the magical traps that had been laid. Producing a penlight, she looked around for the signs of her powder. But there, dangling from a mass of chains that emerged from the ceiling, floors and walls, was Nightlord, who was struggling furiously. “What?” the burglar yelped baffled. “But I put a lock on that trap!” Then she glowered at Nightlord. “You reset the traps that I neutralized, didn’t you?” she didn’t add ‘idiot’, but it was clearly understood, “You walked in after me and set off EVERYTHING that I was trying to avoid!”
Nightlord started to explain that he was a HERO trying to prevent whatever horrible scheme that Jadis Diabolik was planning, but the Burglar just hissed him silent and said, “I don’t CARE. Just give me the jewel, and maybe we can-”
But before she could complete her proposal, the Follower came screaming down the hall at a full gallop and plowed into the Burglar, sending her into the mass of chains. The Follower shifted to desolid state reflexively and ran through the chains, scattering them as she passed. The goblins that were fast on her heels came chittering and they passed through the chains, which did something to both of them. The goblins reached out with chainlike arms and seized the Follower, dragging her shrieking into the tangled mass along with Nightlord and the Burglar. The Burglar managed to get a handful of yet another powder that reduced the goblin swarm to a goop that covered them. As they struggled to free themselves from the epoxy-like goop, Nightlord called on his power to free himself, but just as he shed the glop, the goblins re-formed, bigger and nastier than ever.
“Get RID of the jewel, you idiot!” the Burglar snarled at Nightlord.
“Why should I give you this precious gem, you thaumaturgic thief?” he shot back, gearing up for a prolonged rant on justice, decency and stuff like that there.
“It’s not the real sapphire, you blockhead!” she snapped, cutting him off. “Why would they have the real sapphire out in the open like that? Just because they saw it in a cheap movie? It’s a synthetic copy, and it has a curse or spell on it that taps into any preternatural powers to manifest these goblin things! The more you use your powers, the more of these things you’ll create!”
“Well, aren’t you the clever little minx?” asked a clear soprano voice with an amused tone. The goblins went silent, and the three also stopped making noise. There was the sound of footsteps, and a figure suddenly became visible as a young woman in bathrobe shone a flashlight up into her face. “So, who are you guys?” Jadis Diabolik asked. “I like to know who I’m pressing charges against.”
Jadis flashed the light first at the Burglar. “You, I don’t recognize, and I kinda doubt that you’re going to introduce yourself.” She moved the light to Nightlord. “Why am I surprised?” And then the Follower. “NIGHTFOX? Dammit, Gina, what the FUCK are you doing in my house?”
The Follower- or ‘Nightfox’, now that the cat’s out of the bag, froze for a second and looked around in a near panic. “She’s about to go desolid and jump up into the next floor, figuring that they didn’t put an electrified mesh in the floors,” a slightly British accented female voice in the darkness reported calmly.
“RIGHT!” a Middle American accent voice said briskly, and Freight Train body checked Nightfox into a wall before she could go desolid.
The Burglar started to reach for her harness, but that first unseen voice reported, “And she’s going to drop an area affect aerosol with histamine effects that she figures will give her a chance to make it to her planned exit.”
Another light snapped into the Burglar’s face, clearly connected to the business end of a sophisticated weapon. “DON’T,” said another female voice with a polished British accent.
“And Nightfox is about to go superdense and get violent, and possibly just say ‘screw it, I’ll smash my way out of here’,” reported the first unseen voice.
“Little nick,” said another American accented voice, this one with a mild Illinois flat, as a black hand reached out of the darkness and scratched Nightfox with a cat-like claw, worrisomely close to her carotid artery. Nightfox’s face went blank, and a hand flew to her neck. She moved away from the mocking pair of pink lips that were all that she could see of her enemy in the gloom.
“And Nightlord is….” The first unseen voice paused and continued in a gasp of horror, “Good GOD, he even THINKS in comic book clichés! My god, he… wait a minute… Jobe, what did you put on that claw?”
“A simple paralytic. She’s experiencing needles and pins throughout her extremities at the moment, but even now she’ll find it hard to stand upright for very long.”
“Are you sure about that Jobe? She’s experiencing severe disorientation and her thinking- which wasn’t the best to begin with- is getting a little wonky?”
“What? But I’ve tested that blend on several different mutant metabolisms. Just a second…” there was a smacking sound. “Wait a minute… this doesn’t smell or taste like my paralytic! Belphy have you been messing around with my venoms again?”
Suddenly Nightfox started thrashing around uncontrollably, and she accidentally threw Jobe into Freight Train. Belphy reacted to this in the slightest way, and the Burglar simply made a gesture that made Belphy’s head spin. With that opening, the Burglar went for the canister of area affect aerosol, and deployed it.
“Hernandez!” Jadis yelled, putting up her PK sheath for what good it would do, “Activate the gas dispersal system!” What, you thought that the Diabolik household wouldn’t have a gas dispersal system?
But after the gas was vented, there was no sign of either Nightlord, Nightfox or the Burglar. There were two broken windows, and one of the basement doors had been kicked in after considerable damage to the basement. “Aaahhh…. NERTZ,” Jadis said with disgust.
“And then, after we vented the gas from the building, we called you,” Jadis said two hours later.
“And what do you expect us to do about it?” the NYPD officer asked.
“Not much, I just don’t want to give you an excuse to kick up a fuss about us not reporting a felony,” Jadis said with snippy honesty.
“So did you recognize any of them?”
“The older woman I never saw before, but she had all the telltale signs of a professional. The guy was wearing some sort of tricked out stealth blacks with a flowing cape. I have a bit of a problem with Batman wannabes. But I did recognize the younger woman: her name’s Regina Larrimore, her MID tag is ‘Nightfox’, and I happen to know that she’s an escaped convict from the New Hampshire Department of Corrections.”
“You know her?”
“We used to go to school together,” Jadis said in a tone that said, ‘and that’s all you’re going to get out of me’. The police officer shut his notepad with a flip that said, ‘I’ll file this report- when I’m good and ready to’. And with that, he and his partner left the Diabolik abode.
When they were well away, Belphy asked Jadis, “Are you sure that it was Nightfox?”
“Yeah,” Jadis replied. “I guess that the Old School Tie doesn’t matter if you get kicked out.”
“Nightfox?” Jobe asked, “You knew her, Jads?”
“It was before your time, Jobe,” Jadis explained. “Last year, Nightfox was a Bad Seed two years ahead of me. Let’s just say that Nightfox was the sort of Bad Seed that the Spy Kidz think we all are. Her dad, Nightwolf, is a freelance burglar, hijacker, kidnapper, saboteur, industrial spy, name something dodgy and lucrative, and he’s there, and Gina made absolutely NO bones about the fact that she was gonna follow in dear old Dad’s footsteps. She was even in the Masterminds, back when they were actually something other than a joke.”
“What happened to her?”
“She met someone who was even more devious and ruthless than she was- DuPraeve. DuPraeve set up a big power play, and he left her and their buddy Latchkey twisting in the wind. She got kicked out of school and handed over to the authorities. It took Gina three months to break out, and Latchkey disappeared even before she did.”
“Why’d she break in, if she knows you?” Freight Train asked.
“Well, either money’s tight, or she’s trying to recoup her reputation, which is a little shabby, what with getting kicked out of Whateley and all.”
“Why didn’t you tell the Police about Nightlord?” Bova asked. “I mean, breaking in in the middle of the night IS a little over the line.”
“Oh didn’t I tell them?” Jadis asked ingenuously. “Silly me! Well, let me take care of that.” she pulled out her smartphone and said into the air, “Crawford, I count this as informing the Authorities. If you don’t tell NYPD, then it’s on YOUR head.” She punched in a number, waited and then said, “Excuse me, but is Derek in? We go to school together. Oh, he just came in? I thought he would…” Jadis paused with a treacley smile on her face. Then her smile and genial tone evaporated. “OKAY, NIGHTLUNCH, WHAT’S THIS CRAP ABOUT BREAKING INTO MY PLACE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT?”