Friday, July 1, 2011

Chapter 4: The Party Puffin

More self indulgence below the fold. "Sarah Benton." 

Chapter 4: The Party

Lunch was at the food court. They had to drag three tables together to seat everyone, even though Jamie had gone to drive May home to change. Even after two trips to the Mazda, the tables were an island in a sea of bags. Mr. Wong handed John “his” bank card and sent him off. He thought about asking for cash back. with his twenty from the night before, he was within a few dollars of the price of Dance With Dragons, but it seemed like a pathetic thing to do. It wasn’t so much Mr. Wong, who would probably have gone for it, as his family. The bank card in his hand was connected to his parents’ bank account. It knew who and where they were, was part of them, and he didn’t want to betray its trust. It was silly, but he felt grateful to the card for telling him at least one thing, that his family banked in Arlington.
John got the special at China Express, because they had dry ginger beef, plus a milk shake, and made sure to get chopsticks.  Amy got a burger, and made a point of using a fork to eat her fries. The sight deflated John, who had just been feeling proud of the way he could scoop up the hot-sweet-salty morsels of beef, even if he couldn’t quite understand why.  Then Emily came back with sushi and chopsticks of her own, and John felt as suddenly, inexplicably relieved as he was disappointed a moment ago. It was a some “reversies” rule Jason obviously wasn’t included,  because he ate his order of poutine from New York Fries with gleefully bare hands; but even after a day, John was getting Jason enough to understand. John really enjoyed his beef, and also some of Amy’s fries, which he traded for some milk shake.  Amy wanted to dip her last fries in the milkshake, which seemed a little silly to John, but ended up being pretty funny, so that he hardly even minded that Mr. and Mrs. Wong took forever over their coffees.
Finally, they were off to pack a final load out to the parking lot. After that, there would be freedom. John was desperate to check out the arcade.  
As they sweated and struggled with bags that went slick with sweat a second after they walked out the door into sunlight that had to swim down through shimmering, hazy air, Jamie drove up in a beat-up, primered and puttied old Ford Expedition. May was sitting in the passenger’s seat in a yellow tee, almost buried under The Captain, sitting on her lap like the world’s biggest lap dog.. Jamie parked next to the Mazda, and they got out, The Captain just jumping out. John blurted that the dog should be leashed, collecting a cool look from Mr. Wong as the dog heeled next to May. No-one, he reminded himself, blushing, likes being told the obvious. Dog hair was rapidly building up on May’s grey miniskirt, and for that matter Jamie’s bright blue tank top and  khaki shorts. How did one dog produce so many hairs of so many colours? And what was going on now, he wondered, as the Wongs huddled with the older girls for a moment, then got into the Mazda.
Jamie made an inclusive sweep with her hands. “All aboard, Rugrats. May’s got an employee pass for the underground parking,” So, apparently, John and Rafaella were Rugrats now. John didn’t quite know how that made him feel. Jason and Amy got in first, taking the back seat, followed by Rafaella, who had changed into a crisp new, white, men’s dress shirt buttoned up right to her neck and tucked into black shorts with wide, flared legs that somehow made her seem far wider at the middle than the clothes she’d worn from the airport. Frankly, if John hadn’t known who she was, he would have mistaken her for a man.  It was odd that he’d managed to sit through lunch without even noticing. He asked, “Is that...” only to have someone nudge him from behind, very firmly. John stopped and turned back in the seat to see Jason leaning against the back, his finger over his mouth in an exaggerated “shushing” motion. It wasn’t a rule that applied to everyone, though, because May and Jamie talked enough for the rest of them, however. They were curious about what Rebecca was really up to, and how Jameel and Don had changed over the summer, and excited about the party and blah, blah, clothes, blah. Somehow, without it ever being said, John got the impression that he had just learned the names of the rest of the Junior Patrol of the Liberty Legion as the truck drove around behind the mall and down a cracking, white concrete ramp down to a turnoff into the lower level of the mall, just before the loading dock area that he had seen earlier during their dash through the Shop Rite..
And then it was everyone was out into the almost-cool, oil-smelling parking level, with Jamie taking loud and bossy charge, and May and The Captain disappearing into the shadows on whatever business of her own. Four flights of stairs, and they were back in familiar territory, a side exit corridor on the main floor of the mall exactly like the one where they had fought the wolf-man that morning.  
Emily explained as they climbed. “Just so you know, John, Rafaella. There’s no talking business around any trucks we Neilsens might be driving. Until you’re sure what’s business and what’s not, try to talk about, oh, politics and religion instead.”
Her face and voice were crisp and cool as she spoke, but John got a strong sense of discomfort. He could practically her plead, “No questions, please.”
So instead he made a face. “Yeah. That’ll happen. Politics and religion, I mean.”
Rafaella, who apparently couldn’t hear Emily plead in her head, asked, “Why?”
 There was a long silence. Finally, Jason spoke. “The cars and trucks come from their Mom’s ski-hill, which is a VIPER front. The ski-hill does sale and resale, and sometimes VIPER uses the vehicles to smuggle drugs and whatnot. So VIPER bugs them all. They’re probably not monitored if there’s no drugs on board, and we know which is which, but no sense...”
John couldn’t contain his surprise. “VIPER? International-crime-syndicate-army-of-evil-VIPER? WTF?” He actually said “WTF,” to make it clear that he was a cool kid, but when it came out of his mouth, John felt dorky instead.
Now, Jason was in a circle of attention, Rafaella no more able than John to hide her curiosity, Emily and Jamie closed, their faces hard, the wordless pleading that he say just the right thing now, with overtones of there being no right thing that he could say were now so clear and strong that John realised that he must be hearing it telepathically. And with that he also realised that he had another headache coming on.
And then, saving the day again, Mr. Stone poked his head out of his office. “Jamie? May I speak to  the Rugrats for a moment?”
Jamie evidently knew Mr. Stone as well as Jason, Amy, and Emily. “Sure. I need to pee, anyway.”
Mr. Stone waited until Jamie was around the corner, in the corridor leading to the washrooms before he gravely nodded to Emily and opened the door of his office for her. Somehow, his burly body came between Emily and the other four, and, with a surprisingly lack of grace, his big, unexpectedly pink palm slammed the glass door instead of the handle, letting it slip closed behind him. Given a moment of privacy from Emily. Amy looked Rafaella and John in the eye with a protective fierceness that he had not seen before. “Ixnay on the Neilsen Arentspay!”
“Ixnay? Parentsay?” John was bewildered.
 Rafaella just sounded bored. “It’s a battle code, doofus.”
Amy laughed. Startled, Emily looked back through the glass front of the office to see what was going on, but Amy just said, “Yeah. Pig Latin. Not much of a code. Emily and Jamie’s parents are a little weird. They don’t like having to explain them.  Any questions, save for Jason and me later. Cool?”
John had to agree that it was. Rafaella just shrugged. VIPER probably wasn’t much to the heir to an air pirate king! Then Mr. Stone opened the door of the office and they filed inside to get a lecture about how the wolf man they’d fought in the morning was the “highly dangerous mercenary supervillain codenamed Fenris,” and how they should run, hide, call for help, and possibly cry like little babies if he showed up again.
With that, they were finally free and on their way to the arcade. Jason didn’t seem very chastened. “Fenris. He’s just cannon fodder with a wolf fixation. The way my bench press keeps going up, I’ll be taking him out in no time. And, hey, you guys are a mighty balanced backup. Rafaella runs him through the middle, John and Amy blast him at both ends, and Emily blows away the ashes!”
“Thanks, Jas. I’m just glad I get to be on your team,” replied John. “Oh, and that was sarcasm, by the way.” And then they were in the arcade on the LANs, playing Tokyo Super Squad. They almost missed the movie so that Jason could get a second level-up for Tetsuronin, which seemed a bit gratuitous for the world’s toughest superhero to John, but that didn’t mean that he didn’t want to see it. Fortunately, Jason was pretty good, and they got to see both. The other kids had apparently seen X-Men: First Class a few times already, but it was new to John, and he really wanted to see the story of how Magneto went from a hero to a villain; even if he already knew all about it from the comics.
“Why can’t there be a movie about Joseph, instead of Magneto?” he was asking two hours later over burgers and fries at McDonalds.
“Because Joseph was lame?” Jason answered.
Rafaella asked, “Who is Joseph?”
Jason answered, “Originally, he was supposed to be Magneto with amnesia. Then he turned out to be Magneto’s clone. He was a member of the X-Men, until the real Magneto killed him.”
“The clones always die,” Amy said.
“You make that sound like a bad thing.” John said.
“Clones are people, too. What if you’re a clone, John?”
Which was what was going through John’s head, too. He managed to forget about it back at the arcade, where they got focussed on the games until  Jamie vanished into the arcade owner’s office. And then, just like that, Jason and Amy were leading them down another stairwell to the lower level. “Won’t she notice that we’re gone?” John asked.
“Nah,” Amy said. “Doctor Stonechild’s training games run for hours. And, anyway, she knows where we are.”
“And the point of running away, then?” Rafaella asked.
Jason hopped over the tape marking off an empty storefront, walked across some heavy-looking lumber lying on the floor, and then crouched down behind it, lifted it with one hand, and began pulling out skateboards. “The D. L. Jamie knows nothing, sees nothing.”
Amy said, “Mr. Piccolo says that the best kind of sanction is a deniable sanction. May got us two practice boards for you guys. So we wouldn’t use hers, I guess. You guys ever boarded?”
“I have no idea,” John said. “I can fly, though.”
Rafaella, without a word, took one of the boards, mounted it, and did a 180 into the middle of the mall before grinding to a stop. “Just like riding an air shark.”
“Really?” Jason asked.
“Except for being completely different. It’s not that hard, though.”
“That’s what May says,” Amy answered. “It’s B.S. when she says it, and it’s B.S. when you say it, samurai girl.”
And it turns out that it was. John practiced for a full hour, by which time he was getting the hang of it. It was also cool that his flying powers kicked in the first few times he fell, leaving him hanging in mid-air. After that, he was out of juice, and his hands ended up scuffed. You had to wonder. Mrs. Wong was a smart woman. How did she miss things like that? It ought to have been a pretty good clue that her kids were all breaking the “no skateboard” rule.
On the bright side, the exercise helped him sleep that night.
Sundays were apparently easy days at the Yurt. Mrs. Wong went to the Buddhist church in the morning, but no-one else made a move to go, and John wasn’t inclined to volunteer. May worked a half-shift, again leaving the house before anyone else was up. Breakfast was cold cereal and toast, but also chai, again, this time a salty kind that went well with Corn Pops and orange juice. After that, the kids hung out playing Call of Duty until suddenly Mrs. Wong was back, and it was lunch time, with hot scones (another old Wong family recipe, which didn’t seem very Chinese to John), and barbecued pork with vegetables and pickles and cheeses so stinky that they gave John déjà vu.  And then May and Emily and Jamie came trooping in, and there were all kinds of things to be done of the sort of things that girls apparently had to do before a party, and Amy had to go. John and Jason hung out for a while in the rec room, but apparently it was wrong to be having fun when everyone else was doing Completely Serious Things, because they were soon rounded up and put to doing garden work under Mr. Wong’s supervision. Which wasn’t so bad, because they got to play with power tools and even make a run to the hardware store.  
Finally, it was 6 and time to clean up for the party. As it got closer, it seemed like less fun. For one thing, there was a dress code that left Jason and John struggling with neckties until Mr. Wong came and rescued them. And then they had to stand around waiting, slowly strangling, for the girls to be ready, listening as the girls stomped and ran around upstairs and giggled, with Mrs. Wong barking ever more desperate-sounding orders. An hour after he’d gone into the shower, the girls came down the stairs. May came first, followed by Jamie and Emily, and John was amazed at how much pointless work had been put into improving the look of these beautiful girls. Rafaella came next,  dressed basically like Jason and John, except in a black shirt with a string tie instead of white. She also carried a new, very long, solid looking umbrella, gripped in the middle like the sword scabbard it so obviously was.
It was strange to see on Rafaella, but John had to concede the point. Shirt and pants were ever so much more practical than the dresses the girls were wearing, and even the choking neck tie was more comfortable and practical than those shoes looked. Jamie had made an endless fuss over “matching” her gun bag to her dress, as though matching this flower pattern to the other one was something that you could think about like math. It had all been maddening that afternoon. Especially so when May and Amy showed off their dresses to Jason and, telling them that Mr. Wong had bought them, to even things out for bribing the boys to dance on Friday night. What was the point of taking a bribe when everyone else got the same, eventually. And it was so silly. He thought.
And then, with her Mom hovering behind her, Amy came down the stairs. Mr. Wong had said something nice about each of the girls as they came down. But this time, John was listening. And looking, and looking. It was true, simple truth. Because, Amy, John realised, was prettier than her sister. Prettier than anyone. And he looked. Amy caught his eye third step from the bottom, held it for just a second, then bit her lip and ducked her head.
Was someone nudging him? Mr. Wong had put his elbow into his side, and it was as though he’d knocked words free of John’s middle. “You look nice, Amy,” he said; and, inside, felt like an idiot, as though no words that he had could do.
Now Amy wasn’t just ducking. She was blushing, and saying nothing. Then it was John’s turn to blush. It was just a compliment! Well, if she was so uncomfortable in her dress, maybe she shouldn’t wear it. The older girls were already headed out into the garden, and John hastened after them, then followed Jason and Mr. Wong into the carport. Behind him, the girls started giggling. Even Amy. They were laughing at him. John hurled himself into the back of the Mazda, taking the left hand seat, as it had less room behind the gigantic Mr. Wong. Jason took the middle, and Amy the right. He sat in the back this time, beside Jason, who teased his sister about her dress and wrestled with her all the way up to the big street beside the mall, where they turned onto a road that wound up into the hills, and as Amy and Jason sparred, John wondered why he felt the way that he felt.
Jason whispered, “Want to hold a package for me?”
John whispered back. “Why?”
“Mom’s not dumb. She’s going to search us before she lets us out of the car.”
“Shouldn’t you have thought about that?”
“Amy was going to blow off the movie and stash them. But the Fenris thing kind of blew it for us.”
“Stone was watching us. Kind of the point of the lecture. He’s square, not dumb.”
Won’t your Mom search me, too?”
“Probably. We’ll just have to hope she’s distracted.”
The road levelled out and narrowed as it passed between high hedges and walls. Mr. Wong pulled into a gateway, and Mrs. Wong turned around in her seat. “No-one’s getting out of the car until.,” As she spoke, Mr. Wong pulled to a halt and lowered his window, and a man in an honest-to-God chauffeur’s uniform leaned just a little bit into the window, holding an i-Pad in front of him. Mrs. Wong stopped in mid-sentence.
“May I see your invitations, sir?” The attendant asked. Mr. Wong tapped the tablet with his phone.
“Ah. The Furious Fist and party. Please just go right in. The valet will be out in a moment to park your vehicle. If you’ll just go up the path to my left..”
“Thank you, we know the way from here.”
“Very good, sir.” Frankly, John thought that the chauffeur guy was trying a bit too hard, but he had to admit that it was impressive.
“A moment, please. We’ve brought a host gift.” Mrs. Wong was rustling around in the console.
“Thank you, Ma’am. I have special instructions for your envelope.” The attendant must have seen something in Mrs. Wong’s eyes, because he barely finished the last word.
Her voice was suddenly hard, too. “You were specifically told to expect me to give you a red envelope?” Yet as she continued speaking, her voice turned even warmer and more friendly than usual, and John wondered for a second if the anger he first heard had ever even been there.
The attendant smiled, clearly relieved that he had avoided a confrontation. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Very good. We actually brought something a little more sentimental than that. Oh, and a bottle of wine. I think Todd will find that it fills a gap in his collection. Okay, kids, I... Hmm. I think I’m having a seniors moment. Does anyone know what I was just saying talking about?”
May answered. “No, Mom.” And then they were out of the vehicle and standing on a wide stone-paved landing below a wide, two tier staircase. Focussing very carefully, John saw that Amy was now wearing a camo backpack. Whatever Jason was carrying, was small enough to fit into his pockets. Still, John had no doubt that Mrs. Wong would have found both the invisible backpack and whatever Jason was carrying. He thought about Amy’s comment about the best sanction being a deniable sanction.
At the top of the stair, they were greeted by an older, fatter man, his hair strangely yellow under the garden lamps, wearing the first tuxedo that John could remember ever seeing in real life. Not that he could remember anything, so that didn’t prove very much.
Mr. Wong shook the man’s hand, carefully standing back so as not to loom over him. “Todd, thank you for the invitation. We always enjoy your Labour Day parties so much. And valet parking, this time! It must be so expensive to obtain such discreet service.”
So that was why the attendant had greeted Mr. Wong by his old codename, John thought. This was some kind of ultra-high security to-do. But Todd just replied, with a note of confusion in his voice, “Oh, no. I just hired a party planner, is all. They had very good rates, and McNeely Industries has had a very good year. We really should fight more wars with aliens, if you ask me. Blow up a few Gadroon, make some money for the shareholders?”
“I do hope that I don’t meet the young gentleman at the gate in another context, then. That would be the point of having a secret identity in the first place.”
-It’s a trap, he’s trying to expose you! Blame someone! It’s not my fault. Janet suggested the party planners, and that awful Gagliano across the street asked if you were getting valet parking. So, actually, it was their idea! Stupid failureWong! No-one cares about your secret identity. Oh? They care about his a lot more than they do yours! You’re the failure! Shut up! I’m important. Look at the way everyone comes to my party! Because you’re rich. People see right through you. They do not! Watch, I’ll have this faker Chinaman’s new guest eating out of my hands in five minutes!- At first, John thought Mr. McNeely was shouting his crazy argument with himself aloud, but no-one else even reacted. Except, he noticed now (because his attention had never been that far away from her) that Amy shivered. She looked back at him, turned, and grabbed his sleeve, drawing him slightly to her.
Just being that close to her left John feeling a little strange, and he had no idea what he’d be feeling if he couldn’t hear Mr. McNeely shouting in his head. Strange enough to reach out and touch Amy’s forehead. It was such a bizarre thing to do, but she didn’t pull away. And through the contact, he heard her voice in his head.
-Think about Pokemon.
-Pokemon? He managed to ask the same way.
-You’d rather babble on about your most shameful secrets, like Mr. McNeely?
John thought about that for a second, and then tried to organise the strongest team he could without legendaries or trades.
-Megablast? Figured as much. I’m sorry I didn’t do this earlier, but you’re going to need shields if you’re not going to end up kicking Mr. McNeely in the nuts in the next five minutes. Here’s how to set them up.
And just like that, John had telepathic shields.  They didn’t entirely mute Mr. McNeely’s crazy, ranting voice, but they made it bearable.
“Ah, and these are your new billet students.” Mr. McNeely was standing in front of John and Rafaella, but even through his shields, John could tell that he wasn’t interested in Rafaella. Something about a levee or a berm? Telepathy was so much more confusing than speech, with its weird images and associations.
“Rafaella,” May called from the edge of the concrete, from where some earlier arrivals were gathered around picnic tables, “This is Rebecca, I bet you two have a lot in common.” Mr. McNeely barely bothered to nod in dismissal as Rafaella left, his mind showing only relief.
“I gather that you’re quite the mysterious item, John. But I wouldn’t call you a “miss” at all!” He laughed at his own joke, presumably to let John know that it was supposed to be funny. John laughed politely, but it didn’t help. “Here. Let me take you over to the refreshments, John Guests first. There might be land mines! I threw a lot of money at this party. Ever heard the reason a Scotsman doesn’t wear gloves when he smokes? He hates the smell of burning leather!” Mr. McNeely went on for hours, it seemed, but in reality only long enough for them both to be served at the punch table.
Finally he turned serious, even intimate. “Tell me about how you ended up with the Wongs, John.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Well, it wasn’t my call. I leave that sort of thing to Guzman and the Mechanic.” Mr. McNeely said dismissively. “But, still, they’re a rather louche couple, you must admit.”
John had no idea what “louche” meant, but guessed that it wasn’t a compliment. He held silent, afraid to contradict his host, or be understood to be agreeing with him. Bizarrely, McNeely took no notice, and continued. “She was a supervillain, you know. And he joined the Legion organisation as domestic help! Why, if it hadn’t been for my father doing him a favour after the headquarters siege of ’68, he’d be waiting a table in Chinatown today!”
John had by now figured a tiny fraction of this out just from common knowledge. “Your father was the Hobgoblin, wasn’t he?” The Philadelphia-era hero had been one of the inspirations for the Batman of the comics, and a founder of the Legion. Apparently“stately Wayne mansion” was one of the things that the comics writers had taken from life.
Mr. McNeely pulled himself up. “Criminals are an ignorant, fearful lot. They dream of being the terrors of the night, but scatter like frightened children before a real Hobgoblin!”
Would the Hobgoblin really have put someone on the Legion who didn’t belong?” John asked.
“Wong had it easy. The villains of the late 60s were almost as pathetic as the ones on TV. Anyone could have defeated the siege with a little warning. It was the Puffin, for Heaven’s Sake. That’s why I let him take care of it.”
“But you fought crime side by side, didn’t you?”
“Actually, I retired about then. The hours didn’t agree with me, and someone had to take the business in hand, what with my father out fighting crime with men half his age. And it’s not just Mrs. Wong. He practically adopted The Flame’s grandchildren when his daughter ran off with that VIPER associate. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I’m sure that you’ve noticed that two of them are here tonight.”
“Jamie and Emily have been very nice to me ever since I arrived.”
“Oh, they’re nubile young things, I’ll grant you.” Mr. McNeely’s voice lowered into a conspiratorial tone, as though he were talking about dating them. And maybe he was. It was more than a little creepy.
“That’s not what I meant, sir, I...” And then, out of nowhere, Tara McNeely appeared at his side. “Uncle! So good to see you! We’ve hardly talked since we got back from Texas!”
“Ah, Tara. I was just saying to young John, here...” Mr. McNeely said, very unsubtly turning his shoulder towards Tara so that he could continue talking at John.
“There was another load of our furniture delivered this afternoon. Do you know what has become of it?”
“Those packing crates from Florida? I had the men unload them in the back parking lot.”
“I know, Uncle. Tony saw them. If they’re not going to go into our suite today, perhaps they should be under a tarp? The forecast is for rain tomorrow.”
“They’ll be fine in the packing crates.”
“Could you, perhaps, humour us? We put a lot of care and effort into those pieces. They’re replicas of actual Martian furnishings, you know.”
Mr. McNeely sounded more than a little angry, now. “You know, it really is inappropriate for you to be shipping the relics of lost civilisations around the country. I can call my friend Cory, down at NASA, if  you’d like to get this all settled right now.”
Replicas, Uncle. Replicas based on the archaeological work Tony and I did on Mars. Work that we weren’t even trained to do. NASA couldn’t even bring us back to replace us with real archaeologists, never mind haul back physical remains. Why, if Bravo and the Justice Squadron hadn’t happened by, your grandnephew would be the first person born on Mars in two billion years.”
Mr. McNeely relented. “I think that some of the men are still here. Why don’t we go down and see to moving the crates inside?”
No-one said he couldn’t, so John tagged along. He had seen as much of the stuff that NASA scientists had found on Mars as the next person, but actual replicas of Martian furniture was something else. Unfortunately, the packing crates just looked like packing crates, and before he could make his escape, Mr. McNeely had fixed his attention on him again, leading him around the side of the house. “One of the nice things about being the chairman of a major defence contractor is that I’ve met so many important people. Like the Director of Human Resources at NASA. Why, I had a talk with Cory when Tony and Tara joined the astronaut corps. I like to think that I had something to do with their selection for the Mars Mission.”
“It must be awfully time consuming, though.”
“Oh, no. The family agreed to hire an outside CEO after Father died in 1975. I’m afraid that I really don’t have a head for the technical stuff that Dad did. I think of myself as more of a James Bond type, like my grandfather.”
“Your grandfather was a spy?” John couldn’t help being impressed.
“Oh, yes. He was one of Sperry Gyroscopes’ representatives in London. He was aboard Iron Duke at Jutland, you know. Saw all of the Royal Navy’s latest technology and brought some of the best of it home. It was the start of McNeely Industries.” As he said this, he led John to the base of a spiral, metal ladder set in a concrete base. At the top of the ladder was a viewing platform with a flag pole. It wasn’t exactly a panorama, but downtown Philadelphia made an impressive wall of light to the east. And that wasn’t all. There were etchings on the floor of the platform –the pumpkin head symbol of the Hobgoblin. Was this the actual Hobgoblin Lamp?
“Jellicoe should have lost, you know.”
Now John was completely lost. “I’m sorry, sir?”
“The British commander at Jutland. He was a coward. The British should have lost.”
“Lost World War II? To Hitler?”
“WWI. The schools really don’t teach you much, do they, young man?”
About which naval battle happened in WWI and which in WWII, no, John wanted to answer. They’re too busy with, like, who won the Civil War and stuff. But he really wasn’t comfortable arguing with adults about something they clearly knew so much about, so he sat still for a lecture involving dreadnoughts going this way and battlecruisers going that way and the British “losing the Nelson touch.” Below him was a wide garden sweeping across the sloping lawn, with small, oblong beds picked out in it in a complicated pattern. A puff of smoke swept over the grass as John watched. Mr. McNeely didn’t seem to  notice.
“Really, it was the best thing that could have happened to the Germans, though. America was building the most powerful dreadnought fleet in the world in 1918. If only Admiral Sims had had a chance to lead it against the Germans, the world would have accepted American leadership a full generation earlier than it did, and Roosevelt would be a forgotten man today.”
John had no idea what that meant, but he did know that Mr. McNeely was getting far too excited. “That’s what all my teachers say.”
Unbelievably, Mr. McNeely took that at face value. “Later tonight, I will show you exactly what Admiral Sims would have seen that day. Now run along, John. I’ve bored you long enough.”
Mr. McNeely climbed back down the ladder and went into the house, but John didn’t. There was an arch cut in the hedge just below and to the left of the platform. He went and waited there, and, after a few minutes, opened his arms and swept the empty air.
And, just like that, Amy was in his arms. Which she didn’t seem to mind at all. At one level, John was frightened. What was he going to do now? At another, he wasn’t. He knew exactly what he was going to do. It was crazy, but he was tired of not being crazy. He pulled her in, staring into her eyes. Would she say anything? ...And, behind him, he heard a woman cough.
“Practicing something, young man?” He turned in shock. Apparently, this person couldn’t see Amy. He wondered for a moment how that worked. It was obviously an attention thing. Which was weird. It was invisibility, but mental invisibility. You could take Amy’s photograph, and yet not see her in a videocamera. And it was probably selective. He could see Amy with no effort at all, when Amy wanted him to see her; but she was still invisible to this person. And what the heck did she think that he was doing?  
The woman was a middle-sized woman of about 25, with a nice face, but yellowing teeth, with stringy blond hair running around, rather than over, her prominent ears. Despite the autumn heat, she was wearing an open overcoat, and a necklace of silvery bangles over breasts that were even bigger than May’s or Jamie’s. She stuck her hand out. “We haven’t been introduced. I’m Sarah Benton. Probably better known as Kobold IV’s daughter.”
“The Hobgoblin’s last sidekick? The one that went on to become the Ghost Hunter?”
“That would be my Dad.”
“People are awfully casual about secret identities around here.”
“My parents died in a car accident in 2004. I’m just a physics postdoc who happens to have ex-superheroes for extended family. Believe me, the way they treat postdocs these days, I’m glad to be able to pull whatever strings I can. As long as it’s not those Trismegistrus Council nuts my parents worked for.”
John filed that away. The Council was supposed to be in charge of organising white magicians, but he had some vague notion that it wasn’t supposed to be very competent.
“In fact, I have your hostess to thank for getting me my current job.”
“I thought you were a researcher of some kind, ma’am?”
“Call me Sarah. And I’m afraid that I’m having rather a dispute with my department about publishing. I’ll publish when I’m good and ready, and, for some reason, they’re taking the same position with my grant. Well, I worked as a cashier as an undergraduate, and now I can work as a cashier as a postdoc, thanks to Mrs. Wong.”
“Mrs. Wong got you a cashier’s job at Shop Rite?” Now that he knew that Mrs. Wong had pull at Shop Rite, John understood a little better how May got hired.
“Better: they hired me as a Junior Retail Leader to replace one that quit two weeks ago.”
“How is that better?”
“The pay, mostly. You haven’t seen Mrs. Wong recently, have you?”
No, Ma’am. I mean, Sarah.”
“Well, what good are you, then?” She said it with a smile and humour in her voice, but John had no trouble seeing an edge of seriousness in it, and made himself scarce. Unfortunately, Amy had disappeared, both to his eyes and to his mental senses, and John made his way round to the front of the house, following the faint sound of pounding dance music, looking for an age appropriate party, which he finally found in a garden on the other side of the house –about 30 kids between 13 and 18, along with the food that he had been smelling through his whole ordeal. The food was pretty conventional, burgers and dogs and salad, just like Friday night, but somehow not quite as good as then, but still good. And the corn on the cob was perfect, and the ice-cream, served with some kind of crunchy, caramelised cake with fresh peaches baked into it, was even better.
Of his new mates, it seemed like a good half were either members of the McNeely family or grandchildren of the first Kobold, a Mr. Cox. (Apparently the second Kobold was Tony’s father, and there was quite the family feud between the children of Kobold II and Mr. McNeely, who had been Kobold III.) The rest were even more confusing. John made a special effort to learn what he could about the active patrols.
Jameel and Don were a study in contrasts. Jameel Mustafa was Black, almost as dark as Mr. Stone. And he was cool and sophisticated, in spite of being an “organic robot” from the future. A few minutes around him, and John was catching himself imitating his style. Don Edwards, on the other hand, was just about the opposite of cool, a weird, tensed up mix of nerd and prep. He came out of his shell a little when Jamie wasn’t around. John wasn’t used to reading older teens so easily, but he almost felt sorry for Don, who was so obviously stuck on Jamie, and equally obviously had no chance. Rebecca Hirsch, it turned out, did have something in common with Rafaella. She was dressed in a shirt, slacks, and tie, too; and also a jacket so perfectly cut and made that even John noticed. Like Rafaella, she had a straight, angular face. Or was that because she wasn’t wearing makeup? She was also funny and relaxed, almost like a guy.
The Senior Patrol consisted of Cassie Cox, Graydon McNeely (one of Mr. McNeely’s grandchildren), Mannie Guzman, Anne Fay, and a kid that had been held back the previous year, Billy Tatum. It turned out that the rule was that patrols were based at the Wongs or the McNeely mansion in alternating years, so Billy knew May and Jamie pretty well, and was apparently a lot happier around them than the McNeelys. He also knew the Rugrats’ reputation. “So, what’s going down tonight?” He whispered to John when they were introduced.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” John answered. After 11, they cleared the middle of the lawn and the older kids pulled out the boom box. Cassie and Graydon started dancing, or, actually, showing off. John watched Don ask Jamie, and get turned down. May and Jameel went out, and matched Cassie and Graydon move for move. Meanwhile, John was getting more and more uncomfortable. He knew that he was a useless dancer. He knew that he’d just make a fool of himself if he went out into the middle of the lawn and tried. But Amy was swaying to the music, and, suddenly, the idea of dancing with her seemed almost as much fun as the idea of making an idiot of himself made him cringe. He was left wrestling with himself, and he honestly didn’t know how it would have turned out if the adults hadn’t come round at midnight to interrupt. Mr. McNeely was putting on a demonstration.
All the hundred or so party guests rushed over to the side of the house. There wasn’t room for anything like all of them on the viewing pattern, but there was also a good view of whatever was about to happen from the roof of the East Wing of the McNeely mansion, and even some trees to climb. John followed the twins, and soon all the Rugrats were up one of the big trees, with a clear view from the truly gigantic bole of a tree that he was half sure hadn’t evolved on Earth. A public address speaker came on, and Mr. McNeely came on, talking about some kind of arms conference in Washington and Presidents Hardy and Wilson, and dreadnoughts and superdreadnoughts. It was rather a lot of detail to get straight, and while John followed what Mr. McNeely was saying, he didn’t actually give that clear a picture of things. It was all warmup (actually cool down) for the main event, though, and, finally, Mr. McNeely seemed to acknowledge that as he began to speak with much more warmth and enthusiasm. “The day is 20 September, 1919, in a history that could have, should have been. Admiral Sims, on the flag deck of his mighty flagship, the South Dakota, has raised the famous signal.” A searchlight picked out the flag pole on the viewing platform. There were a bunch of flags on a string. The signal, John supposed.
“Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” Mr. McNeely recited, being as dramatic as he could. Smoke began to spurt up from the flower beds. “The battle is joined!”  Flash bulbs went off. “First blood for the kaiserliche Reichsmarine!” To emphasise that these were foreign words, Mr. McNeely pronounced them with special care, although it was hard to tell whether he was attempting a German accent or an English. “But Pittsburgh steel is tough! The battleships of the Republic shrug off the best that Krupp shells can do!” “Glory, Hallelujah” began playing. Or was it the “Battle Hymn of the Republic?”
A particularly bright flash bulb went off. “Now, America scores, and Hipper orders the Gefechtskehrtwendung. But Sims is ready. From the flank steam the mighty battlecruisers, led by Lexington and Saratoga. The end is nigh for the pride of old Europe!” Mr. McNeely gestured dramatically at the back of the garden, as something loomed out of artificial fog coming out of dry ice machines.
And loomed. And loomed. Until it was obviously not a WWI battlecruiser, but instead a giant, inflated puffin looming over the battle. The music on the speakers cut off, and was replaced by a bird-like, screeching laugh as the Puffin put its wings over its head and danced a jig before exploding into flames.
“Well, that’s it. Grounded ‘till Thanksgiving, and worth every second,” Amy said.
“There’s no evidence it was us, at least if the thermite burns down all the way.” Jason sounded a little uncertain.
“She doesn’t need evidence,” Emily said. “Good thing my Dad hates McNeely, or I’d be in as much trouble as you guys.”
“Mom hates McNeely. Everyone hates McNeely. That’s not going to change the fact that we’re for it,” Amy said. “John, Rafaella, why don’t you go fly low where you won’t catch the flak?”   

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