Thursday, July 21, 2011

Chapter 5: Meet the Faculty

Below the fold. Edit: now Mr. Wong's car doesn't change makes. Hmm. Transformer car? Nah.
Chapter 5: Meet the Faculty

Down by the cars seemed like a good place to hang out. The valets had parked them along a one-way side street below the McNeely mansion, strangely narrow between wide shoulders with only one sidewalk, on the far side of the street.
Some people were already leaving, and a taxi cruised by, pulling out all the way into the far lane as it passed a couple folding themselves and two kids into a Smart car. Behind them, a shorter, powerfully built man was loading an Outback. John had been waiting here by the Mazda for five minutes now, and, desperately bored, was trying to figure out just what it was, when the man stopped and answered his phone.
John slumped back against the Mazda to eavesdrop, while the Smart car pulled out into the street and, after a weird little “S” shaped dipsy-doodle, turned left into the intersection at the bottom of the hill.
“El Professore.”
“No word that I’ve heard. But you should talk to the Mechanic.”
“He’s not a boy. He’s a professional, and of course he’s heard. No, my daughter told me. The Mechanic has his own sources. No one’s seen a member of the Devil’s Advocates around Philadelphia. We’ll let you know if that changes.”
“Oh, I agree. A private duel? It’s completely out of character. Obviously a diversion. Too obviously.”
“Exactly. Feint within a feint.”
“You’re a smart man. So is the Demonologist. Reminds me of  the Archimago. The only way that you could tell that you were in the middle of one of his schemes was that you were doing exactly what you wanted to do.”
“No, he’s dead. It’s just that being dead might be part of his plans. That man, even his mistakes were on purpose. Same as the Demonologist.”
The taxi came back around and stopped just ahead of the Subaru. Someone John didn’t recognise emerged from the narrow stairway down from the McNeely’s, walked out into the street, and then stopped directly ahead of the taxi.
“Again, I agree. The youngsters encountered the Basilisk Orb. It’s hard to believe that he doesn’t have feelers out in Phillie.”
“Well, Kwan knows all about it.”
“Takofanes? Not the Demonologist? Bloody Hell. That’s all we need.”
“Yes, I’ll let you know the moment the Devil’s Advocates show up in Philadelphia. You take care of my daughter and her friends. Well, maybe except for Henry.”
“Hmm? No. Just trying out the whole ‘overprotective father’ schtick. I need the practice. ‘Nita didn’t date in high school. Dora’ll be different.”
“Well, thanks for the suggestion, but I don’t think that we’ll be doing a Tantric retreat.”
The person in front of the taxi walked around to the street-side passenger’s seat and got in. The taxi started down the street, braked just before the intersection, but then went straight instead of taking the turn.
 “Of course I’m The Man. I’m  a high school principal! You don’t get much more ‘The Man’ then that!”
“Sorry, old friend. It was you that pulled the strings to get the kids into Berkeley, full ride. Now you’re responsible for them. If that puts a crimp on the hippy-dippy, this public servant with three kids, a station wagon, and a mortgage cries tears of blood for you.”
“No, seriously. I feel for you. I remember what you’re losing. My swinging days weren’t so long ago. Oh, wait. They were. And I hung out with you then.”
“I can’t tell you how grateful I am. I’m forever in your debt. As opposed to the Department of Education. That doesn’t prevent me from wishing the best for you.”
“Yeah, marry you up, get you a 401(k) and two-and-a-half kids. I wouldn’t go that far. Peace out.” Principal El Professore put his phone back into his pocket and went back to loading his car. It was like John was invisible. Like Amy.
Seriously, how did that work? It was a psionic thing, more like magic than some kind of mad science light bending. She had to sense people that were aware of her, and act on them. So he could see her, but only if he actively raised mental defences. Could she do it to someone monitoring her on  a video camera? Presumably, as long as he wasn’t too far away. The key was, you were invisible to the people you needed not to see you.
A Bentley came down the street from up ahead. Midway along, it switched  lanes, passing so close to the Mazda that John could hear the echo of its passage against the Mazda’s side.
And if you didn’t want to get run over, you could choose not to be invisible to drivers. John brought up his defences and looked into the street with rising excitement.
But it wasn’t Amy. It was a hybrid scooter, ridden by a slight young man, hunched over as though he were embarrassed, and dressed in a long overcoat. The young man drove down the street almost as far as the L” intersection where the Smart car had turned, before circling round in the street and coming back towards the Mazda. It was so bizarre that he couldn’t take his eyes away, and his gaze met the young man’s.
The young man vaulted right off his scooter, and, by the time that he had hit the ground, was a wolf-thing. Then he was running straight towards John, launching himself into the air.
John tried desperately to lift into the air shifting his shielding from brain to body. Or maybe it didn’t work like on Star Trek. Although, that being said, he did feel some kind of shield pop up to meet the werewolf’s fangs moments later, although it shredded like a soap bubble. Then he felt savage pain. Fortunately he’d lifted far enough that the fangs skittered across his chest instead of tearing his throat out, but the impact threw John against the car behind the Mazda. Winded, John gasped. It didn’t make him feel any better that his shield was now feeding him a trickle of energy, a neat trick that was not going to save him as the werewolf bore down again.
Then, behind the werewolf, a bare-chested man in a luchadore mask loomed, grabbing the creature by the shoulder and throat before throwing himself backwards and down. The werewolf cartwheeled almost as far as its dropped scooter, while the luchadore sprang back up, turning to face the monster. John got up, touching his chest. He was bleeding. He’d have to do something about that later, he thought, as he fed the kinetic energy that he’d robbed from his two collisions into his strongest mental blast yet.
Okay, it was only his second, and it didn’t stop the werewolf or anything, but the monster did seem to hesitate for a second, long enough for the luchadore to bowl into him and send him flying again. The werewolf barely even stood up before another assailant, a big man with a bandanna tied over his face, took him with a roundhouse kick from the side. The werewolf assumed a karate stance.
Since when did werewolves know karate? The bandanned man countered with the Eight Spirit Dragon Second Position, giving the werewolf a chance to make a move, but time was not on its side. More people were rushing down the stairs and into the street. The werewolf whirled and took off down the street. The luchadore and the Asian man ran after it, nowhere near fast enough. The night lit up abruptly, as a flaming man flew overhead, a fiery tack pointing back towards the McNeery mansion, and firebolts scoring the pavement near the werewolf, which dodged desperately into the trees shadowing the gate of a mansion two blocks down.  John was still trying to gather the energy to fly after the flaming man when the luchadore and Asian man came limping back down the street.
The luchadore had a phone in his hands. “Todd? Werewolves that know karate? Anything in the databases?”
“Unh-hunh.” El Professore spoke loudly now, throwing out his reactions to a growing audience. “Black Fang. Detroit, usually. What’s he doing in Philly? Does jobs for... the Devil’s Advocates? Thanks, Todd. Yeah, top priority. Eldritch just called about exactly this. I can get back to him if you’d rather.”
“Are you okay, John?” The Asian man said, out of breath. He pulled down his bandanna. It was Mr. Wong.
“No big deal, sir.”
“You’re bleeding, son.”
“It’ll stop, soon.”
“I don’t think so.” Mr. Wong reached out and put his hands on John’s chest. He could feel callouses where they touched bare skin, but Mr. Wong was gentle, his touch oddly warm. The pain of the scratches was gone in moments.
“Um, am I going to be a werewolf, now?”
“There’s no taint. Looks like you were lucky. Lycanthropy treatments are worse than for rabies.”
“That’s good. So not into shedding and squeaky toys.”
“John, about tonight.”
John had been dreading this.
“You’re a telepath. You know what’s going on in Todd McNeely’s head, and you should understand that you don’t put a bucket in front of a blind man.”
Then, Thank God, an interrupting, gravelly voice came from behind.
“Sitrep?” John turned. The speaker was yet another big man, dressed in a long, flowing, dark green cloak with a high collar, those old leather pants that puff up down to the knee and then go tight, a dark tunic, and an old-fashioned, brimmed hat pulled low over a silver face mask in a familiar, Jack-o’-Lantern shape, behind which it seemed that the speaker’s head was a ball of flames.
Instinctively, John looked up, and there it was, floating over the city, a blazing Jack o’Lantern on a disc that looked like a second moon.
“Werewolf. ‘Black Fang,’ known Devil’s Advocates associate. Surveillance mission. Fast, has some kind of invisibility device, versus mental defences. Very aggressive. Broke contact towards the ravine,” Mr. rattled out. I guess that’s how you do it, John thought.
“It’s been a long time since the Hunter’s Moon shone over Philadelphia,” El Professore said.
“We missed it.” Said Mr. Wong.
 “The Wild Hunt is needed tonight.” The Hobgolin sounded a little less sure of himself as he said that, but recovered quickly. “Hecate runs the pursuit on the ground, with Wolverine Boy on foot, and Living Weapon and High Tension in the Coach to deny the road grid. Orc 1 is aloft now with Vesper and Nightfay for fire support. I will take Orc 2 with the Geek when it warms up. Young Flame is fast response air support. Tridel, Gun Girl, and Avenging Daughter are teleport reserve.”
 “I don’t think that May is ready to fight a werewolf again,” said Mr. Wong.
“I sympathise, Henry, but this is a werewolf. Its bloodlust will drive it onto any civilians it runs into, and I’m not hanging any of my team if it doubles back on us.”
“Hound it. The only way to save lives is to keep it off balance until it changes back.” Mr. Wong spoke firmly now.
El Professore interrupted, “Henry, Tony knows what he’s doing. And I’m sure that he will spare your daughter if he can.”
“Thank you, Martin. We have enough overkill here that I’m mainly worried about what happens if Black Fang changes, and then changes back.”
El Professore replied, “That seems unlikely. It was here on a surveillance op, not for wet work.”
“Guys?” Sarah Benton walked up. “Have you considered that it was probably a handler, not a shadow?”
“Yes,” said the Hobgoblin. “I had considered that we had a spy at the party tonight. Besides the usual lot of juvenile pranksters.”
Mr. Wong put his hand to his forehead as though he were holding a headache in.
“Oh.” Sarah was silent for a moment. “Anyway, I thought that I’d offer my help. I think that I can detect Black Fangs’ changes. At least, according to Uncle Todd’s data.”
“You have a scrying spell that will detect a lycanthrope changing? That’s very impressive.” El Professore sounded sceptical.
“Only in this specific case. We know that the Demonologist cast the original curse, and everyone knows the Demonologist’s signature by now.”
El Professore replied, “So? He masks his casting. Everyone does.”
“Yes, but a lycanthrope’s change isn’t masked. The casting is open to its ruling planet.”
“Which would be very helpful thing to know if I happened to be on the Moon.”
“I don’t need to be on the Moon,” Sarah said. “I can just bounce my Sight off the mirrors the Apollo missions left. I think I can cover Philadelphia Metro.”
The sound of engines came from overhead. John looked up again, and there was a strange flying machine, hanging on two mechanical, beating wings. A ladder dangled from it, and the Hobgoblin leaped to catch it, getting as much air as an NBA pro. The Orc, John guessed, or, Orc II. The Hobgoblin looked down for a second. “Thank you for your advice, gentlemen. Ms. Benton, if you’d be so kind as to cast your scrying, Bubba will set you up with a Wild Hunt comm. feed.”
Another man had materialised from the darkness; middle height, bearded, wearing jeans and an old fashioned jean jacket. “Ma’am. Your headset. John? We haven’t met, but I’m Bubba, and I would appreciate it if you would help me with a composite drawing of anything you remember of our perpetrator before his change.” Bubba’s Pittsburgh accent was so thick it took John a moment to make out what he was saying.
John wasn’t sure how Bubba even knew that he’d seen Black Fang before his change, but he sounded so firmly authoritative that John followed the older man around the back of the west wing of the mansion and down another stair to another small parking area, surrounded by high concrete walls, with the tangy, horsey smell of well-cured manure, into a back door. The smell of sawdust and oil took over as they entered a work room, full of draped machines. Bubba led him through an inside door, and into another room, up a step onto a platform with a carpeted floor on which were tables with work stations under white, fluorescent light, and banks of servers on shelves, blinking to themselves. Bubba gestured to a chair, and John sat down. A cup of something hot materialised at his elbow. “Ovaltine,” Bubba said. “You’re going to have trouble getting to sleep tonight.” The LCDs nearest him showed scenes of Philadelphia from the air and the ground, sometimes with infrared, and other, less familiar versions on inset windows.
“Isn’t this all supposed to be in a cave?” John asked.
“That might not be a good joke to make around Mister McNeely,” Bubba said evenly. “You won’t see a Goblin Deep tonight.” From outside came a sudden, wild patter, as a rain storm broke overhead. It rained for the entire time that Bubba took  to guide John carefully and thoroughly through a computer sketch of Black Fang’s human identity.
 When they were done, he led John back out through the work room. Water was dripping from the ceiling into a pail placed in one corner, pinging as it hid the bare bottom. Outside, the rain had hardly even begun to cut the humid heat of the night, to an inconspicuously brown Ford pickup with a cab on the back. Behind it, Mr. Wong’s Lexus was parked.
“Henry took the rest of the kids home half an hour ago, John. I offered to drive you back when we were done, but he wouldn’t have any of it.” Oh, great, John thought. The lecture.
John went round to the passenger’s side of the Lexus. The front seat swung open. John got in, sat down, and put on his seatbelt. Without a word, Mr. Wong turned the car around in the tight confines of the little parking bay, and drove out through a narrow little lane between towering shoulders covered in looming trees. After a surprisingly long time in which time they passed several turnoffs, they drove out a security gate onto a winding, one-way street that led them, very quickly, to a four-lane street running down out of the hills towards the Yurt. Only once on the main street did Mr. Wong talk.
“Have you thought about what I said to you earlier, John?”
“I don’t understand. Mr. McNeely is a terrible person. You couldn’t imagine the things that he thinks about you. And I wasn’t snooping in his brain, either. He was yelling them out, somehow. I can’t really explain...”
“My son tells me that “mental incontinence” is a common symptom of dopamine or serotonin dysregulation, so you had better get used to it. There are more mood disorder victims out there than there are diabetics. That includes most of the supervillains that you’re going to fight in your career.”
“Racism is a disorder?”
“No. Racism is a tool that people use to lever other people into categories.  It’s a tool that a clever person can use to bully anyone, since we can all be socially isolated somehow, but I’ll leave high school for tomorrow. Tonight we are talking about why a victim of a mis-compensated mood disorder wants to use that tool.”
“Because they’re bullies?”
“Again, no. Mr. McNeely is hurting the world to drive it away, so that he can be alone with his pain.”
“Sir, are you saying that I should feel sorry for Mr. McNeely?”
“Todd chooses to behave the way that he does, John. There’s nothing wrong with trying to push him towards therapy and antidepressants, or avoid him if you don’t feel like that’s your job. That’s not what you kids did tonight. Throwing a banana peel in front of a blind man isn’t much of a prank.”
“And there endeth the lecture, John.” Mr. Wong paused for a second. “So. What do you know about cricket?”
“The All-India Superhero Division School has challenged the special classes at Tatamy High. It looks like some other super schools might be in, too.”
“Is this like superhero quidditch?”
“The Indians thought it’d be fun. Just a bunch of supers running around. Or flying, teleporting, jumping, whatever. No physical contact, bigger field, more players than baseball. I’ll be coaching, since I played a few years in temple school. I think telekinesis might come in handy fielding. Or bowling.” Here. I’ve emailed you a clip of the Indians practicing. Looks like fun.”
John pulled out his new phone, put his headset on, and started the video. It did look like fun. A superstrong kid hit one out of the park, literally, and was still dismissed by a speedster fielder. Another fielder collected a ball with a force field, but the metamorph batsgirl still scored two overs by turning into a cheetah and running the wickets at sixty miles per hour. There was even a telekinetic fielder, although she met her match when a weather controller came up as batsman. He was watching the speedster at bat when they pulled into the Yurt’s garage. He ought to have been a threat for six overs, John thought, but the bowler dismissed him with beautiful, curving throws. He was eager to talk about it with the Wong kids, but everyone had gone to bed by the time he ran into the kitchen.
He dreamed again that night, of walking through a forest at night, with wolves howling at a bright moon. Crows fluttered in the trees above him, and the wolves came out from between the trees and lay down, burying their heads between  their legs and wagging their tails.
Breakfast in the morning was lunch, because that was how long Mrs. Wong waited before she finally got the kids up. May was long gone. Apparently Shop Rite scheduled holidays by “reverse seniority,” and she was working time-and-a half. Amy, Jason, Rafaella, and John ate fluffy bacon-and-greens omelettes served on crunchy hash browns with creamed corn that didn’t taste anything like the stuff from a can, drenched in chilli sauce and plum relish. They washed it down with big mugs of chai and balanced their plates in their laps to eat, sitting on the porch, watching the rain pound the backyard with  little gusts that blew the tire swing under the apple tree back and forth. A Futurama episode was playing on a screen in the corner of the porch, but no-one was watching.
“I know I joked about being grounded ‘till Thanksgiving. I can’t believe that the D.L. would actually do it!” Jason sounded devastated.
“Halloween,” said Amy, who had just got off the phone from sharing the news with Emily.
“Only two months instead of three. At the beginning of High School! People will think that we’re total dweebs!”
“Jase. We will be total dweebs. We’ll be Frosh. Billy Tatum says that they’ll stick our heads in the johns on the first day of classes.”
“Billy is just trying to scare us. He hasn’t even been in Grade 9 since 1983.” Jason didn’t sound entirely convinced.
“Aside from that, how did you enjoy the party?” Rafaella asked.
“It was wonderful,” Amy replied to John’s left. John put his left hand down beside his chair, but some instinct made him look around back into the kitchen. Mrs. Wong was looking up from her new iPad, staring at him. He grabbed his plate with his left hand. Just as well. It was about to spill.
“How did you like it, Rafe?” Amy continued.
“I don’t know,” she answered. “Everyone was looking at me.”
“They were looking at you because you were blue,” Jason said.
“It’s true, I’m blue. I’d like to...” Rafaella sounded happy, even giddy, for the first time since John had known her. “I can’t think of another rhyme. Anyway, if there’s one place in this whole stupid dimension that I can go without this stupid pink makeup, a party for superheroes would be the place. But people were staring at me. Not that talking dinosaur.”
“Who stared at you, Rafe?” Amy asked.
Instead of answering, Rafe turned a colour that only science could describe. Was that the pirate princess blushing, John wondered?
“I mean, there were only two gay girls at the party, and...” Amy’s question trailed off into embarrassed silence.
“There were more than two lesbians at the party, Amy. Don’t worry about it. There’s this, and there’s that.”
Nice song. What does it even mean? John heard Amy in his mind.
I think that it means that Rafaella isn’t ready to talk about it. I think. John answered telepathically.
And that was that. It was the very last day of summer vacation, and you didn’t waste that sitting around watching the rain. And even if it hadn’t been raining, they were all grounded. So they went downstairs to the rec room and played video games instead.
On the last night before school, John dreamed of blue men with swords riding flying sharks, and a city that was about to fall from the sky. It made a change from wolves and crows in the dark, but it was much scarier. He woke up early, again, although this time mostly from the jitters. High school!
Downstairs, Mrs. Wong was already bustling around the kitchen, while Amy cooked at the white stove. “Do you really have to stir this stuff so much, Mom?”
“I don’t know, dear. Jenny says so, but Jenny tries too hard. What time is it in San Francisco, again?”
“Three hours, Mom. It’s 2:30 there. Even Jenny doesn’t get up at 2:30. Oh. Hi, John.”
“Morning, Amy. What are you making?”
“Oatmeal. I miss my sis.”
John ended up stirring while Amy set the table. May and Jason appeared by the time that it was ready, although they preferred breakfast cereal, Vector with plain milk this time. This apparently required sitting through a lecture on the dangers of raw milk from Mrs. Wong, although May interrupted halfway through to explain that “it’s been pasteurised for, like, a hundred years now, Mom.” Apparently, it was a conversation that they’d had before, because Mrs. Wong went on without missing a beat.
And then they were fed and dressed and vehicled, and somehow delivered to Tatamy High on time. It turned out to be an old, stone building with rambling wings, extensively renovated on the inside. No-one tried to flush their heads down the john. In fact, it seemed like no-one noticed them at all in the bustle. May tried to peel off from them at the front door, although they tagged along to collect Emily, who was hovering uncertainly next to Jamie. Rebecca, Jameel, and Don congratulated May on her new outfit, a frilly white blouse with a khaki miniskirt. Amy, who was wearing a horizontal blue and grey-striped blouse over tight, white pants overprinted with black-and-white comics, looked a little put out, and John finally remembered to compliment her. A little too late, he thought, from her reaction. Rebecca, meanwhile, was getting into trouble about fibbing about how much stuff she’d actually bought in Babylon, because her entire outfit was turning heads. Jamie, in particular, seemed almost serious about her ribbing.
Before he could figure that out, John and his fellow Frosh found themselves dismissed. The morning was taken up with orientation, with endless details about schedules and class numbers and lockers and change rooms. He met a fearsome array of teachers, and also the principal, Mr. Guzman, who was also Emily’s uncle. John sat with the rest of the Rugrats at lunch. Apparently, hardly any of their old classmates had transferred over to Tatamy with them, so they had no friends here. It still made for a crowded enough table. Amy found an extra sandwich in her bag, which she shared with Emily, who gratefully ditched her cold Shake-and-Bake chicken leg with buttered bread in favour of barbecued-duck-and-lettuce-with-plum-relish. Just as the lunch bell was sounding, Jamie appeared out of nowhere, wearing a bright yellow shirt and blue shorts that came down to mid thigh. “You kids ready for real school?”
Jamie led them out of a rear entrance onto the back campus, a big parking lot shaded by old trees leading to the athletic fields, and across to an ancient-looking wooden building. They climbed its porch, and went through another door, which opened up onto stairs fronted with a vestibule so small that there was barely room for a paperstand on either side; the one on the left bare, the one on the right with a few old copies of the school newspaper. They went up the stairs, into an area that was too big to be a hallway, too small to be a room, with doorless rooms opening up on either side.
To the immediate right was an office, with several ladies at workstations. Next along was a classroom with a group of kids, mostly dressed like Goths, listening to a teacher that John couldn’t quite see, talking about Ginsburg something or other. To the left was a long room fitted out as a biology lab, filled with students listening to a teacher talking about lab safety rules. But Jamie didn’t lead them into any of those rooms, but instead to an empty closet at the end of the corridor/room. She walked into it without pausing, and opened a door at the back of the closet, and went through.
They followed, and were in another hallway, this time running the width of the building, with windows at either side. To the right, there was a rampway leading down towards the ground. They walked a little ways, then turned left into another room, this one an empty general classroom.
Rafaella asked, “Was that the secret passage?”
Jamie snorted. “No. This building is so screwed up inside that that’s the only way from the front half to the back half unless you go through the classrooms.” She turned to the wall and tapped an ancient poster of Uncle Sam pointing out at them. The wall swung out, revealing a spiral staircase.“This is the secret passage. Complete with obvious symbolism.”
They got off the staircase at the first level down, and walked into another classroom. The September light shone in through muddled, translucent windows. A bare-chested man in a familiar luchador’s mask sat at the desk, with Bubba sitting on the left corner of the desk, and an extremely thin, extremely tall woman standing to the right. The woman was wearing a blouse of an indeterminate green, a grey sash tied around her waist, and brown pants that tapered down her leg to where they met gaters tied over her moccasins, and a gypsy headsash pulled down over her face to make a mask. Her ears were pointed, and she had six very long fingers on each hand. Bubba was wearing bright, new, pressed blue coveralls.
“Thank you, Jamie,” said El Professore. “You had better get back to English class.”
Jamie  nodded and left the room.
“As for the rest of you, welcome to the heart of your studies here at Tatammy High. In this classroom and the workshop and gym below, you will be studying the Esoteric Arts with Telantassar the Grey, to my right; Technical Studies, with Mr. Brown, to my left; and Tactical Training, with myself, El Professore! Which replace Social Studies, Industrial Education, and Phys Ed, respectively, on the schedules you were given this morning.”
“I gather from Mr. Piccolo’s reports that Amy and Emily have excelled and are ready for our training in all respects, and that Jason has scraped through adequately. He says that if you apply yourself, Jason, you ought to do as well as your brothers and sisters. We shall see about that. Rafaella, John, I appreciate that you come to us without Mr. Piccolo’s excellent preparation, but I am sure that we will make that up in no time.”
“As in past years, there will be parental volunteers to help you through various aspects of the difficult and rewarding training that Tatammy High provides to the novice superheroes of the Philadelphia Metro area. You will be glad to know that this includes a classroom volunteer this year, a very late addition who has earned all our gratitude by volunteering his valuable time for tutoring.”
Through a door at the end of the classroom walked Todd McNeely. 

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