Monday, August 29, 2011

Chapter 8: Below The Surface

Below the fold. Note that "the mall" gets a name this chapter, Panther Heights. And West Philadelphia's local malls have been in trouble for a while due to competition from the King of Prussia megamall.
I'm such a clever Austrophile. (Explaining your jokes makes them even funnier!)
Edit: Also, I can't count. (2+3+3)x2=16.

Chapter 8: Below The Surface

The trail down from Monk’s Mountain to Muskrat Lodge was sort of like the one that led up from the Wong’s. That is, it wound down a slope and into a back yard. The difference was that instead of coming down a pasture and across a creek, it led through a high wall, a massive garden, tennis courts, a covered swimming pool and outbuildings to a mansion. David led them onto a massive verandah. As soon as he stepped up on the green deck, John smelled baking. He checked his phone: 4 o’clock. Two hours since lunch at Goblin Deep, and he was hungry as he’d ever been.
Rafaella and Rebecca Hirsch were sitting at a table in the corner of the verandah with teacups in front ofthem and the missing Wong sister, Jenny. “You must be Rafaella,” Nita said. “Nice shirt. I thought Jamie was with you.”
John looked again. Rafaella was wearing a tee that read, “By the Rivers of Babylon, I Went Out and Shopped!”
Rebecca answered. “Nah.  She ditched us as soon as we tracked your werewolves back to the state park where they changed back to people. You know you killed one of them, right?”
Henry looked sick. David, all business, asked, “Have the troopers got an ID?”
“Why, yes, “ Rebecca replied. “We should definitely talk about people who have been turned into werewolves, pulped, set on fire, and partially eaten in front of kids.”
David snorted. “Lovely. So we have no suspects. Even our candidates for Black Fang have alibis. The Demonologist is in Frisco, and someone is tampering with Goblin Deep’s security.”
An older woman in a blue blouse and a jean skirt under an apron came out of the kitchen door carrying an immense platter of cups, cookies and cakes, and set it down on the table. John started for it.
 The woman gave him a sad, kindly look. “Henry Wong. I’ve never known you to be behind hand in a lesson.”
“Yes, Miss Brown,” Henry answered.
“And I’ve seen your father’s healing touch work miracles.”
“Yes, Miss Brown.”
“So I’m sure that you can do the same.”
“Yes, Ma’am.”
“So just how badly did your sister and young John break their arms?”
Nita interrupted forcefully. “He did everything anyone could! What everyone’s forgetting that there’s a pack of werewolves on the flank of Goblin Deep!”
Miss Brown, improbably, smiled.  “No-one is forgetting that. There’s folk enough working on that now. I’m just sad that we’ve somehow ended up asking these poor children to be part of it. The world is giving them so little time just to be children.”
Jason blew crumbs of lemon cake as he practically shouted. “Don’t worry about us, ma’am. We’re ready to fight!”
“No, you little doofus, you’re not.” But Henry smiled as he said it, and reached out to ruffle Jason’s hair.
Miss Brown cleared her throat. “We’ve got to go, Henry,” David said.
“Damn.” Henry sounded sad. Really sad. “One more thing. Jenny, come over here for a second?”
Jenny stood up and walked over. Henry took her by one shoulder and Amy, gently, by the other, lining them up back to back. “You’re both growing.”
“Jenny’s growing? That’s not fair!” Amy put on an exaggerated pout.
“Don’t worry, Amy,” Henry said. “I think you’ll still end up being the tallest sister, or at least tied with May, just from the way that Jason is sprouting up. But it never made sense that Jenny would top out so short. And, hey, magic. You guys take care. I’ll see you back in Frisco, Jenny.”
Rebecca stood up, took the two Wong brothers by either hand. They swung their packs up over their shoulders with the sound of glass clinking, and disappeared just as a tan Subaru Outback pulled up round the corner of the mansion.
John whispered to Jason, “Where did Henry and David go?”
“Oh. Mom’s in the car.”
“And what, they’re in trouble over something?”
“Mom can’t be in direct contact with David and Henry. Yin Wu is watching them.”
“What? She can’t see her sons? That must drive her crazy.”
“Not as crazy as she’ll be if they don’t figure out a way around it for the wedding.”
The Outback parked, followed by the Wong’s Lexus. El Professore got out of the driver’s side, Telantassar the Grey from the passenger’s side, and the Wongs from the Lexus. John took another bite of some kind of cake with a warm, creamy-crumbly chocolate filling and peaked a glance at Nita Guzman to see how she would react to El Professore. There was no big smile or shout of “Daddy,” or anything, but John caught a smile. Nita knew to respect the mask. Telantassar hurried up onto the porch. “May I touch your arms?” She asked, addressing Amy and John.
His esoteric arts teacher put her right hand on John’s arm. He heard pipe music, the tune just escaping him, but inexpressibly sad, while the light of an Allegheny fall afternoon turned sunset gold. After a long moment, she lifted her hand and the world turned normal again. “I can fix this, Ma Tian, but they’ll be out for a day or so.”
Mrs. Wong said, briskly, “Then if you would be so kind as to come by Sunday night, we’ll do it then. They’ll be done their homework by nine.”
And Miss Brown said, firmly, “And now that that’s all settled, I hope everyone has time to sit down for coffee. Jason, John please take a plate before you dribble too much down your shirts.”
John couldn’t wait to be a grownup, off at college, fighting supervillains with his posse and never having to bother with a sit-down meal again. But at least Miss Brown was nice enough to set a separate table for the kids. So while Nita and Jenny joined their parents, Telantassar, Miss Brown, and Rebecca at a table over at the far end of the verandah, John, Jason, and Amy finally got a chance to catch up with Rafaella.
“You guys got to fight werewolves? If I’d known that was up, I would never have gone to Babylon!”
“You didn’t miss much, Rafe,” Amy answered. “I sure would rather have been in Babylon!”
“Yeah, but I laminated a silver microedge on my swordblade, and I wanted to find out how it would work!”
“You and Jamie have the right idea, carrying your weapons around with you. I need to figure out a holder for my grenades.”
Jason interjected, “If only you were living weapons like me!” From the speaker phone over at the adult’s table, John could just barely hear David speaking.
“What about Jamie? Was she with you in Babylon?”
“Yeah. In the worst mood I’ve ever seen her in.”
“Because Book wasn’t there?”
“How did you know that?” Rafaella replied.
“Anyone can see that Jamie has a thing for Book.”
“Ew. He’s fifty!”
“No, he’s not. You can’t tell a guy’s age from when he was born if his Mom’s got a time machine. He’s twenty-five. Tops.”
“He only looks twenty-five. Babylon’s weird that way. There’s magic and science and stuff so that rich people can be any age they like. Book’s rich. And Book’s old. And there’s only one thing a rich, old man would want from a girl like Jamie.”
Amy was excited now. “Does Book seem like a creep to you? Or an old man? What kind of old man has trouble talking to a girl?”
“The kind that’s letting her down easy, maybe?”
“That doesn’t make any sense. Seventeen says that when a guy is awkward around a girl, that’s like, the number one clue that he’s into her.”
“Oh, Seventeen says. I surrender. Not. I think you’re wrong about this. Really wrong. Rebecca says Jamie’s just going to break her heart. Half the time, Book’s not around when Rebecca comes to visit. She’s his sister! Sort of.”
“Book isn’t ignoring Jamie. Half the time he’s making excuses to be around her!”
“And the other half of the time, like this weekend?”
“What, is Book supposed to be sneaking around and learning Jamie’s school schedule?”
“Uhm, yeah. Duh.”
“No, he shouldn’t. Talk about creepy.”
“Uhm, guys,” Jason interrupted, “Are we doomed?”
“What?”Amy asked.
“Well, David put John under that gizmo that’s supposed to detect if his old personality is hanging around in a nanodisc or as a ghost or whatever. And Amy screwed around with Mr. McNeely’s phone and had the staff of Goblin Deep on red alert when we got there. Will we even live to get eaten by the Demonologist’s werewolves or John’s supervillain alter ego?”
John smiled. “Well, I got a clean bill of health. And Mr. McNeely would be making a fuss if he wanted.”
“And you have a theory,” Amy said.
“Sure. The Demonologist has someone inside the McNeely mansion. Mr. McNeely has to have figured that out, too.  He’ll try to fix the leak on his own, and, when he screws up, Jameel or Tony or David will be there.”
“Who?” Rafaella asked.
“Miss Benton, obviously. She even wears bangles exactly like Gyre, one of the Demonologist’s lieutenants. The one that casts those “technomagic” spells that Emily is  always trying to copy.”
“So what about Jamie and Booker, then?” Jason asked.
“Oh, that’s girl problems.” John didn’t really have much patience with that sort of stuff. Although Jamie was pretty sweet. Almost as sweet as Amy.
Jenny and Nita sat down at the kid’s table. “So how are the Rugrats coming along?”
Jason answered, “If there’s going to be Rugrat business, we have to wait for Emily.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that. I’ve talked to Emily already.”
“About what?” Jason asked, as though he knew what the answer would be, and didn’t like it.
“What you’re going to wear at the wedding!” Jenny fired back, mock-angrily.”
“Dating and weddings? Shoot us or let us go. C’mon, John. ”
“C’mon where? What about what wedding?” John had a feeling that he was going to regret asking.
Amy piped up now. “It’s going to be on our hobby ranch, right?”
John had heard the details of Jenny’s wedding explained at least once before, so he nodded, but it didn’t make a difference to the rush of words. “So it’ll be out in the open on the first bench, which is big enough for parking and tents. So we don’t have to worry about rain, which you can get in May, or people having to climb very far. Now, Jenny wants the bridal party to go up to the second bench and make offerings at the family graves after the ceremony. And Mom wants the party to ride up, which is okay with Jenny. So you see the problem?”
“Yes. Yes, I totally do.”
“You are the world’s worst liar, John. We’re going to need a wedding dress and maid of honour gowns that you can ride a horse in.”
Jason muttered, “They’re tents. You’ll be wearing a tent. There’s a million Youtube videos of girls riding in wedding dresses. The problem is getting the horse out from under it.”
Amy ignored her brother, which she was good at. From practice. “A cheongsam might work, but does the bride really want to show so much leg?  Or you could go with a short dress, but that might be a bit much, too. And what about shoes? So many questions.”
Now John understood. This conversation was being directed somewhere. Boring as it was, it was important to the girls, so he would play his part. “Jason thinks that any gown will do.”
“But there’ll be 16 people in the party. We’ll be crowding the trail, and long dresses will snag on tree branches.”
“Sixteen?” Asked Nita, her voice thick.
“I told you, Nita. It’ll be a double wedding.” Jenny sounded almost bored.
“Do you....”
“Henry will ask you tonight.”
Amy screamed. Nita screamed. Jenny screamed. And then continued. “And you guys are on Rugrats’ honour not to say anything to anyone about anything until at least tomorrow.”
“Amy knew before I did?” Nita sounded almost cross through tears. Girls, John thought. Amy and Jenny were crying, too, and even Rafaella looked a little weepy.
“Amy is a little sneak. David saw her find the ring this afternoon. I’m sorry, Nita.” Now Jenny sounded entirely sincere.
“I am not a sneak!” Amy objected.
“Yes you are,” Jason replied. Amy launched herself at her brother.
“Arm! Arm!” Rafaella shouted, as she broke them up.
Jenny stayed for dinner at the lodge that night. Miss Brown and Ms. Telantassar joined them, but El Professore offered Nita a ride down to State College. Mr Wong cooked, because he had plans for dinner, and, besides, Mrs. Wong was just sitting with her daughters and crying like it was catching. They had Peking Duck, sort of, because it was actually a brace of fat, wild ducks that Mr. Wong, Henry, and Mr. Guzman had shot together the week before. It was almost ruined for John by grownups making stupid jokes about Nita getting her  bird, too; but only almost, because Peking Duck was, it turned out, very nice.
The weather broke late that night, and rain was wildly pounding the roof of the kid’s hall when John and Jason woke up. Since May wasn’t there to do it, they fired up Old Smokey, John glad for his heavy pyjamas with their feet, and more than a little envious of the girls’ hats. But the stove felt like it was glowing with heat by the time they got back from breakfast, Jason and John lugging a double boiler of chai: homework fuel.
It was a long, gruelling day that left John desperately wishing to goof off. Unfortunately, the Wongs kept popping in to check up, wearing yellow rain slickers that steamed when they stood in front of the stove to check progress, shivering a bit until they were warm enough to go back out into the yard. It must be nice, John thought at one point as he listened to the sound of a shovel hitting a rock in one direction and a table saw ripping planks in the other, to be a grownup and not have to do homework. Then, almost before he knew it, it was nine, and Ms. Telantassar had returned, this time wearing the gown she wore to do magic.
And that was almost the last thing that John remembered for a good two days. He must have slept and he must have eaten something, and for that matter there must have been a car ride back from the Alleghenies to West Philadelphia on Monday, but all he remembered was music that reminded him of Battlestar Galactica and the feeling that it was just too late on the last night before school to do anything until suddenly that was exactly what it was. He was sprawled on the family room in the basement half-watching old episodes of Red Dwarf. Jason was asleep on the couch, while Amy lay flat on her back on the floor with her phone to her face, dialling one friend after another to announce her brother’s engagement and then sleep through getting talked to about it.  
May came down the stairs in her work clothes, The Captain following her. She opened the door at the back of the den and down the half-flight of stairs to the practice floor, closing the door behind her. That was weird. The outside door was the other way, opening off the workroom. If the episode was on first commercial, which it was, it must be almost  half over. Then the commercial ended. So it was.... John made his brain work for a second, May had been in there for five minutes. Now it was quarter to six. She’d better get it into gear, John thought, or she’ll never get all the way to Panther Heights Mall in time.
But she didn’t. The episode ended, and May still hadn’t come out. John got up, feeling a head rush, as though he had been lying down for a very long time, which, come to think of it, he had. He walked over and opened the door, and looked in. No May. Just the empty, underground gym where John spent an hour a day practicing kung fu and working out. Except that the air vent window at the top of the wall was open. May was a master of Eight Spirit Kung Fu. Could she get up there and fit through that window? It looked barely big enough to fit The Captain.
And yet there was nowhere else she could have gone.    

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