Chapter 16: Digging Up Stuff
John expected to have to explain himself at the back gate of the McNeely estate, but there was no guard on duty there when Sabine rolled up, and she just drove the motorcycle through the open gate and into the twisty lane between the high shoulders. Like the mansion itself, the coach house backed onto a small parking lot set below the level of the grounds. Unlike the mansion, the coach house was tiny, and didn’t waste space on a vast basement.
Sabine followed John’s directions, tapped against the shoulder of her scarred, black leather jacket. They pulled up at the back of the coach house. To their left was the door to a garage, wide enough to take two cars. Directly in front of them was a glass sliding door, only an inch or so off ground level, behind which was the coach house’s basement rec room, built in space that had apparently once, literally, been used for coaches, back when the garage space had been a stable. John swung his leg off the motorcycle, careful not to knock the backrest.
Frankly, it didn’t seem that stable resting against its kickstand, and for a second John could almost visualise a motorcycle just falling over into its stand. Strangely, the image was of a much smaller, and, something told him, cheaper machine. I sure had a vivid imagination about cars and stuff, John thought.
John stepped up to the sliding door and swiped his pass card. The lock clicked open. Sabine laughed. “You have a key? This is some lame B and E!”
John let himself sound as irritated as he was. “Whatevs. It’s not a break-and-enter. We shouldn’t even be able to get here without permission. Which I have.”
“Oh, I have my ways,” Sabine said. John stepped inside and took his shoes off. Sabine rolled her eyes. He stared at her for a long moment, and she stared at him. At last, she began kicking her boots off. They were tight, and it looked like it was going to take a long time. So John went up to the kitchen, shiny with gadgets, and with cupboard doors hung with long, narrow tapestries meant to flutter in thin Martian winds, however thin they’d actually been almost two billion years ago when the real tapestries actually existed. Ironically, it was apparently the fact that the atmosphere was so thin that had let even rock carvings and metal castings survive in the old, deep shelters. Tara had said that they would be moving the art and some of the furniture to the penthouse next week.
Sabine walked into the kitchen in her grey work socks. Somehow, they seemed so much neater than boy’s socks of the same design. How did girls do that? “Do all Martian kitchens have stainless-steel ranges?”
John shrugged. The McNeelys were rich. They might not always remember it, but then there were gadgets. Speaking of which, John bent down at the kitchen sinks and opened the cupboard below. Nothing. Oh, well, he thought, try the next one.
“What are you looking for?” Sabine asked.
The cupboard next to the sink had what he was looking for. John pulled a handful of Price Rite and a few Whole Foods shopping bags out. “These,” he said.
“They save plastic bags? For what?” Sabine was deeply offended by people she’d never met.
John gestured at the neat little garbage can (also shiny) beneath the sink. It was designed to take Glad bags, and, in fact, there was one in it right now, but you could hang shopping bags in it, instead.
Sabine asked, “What kind of cheapskates would waste their time with that?”
John shrugged. “Millionaires who want to stay millionaires? Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know.” John didn’t usually do impressions, but for some reason that came out almost exactly the way that Mr. Wong said it. “Now help me look through these for receipts and stuff.”
Unfortunately, there was no paperwork at all in the bags. It figured, John thought. It was true what Mr. Wong said. Comic book writers like Frank Miller gave the world an exaggerated, even impossible idea of people like Tony and Tara McNeely when they wrote about Batman. You just couldn’t always be prepared for everything. All the same, the Hobgoblin clan, the Black Mask, Der Bögenschütze and so on really were very smart, well prepared people. They would collect their receipts and EFTs and destroy them. Still, John had to try.
“Is that it?” Sabine asked. “Is that your brilliant plan?”
“Half of it,” John shrugged. “We still have to check the master bedroom and the den.”
The master bedroom upstairs was still furnished with Tony and Tara’s amazing bed, which looked like it had been carved out of the branches of an impossibly light and open tree. “That can’t be real,” Sabine said, as she launched herself onto it. “Nice.”
“It was built from a Martian model,” John said. “It’s supposed to be all posturepedic and stuff, and that’s titanium under the wood veneer. You can bounce on it all you like.” Amy had told him that, and then got all embarrassed. John guessed that she’d tried it out. He’d even mentioned that to Cory, who just laughed and laughed for some reason.
“Let me get this straight. They save shopping bags. And they commissioned an awesome, hand-built, brushed titanium bed. To remind them of Mars. Do you know how much you can get for a titanium bike?” Now instead of angry, Sabine sounded amazed. “Money really must rot the brain. Anyway. Why didn’t they move the bed downtown?”
John shrugged. Actually, while he thought Tony and Tara were great, he kind of agreed with her about money’s effect on the brain. “They’re doing that next week. The penthouse has a huge bed in the master bedroom. It’s supposed to be some big hassle to move. Something about refitting the freight elevator.”
Sabine looked over her shoulder. “I heard old Tom McNeely used to have Hugh Hefner and a limo full of Playboy Bunnys up to that penthouse when his wives were out of town.”
John looked at her blankly. This was like when Mr. Wong expected him to just automatically know who Tony Bennett or John Lennon were. Sabine was one strange girl, and not just because she was gossiping about a guy who’d been dead for 35 years.
“It’s all about the sexy,” Sabine said, in way of explanation. She stretched out on the bed and winked. John looked at her for a long second. What had he been thinking? Then she reached under the covers and pulled out a paperback book, The Pale King. John reached over for it. This could be paydirt! “What?” Sabine asked.
“I was looking for something like an unfinished book. The kind you stick something into as a bookmark, and never get back to.” John said, remembering the note from Nita to Henry that he’d found in a Twilight in the closet in Billy Washington’s old bedroom that he was planning to read at their wedding. And, yes! There was a bookmark, a business card. John pulled it out. “John Byrne, Special Agent, UNTIL Philadelphia. Hospitality. What? This is the UNTIL agent in charge of getting sandwiches for meetings?”
Sabine snorted. “Close. I know that dude. Hangs out with VIPER wannabes sometimes. He says he’s in some big trouble with his bosses, so basically he’s just quit. Buys groceries to stock hotel rooms for VIPs who come to town, does United Way, Health and Safety Training, and gets debriefed once a week. ‘Are you sure that there’s nothing else you want to tell us, Agent Byrne? He’s lucky he’s in UNTIL. VIPER would just interrogate-to-dispose.”
John turned the card over. More paydirt! There were mobile numbers scribbled on the back. Booker, Tony, someone named Keith, and… Yes! Someone named Peter Stuyvesant, who, unless it was a coincidence, would be Chief External Liaison of the Ares Oversight Office according to its website. But the ‘Keith’ was troubling. Why was that name familiar? Could Bryne be connected with Keith Tuney somehow? It seemed like too much of a coincidence. “I guess that these are some of the VIPs he’s responsible for. Interesting to know who’s coming to Philadelphia. Now I just want to know why.”
Sabine shrugged in a way that made her chest move up. John noticed that. “Maybe Byrne will know. They don’t let him into the hotel rooms. They don’t even let him handle the groceries. That’s done by delivery services. But he does talk to the VIPs to make sure that they get what they need. That’s practically the only thing Byrne is good at.”
“I’m going to talk to this guy,” John said firmly.
“That’s it, dude. Talk like a man,” Sabine said.
“What do you mean?” John asked.
“There. You’re doing it again.” She replied.
“I don’t get it.”
“Dude. When you forget that you’re all Mr. I’m Not Sure, and talk like a man, it is so, like, sexy.” She shrugged again. And then there was a sound that, to John’s overactive imagination, sounded almost like a soft cough, coming from the kitchen downstairs. It couldn’t be, though. John thought about it, about the situation. Why was he here with Sabine? This was idiotic. Mr. Brown could be in here any minute to take charge of moving stuff. Just because there was no-one down there right now didn’t mean that there wouldn’t be in a minute.
Sabine must have had the same thought, because she looked at her watch and frowned. “I can’t believe that there was no security at the gate. I’m getting my bike out of here right now.”
John almost sagged with relief inside. He didn’t want to be around Sabine for another second right now. And there would be no problem with him sticking around for a bit longer. The most impressive Martian piece, the giant windchime, was down in the garage. John wanted to photograph the ideographs carved onto the chimes, and that could take a while. “Come on,” John said, gesturing towards the closet at the back of the bedroom.
“What? You’re not that wimpy,” Sabine said.
“I don’t get it,” John said over his shoulder as he opened the door and revealed the pole and chute beyond.
“You don’t get a lot of stuff,” Sabine said as she looked over his shoulder. “For reals? A batpole?”
Well, no, John thought. It’s a ladder, not a pole, and it ends down in the garage. “No. The old firehalls have these from back when they replaced the hay chute. You know, from when they went to having horses in the garage to trucks. Same here. This really did used to be a coach house, and so they had a chute. They put the ladder in when they converted the stable space, because what else were they going to do with it?”
John grabbed either side of the ladder and slid. A very fun moment later, he was in the garage.
Sabine slid down after him, yowling. As she hit the ground, she shook her hands in the air. “That hurts!”
Oops. “I’m sorry, Sabine. My hands are pretty calloused.” It sounded plausible, anyway. She needed to get herself some absorptive energy shielding, but John couldn’t say that, and he felt bad that he hadn’t warned her. “I should have warned you.” She gave him a slightly disgusted look over the shoulder as she headed through the door into the rec room.
“See you at school, Hardhand.” She smiled again.
John pulled out his phone and turned to the windchime. If he had some Martian connections, would the ideographs seem familiar to him? And would it be real familiarity, or just fake déjà vu, like when he saw the garage and the Fairlane, or the potato pancakes back at the Home Diner? As it turned out, he didn’t feel either as he looked at the elegantly traced signs on the bronze-coloured, yet impossibly light metal of the windchimes. (He had to remind himself after a second that the reason that they were so light was that they were made out of plastic. The real windchimes, which would actually chime, were at Cape Canaveral under extreme security. It was hard bringing out the contrast in the photos, and John was so focussed on it that he almost missed the sound of the door opening above.
For a second, John’s heart rose. He really liked Mr. Brown. Then it sank. But he would figure out what John was doing here in a second, somehow. John figured that he was too obvious to lie about that sort of thing. And then it sank some more, because neither of the men upstairs were Mr. Brown.
“I’m sorry that I kept you waiting, Rashindar. I had to deal with a plumber this morning, and we were rather delayed. Now, as you can see, while the youngsters haven’t removed all of their furnishings yet, they have definitely moved out. There will be no further security risk with our shared liabilities vis-à-vis We shan’t be requiring Miss Wong’s services around here.” Todd McNeely sounded as friendly as always.
“That’s a pity. I quite like Amy, and I doubt that she is the risk that you paint her as.” Rashindar said, dismissively.
“What’s a geometer’s favourite drink? Pi-tee! Yes, Amy can be quite a charming little thing. A pity about her brother, though.”
“We would do well not to visit the sins of the parents upon their children. Why, anyone with a sense of humour can see the lighter side of their pranks,” Rashindar said, in the tone of voice that people with no sense of humour use to suggest that, actually, they do.
“Yes. The real problem is the parents,” Mr. McNeely said, agreeably. “I still don’t understand why they were allowed to have care of John Roy. Talk about bad influences! That lad was using his teleportation powers to pull tricks around here within a week of his arrival!”
“I should like to see some evidence of that. It doesn’t accord with the reports that I’ve received about his progress,” Rashindar said, even more coldly.
“Reports direct from the poisoned tree!” Mr. McNeely actually sounded angry for a change.
“And your own experts. Which I should follow up on another day. For now, we have that other business.” The voices were coming from the head of the stairs! They were coming down to the rec room or the garage! John looked around in panic. He didn’t feel like explaining himself to Rashindar. Where could he hide? There! The tarp against the wall –but he’d forgotten to close the ladder hatch!
John stepped into the middle of the garage and closed the hatch, but he’d underestimated the time it would take. Even as the hatch closed, the doorknob to the garage rattled. He was sunk! And then, a blank, featureless disc of concrete on the garage floor exactly underneath the hatchway opened up. Desperate, John flew right down into it.
He was in another ladderway. There was some kind of weird gear at the lip. John guessed that it extended the ladder through the garage if you pushed some button in the bedroom. This really was a batpole! John flew down the hatchway and into the Goblin Deep that lay underneath the mansion.
It was just like the one out at Monk’s Mountain. To an extent, because while it was a vast garage like that one, it wasn’t empty of everything except a few old aircraft and that very cool dirigible. The space on the other side of the garage was crowded with Orcs and Wains and other vehicles from the Hobgoblin’s fleet. Beyond them, all the way over to what must be the side over the main mansion, he could see some standup displays and the like; the little museum that, John realised in disappointment, they must exaggerate in the comics. There were doors around the side of the garage, which, in his experience, lead to weird labs full of alien science-machines and crap like that. John tried the nearest door. It was, of course, locked. And then, right beside the door he came out of, a green light came on over one of the doors, and yet another one just a little further away opened.
John gambled. Rashindar and Mr. McNeely’s business must be down here. They were coming through the near door with the green light. He couldn’t hide in the main garage. There was no good cover that he could get to in time; but there might be cover behind the door of, John read the title over it, “Armoury 2C.” Besides, he really wanted to see what was in the Armoury, and he was already in about as much trouble as he could be.
John shot through the door. It was a big room, full of …weird things. Including jewelry strangely like the necklace that Theera had had in Japan, and a big, futuristic suit of armour that lit up the moment he walked into the room. In an inviting way. <Subject John Roy approved for operational use.> The voice in his head had none of the human warmth of his conversations with David or Amy, but was still completely understandable. He was approved to use this armour? This was too cool. But how would he get out of here?
As if in answer, a pointer swam in his eyes, somehow singling out one of the doors across the garage. And then things got …confused. The armour started glowing red. A harsh voice in his head blared, <Biological excursion from normative parameters. Security tag sending….resending>
As a child of the computer age, John could guess that whatever site that the armour was supposed to be reporting to was 404 Page Not Found. As a child of the school age, he could guess that the way that Rashindar and Mr. McNeely were yelling and running across the concrete floor outside meant that he was in big trouble. And then he was standing at the open door across the garage that the pointer as shown him, just as tired as the last time that he’d inadvertently managed to teleport –but still with enough energy to fly through the door.
It led to a corridor, strangely like the ones that he’d seen before in Goblin’s Deep, Tatammy High, and, most recently, the Yurt. But it was a very long corridor, he realised as he flew down its metal-finished, pipe-lined expanse, one that trended gently down, and with no doors after the first few hundred yards. Finally, it came to an end at two doors. John tried the button on one. A PIN entry shimmered on the touchscreen in the middle.
Was he trapped? John tried the other one. It gave. John stepped through into a dark, crumbling, concrete space. Where was he? He went one way, which opened up into an underground parking garage that could be anywhere. He walked into it, but it was large and there were cars and he walked along the wall. Apart from the gate back up to the surface and alarmed fire exits, there was no way out of the bay until he’d walked almost all the way to the other end and found the familiar stair and elevator leading up to Panther Heights Mall.
Now John realised why the corridor that he’d come through had been so dark and neglected. It led to the closed bottom level. That was awesome. John turned around and went back all the way to the skateboard cache,. When he got there, he pulled out his board. He’d done his first serious flying off his board. Maybe he could get his teleportation mojo working when he fell off, this time. And, besides, he had some time to kill, and after what seemed like hours of tension, every muscle in his body cried out to be used., to run and jump and just let it go.
But before he could do so, John noticed black feathers resting on the duffle where May kept her skater clothes. It was those earrings that Amy looked so good in. Why had May left them here?