The smell of tea in a remembered kitchen.
Chapter 2, 34: Board
Jason Wong stopped at the door and glared mock-fiercely at his cousin, then thrust out his hand even more fiercely to shake Chris’s. “Good luck, Chris. Don’t screw it up!”
Chris looked Jason back. “Me good luck? You guys are gonna go mess it up with Doctor Destroyer!”
Amy Wong stood up from putting her ankle-high grey leather boots on, thrusting through the space between her twin and her cousin, pausing to speaking as her face came level with Chris. “Pff. Sixteenth Bureau and the New Knights are zo grownupbuttinski on this that we’ll be lucky to trash a Destructoid before Hyperion and Le Bastion show up. You have to face down I’m-totally-a-Doctor Lamebridge.”
May, standing off to the side in her long grey trenchcloak, bow-and-arrow strapped over her shoulder, rolled her eyes without saying anything.
Mrs. Wong took Chris’s shoulder gently and pulled him aside so that she could throw her arms around Jason, Amy and May. Speaking with her chin on her son’s fifteen-year-old shoulders, she said, “I don’t care how many adult superheroes are backing you up. Don’t get over-confident, don’t get dispersed, listen to Jameel, and please, please come back to me.”
She straightened up, pushing with strong hands against her son’s broad shoulders . “Now get out of here. You have a spaceship to Europe to catch.”
Chris felt a catch in his eye that couldn’t be a tear, and grabbed his cousin’s hand back in a reverse grip, tightening his fist around Jason’s. “See you at the game?”
Jason shook his head, his eyes flashing wet. “We’ll be there,” then turned and followed his sisters out the door. A blast of raw January cold sent a shiver down Chris’s spine. “I wish that I could go with him.”
His uncle had been standing, silent, in the space where the wall of the family room created a nook in front of the coat closet. He held his tweed pork-pie hat in his hand, and Chris noticed that he was twisting it fiercely as he finally spoke. “We can’t send everyone on every mission. It’s just good strategy. Besides, someone from this house needs to go to school on New Year’s Day, or the board will think it’s deliberate. Now put your coat on, please, Chris. We don’t want to be late.”
A few minutes later, Chris got out of the back seat of the Wong’s Lexus in front of the Tatammy Old Schoolhouse building. It was 10:15, and everyone was in class. Except for the Drama Club, who were leaning against the rails of the stair. Mario glared down at Chris, who returned the stare. Oh, you just try something, Chris thought, but his aunt and uncle formed up on either side of him and led him up the staircase. The Asian girl was reading a script, a gigantic cup in her hand, steaming tea-smell in the cold air. Chris found himself searching the long fall of her black hair, wondering why she seemed so familiar until Snowflake reached out and grabbed his arm.
Chris looked at him. “Hey, Mike.”
“Hey, Chris. Good luck with those Eloi!” Michael sounded excited, maybe because someone used his real name for once.
Snowflake-Michael held up the book he was reading, a broken library-paperback spine bulging around the thick white finger that marked his place, thumb clear of the title so that Chris could read it. “It’s in this book.” It was The Time Machine. It would probably turn out to be a made-up name for Nicolas Poussin, the way things were going. Snowflake smiled, as though he’d explained everything.
Chris stopped on the step. “But who is an Eloi, Michael?”
“All the tanned people,” Michael answered. “Well, not exactly tanned, like they’ve been to Mexico or something. Like they could be tanned because their skins don’t flake. Like me. Or a red head.”
“A redhead like Eve?” Chris asked.
“No!” Michael sputtered. “Nicer!”
“We’d better get going, Chris,” his aunt said. “It was nice to see you again, Michael.”
As they walked in the front door into the blessed warmth, his uncle said, “I wonder if they’re going to do Wells?”
“Really, The Time Machine as a play? Surely there are better choices.” His aunt said. “It’s a terribly disappointing book. All of the past and future to see, and all the hero ends up seeing is future troglodytes eating pretty boy celebrities.”
“Sounds like it’d suit the Drama Club,” Chris muttered. “Except their pretty boy is a trog.”
His uncle looked over at him. “Chris, you need to be a little more patient with kids who just happen to have different interests. Now come along.”
They took their seats in the board room before anyone else, except the home daycare operator who sometimes hired Amy, Mrs. Clarke. Chris looked carefully at Mrs. Clarke. Sure enough, her cyborged targeting eye glinted if you looked at it right, just like Jason said. She was the nicest lady with the biggest guns in Philadelphia, and these days there were banana-oatmeal cookies in her pouches.
El Professore came in next, following Samantha’s Dad. Father Asplin came in a moment later. There was a long pause, and then, finally, Dr. Cambridge stepped into the door. “Where’s Rashindar, El Professore?” She asked.
“He decided not to come today, Dr. Cambridge,” the blue-masked luchadore answered, his Mexican-accented voice booming in the small room. “It’s really not officially his business, after all.”
Beverly Cambridge nodded. “I thought so. If you don’t mind, I brought another member of the board with me for support.” She stepped into the room and then turned to hold out her hands, as though welcoming the person following. It was Babs and Wayne’s Dad, Todd McNeely. Chris hadn’t even known he was on the board.
“Ah, Todd,” El Professore said. “You know that. . .”
“Yes, I know that I can’t vote today. But neither can Mrs. Wong, and she’s here.”
“Need I remind you that Mindy is here because we’re meeting to discuss her nephew’s suspension?” El Professore asked.
“Indeed. The apple doesn’t fall far from. . .”
“I think that it might be time to call the meeting to order,” Father Asplin said, his voice light and cheerful.
“Oh, yes, let’s do. I need to get back to the children. I’ve had to leave them with alternate babysitters today,” Mrs. Clarke agreed.
“Todd? Beverly? Please do sit.” El Professore gestured to seats at the end of the table. “We’re gathered here today to talk about the disciplinary action pending against Mr. Christopher Wong here in an alleged case of use of mind-control magic on a member of the faculty.” El Professore continued to read from the tablet in front of him, summarising the case against Chris.
Chris looked around the table. He figured that he could count on Father Asplin’s vote, and, if Rebecca was right, El Professore’s. But that was tricky, because they were both old friends of the Wongs. Mrs. Clarke and Mr. Cox weren’t. Rebecca had also said that they’d probably bent over backwards to vote against him if they could, just to keep everything fair.
“Chris? What do you have to say?”
Chris looked at El Professore, and then around the room. Rebecca has told him that he couldn’t just deny everything like some stupid teenager. He had to be polite, respectful, modest and tell the truth. His Dad would probably say the same, except for the part about telling the truth.
“I didn’t cast any spell. I haven’t had the wushu training. What I experienced was an Elder Worm spell, coming from a laptop on the desk, and it would have taken me over, too, if it weren’t for Father Asplin’s magic sword.”
“Father Asplin?” El Professore said, looking to his right.
“The Blue Tranquility Sword has partially bonded with Chris. It would react to familiar threats to him, and it has strong protective spells against qinaashic magic, from the old battles with the sorcerors of Thûn.” Father Asplin sighed, as though to say that whether for good or bad, seventy thousand years was a long time.
“Just because it could have happened that way doesn’t mean that it did,” Dr. Cambridge said. “My laptop is PRIMUS issue. There’s no way that there could have been malware on it!”
“Unfortunately, Bev, that’s not the case. The Elder Worm’s technomagic is as powerful as it is subtle. I’ve seen it used against Malvans in my day. It could circumvent PRIMUS security software easily.”
Wow, Chris thought to himself. The Malvans possessed the most advanced technology in the multiverse.
Mr. Cox looked down at his papers. “We have a clear chain of possession here going back to 1934. Good legwork on the kids’ part. A Blu-Ray disc was put in a family safety deposit box in the Oroville branch of the Wells-Fargo bank in the fall of 1934 by person or persons unknown. It was removed from the box by an Osoyoos alderman on 15 December of last year, using a key that had apparently been slipped under his office door. The programme on the Blu Ray was uploaded to a City of Osoyoos laptop, and then downloaded to a server, to which your laptop was redirected on a routine visit to a PRIMUS website. We’re still trying to find out who set up the server, and who corrupted your laptop, Beverly, but there’s no reason to think that it was Chris.”
Todd McNeely exploded. “What? But who else would have the motive?”
El Professore answered, “Lots of people. But that’s beside the point. Chris is in the middle of an active investigation right now. An investigation of a civilisation-destroying potential plague. Todd, Beverly? Perhaps we could at least try not to get in the way?”
“But that’s my point, sir. He might be abetting the plot, not preventing it. We’ve had infiltrators in the school before. "
Chris noticed that the other adults looked at Mr. McNeely, who stared placidly back.
Dr. Cambridge continued. "PRIMUS thinks we have at least one now. And who more logically than Chris?”
“Do you have any evidence of this?” El Professore asked.
“Well, there’s his personality inventory scores.”
“Which are perfect.”
“That’s the point. He’s the child of a broken home. His father abandoned him. A single mother raised him in a trailer park. He has a juvenile record. He didn’t even have his own bedroom! There’s no way that he should be so well-adjusted!” Dr. Cambridge sounded flustered. She was looking down at her pages, anxious about something.
Chris felt his anger rise in him for a long, long moment. And then his aunt reached into her bag and pulled out a big cup, just like the one that the Asian girl in the Drama Club had been holding. Mrs. Wong pulled the lid back, and the familiar smell of chai filled the room, bringing back memories of her kitchen. Chris’s anger melted away as it dawned on him that Dr. Cambridge wasn’t embarrassed about lying about him. She was guilty about having to say these things in public.
So instead of yelling at her, Chris said, “It’s true that I had a rough childhood, and that my Dad tried to teach me how to fool those tests. But I didn’t need Dad’s lessons to pass them, and I think you’re being pretty tough on the trailer park. There were some nice people there,” Chris said. Mr. Vezina, for one, he thought.
Mr. Cox nodded. “Good people come out of rough neighourhoods all the time, Beverly. My Dad was circus folk, for Heaven’s sake. Anyway, Chris isn’t in a trailer park any more. He’s at the Yurt, and I’ve never met a bad kid from that house yet.”
“Jason Wong?” She asked.
“A few shenanigans don’t make you a supervillain in training.”
Mr. McNeely, who had been sitting, seething, through this, finally spoke up, jabbing his finger at Mrs. Wong. “That woman has bewitched you. She runs a house full of hooligans, and Chris is another one! El Professore, this young thug is likely to be behind the Apocalypse Plague!” Mr. McNeely jabbed his index finger at Chris.
There was a long silence around the table as the other adults stared at Mr. McNeely. Were they listening? Chris longed to jump to his feet and drown him out, but he imagined what Rebecca would say, and kept his mouth shut.
After perhaps thirty seconds, Dr. Cambridge put her hand on Mr. McNeely’s arm. “It’s okay, Todd,” Beverly Cambridge. “The truth will come out eventually. I just pray that it’s not too late.”
“Everyone else?” El Professore asked.
Mr. Cox answered. “I see no reason for any disciplinary action against Mr. Wong over this matter. As long as he can control his temper, there’s a place for him at Tatammy.”
“I have to admit a certain partiality for this young paladin, El Professore. The world badly needs more dragon slayers.”
“The only dragon I’ve met is nice,” Chris pointed out.
“Yes, yes,” Father Asplin answered. “Not all dragons. Just the bad seed.”
“Mrs. Clarke?” El Professore continued.
“There’s something going on, and I would personally prefer to keep Chris away from the other children until it’s sorted out. But not at the expense of his education. I recommend against the expulsion.”
“It’s unanimous, then,” El Professore said. “I will let the school board know. And that’s that. Henry, Todd, thank you for coming out today. It’s always such a help for our work when parents can get involved.”
Chris felt a warmth inside at the thought of Uncle Henry being his “parent.”
Father Asplin smiled across the table. “And Gung Hey Fat Choy!”
His uncle replied, “And a happy lunar new year to you as well, Father.”
“Oh, that’s just too much—“ Dr. Cambridge began, but the sound of chairs scraping against the wood floor of the room and the rustle of coats being lifted off chairs drowned her out.
Chris looked at her and mouthed, “Happy New Year.” She glared at him, and then turned and strode out of the room, Todd McNeely holding the door for her.
“Chris?” His uncle said, “Good work in there, and see you at the game!”
Behind him, El Professore rumbled. “And hurry up, or you’ll miss math class. It’s short classes today anyway.”
Chris flew out the door, down the little hall/classroom where the Model United Nations was breaking up at class change time, and down the front steps of the school, neatly skipping over Mario’s outstretched leg to take the stairs down to the icy schoolyard three at a time, his feet even lighter than usual. At the bottom, he chanced a look back up. The Asian girl was sipping her tea, and for just a second, the white lid of her cup pushed her hair back far enough for Chris to catch a glimpse of an eye.
She was looking at him. Above him, a crow cawed. Chris didn’t even look up. “Yeah, I know.”