Chapter 3, 16: And That’s Why They’re Called “Secret Identities”
Charlotte wasn’t sure whether she wanted to laugh or scream. So, let’s summarise, she thought. It’s raining like anything, with lightning and thunder. I’m drenched, and my hair is going to look ridiculous. At least I’m wearing the right jacket for this kind of weather, and it’ll protect most of my dress. Problem: the damn thing is down around my ankles in the wet garden beds, splashing up muddy water.
Which, she thought, brought up the fact that the reason that she was out here in the first place because she was being chased by Roach, Mr. Diavolo’s stupid shaping-changing Roi’nesh butler, who was probably behind the whole deal, because it’s always the butler who did it.
So, she and her buds had set up the whole TV-style “sneak out of the ball and find the MacGuffin” thing as a feint, to smoke the guy out. Because Rosa was all like, “those Malvan aristocrats always have a Roi’nesh shapechanger hanging around with them.” And, sure enough, you know what, yadda yadda and all that.
Anyway, now she’s down in the gardens, being chased by you know who. Okay, Charlotte thought, I’m repeating myself. I’m allowed. I’m out of my gourd, because this is crazy, even for a junior superhero chick. I’m hanging with this totally hot redneck superhero and being chased by spooky ghost-thingies while my friends come over the phone like they’re on drugs or something, because someone has thrown some kind of weird, mind-melting magicky kind of crap. Which raised the question of why it wasn’t affecting Charlotte, any more. Probably because she was thinking about kung fu things, and there was all that mental discipline and stuff that her Uncle was always on about.
“Down!” Scout said, sliding feet first under a hedge trimmed clean about a foot above the ground.
Charlotte gave a second’s thought to jumping over the hedge, but it was busy up there. Wind and rain and Roach and ghosty thingies and enchantment spells and crap. And she wasn’t that attached to the dress, anyway.
That was the thought she tried to focus on as she slipped under the hedge at full barrel, listening to the zipping sound of the dress ripping on something.
Scout was crouched ahead of her. He did hand sign for “follow me,” and rolled low across the open area they were in, vanishing abruptly.
Hunh? Charlotte shrugged. She wasn’t exactly happy about being told what to do, but Scout seemed to know what he was doing. So she followed. It turned out that there was a ditch right there, so cleverly blended with the lawn that you couldn’t even see it, at least at night, random flashes of lightning notwithstanding. Charlotte landed neatly on the floor of the ditch, then held up her hand: Stay! Scout stopped in mid motion and waited while Charlotte took the trail of her ruined dress.
When she had the fabric firmly in hand, Scout, still without a word, pulled a knife out of his boot and handed it to Charlotte. Charlotte nodded in thanks. It was like he was reading her mind. Then she took the knife and sawed through the fabric. It took a minute, and Charlotte missed her sword. The Pearl Harmony was probably just the thing for dress alterations and ghost-stabbing, but too late for that. She’d decided that swords and big umbrellas weren’t going to rock Mr. Diavolo’s party, and it was way too late to fix it now.
Finished with the dress, Charlotte reached in and pulled off the crinoline down and off. There! One 1950s style sock-hop skirt turned into a mid-thigh mini-dress. Of course, the cut was completely wrong, like she was some kind of clueless s-bag out to show off her legs and no idea how to do it. Hee! I’m Brittany!
Which, she had to concede to herself, ever so grudgingly, wasn’t completely fair to Brittany. The girl knew how to dress. The problem was that she used her powers for evil. Not that there wasn’t a lot of that going around these days here on the Planet Landing. Evil, that is. Not so much with the dressing for evil, although Mr. Daivolo’s fashion sense ought to be a crime.
And that was when a sliding, serpently mass of coiled tentacles came slithering right down the side of of the trench. That’s it, Charlotte thought. High ground, low ground, I always seem to be where there’s trouble. Next fight is on middle ground. No carnivorous trees, no super-intelligent sabre tooth cats, just good old fashioned supervillains. Hopefully, the Paradigm Pirates, so that she could kick their arses for being so darned boring.
A tentacle came lashing out at her ankles. Yeah, speaking of boring, Charlotte thought as she jumped free at the last minute. Tentacles, tentacles, tentacles. It was Roach’s only trick, it seemed. A shapechanger should be more imaginative. Maybe there’d be a Q&A after the fight, and he’d take suggestions? Hopefully, Charlotte thought, because her bare handed style wasn’t all that up to dealing with ropy, snakey tentacle things that could shift their weight could shift anywhere in the whole stupid tangle of coils. Next time, she’d have to bring her sword and lop bits off, and Roach probably wouldn’t appreciate that very much. But she had speed on the darn thing, and strength, and…
The coughing whiff of a silenced pistol went off in her ear, once, twice, nine times . . . .And my date has lots of guns. A boy’s hand touched her shoulder. Charlotte turned to look at Scout. He made a come on! gesture up the other side of the ditch. Let’s do that thing, Charlotte thought back, as hard as she could, in case Scout was a mind reader, which would be embarrassing, when you came down to it. And she went scrambling up the rain-slicked side of the ditch as fast as she could, even though in the darkness she couldn’t see what kind of trouble she was getting into now.
Not a good idea, it turned out, as they crested the wall and, there, looming in front of them, was a ghost moose-type thing. It was plunging at them, fast, antlers down. Scout rolled left, and Charlotte followed him. The moose, not quite quick enough, went over the edge. For a ghost, it seemed awfully alarmed at the idea of sliding down into the ditch, but, too bad, it looked like it wasn’t the kind of ghost that had a hall-pass from the law of gravity. The sound of something made of flesh hitting something even heavier made of flesh came a moment later. It sounded like Roach had met the ghost. Hey, let’s you and him fight!
Scout waved her over. This was getting old. “What you got, sleuth boy?” Charlotte asked.
He looked at her, and the set of his mouth suggested frustration. “Something isn’t right here.” Down on his hands and knees, Scout began to move along the edge of the hedge, his hands sliding over the tough, spiny wood.
Charlotte looked, as three flashes of lighting came close together, lighting the world like the biggest Kodak ever. From where they were crouching now, they were far enough away from the lip of the first slope they plunged over to see the square of garden bed where Roach had first fought the ghost mammoth, as well as the hedge that the ghost cave bear came through. Down below them, Roach’s tentacles were wrapped around the ghost moose-thingie. What a nice view. And if something wasn’t right here, what did Scout think was going on? Charlotte focussed inward, on her training, and expanded her senses. What was the harmony of this place, and what disturbed it?
Charlotte felt something. As of its own will, her eyes were pulled to a branch, sticking sharply up into the herbage of yet another hedge. Even as she spotted it, Scout put his hand on it, and pulled something loose. Turning on his haunches, he held it up to her, almost shy in his gesture.
Charlotte peered close. Lightning strobed, and a fresh gust of warm rain pricked her back. The light showed a golden bracelet, open at an incredibly small, delicately worked clasp, blending into the body of the bracelet with filigree work that was almost Celtic, in that half savage, half decadent way. ‘Turn it,’ Charlotte gestured with her hand.
Scout turned the bracelet. Now, Charlotte could see a single green gem, fixed on the side that had been facing the hedge. She peered closer. The slightest glow showed an image in it. An image of a moose fighting a tentacle-thing. It was fading. Can’t have that, Charlotte thought, and the image seemed to brighten. Somewhere, in the echo of the thunder, the sound of a crow, cutting down on its raucous cry mid-voice to make the closest approach that kind of bird could make to a coo. Ginger approved.
“What is it?” Scout whispered. Charlotte turned to look, her concentration broken. And, with that, the image as just faded away. A squawk could be heard from below. Probably Roi’nesh for, “Oh, yeah, who’s the alien?”
“Oh, crap. Fight over.” Scout said. “What now?”
“Make a really big scene! You seen my buds?”
The girls were in a party room in the west wing, last I saw ‘em. Haven’t see the boy.”
“He’s on a stakeout tonight,” Charlotte said. “We figured it was a better use of his time to follow up on that then muscle up our diversion. Now come on!” But before she did any such thing, Charlotte held out her hand.
Scout frowned at her. “You think that’s safe?”
“Who’s the mystic Kung Fu Girl here?” Charlotte asked, as lightly as she could. Something in her told her this wasn’t magic, just something that looked like magic. A powerful tool, she thought, but something that Ginger thought she could control.
Doutfully, Scout snapped the bracelet around Charlotte’s left wrist and put a closing grip on it. A click told her that it was fastened. Charlotte took a moment to inspect the bracelet. Whatever else, Charlotte knew that it was beautiful.
Charlotte lit out flat now, hardly pausing to wonder if Scout could keep up with her. There was a scenario forming in her mind, and they needed to stay just ahead of Roach. The ends of her cut-off dress flapped in her hand as she ran. They rounded the side of the west wing just after the long-delayed report of the thunder came shaking through her body, clenching her stomach like all the scared anticipation of waiting for some boy to talk to you in the world. Then Charlotte hit the wall and began climbing, one handed, the glint of the finder on her wristcom leading her on.
“Damn,” she heard, muttered behind her, and the rasping sound of steel cutting through leather. Further away, the Roi’nesh squawk rose into a screech. Oh, fine, so the boy got to stab things, but she couldn’t. Charlotte pulled herself up and into a big room, dimly lit by gas, since apparently Mr. Diavolo’s mansion only had electricity in two wings yet. Dim was a good idea, Charlotte thought. There were more of those embarrassing statues, and she really didn’t want to see the pictures on the wall any better than she could.
Standing in the middle, standing just like the actresses in some B movie that calls for people to be caught in a glamour, Dora and Rose stood, stock still, in silence. So, okay, that was normal for Rose, but Dora probably needed help. Charlotte grinned to herself, imagining the EMT crews shouting, “We need a phone, stat! Give me 10ccs of texting!”
If only it were that easy, was her second thought. Her plan called for her to wake her buddies out of the trance or whatever, but Charlotte had no idea how to go about doing it. Behind her, Scout pulled himself through the window with a muffled grunt, then turned back smoothly to the opening, rolling his rifle off his shoulder with a smooth motion. “Five one-thousand, six one-thousand,” he chanted.
“What?” Charlotte asked, but as he finished the second ‘thousand,’ tentacles exploded into the room. At the same moment, thunder shook through the mansion, and muzzle flash lit the room as Scout fired, using smooth snap-pulls to reload with the forward lever so quickly that the reports merged one after another into the echoing thunder, and more, tinnier bangs, somewhere down below.
“Timing the thunder. Also, explosive ammo,” Scout said. “Thought it might be a bit of discouragement. Got any idea of how to fix your friends?”
Charlotte shook her head.
“The bracelet, maybe?” Scout gestured. And, sure enough, when Charlotte brought it to her eyes and looked through it, the mysterious green gem began to glow, and green fire ran along the surface of the bracelet.
“Hey, Charlotte,” Dora said. “I was having the strangest dream.”
“Me, too,” Rose chimed in. “Um,” is there supposed to be tentacles coming in the window?”
“Yes,” answered Charlotte, but she backed away from the window.
“You want your sword?” Rose asked.
“Going stabby is not going to fix this mess.”
“You have a better plan?” Dora asked.
Charlotte held up the messy, muddy, wet rags in her hand in a clenched fist salute. “Better believe I do.” Then she darted out the door, headed for the front of the wing. There, once again, was the obligatory open, spiral staircase. Charlotte hit the top step flat out again, jumping for the candelabra chandelier, and grabbing it one handed. Just like in the old movies, it was on a latched pulley, so that it could be brought down and the candles lit, and her weight was enough to strip the ratchet and send the chandelier to the monumental entrance of the west wing, three stories below. Charlotte swung out, hitting the wall and feeling the heel of her party shoes break as she hammered it to slow her descent, like a demented rappel. A few feet from the ground, she kicked off her shoes as she somersaulted free. Luckily, more thunder coincided with the crash of the candelabra, almost drowning the loud dance music from the centre wing, which seemed to be an Irish skip rope song done techno.
Behind her, she could hear sizzling blasts and Rose yelling, “You want another piece of that?” Superfight was on like Donkey Kong.
Charlotte ran down the hall until she found the smaller staircase that had to lead to the gallery above the ballroom where she’d first seen Roach. She wrenched open the door and began to take the stairs three at a time, the tattered ends of her forest green dress slapping her thighs as she moved.
The superfight behind her was probably over, because the slithery sounds of tentacles mounting the stairs came from behind her. Oh, well. As she hit the top step, Charlotte turned with her most explosive speed and hurled her last chance missile at Roach, coming up the stairs below her.
Surprise, he caught it in one tentacle. “I’ve got you now, girl,” came the familiar voice, from somewhere in the midst of the mass.
Charlotte put her hand on the door into the gallery. And pulled it round, so, that she just needed to flick to throw the door open and appear to the party going on inside. “Yeah, no. I don’t think so. Look what you’re holding.” And, with her free hand, Charlotte pointed to the ripped remains of her dress.
Roach wavered, as though he hadn’t a clue what she was talking about. Oh, right, Charlotte thought. Alien.
“You know what’s going to happen when you burst into a party following a girl in a ripped dress, holding the rest of it? People are going to think you’re some kind of molester, and you can kiss your boss’s chance of being involved in the rest of this pageant good-bye.”
Roach’s tentacle body pulled itself together into a humanoid, if alien shape. That shape paused for a moment, then, finally, said, “That’s not fair!”
And all of Charlotte’s adrenaline went gushing out of her, leaving nothing but pity for the poor guy, who’d just been trying to do his job. “It doesn’t have to be that way. Look, all we wanted was to find out if you were Roi’nesh, because the CBI has a theory that a shapechanger is behind the disappearance of Michael Suzuki. You have anything to do with that.”
Roach’s shaped coalesced into his human form. Now recognisable, he made a very recognisable head shake of denial and frustration. “No, of course not. Look, I’m just a starship driver. I do my job, and just because I’m good at it, and the ship is parked where it’s safe, because no-one can spot its hyperdrive. The boss keeps giving me new ones. Like security. Which I know nothing about. Please, please don’t get me fired. I’m saving up to get married.”
“Okay,” Charlotte said at last. “I had a plan. It’ll still work, with a few changes.”
The tentacle thing turned back into Roach, and looked warily at her as she explained.
Five minutes later, Charlotte watched the party in the ballroom going full swing. If, by full swing, you meant a cluster of horrified parents strung out along the wall like teenagers at a real school dance, some of the contestants and their friends dancing with each other to blaring techno, and a bunch of male dancers, self-consciously wearing warm-up jackets and clustered around the free buffet. John and Kieran, Charlotte noticed, were gossiping with a few of the dancers. All in all, it looked like Mr. Diavolo’s crazy plans had run hard into reality. Oh, well, that was okay, because things were about to get lively again.
Because that was when a credibly ghostlike mammoth burst right through the ballroom doors at the east end. Marble statues went bowling out of the way as it trumpeted loud enough to be heard over the music. A few girls had time to s scream and get out of the way, suspiciously easily, if you were paying attention, before three girls and a guy in black-and-white body stockings with half-masks came charging in after it. The girl with the kung fu moves and the sword held back suspiciously (because she was a hologram being projected by Bruce, and he didn’t feel up to complicated audiovisuals), but the girl firing golden bolts, the speedster, and the boy throwing goblinarangs were all three of them all over the mammoth.
The mammoth had time to get one tusk into the big trolley that the cake had been sitting on, throwing it over, pastry arching in all directions. Then, one of the goblinarangs began to spool a line and a trail of smoke, as its rocket motors kicked in, quickly snagging the mammoth’s rear legs. A golden blast took the mammoth square in the face just as Rose bounced off its side, and the gigantic monster fell on its side. The horribly abused mansion absorbed this last insult with a structural sigh, and everyone stood, frozen, around the ghost mammoth, waiting to see what it would do next.
That, of course, was to turn into a bird and flit right out the balcony window, getting so close to Charlotte’ s head that she could have caught it had she not been clinging on to the tip of a tree for apparent dear life. That’s how the bad guy always gets away, Charlotte thought. So that it takes you until the summer crossover megaevent to find out what his sinister plan was.
Well, Charlotte’s sinister plan was to cover her secret identity, so as the eyes following the escaping Roach lit on hers, Charlotte shouted, letting a little tremor get into her voice, “A little help here?”
Ken was the first girl out the balcony door. Taking one look at Charlotte, dangling from the tree, she reached out to Charlotte. For a moment, Charlotte froze, looking at Ken’s wrist. Then she took Ken’s hand, and, trying not to look too strong or too athletic, Charlotte stepped over onto the balcony rail and collapsed onto the balcony floor.
Inside, Charlotte cringed, too distracted by picturing just how she must look at this moment to think her shock through. Then John was at her side, holding an old-fashioned fire blanket. Charlotte stood, and he wrapped it around her shoulders, letting it drape all the way down to her feet. Putting a little tremor in her voice, Charlotte said, “Oh, thanks, Ken. That elephant just slammed me right off the balcony. I grabbed the tree, but I couldn’t hold on a second longer.” Charlotte hoped no-one thought to ask where she’d been for the last twenty minutes, or what happened to her dress, besides “tree.”
“I’m just glad I could help,” Ken started, but she was drowned out by the screaming. Drawn to the drama, the girls on the balcony filed back into the ballroom. There, standing in the shattered circle of spattered pastry left over from the mastodon/stripper-cake battle stood Brittany, splattered with icing like a politician who’d just been pied. She was turned to Mr. Diavolo, and ranting about the party, her sweater, the fight, and, just because that wasn’t enough, the choice of music. Charlotte would have laughed, except that a) it was too dangerous, and b), it had been a long night, and she just wanted to get back to the bunkroom.
Get back to the bunkroom, she thought, as John and Kieran led her out, and figure out how Ken came to be wearing exactly the same kind of bracelet as Charlotte’s.