Chapter 3, 15: Upstairs, Downstairs
Charlotte pinned her nametag on carefully, and then sneaked a glance back over her shoulder at the inner wall of the ballroom. The red-headed boy was ignoring her. And everyone else, too, except for someone off to the side, where great, curtained window-doors led off to the first of three open balconies that lined the wall of the third floor main wing of the building. Charlotte glanced in that direction: Brittany and her friends, including Ken, for a change, so tanned that the slight yellow tinge left by her malaria almost added up to green. For just a second, Charlotte wondered if Scout had red hair, and felt a strange anger. Jealousy? That’s crazy, Charlotte, she scolded herself.
Charlotte liked the ballroom. Mostly. If you were rich, this was the way that you should live. It was huge, and full. She had an idea that Geithner’s Strike might not be big enough to host one of those really big parties they had on TV, but it was about as crowded with people as you could expect. There were eleven other contestants, everyone but Brittany dressed in what you could charitably call summer party frocks of the kind that she had seen at Hernandez’s. The middle-aged people in out-of-fashion formal wear would be their parents. Some men standing around in up-to-the-minute summer cottons, surrounding an over-size cake in the middle of the floor put right in front of the bandstand, would be some of Mr. Diavolo’s friends. The people in black and white carrying platters upright on the flat of their hands, just like one of those TV fancy parties, would be the catering staff. John had said that no-one in the Valley, not even Mr. Diavolo, could afford to hire many servants.
In fact, besides three kitchen help and a cleaner, Mr. Diavolo had only one manservant, whom he had brought with him to the valley. Glancing across the room, Charlotte saw a big guy on one of those inside balconies sticking out over the ballroom from a door leading into the next floor up. He was wearing a suit and a stern expression, and Charlotte recognised him from a picture John had shown her. So the manservant, the mysterious Roach, was working security. It was just like what a real supervillain would have at a party like this. Cool! And too bad for Roach, because Charlotte had the kind of plan that you had when you went to a supervillain’s party. But that was for later. Right now, she had to mingle if she was going to have any chance of winning this stupid contest.
Charlotte moved through the crowd, saying hello to the other contestants who weren’t Brittany, and meeting their parents. It took a good half hour, while the band did mike checks, but it was fun, because most of the parents were nice people, and wanted to hear about Earth. Charlotte made up a story about how she and her family had just arrived on Landing, and were building their own house in the old River Heights neighbourhood, near the College and the Legislature, which was why she was at camp this summerThat was her excuse for not knowing more about Landing Town, and especially about politics, which some of the dads seemed keen to talk about.
Finally, Charlotte broke free to look for her host. Mr. Diavolo was not hard to spot. There was just one guy wearing a light, cotton, double-breasted suit in pink with white pinstripes, with bright red/orange pocket set and tie. She would say “matched,” but that was a word, Charlotte was beginning to think, that she would never use with Mr. Diavolo, because it would give everyone the wrong impression. For example, tonight his great summer-weight suit ended with pink pinstripe shorts. Not only shorts, but short-shorts, complete with the pockets hanging out! The hem of the jacket was cut away to make sure that you could see that. From there, Mr. Diavolo’s shaved legs stretched all the way down to a pair of white leather half-boots, the kind that you’d call “Come Hit On Me Boots” if a girl were wearing them.
And yet even that wouldn’t make your eyes go to Mr. Diavolo right away. That was because he was standing near an enormously tall, hugely broad-chested, spindly legged man. And by “standing,” Charlotte meant that he was looming over Mr. Diavolo, like some demented human derrick gone tragically astray. As if that weren’t enough, he was wearing an expensive, print white shirt tucked into black dress pants, the shirt unbuttoned almost to his belly so that his chest could poke through, pushing out as though it were ready to pounce on Mr. Diavolo or anyone else who walked near. Mr. Diavolo, probably knowing that he would need even more than his usual “fashion sense” to stand out here, was wearing handlebar moustaches so long and elaborately waxed that they actually curled right round, and black, wide-framed hipster glasses.
Totally fashion forward, Charlotte thought sarcastically. Specifically, the guy with Mr. Diavolo looked so fashion forward that he was about to fall over. Or maybe that was because he was drunk. Either way. Well, time to say hello and thanks, Charlotte thought. It was the least she could do before she escaped into the building and executed Plan “No One Threatens Rosa And Gets Away With It.”
Of course, implementation of her escape plan wasn’t necessarily going to be easy. It didn’t really take Malvan technology into account, for example. From what Rosa and other superheroes said about them, Charlotte knew that Malvans often didn’t surround themselves with multi-layer high tech security. They just didn’t feel threatened enough. So what, exactly, was she even doing here Charlotte looked over at her Brittany, moving through the crowd of contestants. She was actually wearing one of those tight sweaters that Dora had bought. Pink and fluffy, and no bra, either. Some of the dads were gawking, and others were trying to hide the fact they were staring. Not too well, Charlotte could tell from the looks on their wives’ faces..
Oh, yes, Charlotte thought. I’m hrer to show that bitch up. Sweaters in summer? Charlotte gave that some thought, and reversed course for the cloackroom.
When she came back in from the side entrance, charlotte had a better Idea of just how big the ballroom was. It was even more amazing considering just how few really nice things she’d seen around town in the last two weeks. No statues, only a few good gardens. No-one had had time to make that stuff around here yet. But, still, here she was, walking into one of the three doors at the front of Mr. Diavolo’s ballroom between two nude statues of hugely muscular men. Which, for sure, is what you expected at some fabulous party thrown by some rich, super flamboyant gay guy. Yet the statues seemed off. The Greeks and Romans and Renaissance dudes had some ideas about . . . stuff. The statue-making dudes who made these had different ones. Charlotte blushed. A good girl shouldn’t notice that sort of stuff, she told herself. Still, she’d seen pictures.
So did Mr. Diavolo make these statues with weird Malvan tech? Did that mean he had security devices in the mansion? That was a scary thought. Well, ho help for it. Charlotte walked up to Mr. Diavolo. “Mr. Diavolo. Thank you so much for inviting me to this party. It’s so much fun!”
“Fun is not optional at my parties, Charlotte. You are to know that, by the command of Diavolo!” He turned to gesture up at the man looming beside him, who swayed slightly to bring his over-stuffed chest even closer. “This is Mr. Hernandez, of Hernandez’s Hardware.”
“Charlotte! I like that name. So old-fashioned! Just like the old-fashioned style of Hernandez’s hardware. You see it, you like it, you buy it, because no one’s offered it at that price since your grandmother was knee high to an elephant’s eye!”
Mr Hernandez swiveled his looming chest towards Charlotte. His head, loosely set above it, bobbled back and forth. “I see that you found something worth wearing at my summer sale! Priced to go, styled to move, no-one’s as low as Hernandez! Don’t just stand there, buy something! You like that? I just made it up. I should put it on a sign.” Mr. Hernandez pulled out one of those old spiral notepad thingies and began scribbling furiously on it with a gold pen that he’d just had stuck in his ear, half-hidden under his frizzy brown-and-white hair.
But he never lost eye contact with Charlotte as he did so. “It’s so nice to have two really pretty girls in the contest this year. Usually it’s just one that I would want to dress in Hernandez styles and send down to Landing. This year we have two, and may the best girl win!”
“Oh, that’s sweet,” Charlotte said. In a kind of chauvinistic way, she thought, feeling sorry for the other girls, whose real problems were mostly makeup and unflattering hair styles. And the one girl needed braces.
“Are the other judges here tonight?” Charlotte asked Mr. Diavolo.
“No.” Mr. Diavolo smirked, and waved at an improbably gigantic cake in the middle of the ballroom floor that could only possible make sense if it were holding a stripper. A very big stripper. Or a team of strippers. Probably a team of strippers, all dressed up as the Village People, knowing Mr. Diavolo. “They’re a bit weird about having fun.”
Unh-hunh, Charlotte thought. “Well, I can’t wait. Oh! I see Brittany. She’s at the same summer camp as I am, you know,” she said to Mr. Hernandez. “I’d love to compare notes with her! She’s so nice.”
Just so you know, Charlotte thought, this Charlotte Wong girl is just impossibly sweet and naïve. Probably good at math, too. I should really find a family restaurant to work at, next. Confucius say: cute girls get good tips!
Charlotte glided across the floor, glad that the plan didn’t call for her to wear those stupid pumps yet. Behind her, John and Kieran moved in to monopolise Mr. Diavolo’s attention. Time for step 2: Positioning. Charlotte carefully moved past the knot of girls and parents that surrounded Brittany on the ballroom side, edging along the wall until she got to the space made by the masonry railings that restricted access to the open window alcove. A slight breeze, trying its best to be chilly in the muggy night, came from the window, and Charlotte’s skin prickled. It was the feeling that you got when it might be just starting to rain, and your imagination was expecting the first drops to hit you any minute. Probably, Charlotte thought, because of the tension. Or it might have something do with the weather. It really did look like the thunderstorm the airport weather guy had predicted on local radio was about to happen. She could feel her hair beginning to frizzle. No, you don’t, she scolded her follicles, silently. Think about someone else for a change. Think about Rosa.
Charlotte stepped into Brittany’s attention space. “Hi, Brittany. I love your sweater!” Gambit offered.
“Hi, Char-Char!” Bitch, Charlotte thought. No-one calls me that except friends and family, and you aren’t either. But you know that. “And I love your dress. Is it a family heirloom?” Gambit accepted. You’re so obvious, Brittany.
“Why, no. I got it at Hernandez’s this afternoon, in the clearance sale.” Double down. If Brittany had the brains that God gave a cow. . . Charlotte stepped back, the heel of her foot touching changing flooring as she passed the line that separated the ballroom from the balcony terrace. A tiny spray of rain touched her hand, and a distant boom echoed up the valley. The lightning, hidden by the bulk of Mr. Diavolo’s huge mansion, made itself known by the flash of light that flickered across the sky in Charlotte’s peripheral vision. Because her eyes did not break from Brittany’s for a second. Never mind how dumb you are. How mean are you , Brit-Brit?
“Oh, you do have an eye. I got this sweater at the same place. It was on the New Arrivals rack. It’s just perfect tonight, don’t you think, with the weather getting cool?” Yeah, mean all right.
Charlotte put her bare forearm,s up over her shoulders in a huddle and gave a little shiver. “Good thinking ” Let us know that you were shopping the Fall fashions, girl. Of course, the move left her jacket hanging over her dress, as its tightly wound tail came loose from Charlotte’s forearm. She put her arms down, unwrapped it, turned it back right side out, and threw the bright mustard yellow shell over her shoulder. At just the right moment, a lightning bolt struck in the mountains behind, and a flood of light etched the two girls and the people around them in the bright light, so that everyone could see the way that the shell’s ultra-fashionable colour blended from Charlotte’s dress into her tanned bi-racial complexion. “It is cold.”
They stood like that for a moment, as Brittany tried to think of something to say. This was the scary part. If Brittany were just with her friends, she could save face by making fun of the shell. If she was popular enough in the room, she might still pull that off. Charlotte didn’t think that she was, but her plan would fail if this didn’t go right.
Then the boom of the thunder washed over them, carrying with it a spray of rain. “Oh!” Brittany said. “We’re going to get soaked!” She ducked inside.
As the thunder died away, Charlotte could hear a crow cawing in triumph.
Then, with perfect timing, the band began playing. They were covering Boney M, “Rasputin.” Of course. Cousin May loved that song, and, if Charlotte guessed right, had seen Chippendale dancers doing it. Not that Charlotte would tattle to her aunt, if only because Auntie Ma probably already knew. Anyway, Charlotte could barely see what was going on in the crowd, and no-one was paying attention to her, either.
So that’s Stage 3: distraction, Charlotte thought. Now for Stage 4: Total Ninja. Time to go ninja. For all her worries, Charlotte knew that the CBI couldn’t get into this house without a warrant. It was up to her. With a flex of her legs, ignoring the pain of her road rash, Charlotte jumped for a third-storey on the wall of the east wing, level with the ballroom because of the lay of the land under the mansion .
As she lit on the balcony ledge, she held her wristcomm to her lips. “You guys ready?”
“Divert the Diversion is go!” Rose’s voice came back. “You want your sword now?”
“No,” Charlotte said. “We’re spying, not fighting.” Charlotte put her hand to the balcony door. It wasn’t even locked. Good. It was really raining, now, and one lightning bolt after another rolled across the sky. She eased the door open and stepped inside.
The room was disappointingly un-Malvan. Unless two more marble statues of naked guys counted. One was being used as a coat rack, and the other had a fedora on its head and a skein of brightly-coloured neckties around its neck. They flanked the entrance to the balcony, of course, and just inside was a huge desk in some kind of shiny wood, and a big globe with the barely-familiar continents of Landing. Along the walls to either side were high bookshelves filled with volumes bound in matched, tooled, red leather.
Mr. Diavolo reads, now? Charlotte thought. She looked a little closer. They were volumes of the Statutes of the Colony of Landing. Mr. Diavolo was a lawyer, now? On second look, Charlotte noticed that where the series came to an end, a 1985 World Book encyclopedia started. No, Mr. Diavolo did not read, and he wasn’t a lawyer. He was perfectly set up to plagiarise junior high school essays, though.
Beside the desk was a filing cabinet with roll-out drawers. Charlotte opened on. It rolled out softly. The rails were filled with packed file folders. Charlotte reached into one at random and pulled out a thick packet of paper.
It was a 2009 number of Details magazine. It had Justin Timberlake on the cover. Research! Charlotte thought. I’ll have to come back for this later. This was probably was not going to turn out to be the place where Mr. Diavolo made his I-will-rule-the-world plans.
Charlotte turned towards the door, and her heart almost stopped. Someone was standing there. Roach. “Is the washroom around here, somewhere?”
“Very funny,” he answered, in a surprisingly high voice. “I had a feeling that you would be thought you might try to snoop around. Now, if you’ll come with me, a short session in the Agoniser will nip any number of problems in the bud.”
Without so much as glancing sideways, Charlotte jumped up on the desk. “Oh, that doesn’t sound like fun, and Mr. Diavolo guaranteed fun.”
“It’ll be fun for me,” the big man said, smiling. His head and right shoulder erupted into a coiling mass of ropy tentacles stretching towards Charlotte.
Woah, Charlotte thought. “Oh, hey, I’m not that kind of girl!” Maybe she needed my sword, after all. Charlotte brushed the tentacles aside with a blocking strike and bounced backwards towards the window. Roach’s body stretched into a four legged shape that his bulk slid along like a Slinky wiggling, until it bulked up in an almost human shape standing between the two statues, blocking the balcony door.
Yeah, a bit predictable, Charlotte thought, as she reversed course and somersaulted through the open door into the hall. Kicking out with her right foot against the carpeted floor, she dropped into a flat sprint that ended when she reached another railing, this one fencing off the great well of yet another spiral stair case, this one leading up, it looked, from the first floor. Charlotte jumped up on the balcony and then cleared the entire well to make her landing on the far balcony, headed for the huge building’s east wing. She thought.
A door was open, so she slipped through it, into the darkness of a generic guest bedroom, behind the door. With a moment to spate, she quickly texted, “Confirmed: manservant is Roi’nesh shapechanger.” It was a good thing that the Liberty League version of autocorrect knew how to spell ‘shapechanger,’ she thought, as she fixed ‘Roi’nesh.’
So now the word was out. Which was too bad, because now John and Rosa were going to be all smug about proving that Mr. Diavolo’s servant was one of the mighty Malvans’ shapechanging servitor race, so that it wasn’t the Paradigm Pirates and weirdly intelligent sabretooth cats they were fighting, just a shapechanger. Charlotte didn’t agree. As far as she was concerned, Roach was just some dude set on throwing her in the Interrogatoriser. Which she might want to avoid.
Because the more that Charlotte saw of Mr. Diavolo, the harder she found it to believe that he was the mastermind who wanted to steal Mr. Suzuki’s laptop, and presumably all of the gold that was going to be shipped with it. Now Charlotte found herself wondering if it as the butler who had done it in the first place. It was always the butler in English mysteries, right? So she really didn’t want to let Roach put her in the Torturafier.
And that was the point that her thoughts had gotten to when Charlotte noticed that there was something really weird going on in this guest bedroom. Sure, it was storming outside and the window was open, and you could say that that might be the reason that there were friggin’ leaves swirling in the wind blowing through the open window. But how many mansion bedrooms have songbirds standing on the furniture, watching you.
And why, Charlotte thought, am I not completely freaked out by how weird things just got? Is this some kind of dream? Well, the way that Roach just came busting through the door is kind of dreamlike, and I am moving very slowly and dreamily as I swing into a roundhouse kick.
It was hard to understand later, when Charlotte looked back at it. Dreams are dreams, and reality is reality. Sure, you could fall into a dream without noticing. That sometimes made what you thought was reality pretty weird. The thing was, though, that this moment, with her uncoiling into a full extension, full power kick with all the speed in her coiled muscles was no dream. It just felt like a dream. Until her foot connected with the unexpected mass of Roach’s body and sent him flying into the wall across the corridor with an impact that shook the building.
Suddenly, the world was very clear and most undreamlike. Also, Roach came right back at her like a wrestler coming off the ropes. Since Charlotte had no intention of rehearsing the whole “Charlotte gets put into the Agonisalator” move, even if it was her ticket straight to the WWE, she ran, straight out of the room onto the balcony and over the side.
Plummeting through the sheets of rain, her dress and half-closed shell fluttering, Charlotte thought to herself that the dress was probably ruined, but she hoped tdhat she could save the shell. The ground came up at her with a staggering oof. The smell of dirt, wet after the first rain in weeks, filled her nose as her feet sank into the loam of one of Mr. Diavolo’s beds.
Charlotte held her phone to her mouth. “Uh, guys? Some help here?”
“Maybe. Things. Getting. Weird.” Dora’s voice came back, slow and dreamlike. Charlotte was getting to hate that adjective. Very quickly.
And then her surroundings were lit by a flash of lightning, and Charlotte saw what Dora was talking about. Or, at least, what she should have been talking about, because it was plenty weird. That thing being a freaking mammoth, rearing in the echoing flash, or was it now two flashes, or more besides, anyway enough light for Charlotte to see an albino mammoth, rearing above her, ready to trample.
Charlotte dodged, desperately, getting just barely clear of the giant creature before its mighty paw struck the ground. Silently, without a sign of impact. And, come to that, sinking right into the ground. “A freaking ghost mammoth? What the heck?”
And if the spooky crap wasn’t bad enough, Roach came walking right through the mammoth. “It’s harmless,” he announced. A little optimistically, Charlotte thought. “I’m not.” Well, that’s probably fair, she also thought.
Now another flash, this time low and to the ground, and with an immediate bang. Bullets. Charlotte glanced left. Scout loomed out of the darkness, his Glocks in his hands. She glanced right. They were hitting the mammoth and Roach. And not doing anything to either. The mammoth, they just went through. Against Roach, they pocked his body like a marble hitting Play-do, and with about as much effect.
“Crap.” Scout said.
“Run.” Charlotte suggested.
‘Kay.” But he didn’t. Not until Charlotte busted a move right past him, headed for a bank leading to some other part of the garden that didn’t have a ghost mammoth or an alien shapeshifter in it. Hopefully.
“Oof,” he added, as he tripped trying to run down the steep slope behind her. Fortunately, his recovery was good. Scout rolled to his feet just behind Charlotte when they hit the bottom of the slope. Charlotte looked back up just in time to see the ghost mammoth wrap its trunk around Roach and lift him out of sight behind the slope of the bank.
“Guess they’re not friends,” Charlotte said. “Look, not to sound ungrateful, but what are you doing here, Scout?”
“Tailing someone. Redhead, good-looking?”
“Oh. I saw him,” Charlotte answered.
“Uh, yeah,” Scout answered. “Wasn’t expecting to run into ghosts, though. Was told this was going to be an alien run. Damn it. Shoulda been prepped.”
“How, if you didn’t know?” Charlotte asked.
Scout looked down and hit the butt of one of his Glocks into his empty left hand, clearly angry at himself. “If I paid more attention. Lives could be at stake. Where’s your friends?”
Shocked, Charlotte drew in her breath. “I don’t know.”
“We’ve got to find them.”
And that was when the ghost cave bear tore through the hedge in front of them.
“Soon as we deal with our own trouble.”