Chapter 3, 24: Treasure
There was the taste of stuffiness in the nose, and pressure bursting in Charlotte’s chest. It didn’t matter. The sun dappled floor of Long Lake passed under her mask with astonishing speed, and cold water rushed over her open hand as she raked the pebble and silt of the bottom. A plume of dust clouded the water. Her snorkel pressed against her cheek, as Charlotte reminded herself not to chew it. It wasn’t good for the mouthpiece.
At last, she crossed the shadow of the boom, cast over a particularly big rock, almost blue in the underwater light. Charlotte knew that it was safe to let stop following the lake bottom and climb towards the air. With a kick of her flippers, she pushed upwards. At the top of the climb, she broke surface into the glorious sunlight and sucked air greedily into her lungs. It was sweet and fresh, and she had to be careful not to let the flippers drive her so far into the air that she showed above the rim of Makeout Log.
Flippers were cheating, of course. But you could just go so fast with them, and it left your hands free. Charlotte put up her hand onto the top of the log to steady herself. Her fingers felt smooth metal. Hunh. Well, this particular log had been one of the frames in a boom that had broken up in a spring storm. Now, one end of the former forest giant was wedged into a rock, while the other floated free. Kids sometimes swam out from it from Paradise Island dock and took selfies, just to show that they could make the two mile distance. Also, they made out, which was why the log was called that. There were a lot of “Makeout” this and “Makeout” thats around Geithner’s Strike. Probably had something to do with the way that the place was absolutely overrun by teenagers.
Like the two boys who were curiously watching her over their fishing poles from their boat on the far side of Makeout Log. Charlotte turned to face them and put her finger to her mouth in shush mode. They showed no signs of seeing her.
On the bright side, they showed no signs of seeing her. Her secret was safe.
Charlotte let go of Makeout Log and sank behind its bulk. Taking her snorkel in her mouth, Charlotte let herself to the dead man float in the water.
“Which?” She texted. Which way.
“Holding.” From where Rose was watching, high on the bluffs of Paradise Island, Ken’s canoe was still drifting in the sunlight, Ken lying in the bottom, one leg cocked over the other, reading an ancient paperback all the way from Earth, Jargoon Pard.
None of the girls thought that was going to go on. The CBI could get phone records. No surprise, then, that the redheaded boy had called Ken that night. The thing was, why had he called her instead of going to see her? Charlotte didn’t know, but she did know that they’d misplaced a mysterious, illusion-casting female redhead and gained a male redhead who rode like a girl.
Rose figured out the same thing. The “boy” redhead who was dating both Brittany and Ken was actually their enemy, Eve, the weirdly immortal cave girl shaman of the Paradigm Pirates. The gay immortal cave girl shaman, Charlotte reminded herself. Did gay girls like to dress up as boys? Charlotte had a vague sense that some did. She wished that she had one of the gay olds around to ask, like Emily Neilsen or Rebecca Hirsch. But she didn’t. Rosa was an old fashioned computer who didn’t know about stuff like that, and Agent John had just given them a weird look, like asking one gay person what another gay person might like to do was like assuming that all Chinese people knew kung fu.
But the point was, the only reason that Eve wouldn’t go see Ken is if she was afraid that she was being followed. Because she didn’t want to lead Professor Paradigm to Ken? That was a leap and a half, Charlotte thought, but figure that it was true. Then Ken was an important part of this puzzle. Hopefully, on this first Free Day, she’d go hook up with Eve. And Charlotte would be there to eavesdrop. Or whatever. Eve was overdue for an ass-kicking.
Or did Charlotte really think that anymore? Honestly, she didn’t know. The more Charlotte thought about it, the more she saw Eve as one messed up chick. That didn’t make her any less trouble, for sure, but you didn’t beat up messed up people. You put them on lithium or something.
Of course, Charlotte did know kung fu.
“G2N.” Charlotte’s wristcomm buzzed. Ken was headed north up Long Lake, towards the Bend. Charlotte cast off from the log with a push and flipped to come up, kicking along under the surface, as safe a distance from the canoe as she could manage. As long as Rose could keep them in sight, Charlotte could probably follow the canoe without being spotted. Rose would warn Charlotte if Ken looked back, and Charlotte could dive and probably stay below longer than Ken wanted to check her six.
Probably. This was a stupid plan. The only thing it had going for it was that Charlotte had been aching to see if she could make the swim out to the lake. Well, it turned out that she could. Now she was cold. Charlotte sure hoped that Ken and Eve hooked up soon.
But they didn’t. Instead, Ken paddled all the way round the neck of the bend without stopping, although pretty damn slowly, if you asked Charlotte, stopping every once and a while to uncrouch and stretch her legs as far as the canoe would let her, the little boat rocking the way that canoes did. Pretty soon, Ken’s canoe got round the bend, out of sight of anyone on Paradise Island, although not, naturally, of Rose, who had just across the surface of the lake and up to the top of South Mountain.
As soon as she thought she was safe, Ken took a quick peek behind, apparently not catching the ripple as Charlotte dived just ahead of her. Then she reversed the canoe with a few quick paddles and headed for shore. So far, so good, Charlotte thought. Eve, or whoever the mysterious redhead was, could come down to the lake from their farm without crossing the ridge and being seen.
Except maybe by Scout, if he had the farm staked out. Charlotte hoped that he would, because then he would be creeping down through the woods behind Eve right now, and they would be following the two baddies together. Well, if Ken was a baddie. Charlotte didn’t know about that, notwithstanding the company she kept.
Ken beached at a little cove, getting out, she quickly pulled the canoe up onto the sand, and then disappeared into the woods. Charlotte swam after her, headed not for the beach, but for a stretch just beside it where grey-green rock plunged into the water, with the bulge of someone with just a little too much forehead, dripping lichen and moss. Not somewhere that a normal swimmer would want to try to land, but an easy climb for an Eight Spirit Dragon Kung Fu adept.
At the top of the climb, Charlotte pulled the streamlined swimmer’s bag over her shoulder, careful not to snag the handle of the Pearl Harmony Sword as she did so. She pulled her sneakers out of it, and put her snorkel and fins in in their place. Now she had decent shoes for bushwacking. Too bad that she was still wearing her swimsuit. It was a nice piece, black with stained-glass style print panels. Rosa had good taste, Charlotte had thought when she saw it. Definitely not the kind of thing that she’d have to wear for the Swimsuit Contest, but still cute. And now she’d have to drag it through the woods.
Oh, well, Charlotte thought, as she crouched low to worm through the thick bush that, as usual, fronted the darkness of the woods. That’s the superhero life. Sometimes you just have to take it tough.
Actually, Charlotte soon realised, sometimes you had to take it very tough. Charlotte had not paused to consider that she might have trouble following a normal through the woods, but it turned out that Ken was very good at bushwacking. Charlotte strained her Eight Spirit training to follow.
Before very long, they had reached a draw, filled with several windfall pines, lying in a tangle of bleached-white wood, trunks and main branches supported five feet off the ground by more branches jammed into the dirt, a sloped lattice of dead wood like bone to make the kind of jungle gym that would defeat the most hyperactive third grader.
Ken stood at the lip of the draw for a moment, and then plunged into it. Before Charlotte’s disbelieving eyes, Ken began to move through it like she’d turned intangible.
Oh, come on, Charlotte thought. “Can you track her?” She texted.
“No,” Rose texted. Then, “Wait1.” Pause. “Dora in the air.”
Charlotte looked up, shading her eyes against the glare of the sun. There was Dora, cruising at six hundred feet, trying to keep her golden nimbus to a minimum. Well, at least Dora was trying to stay in the sun.
With respect to Ken, of course, Charlotte reminded herself. Eve-or-whoever would be coming down the hill. He would be able to spot Dora easily. This was turning into a cluster –screwup.
After a moment, Charlotte’s wristcomm buzzed again. All clear.
Charlotte ran across the draw on top of the deadwood, relying on her kung fu skills to keep her up. Plunging into the woods at the first clear break, Charlotte followed the track that Dora had set her.
“She’s going into H2O!” Dora texted. Was that even a good abbreviation? Charlotte wondered.
Soon enough, Charlotte was down on the beach on the Paradise Island side of the headland that the Long Lake Bend wrapped around. And, sure enough, there was Ken, already half way back to Makeout Log. Not only was she was doubling back, but she’d taken the time to leave another canoe down at the beach!
Oh, sure, Charlotte sneered at herself in her most sarcastic tone. You superheroes are so subtle and clever. No normal would ever catch on to one of your super stealthy operations.
Hey, Charlotte thought back at herself. Turns out Ken isn’t exactly what you’d call ‘normal.’ The sarcastic side of her had no answer for that. If only I could win arguments with actual people that easily. Well, no help for it. Charlotte put her shoes back into her bag and put on her own flippers and snorkel and hit the water.
This was stupid, part of Charlotte realised. Ken had made them. Following her was just going to get them into trouble. Problem was, another part of Charlotte was mad. And before the two parts had settled their argument, Ken had reached Makeout Log. Pulling herself over to the log, Ken reached both arms around the hulking, water-soaked, brown wood, and leaned her body on top of it so that her face hung down over its far side. Water splashed as the canoe rolled, knocking the log and sliding apart with the faint waves coming from the motor boats passing in mid-lake.
Finally, Ken pushed herself upright and prodded Makeout Log with the paddle held in one hand. In her other, just for a moment, Charlotte saw that Ken was holding something that sparkled in the sunlight. Now Charlotte wondered if the metal thing that she had felt on the log had been a stay bolt after all.
Instead of rowing, Ken turned around and began fiddling with something. Bent over doubled, she gave an explosive grunt that Charlotte could hear even four hundred yards away across the water. A smooth swing ended in a splash as the canoe’s outboard motor hit the water. Ken pulled the starter pulley, and the sound of the engine turning over broke the more natural sounds close at hand and the muted but still roaring echo of motorboats, chainsaws, and other engines that were the constant backdrop of life on Long Lake.
Charlotte had hardly swum another hundred yards when the motor on Ken’s canoe caught, and the camper whizzed off towards Geithner’s Strike with whatever had been stashed on Makeout Log.
Well, that was that, Charlotte thought, as she pulled herself onto Makeout Log. Straddling it, she looked down at the top of the log.
“Guess she gave you the slip,” one of the boys in the fishing boat said, loudly, so that the sound carried over the water..
“Yeah, I guess,” Charlotte answered.
“Superhero business?” The other boy asked.
“Only you’ve got a sword, so we figured. . .”
Charlotte was suddenly glad that she was wearing her scuba mask. If people figured out that the Charlotte Wong who was in the beauty contest was one of the Earther superheroes tearing up the Valley in the summer., that would be that. And she was surprised that she was glad, because she hadn’t reaslised that she cared about the contest that much.
It was because she wanted to beat Brittany, she told herself. Yeah, that was it. She looked up at the boys. “Did you see where she got that thing from?”
“Nah,” the first boy said. “It’s just a log. Even a roughrider couldn’t put something on it and make it stay.”
Which was true, but, then, roughriders were just supposed to stand on the logs in the booms, balancing with their poles and cleated boots, and guide the rafts of logs down through the rapids, not use them as mobile storage devices. Maybe roughriders took their lunches to work, and these kids had Dads who were roughriders and knew that?
“Maybe there’s a secret compartment?” The second boy shouted.
Maybe, Charlotte thought. She started to hammer and prod the log, and, sure enough, there was. A piece of wood slid aside, letting Charlotte see inside.
Treasure. It was. It was overwhelming. There was a tiny vase of some translucent material, with the same kinds of colours as her bathing suit, all blues and greens and yellows lit from within. There was a dagger, shaped like a sword, of a green metal like tarnished copper, but much too shiny, with a gem in the hilt. There was a necklace, of black, faceted balls, not quite metal, nor yet gems, drinking in the sunlight and giving back a glint of the moon. And there were empty spaces, where things taken left their imprints on the waterlogged wood. A tablet of some kind, a round thing just exactly the size of Charlotte’s bracelet, a long thing.
“Look out!” Charlotte heard. But she was already in motion, the Pearl Harmony arcing out of its sheathe and into her hand, gem bright red, like the ghosts of the Old Red Gods had awakened on this planet so far from their home. Again.
Without needing to see what was bearing down on her, Charlotte let her instincts guide her blade around. And so it was that the shock of seeing a green-gilt serpent thing, a parasol of frill erected on spiny ribs stretching its head to the size of a small car coincided with the ripping impact of the Pearl Harmony Sword.
In the moment of the arcing cut, pearl light flashed. Warned by her instincts, Charlotte stepped back lightly along Makeout Log as the serpent’s blood rained down. Where it touched water or the soaked surface of the log, the blood gave a thick smoke that curled up like swamp gas. Charlotte caught the whiff of a burning smell, and the choke of rotten eggs.
“Oh my God,” one of the boys shouted.
“Get out of here!” Charlotte choked out over her shoulder risking a glance just long enough to see that they’d pulled out their oars and were backing away at full speed.
The serpent tried to take advantage of her inattention and struck, taking the point of the Pearl Harmony full in the face. Once again, Charlotte stepped back, right foot finding the treacherous camber of Makeout Log by instinct. Pivoting on her toes like a dancer, Charlotte slid her left foot back more carefully. She had a feeling that she had reached the end of her run.
She had. The ball of her foot felt the sawn edge of Makeout Log and settled into it. Charlotte gripped down on it as hard as she could, her hard rubber flipper turned in a moment from advantage into handicap. And this time she kept her eye on the serpent.
It looked back at her. Watery blood continued to drip from two deep wounds along its neck. Charlotte inched her right hand up on the handle of the Pearl Harmony, while holding her left hand behind her, like a roughrider balancing on a log.
Come on, Snakey, Charlotte thought. Come on, let me go Conan on your butt.
The snake paused, letting its head swing back and forth, like it was hesitating, or maybe trying to pull some half-ass hypnotism type move. A golden light mixed with the pearl.
It was good to know that Dora had her back, but Charlotte waved her friend off. If Dora tried to TK Charlotte out of danger, the big serpent would strike, and if its blood was acid, Charlotte didn’t even want to know how poisonous its venom might be.
The log rocked as another motorboat’s wake passed under, and Charlotte wiggled her left hand, feeling the counterbalance steady her on her treacherous chosen ground. In her right hand, she could feel the guard of the Pearl Hamrony now.
Suddenly, the serpent struck! Time seemed to stand still as Charlotte pulled her left hand in and gripped the hilt of the Pearl Harmony with it. Her sword was only a hand-and-a-half blade in a pinch, but this was a pinch. Right now, she needed every every bit of damage that she could get.
Looping around the lunging head, Charlotte’s blade struck true, with the clean feeling of sweet, sharp steel meeting something not up to resistance. Charlotte had a flashing glimpse of something very big flying free, but she was already somersaulting to bring her flippers above her head as she struck the cold, clear water.
Diving as hard as she could, Charlotte kicked. Who knew how far acid blood could penetrate through the water?
Not far, as it turned out. She kicked again, turning hard to see the battle. And her wristcomm buzzed a warning. Through smoky tendrils, Charlotte watched the body of the serpent thrashed wildly. And, with every stroke, leaving a new streak of smoky water.
Did it seem to be coming her way? It did, she thought. Crap. Charlotte began kicking backwards, but, before she could make any distance, a golden cage surrounded her. A moment later, she was flying far above the water on the power of the Maid of Gold.
“Baby there’s a snake in the water,” Dora said, flying beside Charlotte.
“I think that the lyric is that there’s a shark in the water,” Rose answered from Charlotte’s wristcomm.
“Buzzkill,” Dora answered.
“The important thing is that we learned something today,” Charlotte said.
“We did?” Dora asked.
“Don’t go swimming until an hour after you sneak?” Rose ventured.
“What?” Dora asked.
“I’m reaching,” Rose answered. “Charlotte?”
But Charlotte was feeling, suddenly, very, very tired. “I’ll explain later.” And she glanced up into the trees. Where, somewhere, Ken was going, to someone, with one of the mysterious things that gave her ‘malaria.’ Somehow, some intuition, let Charlotte look into Ken’s mind and realise that the one most important thing in Ken’s mind right now.
Eve had to get ‘malaria,’ too.