Supposedly, tree planters are on the block all day, because they are highly motivated, highly fit workers making good money on piece rate. In reality, it turns out to be impossible to get twenty pickers into three trucks in less than about forty-five minutes.
Chapter 3, 32: Stakeout, Takedown
Darkness was falling by the time the team reached the outskirts of Geithner’s Strike. It was late night of the day on which the team had gone to the Moon. Charlotte was mounted on Tellus, Dora on a subdued and dull Kawai. Literally, since glowing in the dark would tend to give away secret identities. Rose was riding Merrylegs, an amiable little while pony from the dude camp that could be trusted to wander off into a corner and graze when Rose dismounted to run. Doctor Cambridge was on Lady, a fat, black mare with a white blaze that was so docile that she could hardly be persuaded to canter, but with a nasty habit of nipping the flanks of nearby horses.
Sunny, yellow light was just beginning to leak through the woods to either side as the western sky over the mountains took on a full, red colour. The evening star of Landing (an inner planet, similar to Venus) was visible in the southeast.
Up ahead, the lake highway joined a downhill road in a “T” intersection. The first streetlight of town bent over it on its high lamp-post. Just as the group rode under its bulb, it flickered into blue-white life.
“Ooh, old fashioned!” Dora said.
“Mercury filaments are a health hazard,” Doctor Cambridge answered. “Something should be done.”
But it felt familiar to Charlotte, like the old streetlights in Hope. It reminded her of Mom, and new tears leaked through her eyelids to go with the ones that Tellus’s misbehaviour had brought on, earlier. I really am tired, she thought.
Somewhere in the darkness, crows called from their evening rookery, and Charlotte’s heart lifted.
The clopping sound of a horse came from up the downhill road. Charlotte looked up, taking a firmer grip of Tellus by knees and reins with her left hand while instinctively reaching to the hilt of the Pearl Harmony sword with her right.
But it was just Bruce, who was just riding down the hill to join them on a big, white stallion. Though not nearly as big as Tellus, and when the white saw Tellus’s earth yellow frame leading the others, he started, visibly. “Woah, Tornado,” Bruce said, sawing back on his reins.
Tellus, for a wonder, was well-behaved, not even batting an eye at the new horse, apparently completely unworried.
“Sorry, guys,” Bruce said. “This was the only horse the line boss would let me have tonight. I can ride behind, if you need, Char-Char. ”
Charlotte felt a surge of worry. What if Tellus whirled on Tornado and got into traffic? Tough as he was, being hit by a car was no joke. Even the little tin boxes they mostly drove around Geithner’s Strike that looked like Archie should be driving them. But she was damned if she was going to admit defeat now. She shook her head. She would control Tellus . . . somehow.
“Okay, everybody, over to the side,” Dr. Cambridge said, very loudly. Tellus stirred beneath Charlotte. Ahead of them in the gathering darkness, the red tail-lights of the evening drag shimmered in the heat. Fortunately, the town didn’t allow streetside parking on the main street, so they could crowd up against the curb.
Just past the first four-way stop, a car pulled up the hill from lakeshore and turned right onto the drag, giving them just barely enough of a berth that the horses. Lady snorted and tossed her head, and Dr. Cambridge barely held on. It got worse when one of the girls in the convertible -type screamed loudly enough to be heard over the stereo, which was booming Girl in a Coma’s cover of “Walking After Midnight.”
Though ‘heard’ was pretty relative, Charlotte thought. It’s not like they could make out a word that she was saying. But then the car pulled level with Tellus and Charlotte, and an Asian girl with yellow-died hair leaned out over the bare leg that she had up crook against the dashboard. Her bare leg was visible under her short-shorts from practically her ass-crack to her white strap pumps. And Charlotte could what she was yelling perfectly well. Auntie Ma would ground me for a month for even thinking that, Charlotte thought.
Oh, yeah, that ain’t it, sister.
The Model-T pulled away, the music breaking to the Me-Toos, “My Boyfriend’s Back.” Bruce pulled alongside Charlotte. “You gonna go beat her ass?”
Tellus didn’t even look over at Tornado. I guess, Charlotte thought, he knows what’s hat. “Eh,” Charlotte answered. “Sometimes, I wish I was a boy. Then I could just go hammer her. Well, I couldn’t, because then I’d be hitting a girl.” Charlotte paused. “I mean, hitting a girl who wasn’t wearing a mask and a costume and trying to take over the world with a weaponised salad spinner.” She paused. “But, you know.”
“What would you do with a weaponised salad spinner?” Dora asked as she came up on the other side on Kawaii. “Did you see that jacket?”
Charlotte nodded. She had totally seen that jacket. White leather on a night like this? “Hope that girl has a dry cleaner ridealong in her posse, or she’ll be dirty and a hot mess soon. Also, hot. Because my adjectives have double meanings today.”
“Girls!” Dr. Cambridge scolded. “We do not judge by someone’s clothes.” She paused for a moment to gauge her charges’ reaction. “It’s that kind of thinking that holds women back,” Dr. Cambridge went on to explain, as she checked to see if her Jackie O-hat was still sitting properly. Her hair was frizzled in the heat, but she had refused a Stetson on the grounds that it was too redneck.
Charlotte pulled her mouth closed. She was sure that her pout was glowing in the dark, but, if Dr. Cambridge noticed, she didn’t say anything as they turned down the next road, and down into the yard of the Lakeside Motel.
This was where the CBI had set up its surveillance operation. Apparently, that was something that real police did when they were worried that movements in and out of their headquarters were being watched. Charlotte had to wonder if anyone was fooled, given the sheer number of hunky young CBI agents and Special Agents and Specialer Agentists and whatnot had suddenly decided to take rooms at the only motel on the south side of Geithner’s Strike with a stable. But she wasn’t in charge.
Some of the CBI men offered to take the horses, but Charlotte took Tellus down to the stable herself.
Charlotte was picking a pebble out of his left rear hoof when Rose appeared next to her. “Char-Char. Meeting’s on.” A CBI man appeared next to her and took Tellus’s fetlock from her. Charlotte winced to see how rough the Colonial’s grip was, but Tellus only sook his ears. She put her hand on his flanks. “You’ve got a nice stable and some oats coming, boy, so don’t give the boys too much grief.”
The Colonial gave Charlotte a questioning look as she left, but Charlotte didn’t explain. Out of the corner of her eyes, she could see Tellus turn his head to watch her leave, and she could swear that there was a grin in his eye.
The lights flickered out just as Charlotte left the stable. Great, she thought, another blackout. People in Geithner’s Strike talked about having the Internet in their ten year plan, but right now, between outages at the power plant, transformers blowing, and wires falling down, they couldn’t even keep the lights on four nights in five.
In the restaurant, Agents Kieran and John had gathered the team around a Formica table, filled with plates of sandwiches, cut fruit, melons, and those cuts of lunch meat rolled around bits of cheese that you sometimes got when people who didn’t know how to cook were trying a little too hard to throw a fancy party.
It was lit by an overhead lantern. An overhead projector with a white screen sat on the next table over, uselessly waiting for the power to come on again. In the meantime, Charlotte could appreciate being under the yellow glow and gentle hiss of a kerosene lamp again. It reminded her of camping out at the Bench with Chris and Mom and Grandpa.. She dabbed her eyes with a Kleenex as she arrived at the table.
“You really miss your Mom, don’t you?” Bruce not-quite-even-whispered, so quietly that only Charlotte’s Eight Spirit Dragon senses could have picked it up.
Bruce nodded, and blinked his eyes.
“Thank you for joining us, Miss Wong,” Doctor Cambridge said.
“How is that horse of yours?” Agent John asked.
“”I don’t think he’s going to kick his way out of the stable tonight, if that’s what you’re asking, sir.”
“Good,” Agent John said. “That’s a very unusual horse, and he could be quite an asset if he was just a little more minded to cooperate.”
If I could just get him to cooperate, you mean, Charlotte thought.
“Ahem,” Agent Kieran said, as he put a lap top face up on the plate of the overhead projector. A picture appeared on the screen, almost like watching a movie in class. Only Agent Kieran was a lot more smoother about it than most of her teachers, who always had to spend five minutes getting the film to thread through the projector properly first.
Kids these days, Charlotte thought, with their computers and their Powerpoint presentations. They had no idea.
Video showed on the screen, while crowd noise filled the restaurant. Charlotte bit into one of the sandwiches. Mm, mm, good, she thought. Tuna and mayonnaise. The perfect combination. Though one of the things about Geithner’s Strike was that canned tuna was as cheap and plentiful as it was when her Mom was cooking for her. It took the snap of a bit of diced dill pickle in a tuna salad sandwich to remind her that it wasn’t just her Mom that she missed. It was her tuna casserole. Among other things.
“This,” Agent Kieran said, “Is the scene at 7:30 this morning at the picker’s camp.”
Charlotte recognised it now, by the low, flat terrain and rank trees in the background. The campground was down by the lake north of town on flooding ground, not that that mattered at this time of year. On the screen, an assortment of wagons and boxy pickups were standing in front of a random profusion of tents, tent trailers, cook tents, and lean-tos while many, many people bustled around them.
Charlotte watched as a woman in a dirt-length skirt pulled a screaming child into one of the cook tents. Another man was standing in the otherwise-empty deck of a wagon juggling beer bottles. Another was empty except for a fat boy, draped in spite of the heat with so many clothes that all Charlotte could see of him was his white-blonde hair. A lean guy with a tie dye hair band and a pony tail reaching two thirds of the way down his back vaulted into the bed. Although he looked pretty careless, he must have been paying more careful attention than Charlotte thought, because the fat boy didn’t even budge when the lean guy impacted with him.
Meanwhile, more pickers wandered by at ground level, some pausing to go into the cook tents, some getting up onto the beds of the trucks and wagons, still others getting off. Through it all, foremen screamed and yelled.
Agent Kieran fast forwarded. “And this is the scene at 8.” One of the wagons was left in the middle of an almost-deserted camp, with, apparently, the last picker getting in. “Forty-five minutes of organised chaos as the orchard foremen get the pickers organised and out to the farms. By 8:30, there’s no-one left in camp except the cooks, kids, and the sick pickers who are actually sick. But between quarter after 7 and 8, you could hold an elephant parade down the middle of the camp and no-one would notice. That’ll be when we insert you.”
“Have you identified the Paradigm Pirates?” Dr. Cambridge asked
Agent Kieran backed the tape up ten minutes and then zoomed in on someone throwing tent flaps aside to stand up in the open air. A strange, jangly silver windchime with mirrors swung wildly, disturbed by the motion. Mirror finishes flashed in the sun. Charlotte recognised the Tatammy High drama teacher, Mr. Burcato. Also known, to everyone but the District Attorney and his union, as Professor Paradigm, the reality-obsessed master villain and leader of the Paradigm Pirates. “Bingo,” Agent Kieran said.
Then he hit the back button again, speeding it up. The morning ran in reverse hour-by-hour until it was just before dawn, and the image shifted to false-colour infra-red just in time to catch three doglike figures come running through the camp and dart through the flaps of the tent next to Burcato’s. “Predators killed two cows and a bull on a ranch ten miles northwest of town last night.” Agent Kieran put his finger on the image of the tent.
Charlotte wondered if werewolves could swim lakes. Something about running water? Or was that vampires? “Where do the rest of the Paradigm Pirates bunk?”
“We don’t know yet.” Agent Kieran fast-forwarded again. Just after noon, the video stopped. “Someone found our camera. Our agents identified Burcato on his return this evening, so we don’t think it was just some some kid. But they’lll get wind to the surveillance, probably soon. We need to move quickly.”
“On the other hand—“ Charlotte began, meaning to bring up the possibility of a trap. But Dr. Cambridge interrupted.
“We’ll do it!”
“Okay,” Agent John said, pulling a bag out from under the table and drawing a familiar, black matte weapon out of it. “Have you certified on a pulson blaster recently, Agent Cambridge?”
Dr. Cambridge held out her hand, as though to ward off something menacing. Like a werewolf capable of taking out a bull, for example. “Oh, I see myself more in a supervisory role in this mission. The girls are wired.” She held up her phone. “And I’m on the net. Coordination is so important in a mission like this.”
“So is not walking into a trap,” Bruce pointed out. “Gramp’s first rule: Always pre-empt.”
Agent Kieran shrugged. “One advantage of the way Landing is settled is that the CBI has the pick of the most stone-cold, awesome clone soldiers on Earth. There are going to be men in your backup who’ve fought Paradigm before. Heck, one of your backups has fought Doctor Destroyer.”
A tall, thin man who had been sitting at one of the other tables turned around and put his hand up. He had a gruesome scar that ran down his forehead to the spot where his nose used to be. Though it was a nice prosthesis, and his hands didn’t shake as much as some old men Charlotte had met. Yeah, colour me encouraged, she thought.
“It’s just Professor Paradigm,” Doctor Cambridge said. “He’s only a Delta-rated threat because he’s operated with Tesseract, and we have reliable information that she and the other adult members of the team are fighting in the Dragon War on Earth-718 right now.”
Charlotte wasn’t sure that that was necessarily correct, but Doctor Cambridge was the PRIMUS agent here, and most of the CBI agents looked tough, as opposed to spokesmen for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder And You. “so if we’re going in the morning, does that mean we get to sleepover at the motel tonight?”
“On the Colonial Council’s dime!” Agent John answered.
Though, unfortunately, there was no cable, room service was closed, and the Magic Fingers in the room the girls shared didn’t work. And instead of dangling a towel rope out the window at 3 AM or whatever, they ended up sleeping.
Sleeping hard. Sleeping so that it took five minutes of ringing before Charlotte emerged from the soft, soft sheets, noticing as she did so that the morning sun was already leaking into the room past the windowshades. She picked up the old-fashioned sold, black plastic receiver (that was just like the one in their old mobile home) and answered. “Unh.”
“Charlotte?” Agent John said. “It’s five-thirty. You guys better get up, or you’re going to miss waffles.”
Charlotte sat bolt upright in bed, kicking sideways to catch Dora in the rear. “Up!”
“Umh,” Dora answered.
Dora’s brown, tousled hair emerged from under the sheets. “You don’t say.”
Rose walked into the bed from the direction of the bathroom. She looked even blonder and pinker than usual. “Glad to see you guys up. It’s a beautiful day out there.”
Dora pointed an accusing finger at Rose. “I thought they only turned the hot water on here at 6.”
Rose dimpled. “I had a cold shower.”
“In dark, post-apocalyptic future, all shower heads are low flow.”
“Waffles first, then shower?” Charlotte said.
Dora pointed wordlessly at her hair and flipped a thumb at Rose, who was busy getting her strawberry tresses just exactly so with her travel brush.
“It’s not so bad,” Charlotte lied, bravely. Then she flopped around on the bed to end up on her stomach with her hands over the side, so that she could paw through her overnight bag, in case some alternate personality had possessed her and made her pack a do-rag. One that was so awesome that no-one would even realise that she was wearing it to hide her bed head.
Dora belly flopped on Charlotte’s backside and reached down to put her hands over Charlotte’s. “No way, Char-Char.”
“Yeah,” Charlotte conceded. She squirmed around under Dora and pushed at her side. “Now, gerroff! I’ve got to make a phone call.”
Agent Kieran was surprisingly understanding when Charlotte called to tell him that they’d be down after their showers. “We’ve turned the hot water on.”
“Hah!” Dora said, when Charlotte relayed the information. With tongue stuck out in Rose’s direction, Dora darted for the bathroom before Charlotte could even finish talking.
The waffles, it turned out, were almost good enough to justify getting up at 5:30. They were still a warm, buttery, crispy, syrupy memory when the team dismounted from their unmarked CBI sedans and began to infiltrate through the woods towards the hubbub of the pickers’ camp just after 7.
Then they broke out of the line of shrubs into the open, and Charlotte forgot about breakfast. Even holding the Pearl Harmony, currently disguised as a walking stick, couldn’t calm her stomach. Just like the CBI said, there was really no reason to think that they were standing out. There were over three hundred pickers in the camp on a given day, with people coming and going all the time. They weren’t going to be recognised. The team was all-wearing rough-and rady CBI disguises, except for Bruce, who could do well enough on his own.
But Charlotte knew, somehow, that something was wrong. The feeling only got worse as they got closer to the olive-green tent with the weird silver windchime. Her phone buzzed in her pocket, and Charlotte heard Doctor Cambridge in her ear. “Anything?”
Charlotte tapped, “No.”
“Look for a tall, bald man.”
Charlotte stifled the urge to text back something equally unhelpful. Bruce was ambling through the crowd ahead of her, inconspicuously getting closer. They had agreed that he would make the arrest, because he was the only member of the team with training in shadowing. The other three would just have to move fast when he after he made his collar.
Strolling, stumbling past one person after another, looking like maybe he had used artificial means to take the edge of the morning, Bruce somehow ended up right beside the olive tent. Just at the moment when the mass of people doing their random walk all around her suddenly turned into a wall of panic bearing her down towards the lake. The crowd noise turned to screams, and over her ear-pieces, Charlotte heard Dr. Cambridge yell, “Get out., get---,” followed by static.
Charlotte went en pointe to try to keep her eye on Bruce. No luck. He’d disappeared behind a tent, and people were running around her now, while she dodged left and right to avoid colliding with anyone. Over the screams, Charlotte could hear the buzz of CBI pulson blasters.
And of less familiar energy weapons, too.
And then, out of the crowd, someone grabbed her wrist. Charlotte looked up the arm. It was the blonde Asian girl from the convertible last night. She looked into Charlotte’s eyes and smirked. “Oh, you kids really are in trouble now, aren’t you?” And her other hand formed a ball of energy that she threw directly at Charlotte’s face.