Chapter 3, 34: Where Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong
“Sorry, Bruce?” Charlotte looked over to where Bruce sat at the table in Agent John’s kitchen nook, prodding his holographic projector with a rubber-handled screwdriver.
“Grr. I said, ‘grr.’ The chip’s burned out.”
“Hunh.” Rose was perched on the arm of the long couch, trying to peak over Bruce’s shoulder. It began just where the kitchen nook ended, forming a natural boundary to the strip of bare wood at the edge of the living room carpet that led from the front door to the kitchen.
“I guess Professor Paradigm is right. Magic is computational,” she continued.
“And I quote,” Bruce continued, “Hunh?”
“No, I think Rose actually said ‘hunh,’ not ‘hunh?’” Dora was slouched so low in the couch that she was almost lying down, so her words were muffled.
“I mean, Professor Paradigm is always saying that magic is really just a kind of science. That he can build a “magic generator’ and use it to create the field effects that we call magic. Actual magicians say that he’s got it ass backward.” Rose blushed a little when she said, ‘ass.’ “But either way, that the field the Paradigmbot was radiating wasn’t electromagnetic. So why did it affect the chip? Because it was computational. Like, information is a thing, or something. And magic has to do with that. Somehow. . .”
Rose trailed off as Agent John walked into the room, holding Professor Paradigm’s head under his arm. Twisting round on her perch, she said, her whole face tightened by the effort to sound casual, “Has surveillance spotted anyone out there?”
“No, Rose,” Agent John answered. If he realised that Rose meant the Dark Ninja, he showed no sign of it.
“Eh,” Bruce said, “My scriers will spot him before CBI surveillance does.”
“Scriers?” Agent John asked.
“His Gramps had a goblin schtick with his gadgets,” Charlotte explained. “I’m guessing that ‘scriers’ is what he called his spy cameras and stuff.”
“Goblins?” Agent John said. “I thought he was the Hobgoblin. Larger size, another hit dice, more prestige classes?”
Dora snorted a blast of air towards the ceiling. “Agent John’s a Dungeons & Dragons nerd!”
Rose peered down at her friend. “So are you.”
“Yeah, but I pretend not to be. Like a normal person.”
“That was before Dungeons & Dragons,” Bruce said. “When Gramps started calling himself a Hobgoblin, it was a reference to old-time mythology. They’re a kind of faerie, or elf. Puck, in Midsummer Night’s Dream, is a hobgoblin. Then Marvel borrowed his image to create the Green Goblin, and there you are. Except Gramps was never dumb enough to ride around on a flying rocket with razor-sharp wings, and jack-o’lantern bombs aren’t very aerodynamic. But, yeah, my scriers are just the surveillance devices that I’ve tied to your laptop.”
Bruce hesitated at the last for a second. Charlotte wondered what he might be trying to hide.
Agent John went over to his table and put the robot head on it. “So there you have it. The mastermind supervillain behind it all was just a robot with delusions of grandeur.”
“Except for the sabretooths. Who turn out to be shapeshifting aliens with guns,” Bruce pointed out.
“Who keep attacking closer and closer to town,” Charlotte added. “Where are the pickers going?”
“We’re moving them into the park,” Agent John said. “No more outdoor concerts this summer.”
“That’s not fair!” Dora interrupted.
“And the weird space-elf who is trying to turn all the kids in town with the Secret Space Genes into more space elves.” Charlotte added.
“That’s a lot of elves,” Agent John said.
“Totally unrelated elves,” said Bruce, not very convincingly. Oh, keep your stupid family secrets, Charlotte thought. Though it was weird, because if her Aunt Yili had lived and married his Gramps, they’d be Charlotte’s family secrets, too.
“Yeah,” Rose answered. “Except the Paradigm Pirates were looking for the space elves. And working for the aliens. So the aliens are looking for the space elves. For some reason.” She reached out and put the tips of her fingers lightly on the robot’s lifelike, bald cranium.
Bruce put his hand to his chin. “If we could just figure out that reason, we’d be a long way towards beating the aliens before they decide the heck with upsetting Mr. Diavolo and just overrun Geithner’s Strike. Anything in the robot’s memory?”
“That’s what I was trying to tell you. We can’t get anything from it. You want to try it, Bruce?”
Charlotte looked at Bruce, amazed that Agent John would ask such a dumb question. Bruce looked at Agent John, as though waiting for him to clue in.
He didn’t. So, after a long moment, Bruce answered. “Well, sure I’d like to have a look. But you know that there’s an expert hacker sitting right next to me, right?”
“No worries,” Rose answered. “The aliens went through Eve, not Professor Paradigm. All he knew was that if he cooperated with them, they would give him a ride home and a ‘fundamental insight into the structure of reality.’ Then they showed him some loopy gadget that was supposed to prove that they could do that thing. I’ve got the parameters he measured off of it, but they don’t mean squat to me.”
“You got that from just touching the thing?” Agent John said, disbelievingly.
“Not just a speedster or a pretty face,” Rose said, smugly. “Cyberpath. In the dark, postapocalyptic future, job uncertainty means that everyone trains for multiple career trajectories.”
“Hunh,” Agent John said. “You know that most pension plans on Landing are thirty and out, right? Start working full time at 16, and you can retire with a full pension at 47. I joined the Bureau in 2000, and I’m out in another 17 years. I’ll be 53. Maybe you kids should think about emigrating here.”
He shook his head. “Sorry. Retirement planning is not what we’re talking about. Rose is the cavegirl shaman with the sabretooth familiar. The one that turned out to be like Vandal Savage. The immortal schemer.”
“If Vandal Savage were crossed with Apocalypse, yes,” Bruce answered. “He’s all up in the genetics thing. Just like our space elf and our aliens.”
“Connections!” Dora said, her voice full of portentous meaning. Although, significantly, she did not even shift from her stance, and went back to blowing her bangs into the air.
“So if Paradigm is off the table, we focus on Eve.” John said. He went over to the huge, black plastic phone sitting on its own little table at the other edge of the living room and began turning a dial on its front with his index finger. A mighty, mechanical whirling sound filled the room. It was like, Charlotte thought, the History Channel. Only with less Ice Road Truckers.
Bruce’s phone beeped from where it sat on the table. He picked it up and looked at it, then pursed his lips, handing it to Rose. Her face broke out into a full-body smile when she saw it. “Gotta go!” She announced, and vibrated away into thin air. The phone reappeared on the table, spinning with the momentum of its release.
Agent John stood up, looked at his own phone, pursed his lips, and headed for the door. The phone was still spinning when he walked out of the door.
Charlotte watched the phone spin. From her line of sight, the eddied locks of Dora’s dark brown fell back behind the concealment of the couch’s arm. From deep within it came Dora’s voice. “Is one of you stealthy dudes going to go eavesdrop, or do I have to make up all the juicy details in my head?”
“Head,” Charlotte said. “We’ve only got an hour before my bikini fitting, and Rose and Dark Ninja will spend at least that long getting all emo.”
“Going,” Bruce said.
“Didn’t mean you, you perv. Meant Char-Char.”
“Sexist,” Bruce answered.
“Nothing wrong with being sexy,” Dora answered. “You really think they’ll be all like, ‘Oh, my love, my enemy, Char-Char? Rose can be pretty direct when she wants to be.”
“Pretty direct around us. Around Dark Ninja She pretty much has to stand still and put her hands in her pocket or she’ll trip over her own fingers . And he’s no better. I swear. If he finds one more angsty excuse to ditch the scene, he is totally going to feel my blade.”
Bruce stood up. “I promise not to get my grody boy ears all over the Napoleon Dynamite talk. But I do have to go. Good luck with your bikini fitting, Char-Char.” He hesitated for a moment, like he was about to say something rude, before finally thinking of something that he could say. More or less. “Good luck is a thing you say at this point, right?“
Charlotte waved her hand to say that it was nothing. “It’s nothing,” she added. Although in fact she was more frightened and excited than when Auntie Ma took her for her first bra fitting.
There was a flash in the corner of the room. Instinctively, Charlotte turned her eyes to it, and, almost as quickly, pulled them back to the window just in time to see Bruce trapeze-act his way out of it, headed for the roof. Almost, she thought, smiling to herself. Almost got the Batman Exit down.
A moment later, Agent John walked into the room. “Well, either that was a false alarm, or the Dark Ninja can beat our surveillance. I don’t know why I’m even bothering to be surprised. You ready for your fitting, Charlotte?”
Charlotte was surprised. “I thought it was another hour.”
“Lisa had a cancellation. She can take you now.”
Charlotte was out of her chair before she realised that she was standing. Halfway to the door, she finally remembered her friend. “Uhm, Dora?”
“Called the needfire twice today. Sleeping now. Bring food when you get back. Is there Chinese takeout in this town?”
“Don’t know,” Charlotte answered.
“No,” Agent John answered. “There is pizza, but I don’t recommend it. Tacos Honduran-style or Polynesian?”
“Like with spam sushi?”
“Surprisingly, yes. It’s actually pretty good. Although our local Spam-ripper-offer uses more expensive pork than Hormel does.”
“I’ll go with the tacos. Even though they won’t be as good as Dad’s.”
“Does he deep fry them? Because deep frying makes everything better.”
“Oh. It is on. It is on like Donkey Kong.”
“Can we go?” Charlotte said. “Because Dora can go on for a while like this.”
A brown fist pumped the air above the couch. “La Raza! Go. Dora sleep now.”
“So dinner is settled,” Agent John said as the door closed. Charlotte looked down past her tee and jean cut-offs to her cute red sneakers. Very casual. It wasn’t entirely fair that Dora got to burn off all that energy through the needfire while she had to exercise, Charlotte reflected. On the other hand, she could keep dressing like this and fitting into bikinis and eating deep-fried tacos (which really did sound very, very good) as long as there were enough bad guys to fight to burn off the calories. Come on, bad guys!
Mrs. Kaeo’s Dry Cleaning was part of the old Geithner’s Strike downtown, only two-and-a-half blocks from the Colonial Building. It was next to the used bookstore, with a bunch of boys lounging outside in the hot sun, reading the ragged comics and paperbacks they had just bought. Like Hernandez’s Hardware, Kaeo’s Dry Cleaning had started out as what the name implied, and then grown. Although with a little more style sense than the former hardware style.
In a big picture window display, mannequins showed off the fashions of the summer, including two in bikinis. As they walked by, Charlotte wondered if the beautiful rose and cerulean numbers were more of Lisa’s hand-sewn creations. The rich blue one looked almost like a uniform, in that styling way that the best uniforms made you think that the wearer was just so built. Which, to be fair, in the case of the CBI agents who were the only uniformed guys around these parts, they were.
They walked in the front door, and the vaprous cool of the air conditioning all but slapped them. Agent John led the way across the sales floor to a desk in the right hand corner, as far from the chemical scent of the original dry-cleaning counter as they could get and still be in the much-renovated building.
Here, a light floral scent rode the air, and the sunlight that lit the room was a bit indirect, reflecting, scattered, from the area just inside the windows thanks to a clever arrangement of shades. It carried a subtle, sophisticated, dimming cast from the tint in the glass, and was delightfully cool.
Lisa was a stout, middle aged woman, one of the oldest people Charlotte had met on Landing. She was wearing a simple floral dress of bright colours on a white background that brought out the highlights in her dyed blonde hair. It was a pretty expensive do, Charlotte suspected. Her shoes, of course, were white open-toes, almost sandals, and discretely perfect
“Oh, well, you must be Charlotte,” Lisa said, with an appraising eye. “This is going to be easy! With all that to work with, I could probably just use a potato sack and be done!”
“I hope not,” John answered. “We’re out to win.”
“Well,” Lisa said, doubtingly, “We can certainly try. And now that I’ve seen Charlotte, I genuinely think that there’s a chance here.”
She spread her hands in the air, and her tone changed. “We’ll need measurements, but you’re just about classically perfect, aren’t you, Charlotte? 36-24-36? So. Colour?”
Charlotte blushed. “Yellow,” she stammered. “And I’m growing. 5’10, now, so actually. . .” She held her hand over her chest, a little out to show that her chest measure was bigger, and the blush in her cheek hit full flame. Despite the air conditioning, she was feeling a cold sweat come on.
Lisa nodded. “Well, I’m going to have to do measurements for cup sizes anyway.” She paused for a second and then pointed at the fitting room. “That’s your cue, girl!”
Later, after John had placed their order at the takeout window at Hernandez’s Tacos and Baleanas, he came over and sat down next to Charlotte. “Well, that went just about perfectly.”
“Really, because I felt like the gawkiest geek who ever bought a swim suit.”
“Of course you did,” John said. “It’s natural for a girl your age to be insecure and self-conscious in a situation like that. Frankly, I’d have been a lot more concerned if you weren’t.”
“Why?” Charlotte asked. “Because experienced girls don’t win beauty contests?”
“Experienced girls win beauty contests all the time. No, because of the one-way window on the second floor. Did you see it?”
Charlotte shook her head. She hadn’t even known that there was a second floor.
“Someone was watching.”
Charlotte looked at John, waiting for him to explain.
“The pageant judge. Mrs. Kaeo. And you played your part perfectly.”
“I wasn’t playing anything.”
“And that made you even better at it. Mrs. Kaeo is going to have a story in her head now, about a girl who was embarrassed to even order a bikini turning into a girl who can do her turn on the catwalk on it and turn every head without raising an eyebrow. She’s going to turn a girl into a woman.”
You take The Hunger Games way too seriously, Agent.”
Agent John shrugged. “In the Academy, we learn that the key to a successful operation is to follow a good playbook. Besides, when you’re my age, you’ll learn that teaching what you know is the most important thing that you will do in this life.”