Chapter 3, 38: First Gust Sets You Up
For lack of anyone better to help her with her makeup before the bikini competition, Charlotte agreed to let Doctor Cambridge do it. It wasn’t going very well.
Doctor Cambridge stared at Charlotte.
Charlotte stared back at Doctor Cambridge.
“Who showed you how to put eyeliner on?”
It was Jennifer at school, because her Mom wouldn’t before her fourteenth birthday, and then her Mom got sick. But now Charlotte was ashamed of that answer. She didn’t say anything.
“Unh-hunh.” Doctor Cambridge reached out and began scrubbing. “You look like a raccoon.”
I will not cry, Charlotte thought to herself. But the tears started, hot, behind her lids, anyway. This is going to be so embarrassing, thought the small part of her that was not humiliated enough already.
Doctor Cambridge showed no outward sign of noticing the tears welling in the corners of Charlotte’s eyes, even as the cotton puffs dabbed them away. “I’m sure we can do better.”
Charlotte’s phone sounded the chords of the ouverture to The Flying Dutchman in her purse. Glad of the distraction, Charlotte lifted it to her ear. “Hi, Rosa.”
“Good evening, dear,” answered the starship AI in her familiar German accent. “Do please look up.”
Charlotte glanced up, glad to tear her face away from Doctor Cambridge’s rough handling. The little makeup room had been made out of an old-fashioned camp trailer with a skylight in the middle of its roof. In the evening humidity it was cranked wide open, and through the mosquito screen, Charlotte could see the red sky, deepening into night. And, just at the limit of vision, a dimly flickering red.
“My comm laser can pick up sound vibrations,” Rosa said.
“So you’ve been eavesdropping?”
“I couldn’t help myself, Char-Char. I have some ideas, and I should like to be of some assistance.”
“Oh, I think we have things well enough in hand. Rosa.” Doctor Cambridge said. “Charlotte has just been the victim of some bad advice from. . .” The counsellor’s voice trailed off as she caught herself, but Charlotte could hear the next word in her mind, anyway: ‘sluts.’ The tears started again.
“That will be quite enough, Doctor,” Charlotte’s phone said, in a very firm tone.
“You have been very helpful, Doctor Cambridge, but I think that it is time for a change. If you will just hold the phone up to the wall, I will show you my thinking.”
Reluctantly, Doctor Cambridge held the phone up. A picture materialised on the wall. “You know this woman?”
Charlotte gasped. “That’s Maggie Q. She’s on Nikita. I never realised she was so beautiful.”
“Notice the smoky eyes? Mascara blending with eyeliner. Perfect for Maggie Q, and perfect for eyes like yours, Char-Char.”
“I am not sure that some Hong Kong floozie is the right direction to be going in,” Doctor Cambridge said, apparently having finally found a word that she could use.
“Floozie? Is that rouge that I picked up in the camera scan?” Rose’s tone had moved from firmness to scorn.
“You have a better idea?”
“A neutral beige blush, of course.”
“I. . .” Doctor Cambridge began.
The phone fairly vibrated with firm authority. “Your concern is touching, Doctor Cambridge, but we really can take it from here.”
“But. . . but . . . You’re a spaceship!”
“And quite a smart spaceship, as these things go. We will see you at the pageant, Doctor Cambridge.”
Doctor Cambridge’s face reddened as she stood up, opened the plywood partition door of the tiny, temporary dressing room in the almost-as-tiny travel trailer in the school parking lot. She stepped out. A fly, buzzing in the evening air, slipped through the other way, and flew directly to the big, boxlike, old fashioned flashlight on the ledge above the mirror that was serving as a makeup light.
“How can you bring makeup, Rose? You’re in orbit!”
“I took the liberty of hacking the phone lines and placing an order at Simson’s in Landing Town last week. It should be here. . .”
There was a knock on the door.
Charlotte picked up her chair in both hands and turned it ninety degrees. The legs slammed the fiberglass floor of the trailer with a solid chunk, and she had enough room to get out of the chair and open the door.
It was Brian Ferguson, dressed in his dark purple delivery boy uniform. Notwithstanding the goofy bow tie, the crushed-in, peaked cap managed to make him look older, or, at least, his own age. And, Charlotte realised, kind of cute. Hot, even. “Uhm, hi, Miss Wong. I must have the wrong trailer, because I have a package addressed here to, uhm, ‘Frau Luxembourg.’”
“That’s me,” the phone said, firmly.
Brian’s mouth fell open. “Uhm, I don’t know.”
“Relax,” Charlotte said, putting her hand on Brian’s wrist. “It’s not the phone talking to you. It’s our intelligent spaceship, using the phone.”
“Oh. Okay. Just another day at the office, then. Sign for the package?” He held out a clipboard.
“Just hold it a little further over,” the phone said. Brian adjusted the angle of the clipboard. Another fly buzzed through the open door. Charlotte could hear Mr. Diavolo and Brittany. They were still talking, incredibly loudly, somewhere in the parking lot.
“A little more…” Brian angled the clipboard. A red dot appeared on it, and began moving on it in quick, cursive loops. Charlotte’s eyes were drawn to the skylight, and the red sky of summer dusk. Somewhere beyond, Rosa was finding another use for her comm laser. “There you go. Check at the Post Office, tomorrow, Brian. I’m wiring you your tip.”
Brian tipped his hat in the direction of the phone, put his package down on the makeup table, and then backed out of the trailer, closing the door behind him.
“How did you know that we would be here to receive the package?” Charlotte asked.
“Please, Miss Wong. I have vast predictive powers. To even imagine the multidimensional temporal transforms and translations I have to do to make a simple interstellar jaunt would drive a mere human mind mad.”
“Also, I took a photo of the pageant calendar. Do you want to know what trailer you’ve been assigned for the talent contest and crowning?”
“Is it important?”
“Not really. Now. You may be wondering why I am taking a hand now.”
Charlotte nodded. Could the phone see that? Could Rosa?
“It turns out that I am a disgrace to my namesake, Miss Wong. For while I do not approve of beauty contests, I find that I very much want you to win, and a modest application of computational power found Miss Q’s look. We shall unashamedly steal it, and people will have to tear their eyes off your luscious lips to even notice your bikini.”
“Stochastically speaking, I project that to be unlikely. Speaking semiotically, in which apparently straightforward assertions are actually signifiers of suppressed meaning, it is not unaccurate.”
Charlotte cocked her head at her phone.
“I do not get nearly enough practice talking to regular people, Char-Char. No, the bikini will be the star of the show tonight, but the judges will be looking at your face, too, and we want you to have a better makeup job than in the gown competition. Your competitors are going to be improving their look, and we must seek to further Agent John’s strategy of deceit.”
“It’s not really deceit, though,” Charlotte pointed out. “You are showing me how to do my eyes so that I don’t look like a raccoon.” As she said it, Charlotte burned with shame at the thought of the times that she had gone out with her eyeliner smudged around her eye.
“No. The best deceptions are founded on the truth. Now, if you will take the first brush on the right and dip it into the mascara that you will find in the package, we can begin.”
An hour later, Charlotte stepped out of her trailer. She was wearing a scratchy, white robe over her bikini, made of the same kind of cheap, stiff fabric that they made gym towels out of. Scratchy tufts dragged against her bare skin. She looked down, and her bare legs went on and on, down to the neat little yellow slip-ons that she, personally, would always wear with a bikini. Too bad that she would be wearing three inch heels on stage.
Brittany was standing in the middle of the parking lot, talking with some of the other competitors, a head higher than them, because she was already wearing her five inch competition heels. Of course. They were, Charlotte noticed, strapped, with an hourglass running from the ankle strap to the toes. Because, Charlotte thought, what you really needed when you were up on stilts was to be bloody well tied into them.
The problem was that Brittany was standing and moving like she was born in high heels. Just as she thought that, Charlotte realised that she wasn’t being fair. Charlotte moved easily in high heels, too. You would never know to look at her that she hardly ever wore them. Oh, sure, there was the whole kung fu princess thing, but the point was that Charlotte had a perfectly good reason for looking good in high heels, and it wasn’t that she was a bad girl, and Brittany wasn’t a bad girl, either.
Not bad, Charlotte thought to herself. But probably evil enough to burn out a paladin’s Detect Evil feat. She grinned.
“What’s so funny?” Agent John asked, stepping in beside her.
“Nothing,” Charlotte answered.
“If you can’t tell me, you can’t tell me. I have your shoes here.” He held up the pair of three inch heels that they had picked out together. In one hand. Because in the other hand, he was holding a piece of sandpaper.
Charlotte couldn’t hold back her disappointment. “Not again.”
“We can’t have you walking around up there like Miss Elegant 2012, Charlotte. That’s for the last night of the competition.”
“Do I have to slip and fall, like Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality?”
“No. You don’t even have to look awkward. Mostly. I figure that with your grace and balance, we’ll probably get two, three, tops moments when you look like you’ve never worn heels before.”
“I’ve worn heels before!”
“How many times?”
“Three.” Charlotte had to spit the answer out, she was so mad, now.
“Exactly. Now the image you project will match the truth.”
“No, it won’t. I’m not some homework-snorting, piano-practicing walking stereotype!”
“Do you do a lot of homework?”
“Well, yeah. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is, like, my Auntie’s autobiography.” Well, technically, Auntie Ma already had an autobiography, if you counted that terrible essay in the Book of Tang, and the novel and the movie they made out of it, but Battle Hymn could be the new autobiography.
“And piano practice?”
“Auntie Ma is going to enroll me in the fall.”
“Sometimes, just because it’s a stereotype doesn’t mean that it’s not true.”
“But the reason that I don’t wear heels is that I’m 5’10”!”
“And we’ll find you a tall boyfriend, so you can wear heels.”
Charlotte sighed. That would be nice. For a moment she imagined herself in the wedding party for Nita and Jenny’s wedding. Nita Guzman was an inch taller than Charlotte. Even May Wong had a half inch on her. And the way that Jenny was growing, weird as it was, maybe Jenny would be taller by the time of the wedding, too. That was superpowers for you. Amy and Jason were springing up, too. And all the boys would be tall, too. Chris and Henry were big and triangular, like real Wongs, while David was skinny, and Brad Neilsen could be a stand in for the Incredible Hulk.
Agent John smiled as though he was reading her mind. “See? Won’t be so bad. And we need another colt-in-spring performance. The heels are ridiculous in the bikini component. In a good way.”
Charlotte fixed the CBI agent with her glariest glare. “Says you.”
“Oh, come on, Char-Char. You love ‘em.”
“No. No, I don’t.”
“Hmm. Maybe.” He sounded ubconvinced. “Admittedly, with poise like yours, you don’t really need them. But they do level the playing field for the other girls.”
Then it was time for Charlotte to go backstage with the other girls and wait for her walk, after which she would gather on the left side of the stage to be presented with her flowers and for a group photo. The girls said that you could tell who won each session by the kind of bouquet the judges gave them. Rosa had run the data and claimed that it was only a story. Still, it was a story that they could nervously talk about as they got ready for their turn. Meanwhile, in the background, Mr. Diavolo went on and on until, even in her distraction, Charlotte realised that he was on the gym PA. Oh, great, she thought. We’ve got an announcer.
Of course he’d picked the sound track, too. Of course the contestants couldn’t choose their own songs. So, when Charlotte dropped her robe and stepped onto stage, going fourth right after Brittany walked to Katy Perry’s Firework, she was greeted by Mr. Diavolo. “And here we have the Daddy’s girl. I’ll bet she’d make more in tips if she brought the fortune cookies dressed like this.”
Great, Charlotte thought, bracing herself for some awful “Chinese” theme. But when the music started, it was the synthed beat of Britney Spear’s I Wanna Go, and Charlotte took her first, hip-swivelling step was to the synthed pulse driving the baby girl voice of the fading pop star’s anthem to bipolar mania.
Probably no wonder that when she relaxed her concentration after her first step to the left, her right heel caught the edge. With all of her discipline and control, Charlotte kept her knee from wobbling visibly as she balanced and kept on her feet. Her hesitation was obvious, though, and she swept the audience with a glance that must have shown her anger at the crap that Mr. Diavolo was shovelling at her.
Yet, here and there in the audience, there was sympathy looking back at her. And, truth to tell, these were good people, and Charlotte felt, silly as it was to even put it in words, that she understood them, and saw that goodness. She felt her expression softening into the goofiest smile she’d ever plastered on her face, and her next step to the left went down with a perfect, hip-swinging verve.
I can do this, Charlotte thought, and she took the catwalk in exactly her allotted two minutes, ignoring the temptation to milk the entire song.
At the end, she couldn’t resist a demure glance back over her shoulder, the kind that a girl like Brittany would give to see if the construction workers were looking. Charlotte caught Mr. Diavolo’s eye, instead, and, deliberately, stuck out her tongue.
From the small quarter of the audience that could see what had happened, titters rang out as Charlotte walked over to take her place with the rest of the contestants, and it was as though she could feel Mr. Diavolo’s anger. Good.
She took her place beside the others, and she was handed her bouquet. They were yellow roses, of course, but Charlotte just smiled, thinking about Scout singing Yellow Rose of Texas. Down in the audience, Charlotte could see Ken, in standing room in front of the chairs, right next to her red-headed friend.
When Charlotte took her bouquet, Ken jumped up, just as a girl standing in front of her moved. Obvious from the stage, to Charlotte and just as readily to Brittany standing at the other end of the contestants, was the fact that the red-head had been holding Ken’s hand.
Charlotte glanced left. Even at this moment, Brittany’s control didn’t fade entirely. Her face turned, but not white with shock, but red with anger, and she mouthed “slut,” but unless you were looking right at her, you would never be able to tell. Unfortunately, the red-head was looking at her and reacted with a blurring motion.
Eight Spirit Dragon discipline let Charlotte see that the red-head was unspinning a spear bundle from an atlatl, letting four heavy darts go in a pattern so heavily grouped that every one of them would hit Brittany.
Instinctively, Charlotte dropped into a tumble, coming up in a blocking stance in front of Brittany. A dart deflected off her bracelet as she batted down another with her left hand and a third with her right knee, even as she dipped low, back plunging parallel to the ground, under the arc of the fourth to bring her right hand up and grab the fourth dart an inch from Brittany’s frozen face.
Charlotte stood, just as a flash of light and puff of smoke marked the disappearance of the red-headed assailant. A long moment later, and a voice came over the PA, not Mr. Diavolo’s, but another’s, heavy and male. “And that concludes Miss Wong’s preview of her talent act.”
It really is like Miss Congeniality, Charlotte thought, as the audience clapped and she reddened with embarrassment.
Although Sandra Bullock didn’t seem to have to worry that her bikini would slip and get all nasty if she made another move. Charlotte was very glad when, a moment later, a stagehand came by handing out robes.
Between Brittany and Mr. Diavolo, it was getting kind of cold.