Obviously, elves hung out with J. R. R. Tolkien. Who else would have had the patience to put up with Tom Bombadill?Chapter 3, 41: But the Water is Warm as Tea
The next morning, at breakfast, Charlotte was called to the camp landline phone by a po-faced Brittany, who usually monopolised it from the moment she finished her single muffin breakfast until first class at 9.
Charlotte put the heavy, black plastic receiver to her ear. She could riff about how it was familiar to her from the ‘70s but no-one knew what they were, any more, but it would be dishonest. Auntie Ma kept one on the table beside her side of the bed in the big house at the Wong family compound just outside State College, Pennsylvania. She would actually ring her daughter, Cousin Jenny with it in the mornings, literally turning the hold-fashioned wind-up dial eleven times to ring the San Francisco number.
Agent Smith’s voice sounded in her ear. “Miss Wong?”
Good. A matter concerning our ongoing investigation has come up. Are you girls free to assist us with our inquiries, this morning?”
On the one hand, they were doing something twee and old-fashioned this morning. On the other, Charlotte was actually looking forward a bit to finding out what you could do with actual film cameras in a real, genuine dark room.
Still, this sounded way more cool. “Yes, yes we are.” Charlotte went back to the table to tell Dora and Rose to get ready for an outing after breakfast.
Charlotte had to change, of course. Fortunately, she already had an outfit in mind. So did Rose and Dora, evidently, since when she got down to the docks. Dora was in a casual red t-shirt with blue shorts, Rose in a button-up white blouse and knee-length pink-dot-on-white skirt. They were sitting on the bench opposite the central mooring. The lake lapped, sparkling, in the morning sun behind them. The sound of a boat engine pulsed back at them from the far side of the lake, and the morning air smelled sweetly of lilies and the lake.
Dora held up her right hand, spreading her fingers as she saw Charlotte: ‘eyes go wide.’ “That minidress is adorkable, Char-Char!”
“Uhm, thanks, and right backatcha? Love the skirt, Rose.”
Rose looked at Dora.
“It’d be adorable, but she’s a dork. Adorkable!”
Charlotte plopped herself down on the bench beside Dora. “Dork says what?”
Dora held up a brightly coloured book. It must be locally done, Charlotte thought. The cover art looked one step above crayon. The only line of the title that Charlotte could read said, ‘Sweetdale Babybsitter Mysteries.’ Well, Charlotte thought, if you’re going to steal, steal from the most lucrative, and then mash it all together like a banana-asparagus pot roast with roast jelly beans on the side. “Hey. Hey hey hey hey. I have the instruction manual right here, and it says that the Hispanic girl is the cool one. You can be the dork.”
“Rose is right here,” Charlotte whispered.
“Okay,” Dora conceded. “Rose can be a dork, too. You can both be dorks. Seriously, though, I love the minidress Especially the skirt. Very flirty.”
Charlotte blushed. “Thanks, but I didn’t pick it.”
“None of us picked any of it,” Rose pointed out. “One of the drawbacks of this whole setup.”
She turned to Dora. “Seriously? Tween-Lit is our instruction manual, now?”
Dora flicked the book cover. “Yes! Bad news, by the way. Your boyfriend turns out to be a vampire.”
“I’m pretty sure he doesn’t sparkle.”
Dora put the book to her forehead like only contact with cheap paper could save her from the ultimate headache of exasperation. “Sparkling isn’t mandatory. Vampire is.”
“Isn’t being a cave dwelling rebel from a dark, post-apocalyptic future enough?”
“Not going by you, it isn’t. Seriously. Any dark post-apocalyptic future that produces someone as sweet as you should get its license taken away by the Dark Post-Apocalyptic Future Chamber of Commerce.”
“Aw, Dora. That’s the sweetest thing you have ever said about me.”
“Just to be clear here, it in no way changes my views concerning the stick up…”
“Girls, I hate to interrupt before the cage grudge match even starts, but our ride is here.” Charlotte had to yell over the sound of the motor of the CBI launch, so Rose and Dora probably knew before she said anything, but, sometimes, you just have to speak up, right?
Agent Hernandez was driving. Agent Smith sat beside him, his arm casually over Kieran’s shoulder. Bruce sat in the back, arms crossed, scowling. Charlotte jumped down, landing neatly beside him with her dress properly draped. In spite of the smooth move, or because of it, she just had to smooth down the pleats of the mustard yellow, flower pattern knee-length skirt, so bright in the morning sun that it seemed translucent, even though it wasn’t. “Why so glum, chum?”
Bruce did a little hop in the bench seat to move closer to Charlotte, making room for Dora and Rose as they clambered down off the dock into the boat. “I wanted to drive. Should you really be doing acrobatics in that skirt?”
Charlotte could see what Bruce was driving at, but it made her feel weird. “What do you mean?”
Bruce just blushed.
Dora must have heard, because just then, as she got her feet solidly on the bottom hull of the boat, she jabbed her finger into Bruce’s shoulder. “Bruce! Think about what you’re going to say before you say it!”
Bruce scowled even harder. “Other guys get away with kidding about things like that.”
Rose sat down beside Dora. “No, they don’t. Maybe they’re good looking. Maybe they’re funny, or rich, or whatever. So people let it pass, one way or another. But they don’t get away with it.”
Dora interrupted her friend. “Which isn’t to say that you’re not good looking and charming.”
“—At least when you’re not trying too hard,” Rose clarified. “And you are rich.”
“But if the one girl you like isn’t going to let you get away with cracks like that—“
“Maybe you should stop making them.” Rose finished Dora’s thought.
Charlotte looked her friends in the eyes curiously at that. Obviously, she didn’t know the whole story about what was going on here. Oh, well, she was sure she could worm it out of Rose. Maybe even Dora.
Agent Smith –John—turned around in his seat. “You kids ready?”
Rose and Bruce answered in unison, “Yes, sir.” Dorks, Charlotte thought, as she put her hand on the handle of the Pearl Harmony Sword, in its umbrella guise, strapped over her shoulder this time. Dora did a mock salute.
“There might have been a misrepresentation earlier.”
“We’re not on an active investigation?” Charlotte asked.
“Allow me to explain.”
“Yay!” Dora did the wave with her arms. “Exposition, pulled from our collective—“
“Rear ends,” Rose finished firmly.
“Really? We’re censoring ‘asses,’ now?”
“Remember that I have a stick up mine.”
“Ahem,” Agent Smith said, actually saying it as a word. “Ahem,” he said again. “Ahem ahem ahem.”
“Go on. We’re listening,” Charlotte replied.
“Hey. You can’t talk like us. We have a copyright!”
“’Really’ is copyrighted?”
“Probably not,” Charlotte conceded.
“Well no wonder if we talk like you girls. We end up listening to you a lot.”
“Is that a crack?”
“Yes, yes it is. Okay. I have your attention? Agent Hernandez suggested, and I agreed, that it was time for you to visit his grandmother.”
“Is that like, your grandmother who is also Mr. Hernandez’s grandmother?” Charlotte asked, trying to imagine what someone at the top of a family tree that included the handsome, agent-like Agent Hernandez and the big, almost-toppling, balloon-chested Mr. Hernandez might look like.
“Yes,” Agent Hernandez said, without turning around. “Our elf grandmother.”
“Elf.” Charlotte said, her mouth round. It wasn’t like she’d never met an elf, before. Telantassar the Grey taught Esoteric Arts at Tammany High. And languages, as Ms. Grey. They’d met her during field trips. But that wasn’t like meeting a real elf, like Galadriel in Lothlorien.
Thirty minutes later, Agent Hernandez turned the boat suddenly towards the western shore. Charlotte was enjoying the ride, and disappointed that it was over. Of course, that emotion was kind of washed out by the fact that they were now headed straight at a cliff rising out of the lake. That kind of thing could be scary. Even if she’d been through it before. Bruce’s cousin Graydon loved to drive straight at the cliffs that hid entrances to Goblin Deep, the family’s cavern headquarters under the McNeely Mansion.
Sure enough, just yards before they crashed into the rock at high speed, it shimmered and changed in front of them, and a seemingly natural cleft appeared. Moments later, they were rocketing between high rock walls, decorated on each side by aboriginal Australian-looking motifs melted into the rock. Beyond the narrows, the water opened up into a tiny, hidden bay with a very normal-looking wharf.
“You know, not to criticize,” Dora began, “But maybe you guys need to hire a new landscape guy now and then. This guy is just falling into a rut. ‘Rut?’ Get it?”
“We got it,” Agent Hernandez said, grimly, as he pulled up beside the wharf. Charlotte jumped up onto the wharf, pivoting as she came down and neatly catching the rope that Bruce had thrown in the direction of her jump. She was wrapping it around the mooring stay when she felt the heavier shiver of the timbers of the dock that signalled that Bruce had jumped up beside her. At the same moment, Agent Hernandez’s head came up over the edge of the deck.
“Come on,” he gestured with his head as he walked towards the base of the dock. Where the wood met the sand of the beach, he made a complex gesture with his hand. A shimmer went through the foliage where the dry, west-side forest met the bare sand of the beach. It did not affect the vegetation, just the air, or the light, somehow. And it released all the smells of the wildflowers of the forest in one gust, leaving Charlotte to wonder just how she could not have noticed the sterile smell of the air a moment before.
“A little security,” Agent Hernandez explained. “There are dangerous things out there right now.” He led the way up a path, made of planks set sideways in the forest, their edges bevelled off as though they had been cut by axes rather than saws, and yet with precision that no human hand could match. The path led gently up hill, through gradual curves first clockwise and then around again, until it opened up into a glade filled with fruit trees loaded down with almost-ripe pears and still-green apples. A log cabin sat in the middle of the glade.
“What, no tree house?” Dora asked.
Agent Hernandez looked at Dora. “No. We got a different landscape guy to do Granny’s place.”
Dora stuck her tongue out at Kieran as Charlotte followed John onto the verandah of the house, and waited, her hands clasped in front of her as he rapped a knocker made in the shape of a snake curled around a branch. It was an odd shape for a rapper, but it worked just fine.
“Come in,” sounded a sweet voice from within. Charlotte squared her shoulders. She felt very conscious of her desire to make a good impression. Agent Smith held the door open for Charlotte, and she stepped into the bright interior. A half-corridor, brightly painted on one side and open to the living room on the other, led into a kitchen at the centre of the house lit by a skylight she somehow had not noticed before.. A lady, who looked like an Australian Aboriginal woman of uncertain age, was seated at a pale wood table, obviously huge, even from the portion that Charlotte could see. It was unvarnished and yet honey smooth and perfectly finished, in a position that allowed her to look down the corridor to the door. “Welcome, Miss Wong. I am Mrs. Hernandez. Please sit down.”
Charlotte walked into the kitchen. Out of sight of the door, and ranked with their backs to a gigantic old-fashioned kitchen fireplace, were six, woven-bottom chairs. She went to the first one and sat down, carefully arranging the Pearl Harmony Sword to hang by its strap from the high back post of the chair. Considering how stark and simple it looked, the chair was amazingly comfortable.
As if hearing what Charlotte was thinking, the old lady said, “Elf-made. Like your sword, at least in part.”
Dora and Rose entered the kitchen, and Mrs. Hernandez greeted each of them by name in turn. But when Bruce stepped in, she said, “Welcome, Elf-Friend. By right of blood, any home of our folk is home to you.”
Charlotte looked at Bruce, but he just blushed. Fine, Charlotte thought, keep your family secrets, stupid Bruce McNeely. See if I care.
Mrs. Hernandez’s eyes sought out Charlotte’s, and something that she imagined as a gentle warning passed across them. Whatever.
From somewhere –from nowhere, near as like, because somehow she had not noticed it before, Mrs. Hernandez pulled a teapot. “Now, we shall have tea, and I will tell you about the long, weary ages of elvenkind, who have lingered on this plane so much longer than we ever imagined, so that we could pass on—“
“This is about Takofanes,” Dora interrupted.
Now it was the indefinitely old Elven woman to sigh. “Do we really just have to jump right in—“
“We’ve read Lord of the Rings,” Dora pointed out.
Rose made a buzzing sound.
“We’ve read Lord of the Rings,” Dora continued, firmly.
“Now who’s ignoring the instruction manual?”
“Fine,” Dora said. “Fine. I’m a book-reading dork, just like you, Rose.”
“All of us,” Charlotte added, firmly.
“And,” Dora continued, “We know that if there’s some ancient ripoff wandering around, that’s all the elves are going to talk about. It’ll be menace to Middle Earth this, and ultimate threat to whatever that.”
Mrs. Hernandez put her hand over her eyes. Charlotte was impressed. She didn’t even know that elves got headaches. “Child. Child, child, child. It’s only a cliché because one of our kind talked to Professor Tolkein.”
“Bet they didn’t look like you did,” Dora said. “Speaking of which, how come you’re so dark, and your grandchildren are so fair? Also, how does that timeline work. I mean, the 70s were only, what, ,42 years ago, tops. How come you have grandchildren, anyway?”
“Just curious,” Agent Smith said, sitting down beside Bruce. “Do you guys have a good-cop, bad-cop routine, where Rose interrupts and starts asking questions nicely in a minute? And by ‘curious,’ I mean, don’t think that you’re fooling anyone.”
“Aw,” Dora said. “You know, I would have kept my mouth shut if I thought that this whole thing was going to go anywhere with the current investigation, but it’s so obviously not—“
Mrs. Hernandez held her teacup, halfway to her lips. “And why do you say that, child?”
“Because you’ve got cloaking devices and security stuff and agents wandering around investigating,” Charlotte answered, holding up her hand to let Dora know that it was time to ditch the routine. “That makes it look like you guys don’t know what’s going on right now. On the other hand, with the whole elf thing in the open, we assume that it’s time to talk portentously about the Plot Significant Item of Doom.”
Agent Smith rolled his eyes. “Not everything is a cheap fantasy novel, you know, Charlotte.”
Rose rolled her eyes right back. “It is if you’ve primed J. R. R. Freakin’ Tolkien with the story, so that even the slowpokes can keep up.”
“Why, thanks, Rose,” Dora said, sideways.
Agent Hernandez sighed. “I was thinking that you would be a bit more respectful of my grandmother.”
“It’s probably because I’m an Elf-Friend and they’re not. Jealousy rears its ugly head, you know?” Bruce said. Even managed to sound smug.
“Don’t think for a second that we’re not going to get to the bottom of that, Bruce,” Rose said.
“You just try,” Bruce answered.
“Oh. Is that a bet? Fifty bucks says we do.”
“Two hundred says you don’t. What? I’m rich.”
Agent Hernandez caught his grandmother’s eyes, Charlotte noticed. She saw the ‘See what we put up with’ look flash.
“Yes, yes,” Mrs. Hernandez said. “Although no-one survives on this plane of the elves who fled Ambrethel at the end of the Old Red Age, nor even of those of the Faithful Families who did not turn towards the Drindrish Way on Old Tasmania, we suspect that somewhere on this world is the key to defeating the returned Takofanes.”
“And that’s all you’ve got?” Charlotte asked.
“Well, the tea is nice,” Mrs. Hernandez said. “And I would love to hear about your adventures here on Landing. .I gather that Rose has even found a boyfriend. Spill. Please.”
Bruce rolled his eyes as Rose began to talk about how awesome the Dark Ninja was. She sipped her tea, and ‘nice’ was not the word, as the flavour rolled across her tongue, and somehow she remembered everything she had ever liked, without remembering the details, and everything she had ever smelled and tasted.
And, somehow, she could even hear Bruce’s voice, saying, “Oh, God, we’re going to be here all morning, gossiping, right?”
“Yes,” She said, quietly. “All. Morning.”
It was Bruce’s turn to put his hand to his forehead as Dora interrupted Rose in mid-flight to accuse her of sneaking out of the cabin the night before to see the Dark Ninja.