Book 4, 9: Babylon Wheels
Charlotte took a long look at Rose. Honestly, Bruce sounded like he’d rehearsed that last bit. Charlotte wondered why. And now he looked ashamed of something.
Well, never mind that. Her eyes crossed to Rose. “’Gosh darn?”
Rose blushed. “It’s just…” She stammered.
Never mind, Charlotte thought. Rose couldn’t swear in public. That’s why she said silly things.
“A ride?” Brian prompted.
Charlotte nodded, pointing her chin at the car pulled up beside the Snackman van.
“Cool!” Bruce said. “That’s a ’68 Pontiac Bonneville.”
Charlotte squinted at Bruce. “What? You’re turning into a motorhead, now?”
“It’s very appropriate for a teenaged male to be interested in cars,” Twelve pointed out. “Externalising insecurities about performance is an important step to stabilising normal gender identities.”
Brian swivelled his head towards Twelve. “What’s a normal gender identity, paleface?”
“Whatever society accepts as normal. Duh.”
Dora, standing between the boys, elbowed both. “Yeah, later with that, dudebros. Char Char? You really think that that guy’s gonna give us a ride?”
Before Charlotte could say anything, her phone buzzed in her jacket pocket. Charlotte reached in, feeling for the Hello Kitty on its case to figure out which end was up. Once again, she wished that she could carry a proper bag on the town, like normal girls. But then where would it go when you were fighting evil?
The phone buzzed again. It was Eldritch, wanting to talk. Because old guys totally didn’t know how to text. Charlotte rubbed one bright red runner against the other as she tapped “Accept,” and toggled “Speaker.”
“I am just going to take a wild leap and assume that the fire alarm in the East Stacks that interrupted my library day was you kids.” The eccentric San Francisco super-sorceror did not sound as irritated as his words suggested.
Still, didn’t hurt to be polite. “Yes, sir. We’re sorry about that.”
“You young folk these days,” the sorcerer ended with a dramatic sigh. Charlotte barely kept from rolling her eyes. Why, when I was your age, he would say next.
“Why, when I was your age,” the phone began. Then Eldritch paused.
“Yes?” Charlotte said.
“I lost two good friends fighting Doctor Destroyer. Never mind. With great power comes great responsibility, and sometimes superfights in libraries. Your secret IDs weren’t compromised? It was the Paradigm Pirates?”
“Yes, and yes.”
“Thought so. I have an idea bout how Burcato is moving his operatives, and I’m going to try to cut them off on their way back to Phillie. You kids are going to have to find your own way back to the portal. You remember the bus number?”
Rose looked anxious at that. Twelve looked like he was trying to feel anxious.
“Yes, sir, but we won’t make it before curfew.”
“No, you won’t. And that matters to you?”
“Kids today.” This time, Eldritch sounded like he meant it. “Well, I did see that coming. I’ve arranged a ride for you. Just try not to mess up the upholstery. It never hurts to have a friend with wheels.”
Across the plaza, the Snackman cook got out of the driver’s seat of the Bonneville and draped his long arms over the top of the closed window. Holding his hands up a little, he looked at the teens and made “W” signs with both hands.
“West side!” Dora said. “Are we west-side?”
“We’re from West Philadelphia,” Bruce pointed out.
“Speak for yourself,” Brian muttered.
“And one of us is from another planet.”
Dora nudged Rose. “At least one of us.”
“In the dark, post-apocalyptic future, all brothers are from another planet,” Rose said.
“Mine sure is.” Charlotte snapped back. Which wasn’t entirely fair to Chris, but seemed like the thing to say.
They walked over to the Bonneville. As they walked, Ginger fluttered down to perch on the rim of the car door. A slight smile cracked the driver’s face, and he ruffled Ginger’s neck feathers, the way she liked. When they were in easy speaking distance, he said, “Yo. You kids in a hurry? ‘Cuz a friend of mine asked if I could give you a ride.”
“Yes, sir,” Charlotte began.
“I like your piercing,” Dora interrupted, putting her finger to her nose.
“Ain’t no thang,” the man said, looking vaguely embarrassed. “And don’t ‘sir’ me.”
“You should really learn to act your age, Mister. You’re not a child.”
The man gave Twelve a cool glance. “Guts and stupid. Nice package. Might have a job for you later. You’ll learn that words have power. And names. Call me ‘Mill.’”
That was not the kind of name that Charlotte was expecting? But, then, what was she expecting? She didn’t know many Black people. There was Jamal, who didn’t really count, being an android from the future; Booker Crudup, who actually worked in Babylon. But his cousins, Bill, who was named for a President that Black people liked, and Tyrell, told her very firmly that that wasn’t a real Black name. ‘Tyrell’ was. Making her brother’s buddy the one guy in that whole family who had an authentically “ghetto” name.
Although his dad was a rich lawyer, because, you know, life was complicated. Even before Tyrell started dating Bruce’s sister.
“So, uhm, Mill?” You know this address?” Dora asked, holding out her phone.
“Yeah. That’s a low magic area. When do you need to be there?”
Dora told him.
Mill whistled. “Yeah, figuring you walk up the hill because of the low magic, I can get you there. Probably. Now hustle your butts. We got some driving to do.”
Charlotte followed her friends. The nice thing about the Bonneville was that it was a boat. Six teens took up some serious room. Especially with Bruce and Twelve roughhousing at the window seat.
The engine started. It was loud. Instead of pulling out ahead and into the long pull out that the Snackman van was still parked in, they were in reverse.
Bright side, Charlotte thought. Way shorter trip back onto the road. Less bright side: that big, black Hummer that was about to rear end them. Charlotte opened her mouth to suggest the physical impossibility of two cars being in the same place at the same time without significant repair bills for cars and people. Just a suggestion, really, a hint. One didn’t want to be rude to someone who was trying to do you a favour.
“Look out!” Rose screamed. Like that.
Brian flinched at the sound of Rose, yelling.
Mill didn’t even react, just kept smoothly backing out, until, at the last moment, he shifted into first without even clutching, first. The back of the car fishtailed, and then the Bonneville was accelerating with the flow of traffic. Charlotte could have sworn there was actual contact with the bumper of the oncoming Hummer.
“428,” Mill said, calmly, in way of explanation.
“You’re going to ruin the transmission like that,” Bruce said.
“Not today. And I built it, so I can wreck it.”
“This isn’t the way we came,” Rose pointed out.
“It’s a big city,” Mill pointed out. The Bonneville was racing up an “On” ramp. He didn’t even brake when he hit the merge lane, just inserted himself between two SUVs, one white, one black.
They were going, Charlotte noticed, straight towards the Library.
“Easiest way to the suburbs is via the Understate,” Mill observed. He jerked left, and the Bonneville was in the middle lane of the express way. The car behind them honked, but did not hit the brakes.
“But we’re not going to the suburbs.” Bruce said.
“It’s true.” Mill said. “We’re not.” The Bonneville drifted into another lane.
They were up against the divider, which merged with a massive concrete buffer up ahead as the road plunged underneath a section of the Library that looked like a fairy tale castle wall, only of poured pink concrete and twenty stories tall. So a Disney castle, then, Charlotte decided.
“Might want to hold onto your stomachs,” Mill said, as he grabbed the emergency brake and hauled on it.
Truer words, Charlotte thought, never spoken, as the back end of the car decided that it needed to go in a different direction than the front end, and they began to spin, like a carnival ride, only with no tattooed roadies with eyebrow piercings standing around looking after all the safety equipment they must have on those rides.
And then, just as Charlotte was about to decide that she really needed to pick up some of Rose’s scent, because it smelled so nice when half of all the laws of physics were smushing you into her like that, and maybe her next crazy ride would be with Scout, the front wheels bit and they were going forward again.
Right across traffic and into the wall. Or, wait, no, there was a tunnel ahead, and then they were in it, and it was one of those access roads for maintenance, and they were coming out of it into the opposite traffic flow, which, if the one they were in went to the suburbs, must be going towards downtown Babylon.
If they didn’t get wishboned by an oncoming car. That would be nice, Charlotte thought. Not being wishboned.
Then Charlotte finally processed the meaning of the draft on her face there for a moment, just before Rose spoke. “That Hummer we almost hit at the Library tried to brake and follow us through the tunnel.”
“Figured,” Mill said. “The people who are after me are taking a personal day, so it’s probably your kill-buddies.”
“I did not,” Charlotte said, “Get the impression that the Paradigm Pirates had wheels.”
“How do they get around, then?” Mill asked.
“They have some pretty solid teleportation magic,” Rose answered. “Or magitech, or science. Stuff like that.”
“Maybe you’ve got other enemies, then.”
“Tell us about it,” Bruce said.
By this time, the Bonneville had drifted over to the rightmost lane. “Hope they like bad weather, then, ‘cuz this is the Rivertown exit.” The Bonneville’s hood came out from under a concrete arch into a darkened street scene. Rain pounded the hood, and the streetlights were dimmer than they had any right to be.
“Sunset sure comes quickly around here,” Twelve said.
“It’s not the time of the day,” Mill said. “It’s the neighbourhood. Night lasts longer in Rivertown. Among other neighbourhoods.” The Bonneville roared through an intersection. Charlotte’s eyes were drawn down the road to a checkpoint with armed guards, under the partial cover of the giant columns of some kind of Greek temple-thingie. Looming just beyond the checkpoint was an ugly, barbed-wire-topped wall, with a truck-sized gate.
A motion caught Charlotte’s eye, just as the black Hummer came hurtling out of the sidestreet, on a dead collision course with them. At the last second, Charlotte felt a faint breeze, and Rose was gone. The Bonneville accelerated, and the Hummer just barely clipped them, although the force was still enough to send them fishtailing.
“Rose!” Charlotte yelled, as she deployed her uniform from her quick-change ring and cranked the window down before plunging through it. With one hand firm on the rain-wet roof of the Bonneville, she boosted herself up onto the metal plate.
Charlotte was looking for Rose, afraid that the silly girl had got herself clipped by a car moving in an unexpected direction, but she did not miss the flicker on the roof of the Hummer, which was paralleling them in the curb lane, just behind. It was just a waving black cloth, but to Charlotte’s Eight Spirit Dragon training, it signified an attacker, going far too fast to counter.
So the drawn Pearl Harmony went where the black cloth was going, instead. Radiant light hissed where blade cut fabric, and scintillating flecks of perlescent light reflected from one raindrop to the other. A horrible yowl split the night, only to be interrupted by three spaced gunshots.
The black Hummer swerved, its left, curbside tire, the one that hadn’t been shot out, hit the gutter and then rode up onto the sidewalk. Clumsy, wallowing, the rest of the oversized machine followed. A curbside garbage can went flying, throwing trash through the air to catch the feeble light of the lamps.
They were half a block ahead when the Hummer came to a halt in the storefront behind them, but they could still hear the shattering of glass.
As quickly as she had left, Charlotte was back in her seat next to Rose. Charlotte noticed that she was shaking. “Those guys were fast.” A single exchange of blows had left her more shaken than an entire fight with stupid Chaos Girl.
“Not guys,” Rose said, firmly.
“No, not guys,” Dora said. “Guys don’t smell like that.”
“They do if they don’t shower every morning,” Twelve pointed out.
“ONE time. One time!” Brian protested.
“And if I don’t let you forget it, you won’t do it again, will you?” Twelve countered.
“Shh,” Bruce said. “What do you mean, Dora?”
“There’s something awful in the air tonight.”
“That’s the needfire telling you?”
Dora nodded. The ancient force that the Wrede-Guzman-Neilsen family channelled, each in their own way, had ways of knowing things. “Char-Char?”
But even before Bruce asked, Charlotte had been reaching out with her Eight-Spirit Dragon-trained senses. And, through the clean darkness of the rain, she could sense something else, something dank and dangerous and smelling of spilled blood. And of being a lot more dangerous than kooky Madison and her dippy robots.
“Yeah,” Charlotte finally answered. “There’s something seriously scary back there.”