Book 4, 15: Pallid, Slimy, Mind-Controlling Acephalous Monsters Are Always Trouble
Charlotte balanced easily on the high gutter of the tall, stone mansion. She had her right foot out on the gargoyle’s head.
“Look at me, I’m a superhero.”
“So you told me,” Bruce said.
“Yeah, but that time it was because you were being all annoying, trying to help me with my homework.”
“I’m sorry. Still sorry.”
“Sorry that I was right and you were wrong?”
“So I read the question wrong. I still got a higher mark than you.”
“But not on the word problems section.”
Bruce didn’t answer, just continued crouching beside her.
“Is that your one-with-the-night pose?”
“No,” Bruce answered. He let his right hand dangle. “This is my ‘one with the night pose.’ Before I was doing my ‘one with the city’ pose. Is that your ‘Kickass Martial Artist going to kick ass’ pose?”
“Sure. Long as no-one expects me to fold like Jennifer Garner the moment some super-accurate thing-throwing-dude shows up.” Charlotte hated that part of the Daredevil movie. Garner’s Elektra had been totally kickass until she wasn’t.
“Taking notes here,” Bruce said. “Won’t fold for any old marksman.”
“Well…” Charlotte paused. Because there was one marksman she was kind of okay with folding for, if she ever saw him again.
“You still on about that Scout guy? I don’t see what’s so cool about him, anyway.”
“If you don’t get it, I can’t explain.”
They stood in silence for a moment, and then Charlotte continued. “Shouldn’t we move on?”
“I was fine hanging out here, but okay.”
“Oh, come on. You said we were going to the city. You were out here for hours last week. I want to see what you found out!”
Far below them, the mansion’s garden ended at a low, stone wall that, on the other side when down in a steep slope to the edge of a street that was lit by the familiar glow of modern streetlights. This, Charlotte realised, must be the boundary of Queen’s Hill and Rivertown. Down the steeply sloping cross-street ahead of them, they could glimpse sliding, silvery waters. That must be the river that the neighbourhood was named for. Distant, across it, gleaming in green light, was a floating fairyland of towers and domes.
“What’s that?” Charlotte waved down the street.
“Well, first, it’s the River of Babylon. We’re high enough above the bund that we can see it from here. On the other side is the Chrysophase, the palace where the Emperor of Babylon lives. Down river from there,” Bruce gestured to the right at a smudge of intimidatingly large buildings, “Is City Hall, and right below it the Polytechnic University of Babylon. Behind us,” he gestured over his shoulder, “Is the Rivertown off-ramp of the Understate 13. The main route of U-13 goes under the river at an angle and comes out under the University.”
“Hunh. Don’t they know not to number things ’13’?”
Bruce shrugged. “Ever talk to Rose about lucky numbers? That’s the way the engineers wanted it.”
Charlotte thought about that. It was one of Rose’s favourite rants, all about superstitions and science.
“Now come on!” Bruce fired his grapple gun at the glum, six-story office building across the street. With a distinct slitting sound, its hooks bit on the concrete parapet of the building roof a moment later. Bruce let go and swung out over the street, not looking back to see if Charlotte had a route.
Good. It always irritated Charlotte when Bruce did that kind of thing. Like he wasn’t taking her seriously. Like she was still a kid. Charlotte jumped off the roof for the fine, tight wire that connected the power lines on the other side of the road. With the Pearl Harmony Sword in one hand and her mind stilled to focus her qi, she took the landing perfectly and ran across the street, thirty feet above pavement. At the other end, she put a light hand on the cross brace of the top of the power pole and vaulted to balance from the top, sheathing her sword as she did so. From here, it was one qi-assisted jump to a window well on the building.
A moment later, Charlotte was standing in the narrow sill of the top floor of windows. She stood, rising explosively, and in the last second before she overbalanced from leaning out to clear the upper sill, rammed one hand into the top of the sill, took a strong, finger-tips grip on the edge, and free-handed explosively up the last bit of bare concrete to put a hand on the edge of the parapet.
Up and over Charlotte went. Once on the roof, she looked casually back and down. She was a long way up! The wet in Rivertown was heavier, almost a downpour compared with the drizzle in in Queen’s Hill, but warmer.
Back the way she came, the stone gargoyle she had been standing up spit rainwater at her. Its blank eyes looked at her. It seemed to be saying, “I bet you can’t do that again, without sheathing your sword.”
Charlotte shivered. Spooky statuary was trying to get her killed, and not for the first time, either.
There was a grunt from below. Charlotte jumped up on the parapet. Bruce was dangling from it by one hand. “Need help?” She was teasing, she knew, but she couldn’t help it.
Bruce looked up at her from where he was dangling. “It’s all under control.” Then, with one clumsy, spasmodic move, he lifted his body with his arm until his face was above the parapet, then threw his left arm over and struggled onto the roof.
“3/10 for artistic impression,” Charlotte announced.
“I prefer to focus on the fact that I just cleared a lift with a one-handed chin-up. You know, if I was only allowed to wear a cloak. . .”
“Wait. A cloak would help your acrobatics?”
“Nah,” Bruce answered, as he dropped into his (apparently) one-with-the-city-pose looking back the way they came. “It’s extra style points. Gramps would have owned this town in his cloak and mask. Heck, maybe he did. Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we ever lit the Goblin Moon here?”
“Rise, you baleful Goblin Moon/Shine your gibbonous light/On hearts of evil delight/Till darkness itself swoons?” Charlotte managed to recite it straight faced.
Bruce shrugged his shoulders. “The original Hobgoblin could make it work.”
“Yeah, well he was fighting crime in the Fifties. Everyone was corny back then. So where are we going next?”
“Just a sec,” Bruce answered, still watching the way they came. “I think we’d know if a vampire was following us from your sword warning us, but I don’t want to count on magic when maybe it’ll slip up the old-fashioned way.”
Yeah, like now he was worrying about that, when he told her right out loud where he’d stashed his vampire-killing kit. But, then, maybe that was part of his Super-Secret-Super-Plan, too.
If it was, Bruce wasn’t telling. Next stop turned out to be a 7-11 of all things, a block off the East Bund at Bottom Alley (119th Street) and 87th Avenue, a narrow street overhung by apartment buildings on both sides, with parking down both sides of the street and the store in a tiny plaza at the corner.
The comfortable, anonymous darkness was broken by an elderly man in ridiculous biker toggles whizzing by on an expensive bike dangling strobe-flashing lights in all directions. Charlotte felt super-conspicuous dropping to the pavement in her Tatammy fatigues, but he didn’t even look up, obviously focussed on a dial on his handlebars.
Like Uncle Henry checking out his heart rate monitor while he ran, Charlotte thought. She caught the door of the store and followed Bruce as he slid half-sideways to get through the door without forcing the hinges to open it all the way.
Inside in the bright light, Charlotte waited for the clerk to look up and notice that two kids in masks and costumes had walked into his store, one of them carrying a sword.
After a moment, he looked up, and, totally unastonished, said, “Good morning!” Then he went back to his Sudoku book.
“Good Morning,” Bruce answered, then slid along one of the side aisles, obviously looking for something.
“Get many superheroes here?” Charlotte asked her friend’s departing back.
“Dunno,” Bruce answered. “Booker Crudup showed me this last week. Different clerk, but he was okay with Cat-Man and School-Uniform-Kid hanging out in his store. Didn’t figure it would be any different this week.”
“You really don’t like our uniforms?” Charlotte asked. Of course, she didn’t like them, even though the colours did work on her, more-or-less. But she was a girl, point was. Guys like her brother would walk out of the house in their pyjamas if you let them, long as they had their lucky leather jackets on.
Bruce shrugged, like it was too embarrassing to talk about that kind of stuff, like he regretted bringing it up. Oh, Charlotte knew that shrug, and wished that more boys could get over it and talk about stuff like fashion.
Brian did, and he was a hoot.
“Ah-hah!” Bruce said.
“What? You found the hotdog machine?”
“Nah. Want a cruller, though?”
“As long as you’re not just being rich.”
“No showing off. I want a cruller.” Bruce was pointing at the donut case with one hand. In the other, he was holding a cheap-looking phonebook-looking thing and a bill of magenta-coloured Babylon money. “If you pay, I’ll look up what I need here.”
Charlotte paid. The cashier barely even looked up as he slid her change over to her. “Napkins by the register,” he said. “Catch anyone tonight?”
“Not yet. Still don’t know who we’re trying to catch.”
“That the hard part?”
“In my experience,” Charlotte answered, realising how silly it sounded. Like she was Ms. Not-My-First-Rodeo, supercrime-wise.
“Good luck,” he said, his eyes sliding back to his puzzle book.
“Thanks,” Charlotte said over her shoulder, as she walked back to Bruce.
He had the book open to a map, and was peering at it intensely. “Haven’t they invented Google here?” Charlotte asked as she came up from behind.
“Babylon’s a dangerous place to rely on science,” Bruce answered. “Works some places, not others. Simple stuff works everywhere. Like maps.”
“Why 7-11 maps?”
“Booker says that maps working mean that maps can be dangerous, in some parts of the city. I’m not sure why, but, then, I’m not the magic guy on our team. Booker says that 7-11 has good, safe maps. Customer service, he said. Don’t want customers eaten. Bad for repeat business. His company uses them to guide their trucks in town, and if a Piper & Norton truck uses something, it’s the best available.”
Charlotte nodded, uncertainly. Her father’s opinion was that most businesses were run by morons. It was practically a person’s duty to con them, just so they’d learn. Oh, well, as Mr. Vezina asked, when Christ put it like that, “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” Mr. Vezina wasn’t rich, but he never claimed to be rich. Although he always had money when Chris and Charlotte needed something, which you couldn’t say about their Dad.
Bruce touched her shoulder. “Char-Char?”
Charlotte shook herself. “Thinking about something. So what’s the plan?”
“There’s a wholesaler in Rivertown near the Bund that specialises in supplying food trucks. I am very interested in the totality of our experience in the plaza of the library last week. In particular the part where some people who do not like having sunlight shining through their windows decided to follow us and possibly kill us. Come on!” Bruce jumped, gripping the rungs of a fire escape and then pulling himself up on it.
Charlotte followed. In a moment, they were running along a ceiling. “Or Mill. They could have been trying to kill Mill.”
“A most interesting hypothesis. But Eldritch set us up with Mill. Didn’t he, now?”
“You think Eldritch planned for Mill to help us?”
“Or for us to help Mill.”
“Wouldn’t he have told us?”
Bruce stopped at the edge of the roof and looked down. “It’s down here. Looks like they’re taking their first customers, too.”
Then he turned back to her and began to speak
---And, with an explosion of feathers, Ginger appeared out of the night sky and settled on his shoulder. So, instead of talking, Bruce reached down into one of the silly-but-within-dress-code pouches on the belt of his fatigues, pulled something out, and held it up to Ginger.
The tiny crow gulped it down with delight as Charlotte walked up to Bruce. When she was close enough, Ginger stepped down from Bruce’s shoulder to hers. As the bird’s talons bit in, lightly, familiarly, Charlotte noticed one of those smells in her nostril, the kind that introduced themselves with a diffident, “Oh, hey, been here a while, was wondering when you’d notice.” Burning.
Well, Ginger showing up had been a sign of trouble, anyway.
Well, that and the big, hulking, naked monsters that just suddenly appeared on the four sides of the building around them, tall and pallid of skin, with no heads and leering, wide-mouthed faces in their stomachs.
“Migdalar!” Bruce said. “We’ve got to—“ And then he doubled over, clutching his head. At the same moment, a gripping, painful force wrapped itself around Charlotte’s forehead and would not let go for what seemed forever, but was only a moment until the night was suffused with the perlescent light of the Pearl Harmony Sword, and the pain went away.
“Thank you, Saint Elizabeth and the Holy Sangha,” Charlotte whispered, astonished, as always, that she found the words of the dharma-prayer. Then she reached out, and softly touched Bruce’s shoulder. The white light leaped from Charlotte to Bruce, briefly outlining him like a swimmer passing underwater in front of the pool lights.
“That’s good,” he said, straightening up.
With a raucous scream, the monsters on the four parapets expressed apparent disapproval. The drizzle in front of them suddenly turned into a curtain of water in the air, and there were men standing in front of the monsters.
Men with swords.
“Ninjas,” Charlotte hissed.
“That’s bad,” Bruce answered.
“Seriously?” Charlotte asked, drawing her sword. “They’re just ninjas.”
“Simpsons quote,” Bruce answered as he pivoted, baton up. A sword, invisible a moment ago, shivered in parry as he took it on the crossbar of his weapon. Warned by the same instinct, Charlotte pivoted into an invisible stroke, taking a thrust spear in her blade and diverting it harmlessly as she somersaulted around another lunge.
She was ready to spit the off-balance ninja when Bruce yelled, ”No! They’re just mindslaves!”
Oh, great, Charlotte thought, dodging another sensed-rather-than-seen attack. Invisible ninjas that you couldn’t hurt. How could it get worse? She thought, in the moment between the parry and the crushing mental blast that blew her flying across the roof.