Chapter 4, 14: Return to the City
“Can anyone tell me what just happened? Was that really a practice scrimmage?” Brian asked.
“Friendly. They’re called “friendlies” in cricket,” Rose answered.
“Nothing friendly about that. It’s like saying that this place is well-lit.”
As if that was the cue, Charlotte finally got the kerosene lantern lit. The team stood, once again, in the livery stable of Fortune House, Doctor Smythe’s townhouse at the top of Queen’s Hill in Babylon. Rain was beating down on the gabled roof of the stable, high above. The air was full of the smell of leather tackle and horse, and the light of the lantern now shone over coils and stands of oiled harness. In the distant darkness, a horse, its sleep disturbed, nickered.
Charlotte wondered if it were afraid that someone was going to harness it and drive it out into the rainy night. She focussed her Eight Spirit Dragon night vision and caught the horse’s eye. Whether it could see her or not, she tried to radiate reassurance. And paused to wonder, if people used horses for transport around Babylon, she could take her horse with her next time. With her weekends booked up, she wasn’t going to be seeing very much of Telus in the next little while, otherwise. With his interdimensional travel abilities, Telus would probably fit right in around this joint, anyway.
“So,” Brian continued, “Fur bikini girl was playing cricket?”
“That’s Eve,” you hound-dog,” Twelve said. “She’s in the next class up.”
“I’ve met Eve. I even hung out with her a little last summer,” Brian responded, with a hurt tone, as though people were constantly underestimating what he knew about stuff. Which they were.
“So why were you calling her that? Social norms dictate the use of the name or a well-understood nickname.”
“Twelve thinks that you’re objectifying Eve, but he can’t bring himself to sound like a social justice warrior,” Rose explained.
“What?” Bruce again.
“What?” Twelve. They both looked cross.
“Rose! Ixnay on the giant brain-ay!” Dora elbowed her friend with comic exaggeration.
“It’s cricket. Like, all formal and stuff with sipping tea cups and stuff like that. We play in tasteful cardigans and slacks, with school jackets over top. She plays in a leopard skin bikini. I stand by my nickname.”
“She is gay, you know.” Even as she said it, Charlotte felt it come out as a pretty weak defence of Eve’s behaviour. Charlotte just didn’t like it when people piled up on somebody. Even Eve, whom Charlotte didn’t trust a foot. You had to be careful around people who’d already tried to kill you once or twice because they didn’t like you. Stood to reason they’d try to do it again, Father Asplin had pointed out.
“Yes. Knew that. Quite the scandal in Long Lake Valley. Don’t have many of that sort there.”
“Don’t be a complete idiot, Brian,” Dora explained.
“I’m not. That whole team was trolling us! Fake Zatanna and those werewolf boys with their hats turned around backwards and the muscle-boy with his tank top. ‘I flexed my guns so hard the sleeves fell off.’ What the heck does that even mean?”
“Guns is slang for arm muscles.” Bruce said. He had quietly fallen on one knee and his left fist and was looking at something.
“Oh. Guess that makes sense, then,” Brian said. “Can’t believe that dude’s your clone brother,” Brian added in the direction of Twelve. Twelve and Mario were both clones of Archon, the old-time New York superhero.
‘So except for that Mike Snow guy, they’re all asholes. So what’s he doing hanging with them? Is it about being an albino?”
Careful silence as no-one rushed in to explain. Turned out that Mike had his phone switched on the whole time he was on Landing, hanging out with the kids of Long Lake Valley. No-one from there had ever seen Mike as a special-needs kid, and Brian didn’t believe that he even was one. How did you explain? How did you sort it out, that Mike Snow really was developmentally disabled, and that it was his phone that let him act normal? How did you keep on holding your breath waiting for Rose to react?
But she didn’t. At last, Charlotte stepped over to look over Bruce’s shoulder. “Is it a Clue, Boy Wonder?”
“Yeah. But of what?” Bruce didn’t even react to the nickname. Charlotte wondered for a moment what she felt …disappointed?
Whatever. It did show that Bruce was really focussed on whatever he’d found. Bruce held up something small and black that he was holding with some tweezers he must have been carrying in his Junior Detective kit.
Charlotte leaned in close, putting her hand on Bruce’s dark red Gortex-clad shoulder as she did so. Speaking of guns. “What is it?”
“Scat.” Bruce looked over his shoulder back at her. He was wearing one of those one-eye miniature microscope things, like the ones that jewellers had. “With insect wings in it.”
“Gross!” Charlotte said. Although she’d guessed that it would be gross when she saw the tweezers.
Bruce held the tweezers up closer to her. “Wanna look at it through the lens?”
“Girls. So….” Bruce dropped his hand and made a circular gesture with the tweezers pointing down, like he was stirring an invisible cauldron. As he did so, a light shone from somewhere on his body. On the dark, shadowy ground in front of him, a bunch of sparks began to glow purple. They were arranged in a vaguely circular shape.
With the thumb of his left hand, Bruce gestured upward.
Charlotte looked up. Everyone looked up, but only she and Twelve had the eyes to see a momentary glimpse of bright eyes.
“Bats!” Twelve muttered. Charlotte noticed that, too. But something was bothering her, something that she couldn’t put a finger on.
“Doctor Smythe has bats in his belfry!” Dora snickered.
“What’s a belfry?” Brian asked.
“Oh, don’t start---“
Rose interrupted her friend. “It’s a structure holding a bell. Typically, there was one in the bell tower of an English parish church, where the local pastor often lived in an attached vicarage. So it is kind of like a big space on top of his house. If someone has bats in his belfry, he has idle notions flitting around in his head.” Rose finished her explanation with obvious satisfaction.
“It means’ someone’s crazy,” Dora added.
“I just said that. I don’t like this. Has anyone seen that Werner Goethe out during the day.”
“No. No we haven’t,” answered Twelve. “In our one day hanging around here. Clearly our host is harbouring a vampire, and we need to hunt him down and pound a wooden stake through his heart. If that kills him, than obviously he was a vampire. That’s my sarcasm voice, if anyone couldn’t tell.”
“Yeah, we could tell,” Brian answered.
Charlotte noticed that Bruce didn’t say anything.
Even in the short trip across the yard, the wild rain of the night soaked through Charlotte’s white rain jacket, as though the waterproofing didn’t work. Stupid jacket had not been cheap, and Charlotte could never carry an umbrella, on account of she was already carrying a sword that looked like one.
Speaking of her sword, Charlotte switched her grip on the hilt of the Pearl Harmony. Darkness had set in early on Queen’s Hill, and between it and the rain and the intimations of a vampiric presence, she thought she should be ready. Charlotte didn’t expect trouble. Ginger would have shown up to warn her by now, but you never knew. Father Asplin had warned her that powerful magic could probably ward Ginger away.
Hartwell was waiting at the door to let them in. with two maids, Sarah and Susan. In a moment, Sarah was helping Charlotte off with her jacket. “Oh, tsk, Miss Wong. You can’t be wearing that space age stuff in a regular old Queen’s Hill scud like this. You need a mackinaw, or a bumbershoot. A regular bumbershoot.”
“Just what I was thinking,” Charlotte answered, guessing what the unfamiliar words must mean.
“Ladies and gentlemen will be pleased to hear that a dinner buffet a la carte has been set for them.”
“I, for one, am cautiously optimistic,” Bruce announced.
“Be polite,” Charlotte hissed.
“Oh. Oh. Oh. I’m sorry, Hartwell, I didn’t mean…”
“No offence taken, Master McNeely. Cook noticed that you were not all that enthusiastic about the heavy menu she set for last Saturday, and has been sure to prepare calve’s foot jelly for those with light appetites.”
“So not the issue,” Brian said. Hartwell pretended deafness.
“Like someone from Long Lake knows from food,” Dora muttered. She continued in what Dora must have hoped was a ‘Mom’ voice. “Tonight is meatloaf. Now, I know we had meatloaf last night, but that was with corn flakes topping. This meatloaf is topped with crumbled Ritsie crackers.”
“How did you know about Ritsie crackers?” Brian asked.
“Lucky guess,” Dora said. Charlotte snickered. Marketers on Landing didn’t have to be sued, on account of being a supervillain’s secret colony more than a hundred light years from Earth. Renaming cheese crackers from ‘Ritz’ to ‘Ritsie’ counted as brilliant advertising there.
“Besides,” Brian continued as they rounded a corner, almost edged between an elaborate table crowned with a Chinese vase and a painting of someone old and serious, and entered the pantry to confront the boiled calve’s head and quivering aspic at the head of the table, “Even we never did anything like that.”
“I dunno,” Bruce said. “We had Gel-Lo salads that looked a lot like that at the line camp. Except they tended to have marshmallows and grated carrots in them, and not lumps of calf.”
“I miss Gel-Lo,” Brian said.
“It’s the same as Jello,” Dora pointed out.
“No it’s not. You can’t get the good flavours, like celery.”
“If this conversation is meant to remind us that we’ve faced unusual food before, mission accomplished. Except Twelve, but he eats what’s put in front of him.”
Twelve, who was grimly, if queasily, sawing a small chunk of the boiled calf head, didn’t even look over his shoulder at the rest of the team. Instead he moved on to the bowl of stuffing next to the unfamiliar roast bird and put a little on his plate. A distinctly fishy smell came off it –distinct at least if you had Eight Spirit Dragon senses. Because of course you put canned fish in your dressing.
Charlotte got in line behind Twelve with a soup bowl , ladelling something green and viscous into her bowl. You started with soup, right? Even if it had distressing, dark green flecks in it, like someone had done something horrible to an undeserving cucumber.
Which turned out to be the recipe. “Do something horrible to a cucumber,” it probably said in the cookbook. From the taste of it, it involved spinach and nutmeg and whipping cream, and wasn’t actually that bad if you could get away from the fact that it was all based on a cucumber.
After that, Charlotte managed to stoically make her way through the pretty normal fried fish, a little of the bird, which reminded her of grouse, and plenty of the crusty bread and very nice butter. The weird apple sauce thing (with even more cream!) at the end wasn’t bad, especially with tiramisu cookies.
Then it was time to be escorted into the parlour, where apparently Victorians would do anything to not be bored to death while waiting for TV to be invented, including listening to Charlotte pick out “Ode to Joy” on the upright piano-thingie without protest. Bruce accompanied her on a borrowed violin, because of course he was good on the violin, which was more than Charlotte could say about her pianolike-thingie playing skills. She’d only had a few months of lessons, and all the practice in the world wouldn’t make up the distance. A few bars in, Doctor Smythe began to sing along, which astonished Charlotte, who hadn’t even known that “Ode to Joy” had words. Some of them were in German, and Doctor Smythe, who had a pleasant voice, once baritone, now weakened with age, even managed to sound like a native speaker as he went through that part.
“Bravissima, Uncle,” Jane announced, clapping vigorously at the end of the performance.
“Hear, hear,” Werner Goethe said, clapping in a gentle way that suggested that he just barely had the strength for that much, but might have much more for something else.
“Bravissimo,” Mr. Delver corrected. “Gender, Miss Smythe.”
“Ah,” Jane said. “My Italian teacher does try so hard, but I am afraid that all of these male and feminine endings are just too much for me.”
“If Italians wanted proper ladies to learn to speak Eytie, they all could do with a little less of puttin’ sex to the words,” Mr. Taurling announced.
“Aloysius!” Werner said, warningly.
“Perhaps,” Mr. Delver answered, “Best said elsewhere. Now, our young travellers have come far again tonight. Perhaps it would be best if they retired now.”
Charlotte would have protested, but, let’s face it, no TV, not even any Wifi in this part of Babylon equalled boring.
Besides, she had plans that worked best if she got a full night’s sleep.
As darkness settled at its deepest, in the last hour before the dawn, Charlotte’s eyes snapped open. The air in the girls’ bedroom was so cold that she actually dressed under the covers. Fortunately, dressing in Tatammy fatigues was easy, and the low technology field of Queen’s Hill didn’t seem to stop the little nanobots in the fabric from keeping her warm. In spite of that, the first bite of the room’s air on her flesh, before her body heat had a chance to warm the fabric, was cruel and chill.
“Whazzat?” Came from Dora’s bunk as Charlotte climbed down. “Shhh,” Charlotte whispered.
It was not, of course, appropriate for a girl’s bedroom to have windows that you could climb out through. That was why they were barred with narrow, cast iron grills.
Superheroines didn’t care for that crap. The first thing the girls had done was lever the bars of the grill out and then carefully disguise the loosened bars at the bottom. Charlotte shifted them, lifted the window out of its channel, and slipped through into the dark and rainy night. Her fatigues shed the rain with ease as she hung off the side of Fortune House by one hand and closed up the window behind her with the other.
Rose could get them out again if she needed to when she went out for her morning run in a few hours, although she would likely go right out through the door, so fast that Susan and Sarah, who slept in the central room, wouldn’t even notice.
Charlotte wasn’t quite that ninja. Though, frankly, she was feeling absurdly proud of herself as she dropped lightly to the ground in the garden.
A shadowy figure was hunched against the side of the stable facing back into the ornamental Chinese garden. Charlotte slipped up to it, curious as to whether it was who she thought it was.
Bruce was carefully burying something in a little hole in the ground. “Hey, Char-Char,” he said, not even turning around.
“Poo!” Charlotte felt her pride in her ninjaness deflating a bit.
“Hey! World’s Twenty-fifth Best Detective here, twenty-third when I’m feeling it.”
“Watcha doing?” Charlotte asked.
“Burying the vampire hunting kit I brought along in case. Cross, sharpened oak stake, assorted holy stuff. Did a werewolf kit at the other side, of the stable, and a draugr kit and a few others around the gazebo, if you want to see.”
“Maybe later. So you think we’re dealing with vampires?” Charlotte didn’t know how she felt about that.
“Uhm. I have complicated feelings about that. Just like I..” Whatever Bruce had been about to say, he trailed off.
“Because we’re being hit over the head by a cluebat?”
“Yeah. Couldn’t say anything about it back in the stable. Someone might be listening, but you saw how quick we were to jump to that conclusion.”
“It did bother me,” Charlotte admitted.
“Exactly. If a vampire is infiltrating a house, he does not let bats set up house in the outbuildings. Maybe back in Dracula’s day, but nowadays that’s like, Clue Number One: Too Many damn vampires.”
“I liked that part of the movie,” Charlotte said. “Funny. But…”
“Question is, if someone is setting up someone else who is a vampire, bats are a good clue.”
“Who might do that?”
“Another vampire?” Bruce shrugged his massive shoulders.
For a second, Charlotte had trouble focussing. He was just so not-anime. “Vampires are setting up the vampire? Isn’t that a little paranoid?”
“See what I’m doing here? Trying to be ready for everything.” He gestured around the garden. “Welcome to being the world’s Twenty-Fifth best detective.”
Bruce stood up, turned around, and brushed imaginary dirt off his Tatammy fatigue’s knees. “Enough of that. Want to go see the town in the last hour before dawn?”