Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Book 4, 17: But It’s a Dry Cold

Fortean Times

Book 4, 17: But It’s a Dry Cold

The rain bothered Charlotte a whole lot more as they walked up the steep, cobbled street towards Dr. Smythe’s mansion. It was raining in Rivertown, and it was raining and foggy in Queen’s Hill, and they were walking because some them could fly and one could teleport and there was one speedster and two acrobats, and it all ended up that trudging up the hill, one thick soled, white-boot planted step at a time, was the compromise. 

Or they felt like trudging. Charlotte looked down at her feet. The water running down between the cobbles almost counted as a stream. She planted one foot firmly in a little puddle, watched water splash over her boot, beading the white faux leather –or real leather improved by SCIENCE!—and run off it. At least her feet were dry. Tatammy fatigues might be stupid school uniforms, but they were amazing fabrics if you didn’t care about having your hair stuffed under your cowl and looking like refugees from a 1960s comic book.

“God, this rain sucks,” Dora said.

“But it’s a dry rain!” Bruce said, his voice sounding a deliberately forced bright tone.

“What?” Dora didn’t have to force the exasperated tone at all. Charlotte was thinking the same thing.

“It’s a joke,” Bruce explained. “Because when it’s cold some places, they like to say that it’s a dry cold?”

Chirp, chirp, Charlotte thought. Tumbleweeds tumble through. Feeling unaccountably sorry for Bruce, she interrupted. “The X-Men fought Magneto in their first issue.” The words, unconsidered, rolled out of her mouth before she realised how discouraging it had to sound. For a moment, she looked into the clammy darkness and hoped that it had swallowed up her words, looked for the first light of dawn. 

“With Professor X,” Bruce pointed out. Trust Bruce to know all of the comic nerd details. And to want to talk about it. 

“Besides, that was a comic book,” Twelve added, a little unnecessarily. 

“And we fought Sovereign and Fang last summer. And won,” Rose replied, brightly. 

Charlotte looked back over her shoulder just in time to catch Dora rolling her eyes, Twelve and Bruce with distant eyes, Rose with a bright but trying-too-hard smile on her face, and Brian looking down at the cobbles like he was ashamed of himself. “No, we fought Sovereign, and then Fang backstabbed him, and we ended up beating Fang’s freaking teenage daughter. Or Char-Char did.”

“And I had my horse,” Charlotte added.

“Point of order,” Rose said. “Eve is not, in fact, a teenager.”

“No, she just has the mind of a teenager, which is a very, very important difference, and why the heck are we talking about Eve again?” Dora asked.

Brian was still looking at his boots when he replied. “Because she’s so much more interesting than us losers?” 

There was a long moment of silence. Charlotte turned her head back to the street ahead of her. Boots fell, water splashed, rain fell. The squeaking wheels of delivery carts could be heard, and from the expressway, the faint reminder of what the booming sound of early morning traffic sounded like down in the concrete cut. 

Finally, Bruce spoke. “Oh, that’s just too much. We fought some C-list enemies, got beat. That’s what happens when you’re C-list. But here’s the thing. We belong on the D-List because we’re frosh. Grade Nines. Rose is the only one of us that’s seen Sweet Sixteen.” And she’s had a boyfriend, Charlotte thought. Not that she was jealous of that. No sir, no way. Her day would come. She hoped.

“Hey!” Twelve interrupted..

“And Twelve,” Bruce conceded. “One day, we’re going to be A-List. One day soon. Before that, we’ll be C-List, then B-List, because we will train, we will study, we will grow, and we will figure out how to beat the migdalar like cheapass drums.” 

It was definitely starting to brighten up, Charlotte thought. Dawn was making itself known through the clouds, and the rain had stopped. 

She wasn’t the only member of the team who was feeling it now, either. “Yeah! Batman always wins the second fight!” Brian actually sounded enthusiastic.

As much as Bruce hated to be compared with Batman, he had the sense to keep quiet.

Rose appeared in front of them. “Uh, guys? Something’s going on in the garden. We’d better hurry up.”

Charlotte touched the Pearl Harmony Sword in its scabbard. A moment ago, there had been no hint of danger, but now she felt something seeping through the atomic lattices of its orichalchum blade, like an antenna picking up the ills of the City. “You scouting ahead, Rose?” Charlotte asked.

Now it was Rose’s turn to roll her eyes. Give the Tatammy fatigue cowls credit. For masks, they were amazing for letting you send IRL emoticons. “Of course I am. You guys are so slow.”

“So why didn’t you find out what was going on before you came back to us?” Twelve asked, sounding peevish.

Charlotte gestured to the side, making a soothing, silencing gesture. “Good question, Twelve, but Rose is following procedures. We don’t want to lose her in a one-sided fight before we can come up to support her.”

“A fight with a vampire,” Dora said. “So cool.”

“Real life vampires are not fetish objects!” Twelve snarled. “I’m sorry, Rose. You were sensibly complying with standard operating procedures.”

“Fetish-what?” Dora asked.

“Explain when you’re older,” Twelve answered.

“Oh, I don’t need an explanation. I need to kick your ass, Mr Creepy Clone-Boy.”

Charlotte drew the Pearl Harmony Sword, while Bruce melted into the shadows and Rose flickered into invisible speed –hopefully not because now she was rushing to the mansion ahead of everyone else. Still, Charlotte found time to look over her shoulder. “Twelve, stop creeping Dora out. Dora, stop romanticising vampires! Now come on!” 

Charlotte waved her sword. At which, of course, the two flyers took off, and Brian disappeared in a puff of smoke that left the sweet-floral-bitter-smoky smell of incense behind. Even running with Eight Spirit Dragon enhanced speed, she was still the last one to hop up the masonry embankment and over the high garden wall into the Smith Mansion’s backyard. Gotta work on my leadering, Charlotte thought. 

Or figure out how to get her horse here. 

A hand reached out from the shadows, wrapping themselves lightly around Charlotte’s bracelet. At first the familiarity of the moment made her heart leap in her chest. Scout! But the hand was not dressed in Scout’s leather shooting gloves, but Bruce’s white Tatammy fatigues. 

Still, Charlotte led Bruce guide her down into the shelter of the high prickly bush that he was hiding behind. With his free hand, he gestured through the leaves.

On the neatly manicured lawn, under the back windows of the mansion, including the ones through which Charlotte had made her exit not half an hour before, right next to a freshly excavated pile of dirt, Aloysius Taurling was crouched over a body, rolling it awkwardly towards the hole. Someone had to show that guy how to do first aid, Charlotte thought. Right after they arrested his ass for murder.

Oh, well. No point in letting him tamper with the body any further. Charlotte pulled down her cowl –the whole secret identity thing would just be confusing here-- stood up, and, on cue, her sword broke into full light, although the sense of wrongs done coming through it scarcely strengthened. Strange, she thought. “Is there anything we can do to help, Mr. Taurling?”

The newspaper man uttered an astonished guttural and nearly jumped clear of the ground, he was so shocked. The body he was cradling in his arms rolled free, flopping with a strange lightness.

“That’s no corpse,” Bruce whispered, as he stood beside her.”

Aloysius Taurling turned around. “You kids durn scared me! I don’t know as you can help me, but you all are wearing your crimefighter togs, so mebbe so. See this dresser’s dummy, here? Do you see anything funny about it?”

Bruce strode forward and looked down. “Funny how? Like with the rain?”

As the other kids gathered round, Taurling fixed his gaze on Bruce and put out a trembling finger. “You been spying on me, boy?”

“We all were spying on you a moment ago, Mr. Taurling. You tend to assume the worst when you see a man apparently trying to roll a corpse into a hole in the ground. But you were checking to see if you could spot the difference between a patch of ground that had been rained on, and another that had been covered by a corpse, weren’t you?”

“Are you a mind-reader?” Mr Taurling asked, sounding as shocked now as he was suspicious a moment ago. He held up his long-fingered hands to his head and pushed them against his temples, as though to hold his thoughts in. “Two and two gives four. Four and four gives sixteen. Sixteen and sixteen gives 256. Two hundred and fifty six and two hundred and fifty six gives, well, 4000 and then there’s another thousand and six times.. No, wait, start again, Loy.”

“It’s okay, Mr. Taurling, there’s no mentalists here. We can’t read your mind.”

Well, Charlotte thought, strictly speaking, Brian probably knew a spell, and maybe Dora if she could just figure out how to use the Maid of Gold’s mental powers. But let’s not get it all complicated. 

“So how?”

“An elementary deduction, Mr. Taurling. Why else would you be fiddling with a mannequin in the garden on a morning when the weather forecast calls for clearing, if not to investigate the circumstances of another corpse, another day?” 

Bruce darted a glance at Charlotte, and, for just a second, his mouth jerked up in a grin. Charlotte looked back, desperately managing to not giggle, and daring Bruce not to break down.

Mr. Taurling looked back at Bruce dubiously, or blankly, your call, Charlotte thought, addressing some imaginary person trying to figure out whether the reporter realised that his leg was being pulled. Even he, the expression seemed to say, could think of plenty of other reasons for what he had been doing. Reasons that seemed a bit . . . suspicious. 

Bruce waited just a moment longer, long enough to let Taurling dangle, not long enough to be mean. “This has something to do with the mysterious event in Arizona that you mentioned last week, does it not, Mr. Taurling?” Bruce almost stumbled over the “Mister.” Charlotte couldn’t even imagine herself spouting off that much half-baked BBC-ese.

She also noticed that the tingling in her sword was not going away. Still, the pommel would glow red or black if there were evil afoot, depending on what kind it was. 

Good thing, she thought, that it wasn’t glowing red, because that meant that Charlotte was screwing up. She wasn’t sure she could handle that right now.

Mr. Taurling, meanwhile, wiped his hand across his forehead, exactly like someone who was very, very nervous about being caught in a lie. With her enhanced vision, Charlotte could see that it was not “like” anything. In spite of the damp cold of the morning. Taurling was actually sweating. “Er, exactly. The events in Arizona Territory, as described by Mr. Robert Howard of Cross Plains, Texas, February 19th, 1936—“

“Wait,” Bruce said, putting up his hand. “That Robert E. Howard? Conan?”

“Who?” Taurling said, sounding puzzled.

Rose stepped between Bruce and Charlotte, her shoulder nudging comfortably by Charlotte’s. ”Sailor Steve Costigan? Ace Jessel? Solomon Kane? Kull?”

“Ah, yes. Kull the Barbarian. Atlantis-born, reiver and rebel, king and conqueror,” Taurling recited, his folksy cowboy accent had almost completely vanished, Charlotte noticed. “Most think that Mr. Howard had crossed the border to Arizona simply to meet his hero, a dangerous thing to do in those days. But I think that the ex-President had commissioned Mr. Howard as a ghost writer.” 

Taurling delivered the last with considerable smugness, like he was explaining who was really behind the Kennedy assassination. Or Whitney Houston’s death, whichever. 

“The ex-President?” Bruce asked. Charlotte could imagine Bruce’s arched eyebrow, inviting Taurling to say that one thing more.

“Ah, yes, the Ex-President of the California Republic. He shook the West when he resigned the year before, you know. When he was nominated by the Legislature after independence from Mexico, they thought that he was a safe figure, above politics, that they could run their Northern games and squeeze Southern California of every penny of oil money. Didn’t happen that way, did it? He brought the State through the Second Crash. Nowadays, even historians that hate him said that he saved the State, like Roosevelt saved the East. When he left, he said that it was so that he could return to writing. His critics said that he was too unhealthy to write or to rule, that the demands of office had done him in, a dead man walking, as they say on Alcatrez. But why not both? That last book, the one he said he’d been working on since 1914? He wanted Howard to finish it for him. And who would benefit from that book being left unfinished? That’s the question.” 

The newspaperman finished strong and smug, fully recovered, but a little out-of-breath after giving a speech that he’d obviously been preparing for a long time. He obviously had strong opinions about “the President of the Republic of California.” It almost made Charlotte care enough to ask what his name was. Almost. Okay, that wasn’t really fair. Who the guy was would probably turn out to be important. 

“Who indeed?”

“Did you know that the Arizona Marshal Service was about to make an arrest when the forensic report came back from Los Angeles? Their prime suspect had an alibi, you see. The ex-President’s clothes showed that his body had been lying on the football field where they found it from before the rain started the night before, and the suspect was with friends at that time. And do you know has disappeared?”

“The forensic report?” Bruce guessed.

“No, no,” Taurling said, dismissively. “Well, yes, of course. It wasn’t just the President’s body and the clothes and the manuscript he was working on that disappeared from the Tarzana morgue. The forensic report vanished, too. We all know that. Very mysterious. The Arizona Marshal Service’s investigation’s files. Those are gone from the archives. We only learned that when the 75 year release date came up last year.”

“So I suppose that the investigation is at a standstill?” Bruce guessed.

“No! The conspirators missed something, a reference to a newspaper reporter.” Taurling reached into his pocket with a sudden gesture that ended with a moment of horrified realisation as he pulled something at the lip and noticed the wary faces in front of him.

Rose’s gentle hand touched his, and drew something from the pocket. Not the gun that Bruce and Charlotte had been bracing themselves to deal with, but a big, old-timey photograph. 

Taurling wiped his brow again with his free hand. More sweat. Rose held up the photo so that Bruce and Charlotte could make it out in the gradually lengthening, sky-clearing brightness of dawn. A pink light, spreading the promise of the new day, showed the body of an elderly man, somewhat fat, lying face down in a close-cropped grassy turf. “The Arizona Marshals completely muffed the investigation, of course. Ruined the crime scene even before “The Event” quote unquote, that evening. But there was a news photographer there.” Taurling thrust out the photograph. “Does this look like a coat that has been laid down on wet grass?” Taurling did one-handed air quotes when he said ‘The Event.’ It looked dumb. 

“Well, actually,” Rose began. Bruce said nothing.

“Of course not!” Taurling continued. “If only we knew the name of the man the Marshals were about to arrest. It would explain everything, wouldn’t it?” 

“And you know?” Bruce prompted.

“Oh, I know. I know everything about this…” Taurling paused.

“Assassination?” Rose interjected.

Now it was Taurling’s turn to arch his eyebrows ironically. “Assassination? Is that what you think? You really have drunk the bathwater, haven’t you?” He shook his head, the way that 9/11 guys did when you mentioned airplanes crashing into buildings. “You know, that’s what I used to think, before I was introduced to the Fortean accounts of the evening. The glowing lights, the angels in the sky, the dry rain. . . .And Howard, dead less than six months later. Coincidence? I think not.”

“Well, he was pretty depressed. Suicide’s not that surprising,” Rose pointed out.

“Suicide? Suicide? You think he deliberately threw himself in front of that roadster? The one the Rangers never tracked down? You know how many cars there were in central Texas that day, and how many of them had dents on the hood from hitting a man at sixty miles an hour? Not many, I’ll tell you. But the Rangers couldn’t find it. Of course.”

“So in your universe,” Bruce finished, “Howard died in a hit-and-run, and didn’t shoot himself. I suppose they didn’t find the manuscript, either.”

“Oh, they did, they did,” Taurling said, reaching into another of his capacious hip pockets, and pulling out a cheap old paperback with one of those Steranko-style covers with a massive muscled, bare-chested man waving a sword and trampling anonymous hordes beneath the hooves of his horse. You go, dude, Charlotte thought. Kull the Conqueror was emblazoned across its cover. “Oh, I imagine that the hero wasn’t originally Howard’s favourite barbarian. Perhaps the plot was rewritten a bit. An ancient necromantic sorcerer-king like Thulsa Doom was not the President’s usual style, much less a magic sword wielded by a chivalrous female knight to slay that king. But a young, piratical outsider raising a rebel army to overthrow an ancient tyranny with the assistance of a covert alliance of magical Pictish warriors? I can see that.”

“Sure,” Rose said, “Like in—“ Rose had obviously figured out who the President was, and, just like Rose, assumed that everybody had. Or that it would be fun to explain later. Grr. 

But whatever she was about to say was lost as Bruce interrupted the interruption. “Wait. A magic sword wielded by a female paladin that kills Thulsa Doom? Didn’t Kull fight Thulsa Doom when he was the King of Valusia? He wasn’t young in those stories.”

“Ah. Yes. That’s just part of the story that Howard never got to finish. His notes say that a thief stole the sword right out of Doom’s chest, allowing the sorcerer to rise again. We know that it ended up in the tower of a wizard of the Old Race, on an island far to the south of Valusia. There’s a fragment of a story about Kull’s son, Kulltoris, preparing to reive the island with the help of Brule’s son, Brak in the Howard papers. Although I’m not sure that I see the relevance. Clearly the parts of the manuscript that the Illuminati wanted to suppress are the parts that don’t survive. Now, we can start to reconstruct those---” 

And that was when a coach drove up the driveway far enough for the team to see it. A driver, sitting on top, waved his whip in weary greeting and swung down to the gravel drive athletically.

As though in synchronisation, Aloysius Taurling’s eyes rolled up in his head to show their whites, and he collapsed into Rose’s arms. 

Across the lawn, the driver stepped forward to undo the carriage doors of the stable, while Werner Goethe got out of the cab of the coach and reached up to help, first, Psyche Pompe, and then Jane Smythe dismount. Then he turned. “Well, a fine good evening, or perhaps I should say from the state of the hour, good morning. I see that you are up in time to witness one of Mr. Taurling’s little fits.”

“It is unkind to make light of a man’s disabilities, however distressing,” Miss Pomp observed, quietly, but not so quietly that most of the team couldn’t hear.

“La, Psyche,” Jane said, putting her hand on her companion’s arm. “Mr. Goethe meant no harm.” Speaking louder, she continued, “I do hope that you will excuse us at breakfast? The proms went rather later than we had originally intended to stay, but Miss Pompe and I were having such a lark with Mr. Goethe.”

“We are devastated,” Bruce said, doing his best to bow like an old-time polite guy. “Will we see you again before we leave this evening?” 

“La, I cannot speak for Mr. Goethe, but Miss Pompe will be joining the household for dinner, should you stay so long.” 

“I should think that the morning will give us plenty to digest,” Bruce answered.

“Such as how Edgar Rice Burroughs happened to give a manuscript describing the fall of Takofanes to Robert E. Howard?” Rose asked the air.

“It’s actual history,” Bruce answered. “There’s absolutely no reason to think that Burroughs couldn’t have run into someone who knew the facts. I mean, Professor Tolkien was going out to pubs with actual Elves in 1936.”

“Except that actual history doesn’t say what happened to Auralia. This story does.”

“I don’t know,” Bruce answered, dubiously. “That could just be something one of them came up with off the top of his head.”

“It’s not in Gods of Mars, or At the Earth’s Core,” Rose pointed out, “Much less the two Tarzan serials that came out that year, which I’m guessing were actually published in Taurling’s reality, or no-one would have heard of Burroughs at all.”

“So you figure that one of those books was the ‘unpublished manuscript,’ and not some political memoirs or something that normal people would care about?” Bruce sounded skeptical.

“In 1914, Robert E. Howard was just a rising pulp writer who’d hit it big with Tarzan of the Apes. What would he have to say?”

“So he was killed before he could reveal the secrets of Pellucidar?”

“It would be kind of cool if there were dinosaurs in the centre of the Earth.”

“Well, actually…” Bruce began.

“There are dinosaurs in the centre of the Earth?” Charlotte asked. “That is so cool!”

“Um, yeah. But we’re not supposed to go down there unless it’s important. There’s some creepy reptile people hang out there that we’re supposed to avoid.” Bruce paused for a moment. “Inspector McGruff says, ‘Beware Stranger Danger!’”

“Creepier than migdalar?” Dora asked.

“I don’t know. It’s just what my uncle says.” 

“Guys, focus,” Twelve said. IN the confusion, he had hoisted Mr. Taurling into a waist-high carry, cradling him as easily as a kitten. “We need to take Mr. Taurling inside. He’s having a seizure. And we should probably do something with his creepy little mannequin, too.

Twelve, it turned out, was elected to take Mr. Taurling inside to the maids, while Bruce and Charlotte carried the mannequin into the stable to find some place far away from the coaches to hide it. In the end, they settled for an unoccupied, half-sized stall down from any of the ones occupied by Dr. Smythe’s horses. As they liberated a bale to prop the mannequin up on, Charlotte couldn’t help notice that the carthorse in the nearest stall was watching her with a familiar gaze. Reaching deep into her pocket for the tiny apples that she had been carrying since last night for just such an occasion, she walked over and fed first, the over-sized but amiable, blazed, black gelding, and then the other five horses. 

“You’re getting a reputation around here, Char-Char,” Bruce said, sounding amused.

“Eh,” Charlotte said, “I like horses. Shoot me. Or dry rain me. What does that even mean?”

“Besides my lame joke? I assume from the ‘Fortean’ thing that it’s just something weird falling from the sky. The Charles Fort Society loves to collect stories about rains of frogs and whatever.”

“But what kind of thing rains dryness? Dust?”

Bruce shrugged as Charlotte reached down and adjusted the mannequin so that it was sitting on the stool. As she did so, the head flopped, and an intricately ornate broach on a golden chain fell out of the collar of its shirt to dangle on the dummy’s old-fashioned wool shirt. As it did, it brushed Charlotte’s hand. 

The feeling of a distant evil that she had been picking up through the Pearl Harmony Sword earlier came back, with enough force to make her gasp. Hunh. She glanced at the pommel of her sword.

A slight red glow was coming off it. Crap.

Charlotte was torn between investigating further and running straight for Eldritch, wherever he was, but at that moment, the breakfast bell began to ring from the mansion. Caution, she decided, won out, because that way she could have breakfast, and there were about a million things to investigate this morning already. On a full stomach.



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