Book 4, 19: Nothing Like Tuxedo Mask
Charlotte wondered. Do things really slow down at moments like this? Here she was in an instinctive three-down Monkey stance, trying to present her sword in time to parry the blow from the straw-golem-thingie. She could feel the floor of the coach house thrumming under her left hand. In the moment, her knuckles were riding up under a heavy impact. The horses in the other stalls were getting agitated. From the weight of that one, the big gelding in the next stable was dancing, one heavy hoof going down –and some time must be passing, because there was another. It was awfully fast for a workhorse.
Charlotte liked horses. She had been planning to bring them bits of breakfast before they left to catch the Number 42 bus to the Library It wasn’t going to happen. Not any more than that she was going to get the tip of her Pearl Harmony Sword up in a Monkey style parry element. There just wasn’t the time. There was the time to notice Rose and Bruce, in various states of bouncing off the far wall of the corner stall in the Smythe mansion coach house, and that the draft was making her cold. Was the straw golem fast enough to pluck Rose out of the air, or smart enough to guess when Charlotte’s speedster friend would zig instead of zagging. It didn’t matter, it was fast enough that. . .
The draft. Charlotte abandoned the too-late parry to throw her right hand wide across her body and pull her, rolling, towards the corner of the stall. It didn’t fool the straw golem, of course. Its right hand carried no weapon. It was just massive, spread wide like an oversized shovel or maybe a pitchfork, having sucked in all of the straw that floored these stalls for the horses’ comfort, including whatever horse was supposed to be in this one.
The straw golem’s hand was ridiculously large, and it hit very hard, and it hardly hesitated a moment before adjusting to follow her towards the corner. All that Charlotte noticed in the brief moment it took for the breeze from the door of the stall to shift from her butt to her calf.
The breeze of something big moving very quickly behind her.
The breeze of a massive earth-yellow foreleg splitting the air just above where her head had been a moment ago, glimpsed out of the corner of her eye, as an oricalchum-shod hoof connected with the lashing straw golem’s hand. It wasn’t even a contest. That kick had shattered marble. Straw exploded from the monster as Tellus, the Earth Horse, blood-sweating stallion of the West, swung into the stable, still rearing, letting go with his left foreleg in the time it took Charlotte to stand and sweep her glowing sword through the body of the straw golem, while in front of them, Rose and Bruce were still hitting the floor.
And just like that, it was over. Disembodied straw fell, wafting, through the morning air. The glow of pink morning, somehow missing in the gloomy stable a moment before, made it bright and clear, and mercilessly revealed that the magic(?) mannequin that the team had left in the stall an hour before had disappeared. Darn.
Charlotte reached out and put her sword arm over her horse’s neck, drawing the sweaty hide to her so that she could bury her face in it, while Tellus laid his chin across her stomach and put his warm, whiffling mouth against her left fist, clenched against her side.
“Greedy guts,” she said, but she laughed as she plunged her hand into her pocket and pulled out the last, sweet plum that she had packed along with her, just in case.
Tellus bit, and swallowed as Charlotte pulled back from her horse to inspect him. “Weren’t you a drab, brown dray a moment ago?”
Tellus gave her a wall-eyed stare. “Rose gave me an Image transducer.” Another thing about Tellus. He could talk, thanks to another of Rose’s tech hacks, and sometimes even deigned to do so. “Didn’t know about this, though. I wanted to try out this whole whole mystery man thing. Watch out, Tuxedo Mask!”
“Most horses don’t watch Super Sentai anime. You know,” Charlotte pointed out.
“I’m frigging talking to you. That might be a clue right there that I’m an unusual sort of horse.”
“No, you’re more like some old time hero come to rescue the damsel in distress. Tuxedo Mask would never pull that crap.”
“Oh, go. . .” Tellus paused. Tellus was a very earthy horse, but apparently this time was rethinking his swears. “I’m sorry, Char Char. You can’t blame yourself if the horse you first recognised the worth of, trained to the saddle, and brought to Earth is there to help you one time.“
“Oh, stop it. You could have got to Earth on your own with your dimension travelling powers. You got to Landing from Earth on your own.”
“True, but I wouldn’t have. I probably shouldn’t bring this up, strange as you two legs are with your sires, but living on the same planet as my Dad is not exactly the shit. Not when there’s plenty of mares on Landing, and sabretooth tigers to protect them from. So, no, I wouldn’t have come back to Earth without you. You’re my friend. Sue me. I frigging wanted to help out Charlotte Wong.”
"I love you, Tellus." Charlotte wrapped her arm more tightly around Tellus’s neck and let her fingers stroked through the horse’s lustrous yellow hair.
Tellus didn’t talk again, but, then, talking didn't come naturally to him. Instead, he butted his strong head into Charlotte’s shoulder, his ear on her cheek to remind her that her horse loved her. It was a good feeling, one that gave her comfort as she thought about her Dad.
Bruce staggered to his feet, one strong arm over Rose’s shoulder to help her upright. Rose had one hand on her head, but was conscious enough to take the scene in. “Where’s Kawai?”
Charlotte looked around, half expecting now to see Dora’s rainbow-coloured flying unicorn, but there was no sign of the magic horse that the Maid of Gold sometimes rode. “Busy hanging out with some other Magic Girl, I guess?”
She turned her attention to Bruce. “Any way of tracking the mannequin?”
“No. I was thinking of dosing it with radium and using a gold leaf scintillometer, but there’s kind of a safety issue there. I don’t know if radiation causes cancer in Queen’s Hill, but I know it does at the Library.” Bruce couldn’t help winking at that. Charlotte Werner Goethe would probably have a steampunk Geiger counter the next time they saw him. That’s like a regular Geiger counter, but with some gears.
“So we’ve lost the creepy mannequin. For now. I was kind of hoping we’d get more out of Mr. Taurling, anyway.”
“No fair,” Dora announced from the door of the stall. “You had a fight without us. Hey, Tellus.” Dora held out her hand to the big horse, who obliged her by putting his neck down in ruffling range. “He going to be hanging out with us? Be handy to have a dimension traveller along with us.”
“You can travel through dimensions, Dora,” Charlotte pointed out. “So can Brian.” Charlotte gestured at the tall, skinny apprentice Elven sorcerer in his inevitable denim jacket and pants, standing just behind the short, Hispanic girl. For one strange moment, he reminded Charlotte of Mr. Brown, their Tech Studies teacher, and not just because of their similar, awesome (that’s sarcasm, Charlotte added to herself) fashion sense.
“Not to here,” Bruce answered. “It’s supposed to be a long trip to Babylon. That’s part of what it is.”
“Ditto,” Dora said. “When I tried, I ended up on a logging road halfway up a mountain. Which is kind of weird, to think that Babylon’s dimension has logging camps in it. Okay, point is, even flying, it took two hours before I could even see the Burbs in the distance, and I got grounded when I got home.”
“Your Dad grounded you?” Bruce sounded amazed.
“I don’t know what you guys see, but I do not have my Daddy wrapped around my fingers. That’s the Professorebots you’re thinking of, and they don’t ground me.” Dora paused, and then began again in her robot impersonation. “’Wait until the Organic Autonomous Agent Parental Unit gets home, then you’ll be sorry for transgressing behavioural guidelines, Unit-Contextually-Designated-‘Missy.’”
Charlotte put her hand to her mouth and whistled. Her friends fell silent and looked at her. “So, anyway, let’s get back to the point of this goofiness. Aloysius Taurling snuck out of the mansion at dawn to try to hide a mannequin in a hole the gardeners dug. Do we know anything about that that would tell us why the mannequin is so damn spooky? Me, I’m still getting a vampire vibe, here.”
“Could be.” Bruce’s voice was so amazingly deep, Charlotte thought. Kind of like animated Batman. As much as he’d hate the comparison, he’d still do his Christopher Nolan voice while complaining about it. “That would explain why it had to be buried at dawn. It would not explain why it was able to hang out here in the stable past dawn.”
Bruce did his ‘take a moment’ pause. “Well, it would if the vampire was more like the original one and didn’t have to be asleep in a coffin all day, but I’m not sure we want to go there. Besides, liches, wights, ghouls, there’s a lot of options here, and most are a bit weird about the dawn. I also wouldn’t completely rule out Taurling’s explanation, ‘cuz it gets us interesting places. Rose?”
“So, yeah,” Rose said. “I did a quick cyberpathic digaround in my phone’s d.b.—“
“You have an offline encyclopedia on your phone, Rose? What is it? Encarta?” Dora enunciated the word with an exaggerated eye roll just to let everybody know that Encarta was funny.
“Nah,” Rose said. “It’s a proprietary app from Encyclopedia Britannica for investigators who have to go offline. Like us. How do you think it stays in business? Anyway, Taurlilng is investigating a weird set of events that happened in the Arizona Territory the day that the ex-President of California, Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan, was found dead in a field. And I mean weird. Bright lights in the sky, cattle mutilations, crop circles. It’s not just that Burroughs’ body disappeared from the morgue in California a few days later. That’s why everyone figures he was assassinated, though. But the question of just who killed him depends on when he was killed. For example, an author named Robert E. Howard was with him before he was killed, to discuss arrangements to polish up a manuscript, But Howard never said what manuscript, and he died mysteriously a few weeks later, too. Papers rifled, that sort of thing. The standard story in Taurling’s dimension is that it was all about a manuscript of a tell-all memoir about Burroughs’ days in office. You know, politics, blah blah blah, fill in the blanks from your favourite thriller. So when Burroughs died is a big deal. Taurling does have new evidence, so experimenting with clothes stains is something that he could be doing.”
“So, just to summarise,” Dora said, “If the stains are this big, we’ll know that it’s the Greys who are abducting and probing the hillbillies; and if they’re this big, we’ll know that the Reptiloids are raising cloned celebrities for reality shows in vats under Santa Monica Boulevard.”
Rose looked crossly at her friend as she waited for her to finish. “I don’t know about the UFO sightings, and whatnot, but it’s not totally crazy to go weird here. Howard told the detectives that the manuscript was written in 1914. That means it can’t be the memoir, because Burroughs’ didn’t become President till years later. Not that makes any sense at all, because Howard is famous for Conan stories, not--”
“To drive your enemies before you, and hear the lamentation of their women.” Brian did a terrible Austrian accent. “Conan the Barbarian. That’s where I know that name from. Howard wrote all those books about that dude with the horned helmet and the giant axe who kills everybody and then drinks their beer. I read, like a million of them in the high school library last year. And saw the terrible, terrible movies. Hope the Momoa one is better. Anyway, why would you get that guy to look over your political stuff? It’d be like, first I filibuster you, and then I use your skull as an amendment of the bill that will never pass the Senate.”
“Excuse me, Brian? I’m not finished dumping exposition. You know? My job around here?”
Bruce coughed, and Rose glared at him quickly before continuing.
“Anyway, obvs. Burroughs didn’t show Howard any stupid memoir. In our world, Burroughs’ first serial became the John Carter of Mars series, which was never all that popular, at least compared with Tarzan, which started a few months later. In Taurling’s world, the John Carter story was rejected, and Burroughs had to wait a few months to become rich and famous. On the bright side, there’s a lot more volumes in his Pellucidar series in Taurling’s world.”
“Total fraud,” Dora pointed out. “Inner Earth is nothing like that. Except for the dinosaurs.”
“So that’s probably what Burroughs was doing in Arizona. Recruiting Howard to write the John Carter series for him. Obviously it has nothing to do with his murder. That’s the part of Taurling’s story that really doesn’t make sense to me.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” Bruce answered. “We can’t rule out leads in advance here.”
“True,” Rose conceded. “It’s a little weird that he’d care about a twenty-year-old manuscript.”
Twelve stepped into the light. He was hard to notice, shorter than Brian but still growing, already almost as built as Bruce. “Did like you asked, Bruce, tracked Mr. Taurling down and asked him about this morning, but apparently he really does forget everything that happens before his fits. He did say that he has to find out about clothing stains, though.”
“I don’t know if that means that his story checks out, or if it just shows that the vampire is good at brainwashing people,” Bruce said, rubbing his chin. “Damn. It’s just so crazy. And all you’d have to do to that mannequin to hide it would be to shovel a bit of dirt over it. Then the gardeners would bury it without even looking when they refilled the hole. This is like Occam’s razor whatsisname. Simplest explanation. We pick the one that isn’t as crazy as the other ones.”
“But we’ve lost the stupid mannequin,” Charlotte pointed out. “All we’ve got left is this weird fanboy mystery about who killed who in alternate Earth dimension seventy-something years ago. Which is important because in Howard’s last published book, he tells the story of how the magic sword gets stolen out of the necromancer’s grave, allowing him to return to the living—“
“Just like Auralia. Which is what we’re looking for,” Bruce finished. The Pearl Harmony Sword hummed at Charlotte’s side as its sibling sword’s name was mentioned.
“What happened to the version of Takofanes on Taurling’s world?” Brian asked.
“Istvatha V’han’s forces tracked him down and killed him,” Rose answered. “Even a Archmage-level magic is no match for the combined sorcery of a billion dimensions. I mean, I bet Istvatha’s got so many versions of Auralia she sets the table with them at the Imperial Palace on Taco Night. She’d probably take care of our Takofanes overnight if we’d just join her interdimensional empire.”
“I don’t think you need much cutlery for Taco Night,” Dora mused. “I mean, maybe if the blade is serrated, for cutting lettuce, but do they really make swords like that outside the movies?”
“Yeah, no thanks,” Brian interrupted, not being as patient as Rose. “I didn’t know that about Takofanes, but I do know she tracks down the Elven community.”
“What?” Twelve asked. “You guys she just exiles to the Land of Legends. Whereas there’s a reason no-one’s ever heard of my people in the V’hanian Empire.”
“Yeah, isn’t that because your people are so secret we’ve never even heard of any of them except you and your brain-dead clone bros?”
“I love you, too, Dora.” Twelve seemed to have trouble for a moment getting past Dora’s name, then continued. “And don’t be confused. Mario’s an asshole, not a moron. No, the reason my people are as mysterious in the Empire as they are on our Earth is that she hunts them down, too. And not to send them anywhere half as nice as the Land of Legends.”
“Nice, yeah, right,” Brian growled. “Oh! Look, it’s the Rainbow of Caring. That’s where I keep my Pot O’Gold!” He lisped the last bit out, because it was hilarious that elves were faeries, at least to someone from Landing. Charlotte sighed. It was good that Brian was getting better about that kind of stuff.
Charlotte’s phone beeped.. “Guys? It wouldn’t hurt to track down the fanboy stuff at the library. Best case scenario, we get the story of the theft of Auralia, find out what happened to it next.”
It felt almost strange to be out on the street, heading down into Rivertown again, but this time walking on the sidewalks of Queen’s Hill instead of swinging and leaping high above the street, through the spires and towers of its old-timey architecture. At this, normal level, you could tell the boundary between Queen’s Hill and Rivertown by the join where cobblestones turned to black asphalt, and, strangely enough, where the unusual sunny morning of Queen’s Hill turned into the permanent drizzle of Rivertown. Charlotte through the hood of her bright yellow rain jacket over her head to keep the dreaded frizz factor at bay. She was not walking into that Library with bad hair, and she was most certainly not fighting Eve again with frizzy ends.
The streets of Rivertown next to Queen’s Hill were pretty quiet, with the low-tech, horsedrawn neighbourhood all around, but soon the team had reached the edge of the deep cut through which the expressway passed, and they were back in the loud world of cars and trucks. Soon they were walking down a gentle flight of steps towards the bus stop pullout at the bottom. Below the stairs, a terrace halfway down the concrete wall ran parallel to the roadway about twelve feet above. It was covered with tired-red sawdust, with dusty green shrubs at regular intervals, making a tiny strip of half-hearted garden that stretched down the road out of sight. Charlotte caught sight of a raccoon crouching under one of the nearer shrubs, and wondered if it lived down here, and what its hearing must be like. Could it sue the City of Babylon, the way that deaf old men sometimes sued the mill?
The Number 42 Bus pulled up at the stop exactly on time. A red-nosed middle aged man in a dirty blazer and khaki shorts that showed withered legs, with a cane hooked across was sitting on the Handicapped seating directly behind the driver. He was talking loudly about the Civil War in a way that suggested that he shared the drivers’ memories of it, and the driver seemed to be paying attention. Not so much that he didn’t remember to make sure that the teenagers boarding in front of him weren’t showing their passes. Charlotte had to resist the temptation to stick her tongue out at him when she flashed her student pass. But the bus driver smiled, a little wearily, and turned back to talking to the handicapped guy about fighting in the Rookeries. He sounded sad as he mentioned names that they both remembered, and no-one else did.
Charlotte led her team to the back, as much to get away from the conversation as to go where the cool kids went. Got to fake it till you make it, after all.
On the other hand, cool kids didn’t have horses watching out for them like a more useful version of Tuxedo Mask. As a rule. Charlotte could live with not being cool.