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Book 4, 20: It’s a Kind of Orange
“I,” Charlotte announced, “Am officially bored of Robert E. Howard. He never did anything.”
“I dunno,” Bruce said. “Write, worry about his Mom, boxed. That’s something, right?”
Charlotte shook her head. “Except for the boxing, he was basically an Internet troll before there was an Internet. Hung out in his parents’ basement, writing letters to his pulp writer buddies instead of texting. His Mom…” But something big and lumpy closed Charlotte’s throat, and she didn’t say what she thought she was going to say about that.
Sadness crossed Bruce’s face. He’d lost his Mom, too. “He wasn’t a troll!”
“Have you read the racist crap Lovecraft wrote? Tots 4chan. Or Youtube commenter, even.”
“Well, yeah, but then there’s Charteris. He was half-English-half-Chinese. Got your tea drinking coming and going.”
Charlotte scowled. “That is not a “Get out of Racism Free’ card.”
Bruce held up his hand. “Okay, you win. Kinda trolly. I guess the thing is I feel like I can relate. He was a little loser living through Conan, or Kull, I guess, on Taurling’s Earth, and that’s how I feel sometimes.”
“How can you be a loser?” Charlotte asked. “Have you looked in a mirror lately? You’re hot!”
Strangely, Bruce’s face flushed. He didn’t say anything.
In the silence, Dora pushed forward. Her dangerously precarious chair legs dropped on the carpeted floor of the Reading Room as her hands came down on either side of the equally-precarious stack of books in front of her. She shoved them aside, quickly saving them from toppling with a nudge from her upper arm, and then dropped her head to the table, propping her chin on her left fist. “No, Char-Char’s right. He was a nerd on our Earth, he was a nerd on Taurling’s Earth, and he was probably a nerd on every Earth in the Multiverse except Viking Earth.” Her voice came out a little mushy on account of what looked to Charlotte like just about the most uncomfortable speaking posture ever.
“Viking Earth?” Twelve looked over his reading.
“My Dad went there once. It’s stupid. But not nerdy.” Dora’s right hand snaked up to grab the top of Twelve’s book and expose it. “Hah! Thought so. Comic! Charlotte, Twelve is reading comics instead of doing research.”
It was Twelve’s turn for his face to cloud over. “It’s a graphic novel. Graphic novels are a legitimate form of literature in our society as defined by the consensus of. .”
Dora jerked the book down the rest of the way and pushed her head up and forward off the table until the tipped book balanced against the scooped yellow frilly blouse that she was wearing under her purple knit jacket. “Bad boy! No politics! Research!” Her face was awfully close to Twelve’s to need to talk so loud, Charlotte thought.
Across the room, a researcher who had just sat down with her own pile of books looked up and frowned briefly. She was a hottie, just a little older than young, in a little black dress just this side of ‘too nice for the Library.’ A lady, in other words, and she intimidated Charlotte just by being there.
So Charlotte glared at her friends. “Shhh. Twelve? I’m sure that that’s perfectly legitimate research. Right?”
Twelve dropped his book on the table. It was a comic. “I’m just looking at it for Brian. He’s the one who found it, but he had to go translate stuff.” Twelve gestured at the far table, where Rose and Brian were surrounded by the anonymous, library-binding compendiums of lost and forgotten lore. Brian scowled back, like someone who would much prefer to be reading comics.
“It’s a collection of Kull stories from the old Marvel black and white, Savage Sword of Conan,” Twelve continued.” In the last one, Kull goes back to Atlantis, and instead of being a bunch of barbarians like he remembers, it’s become all civilised and stuff, with shiny towers. Which, you know, did happen to the real Atlantis. I can’t remember when Atlanteans began to show up in the surface world, but I think it was after Howard died. So if Howard is dealing with it, maybe it’s because he has a source? I don’t know? Anyway, it’s pretty cool. ”
“What happens next?” Dora asked.
Twelve scowled. “I don’t know. It’s the last one.”
Bruce shook his head. “When was that? The Seventies? Someone has to have finished the story.”
“Wait,” Charlotte held up her hand. “Seventies? This has nothing to do with Howard. It’s just a comic!”
“First, it’s never just a comic.” Bruce ticked off a finger on his held-up left hand. “Second, it might be based on Howard’s notes.” He ticked off another finger. “Third, you’re just a killjoy.”
Charlotte reached over and put another finger down. “Double killjoy.” Then another. “To the max.”
Dora threw herself back in her chair so that she could stare at the ceiling. Startled by the sudden movement, the lady at the next table looked over. “This is what happens when you put the paladin in charge.”
“Wait.” Bruce’s eyes lit up. “Didn’t we get all of the Kull and Howard stuff from the stacks earlier?”
“Yes…” Charlotte began.
“That we found in the catalogue at that location,” Bruce continued.
“So there’s more under another call number! To the computer, Girl Wonder!”
“Now I’m Robin?” Charlotte protested.
“Robin can be a girl,” Bruce pointed out.
“Or you can be Stephanie Brown,” Dora suggested. “Because you’re being a spoilsport.”
“Never mind,” Twelve said. “Yeah. There’s another batch of stuff. Looks like it’s a couple of shelves away from what we found.”
“I’ll go get it,” Charlotte volunteered. “You guys try to remember that this is a library.”
“Need help?” Bruce asked.
“What am I? A girl?”
“Quiet, Boy Wonder!”
“I’m not the Boy Wonder. You’re the Girl Wonder. Stephanie. Steph-Steph-Steph.”
Charlotte made the bullet bouncing off gesture in front of her chest. “Bounces of me, sticks to you, to infinity no backsies.”
Bruce let his face collapse. “I guess I’ll just stay here and make stupid puns. Quietly.”
“At least you get to wear pants,” Charlotte pointed out.
“Thank God,” Dora clarified.
“Go, Mean-Girl!” Bruce pointed at the turnstile that marked the entrance to the stacks.
There was something in Bruce’s voice that didn’t sound quite right. Charlotte looked at him, trying to figure out just what, but he just dropped his eyes as though embarrassed.
Soon, Charlotte was getting off the pedwalk in the literature wing and walking through dusty shelves full of fantasy novels and criticism of fantasy books. She didn’t see any with a title like Eragon Just Sucks So Hard, but right there was A House for Titus: Decentering, Subaltern Visions, and The Post-Modernist Moment in Gormenghast.
Got to take that one out later, Charlotte thought. Not. Finally, she found the gaping hole where they’d taken their first set of books, and walked down two posts. Sure enough, for whatever good-enough-for-a-librarian reason, she found more books by or about Howard.
Including a fat, hard-bound comic book from the 90s about Kul. Well, if they were going to find out more about about Robert E. Howard and Kull in the comic books that had nothing to do with Howard, actually, it would be here. Charlotte had a feeling that it would turn out that Kull killed lots of monsters and hung out with chicks in bikinis. It was a theory, anyway.
Research! Also, sorry, Mr. Hipster, Charlotte thought. I meant “graphic novel.”
Footsteps, soft, deliberately so, and a familiar, flowery scent, one that she ought to place, but which only made her think of tea. The steps suggested that a girl was trying to sneak up on her. And doing a better job than Madison or Eve would. Charlotte shrugged so that the Pearl Harmony Sword slid into the small of her back, easy to pull out of its case if need be, and waited for the woman to surprise her.
“Quite the school research project you have there, young lady.”
Charlotte gave a little start, as though she’d been surprised. “You scared me!”
“Oh, I doubt that.”
Charlotte looked at the woman. It was the well-dressed researcher from the reading room. Now that she could observe the woman standing up, Charlotte could see that she was wearing high heels. Her opinion of the woman went up a notch. It was hard to be that stealthy in high heels. Well, unless they had stabilised heels like Cousin May’s, the ones she could actually do kung fu and acrobatics in. Charlotte wanted those.
So, yeah, um, incredibly intimidating lady talking to you in the stacks, Charlotte. Focus. The woman gave Charlotte a half-smile. “I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Dr. Georgie Water. You are?”
“Uhm, Charlotte Wong. My school group is researching a paper on, well, something that happened to Kull of Atlantis in his last book.”
“That’s pretty focussed for a high school project. Now, you know that there’s a wing devoted to comic art, right? Your group doesn’t have to go rooting through the literature stacks.” As she said it, Doctor Water pulled a thin book off the shelf from just ahead of the big graphic novel.
“Actually, it’s in the last book by Howard.”
“Howard didn’t write any books featuring Kull. Three short stories, that’s it.”
“Alternate universe Howard, where he never invented Conan to replace Kull.”
“Ah. He was an interesting man.” Dr. Water put the book she was looking at back, and pulled out another. “I wonder if it’s even here. The catalogue says that it is, but someone might have it in a carrel or a reading room.”
Charlotte blushed. “If we have it, we’ll give it back right away!”
“Oh, that’s no trouble. I doubt you have it. It’s quite specialised.” She pulled out another book. “Ah ha!” She turned it around to show Charlotte. The blank cover read, The Cowboy and the Saint: The Unlikely Friendship of Robert E. Howard and Leslie Charteris. “It’s not the only book on the subject, but it is the only one with some of the letters. They were such an unlikely pair. One wonders how they even met.”
“I, um,” Charlotte began uncertainly. This woman had a Ph.D. after all. “They were both pulp writers, right? Howard corresponded with a bunch of them, like Lovecraft and guys like that.” Looking back at the sentence as it came out of her mouth, Charlotte blushed inside. She was such a school girl.
Dr. Water obviously agreed, arching her eyebrow like a teacher giving you a chance to correct a particularly awful blunder. “Not quite. Charteris was hugely successful. His “Saint” stories came out as best-selling books, while Howard was stuck in the magazine ghetto, only breaking out of it with his last book, which came long after his Charteris correspondence began.”
She paused, then, and smiled. “You are probably correct, though, Miss Wong. They were probably introduced by a mutual acquaintance, and that person was almost certainly a pulp editor.”
She’d been partly right! Charlotte felt an inner glow taking over from her earlier embarrassment. This must be how Rose felt all the time. Being right, being smart.
“And how is your research going?”
Charlotte let her shoulders slump, to show how it was going, which was crappy. “We just want to know where Howard got the ideas he uses in the final battle in Kull the Conqueror.”
“That’s your alternate universe version of Conan the Conqueror? The one where King Conan defeats the ancient lich, Xaltotun?”
Charlotte nodded. “With some differences. Like the person who kills the lich is a pregnant woman, and the villain is Thulsa Doom.”
Dr. Water frowned slightly. “While that does sound interesting, I’m afraid that you’re not going to get anything from the graphic novels. They were all written decades after Howard died.”
“I figured as much.”
“Well, then, let me walk you back to the reading room, Miss Wong, and you can tell me all about your project.”
Soon, they were back in the reading room. Charlotte introduced her friends to Doctor Water and then turned to her with a gesture.. “Guys, Doctor Water is doing a paper on Howard and Charteris.”
Dr. Waters smiled. “Why, hello everyone. I …ah!” She leaned over Twelve and pulled a book expertly from the middle of the pile beside him. “Ah! This was the other one I was looking for. You have been absolutely delightful to research beside. I am reminded again how much I miss being young. However, I have an appointment in the afternoon, and I really need to annotate my haul here. So if you do not mind, I am going to go copy them.”
Charlotte couldn’t even think of a thing to say, just dropped into her chair and watched Dr. Water walk away with the incredibly elegant pace of a woman who knew how to wear high heels. It was not nearly as easy as it looked, Charlotte knew from experience.
“She smells like tea,” Twelve said, meditatively.
“I know,” Charlotte said.
“How’re things on the graphic novel front?”
“False lead,” Charlotte said. “We officially have no idea how Howard ended up writing the ending of Kull the Conqueror like he did.”
“Kull of Atlantis,” Dora said, meditatively. “Hey. Did you ever see the Atlantean exhibit across the hall?”
Charlotte shook and mouthed, no.
“Let’s go have a boo. It’s awesome cool!”
“Uhm, shouldn’t we be helping them?” Charlotte waved at Brian and Rose.
“Let research monkeys be research monkeys. I want to see awesome ancient stuff again.”
Dora was not wrong. The exhibit was, indeed, awesome. From the shining armour suits that Avant Garde had somehow animated last time to the multi-tined weapons and bejewelled, arcane machines to the flying, bizarrely streamlined car of shining metal hanging from the ceiling, the Atlantean exhibit was …awesome. I need a new word, Charlotte thought.
And, best of all, lunch hour on a weekday meant that there was hardly anyone there. By the time they got to the Fashion area (Bruce and Twelve having to be dragged along), they had the place to themselves.
“Wouldn’t it be cool if Auralia somehow ended up in Atlantis, and we had to go there and search the ancient museums and whatnot?” Dora asked.
“I don’t know,” Bruce said, pensively. “My sister, Babs, says that it’s basically a Midwestern town, only under six thousand feet of water. So Cincinnati with Seattle weather. No thanks.” He stepped towards a shiny black pedestal on which a glass case exhibited a necklace of heart-stopping beauty, all tiny gems of a lustrous deep yellow colour, almost lemon, but not quite, aflame with an inner light and delicately clenched in a filigreed metal that looked like silver, only more lustrous. Not really Charlotte’s colours, but she had a feeling that it would look good on Dora.
Bruce put his hand up to the glass, stopped himself from touching it at the last moment, and then waved his hand in front of it. “Hunh. That speck’s on the inside. How’d it get there?”
“Someone didn’t clean up good,” Dora said.
“No, no,” Bruce said. “Here’s another, and another, and no smear pattern. These weren’t left by a careless cleaner. They were sprayed here.” He walked around the display. This part of the exhibit was backed up against the creamy stone walls of the exhibit hall, not so closely that you couldn’t get around to the back, but close enough that no-one was likely to want to get in there. Bruce pulled a cylinder out of his pocket, popped the top, and blew on it.
A spume of the solid, white stuff spread from his mouth, somewhere between gas and cotton candy. It spread over the back of the glass case. A neat, round scratch appeared on the case on the back side.
Charlotte gasped. “You’re so freaking smart, Bruce!” Bruce cracked a broad smile and his eyes flashed.
“Dry ice. It makes your breath minty fresh, in case. . .” Bruce’s cheeks flushed and his eyes fell. He was so weird sometimes.
Never mind that, though. Dora put her hand on her hip and looked up at the great wind panes of coloured glass high above through which the early afternoon sun shone on the exhibition hall. “Is this like Mission Impossible?”
And, just like that, Twelve was hanging in mid-air, upside down, like Tom Cruise in that ancient movie, his face inches away from Dora’s. “Exactly.”
Dora jumped a mile in surprise.
“Guys, secret IDs?” Charlotte said. “We’re on camera.”
“No, we’re not,” Bruce said. “Hacked. Not hard, either. The Library actually issued The Liberty League an account so they could do it. Professional courtesy. I hope they don’t mind me borrowing it.
“Okay,” Charlotte said, doubtfully. “We should probably costume up, though, before we attract eyewitnesses. Is there really a climbing rope there, Twelve?”
“Nah,” Twelve said. “But. . .” Twelve quickly changed into his costume and launched himself upwards towards the high, arched ceiling. A moment later he settled on one of the polished, brown, wooden rafters high above. “There is a pin drilled into the top of the beam.” He reached down and tugged it. “Sturdy. And recent.” He looked up from the rafter. “So where did you come from, my little cat burglar?” He lifted off, climbing to the stained glass window directly above. Reaching it, he pushed against one corner.
The whole pane lifted off, as neatly and smoothly as a convertible’s roof. Admittedly, Twelve was superstrong, but. . .
Twelve looked down. “Ha! Found it.”
Behind Twelve, out of his field of vision, a shiny metal limb reached down, like a cat’s paw carefully probing a fishbowl. Like a fishbowl, it was festooned with razor sharp claws.
“Twelve, look out!” Dora yelled. But it was too late, as the paw slashed with unbelievable speed, snagging Twelve from the back and dragging him through the crack. The window slammed shut behind him.
“Come on!” Charlotte yelled, waving the Pearl Harmony Sword. Under her feet, the powerful feeling of gravity losing a fight with lift told her that Dora was doing her stuff even before the floor of the exhibit dropped away below her.
Charlotte had a moment to see the astonished glances of the exhibition goers. Now they were drawing attention. And then they were at the window. Bruce hefted a corner, with considerably more effort than Twelve had needed, while Charlotte stood guard with the Pearl Harmony Sword. Good thing that she did, too, because the paw flashed through the crack the moment Bruce lifted it. Charlotte blocked with a parrying swing of the Pearl Harmony, and felt the awful, scratching feeling of its orichalchum blade cutting metal. I’m sorry, sword, Charlotte thought. I promise extra polishing tonight.
The paw retreated and Charlotte jumped upwards and after it. She landed in a ram posture on the sloped roof. It was a more aggressive style than Charlotte preferred against an unknown foe, but well suited to fighting on a tippy-toppy slope.
Her unknown enemy was not a cat. It was a huge, mechanical lion, thirty feet long from snout to base of tail, uneasily balanced on its hind legs, which were pinning Twelve against the roof.
“Are you okay, Twelve?” Dora shouted from behind Charlotte.
“Little shook up, but yeah,” Twelve answered, weakly.
“I’m fine, Dora,” Charlotte said. “Not that you asked.”
“Not talking to you until you thank me for being your taxi.”
“Thank you for being my taxi.”
“And so much more, for you are wonderful in every way, Dora.” Bruce announced as he dropped on the roof.
“Butter me up all you like, you’re still not going to get to borrow my tablet to play Planetfall.”
“I could just buy my own.”
Charlotte parried a mechanical lion blow, surging into it towards her foe, just to have something to do while the peanut galley sorted itself out. Down came the claw again, and this time Charlotte slid to her left as she parried, and turned the move into a smooth pivot around the body to land on the beast’s back.
This was where Tarzan would grab on and either break the thing’s neck or cut its throat. Lucky for Tarzan he never faced a giant lion with razor sharp metal spikes and edges all over the place. Charlotte picked her footing as carefully as she could to minimise the spikey-pointy-poking and took a solid swing with the Pearl Harmony against the neck of the thing.
Oh, good, that went in a couple inches, she thought. Please hold, as your fight is important to us. You will be killed more quickly if you stay in position than if you try to dodge and evadde. Apparently the mechanical lion agreed, because it hop-stepped elegantly to toss Charlotte into the air, trying to pat her out of the sky with a deceptively fast lunge of its right paw.
Another rightie, Charlotte thought, as she aimed her trajectory to take her over the arc of the cut and put her back on the back of the over-sized beast. “A little help here, guys?”
The Goblinlariat settled around the swinging paw. Surprised, the lion-monster pulled away, drawing Bruce swinging through the air to land his solid weight behind two feet square in the monster’s chest. Rebounding, his hand clenched with Charlotte’s in mid air, and together they swung round until they were both gingerly mounted on the thing’s spikey back.
“Cool,” Bruce said. “I’m not sure what we’re accomplishing, though.”
“Don’t know about you,” Charlotte answered, “But I’ve got a plan. I’m going to saw it to death.”
“I’ve got an acetylene torch here, I could weld it…Have you tried focussing your Eight Spirit Dragon Fist through your sword again?”
Charlotte drew breath. “I don’t think I could focus that carefully while I’m trying to ride a frigging tiger. Dora?”
But Dora wasn’t listening. A skeined, golden rope of force shot beneath them, and, almost instantly, reversed course, pulling Twelve clear of the monster, putting him carefully against a chimney so that he didn’t roll of the roof and down into the glass-and-asphalt-and-as-many-other-roofing-materials-as-there-were-worlds maze of Library wings below. “Just give me a sec to catch my breath,” he yelled.
“No more secs to this fight,” Dora answered. She was full Maid of Gold now, the nimbus of aureole light transforming her boring black-and-white fatigues into the costume of an angel. “This thing is pissing me off.” Her hand came up, glowing even more fiercely. Burning, even.
“Uh-oh,” Bruce said.
“Yeah,” Charlotte said, in a bit of a rush, admittedly, on account of how she was throwing herself clear, her focus on making sure she got a hand on the culvert at the edge of the roof. She got her grip, and, a moment later, a Goblinnel clanked beside her hand as Bruce caught himself in midair.
With one eye, Charlotte watched Bruce swarm back up his line to the roof. With the other, she watched Dora let it all hang out, one glowing blast after another smashing into the thing, dismantling it piece by piece. It turned out to be only partly mechanical, as every connecting bolt let a little more of the mysterious inner smoke and fire out.
At last, the thing finished disintegrating. Twelve had evidently recovered, because he was standing next to Dora to see it. “That was brilliant!” He said.
Brilliant, Charlotte thought. That was a good synonym for ‘awesome.’ She didn’t say that though, because Dora looked at her work, sighed audibly, and collapsed to the roof. Which, still being steeply sloped, was not the safest thing to do in the world. Fortunately, Twelve caught her, lifting her easily with his superstrong arms into a gentle cradling.
Beside her, Bruce said, “I’ve never seen the Maid of Gold exhaust Dora before. Usually it’s the Maid’s power reserve that goes first.”
“I hope she’s okay. I also hope there’s no other Lemurian magi-tech around.” Charlotte answered, probing the wreck of what she assumed was what Mr. Brown had called a chala-lion with the Pearl Harmony Sword. They were just about the most common Lemurian fighting construct. Though she’d never heard before that they smelled kind of like fresh-brewed black tea. So common, in fact, were chala-lions that practically anyone with the right connections could get one for a job. You didn’t even have to be Lemurian . . .
“What’s in Earl Grey tea, Bruce?”
“Oil of bergamot,” Bruce answered. “It’s a kind of orange. A yellow orange. Because the necklace. You know what? Howard and Charteris weren’t friends. Not in our world. Only in Taurling’s.”
“Was the Saint by any chance a jewel thief?”
“Sometimes. Gentleman criminal, anyway. Loved to leave little clues so you’d figure out he was behind things just a little too late. I think we need to talk to your buddy, Dr. Water, Char-Char.”
“Not my buddy, but yeah. Yeah, we do.”