Book 4, 23 Goblin Moon
The next week passed in slow motion. Her brother didn’t get into another fight with Mario, but that was because he and his class fought a horde of cybernetic, shape-changing alley cats that tried to kidnap Billy Tatum for Evil Science. In the end, it turned out that the Overbrain was involved, and Charlotte spent Friday noon and half her spare helping to fight the evil brain-in-a-jar’s robot pirates. Which was actually pretty fun until Billy discovered some awful secret that he wouldn’t share with anyone.
Well, la-de-dah, Charlotte thought as she got back to class halfway through her after-lunch spare, and said so.
Bruce looked over at her from his locker. “That’s what we get for making a guest appearance in someone else’s book.”
Charlotte looked at the neat pile of books on the top shelf of her locker, checked her makeup in the Hello Kitty mirror hanging above them, which reflected Taylor Kitsch in his “Martian warrior harness” when her head wasn’t in the way. Something was wrong, something was different.
Maybe it was the envelope sitting on top of her copy of Lost Lands, Drowned Lands, Dead Lands: Lord of the Rings As History, which, snore. It might have been left there for her to find, seeing as how it had “Urgent: Char-Char,” written on it in a spangly, glowing pink ink in her Cousin Amy’s handwriting. That was a good theory, anyway.
Charlotte broke it open as she turned to face Bruce. “Once again, Boy Wonder, this is life, not a comic book.”
“But comics are a good guide when you’re learning to be a superhero,” he pointed out. Darn you with your reasonableness, Bruce!
So Charlotte shot a super-chill, “Whatevs,” at Bruce, and he just looked at her, like he knew that wasn’t her. Inside, Charlotte was mad at, you know, whatever. But on the outside, she snapped open the envelope. It was a note, from Amy of course. “To: Char-Char: From Amy” Charlotte read. She waggled her eyebrows at Bruce. “That’s me,” she explained, “and my cousin, Amy. You know, Jenny, May, Henry and Jason’s sister.”
“You don’t say,” Bruce said, mouth open in Astonished Expression Number 5.
“Amy’s very serious. Doesn’t want anyone to get confused. Anyway, the letter’s about how they got kidnapped to the dark side of the Moon on Wednesday. Hey! No wonder they missed school on Thursday! Ended up in a gladiatorial arena some Malvan dude is running there, got mixed up with some guys trying to fix matches.”
“Because that’s what you need when you’re running illegal gladiatorial fights with kidnapped minors. Skeevy goings-on to lower the tone.”
“Totally,” Charlotte answered. “Anyway, they exposed the whole thing, and the guy running the arena promised to reform his ways, and also did a check for teleports into the area last Saturday. Nothing.”
“Good to know that the illegal arena on the Moon has changed its ways to be on the side of good forever,” Bruce said, in his sarcasm voice. “Also confirmation that we can’t trace Thief Handeln that way. Which I figured, anyway.”
“You did say that we couldn’t afford to ignore the lead, and now Amy and the gang have gone to the trouble of running it down for us. You know how much trouble I’ve gone to, trying to figure out how I’d get Auntie Ma to give me permission to go to the Moon?”
Bruce shrugged. “You should have told me. Dad would sign a permission slip for me to go ice-skating on the surface of the Sun.”
“That’s good for you, but…”
“And then we use it to leverage Rosa into taking all of us.”
That didn’t sound like Bruce. “That would be lying. Rosa is nice!”
Sure enough, Bruce’s shoulders wilted. “I didn’t. . .I mean, I.... .”
It was a mean suggestion, so Charlotte was going to let Bruce fumble around, but his face was flushed and he sounded hurt, so she interrupted. “Okay, it’s a plan, and at least you had one, and now we don’t need it, because Amy and Jason and their gang sorted it out.”
Bruce’s face cleared. “Fair is fair,” he said. “We helped them stop Tarantula from taking over Ravenswood Academy the other week, they clear up the Dark Side of the Moon mystery.”
“’Get a good job. .’” Charlotte stopped singing when she saw Bruce’s expression turn from relief to incomprehension. Should have figured that he wouldn’t have heard of an album from 1973. The one good thing about hanging with Bobby Tatum was that he remembered the Seventies. When her Mom was alive.
“You okay, Charlotte?”
Charlotte dabbed away the tear that had come from nowhere, reminding herself about Bruce’s Mom so that she wouldn’t be tempted to mention it and bring him down, too. “It’s nothing.” She glared at him to make her point. Let it go. “So now we’re back to hoping that Thief Handeln tries to steal the Choker in transit tomorrow. Corner her, get a decent monologue out of her, figure out what the heck is going on.”
Bruce shrugged. “Get her, anyway. Frankly, I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere with the location of Auralia with her. If she knew more than she’s realised, she’d figure it out. She’s pretty cool for someone old. We can probably turn up Auralia at the library just as easily. How long can it take for Rose to go through those catalogues, anyway?”
Charlotte nodded. Adults kept making a big deal of how hard it was to find something in a Library without even noticing that her team had a superspeed cyberpath on it. “Better get moving if we want to make it to class.”
The team lockers –their real lockers, not the decoys in the main school—were on the third floor of the underground wing below the Old School building. The elevator didn’t go all the way up into the Old School because of building codes (secret building codes!), so they ended up climbing the spiral stairs that led to the secret door gallery that ran through the class room area on the top floor of that building.
Charlotte tapped the security monitor. There was no-one in the bathroom. She led the way to the door, dialled it open, and stepped through.
And came face to face with a staring Madison Cho, with Eve behind her. Crap! Charlotte had a split instant to take them in, Madison in an off-the-shoulder white crop tube showing off major belly button over a fluffed out poodle skirt, Eve in tight jeans and a blue-and-white sailor’s outfit complete with a bright red kerchief, with a neckline that had somehow managed to bust open so wide that the tips of the kerchief dangled right in her cleavage. Charlotte’s amazement at the Pirate’s fashion choices did not get in the way of her reflexes. She shoved Bruce to keep him from coming through the door. Simultaneously she noticed that both girls were holding lit cigarettes, even though she couldn’t smell anything. Stupid cloaking magic! That must be why they didn’t show up on the monitor. They were hiding their little brag-‘n-drag session. Probably cover up a brawl good, too.
The hilt of the Pearl Harmony Sword was in her grip, without conscious action. Charlotte opened her mouth. “That’s a fire hazard, you know,” came out somehow, and Charlotte was amazed at how stiff and square she sounded. I’m totally Cyclops, she thought, surprised at how upset she was at herself. What’s gotten into me?
“Lame, Wong, lame.” Madison flicked her butt expertly into the garbage can as it opened on its own. Eve’s expression gave not the slightest hint of effort at the telekinetic effect. At least, Charlotte hoped that it was Eve. The last thing she needed was for Madison to start manifesting more powers. “Who’s the secret identity dude you’re hiding back there? You guys getting some action? I thought you were such a goodie two-shoes!”
With Bruce? Her? Like, frenching or something? Just the thought made Charlotte felt weird. “None of your business, Madison. This is a unisex washroom. You know that.” Jeez, she thought, Madison’s right. I am lame.
“You going to draw down on us, Wong?” Eve asked, gesturing at the Pearl Harmony. “Bet you’re not so tough without your sword!”
“Kicked your butt without it,” Charlotte answered, hotly.
“Always with the tomboy crap, Wong,” Madison sneered. “I guess when you go there all the time, you have an excuse for taking your fashion tips from the Olsen twins.”
Oh, that smarted. Charlotte flashed back to her Uncle Henry gently scolding her for getting upset at the mall when someone who looked like they would be kicked out of Walmart cut in line ahead of them at customer service to buy cigarettes. Something about needing to make it through the day. “Better than self-medicating in the can.” That was it.
Madison’s faced turned white. “What are you saying, Wong. That I need smokes to stabilise? That I’m crazy?” Her eyes went wide, with a fixed, blazing intensity that made Charlotte think of how much she hated it when these things happened, and how much she wanted this to stop. Even though she couldn’t remember seeing eyes like that before, even though they were so familiar that she knew what was going to happen next.
That was why she knew not to call Madison crazy, and not to call her not-crazy, that the only way to get her to calm down was to apologise for everything and agree with Madison about it. And I am not going to go there today, Charlotte thought. Not with you, Madison. Not like with—“
Just a little turn to free the notch in the Pearl Harmony’s handle so that she could draw. A single stroke would be enough, if she were just allowed a killing blow. But she wasn’t, so she had to make a flat-hilt strike count, end this before their combined powers blew the roof off the Old School. Charlotte reached into herself, trying, at last, to surrender ego and find action without entanglement. But it was way too late for meditative calm.
The outside door to the bathroom opened. From where Charlotte was standing, the bulk of Michael Snow filled it, although he didn’t try to push inside. Even in class, Michael wore his worn, old green parka, the one that draped him, large and shapeless over an apparently large and shapeless body.
“Maddie, Eve, I need to go peepee and I can’t hold it any longer.”
“Just a second, Mike,” Eve said. “Normal people business. We’ll be done in a moment.”
From Charlotte’s angle, the khaki mass seemed to flinch for a moment, but if he felt hurt, Michael managed not to show it in his voice. “Can’t wait. Need to go peepee now. Coming in.”
“No, Mike, we’re in the washroom!” Eve almost shouted.
“Boys are allowed in this washroom, too! I’m allowed! All the teachers say so!” The door pushed until the heavy, fire partition-style thing slammed against the far wall. Michael was strong.
Madison blinked, and her eyes were clear, even calm. “This isn’t finished, Wong!”
Somehow, it made her feel better that Madison had ended it sounding as lame as Charlotte. So she smirked, looked the two up and down, and, as she stepped around Michael, had the last word. “Whatever.” Somehow, in spite of the width of the entrance to the bathroom, Michael still managed to take up almost all the space, and Charlotte ended up brushing by him. His broad, albino face brightened into a smile as she passed, a smile echoed by his pink eyes. “Hi, Char-Char!”
“Say hello to Rose for me!”
“I will, Mike, I will.”
Charlotte hurried down school, through the door in the wall, and the closet that became a hall, and the room that turned into a landing. Her foot touched the top of the stair.
“Sticky situation. Could have been two on three, easy.”
“Will you cut out that stupid ninja stuff, Bruce?” It was amazing. Even with her Eight Spirit Dragon senses, he still managed to sneak up on her. And maybe, she had to admit, just a bit cool.
“I’ve got a secret identity to protect, Char-Char. It’s not just me. It’s everybody.”
“I know that.” The whole McNeely family was wrapped in the secret identity of the Hobgoblin and his superhero descendants.
“I’ll make it up to you!”
“Make up what?”
“Not being there to . . . Not. . . God, I’m such a dope.”
“Glad you realised it.”
“And someone had to get Mike to interrupt you.”
“Wait? That was you?”
“Mike’s pretty cool that way, and cool as you, Maddie and Eve going full on Girl’s Reform School there, I do not want you grounded the weekend that the Wild Hunt rides in Babylon. Again.”
“Cool story about my Cousin Graydon.”
“You know that telling stories about your cool cousins is my schtick, right, Bruce?”
“No, no, this is a cool story about my cousin, not a story about my cool cousin. Totally different.”
Charlotte couldn’t help giggling. Bruce could be so funny when he relaxed. “Totally,” she agreed.
The next morning, the team was waiting for the Number 42 bus at the stop below Queen’s Hill at 9 am precisely. Things had gone smoothly at the mansion, and, for a change, breakfast had been palatable without having to resort to oatmeal. Charlotte watched the traffic, enjoying the feeling of being warm and full of good food with hot tea involved, determined not to get involved in Dora and Twelve’s bickering.
“Who makes liver into a sauce? Who?” Dora asked the air.
“Who looks at chicken bits swimming in shiny goo and says to herself, I think that’s what I’ll have for breakfast?”
“I thought they were chicken wings!”
“Oh, that’s so much better. Yumm, the most important meal of the day. I think I’ll have deep-fried bones in hot sauce!”
“Man,” Brian said, “I do not get you and chicken wings. Chicken wings are awesome. And they’re not deep fried, either.”
“They’re just too much work for the payoff, if you ask me,” Twelve replied. “Besides,” he said, turning to look Dora in the face, “These weren’t chicken wings.”
“As God is my witness, I thought that cream sauce was blue cheese dip!”
“It is a bit weird that a cream sauce would have blue flecks in it,” Charlotte conceded.
“When you’re going to serve cream sauce on bloaters, it just makes sense to add capers to set off the horseradish,” Bruce said, casually.
“What?” So much, Charlotte thought, for not getting involved.
“I’ve been reading Mrs. Beeton’s cookbook, so I can be prepared for what’s to come. The horror, the horror.”
Just then, a familiar Ford Taurus pulled into the loop. One of the other waiting passengers shook an angry fist at the machine. Someone, Charlotte thought, had gotten up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. Whatever that meant. Mill leaned out the window. “Wanna ride?”
Charlotte waved, just in case anyone on her team needed leadering –they didn’t—and rushed for shotgun –more leadering!—just barely beating Bruce to the door. They were just finished tumbling in when the 42 pulled into the loop, barrelling along at expressway speed, the driver leaning on the horn.
Mill pulled out with a full six inches to spare. “Easy-peasy,” he announced. “Eldritch called. Said you guys might need wheels today.”
Charlotte scowled. She wasn’t sure whether she liked the idea of Eldritch backseating their operation. She’d had a plan, after all. Admittedly, her plan had been to go to Mill’s food truck and plead, with really big, wide little-girl eyes, but the important thing was that she’d had a plan.
Speaking of. . .”Don’t you have a job to do?”
Mill glanced at her sidelong, long enough for Charlotte to notice that he hadn’t shaved in a few days.
It looked hot on him. Most things did on Mill. Whatever else you could say about him, he was very easy on the eyes. “Y’all may have noticed that my little operation is a team operation. I got some peeps to look after the truck. Frees me up for some hotwheelin’.”
“Shouldn’t there be one of those black strips sticking out of the back of your car, then” Bruce asked from the back.
The Taurus took off into expressway traffic so fast that even Charlotte was pressed back into her seat. A truck behind them honked for a moment before realising that there was absolutely no risk of the big rig overtaking the car in front. The horn cut off, almost like it was dopplering. “Nah,” Mill announced. “Got one of those gun things to launch me. Now, scoop is that there’s a convoy on the move on the Understate, and you guys figure it’s going to be jacked?”
“No, no,” Bruce said, sounding surprised. “It’s not going down until this afternoon. I have a plan-“
First Charlotte had heard of it. Hmph.
“Chill, dude. It’s going down a bit earlier than it says on the schedule. It’s an old school spook trick. Figured you bunch were such weirdly wholesome morning types that you’d know the drill.”
Mill flicked a button on a box on his dash. It crackled, and a strange voice said, “Ace 1 to Ace Leader. Got the lane blocked. Roll ‘em.”
“That’s it. The uniforms have just blocked off the merge lane coming out of the Library for the Understate. They’re going to hit 8A for the downtown. Now buckle up back there, because I’ve got some driving to do.”