Chapter 4, 39: The Galloping Goose
“I always had the impression that old-time London was all narrow streets and fog,” Bruce said. He was watching a horse and carriage bump over some railway tracks that slashed through the surprisingly wide street on a gently curving angle.
Charlotte was watching it, too. The train tracks suggested that any train that came along would be making its way out of one side street and down another, side streets that didn’t really match up with each other. Sow as the coach, but it seemed to have a different set of side streets in mind.
Ordinarily, someone would make a crack about “If you don’t like the way I drive, stay off the sidewalks,” except that there were no sidewalks, and, if there were, no-one was using them. All in all, it seemed like a pretty good idea to keep an eye on the coach.
“Have you ever seen that virtual tour of old London?” Rose asked.
“Uhm, no? I’ve got a backlog of TED talk videos to work my way through.” Bruce answered.
“Really, what are your favourites?”
“Just to clarify for those of my friends who might think that TED talks are pointless, boring wastes of time, the joke in my last comment is that TED talks are boring, pointless wastes of time.”
“Thanks for that. You’re still a nerdboy.” Dora announced.
“But nerds are cool now,” Twelve growled.
Dora slid through the group as they walked down Regency Street to punch Twelve in the shoulder. “So, naturally, you’re opposed. Only you’re a nerd. So that you’re conflicted. Making you a self-loathing hipster.”
“Bourgeois affectations!” Twelve shouted, his fist passionately pumping the air, only to come down and ever so momentarily rest on Dora’s shoulder.
Dora put her hand on Twelve’s shoulder, and momentarily rested her head on it. “Arise, ye prisoners of starvation!” But it it’s hard to sing with your throat at an angle like that, or walk with your head on someone else’s shoulder, so she stopped singing the old communist anthem, and stepped away from Twelve.
“What I was going to say, before I was mercilessly ridiculed for taking an interest in my world,” Rose continued, “Was that the streets of old London were actually a lot like this.” She paused for a second. “Which you probably figured out. You know what? I probably deserved that.”
“Send me the link?” Bruce asked.
“Done!” Rose answered. “To everyone, actually. Technopathy!”
Which at least worked, here on Queen’s Hill, on the way to the Galloping Goose, unlike their phones. Which was a problem. Charlotte wished that she could have talked about it with Bruce. Or about his stashed anti-vampire kits back at the mansion, which they were now three blocks from. Charlotte didn’t like that. If only Bruce had a little more magical oomph going on behind his “always-prepared” tricks. If only he were, say, half-Elven.
What a strange thought to think, Charlotte thought some more.
To distract herself, Charlotte asked aloud. “So, do geese ever actually gallop?”
“Sure,” Brian answered. “When the farmers try to herd‘em across the road when a car comes through.”
“You herd geese?”
“Well, uhm, geese come in herds, and you need the herds to go from, like, the farm to the lake and back. So you herd geese from the lake to the farm. And if you do it across the highway when Mr. Diavolo is on his way through, then, yeah, you get geese galloping all over the place. Look, if you’re going to have a hick on your team, you need to listen to him when you’re in hicktown.”
“I miss Mr. Diavolo,” Charlotte said. “For a crazy alien, he was okay. When he wasn’t trying to get us killed.”
“What is it with you and crazy people, Char-Char?” Rose asked.
Charlotte was wondering that herself. “Dunno. Guess I look for them or something.”
“You went looking for Maddie Chung?” Dora interrupted. “’Cuz you can stop that any time you like. Girl’s got this way of making me hate on the fact she exists.”
Charlotte looked at Twelve, more than a little interested in how he’d react to that. She wasn’t at all surprised that he didn’t say anything. Count that up as Clue Number One Million that Politics-Boy was crushing on Dora hard as Dora was crushing on him.
Which made Charlotte sad. Why wasn’t anyone crushing on her? Except maybe Scout. Please, please, let it be Scout.
“Yeah, about this place, Brian,” Bruce said. “This isn’t hicktown. It’s kind of like, I don’t know. Hick-city. The city where you can’t even tell where the street corner is, because it’s all . . . I don’t know, old goose-trails paved over?”
“What?” Twelve actually sounded for-real puzzled, not sarcasm-puzzled.
“Like Boston? It’s supposed to be all confusing and stuff because the roads are old cow-trails.”
“Facts. Of. Interest,” Dora intoned in a news announcer voice.
“Too. Much. Sarcasm. Must. Escape.” Charlotte found herself liking the way Bruce totally failed to imitate William Shatner’s Captain Kirk. Uncle Henry liked to say that trying too hard was the Wong family curse, but it was also something that they had in common with the McNeelys. Or Bruce, actually. His sister and Graydon were a lot smoother about it, never mind his older cousins.
“So,” Twelve asked the air, “Are we going to find the restaurant?”
“Yes,” Rose snapped. “If you don’t keep interrupting me while I try to keep track of the addresses before we turn left right here.”
Charlotte looked around, catching a sign that read, “Swanherd Street.” She pointed at it. “Clue!”
“Guys? Third brick up, right hand side?” Bruce swiped the indicated brick. A phosphorescent glow broke from it in the evening light. “Now reach into your right pockets.”
Charlotte did, fishing around in the tight fabric. There was a piece of paper in it. How did that get there?
“Don’t look at it now! There’s one of these on each corner coming out of the Goose, on this orientation. Hit the roof of the building it’s on, then read the paper for your next step.”
“Is this one of your insanely well-prepared contingency plans, Bruce?” Charlotte asked.
“Yeah,” he answered. “The Goose and six other places in the neighborhood I figured we might get dragged out to see. No, guys, read it when you need it. We might be being watched!”
Dora rolled her eyes. “You read too many comics, Bruce.”
“Says Princess Amethyst of Gemworld.”
“Oh, no, you did not just go there. Look, magical girls are a real thing that people like to write fanfic about. I can’t help that. You can help imitating Batman all the time.”
“Seriously?” Bruce asked. “Batman is based on my Gramps to start with!”
“Oh, for really reals, Bruce,” Dora said, in an exasperated tone. “And the Raven. And the Black Mask, and the first Scarlet Archer, and. . All this, ‘I have contingency plan to defeat any contingency stuff. . . “
“. . .Is going to save our ass some day. Now, can we hit the party? Twelve’s been working up an appetite!” But, as Bruce kidded his friend, Charlotte noticed that his eyes crossed Twelve’s with an anxious expression on his face. Charlotte kind of liked that. It showed some consideration on the part of the Darknight Detect-Boy.
The Galloping Goose wasn’t fifty feet down Swineherd Street from the intersection, an older-looking building in a neighborhood full of old buildings, with thick beams sticking out of the front of a white-washed exterior with those crossed planks inset like some kinds of fake old houses that people built, except that fake-old houses didn’t have their wood work all stained black by whatever. Did they still empty their chamber pots out the windows in Queen Victoria-times, Charlotte wondered? Because that would be just gross.
Twelve, at the head of the team, pulled the big double door of the Galloping Goose open, letting out an amazing amount of noise. At least, for the others, Charlotte guessed, since she’d been listening to it with her Eight Spirit Dragon senses since they turned off the main street.
Inside was a big bar, like at the kind of hotel where you had to sit and drink a pop, or a Shirley Temple, if you were lucky, while the grown-ups nursed beers for, like, forever. Only this one wasn’t all sad and cigarette-y, but full of cheerful people sitting in big groups around dark-stained tables, with a crackling fire at one end, and, along a long table, the members of the Smythe family and Dr. Smythe’s guests, and a bunch of people that Charlotte figured were near and dear family friends of the kind where no-one knew each other, and half of them were going to forget each other’s names a minute after being introduced by Dr. Smythe, and the other half would tell old stories that no-one else got to each other all night. With one exception that made Charlotte’s eyes water.
Yeah. This was going to be fun.
Except for Miss Jane and Werther Goethe. That is, they didn’t actively look unhappy, but they were dressed all in black that set off their pale faces and their improbably black hair, which they probably dyed, and which came down in super-well-done curls across their pale foreheads like the perfect statement that they had ever so much more feels than anyone else.
That Simple Plan song that was on the Muzak all the time played in Charlotte’s head, just looking at them. Charlotte didn’t have a super-lot of patience for Goths.
Fortunately, Dr. Smythe rose from his place and headed towards them. Charlotte dragged her eyes off the smug not-quite smile of Assistant Vice-Director Nazfre, sitting right there between Mr. Delver and Mr. Taurling, and gave her attention to the Doctor.
“Ah, the youngsters! So good of you to come! And you brought your young, political friend with the appetite with you! Mr. Twelve, so good to see you! Just seeing you eat makes me feel almost as young as announcing my ward’s engagement!”
Dr. Smythe led them back to the long table, where six seats, clustered side-by-side, waited for them. Which was a little surprising, because Charlotte had gathered that old-timey Victorian parties were all about the rules, with boys and girls alternating and something about having to have conversations with alternating people every time a bell rang, or something? Maybe the rules in bars were more relaxed. Charlotte looked directly across the table at Assistant Vice Director Nazfre, seated right there, and wondered if they were relaxed enough to allow her to put a knife through the blue-skinned witch. Although that was probably being racist to blue-skinned people.
Charlotte wondered if there were any mean stereotypes about blue people. She actually only knew one other blue person, which wasn’t a lot to work with, and the most that came up off hand was that Rafaella carried her sword around disguised as an umbrella, and, for one thing, that wasn’t a very good stereotype, and, for another, that reminded Charlotte that Nazfre had the Pearl Harmony Sword, and made her even madder.
Plus, Rafaella was a completely different shade of blue.
Which made you wonder why they were having an engagement party in a bar. Not that Charlotte was going to complain, since she would have died of embarrassment if she’d been dragged to a proper party, never mind a Victorian party, in her skinny jeans and windbreaker. No matter how much she liked them. Maybe, if they’d been given a minute, the outfit she’d picked for the Library would have worked. But that was all spilled noodles or broken eggs or water under the bridge or whatever analogy worked best in a Victorian bar. Scrambled curried sheep brains, maybe?
Speaking of, sitting down brought Charlotte’s head, and, more importantly, eyes, far too close to a giant plate of starters, the old-timey way. Like, bread, cheese, and . . . stuff. Pickled stuff, only it was mushrooms and eggs and even meat-looking stuff. Charlotte eyed it, dubiously. She didn’t have to eat it, but she was afraid that if she took her eyes off it, it would touch the cheese.
Well, you just try that, she thought at the lumpy, pickled things-that-shouldn’t-be. I know kung-fu. She reached out and took a big hunk of bread and a chunk of cheese, and some tiny part of her watched as it vanished down her stomach-hatch.
Charlotte was hungry, it turned out.
A presence loomed over her shoulder. But it wasn’t the waiters, bringing them candied goat intestines or a roasted boar’s head. It was Dr. Smythe, and he was setting –a glass of beer?—at her table.
Charlotte looked at it, dubiously. Victorians were weird. She also gave the fish-eye to her friends. Charlotte wasn’t going to lay a paladin-level guilt trip on her team, but she needed them sober.
Brian and Dora, who had their hands on their glasses, looked disappointed, but followed Charlotte’s lead. Thank Heavens. So not an argument Charlotte wanted to have right now. She threw an extra, pre-emptive glare across the table at the Assistant Vice-Director, but, Nazfre actually managed to look approving.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t all the messing that Dr. Smythe wanted to do today. “Everyone! I heartily recommend the establishment’s pickled mushrooms and sheep tongues! Old family favourites, both of them!”
Pickled sheep tongues? Seriously? But, as usual, Dr. Smythe wasn’t fooling around. With a haunted expression on his face, Twelve put a mushroom and a slice of gray, pickled meat-stuff on a hunk of bread and stuck it in his mouth.
His eyes went wide, and his face puckered around it. If Charlotte had to guess, when Victorians pickled, they really pickled.
“And you, Assistant Vice-Director?” Dr. Smythe asked.
“Ah, no. I’m on a strictly pH-balanced diet. Caring for your bloodstream buffers is the first step in a comprehensive anti-aging routine. If I have pickles, I shall have to have an alkaline food for balance. There would not happen to be any stockfish on tonight’s menu, would there?”
“No, although our host’s devilled kidney is quite pungent in matters ammoniacal.”
“They sound exquisite, but perhaps a little at odds with the joint. Pheasant, is it not?”
“Shot myself this last weekend and hung until the feet fell off. ”
Charlotte assumed that she wasn’t hearing what she was thinking she was hearing. But, just to be safe, sought Rose’s eyes along the table.
Rose’s expression was not exactly reassuring.
Hungry or not, Charlotte was ready for evil to strike. Or for any other distraction from rotten-meat stew, or whatever it was.
Miss Smythe jumped from the table and ran for the corridor stretching back along one side of the bar, the one where the pay phones and washrooms would be in a 70s hotel. Probably no pay phones in the modern version, Charlotte thought, as Werther Goethe followed, Dr. Smythe bustling, looking agitated, right behind them.
Charlotte’s phone pinged.
Charlotte glared at her friend. Sure, in a cheap paperback, Miss Smythe would be pregnant, and there would be a family blow-out in the back.
In the real world, it was probably a vampire attack.
“Maybe I can help!” Mr. Delver announced, hurrying after Dr. Smythe.
Oh, that tore it. It wasn’t like anyone hadn’t noticed that Mr. Delver had been hanging out suspiciously around Special Collections right after the Mr. Taurling’s books went missing. Suspect everyone, Bruce said. Especially anyone who’d wear a tie like that.
Abruptly, the room rocked with the flare of a chaos blast. Okay, it’s official, Charlotte thought. We’re going to have to fight villainy most foul on an empty stomach. Oh, well, at least they wouldn’t get cramps.
Or was that swimming?
Charlotte was on the table with a single, smooth move, although not so smooth that she didn’t ‘accidentally” land one bright, red sneaker directly on the sides platter, splurting the Assistant Vice-Director with pickle juice. Then she ran down the tables, through herself through the window, and landed, rolling, in the alleyway outside the Galloping Goose, snapping left to dodge the chaos blast she knew was coming.
Anarchic energy did, indeed, split the air behind her as Charlotte hit the pavement rolling, coming up in a whirling round-house to bring her heel snappily into Madison Chung’s temple.
The precisely metered force put her nemesis down like a light, Charlotte thought with satisfaction, as she twisted to avoid Eve’s hastily thrust spear. Well, one nemesis, anyway.
Charlotte dropped into Monkey fighting stance as her friends boiled out of the Galloping Goose behind her. It looked like Eve was alone, right now, and that was terrible odds. “You really want this, girl?” Charlotte asked Eve, a slight, ever-so-superior smile playing on her face that probably wouldn’t make Eve any more likely to surrender and come quietly.
Unfortunately, Charlotte couldn’t help the smile. Heh. She’d thought “foul.”