Chapter 4, 41, East Side Trouble
Evening in Queen’s Hill. Raining, of course. Good thing about all the street traffic being pulled by horses, is that horses have some sense. Charlotte could smell the horses, hear their huffing breath. Four streets led into the square where she’d caught up with Avant Garde a moment ago, and there were wagons blocking three of them.
Behind her was the fight her team had had. Stopping the Paradigm Pirates from kidnapping Assistant Vice Director Nazfre. The Library of Babylon bureaucrat was above her, safe in Bruce’s arms. The would-be kidnapper was in front of her, knocked to the ground, hard, by a flying Charlotte. She should be arresting him right now. She wasn’t. Because of the Belly Bottom Boys. According to Mill, whom they’d just run into in the square, this was the fight she was going to have.
Charlotte held Tiger Stance, focussing herself to deliver an Eight Dragon Fist. She trusted Mill, even though this was ridiculous. The Belly Bottom Boys were …old people. And not holding-up well old people like her aunt and uncle, whom Charlotte could imagine putting up a fight. The Belly Bottom Boys had. . . Well, let’s be polite, and put it this way. They’d let themselves go. Two were on scooters, one hunched over a walker, folded all the way over like a tent held up by an invisible post so that his porkpie hat led the way. Two, both colossally fat, seemed solid enough to stand by themselves. Even in the cold air, even over the smell of the drains and the horses, B.O. penetrated to Charlotte’s nose. It wasn’t the not the “good” kind of B.O., either, the rank cheesy smell of a Phys Ed gym locker. This was the B.O. of a gas station toilet that no-one cleaned.
The fat, standing lady fixed her eyes on Charlotte and smiled, and the colour drained out of her face dangerously, the sign that you needed someone who knew first aid right now, before it happened. “Aren’t you the sweetest little thing, dearie? If you run away now and leave us to it, you might not even die.”
The two scooters started up with electric whines. On the right, the nose of the fat, bald guy with the gray goatee dripped a tube that led to a tank in his handlebar basket. On the left, the guy in the slumpy khaki hat had more pride in his ride. He’d accessorised it with handlebars and crash guards and chrome rearview mirrors. It probably wouldn’t have been enough to make it cool even if it weren’t for the tall, orange caution flag and the peeling bumper stickers with slogans and the logos of obscure punk bands.
“You heard Teri,” the guy in the hat said. “Scram.” The man with the tube just wheezed. Charlotte stared back. The Belly Bottom Boys looked like the gang of seniors that hung out at the east entrance to Panther Heights Mall. These ones were probably waiting for the bus to take them to Atlantic City, but that just made them look sad. It was the feeling she got back from them that made them seem dangerous.
A familiar squawk let Charlotte know that Ginger the crow had finally shown up. This was serious. The old people looked at her. She looked at them. No-one seemed in a hurry to start this fight. Weird. Didn’t they know that Charlotte and Bruce had reinforcements coming?
Then the tube came whipping out of the goateed guy’s nose, fast as a car accident happens, like there was no way it wasn’t going to seriously hurt someone, uncoiling, slimy-shiny in the gaslights straight at Charlotte’s feet, fast enough to entangle anyone who wasn’t an Eight Spirit Dragon adept.
Too bad about that, Charlotte thought, as she skipped over the sweep, desperately missing her blade. A quick cut from the Pearl Harmony Sword would have put paid to that.
Cat feet touched pavement behind her. A hand touched her hip. Without even looking, Charlotte dropped her left hand back, cupped, and something heavy and sharp dropped into it. A metal pin, heavier than it should be without being any chunkier. Hunh.
“Do you have a plan?” She made herself not ask about Assistant Vice Director Nazfre. If Bruce hadn’t stashed her somewhere safe, Bruce wouldn’t have joined the fight. Don’t try to do Bruce’s job for him, Charlotte reminded herself, thinking of teachers who insisted on telling herself stuff she already knew.
She dodged low this time, let the tube whip by overhead. The other scooter surged into the gap, but with a quick, flip tumble, Charlotte was in clear ground. A rustle of fabric came behind her –she and Bruce were still in street clothes—as he conformed to her move.
“Of course I have a plan. I am prepared for all contingencies!” Bruce whispered back. He was using his gravelly Batman voice. Charlotte had to smile.
“For an old guy using a breathing tube as a weapon? You have one heck of an imagination, Bat Boy.” Charlotte sidled right, because the scooters would have to turn into each other now to get back into the fight, and this meant she was moving towards the standing Belly Bottom Boys. If the scooter dudes were trying to screen them, chances were they were the standoff fighters.
Bruce moved with her, behind her. “I am aware of all imaginings, Kung Fu Princess. Anyway, no. For this one, we prep for the rematch.”
Charlotte’s hands were out, down now. She’d given up on prepping the Eight Spirit Dragon Punch. If the Belly Bottom Boys knew Charlotte, knew her teacher, they’d be expecting the low sweep Uncle Henry had mastered, the one he’d used to take down a Tyrannosaurus, not once, but twice. Charlotte wasn’t sure what a cool wuxia name for the move would be. Giant Lizard Fall?
Whatever. Point was that the Belly Bottom Boys looked like they had dry and crunchy hips. This might be a good time for some slip and falls. “So we should hurry up and lose? So we can have a rematch?”
“It works for Batman!” Bruce pointed out.
“Does he have a trick for surviving the first fight?”
“Easy! Have the writers on your side. Or the fanboys, even better.”
“Just throwing it out there that that might not work as well in real life.”
“D'oh! Why you ruin all my plans, pretty girl? I guess that’s why I’m only the world’s twenty-seventh best detective. Okay. Revised plan. Punch old people. You start, Char Char. You’re good at the whole punching thing.”
Ginger cawed, a crow’s warning to other crows. And honorary crows, like trailer park girls from the Fraser Valley, where it always rained and the black birds lined every telephone line, and pretended to be scared when kids pretended to throw rocks at them.
There was something about the look the old lady gave --to Bruce’s words, not to Ginger’s warning. Charlotte turned and dived like her life depended on it. She aimed at where Mill had been the last time she looked, letting her actions serve as a message to Bruce to look to the Assistant Vice-Director’s safety.
Behind her, the world turned hot and bright, like the air had caught fire. Her dive was in time, but only just, as something solid hit the heel of her left sneaker as she flew. Her arms caught hold of Mill. He was surprisingly strong, solid, for such a thin-built man. A line dangled in front of her –Bruce. Charlotte caught it on the jump with her left hand, her strong right one carrying Mill along with her as she pendulumed, fast, to get enough momentum to carry her onto the roof of Mill’s bread wagon. The wooden ribs underneath her feet flexed dangerously under the weight.
Thanks, Charlotte thought. Everybody’s a critic. The body-shaming commercial vehicle had a point, though, and she put Mill down beside her. Given a moment, she reached down and pulled up her sneakered foot, risking a glance down. Something greenish gray and yellow, like you’d imagine the snot of someone really sick, was bubbling on it. Ooh. Charlotte flexed a half leap, low and tricky, the kind of footwork you’d see in a fancy dance, and the shoes came off.
Someone was in trouble. She’d liked those sneakers.
Mill interrupted her. “My heroine,” he muttered. “You have to kiss me now, by the way.”
about Mill. He was seriously good looking, and totally street. If there was someone she had to kiss, well, this beat playing spin-the-bottle by half. Charlotte had only ever fantasised about playing spin-the-bottle. “Really?’
“Sorry, girl,” he answered back. “Not my type, actually,” and he rolled his eyes upwards. Oh. Charlotte had kind of figured.
“Bruce?” Charlotte swept her eyes upward. There was Bruce, standing on the gas lamp. In the evening gloom, she could also see the Assistant Vice Director, peering down from a rooftop. Charlotte waved at the woman, irritated. Go! Catching a clue at last, the bureaucrat vanished.
“Thing about going gay,” Bruce said, “Is that I wouldn’t have to work it so hard to be down with the ladies.”
“Boy,” Mill said, “You have no idea. Just none. If love is war, everyone’s at war with someone.”
“Shh, man. Trying to impress the chicks, not make deep sociological statements!” Truth was, Bruce did look kind of good, silhouetted up there all Dark Knight-style. Charlotte hooted a wolf whistle, than pulled her eyes back down to street level, half to the opposition, half away in embarrassment. What was getting into her?
They were shuffling around menacingly like, they were getting ready to make their next move. Charlotte was still playing the waiting game. You have to get the band back together before you can really make music, after all. So, as she calmed, she answered. “Hey, it must be working. The scene is heating up. If you like burning BO, anyway.”
“Def heating up, one way or the other. Nice toenails.”
Charlotte could feel herself flushing, even though it was a stupid line from a friend, not someone datable.
Stupid line of thought. She turned to Mill. “Who are these guys, anyway?”
“Street soldiers from the last civil war. Fought for the East Side. Went underground. Talk was, 2012 was going to be their year. “
“And now they’re pulling snatches for Professor Paradigm,” Bruce rasped. “Map props for starting fun fights, though. Hunh? Char Char?” Easy, Charlotte, easy, she thought to herself. It’s never anyone’s year. You make it happen. Do. Be. Doobie doobie do. Stupid joke, but it made her easy inside, as she realised that a sense of contentment had been sneaking over her.
Surprisingly distant for how close it was, Charlotte heard a driver spur on his horses as he made tracks out of the nearby street. Someone was making her getaway.
And just like that, the peeling-decal, flag-mounted scooter transformed into a twelve-foot tall robot with a lancing an Orange spear at them. Second time she’d fought a spear today, and she was amazed again at just how fast they came in. Not fast enough by half, mind, but fast for a regular person. Charlotte gave Mill a firm push as she launched off, foot extended, letting her chi flow.
Were those . . sparks, she thought, as she watched, almost in slow motion, as her kick whirled. When her heel connected with the Autobot-for-Old-People, it was like it was her who was hitting something with her car. No pain, just a slight pressure, and definitely a spark, or more than a spark, as light flared and the robot turned back into a scooter.
In mid-air. Going fast. Way faster than the rules of physics ought to allow, until it hit the very solid-looking brick of the store front across the street, and smashed right through it. Charlotte, unfortunately, didn’t have time to watch the devastation her kick had made unfold any further, because she was busy sticking her landing, but she did it with entirely a different glow going on.
Sometimes, she thought, I can kick ass. In the moment that, as the ground came up through her flexing legs, that nasty, nasty hose came rushing at her again, wrapping around her throat.
The air choked off. Charlotte reached, instinctively, for the hose, but her hand slipped off something wet and slimy as the hose gripped in with a distinctly unhoselike expertise to feel out her carotids. Blackness rose in her head in the moment before a Hoggoblinarang slashed from the sky to cut through the hose.
Bruce landed beside her. “What’s a guy got to do to get some action ‘round here?”
Charlotte pointed a thumb back at the bread wagon, behind which Mill was taking cover.
“All the action,” Bruce clarified. “I want all the action.”
A walker was coming at Charlotte, wielded by the slumping man like a weapon. No, not like a weapon, like it was wielding the man, somehow, but as a counterweight to its own moves. Charlotte deflected, dodged –and her wrist was caught when the metal strut of the walker turned into a tentacle, supple and leathery without ceasing to be metal.
It felt gross. And it reminded Charlotte that she needed her sword. The walker was surprisingly strong. Well, it was surprising that a walker was strong at all, and surprising that it turned into some kind of aluminum bodied octopus, so in a way it wasn’t surprising that it was surprising, but. . .
Gurk, said Bruce beside her as the other leg of the walker got him around the neck.
Well, enough of this crap, Charlotte thought, as she palmed the needle Bruce had passed her and punched into the walker, once again finding, from somewhere, the purity of action that let her qi flow. The tentacle ripped open. Now, where was . . .
Avant Garde. There was six of him now, and they were bursting from the fight, heading towards the bread wagon. Crap, Charlotte thought, as she chased after them. Ginger cawed a warning, one that Charlotte didn’t’ really understand. Until…
“Hold on,” Bruce whispered. His voice was natural, now, and worried, and Charlotte backpedalled frantically, just in time to save herself from stepping on something small and speckled on the ground.
The avatars of Avant Garde were not so lucky, as explosions –real, chemical explosions—went off under their feet, tossing them high, like rag dolls.
“See?” Bruce said. “Prepared. In case something happens, you know?”
“Land mines? You used land mines?” For one, wicked moment, Charlotte couldn’t help picking up on Bruce’s double meaning. “They ruin the mood!”
“Hey, if Batman just used landmines, maybe he wouldn’t need to babysit Damian Wayne all the time.”
“That’s Nightwing who babysits Damian.” Shots rang out from the direction of the wagon. One, two, three, four, five, six in rapid succession. A smell, like gunpowder but stronger, filled the air. Charlotte hustled.
They reached the wagon. Mill was crouched behind the hitch, where a horse had been, before Mill had loosed it and hied it off. He was reloading a broken-open six shooter with big, old-school looking cartridges as fast as he could. As Bruce and Charlotte dropped beside him, he finished and stood, presenting the pistol towards the Belly Bottom Boys. “Who needs love when you’ve got a Glock?”
“Too bad,” Bruce said, “That you can’t use an actual Glock around here. Black powder is just the worse.”
“Old friend of mine likes to say that he always carries a sword because it’s the only thing guaranteed to work in every neighbourhood of Babylon.”
Charlotte missed her sword. “Can we stop talking boy toys for a second? What are these guys waiting for?” also, she was getting antsy.
“Here the whistles?” Mill asked.
“Yeah,” Charlotte answered. There were whistles, and they were getting louder.
“That’s the runners. Queen’s Hill detachment of the BPD. Big street fight going on up the hill.” Just then, a gout of needfire lit the sky to underline Mill’s comment. “Paradigm Pirates making trouble. Personally, I’m still waiting for more Belly Bottom Boys to show up.”
“Why?” Charlotte asked. “There’s no-one on Assistant Vice-Director Nazfre. She’s scampered. What’s the point of the street fight?”
“Unless there’s someone we haven’t seen on her.” Bruce pointed out.
Well, Charlotte thought, no good feeling can last forever.