Chapter 4, 42: Learning And Other Mistakes
Charlotte took the edge of the building at a run. It was only three stories, so she wasn’t worried about the landing, and she could hear Assistant Vice-Director Nazfre’s frightened, stifled panting coming up from below.
Below her, the gas lights puddled in the rain that was filling a Queen’s Hill alley. As far from the lights as she could be, there was the Assistant Vice-Director, crouched behind a dirty wooden bin of the kind they apparently used for garbage in the old days. At first glance, it was hard to see why she’d be hiding down in the dirt and the stains and desperately trying not to scream. All there was in the alley besides her were two old homeless people.
Except that they were scary old people. Charlotte could feel it in the air, especially now that she knew what she was seeing: Belly Bottom Boys.
At one end of the alley was an old woman pushing a very not-Victorian shopping cart, crouched over the handle like she didn’t think she could stand up without it. She was wearing an equally not-old-fashioned plastic garbage bag as a poncho, with a hole torn out for her head. It bunched up at the back, where the multiple layers of dirty jackets either rode up over an old-lady-hump or created the illusion of it. The cart was filled with bulging green garbage bags, tied off with twist-ties, and more bags hung off the side of the cart, tied to the rim at the top and filled with something heavy and bulgy down low.
Probably some kind of weird gadgeteer, Charlotte figured.
At the other end, was a stooping man with a ridiculous head of tangled, dirty, gray hair, beginning to slick down from the rain. He was wearing a brown jacket and brown pants. Even in the gaslight, they gave off the sheen of smelling like cigarettes and cheap liquor, like her Grade 4 teacher, who’d left the school after that year, to be a “consultant.” He was carrying one of those old fold-over briefcase-thingies with the pleated bottoms. Maybe he was carrying report cards. Wouldn’t need superpowers to be scary, then, she thought.
The one thing Charlotte didn’t have to worry about was a fashion-off, now that she’d taken a second to change into her costume. Sarcasm!
Only probably not really fair, because half of what made the Belly Bottom Boys so scary was that they were so sad. It was like some monstrous power had taken old people who’d given up, and given them the power to –Well, she didn’t really know. Kidnap random Library of Babylon bureaucrats. Made sense, Charlotte figured. Not.
With that, the bricks came up to meet her, and she flexed and rolled, thanking the saints of Immortal Heaven that she had changed out of her windbreaker. She headed for report card dude, because he didn’t have a cart to ward her off, and came up punching, cautious jabs, Dragon Plucking Sleeves technique.
Behind her, she could hear Bruce’s boomarangs cutting the air, and knew that he had her back. That made her feel . . . good? It’d do, anyway, until Scout showed up. If he did. Shiny new guns apparently weren’t much use in this part of Babylon, where black powder was the most complicated thing that would explode. Without guns, Bruce was better backup.
Old teacher dude blocked her punches with his briefcase. Up close, she could see his eyes through his thick, old plastic glasses. “I am educated, “ he yelled. “I have a Ph.D.! Twenty years an adjunct professor, and now I am here! Where is your respect?” With that, he flicked the briefcase, so quickly that he clipped Charlotte’s side as she dodged, Dragon Climbing Stairs-style.
Oof. Darn thing packed a kick, Charlotte thought, not fighting the momentum through the haze of pain, but letting it take her down and over and then up, now with a grotty old, empty beer bottle in her right hand that oozed mud on her glove as she launched herself at the street-person-professor.
She threw the beer bottle at his eyes at the last second, at his eyes. It was a pretty basic gambit to draw the briefcase-shield out of line, but professor-dude wasn’t buying it, waiting till the last second to take the bottle out of the air with a miniscule flick of the shield, which he kept at an angle to discourage shield-hopping techniques, and low enough that Charlotte didn’t feel entirely comfortable with a Snake Striking low sweep.
So she gave up on the direct approach entirely and slalomed left to come up on the slanted lids of the garbage bins and came at him from above. Ordinarily, she wouldn’t do this. Hang time might work in basketball, but it was a bad idea in hand-to-hand. Her uncle would bat her out of the air without blinking if she tried this, and the only reason her brother would bother to counter-tackle her was so that he could bring her down and tickle her on the mat for doing something so dumb.
BUT, this guy had a basically defensive weapon. If he tried to sweep with it—
He did, and, better yet, under-handed. The briefcase came up at her falling midriff, and Charlotte had just enough split-seconds to roll over it, grabbing the handle, her fingers over homeless teacher dude’s, but with all the momentum of her fall twisting the slick, wooden handle in his grip. His fingers were grimy, of course, making for even more yuck to wash out of her gloves later. As the handle popped free of his fingers, and the briefcase dropped into her hand, she was okay with that.
Landing, she swiveled, holding the briefcase, still. Three disarms in a night. Getting to be a habit, Char Char, she thought to herself. Oh, well, probably some kind of compensation for losing her own sword.
Charlotte gave the thing a jaunty little swing as she dangled it in front of her. Truth to tell, she was waiting for it to pull out of her hand to return to its owner, or grow tentacles or just explode. If it didn’t, though, and this guy’s fight was all tied up in his weapon, it was over.
He glared at her, instead of making with the tentacles, so that was good. “I published! Monographs, articles, all the reviews and encyclopedia articles they pushed at me! I had a blog! I was on all the Listservs! I volunteered! Now some child. . .”
Oh, for the love of—He was crying. Now Charlotte was crying. No-one ever said it, but you knew that Mr. Cade had been fired. Sure, teachers weren’t supposed to be drunk in class, but they took his life away! Charlotte couldn’t help herself: her hands came out of Monkey posture into that instinctive “Everybody deserves a hug” position that she used to comfort her friends. “It’s okay,” she began, wondering where she could possibly go from there.
“It’s not okay! I’m an educator!” He was still posed to fight, old shoulders poking at the seams of his jacket. Charlotte wondered how long the yellow-slick of cigarette could cling to the fabric in the cold rain of the night. A little longer, at least, was apparently the answer.
She thought about what he’d said. She had an answer now, she realised. “I’m learning.” It felt bad, because it was manipulative, but it was true, too. And what was the harm of saying something that was flattering and true? Hah! Was it manipulative if it was true as well as flattering what seemed important to this guy.
Professor-dude stopped and straightened up, and his face went weird. His eyes were glassy, but a grin pulled up at the corners of his face to show that happiness was breaking out inside, where it wasn’t supposed to be. Charlotte couldn’t help smiling in response, knowing that she’d broken the Goth voice that muttered inside these guys’ head, all super-serious, “I’m so smart and special and life’s not fair because no-one sees that.”
For a second, the Professor just looked happy. Then he doubled over and vomited. Yellow, black, speckled, darkness, shining.
Oh. My. God. She knew that magic.
He looked at her, his eyes gone from glazed to hollow. “You weren’t supposed to see that.” Mixed with the fear, though, was just a hint of glee, like he’d gotten away with something. Then with, one, hideous gasp, he inhaled the throw-up right back into himself. “Fall back!” He yelled. And he vanished.
“Hey!” came Bruce’s voice from the other end of the alley. “We were having a fight here!” Bruce actually sounded upset, Charlotte thought with the part of her brain that wasn’t concentrating on not throwing up.
“Assistant Vice-Director?” Charlotte called. “The situation is all under control.” Charlotte couldn’t help grinning at that. It was what her Cousin Amy liked to say when the daycare class she sometimes took on at the Yurt was in full zoo mode. Oh, well, it wasn’t like the Assistant Vice-Director knew Amy, or the grin in her voice when she said that.
Assistant Vice-Director Nazfre stood up. Unlike the Belly Bottom Boys, the rain had been getting through to her, and her heavily moussed, purple pixie-cut pompadour had turned into a smear on her head. Her bolo tie had popped, and loose leather strands hung down her black leather jacket, which at least was too dense and dark to show up the garbage stains that marked the knees of her gray slacks.
“What,” she snarled, “About this situation looks like it is under control, child? The part where juvenile delinquents aren’t fighting a street gang of seniors just this very second?”
Charlotte kept any sign of a grin at the Assistant Vice-Director’s messy appearance from her face. “Ma’am. You may not be aware of all the circumstances, but the Paradigm Pirates and the Belly Bottom Boys initiated this situation in an attempt to abduct you. They have withdrawn, and the police are almost here to escort you to a secure location.” Me talk fancy! Charlotte thought to herself. Right now, though, she was wishing she had a better idea of what real Secret Service guys said in a situation like this.
Bruce materialised beside her. “What Miss Wong is saying is that playtime’s over. The bad guys cut and run.”
“Playtime?” Assistant Vice-Director Nazfre answered, her voice frosting the air.
“Is Nazfre okay?” Came Mill’s voice from behind them. He was out of breath from having run all the way from the square.
Charlotte looked around. Mill, revolver in hand, was leading a flying squad of Queen’s Hill Precinct police. Tall men with mutton-chop facial hear, their boxers’ faces mushed under tall helmets and their burly bodies bulging under heavy, blue wool uniforms, brandishing thick nightsticks, they suddenly made Charlotte very glad that she wasn’t an old-time criminal. They looked a little too much like that one constable she’d known who’d like to talk a little too much about how the police used to handle youth gangs in the old days. (‘You ever notice how so many career criminals limp?’ he’d ask. “Guess who broke their knees?’)
Well, whatever, Assistant Vice-Director Nazfre wasn’t a foster kid on the run. She was fancy. The police were her friend. So, “Yes, she’s okay,” Charlotte answered.
“We’ll escort her to the station house, then,” one of the constables answered.
Charlotte put her hands to her hips. “You really think that you can protect her from the Paradigm Pirates and the Belly Bottom Boys?”
The policeman –bobby, wasn’t it?—who’d spoken first continued. “I fought the Belly Bottom Boys in the War. Don’t underestimate us. We can probably handle things from here, and you kids probably have homework and curfews.”
Charlotte thought about for a second, tempted to sass the officer, but knowing that it was wrong. Some day, she thought, she would have to go on the Dungeons & Dragons forums and share her opinion that being Lawful Good was a struggle, not a crutch. “Yes, we do.” Beside her, she sensed Bruce tensing. Well, he was the expert on ending these awkward scenes with police, so Charlotte tensed, too.
The long-threatening lightning cut loose, the boom following before the light even died away. Close, Charlotte thought with half a mind, the rest of it focussing on following Bruce as he vaulted straight up, hauling on an almost invisible black line suspended from the roof of the building above, so that he was able to catch the rain gutter three stories high with his hand and pull himself up and over onto the roof before any of the surprised bobbies had time to look back.
Lying on her stomach beside Bruce, looking down at the scene, Charlotte whispered, “Wow. Is that how you pull off that thing where you look away and Batman vanishes?”
“No, that’s the effect. How you do it depends on the situation.” He paused. “It’s easier in the movies, I bet. You can edit the scene. Gigantic lightning bolts help, too. Especially if you’ve got an ionoscope and know it’s coming.” He held out a bronze dial.
A soft glow, or two glows, one golden, one the crackle of pulson energy, lit the corner of Charlotte’s eye. “Hold that thought. Gang’s all here.” Crouching low, she led off towards the next roof over.
Sure enough, Rose, Dora, Twelve and Brian were there. Charlotte hugged her friends. “You missed the big fight!” Dora announced.
One arm on Dora’s shoulder, the other on Rose’s, Charlotte almost had to do a push-up not to cling to her friends. “I missed your fight, but Bruce and I had one of our own. How was it?”
“It was okay, I guess,” Dora said. “The Dark Ninja didn’t show up to rescue Rose, or anything, but you can’t have everything.
“All I’m saying is, any boyfriend of yours is going to be way dumber than you, anyway. Unless you take up with that UNTIL creeper, Mentiac, or start dating Doctor Destroyer. And he is way too old for you, girl.”
“I hate you, Dora! You’re the worst!” But Rose’s voice lacked the conviction that sold her anger.
“I’m just glad that those Belly Bottom Boys are gone,” Brian said. “They are serious bad news.”
“Didn’t seem so tough to me,” Bruce answered. “Little gross, maybe, but if you’re going to have a Rogue’s Gallery, I’d say that rogues who can’t beat you are a pretty good addition.”
“Yeah, no,” Charlotte said. “That one guy I fought had the whole shining darkness thing going on.”
“Oh, Char Char,” Dora moaned.
“Yeah, yeah, I know. Things humans weren’t meant to know, I get it. Look, this is me not meaning to know stuff, but it’s kind of hard when I guy throws up his shiny darkness cookies all over my boots.”
Dora took such an obvious, frightened peak at her fatigue boots that Charlotte had to add, “Not really. FYI, not actually cookies, either.”
“Hunh.” Bruce said. “That was the guy who was yelling about being a substitute teacher, right?”
“Yeah,” Charlotte answered.
“So I guess he managed to teach us something.”
“At least his night wasn’t a total loss,” Charlotte answered.
“Unlike us,” Bruce said. “We didn’t even get dinner, and I’m starved. Did they have pizza delivery in Victorian days?”
“Hello? This Babylon?” Rose answered. “The City of Man? Any kind of delivery, anywhere, anytime. And Dr. Smythe gave me some money, too. Only question is, is pizza the plan?”
“Well,” Twelve said, “We could respect the integrity of the neighbourhood and get Victorian takeout. Who’s up for stewed cheese?” Then he grinned. “Just kidding. I’m dying for a pizza.”
Friday night, friends, pizza. Okay, Charlotte thought. Things are looking up. Maybe, at some point, she’d even get a chance to talk to Rose and Dora about Michael Snow, Twelve, and –other things, and to heck with the Bechdel Test.