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Chapter 45, Racing Fast
You have your potential kidnap victim. You have your kidnappers, out on the loose somewhere. And your victim doesn’t want to cooperate. Textbook says that you tail your potential victim and set one heckuva trap.
That’s why Charlotte didn’t need to hurry downstairs to the bottom floor of the Library of Babylon’s employee gym. The big league was down there already, dealing with whoever had just fired off those pulson blasts. Also, there was no sign of Ginger, so this wasn’t going to be an important fight.
Good to know. But, oh, one last thing. Bruce had been about to kiss her. Did she want that? Did she not want that? Yes. No. Yesno. To be honest: every part of her wanted it, except her brain. Her brain wanted Scout. Her brain also knew that the rest of her wanted Scout whenever he was around, so shut up rest-of-her, brain said. Until Bruce was actually leaning over to kiss her, and it turned out that her brain wasn’t in charge after all.
This, Charlotte thought, was the kind of train of thought that made you hurry places even when you didn’t have to, vaulting off the rail at the edge of the suspended runway of the upper story roadhouse and jumping down to the floor of the gym below for no better reason than vaulting the rail looked cooler than just clearing it. Kind of like doing two flips in the air before perching all “dark brooding creature of the night” for a second on the pole of a volleyball net, and then leaping off that to rebound and roll through the doors into the lobby of the gym.
She was showing off, because she was excited and elated and her stomach was all heebie jeebie, and for that matter because Bruce was sticking with her move-for-move, and she didn’t know how she felt about that.
Charlotte came through the door, rolling up into Tiger stance. She was so excited that she was amazed to find the Spirit Dragon Fist within her so that she could give her fists a bit of that ol’ Iron Fist-sparkle. Somehow you didn’t think, Charlotte thought, that “showing off” was a good reason to find your inner serenity and your advanced wuxia techniques.
But there it was. Charlotte was fist-sparkling, ready to punch someone into next week. Too bad there was no-one to punch, for good or ill.
There, in the lobby, stood Eldritch, in his official sorcerer-fighting-for-justice togs, which consisted of a fringed leather vest over a psychedelic tie-died shirt with a bead choker and bead necklaces, and a colourful headband holding back a Karl Marx-worthy head of grey-white hair, and absurdly flared jeans sweeping the floor around his sandals. He even looked stoned. In fact, probably was. He claimed that his combat magic was more powerful when he was high.
It was amazing, Charlotte thought, that in his secret identity Eldritch taught sociology or business or calculus or one of those complicated subjects with math at Berkeley University. Or was it the University of California? Something like that. She really should know. She had a cousin there. It was probably because the name was confusing.
Not as confusing as the people with Eldritch. When he’d said that he was going to bring some first class muscle along with this ambush, she’d expected the Guardians, a weird-and-wonderful San Francisco superteam. Or maybe even her cousins, who were working as the Guardians’ junior varsity these days.
Instead, it was the Defenders. And not the real Defenders, who guarded Detroit’s new Millennium City in case Doctor Destroyer came back to finish the job he started there. It was their West Coast affiliate team, the old Freedom Patrol. Charlotte recognised the big black guy with wings as Condor, the fortyish woman with the Mom hair as Windshear. The guy in the costume she didn’t recognise was probably the speedster, Retrograde, in a new outfit. They looked upset with Eldritch, and upset with each other.
“Ah,” Eldritch said. “Hobgoblin Boy; Redeeming Fist. Good. The Maid of Gold, Twelve, Rush, and Ar-Caine are already here.” Eldrith gestured over his shoulder at the rest of the team, including Brian, who apparently had finally thought up a proper codename.
The one person there was no sign of, was Assistant Vice Director Baqul Nazfre.
“Oh, great,” Retrograde muttered. “Everyone’s here except Arm Fall-Off Boy.”
“That,” Eldritch said, “Will be enough of that, Brother Retrograde. Don’t let the fascist outfits fool you. These hepcats are with it.”
“What happened, sir? Where’s LIBRARIAN?” Charlotte tried to emphasise that Nazfre’s operational codename was all-caps, just like in a real spy story.
“Ah.” Eldritch said. “I have embarrassing news to relate. We seem to have another player in this mix. A very powerful mage intervened.”
“It wasn’t our fault,” Condor interrupted. “We were told to be ready for the Paradigm Pirates, and we were ready for the Paradigm Pirates.”
“Is this going to take much longer?” Windshear asked. “My kids are done dance in half an hour, and Little League ten minutes after that, and my husband’s been called into the hospital.”
“Wttch-chu.” Retrograde made a whipping motion as he spat out what was supposed to be the sound of a lash cracking.
Windshear glared at him. “It’s not my fault. You’re on call. Sometimes you get called in.”
If this went on, it wouldn’t just be Windshear’s kids who were left waiting. “Well, we figured the Tattered Man was in this, too. And the Belly Bottom Boys.”
“Nah,” Bruce said. “They’re like the Migdalar. In it to kill Mill.”
“So you think that Mill is more than he seems?” Rose asked.
“Du—Yeah, sorry, Ro-Rush. I think there’s something going on there.” Bruce’s blush spread below his cowl again.
Eldritch nodded, gravely. “Indeed.”
“What?” Condor said, sounding angry. “There were other players? Why weren’t we told?”
“There was not much,” Eldritch said, “That I could have told you about the Tattered Man. I’ve never fought him. I was hoping that the rest of the Bay Guardians would be available, and that I would not have to call you, but—“
“Oh, yeah,” Retrograde spat out. “Bring in the A-Team. Never mind the lunch-bucket heroes who protect San Francisco day and night when you’re off on your magical mystery tours.”
“Honestly, Sal,” Windshear interrupted. “Could the chip on your shoulder get any bigger?”
Condor put what was obviously intended to be a comforting, leaderly hand on Windshear’s shoulder. “Remember what Sal’s been through, Tee.”
‘Tee’ shook her shoulder irritably, and Condor let his hand fall. “It’s not my fault he’s lost his job again.”
“I cannot cook in those conditions!” Sal interrupted, hotly. “And the kitchen manager was a moron!”
Eldritch rolled his eyes, then held up his hand. “Enough. I take it that Windshear doesn’t want to spend the afternoon in Babylon, anymore?”
“It’s not that I don’t want to,” Windshear said. “It’s that I can’t. If there’s any way I can get a raincheck, though. . .”
“Of course,” Eldritch said. “You and your family, if you want. Condor? Retrograde?”
Condor shook his head. “The NFL playoffs aren’t going to watch themselves.”
Retrograde glared at his team, then muttered. “And I’ve got to . . I’ve got to—“
“You took that job at Red Robin, didn’t you, Sal?” Windshear laughed.
“Hey, congrats on the promotion,” Condor said, beaming. “You’re management now!”
Retrograde didn’t say anything. The way he tossed his shoulders, he didn’t need to say anything.
“Okay, then,” Eldritch said, his hand cutting a circle in the air. He looked over his shoulder at Charlotte. “I will be back in a minute, and we will talk about the Tattered Man.” Then he pushed forward into nowhere. With that, the mighty sorcerer who liked to dress up as a hippie vanished.
Windshear stepped up to the still-shimmering portal, then paused, as though confused.
“You have to push your way through,” Bruce pointed out, helpfully. Windshear nodded, and reached towards the portal.
Unfortunately, Bruce had to make a joke. “You know, the old-fashioned way.” An ‘Oh!’ exploded from Windshear as she pushed through the door.
“You know you just called her ‘old,’ Bruce,” Dora pointed out, helpfully.
“What? I never did!” Bruce protested.
But Condor, stepping through the portal behind Retrograde, gave him a stern look.
Bruce wilted, his blush returning. “Well, I didn’t mean to—“
Charlotte cringed inside in sympathy. She didn’t know whether to try to comfort him, or ignore his embarrassment until it went away. “I guess this confirms that the Tattered Man is after Auralia.”
“Yeah,” Rose answered. “And he’s hanging out at a house with two Library researchers. One of whom he’s probably Renfielded.”
Whom? Charlotte thought? Rose gots good grammar.
“And a Curator. Don’t forget that Dr. Smythe is a curator here at the Library.”
“I had done no such thing.” Rose even rolled her eye. “But, the Tattered Man seems to be working through Director Nazfre. At least, she is the one who put a restriction on the books we need to look at.”
“Plus we’ve been dragged into this mess with Mill,” Dora pointed out.
“Or Mill dragged us into his mess. Might be more important than what’s going on for all we know.”
Charlotte eyed Brian. He didn’t usually jump into the brainstorming.
“Another thing,” Bruce said. “This is just like on Landing. We get dragged into a situation because Professor Paradigm goes for something. Only it turns out that he’s being manipulated by somebody else. So is this supervillain Yelp? Like, ‘The Paradigm Pirates are the go-to pawns for all your evil schemes, five stars.’ Or. . .”
Rose’s eyes brightened. “Last time, it was Noatar who was behind it all. Is it him again?”
“No,” Charlotte said, meditatively. “It’s Takofanes.”
“But!” Twelve pounced, growling his anger. “Remember that Noatar’s practically confessed to backstabbing the Empyreans when they tried to take out Takofanes, back at the end of the Old Red Aeon. What if they’ve got a thing going on?”
“Hey! No politics!” Dora said, although the way she looked at Twelve, her eyes shining, and the way that Twelve looked back, his eyes wide to swallow he BFF whole, made Charlotte jealous all over again.
“I don’t see how it’s so radical to be against genocidal oligarchs. But that’s not my point. Noatar keeps backstabbing his own daughter all over the place, and as an Empyrean kid created by someone’s genetic experiments, I can relate.”
“Point,” Charlotte said. “You think Noatar helped Teleios create you?”
“Sounds, you know, Occam’s Razor and all that,” Bruce said. “I’m. . . Actually. . .” And his face went grey, slack, unfocussed, like something terrible had just happened.
Charlotte looked at him, worried, trying to understand. But Bruce wouldn’t meet her gaze, and his strong, wide shoulders seemed to plunge into his chest.
Her phone beeped.
[Suzie]: A recall request for that book you’re looking for just came through. You’ve got twenty minutes before it can be picked up.
[Suzie]: “Assistant Vice Director Nazfre.”
Crap, Charlotte thought. The Tattered Man is making his move. This was it.
[Eldritch]: All Hell’s broken loose in San Francisco, Philadelphia, Detroit. Good luck, Char Char. I believe in you.
What Eldritch didn’t believe in was Hell, so he was probably being literal, Charlotte thought. Well, there was enough firepower in those three cities that either this was Takofanes’ big move to take over the world, or it was a diversion from them. Yeah, no, Charlotte thought. Big ego, me? Never.
“Okay, team,” Charlotte said. “We’re on our own. Eldritch believes in us. We believe in us. Let’s go find us the First Light of Dawn and put that nasty old thing back in the ground where he belongs.”