Just west of Philadelphia is King of Prussia Mall, the largest shopping mall that isn't in Edmonton, Alberta. I could say something mean about Edmonton, now, but what's the point?
Anyway, if you're wondering why I sometimes confuse its small, inner-suburb, rundown rival, my fictional "Panther Heights Mall" with "Cougar Heights," or perhaps other mistakes like "Panther Down," it's because I'm taking sides in an old, old war.
Book 5, 3: Exposition!
Charlotte looked down at the one unoccupied table at the food court that had room for the three girls and Brian, and Twelve, if his shift at the Price Rite wasn’t extended. She went to sit down.
“Hey, get your own chair! I was here, first.” Rose looked twinkling smug as she appeared in the chair that Dora had been trying to sit in, tray of A&W burgers and fries flat and level in her hands, and even her gray toque unmussed. Superspeed was one thing. Rose made it graceful. She was still mad that she wasn’t allowed to try out for dance at the school, on account of it not being fair to use superpowers in athletics, and it turned out that dance was athletics, at least for the purposes of making life lame for young superheroes.
“I,” Dora announced, “Am above such things.” She sat down. Her Vietnamese noodle soup slopped just the tiniest bit as the tray landed. Then she sat down and cracked open her green tea. “Hey? Did any of you get presents from the Emperor of Byzantium?’
Charlotte tried not to sound excited, failed hard. “I was just going to say! Boots --well, not boots, exactly, but. . .”
She couldn’t even finish, because Rose interrupted. “OhmyGod! Char Char! You got gyro-stabilisers! You’re going to be kicking ass kung fu style in stiletto boots like Phantom Lady!”
“Not,” Charlotte interrupted, “Like Phantom Lady. Because, a) dress code; 2) taste; and iii) I have powers.”
“Did you just say “iii?” Dora asked. “That’s a most un-Charlottelike commitment to the joke. Also besides, Phantom Lady does have powers ever since her transporter accident on the way from Earth Nazi, she’s been able to be a real phantom.”
“Earth Nazi?” Rose asked.
“In the old DC Comics multiple-world crossovers, Earth Nazi is the one where the, I think, Quality Comics characters went. The Nazis won there, which is why Phantom Lady was in the Freedom Fighters. ‘Cuz they were fighting for freedom from the Nazis.”
“Ugh. Nazis rule the world for forty years?” Rose stuck her tongue out, only politely, because Rose could do that. “That doesn’t sound like a lot of laughs.”
“Eh,” Dora shrugged. “They put Red Bee there. The one whose superpower was to control a bee.”
“Bees?” Charlotte asked. “That’s lame.”
“No, a bee,” Dora answered. “It lived in his belt. At least he was probably easier to write than Superman, what with not having to remember that the guy’s got every power from super strength to super hypnosis.”
“Wait,” Rose said. “That sounds super-creepy. Basically the plot of half the Superman stories from the Silver Age was that Lois Lane was trying to prove that he was actually Clark Kent so that they could get married. And now you’re telling me that Superman could just fire up the ol’googly eyes and tell her to cool it?”
“Nah,” Dora answered. “The super-hypnosis wasn’t even core Silver Age. More like, right at the end, when they were trying to explain the crazy stuff. It turns out that Clark Kent’s glasses were made of Kryptonian glass, which meant that they projected superhypnosis that made everyone think that Clark looked different from Superman. Bingo-bango, no-one even wonders why Clark runs into a phone booth and disappears every time Superman shows up.”
“Well,” Charlotte said, “I sure am glad that they got away from the whole craziness with that! Anyway, I also got a hammer time scabbard for my sword; and check out the belt and baldric!” Charlotte laid the checked white-and-black belt with sculpted mother of pearl inlays and gold vertical hoops on the table.
“Blingy!” Dora announced. “So mine was a magic harness so that Kawaii can be a real horse. Point is, now I need somewhere to board her. Is there any chance that—“
“What, real horse as in, munches grass and poops sparkly horse poop?” Charlotte asked. “Sure, she’s fine with our horses out at State College. You just need to make sure she stays away from my horse, unless you’re fine with rainbow sparkly foals everywhere. Oh, and, also, forget about your allowance, because horses only seem to eat hay. It’s actually money. Uncle Henry and Aunt Mai could probably move to a giant mansion in Arizona if they didn’t have to keep the horses, and, as it is, they’re like, four hours away, and you’ll only get to see them on the weekends.”
Although the idea of having her posse along with her at the Wong’s big old cabin outside State College again was pretty exciting. Waking up on a cold morning, getting Ol’ Smokey burning, dealing with the inevitable aftermath of whatever prank her cousins Amy and Jason had pulled the night before, with the help of whichever other member of their Rugrat gang was available, walking on the dew wet grass to the paddock fence to feed the horses, ignoring the way your socks got soaked. Charlotte was so down with that.
“Did anyone else get stuff? I mean, I’m sure that they did, but. . .” Dora trailed off, because having a pony she could just ride and hang out with, instead of having to summon it through the needfire when she was channeling the Maid of Gold was so awesome.
Brian, who’d just been watching smugly, held out his phone. “Old news. I got a phone number. Actually, couple phone numbers, ‘cuz I needed on with a Philadelphia area code. Remember when Mill said it was my heart’s desire? Not sure it was my heart, but I got me some.”
Dora reached over the table to put her hands over Rose’s ears. “You cover Charlotte’s, and then tell me everything.”
Rose reached up and took her friend’s hands down, and Dora threw herself back into her chair, heedless of the way that her soup rocked in its bowl on the rickety Panther Heights Food Court table when she did. “You’re not the only one to get a social gift. Twelve got an intro to a campaign organiser for that senator from Maine or wherever, the independent one. He’s running for President in 2015.”
“Vermont, Socialist, Bernie Sanders, 2016,” Rose rattled off. “Interesting. Hilary will flatten him. Anyway, the harness can’t be the only thing you got. I got a library card.” Even Rose apparently couldn’t help gloating about that. Or, considering that it was a library card, especially Rose.
“The who the what now?” Dora asked.
“Library of Babylon user’s card?” Rose asked, in that tone that said that it was a rhetorical question, even though it wasn’t, as she pulled a tasteful card with the slight shimmer of a whole surface hologram on it. “Can just walk in and consult the stacks anytime I want, not just with Eldritch’s pass? Access to restricted collections? Witchcraft had one of these. And the Rose.”
Changing tone, she looked at Dora. “But you didn’t just get a harness, did you? I noticed your new necklace.
Dora looked hesitant.
“Dish,” Rose said, firmly. Finally, Dora fished with the golden chain around her neck and pulled an oversized plaque from underneath her red and black flannel jacket –a logger’s tuxedo, Charlotte would have said.
It was surprisingly large, almost costume jewelry-sized, but the design on its flat, black surface was not costume jewelry. The gems that picked out the intricate pattern were small, but anything but fake-looking. Charlotte stared, not at the bling, after the first moment, but her mind trying to follow the design. It was uncannily reminiscent of Elven pattern traps, but her mind didn’t lose its way, finally coming to the realisation that it was—
“A jewelled spider?” Rose asked.
Dora nodded, glumly.
“Dora with no words,” Charlotte said, speculatively.
That inspired her. “Don’t even say it!”
Charlotte shut up before the phrase, “Shining Darkness” could slip from her mouth.
“It’s a defence ward,” Dora said. “I tried to get one for you guys, too, but they’re very rare. In the mean time, can we please not talk about it?”
Charlotte didn’t know about that. Bruce’s carefully constructed, insane reason for not wanting to date her was that Eve’s Dad had a plan to mate and produce children who were immune to Shining Darkness mind control, and also possibly Empyreans, like him. So that he could replace all his Empyrean relatives with a new batch he could control. Well, not insane. It probably was what Noatar was trying to do, and it was creepy, and they should be trying to stop the plan--
“Reminds me,” Rose said, carefully, her mouth pursed just so, as she interrupted the dark spiral of thoughts that Charlotte had followed far too often, “Bruce says Professor Paradigm set up that encounter with his crew.”
Charlotte pursed her mouth even harder than Rose, just to let her friend know that that name was not to be spoken in her presence. But she didn’t interrupt, in case Rose stopped.
“He knows his team. Crazies and psychos make lousy detectives, so he primed Madison with the information about the gauntlet being sabotaged during or just after that third period assembly on the 29th. Then she went ahead and confronted us. Now we’re on the case. So, gotta figure the Pirates’ll be following us around.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Dora said. “’There is nothing you cannot find, Doctor Jones, that I cannot take from you, etc, etc. But we’ve got the ace detective, so no worries.’”
That was it. Dora was bating her. “If we’ve got the ace detective, where is he?”
“What? I thought you guys were avoiding each other because, like, so awkward.”
Rose thought that Charlotte didn’t notice the way she kicked Brian under the table.
“He’s on his own investigation. Gives him a chance to stand on moonlit roof tops staring into space and looking all broody and mysterious. Also, when he’s not with us, he gets to wear his Hobgoblin outfit instead of the Tatammy fatigues, and it has a cape. Better for being one with the night.”
Charlotte did like Bruce’s modern adaptation of the Hobgoblin costume. A nice update on a classic look, and there was something about the way that cape hung that brought out his shoulders ---Not that she cared!
Changing the subject, annoyed as she did so that her voice wasn’t working quite right, Charlotte steered things back to tonight. “Okay: Auntie Ma is leaving out soup and sandwiches for us so we can stake out the Superintendent. She’s also borrowing Mrs. Crudup’s car. So we can nap in slow time while it drives around the neighbourhood and get our beauty sleep. She also says that that’s the last time we can count on having a time machine to fix things if we screw up our sleep schedules like that. Now the question is, was that all a big waste of time? ‘Cuz if Madison and the gang are following us, why would she be trying to get us to react to her?”
Rose shrugged. “Because she’s crazy?”
“Crazy angry,” Brian added.
“In other words,” Dora began.
“Bruce thinks it’s going to be a trap,” Rose interrupted.
“Meaning?” Charlotte asked, briskly.
“We might meet some of the senior Pirates. The ones who can kick our butts.”
“Great. Any chance of some backup? Like, I know my cousins are busy, and Jenny is flying back to California tomorrow on top of that, but surely there’s someone from one of the other classes. Or maybe even the Liberty League?” Dream on, Charlotte thought. Philadelphia’s grown-up supers had more than enough on their plate already. The best you could say, as the Mechanic put it, was that so far the Earth hadn’t needed more saving than there were superheroes to save it, and that could change tomorrow.
“Bruce is working on that.” Rose hesitated. “So am I.”
“So we can expect the Dark Ninja to show up?”
Dora squealed. “Oh, Rose!”
Now it was Rose’s turn to glare in a way that demanded that Dora shut up about one boy in particular. “There’s nothing there! He lied to me!”
“About being mentally handicapped,” Dora said. “What if he were paraplegic or blind or like that? Would you still think that he wasn’t boyfriend material?”
“No! I. . . That’s not fair!”
“Rose, every boy on Earth is mentally handicapped compared to you. Well, except John Roy, and he’s dating Charlotte’s cousin.”
Rose crossed her arms and sank back into her chair, looking defeated. Charlotte was glad that at least her boy troubles were more serious than that.
“So: first draft of a plan: we stay up late on a school night so that we can stick our heads in a trap. Then we get rescued by some dreamy boys, head home, have BLTS and pho, sleep in the back of a 1955 Cadillac, and show up for school tomorrow with approximately the worst hair in the history of ever.”
“Point of order,” Rose said. “Incas used to do their hair with old urine. To make it glossy.”
“Approximately, I said.”
“Clarification duly noted. May I also add that I am concerned about the retrograde gender politics of this mission? Maybe we should get the guys to do the stakeout, and rescue them?”
“You’re the girl who is organising the backup!” Dora pointed out. “You get the politics right. Also, ‘retrograde?’ Is that even a word?”
“Ignore them, Charlotte,” Brian said. “I’m fine with being rescued by dreamy boys.”