Saturday, April 9, 2016

Book 5, 27: Master Bruce

So that was what was cool forty years ago. (Not as cool as Cyndi Lauper, but Madonna had more staying power, for whatever reason.) I image searched some modern bangles, and you can do the same if you want. I like them better. Progress! But, on the other hand, our bangles back then were more important. There was a band, even.

Book 5, 27: Master Bruce

It was Saturday lunch at the mall, and Charlotte hadn’t even begun to come down, even though it was, like, twelve hours since Scout had walked her back up to her aunt and uncle’s door at 9:30 precisely. Not even an extended discussion of where “second base” was supposed to be was going to bring her down. Rose and Dora tended to disagree: disagree to the point where they weren’t on the same page about how many bases there were in dating. (FYI: Charlotte thought, four in baseball, but in dating you only ever got to third, so it was a pretty confusing metaphor to start with.)

Only every conversation has to end sometime. “I have been listening to this table since I got here,” Bruce announced. “And I want you to know that I am not sitting down unless you guys can talk about something besides guys.” Plus, Charlotte was getting. Well, you know.

Rose looked up at Bruce, who was standing, trying not to look awkward, behind an empty chair at their table in the Panther Heights Food Court. “Your bargaining fu is weak, Bruce-San.”

“I have curly fries,” Bruce offered.

“Did you just snark, Rose?” Dora asked. 

“No. I respect all union rules. I was just negotiating for curly fries. Apparently.”

“So I can sit?” Bruce asked, taking his chair.

“Quiet, Boy Wonder,” Dora said. “Admit it, Rose. You snarked. You know that’s my only job around here, right? And you took it away from me. I thought we were friends.”

Charlotte couldn’t help putting her hand over her friend’s plastic-bangled-like-it-was-the-Eighties wrist. Well, not actually like the 80s and Tiffany and stuff, because they were way more fashionable, but still. “You have plenty of jobs around here.”

“Riffing on Galaxy Quest, girlfriend. If I can’t do Galaxy Quest, I’m taking Bruce and starting a cool kids table.”

“So Rose is snarking me, and Dora has my back?” Bruce said. “I’m so confused.”

“Kick up a chair,” Charlotte directed. “I think we’re done talking about Friday night.” Though actually she wasn’t. But she’d do anything right now to not feel what she was feeling, hoping so hard to see jealousy in Bruce’s face. That hope made Charlotte really mad at herself just this minute. 

“Just a minute,” Bruce said. He held up his hand, made the signs for “clear.” 

Brian and Twelve appeared out of nowhere. “Bruce is our point man,” Twelve announced. 

“So you didn’t want to talk about Char-Char’s date?” Dora asked, looking at Brian. Charlotte scanned Bruce’s face, embarrassed to be doing it, and angry at herself for doing it. But still doing it. He showed nothing. It wasn’t surprising, Charlotte thought. He was a good detective. 

Brian shrugged. “Did it for the lulz. And to practice the spell. Which sucks.”

“I thought it was pretty good,” Charlotte said.

Brian shook his head. “This table was ground zero, and it’s meant for infiltrations, so it has to work on everyone. So, first, you guys had no reason to feel threatened, so I could use zero juice on you. Second, I think I only got a third of the food court. Within what’s supposed to be the area of effect. So either I didn’t get any heat on the spell at all, or else I did it so bad it missed everyone. ‘Course, they didn’t know we were trying to sneak up on you, so no biggie. But f they were guards or whatever? We’d be hosed. As for getting guys watching a security camera, I couldn’t get a clue how to pull that if you could buy it at the Old Clue Factory.” 

“So just that we’re clear,” Twelve said, “No talk about how lucky Charlotte is, or how dreamy Scout is. None of that. Anything else but that. Preferably Galaxy Quest, but anything else but.”

Charlotte watched Bruce’s eyes go to his plate as he focussed, very hard, on dipping a fry in ketchup. Stop this, she willed herself. To distract herself, she reached out and took a fry. “Not Galaxy Quest. Galaxy Quest would be fine by itself, but it’s just going to lead to Bruce doing Monty Python. . . “

Bruce, of course, looked up. “This is supposed to be a happy occasion. None of this talk about who quoted what.” He even did an English accent, and Charlotte couldn’t help giggling. But she also shook her head.

“Fair enough,” Bruce said. “Mutually assured non-quoting. I can deal with that. What are we going to talk about?”

“Our investigation? You were going to look something up last night, weren’t you, Bruce?” Charlotte asked.

Bruce blushed. “Er, about that. I kinda. . “

“He did PvP Civ IV with me all night,” Twelve said.

Charlotte raised her eyebrows, at Twelve, this time, because Civilization IV was a turn-based game. “What? It gets boring, only doing PvP with Rose, and getting your ass kicked. Bruce likes Civ, and my reflexes aren’t an advantage.”

“So nothing new on the investigation, then?” Charlotte asked.

“I wouldn’t say that,” Rose said. “PRIMUS has taken over Dr. Brown’s lab. So it’s official. It’s a missing person investigation. A guy from the Goodman Foundation is in town. They’re going to look at Brown’s lab for signs of time-tampering, but, we would probably have heard by now if. So: dimensional travel. Doesn’t mean that’s where Dr. Brown is, but he is very viable as the guy who shipped Auralia out of our dimension.”

“I thought we knew that. Someone tampered with Paradigm’s gauntlet? Pop, it’s wherever?” Charlotte did curly brackets with her hands. “Spoiler: It’s on the Old World, in that temple.”

“I don’t think so,” Bruce said. “Well, okay, I’ll grant you the temple, although I’m sure there’s a catch. I just don’t think Auralia was sent there directly by the gauntlet. All Paradigm would have to do is look at the system history. I mean, you could hack the history while you were at it and clear it, but deleting the history so that you can’t find it is pretty tough. All you need to make the gauntlets send Auralia back to Paradigm’s base on Earth –our Earth-- is a hijacking app, which you can load with a user account, maybe even a phish. To clear the history, you need administrative privileges. Big-time administrative privileges. I’m not saying that our guy didn’t have administrative principles, but we go on the simplest assumption and work our way up to the complicated ones. Right?” 

“You’re a pretty good detective,” Dora said. “Don’t look at us.”

It was true, Charlotte thought. Bruce was a petty good detective. Of course, Bruce hated being good at stuff. That was his power, and it pissed him off, because he never thought he earned it. Which reminded Charlotte, for a moment of . . . something. Or nothing, because as soon as she tried to put her finger on what it reminded her of, it just disappeared from her brain, like a déjà vu. Weird.

Speaking of weird, Dora’s necklace, invisible under her autumn orange sweater, chose the moment to begin to ring. Dora fumbled for it. “Uh, sorry. I’m trying to set this thing to warn me of mind magic. Couldn’t pick up Brian’s casting, but it does a false alarm like anything.”

Charlotte stood up. Not another minute could she take. “Guys, I need to powder my nose. I’ll be right back.”

“Did you just for reals say ‘powder your nose?’” Dora asked. “You really are a time traveller. Anyways, I’ll come with.”

The washrooms at the Panther Heights mall food court were off a corridor that ran behind the New York Fries and the Tokyo Express. There was an entrance between the two stands, but also one off the north foyer, which was the one Charlotte and Dora headed for. “We’re a total cliché, you know,” Charlotte said. You could see most of the corridor from the food court, but the bucket and mop next to the spilled A&W soft ice on the brown tiles was hidden from whatever boss had sent whoever to clean it up. 

“Because we’re going to talk in the bathroom? Of course we’re going to talk in the bathroom. But, also, you’re going to pee, and I’m going to recalibrate my wards. If they’re going to go off when . . .” And then Dora did that adorable ‘I’ve said to much’ thing. Charlotte looked at her friend.

For the second before something grabbed her by the throat, anyway. Something with gray and flaky talons that felt hot to the touch, Charlotte noticed, but not as much as she noticed that they were choking her. She moved into the egg breaker, locking the limb that attached to the talons in the grip of her elbow and striking back. Only to find that the limb didn’t bend like human limbs. The grip did not relax.

The Pearl Harmony appeared in her left hand –a little deception manoeuvre. Unfortunately, there were more limbs where the first one came from. Snaky, ropy 0nes that held her wrist and hand with brute strength , taking her sword out of play. 

“Charlotte?” Dora shouted. Charlotte glanced at her friend from the corner of her eye. Two flowing, fluid, shining cords of darkness flecked with the yellow of vomit reached, roiling and steaming out of holes in the air to catch her friend by wrists and ankles, while a curtain of shimmering vomit-darkness formed a shield against which the gold of the needfire beat helplessly, trying to get in, to Dora. 

Crap, Charlotte thought. And Dora’s ward was offline, too. Not that she was doing any better. Choking was a bad attack, and if she couldn’t get this thing off her, and quickly, she’d run out of the wind to fight.

Oh, well. Charlotte dragged against the talons. She was going to get hickeys of evil out of this, to go with the cute little ones that Scout had left against her collarbone. 

“If you fight, you will die even faster, hoo [click]-man,” the thing whispered. The click was real loud, like it was trying to talk on an old-time phone that kept losing the line.

Charlotte dragged some more, putting her strength into it. Oh, it was going to be a dilly of a bruise. No way she was going to be able to deny getting to whatever base giant hickeys were. Darn.

Oh, and also? Blacking out now. This had better work, Charlotte thought, as she lifted and kicked, so hard that the flat-soled, bright red sneaker she’d decided to wear, instead of thank Heavens, her boots, went flying off her right shoe. Thank Heaven some more, she wasn’t wearing sock. Not because she didn’t like socks. Wear your socks, Charlote thought at no-one in particular. So you won’t get colds! But because of kung fu.

Not that Charlotte had ever imagined a scenario where she caught the handle of the mop out of the bucket and aimed it straight over her shoulder, spear like, kicking with ever bit of flex you can get out of bending your knees sideways, which isn’t much, plus also, the balance only worked if she rammed the thing soaking-wet mop-end first. 

The thing behind her hissed-clicked and let go, and Charlotte drew in absolutely the biggest breath of air she could without losing all self-control and spun around. 

What to say, what to say. “You’re cute,” she said. Darn. That sounded like sarcasm, and this thing had to be self-conscious about its looks. Orange and leathery, with a hardshell beak where its mouth should be, like some live-action Zoidberg, only lined with little suckers for some reason, and with the cluster of tentacles –the sucker-ridden, So, to that extent, squid man. Okay, Charlotte thought, I can see what the designer –Oh, Heck, let’s just say it-- what Noatar was going for. So why did the other socket sport an arm, or, rather, back-folding bat wing? One that looked . . . scabby. “But we can do something about your eczema.”

It hissed-clicked at her, but Charlotte wasn’t as worried now that she was free and armed. What she was worried about was Dora, so Charlotte made a leaping thrust. The point of the Pearl Harmony punctured the shining veil of darkness that concealed Dora, and severed the cord that pinned her left hand. Behind the point of her magical sword, the gold light of the needfire rushed in like water through a hole in a pail, and Dora grasped it in her hand and then spun it out, banishing the darkness. 

Charlotte could only watch this with a bit of her attention, because the squid-bat-man-Noxzema-ad was doing his/her/its best to. . .

Charlotte batted down the tentacles, careful not to cut them. “I’m sure we can help you if you want. You could also try to run away. What you shouldn’t be doing is doubling down on a losing hand.” Charlotte liked that metaphor. She’d been dying to use it, ever since her brother had totally casually dropped the line in a fight with some Black Talons that she, Rose, and Billy Tatum had come in on just in time to help mop up on back during the Christmas holidays. Only when she said it, it just sounded wordy. Maybe he’d used more poker slang? She didn’t remember now. Should she look it up later? Make a note, Char-Char, she thought to herself. You never remember to look things up on Wikipedia later. 

“Master does not tolerate failure.”

“Well, you’re a very articulate squid-man-person,” Charlotte said. “There’s help available to complete your GED, and then maybe community college?”

“Joke all you like. Master will eat your spawn.” The creature –literally—melted in front of her.

“God-damn it!” Charlotte couldn’t help saying, very loudly.

“Language!” Dora said. “Honestly, what’s got up your serenity-now-kung-fu butt?”

“This. . “ Charlotte paused, collected herself. “This awful Hand-ninja crap. Noatar designed this thing to die as soon as it completed its mission.”

“If it was Noatar.” Dora said.

“Yeah, if. Big if.”

“Should we go back?” Dora asked. 

Charlotte checked her phone. No alerts. “They’re fine. And I still need to pee, and you especially need to adjust your wards.”

“Actually,” Dora said, gripping her sweater over her Sigil. “My wards are fine, if they’re turned on. I think I’ll adjust what set it off, instead.”

“Okay, but bursting here.”

Five minutes later, when they got back to the table, Charlotte was shocked at another ambush. Mr. Brown, their Technical Arts teacher, was sitting at the table.

Well, okay, sure, Mr. Brown was Bruce’s groundskeeper as well as a part-time teacher, but he usually kept that professional, just like Dora’s Dad kept their relationship professional in class. (You pretty much had to when you were teaching in your luchadore identity.) But him sitting right there, in back-home mode? It was weird.

“Ah. Charlotte Dora,” Mr. Brown said. “I’m glad to see that you’re well.”

“Tell me you didn’t know about the ambush, Alfred,” Dora said.

“Not before it happened, no. And never call me ‘Alfred’ again if you want to pass my classes.” It was kind of funny to think of Mr. Brown, with his twenty-miles-outside-Pittsburgh accent as ‘Alfred,’ but he and Bruce did have that vibe going on a bit. 

Dora deflated a bit. “I’m sorry.”

“Excellent. I’ve texted your parents and let them know that I have invited you all over to the manor for the afternoon. Lunch, video games, the finest private crime lab in Philadelphia?”

Charlotte did her best to hide a shoulder sag. That meant double piano tomorrow. But she could feel herself sagging, and her throat hurt. Maybe it was time to chill.

Or science up the investigation. Yeah, that was the ticket.

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