Book 5, 28: Not an Orphanage
The drive from Panther Heights Mall to the McNeely mansion was very short. It probably would have been almost as quick to take the tunnels, but they led through the lower levels of Goblin Deep, which was super-secret for reasons that no-one would explain to Charlotte for some reason.
It was okay, though, because Charlotte didn’t mind driving up with her friends. She didn’t mind, in fact, anything about the way this early Saturday afternoon was going. Sometimes, you just liked to hang out with your friends, and if you were going to chill, the rec room at the mansion was a great place to do it. There was a plasma wall TV roughly three times as big as Texas, and every kind of console there was.
In fact, it seemed like half the trip took place after you turned off the street and onto the mansion grounds, and started winding your way up to the mansion itself. Mr. Brown drove an old, six-door Subaru Forester. Charlotte thought she’d heard someone say that it was custom-built. Mr. Brown was weird like that. It made for extra room in the back, though, for carrying stuff. Like dirt. Which was what his car smelled like. Not in a bad way, more like potted plants and stuff than mud. Also, the driveways on the McNeely estate were cut into the hill the mansion was build in, so that you drove in ditches, sort of, with the sides of the cuts reaching up above the car’s roof to meet the garden green up above.
Basically, a tunnel. Not like the tunnels of the Understate in Babylon, natural tunnels, where your eyes were drawn up to the bushes and trees that lined the side of the drives, well above the Forester’s roof. If you leaned out to look, which Charlotte did, because even in .
“It’s like we’re driving through nature.” Charlotte tried to put what she was feeling in words. Mr. Brown’s shoulders moved at her words, like he was comfy, like that was exactly what he was going for. Well, he was the groundskeeper, after all.
“What’s your Mom –your Auntie—say?” Dora asked. Charlotte’s cheeks flushed at the mistake. Auntie Ma wasn’t her Mom. But you could wish –and then feel guilty about your real Mom. I’m sorry, Charlotte thought, as, somewhere outside, a crow cawed.
“It’s good,” Charlotte said. “Extra practice tomorrow, stern look emoji. I think they’re going to church tomorrow.” Her aunt and uncle went to Sunday services at an old Buddhist temple in Chinatown about once a month. Which meant that Auntie Ma wouldn’t be around to make sure that Charlotte did her piano exercises and meditation. Unless they got back early.
“So we can hang this afternoon? Cool.”
“Till dinner? Hey. Wanna come over? I think we’re having leftovers, ‘cuz Uncle Henry’s doing a duck tomorrow, but they’re good leftovers.”
“No way. We’re having tacos. You want to come over?”
Rose turned around in the front seat, because Rose always called shotgun first. When she bothered. “Ooh! Me! Me!”
Also too, Charlotte. Tacos! “I’ll text. Today’ll be a total write-off at this rate. Bruce?”
Bruce was in the back seat, really quiet. “Uhm, what?” So distracted, too.
“Do you want to come over to Dora’s for tacos? I mean, if that’s okay with your ‘rents, Dora?”
“Sure, it’s okay. It’s tacos, not Peking Duck. They just need to know before they go shopping, is all.”
“Yeah, I’ll come. If that’s okay with you, Mr. Brown?”
In the cartoons, Bruce Wayne always called Alfred, “Alfred,” even the ones that showed him as a kid. Dad and Babs are out of town, and so is my uncle, so it’d be bachelor chow, anyway.” Charlotte wasn’t sure why the McNeelys used so many of the same names as the Batman Family in comics, whether it was the family inspiring the writers, or the writers inspiring the family, but one thing was for sure, Mr. Brown was no “Alfred.”
“Of course it’s okay with me, Bruce. Everyone’s away, so it would just be bachelor chow with you, me and my sister, anyway.” Mr. Brown had more bachelor brothers and spinster sisters than anyone else Charlotte knew. All about the same age, too, as near as you could tell. She wondered if their parents had ever wished that just one of them would produce some grandchildren.
The Forester broke out into an open space., and turned right. Like the other parking area at the McNeely Mansion, it was at the back of a wing, and below the level of the gardens. At least Charlotte thought this wasn’t the one where they usually parked.
“Okay, everybody out,” Mr. Brown said.
“Are you sure?” Bruce asked, from behind.
“Sure as sure can be,” came the answer. “Your uncle’s crime lab is under decontamination protocols right now, and we can’t use the one down in Goblin Deep, so we’re going to have to recommission your grandfather’s old demonstration lab.”
Bruce’s door opened behind, so Charlotte pushed hers out, and put one red-sneakered foot out –and nearly put it right in the middle of a bright red bucket. There was a sandbox along the masonry wall, with toys and a bright yellow trike beside it. An old, old Labrador was sleeping next to the trike. It looked up, wagged its tail, and then struggled to its feet and walked stiffly over to greet Mr. Brown.
Behind it, a small crow landed on its food dish and began to peck at it. Charlotte made a throat-cutting gesture at Ginger, because that was just mean, and her bird cut it out.
Bruce led them to a green, double door in a sort of concrete step-down on the wall of the house. Charlotte followed him into a dingy, table and tool-cluttered, concrete-floored room that smelled like a workroom. At the far end, there was a half staircase, up leading into a room with a big coat closet filling half the wall in front, with doors at right and left end, and otherwise filled with with boxes and with a ledge the depth of the closet running along the rest of its wall, loaded with stack after stack of old National Geographics, with doors to right and left. Bruce turned to the left, and opened a door.
“Ahem.” Mr. Brown opened up the right hand door. Bruce shrugged, and followed.
There was another half staircase beyond the door. At its top, the mansion seemed more like a home and less like a warehouse, although it was still pretty bare. The floor was carpeted, and the walls painted green, but otherwise bare, and the windowless hall was lit by old fashioned bulbs in hanging glass fittings that cast little dappled shadows the shape of tiger stripes and cat’s paws on the ground.
Again, Mr. Brown opened a door, and, again, Charlotte followed.
And stopped, paralysed, face to face with –herself. Herself in her Aunt Yilin’s wedding dress, only older, and –just as Dora shoved her firmly from behind, Charlotte realise what this had to be.
“Wow,” Bruce said. “Wow. This is Gramp’s?” He slid right by Charlotte to her left, to stand in the middle of the room, which Charlotte now realised was, indeed, a small laboratory. Although most laboratories don’t have full length oil paintings on one wall. Really, oil paintings and labs don’t go together. Labs are too messy, and deserve pictures of Einstein with his tongue out, and maybe Far Side and Bloom County cartoons. That’s what they’d have at the Institute for Advanced Studies, anyway.
“Yes. It’s a portrait from a picture.”
“I’ve seen the picture,” Charlotte said. “It’s at my uncle’s place.”
“I thought that it was bad luck for the groom to see the bride in the dress before the wedding?” Rose said. Because Aunt Yilin had been murdered on the day before she was going to be married to Bruce’s grandfather. “No, wait, never mind, that doesn’t make sense. Mr. McNeely didn’t have to have seen the picture before the wedding.”
“It’s beautiful,” Bruce said. “How come I’ve never seen it before?”
“Your grandfather put it in storage when he got married. He thought it would upset your grandmother. I brought it out for my interview with Mr. Nolan and Mr. Goyer. I had hoped that they would do Miss Wong justice in Dark Knight Rises, but I suppose they liked the comics stories better.”
“It’s not just the comics, Mr. Brown,” Bruce pointed out. “The movie is pretty close to the Black Mask IX’s last case. Well, except for the city being taken over by terrorists for months. That is more like Gramps’ last case.”
Mr. Brown shrugged to show what he thought of Batman comics and movies that borrowed from other vigilantes.
“Besides,” Rose said, “Batman already has a motivation. He’s an orphan. Killing off his fiancée would just be fridging her.”
Charlotte felt herself nodding, with the little part of her that wasn’t numb.
“Charlotte?” Dora asked.
Out of the corner of her eyes, Charlotte could see Bruce holding a finger in front of his mouth. That was nice, she thought. He was nice. She didn’t want to be here right now, she realised. “Is there a bathroom nearby?”
“Out the door and to the right,” Bruce said.
Behind her, in spite of being out the corridor and through the door of the bathroom as fast as she could go, Charlotte’s Eight Spirit Dragon hearing could pick up Bruce hissing something about her Dad, and her aunt. No, Charlotte thought. I don’t need to hear about that, and she sat on the toilet and pushed her hands up to her ears as hard as she could, and waited until her friends stopped talking about –taking about stuff. Then she got up, and stepped back into the corridor, back to the dangling lights and the dappled shadows on the floor and—
Wait. After all this time, now Noatar tried to kill her? Why? Because she was vulnerable? Okay, sure. But how did he know?
Charlotte spun, throwing a Mantis block behind, her, throat high, and curving towards the wall. When her arm was a neck’s depth to the wall, it suddenly encountered resistance.
Eve appeared, out of nowhere, wedged against the wall. She scowled at Charlotte, and then shoved her back.
Shoved her hard. Charlotte slammed against the wall so hard that she was almost winded, and only got the Pearl Harmony Sword up barely in time counter Eve’s spear, thrusting in for her stomach.
Not that she was out of the woods yet. The hallway was no place for someone who relied on her kung-fu moves to fight an Empyrean. Especially one who could amplify her strength with psi-spells. Charlotte summoned all of her qi to push back against Eve.
“Why are you following me?” Charlotte asked.
Eve just grinned. “Maybe I like riding on top of SUVs? Plus, you were being such a clueless little bitch. I could probably have put a ‘Kick Me’ sign on your back, and you wouldn’t have noticed.”
Charlotte scowled some more. “Who caught who?”
“Yeah, about that?” Eve grinned and took one hand from the spear. Charlotte pushed back harder, but the Empyrean was too strong. “I kind of prepared for this. You know, just in case you had some boo-hoo moment over some old family tragedy when your Dad killed your Aunt and wandered off to powder your little halfie nose.”
Charlotte tried to hold her flinch inside. “He never did! Besides, your Dad killed your Mom!”
Eve snarled. “You’re lucky I’m supposed to be capturing you right now.” She reached into a pouch, pulled out a little red ball, and pinched it, blowing it in Charlotte’s face.
Charlotte felt her throat clutch, desperate to expel a jagged burr that had suddenly appeared in it, so big and sharp and raspy that she couldn’t breathe, except to cough, one racking cough after another, until the strength leached out of her arm, and she couldn’t fight, or even keep her eyes open any more.
The last thing Charlotte was conscious of, was Rose taking her in a fireman’s carry. Great, some part of her thought. First my aunt gets fridged, and now I’m a damsel in distress.