Book 5, 39: Bridesmaid Revisited
It was typical of Eldritch that he seemed to have his phone the wrong way ‘round while Facetiming (Because of course he used Facetime. Skype was too tech-y for him. ) “One more time, Charlotte. You’re sure that the being you talked to in the vestibule was Li Chun the Daoist monk, and not Li Chun the monstrous demon?”
For the third time in the conversation already, (she’d needed a first time so that he could explain that a “vestibule” was that room that’s just inside the door in a lot of places, like, the bit where you take off your shoes and kiss Gramma hello when you’re coming into the house; and the second time because it turned out that he had the volume on his phone down too low), Charlotte assured the wrinkly old forehead that was all she could see of the wise old wizard/economics professor/total stoner that as far as she knew, the guy was a wise old monk.
“You’re sure. You Detected no Evil on him?”
Charlotte shook her head while wrinkling her forehead, to let him know that it was all a bit vague. “No, no Detect Evil ping. Just, thing is, I’m not sure how strong I have that power. Evil’s pretty good at detecting me, and letting me know by hitting me with stuff. So then I poke them back with a sharpened metal stick, and it’s all good. If they were trying to run silent? I just don’t know.”
Brian poked his head in from the corner, so that he could look at the viewscreen that Rosa had opened up to Eldritch. “Sir, you’ve got to move your phone down or we won’t be able to see your face.”
Eldritch moved the phone so that they were looking down at the two braids that he wasted magic juice to produce on his head every time he left the office, because apparently his distinguished-old-dude professor haircut just didn’t do it for superheroing. Also, now they could see the picture on his apartment wall, the one of all the hippies around the old-time Volkswagen van with all the slogans and flowers painted on it that Charlotte found vaguely creepy for no reason she could figure out. “Is that better?”
“Other way, sir,” Brian said.
Heaven help him, Eldritch moved the phone sideways. He’d left the refrigerator door open behind him. It was empty except for a bag of granola, a pastic thingie of grocery store coleslaw, and what had to be, from Uncle Henry’s stories, a tab of acid. “That’s fine,” Brian said, at last. “Yeah: I’m going to back Char Char up, here. In the dream time, it’s the Daoist monk that’s in charge, not the demon. He figures Yin Wu’s got a master plan, too. He might not know what it is, but he’s got his eye on it.”
“Indeed,” Eldritch said. “Thank you. You’ve done very well, and you have been very patient with my queries. I know that I am asking rather much of you to stand in for me. Robert and I will stop in tomorrow and investigate further.”
“Will you . . . uhm, need to do a check up?” Brian sounded a bit put off by the diea. If Eldritch decided he needed to check in, well, he had a reputation of being a very tough trainer.
“No, no, the setting is a bit unusual, but it all sounds like a bog standard spirit quest. Talantassar the Grey will be able to detect anything that might be off. I should imagine that NASA will want to talk with you, though. Eldritch out.” There was a long pause as he figured out how to turn Facetime off.
“NASA, Sch-masa,” Charlotte said, when the screen went back to displaying a rapidly approaching Earth, letting the gang know that their field trip was almost over, and that it was boring old math class as soon as they were back at good old Tatammy High. “I can’t believe that you went on an authentic spirit quest through the Marian dreamworld, rode on Martian horses, and you can’t even tell me whether they had eight legs or not?”
“Never mind her,” Rose said. “It’s a John Carter thing, and she’s got Taylor Kitsch on the brain.”
“Oh, and you don’t have a poser of Tetsuronin on your bedroom wall?” Charlotte snapped at her friend.
“Good looking, smart, saves the world. Why wouldn’t I?” Rose swivelled her eyes back to Brian. “You never told me exactly how tall those towers were. I mean, it’s a natural architecture for a low gravity planet, but knowing the height to surface area tells me a lot about . . . I mean, it tells me a lot if this estimate of the density of the archaeo-Martian atmosphere is correct. How far away from those rubber men were you when you heard their bells, again? Sound carries differently in. . .”
“I told you, I don’t remember!” Brian said, a bit testily. “I also didn’t check how many legs the horse-thingies had, and—“ Glaring at Twelve, “I certainly didn’t ask them if they had an elective or consensual style of government.”
“We need to know this stuff. If they had an authoritarian state, we can’t trust them any more than we can trust Yin Wu. Best intentions just won’t survive the oligarchy’s need to reproduce itself into the future!”
“Yeah, Brian,” Dora said, “How dare you not attend any political science seminars on your vision quest.” As Twelve began to protest, Dora pulled his head down and mushed noses, one step short of an official point-for—Gryffindor-for-PDA according to the gang’s rules. On the other hand, it would be a relief for Brian not to be grilled any more about ancient Martian politics.
And it left Charlotte some conversation room to really get to the bottom of the question of just how much ancient Mars was like the old books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, like with the muscular Red Martian warriors with the leather harnesses and John Carter, who you just knew was a stud muffin like Taylor Kitsch.
She’d just opened her mouth to ask about the Green Martian temple where Taylor and Lynn had got that close to kissing when Rosa said, loudly, over the intercom, “We have just commenced re-entry. I would ask that everyone to buckle themselves down, now.”
Brian looked visibly relieved at that. It was like he didn’t even want to answer the important questions. Well, he wasn’t going to get away with it forever.
Unfortunately, though, it turned out that he was. Because as soon as they were landed in the silo next to the old Liberty Legion headquarters, deep underground in the base complex that spread from the McNeely Mansion under the Panther Heights Mall and all the way to the Tatammy Complex, it turned out that NASA was really interested, and that Brian had been finked out.
She could tell the moment she exited the airlock door and stepped out onto the top step of the gantry that led down to Rosa’s landing pad. Sitting down there on the concrete pad was a Ford Focus with a NASA logo on the open driver’s door. It was parked just barely a safe distance from Rosa’s cooling landing fins, and both front doors were open. An old, bald, black guy who looked kind of like Mr. Jefferson on the TV show was standing in the driver’s door, and a lady of about the same age in an official looking pantsuit and about as nice a blonde ‘do as you could probably afford on a mid-level NASA bureaucrat salary, Charlotte figured. (That is, she had no idea how much money that blonde die-job lady made, and was a bit vague on how much the ‘do would actually cost, but she figured that the two thoughts went together? That this was how you did detectiving? She’d have to ask Bruce, later.
Bruce. Big pang, like when you can’t sight out loud, because the boy was right there. She felt so, so frustrated. He was, like, he was Bruce! Not boyfriend material, obviously. So why did she constantly think she wanted him to be a boyfriend? She had a boyfriend. Scout. Who might be Bruce.
And, also, there was room for about three people standing behind her on the landing, stuck there because she wasn’t moving, because she was having Deep Thoughts. “Wow,” Charlotte said. “I can’t wait until I can tell Scout about this.”
Why did it have to be so complicated? She wanted to scream inside her head, but it would probably be so loud that it would leak out of her skull through her ear-holes or something.
And once the scream leaked out, maybe with body fluids spraying bubbles, oh, gross, Bruce would hear, on account of how he was the third of those three people behind, and why, she suddenly wondered, was she making such a production of this? “Wow,” Charlotte said. “I can’t wait until I can tell Scout about this.”
Obviously Brian agreed, because he poked her in the ribs. “Come on, Char Char. “You make a better door than a window.”
What? On the other hand, it he was complaining about something, he had a legitimate point about the fact that she was holding up the parade for no reason that she understood herself. So she got under way, and left it to Dora to call Brian’s attention to the fact that what he said had made no sense.
Which was what Dora did, saying from behind, “You’re just eager to go off to talk to the NASA guys because it gets you out of math class.”
“No, no way,” Brian protested. “It’ll be a guided tour of an awesome government office in downtown Philadelphia. There’ll be computers! And Xerox machines, and cubicles! And maybe doors with frosted windows! And when I’m done telling my story over and over again, they’ll give me peach Tang in Dixie cups and Christie cookies! It’ll be like New Years and Grad, all rolled into one!”
“I think you’re thinking of giving blood,” Bruce said. The first thing he’d said since Mars. Not that Charlotte was keeping track or anything. “Maybe you could drop by the mall later. The Red Cross is doing a thing at the union office.”
Charlotte had not know about that. “Hey, Dora and I have to go to the mall to pick up my shoes from the dry cleaner.”
“Hunh?” Bruce said.
“Guess that’s why you’re only the twenty-eighth best detective in the world,” Dora said. “The shoes for the wedding. They’re being dyed to the colour of our bridesmaids’ dresses.”
“I’m having difficulty imagining this,” Bruce said. “It’s an outdoor wedding, and you’re going to be riding a horse up to the shrine afterwards. Shouldn’t you be wearing boots?”
Charlotte reminded herself to Google “Bridesmaid’s boots” when she got back. With weddings, the results would probably be half awesome and half awful. “Nah, shoes. Well, they’re practically half-boots. But no boots with cheongsams!”
“Actually. . . ” Dora said, thoughtfully.
And then they were at the foot of the stairs, and the NASA guys were there: Mr. Marshall and Ms. Holmes, who, in spite of being like, fifty or something, wanted to pump the kids about the Liberty League. You could forget pretty easily, Charlotte realised, that they were down in the base from which the Liberty League had defended Philadelphia for sixteen years, after moving down from their old mansion. And the vehicle access ran right by the Trophy Hall, too.
Also, of course, they had a guy who’d seen ancient Mars with his own eyes with them. Talk about science guys totally blowing their –stuff. Suddenly, after a few questions, Charlotte wasn’t at all sad to see Brian get into the back seat of the Focus and drive off up the ramp with the NASA guys. Even if that meant that she couldn’t ask any questions, and that she was left jealous of Brian for getting out of math class.
“So, you going to turn out for the blood drive, Bruce?” Charlotte asked, trying to sound super-cool.
“Nah,” he answered. “Thought I would, but I think I need to do some investigating. That Martian altar opened some interesting leads.”
“Keener,” she answered.
“Like you should talk!” He laughed at that. Like, actually laughed.
“Oh, well,” Charlotte answered. “Maybe Scout’ll show up.”
Behind her, she could hear Dora snort.