The world is full of warehouses of ancient mysteries; but the contents aren't weird statuettes and bits of bling. They're documents, manuscripts, tablets, photographs, rubbings, tapes, inscriptions --things written, and full of facts, and never yet read by anyone.
Sure, you can't read a receipt book and be taken over by a mysterious, dark entity, but, in some ways, these old documents can get you into far more trouble than--
Wait. That's stupid. Forget I said it. Getting possessed by an ancient, malevolent entity is way worse than reading something and not realising its implications until it's way too late.
Book 5, 42: Ancient History
Charlotte peered down into the tunnel that the weird bats and Madison Cheung had dug into the concrete floor of the Panther Heights Mall. The door that Bruce had just walked through obviously led to the complex of tunnels that connected with the old Liberty League headquarters. But what had the bats been after? What was Bruce after?
Good question. No, excellent question. Charlotte dug her elbow into Scout’s warm, muscle-y side, just barely managing not to follow up and plaster her entire body on his, because that would be distracting, setting a bad example, not what good girls do, etc, etc. “I wonder,” Charlotte said, not to the air, even though that’s what she was addressing, but to the version of Scout who was actually Bruce, and using a holograph projector to confuse the issue. “What Bruce is following down there.”
“Ah don’t know,” Scout said. Charlotte suppressed the urge to yell at him to drop the cornpone accent. “But we should probably follow him.”
“Unh-hunh,” Dora said. “That’s certainly a thing we should be doing. Because, you know, that’s what we think Bruce might want us to do.”
“Ah don’t get it,” Scout said.
“Yeah, whatever,” Twelve said, and dropped into the tunnel. The crackling lights of the Kirby dots that lit the air behind him when he flew –Well, they lit the air, showing that the tunnel led through cracked concrete and sandy gravel. In moments he was at the door, and through.
A second later, he poked his head back through. IN the afterglow of his decaying energy trail, the wonder on his face was obvious. “You guys have got to see this.”
“Well, of course we do,” Charlotte grumbled. Somehow, it felt like she wasn’t doing her job on account of her not being in the lead.
Her boots slid as easily across the jumbled, smashed rubble of the tunnel floor as if she were in bare feet. And also if her bare feet were knife-proof. It was jaggy! And a good long walk that took her well outside the perimeter of the mall, and down so that they were well below the parking lot, and perhaps under the point where the steep slope of the hill at the end of the parking lot led down to the road and the rail tracks that separated it from the school and the housing beyond. IN terms of the layout of the underground complex, she was completely confused, although it might be the far end of the Liberty League’s trophy hall.
At the end of the scrambling walk, she caught the swung open edge of the door, and gave it a light pull as she jumped into whatever was beyond. The Pearl Harmony Sword appeared in her hand, and shed its own gentle light on a corridor that doglegged back, and then entered through a propped-open “Emergency” door with an old-fashioned red light, a dim chamber opened.
Really dim. The light that showed in the tunnel had been bright in its utter blackness, but beyond, the vast room was only a bit brighter than the half-light of the abandoned floor of the mall they’d just left. On the ceilings, not too far above, between the bulging beams that supported the subterranean levels above, presumably including a spaceship hangar.
No wonder the beams were so thick, and of rough concrete, judging from the way that the thick-slathered, dull-yellow paint was pock-marked and spotted. Which was all that Charlotte took in of the boring, underground architecture before she took in the contents of the room beyond.
Starting just beyond a supermarket-aisle-wide open run that went along the edge of the giant space, were long banks of –filing cabinets? More filing cabinets than Charlotte had ever seen in her life. And not just any filing cabinets, either. Well, some were regular filing cabinets –a lot were, actually. But others had thin drawers, and others had swinging doors, like you needed to take big things out. The kind of things that made Charlotte think of morgues on TV shows.
Except that here and there, on the flat, gray, tops of the cabinets, were examples of what was in them. Green, hanging folders bulging with papers, thin envelopes of stiff-looking, shiny cards, giant reels of tape like movies in old cartoons, boxes of documents like in the ones her grandfather’s lawyer brought to the office on the day when he had her Mom in and told her that the inheritance was skipping a generation, and Charlotte knew that she wasn’t supposed to have heard that, and that her Mom shouldn’t have dragged her to the meeting.
A hand touched her shoulder. A big hand, both firm and surprisingly gentle. Scout’s voice in her ear. “You okay, Char-Char?” His breath was sweet and hot and warm, like he’d just had a Tic-Tac, although how she’d know that she couldn’t say. Maybe it was because she wanted to turn into him so much and find out.
Instead, she said, “Bad memories. My Mom,” and was amazed that she could even talk about it without the crushing embarrassment getting in the way. Scout’s hand squeezed a little tighter, then dropped away.
“It smells old in here,” Dora said.
“I’ll say,” Brian answered. “Look at this!” Charlotte looked. Brian was over along the perimeter corridor, where it started to have tall cabinets with old-time computer-looking banks with more tape reels on their front. In between one bank and the next, was a long clothes rack, like in a mall store.
Brian had pulled one set off the hanger and was modelling it against his chest. Even in the dim light, it was obviously in VIPER’s colours, but with a ridiculous jacket design with wide lapels, and even wider, flared leg bottoms.
Well, not ridiculous, exactly. Back in 1975, it would have been totally in fashion. Charlotte cringed, because she’d been thirteen then, and so immature.
Brian coughed. “Dusty!” Of course, Charlotte thought. It did smell dusty down here. But the tops of the filing cabinets weren’t dusty.
Just as she thought that, Rose said, “Someone cleans up down here.”
“The mystery thickens,” Brian said. “Dunh dunh dunh.”
“It’s ‘plot,’ not ‘mystery,’ and it’s not either, it’s Mr. Stone. See?” Rose said. “He fills out a cleaning log. He was down here last week. Spent six hours Friday night vacuuming, dusting, changing traps, and putting away papers no-one had touched in at least a year.”
Charlotte looked at Rose. She blushed. “There’s little check marks on the log form.”
“Friday night?” Dora said. “No wonder he’s a hermit.”
“It is a little sad,” Rose admitted. “But it’s such a cool place to hang out in!”
“Cool?” Brian said. “It’s a room full of filing cabinets and the props for the all-VIPER version of Saturday Night Fever.”
“Yes,” Rose said, “Cool. You have to look at what’s in the cabinets.”
“Which we don’t have time for,” Charlotte pointed out.
“Super-speed,” Rose said smugly. “Read a few files.”
“And?” Dora said.
Rose deflated a bit. “Random documents. Receipts, expense accounts. That sort of thing. A few letters, parts of some reports. But that’s not the point. It’s where they come from! VIPER Nests, Demonhames, mad scientist’s labs, Dr. Destroyer’s old bases, Korrax’s time ships, Russian stuff. Heck, there’s some weird paper from Lemuria! It’s all the papers and documents the Liberty League used to seize when they cleaned out supervillain bases.”
“And the uniforms,” Brian said. “I wonder if there was an official VIPER medallion collection.”
Rose appeared beside Brian, her hand on one of the uniforms still on the rack, turning over the labels. “Hundred percent polyester. Sorry, Dora. I think VIPER might just be evil after all.”
Dora shrugged. “Hey, I’m not responsible for my aunt’s life choices. She’s the one who decided to be a Nest Leader.”
Rose pulled the tag closer and peered. “The Liberty League must have figured they were going to hunt down VIPER’s tailor or laundry service, some day. Ooh, yuck. This one still has sweat marks.”
“And instead they went off and became high school principals and stuff. Probably for the best.” Dora picked up one of the file folders on the nearest cabinet top. “I wonder who’s reading this stuff these days? PRIMUS agents? Some day that evil dry cleaner will face the high-efficiency, front loading, stain-fighting suds of justice!”
Dora got a bit loud, which, to be fair, is pretty much how you have to do a line like that. Only, in the empty space of the great chamber, it was really loud. In answer, came groan from the far corner. There was someone else down here. (Besides Bruce and whoever or whatever they were chasing.) Anyway, point is, Charlotte nearly peed her pants in shock.
“Over here,” Rose shouted. She sounded urgent enough that Charlotte ran down the aisles between the cabinets to the far corner, where there were a bunch of study carrels, many of them with wiggy, old-timey machines on them that reminded her of stuff she’d seen in the Library of Babylon.
Sprawled on the floor, spilled out of a chair in front of one of them, was a guy in an FBI-type dark suit. Rose had him by the shoulders and was holding him up, freeing him to rub his head. “What hit me?” He asked, ignoring the fact that his phone, lying on the ground beside him, was pulsing a light flash and vibrating lightly.
Charlotte shrugged. “Giant bat with a sound attack ring any bells? Also, you’ve got a phone call.”
As soon as she said it, the phone went still. “Can you see who it was?” The man asked. “It’s got a biometric distress function.”
Scout bent down to pick it up, but it flicked off the ground in an aura of gold. “You just focus on being the strong and silent type, honeybunch,” Dora said to him. “I’ll do the communicating around here.”
“There’s a guy at the store who always says that communication leads to work, and that’s why we avoid it,” Twelve said.
“Good point,” Dora said. “Does texting count as communicating? Uhm, sir, it’s the Scarlet Archer. Do you know the Scarlet Archer?”
Charlotte drew in her breath. The bow-and-arrow armed defender of Baltimore was, like, super-cool, and she had the most awesome fashion sense, too.
The mysterious man pulled himself to his feet with one hand gripping at the carrel. “Here, let me have that?” He tapped the phone for a moment. “Uhm. . . yeah. We used to work together when I was with the Baltimore PRIMUS office. Had a bit of a Superman-and-Jimmy-Olsen thing going. I’ve really got to fix that now that I’ve been transferred.”
He stopped for a second and rubbed his head as though it would help him focus. Which, in Charlotte’s experience, you always hoped it would do, but never did. “Uhm, I’m Special Agent Peter Ayre, PRIMUS, Pennsylvania Operating District. I was down here doing some research when something jumped me. I’m not sure that it was a giant bat though. You’d think you’d remember something like that.”
He stopped, awkwardly, turned to Charlotte and held out his hand. “And if we’re doing introducitons, and if I remember my briefing, you must be the Redeeming Fist, the leader of this fine lot of upstanding youth of tomorrow. So the rest of you must be Rush, Twelve, The Maid of Gold, Elf Boy, and, uhm, I guess, the Outlaw Kid? ”
“Scout,” Scout said.
“Good name,” Agent Ayre replied. Which just made Charlotte feel even more embarrassed at being “the Redeeming Fist.” Who ever said that in a fight? Also, sometimes she said “Redeeming Daughter,” instead, and that was even more syllables. Dumb.
Charlotte couldn’t help dimpling, even if she realised that he was laying it on thick. Special Agent Ayre was in his late forties, to look at him, with that awesome brush of white hair at the temples contrasting with thick and wavy dark hair, and wise, blue eyes set in almost as many laugh-line wrinkles as Robert Redford. Honestly, he looked like, like, there was a Dad Store, and he was the model the staff gave you to try out.
“Pleased to meet you, Special Agent,” she said. “Although right now might not be the best time, because we’re in hot pursuit of someone.”
As if on cue, a door at the other end of the chamber banged open, and something indistinguishable ran out through it. A moment later, Bruce came swooping down from the shadowy ceiling on a swing line. “Come on,” he yelled.
“You heard—“ Charlotte began,
But Special Agent Ayre interrupted. “Can I tag along? I’ve got a pulson blaster and combat training!”
“Sure,” Charlotte said. “But you’re on your own keeping up.”
A moment later, they were filing out through the door out of the chamber of mystery documents, charging up a set of stairs towards a landing hung with group photos.
Twelve paused at the landing. “Hey, look, it’s us! In Western outfits!”
Charlotte, stopped for a second to take in the photo. It wasn’t something she remembered, but, then, she hung out with time travellers and people with time machines, so whatevs. Only then she saw something that made her blood run cold.
Scout and Bruce were both in the picture, standing almost right next to each other, with Charlotte between them, right in the middle of the group, with Dora on one side and Rose on the other, Twelve and Mike Snow –the Dark Ninja-- standing behind them. How could Bruce and Scout be in the same picture if they were the same person? Sure, sure, he could do that with a holograph –but in the Old West?
Charlotte looked at Scout, feeling like the floor had just been yanked out from under her.
And he looked back. With exactly the same expression on his face.