Shayne Dark (Ottawa, Canada)
Copyright (C) 2004, by Shayne Dark
"Big gorilla at the L.A. Zoo
Snatched the glasses right off my face
Took the keys to my BMW
Left me here to take his place"
Gorilla you're a Desperado – Warren Zevon
Thibor scowled into his Mai Tai. He scowled at the wooden heads that adorned the tiki bar. They scowled back at him; their shared displeasure making his own all the more poignant. Of all the places to meet, Trader Vic’s wasn’t the absolute worst choice; but it still galled him. Crowds of peasants with pitchforks, silver bullets, McDonald’s and Bonnie Hood were all high on the werewolf list of unpleasant things to be avoided, followed shortly thereafter by dismemberment, rectal cancer and having a drink at Trader Vic’s.
Perhaps that was being too harsh. Thibor took a long swallow from his drink. The ribs were excellent, and at least they knew how to mix a proper Mai Tai; the drink followed the original recipe as closely as possible; including the crushed ice, sprig of mint and as good a rum as was available. A far cry from the fruit laden monstrosities that had somehow usurped the Mai Tai moniker. He wouldn’t be drinking Mai Tais shortly; best to enjoy this one.
It had been that sort of week. His team had been enjoying a well-deserved furlough; sun, sandy beaches, and a cool, clear ocean. His team was still enjoying it; he was sitting in Trader Vic’s watching the ice melt in his drink and waiting for the tenuous threads holding the sword of Damocles above his head to give way, plunging the metaphorical blade through the larger of his testicles. He had already gone over the operations briefing on the mission; a mad scientist creating life from death, ensconced away in a dark and foreboding castle on a craggy mountain, and terrorizing the hapless inhabitants of a small hamlet that cowered like a frightened rabbit under the shadow of set aforementioned mountain.
The only problem was the mad scientist was a priest, long known to Thibor, and one of the most balanced and moral people he knew; which was saying a lot for a priest The castle was actually an abandoned monastery. The village was idyllic, picturesque, and had never objected to their mountaintop neighbor. There were legends that the forest was haunted, but no evidence of supernatural activity had ever turned up. All forests surrounding picturesque European mountain villages were supposed to be haunted; it made for good tourism. At least the mountain was craggy; the idiot who had written the report had gotten that part right. Thibor suspected Captain O’Neal, but had no way of verifying it at this time. The final malignant turd floating in the unsanitary, rust stained commode of this mission was his being temporarily re-assigned to the command of another IST officer; an officer whose name was conspicuous by its absence. Someone was trying to painfully mysterious; woefully funny; or was playing some sort of twisted game; Thibor hoped the game was footy; at least then he would be justified in delivering a medium sized stomping to those responsible.
"Excuse me, Mr. Sawchyk?" A waiter appeared beside his table. "The gentleman at the next table wishes to buy you a drink."
"Bring it on." Thibor’s grimace grew deeper. It was starting. The overlarge glass hit the table, bringing with it the unmistakable aroma of alcohol, cunningly hidden behind a cornucopia of fruit, sparklers, assorted leaves and other greenery. All that was missing was an orangutan and small selection of arboreal rodents. He might have been a werewolf; he might have been in London, he might even have perfect hair; but there was no way he was going to be goaded into drinking a pina colada at Trader Vic’s; no matter what the late, great Warren Zevon had to say on the matter.
"Major Sawchyk." The mysterious benefactor gracefully unfolded himself from the table he was occupying and walked over. "We haven’t me before. I’m Doug Sangnoir; Looney Toons."
"Which one are you." Thibor shook the proffered hand. "Rabbit or Duck?"
"Think like a rabbit, move like a duck." Doug’s impersonation of Muhammad Ali was right on the money, including the slight nodding weave of his head.
His wife must be happy with that answer. Thibor managed to keep his thoughts on the matter silent. Colonel Douglas Sangnoir, like the others members of the Warriors, were well known to him, at least by reputation, with the exception of Diathe. Argurous Astraph had always spoken fondly of Colonel Sangnoir; allowing for caveat of his often disarming tactic of using humour, banter, and outright lunacy in the midst of combat. That was a slight exaggeration. It was highly focused outright lunacy. Like his fellow Warriors, he was extremely well versed and able in the noble art of tactics, and never let his natural exuberance and native wit overwhelm the needs of the situation. Well, almost never.
"Thibor Sawchyk." There was a long moment of silence as they two men took their measure of each other. "This was not your idea."
"Moi?" Doug brought his hand to his brow in a dramatic motion that owed far more to Miss Piggy than Sophia Loren. "I am guilty of many crimes; including, but not limited to this venue, a fondness for Warren Zevon, and that sad, fruit swaddled excuse for a refreshing beverage -- but not this mission."
"So is just as confused as I am." Thibor noted.
"Well." Sangnoir’s grin widened. "You said it, not me."
"Granted." Thibor accepted the jibe with good grace. "But is like an itch I cannot scratch. Don’t say it; and none of this ‘just remember you asked for it’ either. If is needing expert in supernatural, Warriors is having Wetterhex, who is highly knowledgeable. If is needing heightened senses; is having Kat; if is needing to kick many arses up to neck level, Diathe is logical choice. So is leaving question. Why piss away all advantages of familiarity, training and established teamwork and send pair of us, who have never met, let alone worked together, on mission? Rest of my team is available; and is betting that rest of yours is not so busy as to be urgently needed elsewhere."
"You make it sound like we’re being set up." Doug’s smile faded slightly. "All I know is that the request comes from on high; and yes, I asked Diana; and she didn’t have an immediate answer, but you can bet she’s looking."
"Have asked my staff to look into it too." Thibor noted. He paused as the waiter approached the table.
"Your drink, Mr. Sangnoir." A double sized martini glass hit the table, the traditional olive replaced with a bright orange carrot, whose long, green stems trailed down the side of the glass.
"Nice." Doug removed the carrot from the drink and tapped it lightly on the brim of the glass. "I didn’t spot your backup. Here’s to the start of a bee-yooh-ti-full friendship." He extended the root vegetable in a toast; Thibor picked up the pina colada and clunked it against the carrot.
"According to Louis the package is on its way." Simon noted as the report flashed up on his screen. "You have three days."
"Yes!" Naoko elated, spinning in her chair. "Have the others reported?"
"Supreme Commander Poulis has checked in with an itinerary; we can expect her group to arrive tonight." Simon ran through the checklist. "Sil, Kyoumen, Megan, Charcoal and Halo are onboard and the others are ready. Catering is in place; the entertainment is locked and loaded; and our boss has no idea what we’re up to."
"This is going to be the best surprise bridal shower ever!" Naoko enthused. "Dining! Dancing! I even arranged a ‘special’ show at one of the clubs. I can’t wait to see the look on Cammy’s face."
"Was it really necessary to get Thibor out of the country?" Simon looked dubious. "Who gets to explain it to him and Colonel Sangnoir when they get back?"
"Question one, Thibor would find out and let Cammy know about it, ruining the surprise, as to question number two, that’s your job, chief." Naoko’s grin was impossibly wide. "But you shouldn’t have to; those two will eventually figure out that they’re on a wild goose chase."
"Sweet home Alabama, play that dead man’s song
Turn the speakers up full blast, play it all night long."
Play it All Night Long -- Warren Zevon
"Pardon me boy, is this the Transylvania station? Track thirty-nine, Vamps on my neck will dine." Doug sang with a deliberate, off-key dissonance. "Can you avoid, to feel the Transylvania chew-chew. I’ve got stakes to spare, and some garlic to share."
"Is there a pill for what is wrong with you?" Thibor shook his head slightly; he was already being drawn into the game; anything he said would and could be used against him. Usually it was the other way around. His choices had been reduced to put up, shut up or throw up. Given the quality of the jokes, the last option was looking pretty good.
"A jagged little pill." Doug riposted. "Take one and you’re Morisette for life."
"Welcome to Rothmark." The sign at the dilapidated airstrip read. The only concessions to modern air travel were a small observation tower and a tattered windsock. Not that it posed a difficulty for IST transports. The town, easily visible from the slightly higher altitude of the airstrip, was nestled warmly against the side of the mountain, and Thibor could already pick up the sounds and aromas of the waking city. Breads baking in old fashioned stone ovens; bacon crackling in a cast iron fry pan and the angry mob working itself into a frenzy as it marched up the low incline towards them.
"I think we took a wrong turn at Albuquerque…" Doug casually opened the bag that contained his helmet. "Does this happen to you often?"
"All the time. You?" Thibor’s eyes bled to yellow as he called on just enough of his beast to further heighten his senses. The mob was loaded for bear, or more specifically wolf. Most of the weapons were hastily grabbed gardening implements, but there were several hunting rifles mixed in, and the unmistakable, bitter scent of silver. There would be several unhappy hausfraus in the village, lamenting that their good serving sets had been melted down and were now sporting unfashionable brass accessories. There was also a great deal of alcohol stink, but it was recent; wafting more from breath than from skin pores. The mob had been hastily assembled and had fired down quick doses of liquid courage to fortify themselves for the confrontation. It was pretty low grade rotgut too, judging by the smell. That was rude. If you were going to get people liquored up and shortly thereafter, beaten up, the very least you could do was spend an extra few bob a bottle for better booze. Thirty-five men, fifteen women, and some callow youth at the fringes. It was reassuring to see that the suffragette movement had made significant inroads in lynch mobs, one of the few remaining bastions of male stupidity.
"Werewolf!" The manifest leader of the mob; a tall, sallow man dressed incongruously in a moth-eaten long tailed evening coat and top hat accused. A long, rust-flecked cavalry saber dangled from his hand.
"There wolf." Doug gestured towards Thibor. "Where castle?"
"There castle." The man gestured with the saber, pointing to the monastery, barely visible through the early morning mists. "Who you… Who are you?"
"I’m the hardest working man in show-biz." Doug’s foot tapped the ground in a quick deliberate cadence. "I’m the dust in the wind; the rust that never sleeps; I’m an American band; I’m coming to your town, gonna party down, I’m just a one man band!"
"You’re a loony!" A voice called out from the mob.
"Correct in one! Give that man a cigar!" Doug pulled out his helmet and slipped it on in a single fluid motion. His foot beat another quick cadence on the ground. He glanced over at Thibor and gestured slightly with his shoulder. When there was no reaction his foot started tapping again.
"Sorry, Colonel." Thibor shrugged. "Flamenco is in vain; is using different signals on our team. Try again."
"Non-lethal disperse." Doug said, silently lamenting that the pair had not had enough time to establish a rudimentary non-verbal signal system. It was one of the great frustrations of working outside of an established team.
"Is good." Thibor smiled, showing overlarge, pointed teeth; his features elongated as his assumed his wolfen form. "But is keeping laughing boy and three with guns. Is something not right there."
"Here’s one from the vaults." Doug’s voice was amplified by the speakers on his helmet. "And we’re not talking about Dracula, son of Dracula, daughter of Dracula, or even distant and unpleasant Dracu-in-law." As he tapped into the ambient magic of the world, Doug’s mage sight flared. Thibor was lit up like a Christmas tree, albeit a hairy, toothed one; but Doug could also read a shadow of magic on the manifest leader of the crowd and the three men Thibor had singled out. There was something else too, an imbalance in the local ley lines, they looked normal, but felt…odd. Something was missing.
"The color of your skin don't matter to me,
As long as we can live in harmony.
Why can't we be friends?
Why can't we be friends?"
The speakers on either side of Doug’s helmet roared out the song, which rippled out over the approaching mob. Angry shouts faded as the crowd reassessed their hostility. The irony of the group War penning a ballad to peace was lost on most of the crowd, who were shaking hands, hugging and calling out friendly greetings to the newcomers. They were all friends, and at least two couples might end up parents if they continued to express their friendship in such an obvious and life-affirming manner.
"Fiend!" The manifest mob leader was unaffected by the universal call towards understanding of one’s fellow man; as were his three gun toting henchmen. "How dare you use foul sorcery against us! Monsters, demons and now this!"
"What’s so funny ‘bout pizza, love and under handing." Doug laughed as he easily slid away from a clumsily aimed sword blow. He stepped inside the arc of the backhand swing and delivered an overhand, open handed strike to the face. "Say goodnight, Gracie."
Unorthodox, but effective. The famous description from "Enter the Dragon" came to mind as Thibor watched Doug put the mob leader away. The motion was not unlike a man shoving a pie in another man’s face, but the perfect timing of the blow, combining the forward motion of the attacker with Colonel Sangnoir’s erratic movements, made what was somewhat comedic into a work of perfect pugilism. Thibor filed the information away; Colonel Sangnoir moved with a swift grace that even Cammy would have envied. Fast and very, very efficient. The Elvis Costello riff was appreciated, most people would have gone for the more obvious John Lennon overture.
A single bound brought Thibor into the faces of the gunmen, their composure was admirable, even if their aim was astray. Thibor felt a burning pain blossom in his chest even as he lashed out with a trio of open handed slaps that sent all three men to the ground in a senseless heap. That put an end to the festivities for the moment. Doug walked up and unceremoniously dumped the ringleader on top of the other three.
"Eh, What’s up, dog?" Doug’s voice came through the speakers set at the side of the helmet, the laughing tone disappeared as he noticed the blood trickling steadily down Thibor’s chest. He unsealed his poly-kev jacket and brought out a first aid kit.
"Is okay. Don’t bother." Thibor grated. The huge werewolf probed the wound with a claw, testing the depth and path of penetration. "Caliber was not big enough to go too deep. Was only .38 long shell. Is silver shot though, so will not heal normally."
"Would a little music make you feel better?" Doug keyed up "I’m Alive" on his helmet.
"No." Without preamble, Thibor thrust two long claws into the flesh that surrounded the wound, excising a gobbet of flesh the size of a scoop of ice-cream. He casually tossed the red, dripping mess aside. The enlarged hole healed immediately, the flesh filling in and smoothing out in seconds. Even the hair grew back. In less than ten seconds it was if the wound had never been. "Silver impairs healing, but if is excising afflicted tissue entirely, then healing is normal."
There is nothing normal about that at all, Doug thought to himself. His IST jacket had indicated that Major Sawchyk possessed ‘significant resistance to physical attack’ and was capable of ‘accelerated tissue regeneration at the micro and macro levels.’ It hadn’t mentioned anything about watching him tear out a handful of his chest to assist the process. It wasn’t the act itself that was so disturbing; it was the casual nature of it. When you got a pound of flesh from him, you got a pound of flesh from him.
"What do you make of this?" Thibor grabbed the mob ringleader by his long, somewhat greasy hair and lifted, exposing the neck. The sallow skin was marked by two neat fang marks.
"I can make a conviction, or an arrest, or a lead singer for the Heartbreakers." Doug noted in a sing-song falsetto. "Wait a second, I can see an external enchantment at work. He could be some sort of vampire thrall."
"Is first thought." Thibor cavalierly dropped the man’s head back to the cobblestones. "But is something not right. If vampire is feeding, there is anemia. Is none here. Also pathology of vampire bite includes presence of anticoagulants during feeding process and then accelerated coagulants in leaving the wound so is not spraying blood like garden hose. Is only smelling normal human coagulant. Also, wounds are deep, but is only in muscle, is not penetrating in right place to intersect major blood vessel. No bruising indicating sucking action either. Scent marker is odd too, is not carrying vampire scent. Is usually very distinct. If is vampire, is type not encountered before, or more likely, is not vampire..."
"So whatever it is, it can control minds and wants us to think it is a vampire." Doug said. "It also knew we were coming and brought this fine contingent of serious social architects to speed us on our merry way."
"Is just loving this mission." Thibor said sourly as he turned his attention to other three henchmen. The pseudo-vampire marks matched those on the lanky leader. The positioning was consistent. Remarkably consistent considering the difference in builds between the men. There was a precision there that even the most anally retentive of blood-suckers wouldn’t aspire to. Thibor closed his eyes and pressed his muzzle directly over the wounds, inhaling deeply through his nose as he tried to gather every scent trace. There, buried deeply in the wound. A lingering trace of chromium and iron ore. Steel. The wounds were caused by steel, stainless to be specific, not tooth enamel. It wasn’t a vampire at all, but some sort of machine. Thibor hated the answer. Machines and magic did not normally work, or belong together.
"Do we ask our friends here?" Doug nodded towards the pile.
"If is thrall, then is no point. Will either not speak, or will lie through teeth. Am pretty good at picking up lies, but if is vampire command, then will not be a lie." Thibor shrugged. "Besides, if is letting them go, can track them later and see where they go and who is talking to. Is one other thing. Is not local boys. Is having radically different diet than villagers. Is smelling like American fast food. Has only been eating local for couple of days"
"So we leave them here for the local authorities and check out the monastery." Doug eyed the distant mountain path. "You’re sure about this friend of yours?"
"Is sure." Thibor nodded gravely. "Is strange, but can be trusted."
"Then let us off to the castle." Doug set out at an easy jog. Thibor fell in step behind him, slightly to the right. As he fell into the rhythm of the run, Thibor felt an uncharacteristic pang of homesickness; Colonel Sangnoir was a nice enough guy and a good commanding officer, but he simply could not compete with Lieutenant Colonel Hoyle as a jogging partner. It would take them a good half hour to reach the monastery, more than enough time to bring in some support.
Simon Bitterbuck’s ancestors had been one with the land, living upon it, nurturing it, wiping out most of the mega-fauna. There was a connection there, an invisible thread that linked all beings to the Great Spirit. Simon didn’t have that thread. He felt connected to the land, enjoyed weekends spent deep in the forest, but there was nothing mystical about it. He did not receive portents from nature and his long deceased ancestors never dropped by to deliver cryptic warnings about the future. It was moments like this that he wished they did; as given any sort of warning at all he would have called in sick; or absent, or if all else failed, dead.
Naoko was staring at the phone in mute horror; a freckled simulacrum of Edward Munsch’s The Scream. The bridal shower was to begin in half an hour. She had already changed into a very fetching short, dark skirt, shimmering silver halter top and high heels that hinted broadly at the excessive clubbing and epic hen partying that was to follow.
"You want us to what?" Naoko finally managed.
"Is needing full work up on Rothmark." Thibor’s voice echoed slightly through the speakerphone. "Is wanting breakdown of news with special attention paid to fringe and supernatural; also is looking at monastery, including previous owners and tax records. Also is finagling way into Church of Rome databases, is seeing if there is anything new on record for Father Ambrose Caracos; last six months."
"That’s going to take hours!" Naoko wailed.
"Did you two have date tonight?" Thibor asked.
"No…" Naoko managed. "But I was going to go out with friends."
"Sorry little Miss Yoshida, not any more. Duty calls." Thibor said. "Let me know if is finding anything."
"Good hunting, Major." Simon closed the com channel. Now what? Commiserate, comfort, carry on or flee. Naoko was slumped in her chair, tears welling at the corners of her eyes, a tableau of abject misery that would not be out of place in a Keene painting; that is if Keene ever got around to painting cute, freckled Japanese women in short skirts and halter tops. Comfort was high on Simon’s list, but it would be distracting to both of them. No. Duty called.
"I’ll take news, property and tax records." Simon turned to his keyboard and flexed his fingers. "You’ve got the Church of Rome."
"Gotcha, Chief." Naoko said dully, turning towards her own terminal. " Fair is where you go on the pony rides, right?"
"Right." Simon’s fingers flashed over the keyboard with unnerving precision. Naoko was a trooper when it counted; she would do her duty to the best of her ability and then plan a suitable, hideous revenge later. His first queries popped up; a pattern immediately apparent in the numbers. "I think I have it!"
"Already?" Naoko pushed off from her desk, sending her chair rolling over to Simon’s terminal. "What do you have?"
"Get any closer and you’ll have it, too." Simon grinned. "Check this out. Multiple offers to purchase the monastery. Look at all the transfer of commercial property in the last six months; single corporate buyer; and corroborating news articles about building a theme park. It’s all there. It looks like most of the purchases were made just before the proposed route for the trans-Europe highway went public. Rothmark’s right on the route, so there will be a steady traffic flow. The corporate buyer is a Mr. MacDarre, but he looks like a shell, and shells are meant to be cracked."
"Lucky!" Naoko bounced happily on her chair. "Can we break this open in half an hour, no, wait, twenty-seven minutes?"
"I don’t see why not." Simon dumped a copy of the data onto Naoko’s terminal. "I’m going to dig around the buyer. You parse the news and see if something comes up on the monastery."
"Go away. There will be no burning here today, I am too old to burn well. My doctor advises highly against it. It will inflame my rheumatism he says." The voice could barely be heard through the thick, iron-banded oak door of the monastery.
"Is thinking he is a little deaf." Thibor said. "Here we go." Grabbing Doug by the collar and belt, Thibor leapt skyward, easily clearing the thirty five foot stone wall and landing next to the priest. Father Ambrose Caracos looked ratty and ill-kempt, which was saying that he looked as good as he ever did. A hale seventy, he was still wiry and strong, albeit streaked with dirt, and a liberal dusting of manure. His round, coke-bottle glasses were so flecked with filth that a miracle could be attributed to his being able to see through them. That still left him two short of sainthood.
"Thibor?" The old priest dropped the hoe he was vigorously beating the door with. "What are you doing here? You are not here to confess. You are never here to confess. How any man can be so comfortable with his many sins is beyond me."
"Is mission." Thibor explained. "Something about mad scientist wreaking havoc on village. According to briefing is you."
"Mad? I’m furious!" The priest retrieved the hoe and gave the door a final vengeful smash. "How am I expected to get any work done when I have mobs of torch bearing lunatics on my doorstep; and vampire bats swooping around my greenhouses? But enough of my troubles, come, come, let me show you and your friend around."
"Colonel Douglas Sangnoir; IST, Father Ambrose Caracos; Gardener of Eden." Thibor made the introductions as they walked towards the large greenhouse that had been built in the middle of the abbey courtyard, the bright glass standing out in sharp contrast to the aged stone and mortar that surrounded it.
"As you can see, I have been very busy." Father Ambrose gestured to the myriad plants that crowded the greenhouse. "I have developed several new strains of wheat, they are over there. They draw nitrogen from the air and will reclaim land gone to desert and help lock in the water table. Over there are my pennicilimelons; they are a powerful, adaptive antibiotic, and come in seeded and seedless varieties."
"Let me guess." Doug indicated a hemp plant whose stalk was as thick as the trunk of a birch tree. "Natural fibers with a tensile strength equivalent to steel cable?"
"No. Nothing like that." Father Ambrose smiled broadly. "But it discourages migraines and gives a magnificent buzz."
"Right." Doug felt something nudge his foot. He looked down to see a cauliflower, the size of a beach ball. It moved forward on thin, green tendrils and nudged his foot again. "Um… Should I be concerned by this?"
"No." The priest smiled fondly. "It is harmless, pick it up if you like."
"I shall love him and hug him and pet him and squeeze him and name him George." Doug said dubiously as he gathered up the cauliflower. It nestled into his arms and made small cooing noises. "What the hell is this?"
"Brassica Domestica. It is hard not like something that loves you unreservedly. No one likes cauliflower, ergo I bred a cauliflower that loves everyone; soon everyone will love cauliflower." The priest looked very pleased with himself.
"How could you bring yourself to boil it?" The cauliflower was purring now.
"Don’t be foolish." The priest admonished. "You shear them first, like sheep."
"They’re not intelligent are they?" Doug resisted the urge to pet the cauliflower.
"No, no.. but it is an interesting idea." Ambrose rubbed the dirty sleeve of his robe over his glasses, redistributing the grime. "They are still plants, but instead of turning towards the sun, they are inclined to seek out the same approximate warmth as a normal human gives off. It is instinct; not intelligence. Likewise they respond to contact stimulus with an internal vibration that resembles a cat purring."
Thibor reached over and snapped a floret from the cauliflower, popping it into his maw. He chewed thoughtfully for several seconds.
"Is tasting like peaches and strawberries." He said, his claws neatly slicing another handful of florets from the purring vegetable.
"Unreserved love and affection only go so far." The priest shrugged. "It’s still a cauliflower, so I have done something about the taste, too. They also come in orange, pina-colada, steak and kidney pie and roast chicken."
"Tastes like chicken. Figures. Look, all horticulture aside..." Doug managed to disengage the cauliflower from his arms and set it back on the ground. "Beat it George. What’s going on here?"
"The villagers, they have gone loco." Father Ambrose said. "They talk of all manner of things. Vampires, Frankenstein monsters, werewolves. I have not seen any of these things, but somehow they now think that I am responsible. Me. They call me the mad scientist. Me! I am more sane than any of them. Only yesterday I went down to the village for a drink, and a mob nearly tore me apart; If I had not been carrying a spraying pepper, I would be dead. Now I am trapped here, afraid to step outside these walls."
"You mean pepper spray don’t you?" Doug asked with a due sense of foreboding.
"No. Spraying pepper. Habanero. It releases a cloud of capsaicin under the proper conditions. Like when you are being attacked by a mob!" Father Ambrose gestured wildly.
"Is mentioning bats earlier." Thibor prodded.
"Oh those. Yes, there have been many. Come, I have trapped a few and no the irony is not lost on me either."
"It’s elementary Watson! Someone stole our tent!"
-- The World’s Greatest Sherlock Holmes joke
"Lemon-entry my dear Watson. Lemon-entry."
-- Not the World’s Greatest Sherlock Holmes joke
"The Church of Rome is coming up clean." Naoko’s head was moving back and forth with metronome-like precision as she compared data that streamed by on her two screens. "Father Caracos isn’t their favorite person right now due to his stance on genetic engineering, but there doesn’t seem to be any action planned against him. Iscariot doesn’t have any mandates either. I don’t think they would be in a hurry to help him though. He leased the monastery from them some years ago; as payment he signed over the royalties on a few patented crops. They don’t like genetic engineering, but money is just fine, no matter what the source."
"Let me guess." Simon smiled grimly. "Lifetime agreement. When he dies the lease reverts back to the church and they keep the royalties."
"Hai." Naoko grimaced. "Plus the church has accepted a standing offer from your Mr. MacDarre; once the priest is out, he’s in. What have you got on him?"
"The data’s coming in but it’s wonky." Simon said. "This guy is obviously big money all on his own; but his investment partners are a skewed demographic; oil companies, third world governments, eastern electronics manufacturers, Disney, and even a couple of political parties have a bit of their war chests invested in this startup. I have no record on MacDarre, or rather I have a record, but it makes Cher’s features look positively natural."
"Have you checked out the other sponsors? All the major fast food chains including the world’s largest Denny’s. Hotels; the Excel, the Hyatt and even Howard Johnson." Naoko giggled. "Fan-boy alert, Excel and Hyatt clustered around large Johnson."
"Not to mention something’s Dennys in the state of Rothmark." Simon paused in his typing. Naoko spun in her chair as the staccato sound of Simon’s keystrokes fell away. Like many of IST’s operatives, Simon had a meta-talent, albeit a minor one. His mind could manipulate data with the precision of a powerful database. He couldn’t take data in faster than he could read, or remember it indefinitely; but he could synthesize disparate data sets in a manner that very few machines could reproduce.
"You make me feel like dancing. Gonna dance the night away." Naoko sang happily under her breath. Too bad Simon couldn’t come with them tonight; brilliant deduction really heated things up for her, especially if it meant that she could make it to tonight’s festivities. Maybe he would agree to be part of the ‘special’ entertainment she had planned for the latter part of the evening.
"This is bad." Simon announced. "The amounts of the investments and their suspicious sources. They aren’t investments, they are payments for services rendered. Dirty deeds and they were not done dirt cheap."
"MacDarre." Naoko prompted. "You mean."
"MacDarre." Simon rolled the word around, changing the pronunciation and vowel emphasis. "An anagram for Mr. Arcade, and a pretty lame one at that. So to recap we have a European amusement park planned by the world’s worst-dressed assassin, who has his beady little eyes fixed on removing a certain priestly obstacle to a commercial entertainment venture, and we just accidentally dropped Thibor and Colonel Sangnoir on top of him so you could drag Cammy to a bachelorette party. Frankly, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy."
"It wasn’t exactly accidental." Naoko admitted. "Remember when Rose was in two weeks ago? She mentioned something about a restaurant in Rothmark. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, until we needed somewhere to send Thibor."
"Which led to the priest, who made a nice connection for the bogus mission briefing you dreamed up." Simon finished. "So Miss Cagliostro set us up to set Thibor up for reason or reason’s unknown. Somehow I don’t think she really cares about that priest, or Arcade, or even European amusement parks. Ergo it has to be something else."
"I’ll keep looking." Naoko slid her chair back to her own desk. "You pass on what we have to the Major."
"Is not bats." Thibor looked up at the brown creatures that dangled from the rafters. They looked back down at him with large, glowing red eyes.
"Is what then?" Doug asked. He shook his head. "Now you have me doing it. I’ll be singing about tears on a gypsy violin next or going on about Moose and Squirrel."
"Goof gas effects the brain, so no brain, no effect." Thibor grated. "Mouth still works though. Is mechanical vampire bats."
"Mechanical vampire bats." Doug repeated. "Zey vant to drink your oil. Very scary."
"So I don’t know bats." Father Ambrose shrugged. "You want beasts of the field, ask someone else. I only deal in plants."
"Am picking up high frequency communication relay." Thibor noted, an ear twitching. "Is little flippy-flappy echo location network. Goes out the window to next bat, to next bat and so on. Nice."
"So they’re spying on the father, the son and the cauliflower." Doug nodded. "And now they’re spying on us. Hi there, all you people out there in bad-guy land. Nice to have you on our show. Coming up next, our cooking segment where we’ll be serving up your ass on a platter. With a side of cauliflower."
"Is not happy with that." Thibor noted as one of the bats dived towards him. The mechanical creature smacked into the side of his head with no discernable effect. A slight hum alerted Thibor that the operations center was trying to raise him. He opened his communicator and turned on the speaker.
"Okay, so here’s what we have." Simon’s voice came through the small device. Thibor nodded as Simon began reeling off the details of their discoveries.
"Are you getting all this?" Doug asked the bats, which swooped and dipped lower.
"I’ve got something else." Naoko’s voice came through the speaker. "We’ve got several shipping containers worth of cargo from Autonomous Autonomons. They’re also registered to our Mr. MacDarre, according to their literature they’re the world’s foremost supplier of animatronics armatures and entertainment robotics. That’s enough parts to fill three amusement parks, or one small army."
"That’s all we were able to find out Major." Simon said.
"Is good." Thibor said. "If is nothing else, is letting Naoko go meet her friends."
"Woo! Free! I’m out of here!" As the communication cut off Naoko leapt from her chair and launched herself at Simon, wrapping her arms around his neck and planting a big kiss on his neck.
"Have fun." Simon said as she disengaged herself from him, her tight skirt had ridden up slightly during the embrace, offering a tempting peek at her choice in undergarments.
"Oh Chief," Naoko smiled. "I’m having a little car trouble; I was hoping you could do me a little favor."
"Sure." Simon said distractedly. "Anything you want"
"Promise?" Naoko’s grin became positively feral.
"Michael Bolton." Doug said, pushing an overly friendly cauliflower away. "One or two hard ones across the jaw. Bad music is one thing, but soulless music, that deserves a punch in the face at the very least. I’d probably give him one for his hair, too." Events were in motion and there was nothing left to do but wait, and pass time with idle conversation centered around people who really deserved a swift and terrible beating.
"Reed Richards." Thibor countered. "Great mind, fabulous scientist, noted humanist, dedicated family man and all around good egg."
"And he deserves to be hit. Why?" Doug fended off another cauliflower that was idly pawing at him. "Here take this."
"Thanks." Thibor bit off a mouthful of florets and chewed contemplatively for several seconds, analyzing the flavor and consistency of the morsels. "Kiwi-Strawberry. Reason for punch in face is unstable molecules."
"One of the most significant scientific discoveries this century." Doug noted. "Where’s the problem?"
"Was before your time." Thibor leaned back and took another bite of the purring cauliflower. "There was time when costumes were all regular materials and could not readily adapt to myriad of super abilities, or stand up to rigors of superhuman combat. Was golden age. Is well known connection between sex, danger and violence, and when fight was over, all involved were very worked up, and mostly naked. Great time to be superhero. Then Richards, lanky, beanpole academic prude, comes along with unstable molecules and suddenly everything is staying covered up. The bastard. Fortunately is people like Diathe keeping memory of good old days alive."
"You low down dirty dog." Doug shook his head and pushed away another cauliflower. "If you ever get the chance, give him one for me, too.
"Japanese cartoons." Thibor added. "Is one with martial artist transvestite. Is not liking being asked which cursed Chinese pond is falling into; and what the hell is a Menchi?"
"An emergency food source..." Doug swatted a cauliflower. "You can add one in the chops for your priest friend, too -- these things won’t leave me alone!"
"Some men are irresistible to women, others are irresistible to vegetables, some vegetables are irresistible to women. That leaves you and am betting you were at back of line." Thibor tossed the cauliflower over his shoulder. It skittered away and then moved over to where a group of the brassica were congregating. That wasn’t right, it was not a behavior Thibor had previously observed in cauliflower. He tested the air, the wolfen aspect of his mind easily sorting through the myriad of scent traces. The cauliflowers that were demonstrating herd mentality all carried Doug’s scent; and to make matters more interesting, they were sending the unscented ones towards him regularly. "Something is strange here."
"So you only just figured that out?" Doug noted sarcastically. "Really, what gave it away, the fake vampires? The killer amusement park? Or maybe it was the small, but hard to miss fact that there are cauliflowers running around asking for hugs."
"No, is meaning really strange." Thibor shrugged. "Not just garden variety weird."
"What we have here is a failure to communicate." Doug said. "Once more with clarity, please."
"Is a whole bunch of small things." Thibor admitted. "Is magic controlling goons in crowd, but Arcade is not using magic. Is monastery, located near forest known for being haunted, so is possible is something from forest."
"There is one other thing." Doug said. "The ley lines in this area feel different. There should be a very minor node somewhere around here, but there isn’t one, at least not one I can sense or feel."
"That too." Thibor admitted. "Plus am not going senile yet, and am sure those trees were not there when we arrived." Doug looked, and then looked again with the benefit of mage sight.
"Dryads?" He considered the auras of the trees. "They look like dryad trees, but dryad trees can’t move."
"And cauliflowers can’t participate in free love movement." Thibor shrugged and hopped up to his feet. "Is one way to find out."
"You’re not going to…" Doug paused. "What am I saying, of course you will."
"Is something we do, is wolf thing." Thibor admitted. "Excuse me, is going to see a tree about a horse."
"I like him, he’s silly." Doug spoke to the werewolf’s back. Thibor deliberately walked up to the trees and made his intentions known.
"Don’t you dare!" An ethereal voice issued from the branches.
"Put that thing away before you hurt yourself." A second voice joined in.
"Do you have that in diet, caffeine free?" A third voice added.
"Is dryads!" Thibor called out over his shoulder. Multiple pieces of the puzzle clicked neatly into place. Dryads excelled at charms which affected the mind, and could easily explain the mental dominance that brought the brute squad to bear against them. Likewise the haunted woods fell neatly into place. Their reasons for interfering could also be ascertained. A huge theme park required a great deal of space for parking, concessions and all the various and sundry outbuildings. That meant a great deal of the local forest would have to be cleared out. While Arcade kept his minions under wraps during the surprise IST investigation, the dryads, tipped off by a suspect source, had ‘persuaded’ them to show themselves and set a more robust investigation in motion. A suspicious third party had successfully played everyone involved with the intricate delicacy of Glen Gould on the piano.
"Colonel." Thibor motioned Doug over. "Meet Ashley, Elmira and Sue."
"Ladies." Doug walked over as the trees regarded him with crossed branches.
"Another man." The tallest, a robust elm spoke with a hint of wind rustling through the leaves. "You are the ones that she spoke of? The creature of nature and the avatar of chaos."
"The ones who spoke of?" Doug asked.
"Our sister of spirit, but of fauna not flora." The elm explained with a slightly put out tone.
"And two from column B." Doug said, trying not to roll his eyes. Mystics. Perhaps it was a background in engineering, where plans and blueprints were laid out with pinpoint accuracy. Not everything magical had to be doled out as a riddle, an enigma, or as was most common, a flaring pain in the gluteus tissue. "Ladies, with all respect. What are you talking about, and how exactly are you walking around?"
"We were awakaned." The Elm continued. "A woman passed through our forest some years ago. She stayed for some days, and left many books behind. The wisdom of Jong. The analytics of Steinam. The intricate prose of Freidan."
"And there was that one by Dr. Phil, I liked that one." The Sumac warbled. "It was touchy-feely, I like touchy-feely."
"That one was dropped by a picnicker much later, and is highly suspect." The Elm continued. "With the ability to move and change our own destiny, we realized that we had been mere playthings to men. Buying our own survival with our physical charms and the assistance of the fauns and satyrs. No more. We are independent, our minds and bodies are our own. We threw off the yoke of men, concealed the magic of the forest and drove off the satyrs and fauns who only used us as receptacles for their base masculine lusts."
"I miss the faunication." Sumac said sadly. "Mycopia just can’t compete."
"Be strong, sister." Elm continued, laying a comforting branch on the smaller tree.
"And am betting priest is one responsible for mobile root base." Thibor added.
"That is right." The Ash said. "He gave much and asked for nothing in return; it is hard to believe that he is a man."
"He wouldn’t let me check." Sumac said sourly. "He said he was celery, but he isn’t green and leafy; and I couldn’t check if he was stalky, so I don’t think it means what he thinks it means.."
"I think he meant celibate." Doug pointed out.
"Don’t be silly." Sumac waved a branch airily. "He doesn’t have gills of fins."
"That would be halibut." Doug considered.
"Exactly." Sumac trilled. "So he’s not a halibut celery."
"You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think…" Doug said under his breath. He took the opportunity to deflect the conversation to the path of least resistance. "Have you met the cauliflowers?"
"Oh, they’re so cute." Sumac’s trunk bent improbably as the leafy limbs reached down to scoop up the cauliflower. She cuddled it in her branches, cooing to it. The cauliflower cooed back.
"Yes, you are a cutie George." Sumac crooned. "Who’s a cutie? George is a cutie."
"How did you know his name?" Doug asked warily.
"He told me." Sumac said, rocking the cauliflower back and forth in her limbs. "He says you’re a nice man and you’re going to help us."
"Are you telling me that he’s sentient?" Doug felt his knees go weak. It had to be his improbability field; that was the only logical –- make that illogical -- explanation. It wasn’t every day that you created an entirely new species; or rather awakened a newly created species. He briefly pondered the implications to salads and cheese sauces everywhere.
"Don’t be silly, he’s not a sentient, he’s a cauliflower. And a very clever one too." She glanced at Doug again, and then stretched out a leafy limb to brush his chest. "You’re not a celery are you?"
"Sister!" Ash and Elm were outraged at the implication.
"Great. A stalker." Doug rolled his eyes. "That’s all folks, goodnight."
"Incoming." Thibor cocked his head, his ears twitching. "We’re on in three."
"Ladies. Perhaps you might retire to the greenhouse." Doug gestured politely. "For drinks and a few light fertilizer appetizers. And nothing else."
"Celeries! Why do they all have to be celeries!" Sumac fumed as the three dryads flowed to the greenhouse, trailed by a few stray cauliflowers. Thibor and Doug split away from one another, leaving thirty feet between them -- enough space to dissuade an opponent from targeting them jointly.
A floating platform zoomed in and hovered three stories above the wall. Doug quickly took inventory of its capabilities. The anti-gravity suspensors were obvious, and it appeared to carry some sort of field projection generator and several weapons ports. Several very large weapons ports. Standing atop the platform was a short man in a bright white suit. His hair was a shade of red that could only have come from a bottle; one labeled "deliberately obnoxious." An amplifier allowed his voice to carry over the monastery.
"Waaa-hey! How’s it going boys? We all having a happy Rothmark experience?" Arcade’s lips drew back in an exaggerated smile. "Oooh, a boy and his dog, how touching. Here’s the deal. You clear off and let me get my thing going here, take your tonsured friend with you, and I’ll make sure we all make a lot of money. Whadaya say?"
"Does the Man from Glad know you stole his suit?" Doug asked.
"Do you know what punishment is for trying to bribe IST agents?" Thibor added.
"A stern talking to, a strongly worded letter, no pudding." Arcade cackled. "And no Christmas goose for poor Tiny Tim. Whhhahh! Oh, and they shove a living snake up your ass."
"Wrong. Completely wrong." Doug said. "Except for the bit about the snake."
"But if you are concerned," Thibor added, "Is not a very big snake and you are huge…"
"That’s not nice. Bad doggy. Bad Looney." Arcade admonished, wagging a finger. "Am I going to have to kill you two to make my point?"
"He doesn’t have to kill us here." Doug said.
"He does so have to kill us here." Thibor was surprised that he knew the reference. Uriko and Halo’s influence was showing itself again; still, it beat sentai schoolgirls any day.
"Shoot me." Doug jumped up and down. "I love the smell of gunpowder, and cordite and burnt Kevlar. I’m an IST lackey. Why aren’t you shooting me? It’s IST lackey season!"
"Is Loon season." Thibor noted.
"Blue Loon." Thibor crooned. "I saw you shot down alone…"
"Must be the season of the wolf." Doug riposted back.
"Your turn." Thibor prompted Arcade.
"I’m going to start with a pair of jack-offs." Arcade’s smile waned slightly. "You’re not going to play ball with me, are you?"
"It’s baseball season!" Doug called out.
"Stopped chasing balls years ago. If is wanting ball, why is throwing it away in first place? Would ask you to play, " Thibor turned back to Arcade, "but you are American and therefore have no..."
"Watch it four legs, I’m American, too." Doug said. "Keep it up and it’s off to the vet for you. Then they’re off period."
"You are American and married." Thibor shrugged. "Is statistical impossibility."
"Fine. Got it. I’ve sunk millions into this place and you two jerkolas are going to shut it down. Well I’ve already paid for these toys and I really, really want to play with them." Arcade’s face twisted into an Al Pacino grin. "Say hello to my little friend."
"Something tells me that this little black duck has worn out his welcome." Doug looked to the top of the parapet; not that it was necessary. It was that clown. The world’s most famous clown. The red-headed burger seller; a fifty foot metal clown, advancing in shaking, pneumatic strides, the wide floppy shoes shattering the cobblestones of the road. The fixed mechanical smile and happy eyes staring blankly downwards as it advanced on the monastery.
"I’m never eating there again." Doug promised himself as the huge metal homunculi ploughed through the monastery wall. As the ancient stone and mortar fell to the side, the gap was immediately filled with all manner of Arcade’s mechanical terrors. Vampires, werewolves, creatures from Black Lagoons, Frankenstein monsters, bride of Frankenstein Monsters, alligator men, cat people, Neanderthals, bug eyed monsters, hunchbacks, Renfields, devils, demons, succubae, incubi, mad scientists, undertakers, cowboys, Indians and fast food mascots. The mascots were particularly terrifying; they were inadvertently rather than obviously scary.
"Have never eaten there. Would not eat there on a bet." Thibor said with the absolute air of certainty that only someone privy to one of the great secrets of the universe, or a heightened sense of smell would have. "You take big one. Am taking really big one."
"Fine, you deal with that clown." Doug mentally ran through a list of songs. "The Monster Mash" had possibilities; provided that it wasn’t taken too literally. "Lightning’s Hand" would be tactically sound, or "Dust in the Wind"; unfortunately they all required him to get up close and personal, and the thought of being buried alive under an advancing wall of mechanical homunculi was not particularly appealing. Even his superhuman agility and speed combined with the unpredictable nature of his improbability field would be hard pressed in keeping him from being overwhelmed. Fight or flight? No. There was a priest, a werewolf, a trio of dryads and a herd of cauliflower that were counting on him. In the instant Doug considered, Thibor plowed through the monstrous crowd, sending mechanical monsters flying in all directions. As he reached the giant clown he grabbed the oversized, descending floppy shoe and twisted. The air was filled with the screeching of overstressed metal as the clown’s leg buckled and twisted under the werewolf’s assault. With a final heave, Thibor thrust the giant robot backwards. It teetered ominously for the barest instant and then toppled backwards, crushing a dozen smaller bots who were unable to get clear in time. Before it hit the ground, Thibor was running up its body, his claws finding easy purchase in the metal skin.
"Son of a bitch." Doug nodded his approval. Why not. If you kept fighting monsters there was the tendency to become a monster yourself. You know what they say – Nietzche is peache… That was the ticket. Doug keyed up his song list. Time to get his wolf on. "Werewolves of London" was the most obvious, but there was a nasty undercurrent to that song; the chance of negative feedback would be higher. Something more life affirming.
"System play: Gowan. Strange Animal." Doug hit the switch, feeling the music ride across him. Strange Animal should do the job nicely; it even featured a wolf call in the background. Time to get shaggy. Power rushed through Doug as the song worked its way through his bones and sinews, fur sprouted everywhere, his uniform stretched and retreated as he swelled. His ears grew longer, bursting through his helmet as they reached upwards, and long incisors forced their way down from his upper jaw. His little pink nose twitched as he scented the air, noting the myriad of odors that escaped limited human senses. His elongated feet tapped the ground in readiness, and his short, fluffy tail wagged as best it could.
"What’s up, Doc?" Doug’s voice rasped out. He could see his reflection in the greenhouse; a hulking, hugely muscled bipedal rabbit, something pulled kicking and screaming from Hyde and Hare. A bulging, brutal, bunny with long claws, killer teeth and the martial arts skills of an ancient master or two of the three Stooges; take your pick.
"Of course you know, this means war." Doug smiled, wishing he had a carrot to complete the image. A single leap brought him into the mass of mechanical monsters. Another leap sent him back as the huge grinning severed clown head soared over the wall to land in center of the courtyard.
"Watership Down II – Wabbit’s Wevenge!" Doug blurred into motion. His agility hadn’t suffered from the transformation as he leapt all over the courtyard, flipping and cart wheeling. Whenever possible a huge clawed paw or long, lepine foot would lash out, crushing metal and ceramic. Not bad at all. "Little rabbit Foo-Foo skipping through the bad guys, picking up the androids and bashing them about the head." He ducked as a tin cowboy unleashed a torrent of gunfire. The bullets smacked into the faceplate of his helmet. While the impacts didn’t penetrate the tough material, they transferred their kinetic energy, sending Doug rolling backwards.
"Right." Doug was back on his feet in an instant. His reflexes were there, but the extra two feet of height meant he had to duck further down than he was used to. Important safety tip. As the cowboy reloaded, Doug pressed the attack, snatching up a handy hunchback as a shield. The cowboy wasn’t nearly so fast on the draw. Rather than wait, Doug threw the hunchback face first at the cowboy. There was a resounding clang as both androids were smashed to pieces.
"I don’t know who he was." Doug noted out of the side of his mouth. "But his face rings a bell." What he wouldn’t give for a carrot. A line like that deserved a carrot. He bounced again, descending upon another group of androids, scattering electronics like confetti as he gleefully tore them limb from limb. Across the courtyard, Thibor was wading through a mob of gaily coloured clowns. The air was filled with dull thuds as their large, rainbow hued mallets impacted on the werewolf with limited effect.
"On your six!" Doug cried out the warning as Arcade’s saucer wheeled behind the werewolf. The ominous looking weapon ports sliding open. Thibor shifted, snatching up a clown and tossing it over his shoulder. There was a flash of unpleasant greenish energy as the grinning homunculi was stopped two feet from the saucer. It shimmered momentarily and then broke apart, the pieces raining down over the courtyard.
"Destructive energy screen. Noted." Thibor growled. The growl turned into a yipe as twin energy blasts erupted from the saucer, slamming into the werewolf, the beams blowing through his chest and out his back. He was catapulted across the courtyard and impacted with the abbey wall with enough force to crater the stone. For a moment he was concealed by a cloud of dust thrown up by the impact.
"Status!" Doug leapt out of the way as a second set of beams chased towards him. They passed just under his groin. "Missed by a hare!"
"How much is that window in the doggie." Arcade crowed, triggering another set of blasts. "I’m looking over my dead dog Rover, who was hit with a power mower."
"You shot Ol’ Yellah? Say it ain’t so!" Doug drawled with heart-rending pathos, cartwheeling out of the way of another blast. He maneuvered so the misses ploughed into the crowds of mechanical homunculi.
"B’d b’d b’d that’s all folks." Arcade laughed. "Next up. Splitting hares."
"Oh have it your way you big silly." Doug ceased hopping; he stood in front of the saucer and waved happily. "I’m not afraid of you for two reasons. One. I come equipped with hare restorer – with a permanent wave." He waved again.
"Old joke." Arcade warned. "And the other reason?"
Doug didn’t bother to answer that one. It would become apparent in less than a second. Thibor had emerged from the cloud of dust and procured the now defunct giant clown’s right leg. Which he swung like a giant baseball bat. The field protecting the saucer flared and then vanished as the leg smashed through it. Arcade clutched the controls as the saucer flipped over and spun out, crashing just outside the monastery walls.
"Told you it was baseball season." Thibor snarled, tossing the leg aside. The werewolf’s chest and back were a mass of burnt hair, blood and torn flesh, but the hole was already healing with supernatural speed. He dove into another crowd of mechanical monsters, his long claws tearing metal and ceramic like paper.
Doug spun back into motion, the tactical portion of his mind keeping track of the action. Thibor was keeping the advancing homunculi clear of the greenhouse for the moment, while he was establishing a second perimeter, reducing the pressure on the werewolf. It couldn’t last. The steady flow of mechanical creatures was unending. Sooner or later they would be worn down by the sheer numbers. To make matters worse, he was nearing the end of the final chorus.
As the song ended, Doug went through a series of convulsions, his bulging musculature shrank back to it normal proportions and his long ears and teeth receded. The magic was kind enough to return his uniform to its normal configuration, but it still left him up a certain creek. He had a paddle, but with the odds still heavily against them, it was likely that the paddle would be shortly relocated to an orifice associated with the analogy. As he dodged out of the way of a grinning, fanged clown, he saw a familiar cauliflower roll into the center of the melee. It was about to get stomped.
"George! Look out." In retrospect, it wasn’t the brightest of moves, but there was no way he could let it happen. Doug slid under the descending foot of a Frankenstein’s monster, knocking the cauliflower out of the way as he tried to deflect the blow. He was only partially successful. The cauliflower was safe, but the foot stomped down hard on his shoulder. A flash of heat exploded from his poly-kev armor as a portion of the blow was dissipated, but what remained was enough to slam him into the ground with enough force to cause stars to momentarily dance in front of his eyes. The metal, hobnail studded boot rose again, telegraphing it’s intention of reducing the space between the faceplate of Doug’s helmet and the ground by a factor of more than fifty percent. His body still stunned, Doug reached out with his other senses. There wasn’t enough ambient magic to attempt another song and his own reserves were drained. What had the dryad said? The node had been concealed. Doug let his mage sight expand, seeking out the concealing spell. Knowing an illusion existed was the first step in defeating it. The magic was there, all he had to was find it, pull it in and channel it. The foot threatening to crush his head vanished as Thibor flashed past, grabbing the leg of the Frankenstein monster in his jaws and dragging it away.
"What’s grey and white and has five legs." Doug managed a weak chuckle. "A happy werewolf." He forgot trying to see the concealed node and just reached for the power, like he would if it were there. For a moment there was nothing and then it hit him like a ton of bricks. A wash of raw magic flowed through Doug, threatening to overwhelm him. Coruscating motes of energy ran roughshod over his nervous system and slapped his thoughts into disarray. Focus. Find a focus. Something to expend the energy on. Something really spectacular.
"System. The Who, Join Together. Play!" Doug managed, feeling the magic pulse in time with the hard, rock beat, seeking shape and direction. They were under siege, under the gun, under the weather and increasingly outnumbered. Time to even the odds.
"When you here this sound a-comin',
Hear the drummers drumming,
I want you to join together with the band,
We don't move in any 'ticular direction,
And we don't make no collections,
I want you to join together with the band."
Old strippers never die, they just lose it a piece at a time.
-- Ancient proverb
"I can’t believe she tricked me into this." Simon said sourly as he did up the Velcro closures at the back of the bright red, tear-away pants. "The expected question after the statement, ‘I’m having a little car trouble’ is ‘Can you give me a lift’, not ‘Will you take your pants off in front of crowd.’
"Hey man, it’s not all that bad." Adamant checked out his outfit in the dressing room mirror, flexing his well-muscled arms. "And I’m looking good. We get up there, shake it up, flex ‘em, drop ‘em down, bask in the admiration and then collect as many phone numbers as we can. You planning on giving them the full Tonto?"
Simon regarded the IST trainee dubiously. Adamant’s meta-human abilities made him invulnerable to physical harm, and his devil-may-care attitude kept him shame-free too. Simon was the odd man out. Adamant, Bullrush and Foe-Hammer were all tall, handsome, well-muscled, and fit the beefcake ideal. Even the anonymous guy in the creepy owl mask was a big, strong fellow, albeit with significantly more scars. That left him. Tall, sure, but what lean muscle he had was stretched thin over his lanky build. At least the muscles in his thighs didn’t rub together when he walked. He had to take his victories somewhere.
"Here." The owl masked man handed him an elaborate mask and feathered headdress. There was something familiar about the voice, but Simon couldn’t place it. He looked at the headdress dubiously. Oh well. In for a penny, in for a bloody pound. Simon draped it over his head, arranging his long braids to fall gracefully amid the feathers.
"Okay team. We’re on in three." Adamant peeked around the stage curtain. "One for all, and all for the ladies! Not a dry seat in the house!"
"All together, eh, mates.." Bullrush nodded, grinning broadly. "Full Monty!"
"The Schnitzel has landed." Foe-Hammer’s sharp Teutonic features broke into a smile.
"Who?" The owl masked man nodded.
"And I am armed with mighty joint!" Adamant enthused flicking his dreadlocks.
"How ‘bout you, Chief Dropping Drawers?"
Simon grimaced. The joyous dream that all this stupid, peer pressure crap had been left behind in high school was officially shattered. He was Chief of Intelligence and Operations for Lieutenant Colonel Hoyle’s team, not an acne ravaged member of the basketball team about to penguin walk across the gym. No, that didn’t have anything to do with it. He had made a promise to Naoko. He wouldn’t break his word, despite having given it under distracted, and dubious circumstances.
"Bring it on." Simon said quietly. Revenge was a dish best served hot.
"Really, Naoko." Cammy’s features were slightly pink. "Are you sure that this is entirely appropriate?"
"No." Naoko smiled widely, "I kept asking myself that question, but then I just decided to go ahead and do it anyway."
"I was wondering why we stopped in at that arcade, and somehow managed to lose Uriko and Halo." Cammy said.
"C’mon Cams. Lighten up." Charcoal downed a shot of Chivas and chased it down with a swallow from her beer. She wiped her mouth with her forearm. "It’s your party, you can spy if you want to."
"I understand that the hen party is tradition in Britain." Diana Poulis sipped at her glass of ouzo. "In my homeland we would be singing, dancing, and eating."
"And breaking crockery." Kat cut in, making an abbreviated throwing gesture. "It looks like the show is about to start."
"Woo hoo!" Charcoal was on her feet, letting loose a raucous cheer.
"On your feet, ladies. There’s danger in the air, but never fear, here they come to save the day." The announcer’s voice cut over the strains of "Hot Stuff" by Donna Summer. "They’re here to save you from what ails you. Give it up for the men of the International Supers Teams!"
"Naoko, you didn’t.." Cammy managed.
"Nope." Naoko said. "He’s still in Rothmark, but I think you’ll be happy with today’s selection. I made some big decisions."
Cammy blushed a deeper red and glanced over at Supreme Commander Poulis, seeking a clue as to how to deal with the situation. Diana had placed two fingers to her lips and was producing a credible wolf whistle.
"Adamant, Bullrush, Foe-Hammer." Charcoal ticked off on her fingers. "And a special guest star, who just won his bet. I didn’t think he’d do it."
"Is that Simon?" Cammy asked, pointing to a figure gyrating wildly at the rear of the stage.
"Yes." Naoko smiled guiltily. "A present to myself for organizing this."
"Exhibitionists in the ranks of the International Super Teams?" Kat elbowed Diana gently. "Like that ever happens."
"Never." Diana said, smiling at an obviously shared joke.
"One day I’m going to write a paper about this." Kat turned back to the rest of the group, but still kept her eyes fixed on the action. A shirt from the stage landed in the center of table. "Defining the Meta-Human Psyche: Exhibitionism as a Primary Motivator in the Superhero."
"Make sure it’s illustrated." Charcoal grabbed the shirt off the table and twirled it over her head like a lariat. "Dance, Owl Boy! Dance!"
"Pull the other one." Cammy said, grateful for the distraction. "That’s hardly true."
"Of course it isn’t." Kat’s playful smile showed her long incisors. "So are you planning on trading in that leotard of yours for something a little less revealing?"
"No..." Cammy’s blush deepened further. "Look, it’s not like that at all, I wear it so it’s hard to grab hold of me in combat, and doesn’t get in the way."
"Yes." Diana reached over and lifted one of Cammy’s long, blonde braids. "You leave nothing to be grabbed. And here we were all wondering how Thibor snagged you."
"I am sure that there is a practical reason for her leotard and braids," Kat said lifting the other braid. "And it has nothing to do with any exhibitionist streak, no matter how deeply it might be buried."
"Yes, well if you two are both quite finished." Cammy’s face was bright red.
"Whoops. It looks like Naoko’s just gone bye-bye." Charcoal indicated Naoko, who was entirely focused on the stage. Simon had moved to the front and was definitely in the groove. He had abandoned the headdress, and his pants, and was whooping and stomping in exaggerated motions.
"Cool. That’s an actual rain-dance." Kat noted. "It looks like Iroquois or Mohawk."
"It works." Naoko whispered, shifting slightly in her seat.
"What do you think, Maggie?" Diana asked. Maggie Sangnoir fairly melted into the shadows, and it was easy to lose track of her.
"They’re enthusiastic, but not great dancers." Maggie said, her expression hidden behind her dark glasses.
"You’re here for the dancing?" Charcoal was taken aback for a moment. "How long have you been married?"
"That has nothing to do with it." A quick smile flitted across Maggie’s features that was quickly picked up and echoed by the other Warrior women. Cammy and Charcoal exchanged an uncomprehending glance.
"Penetrating sonar." Naoko managed without her eyes leaving the stage. "Shadowwalker sees by emitting a wave of sonic energy, a little like a dolphin does. Then she constructs a three dimensional picture of her environment based on the reflected sound. Clothes reflect differently than the skin under them, so her sonic picture has details from both."
"So that means... Wow!" A wide grin spread across Charcoal’s features. "We have got to compare notes sometime."
"I’m not the sort to click and tell." Maggie flashed a smile as the comment hit Charcoal like a hammer.
"You are so lucky that I am about to be distracted by prime beefcake." Charcoal raised her glass in a salute.
"Here it comes." Kat, Diana, Charcoal and Naoko fixed their eyes on the stage, while Cammy peeked furtively from behind her hands.
"Sugoi." Naoko whispered as Simon reached down.
"The big finale." Adamant said as the last verse rolled out over the club.
"That’s more information than I needed." Simon shot back. "I’ll settle for the deemed adequate finale."
"On zee count of Drei." Foe-Hammer added. "Ein, Zvei, Drei!"
"Send lawyers, guns and money,
The shit has hit the fan"
Lawyers, Guns and Money -- Warren Zevon
"Aiiiiighhh!" Naoko screamed. The strip club had vanished, replaced by a stone courtyard filled with milling monsters. The artificial vampire that had moved towards her was taken aback for a moment and then leapt forward again. Cammy quickly moved in and swept the vampire’s head from its shoulders with a hook kick. As it fell, she dropped an axe kick into its back, sending a spray of sparks and small electronic components out of the gaping neck.
"Naoko, are you okay?" Cammy dropped into a fighting crouch, taking in the situation.
"No. I missed it! Quick, someone send us back!" Naoko wailed.
Doug rolled back to his feet, his wide grin hidden behind his visor. There was a caress of sonic energy against his cheek as Maggie checked his condition. The hair on his forearms stood up briefly, popping with static, and a low cat’s hiss cut through the music that was flowing through him. All of it was a different type of music to his ears. Absently his foot tapped against the ground. Grand melee. Robots. Full force. Protect the Greenhouse. Mind the cauliflowers.
"Secure perimeter." Diana called out as liquid silver poured out over her skin, shredding her skirt and blouse. A cascade of sparks rippled across her naked body as she sent an arc of lightning across the advancing wall of monsters. A dozen dropped as they shorted out, releasing the pungent odors of burnt insulation and flash fried electronics. At her side, Maggie Sangnoir screamed, a terrible arc of sound that caused another advancing line of robots to shatter into a loose collection of twisted metal, ceramic and shattered plastic.
"And you thought we would not be breaking crockery tonight." Diana laughed, the sound low and rich in her throat.
"This isn’t crockery." Kat grinned as a mechanical vampire staggered into her, passing harmlessly through her immaterial body. As it tried to recover she became solid for an instant -- more than enough time to shred its neck with two surgically precise slashes of her claws. "It looks more like quackery to me."
"It was enough to quack me up." Doug managed as he rolled into the open area that Diana and Maggie had cleared. "I think I quacked two ribs."
"Duck next time." Kat advised sagely.
"Thibor," Cammy said as she lashed out with a thrusting kick that sent a particularly grotty looking werewolf robot straight up into the air. "Report if you please."
"Is fighting dip-sh…" Thibor bit off the profanity in deference to his commanding officer’s sensibilities. "Dippy American assassin in bad suit and killer robots to save intelligent cauliflowers, dryads and priest."
"Would you care to run that by me in a way that makes sense?" Cammy replied.
"Would like to, but can’t." Thibor apologized, snagging the werewolf-bot out of the air and throwing it overhand into the monastery wall. The wall held up far better than the unfortunate robot. "Is not making any sense at all."
"Very well." Cammy replied. Thibor winced slightly at the cool tone. He inhaled briefly through his nose. Cammy, Naoko, Charcoal and all of the Warrior women carried the unmistakable pheromones that signified a heightened state of arousal; the intensity ranging from "somewhat" to "raging." He inhaled again. Why could he smell Diathe and Kat’s distinctive scents on Cammy? They were all dressed like they had been going out on the town, and their clothes were still on; well except for Diathe’s and that was a recent occurrence.
"Interrupt κατι;" Thibor directed the question towards Diana.
"Ναι και ηταν θανμασιο" Diana replied a smile chasing across her silver lips.
The answer wasn’t terribly illuminating; Thibor’s mind quickly sorted through the possibilities that were implied, discarded the mundane ones, and thoroughly explored what remained. Cammy, in her tight black jeans and an off the shoulders blouse that emphasized her toned physique and long braids. Kat, with her blonde hair trailing about her shoulders, her lush, athletic body decorated with a hint of leopard spots. And Diathe, a tall, muscular Amazon, more comfortable in her nudity then many women were with their clothes on. All three women were male fantasies incarnate, and the thought of them together, however unlikely the scenario was... Thibor decided that Naoko was right. At heart all men were pigs. Doubly so for wolf-men; even those who managed to keep it hidden better than most.
"Over here Naoko." Charcoal was grinning like a maniac. She exchanged hugs with a Frankenstein monster; whose scarred, tragic, Karloff features remained impassive even as its body was crushed. "Get some cover while we clean up here."
"Gotcha." Naoko sprinted towards the greenhouse, nimbly skipping over the electronic carnage that decorated the courtyard. She paused briefly at the door to glare at Doug and Thibor and then slipped inside.
"You stupid rug!" The saucer, now canted at an odd angle due to several of its suspensors being out of commission, rose up and cleared the monastery wall. Arcade, his white suit stained with earth and smoke, scanned the courtyard for his target. Then he scanned again. By the time he had reached the third iteration, the full weight of the situation had descended upon him.
"Fudgesicles." His smile dropped away.
"Say hello to my little friend." Doug’s Pacino grin was hidden behind his visor. "And while you’re at it, say hello to my great big friends."
"Does this cliché make my butt look big?" Kat turned and stretched in response to Doug’s jibe. Another droid staggered through her, unable to make contact. She dispatched it with a casual back-kick, her claws shredding it from belly to neck.
"Um. About killing you." Arcade raised his hands. "Big joke. Just kidding. I didn’t really mean it. Kill you? I said thrill you. Big thrills at my amusement park. It’s been fun, hasn’t it? Lots of laughs. Game called on account of naked chick. You’re not buying a word of this, are you?"
"Nope. C’mere Biggus." Charcoal snagged a Roman Centurion, easily flipping the six foot android over. The leather strap armour and skirt fell away. "Awww. He’s like the Michael Jackson doll. Made in your own image?"
Looking disappointed, Charcoal delivered a pile-driver that cut the android’s height in half. She tossed it away and moved to engage another foe. The lithe redhead’s enhanced musculature, a trait inherited from her hero father, was capable of feats of strength far in excess of what anyone could reasonably expect. A mad scientist was quickly twisted into a pretzel, followed by two Neanderthals who were smashed flat.
"Oh this is Champion." A trio of cowboys tried to flank Cammy. She dodged their lassos with perfect timing and moved in between them. As they released their ropes and drew their guns she nimbly side-stepped, taking herself out of their line of fire at the last possible second. Two of the robots went down, victims of their own friendly fire. The third one attempted to shoot again, but the blonde was already attacking. A fearsome double kick deprived it of its gun, as Cammy flipped over it and grasped the bandana around its neck, shoulder throwing the unfortunate mechanical oater into the ground with crushing force.
"Arclight." Diana announced as Arcade resumed firing. "Thibor, take the saucer’s field down."
"Affirmative." Thibor ran forward and leapt, turning to ensure that his shoulder took the impact. He struck with thunderous force. The green field flashed visible as it burned hair and flesh -- then flickered and went out. With perfect timing Diana raised her hands and clapped them together over her head. Lightning flashed between her palms, a pure white sheet of light that illuminated the entire courtyard, casting long dark shadows from all of the combatants.
"I’m alive." Arcade seemed momentarily reassured as the bright flash of light didn’t seem to be hurting him. His own shadow rippled as Maggie Sangnoir rose out of it. He noticed her at the last possible second and turned. Shadowwalker gave him the briefest of smiles and then her mouth opened and she screamed. The terrible bolt of sound caught Arcade square in the abdomen, sending him flying off the saucer. Halfway to the ground he met Doug, who assisted him in his return to the ground, landing on him with both feet and a spirited Irish dance.
"You have the right to the mambo." Doug said, switching steps to the Charleston. "If you refuse the right to mambo, anything you sashay can and will be used against you in a quart of slaw."
"Thibor, are you all right?" Cammy rushed to where Thibor was pulling himself off the ground. She spared a questioning glance to Diana who nodded.
"He’s hurt, but not injured." Diana said concisely. "At least not in any way that would inconvenience him for any length of time."
"Am fine." Thibor grated. His shoulder was a mass of burns but he could not hold a grudge against Supreme Commander Poulis. Diathe knew the exact limits of his physical resistance and regeneration. Her orders, dispassionate and precise, had been purely tactical; a strategy that used the resources she had to utmost effect. Secondly, it was difficult to remain angry with a naked woman. Thibor briefly wondered if that too was part of Diathe’s normal strategy. He considered suggesting a similar strategy to his own commanding officer, but decided against it for the moment.
"Well, if you’re quite all right then." Cammy turned, delivering a spinning backhand to an incubus that was moving in on her with dread intent. "There is work to be done. No lollygagging Major. Up and at them."
"Affirmative." Thibor laid back into the fray with tooth and claw. "So is interrupting what exactly?"
"Nothing really." A faint hint of colour suffused Cammy’s cheeks.
"Is not smelling like nothing." Thibor smiled, showing long, white teeth. He made a show of inhaling deeply, closing his eyes briefly to savor the aromas. "Is going out for Greek food. Was Retisna with meal; would say that it was good Retsina, but is not really such thing; rack of lamb with lemon; saffron rice; moussaka, black coffee with baklava for afterward. Then is off to location unknown, where is in close proximity with whole group. Nice white wine, German beer, Chivas and Ouzo. Everyone is smelling …friendly and is getting even closer to Diathe and Kat and…"
"Major!" Cammy went bright red. "There is a perfectly innocent explanation."
"Innocent?" Kat moved past. "Oh, Lieutenant Colonel Hoyle, we should all have such delicious innocence."
"Agreed." Diana’s silver lips twitched into a wicked smile, small sparks of electricity playing about her features. "A steady diet of such would become monotonous, but the occasional foray into such a wicked innocence..."
"The clothes were coming off anyway." Charcoal added with a grin. "You should have been there, Thibor. No really, I mean it."
"Cry havoc and let’s strip the dogs of war?" Kat laughed aloud.
"If you are all quite done!" Cammy’s blush was just short of boiled-lobster red; it spread down her neck and touched her shoulders. "Major, we took dinner together and then attended a strip club as part of a hen party in my honor."
"What did you think is meaning?" Thibor said with completely insincere innocence.
"Someone’s going to be in the doghouse." Doug added. The monastery courtyard was almost completed cleared. The few remaining robots moved for a final charge, but were cut down as Diana unleashed a broad bolt of lightning that swept across them. He rubbed at his shoulder. "Okay. If no one else is going to say it. Ow."
"Hush." A black shadow enveloped Doug’s side and then coalesced into human form. Maggie Sangnoir probed the shoulder with expert hands. "Are you injured or just hurt?"
"How much sympathy and tender loving care will hurt get me?" Doug pulled off his helmet and snatched a quick kiss. "I might hold out for injured?"
"You’re no good to me injured. Whah!" Maggie jumped as something brushed her leg. She vanished, only to reappear a fraction of a second later, emerging from another shadow.
"It’s okay." Doug said quickly. "It’s only the cauliflowers."
"What have you been up to?" Maggie said warily, regarding the cauliflower dubiously. Doug picked it up and held it against his chest. It returned the hug, wrapping tendrils around him.
"Maggie, meet George. George, this is Maggie. Don’t think of it as losing a daughter, think about it as gaining an entrée." Doug said. "I sort of propagated sentience in a new species."
"You did it! You saved us!" A bundle of leafy green energy flung itself a Doug from behind. "Thank you! Thank you!" Maggie’s eyes grew even wider.
"This is Sue. Sumac." Doug said, becoming aware of the lush body rubbing against his back. He noted the light green skin and reddish hair; as well as several other things -- none of which were clothes. "She’s a dryad. Um… I think she left her tree back in the greenhouse."
"Pleased to meet you." Maggie said, extending a hand. "I see you’ve already met my husband."
"Your husband! Oh you poor woman! Didn’t you know? He’s a halibut celery." Sumac said.
"And monogamous." Maggie said. "Doug. Put the vegetable down and step away from the tree."
"C’mon Simon. Just one more time." Naoko wheedled, her eyes, wide and pleading. "I missed the end of the show. Can you be back at the club on Friday night?"
"No." Simon said. "Once is enough for this lifetime. Besides, I won’t be able to call half the phone numbers I got the first time."
"What was that, Bitterbuck?" Naoko’s eyes narrowed.
"To thank them for their generous contributions." Simon continued smoothly. "All of which were donated to Cammy’s favorite charities."
"Simon, how much did you raise?" Naoko said and then blushed at the inadvertent double-entendre.
"Incoming." Simon deflected the question as the door to Cammy’s office swung open.
"Naoko." Cammy said as she emerged from her office, trailed by Thibor. "Two things. First, I wanted to thank you for all your efforts in organizing the evening. It was first rate, all of the way. The last bit wasn’t quite to my tastes, but otherwise excellent."
"Is not true." Thibor said, but was brought up short by an embarrassed glare from Cammy. "She enjoyed the fight."
"Major. I am to understand that wolves do not normally suffer from foot and mouth." Cammy managed an icy tone through her red-hot blush. "However, if you insist on bringing the matter back up, you shall suffer my foot in your mouth. Understood?"
"Understood!" Thibor snapped to attention and fired off a salute. "Would you settle for foot massage?"
"The second thing is this." Cammy spared Thibor a final glare and brandished a completed form. "Your request for hazard pay has been turned down."
"What!?" Naoko’s expression would not have been out of place on Edward Munch’s ‘The Scream.’
"Naoko, You know the regulations." Cammy said crisply. "You were not there in an official IST capacity. Oh, and before I forget, here are the transportation invoices."
"What!? What!? What!?" Naoko read off the charges at the bottom of the bill. "You expect me to pay this?"
"By next Tuesday if it is not too inconvenient." Cammy said. "Louie was good enough to remove the charges for fuel tax. Rothmark to London is no small jaunt. You are quite lucky that Supreme Commander Poulis and Colonel Sangnoir used alternate methods of transport in returning their teammates to Britain, the total could have been considerably higher."
"Please tell me this is all a joke." Naoko said in a small voice.
"Yes, it is." Cammy confirmed, breaking into a grin. "I approved your hazard pay, and these bills are all a sham."
"Thibor!" Naoko turned on the werewolf. "This was your idea, wasn’t it?"
"Why is my idea?" Thibor said, looking as innocent as he good. An entirely unconvincing performance.
"Because Cammy is too nice to plan a horrible joke like that." Naoko raged. "So it had to be you."
Thibor shrugged. There was no reason to tell Naoko that Simon had suggested the ploy. Naoko deserved just a little payback for her Machiavellian manipulations. Then again, judging by the scent cues that he had picked up on the night of the battle, missing the last part of the show might have been punishment enough.
"Well, no need to dwell on it." Cammy said. "Supreme Commander Poulis has sent her regrets for your evening being truncated, and has offered to take us out for dinner and dancing tonight. Would you be interested?"
"Sure!" Naoko grabbed her purse. "Do I have time to stop at home and change?"
"I should hope that both of us can stop and change." Cammy noted. "This uniform is rather ill-suited to any sort of dance."
"Have a nice time." Thibor accepted a quick kiss from Cammy. Simon had to settle for a quick grin and a wave from Naoko who was not going to let a moment of affection keep her from a free meal. The pair bustled out, leaving Thibor and Simon alone in the control room.
"Thanks, Thibor." Simon said, leaning back in his chair. "That was worth it. I owe you one."
"Good, because is collecting." Thibor smiled ruefully. "Senior Commander Poulis has requested a favor, we have to be at club for 10:00pm, with the show starting at 10:30..."
Translation information (Greek)
"Interrupt κατι;" – Did we interrupt something
"Ναι και ηταν θανμασιο" – Yes and it was magnificent