IX. The Mangle Trucks
On the Monday of the week before Thanksgiving week, Tom and Ange and Arn and Daph were sitting around in Tom’s room, giving Eva the eight-handed pet, when hurried feet came up the stairs. Cloud and Rats burst into the room panting.
“Mangle trucks,” said Cloud.
“Ever heard of them?” asked Rats.
They described how they had been off wandering the neighborhood, which was only a little bit sketchy—in point of fact, they were returning from that one old drug store that sold cheap ice cream sodas that were just sooo good. On their way back, as they got to Birch Street, the street that bordered the Lyceum block, they came up next to this old shabby guy who seemed to be waiting for a bus or something. He made a gesture to indicate caution. So they looked up and down the street: nothing. They were just about to cross when they heard a distant cry, to their left, to the north: it sounded like a little girl’s scream. Moments later, an unmarked panel truck went by. It was actually the start of quite a long procession of not-quite-identical unmarked panel trucks.
Finally they saw the end of the line. As the last truck passed, the old guy said, “Them’s the Mangle Trucks. Wait ten beats after they pass, then cross and do it quick.”
“So that’s what we did,” said Rats.
“But the guy,” said Cloudius. “He was interesting too. He had long grey hair, he had a pony tail, he had beads, and, like, a blanket or a poncho or something.”
“And an eagle feather,” said Rats.
“Wait, an eagle feather?” Daphne repeated. “He’s an Indian.”
“Yeah,” said Cloudius. “He’s an Indian. Whether he’s a live Indian is another whole question.”
“It’s not the Lyceum Indian,” said Tom, “you know, the IMS, because he doesn’t dress like that, but I know he has friends.”
“Okay, so you thought you heard a scream,” said Arnulf, “and you saw a bunch of trucks, and you saw some old guy dressed up like a native American. And this scared you guys?”
“Well,” Cloudius started, but then he just looked at Rats and rolled his eyes. “You explain.”
“Nah,” said Rats. “There’s no way we can explain it. You’d have to see them yourself.”
“So there were all these trucks,” said Angelica. “No, I’m totally interested. They were all alike and they didn’t have any signs or anything on them. What color were they?”
Rats and Cloud looked at each other. “Dark,” they agreed. “I don’t know if they were black, or dark green or dark blue or what,” said Cloud. “And you know what else?” said Rats. “They didn’t go that far past the Lyceum before they turned off.”
“How do you know that?” asked Angelica.
“You could hear the way the engine sound changes when they slowed down to turn off,” said Cloud. “Like they were taking an exit off an interstate.”
“Maybe da Bears are moving out of Chicago,” said Daphne, who was a Packers fan.
“Hey,” said Arnulf, “Ditka’s going to turn them around, you’ll see. Payton, Singletary, that new QB—!”
“Yeah,” said Daphne, “and you think these guys are imagining things? I got news for you.”
And the discussion devolved from there. Of course, the next morning, bright and early, they all got to hear it on the radio: a girl had gone missing from the neighborhood north of the Lyceum, not the first, and, police feared, not the last.
“It means something, I’m telling you,” said Cloudius that afternoon in Tom’s room. He was holding a short but sharp and sturdy sword.
“What’s that?” asked Arnulf.
“It’s my Uncle Excellus’s old sword.”
“What? What are you planning on doing with that?”
“Going and finding out where the Mangle Trucks go.”
“What? You guys are crazy. Daphne—!”
“Yes?” Daphne was sitting on the other side of him, holding her own, brand-new, Sword +1.
“Knock some sense into them,” said Arnulf. “We can’t go chase Mangle Trucks. We’re just kids.”
“Right,” said Daphne. “I’ll remind you of that next time you want to go snooping under museums. Hey, I got a sword. It might be kinda cool.”
“So, you going?” asked Cloudius with his usual irresistible smile.
Arnulf sighed and rolled his eyes. He shrugged. He stood up and rolled his eyes and sighed and shrugged again. He shook his said. He sighed and rolled his eyes again. “Yeah,” he said at last, “I better go just to keep you guys out of trouble.”
So when Friday twilight rolled around, they were all slipping out of Ash House in different directions and meeting up in the library garden. Tom was last: he spent ten minutes petting Ash’s cat Kenneth, waiting for him to doze off completely, before Tom slipped away through the living room. Tom and Arnulf decided to trust to their wands, while Cloud held Uncle Excellus’s sword, Daphne hefted her own sword and Angelica had the long knife and three blade disks she’d bought at a magical farmer’s market last summer. The knife was tucked into her belt under her hooded sweatshirt; the blade disks were in her back jeans pocket.
Indeed, the mangle trucks had not gone down Birch Street very far beyond the Lyceum. There was a sprawling warehouse complex a block down a side street, right off of Birch a block past the Lyceum. The side street ended in a garage door into the warehouse.
“You’re sure they ended up in here?” asked Angelica.
“Pretty sure, yeah,” said Cloudius.
“I believe him,” said Daphne. “The place smells.”
Tom and Cloudius were about to say something back when there was a distant cry, away to the north up Birch perhaps.
“Sound of motors,” said Arnulf.
“Crap,” said Angelica, “they’re back. They’re coming.”
Everyone began running around in circles in front of the garage door, except for Tom and Arnulf. “Try weaving the thing?” said Tom. “You know, the thing you weave, that Ash showed us?”
“Sure, yeah,” said Arnulf. They got out their wands and began waving them gently back and forth, while smiling and talking softly to the quiet zone they were making. The other three stopped and watched them.
“What are they doing?” asked Daphne.
“Weaving a quiet,” said Angelica. “Say, they were paying attention. I sure wasn’t.”
In a few seconds, Arn and Tom smiled. Tom kept his concentration on the quiet, and Arn grinned at the others.
“Cool,” said Daph, “and then we slip in behind the trucks?”
“Should be simple enough,” said Angelica, as Arnulf nodded and Tom and Cloud nodded at each other. She joined Daph and Cloud huddling between Arn and Tom against the dingy brick wall. Twenty seconds passed, and then an unmarked panel truck came jolting around the corner, making a right off Birch onto the alley, a hundred feet from the door. Another came behind it and another and another.
The trucks were on them, passing within inches. They couldn’t keep count, but there were at least half a dozen, not all the same but all nondescript in the same way. The garage door went up ahead of them. Past they went, and then the garage door was coming down.
“Daph,” hissed Cloudius. He dove through, and Arnulf and Tom dove through after him. Ange was already inside, and turned to see Daphne standing outside still, suspicious.
“Daphne, it’s closing,” Ange cried. She looked around and found a cinder block, which she pushed under the descending door.
It was barely enough for a big Amazon with a sword strapped on her back to get through. But, pulled by Angelica and Cloudius, Daphne squeezed through. Her nose was scraped, her belly was scraped, both elbows and both knees were scraped, and it felt like her sword was imprinted on her back. She stood up: just as the cinder block broke and crumbled into dust under the garage door.
“I’m fine,” she announced. “Well, we’re in, aren’t we?”
“Only way out we know of is this door,” said Arnulf, “and we don’t know how to open it.”
“So,” said Daphne, walking over to the top of a steep descent, “let’s go down there.”
“Boy, I don’t like the smell of that,” said Ange.
“I don’t like it either. But I don’t like it in a good way,” Daphne said, as Ange looked at Arnulf and Arnulf just raised his eyebrows.
The tunnel went down at an angle that almost seemed too much to drive up, about twenty feet high and forty feet wide, walled in concrete and bedrock. After perhaps a city block, the road leveled off and the wall on the right opened out. Before them, not unlit but far from well lit, was a vast parking lot.
“Whoa,” said Cloudius, “and it’s not just mangle trucks. Look at all the cars.”
“Is that a Shelby Mustang over there?” asked Angelica.
“Look for a Porsche 911,” said Daphne.
“You guys,” said Arnulf, “just thought I’d remind you, you’re twelve.”
“Not me,” Angelica pointed out, “I just turned thirteen.”
“Come on,” said Cloudius, “the trucks went that way.” The others took off after him, along the edge of the parking lot, parallel to the through road. This ran down another steep slope, but with a high ceiling into another wide chamber, and beside the road, a sidewalk ran down steps to the next level down.
A hundred meters on and there was another parking lot. It seemed awfully exposed, so they sprinted for the walkway twenty meters away. Daphne got there first, with Angelica right behind her. The man in maintenance clothes was just as surprised as Daphne was. “Ag,” said Angelica. The man dissolved into a snooze on the wooden ramp.
Arnulf and Tommy run past them, and Daphne and Angelica followed, and when they stopped at the bottom of twenty wooden steps, Cloudius caught up. They looked at his smile, then at his hand: a big ring of keys.
“Good one,” said Tom.
“Lucky he failed his resist,” said Arnulf. “Just sayin’.”
They were near the top of a last short ramp down to a wide flat area. On the right, stretching back into the cavernous distance, was a vast city of ghosts in Mayan style. It was literally a city populated by ghosts: a procession of these came out to meet the mangle trucks. Near the bottom of the ramp, the old Indian dude from the street corner leaned. He was not the same sort of Indian as the ghosts in the procession: he nodded at the five kids as they ran past.
On the left side of the ramp there was a forest of pillars, and beyond that some sort of vast dark valley. The mix of smells was bewildering as well as horrible.
“What the heck?” said Cloudius.
“Okay,” said Daphne, “who’s got a sword?”
Cloudius held up his Uncle Excellus Cloud’s sword. Angelica pulled out her hunting knife. Arnulf waved his maple wand. Tom held up a broken piece of spear he’d picked up.
“What’s that?” asked Daphne. She held out her hand and he gave her the spear piece, which consisted of a foot or so of wood attached to a lovely sharp onyx head. “Hey,” she said, “this would be a museum piece. It’s freaking ancient. Feel it?” She handed it to Cloudius, who made a face.
“Man, that thing has a charge,” said Cloudius. “It was made by Indians.”
“You know what this means, don’t you?” asked Arnulf. “It means someone’s robbing the Field Museum.”
“It wasn’t theirs to begin with,” said Cloudius quietly, handing the spear head back to Tom.
“So what am I supposed to whack with my wand?” asked Arnulf.
“Look,” said Daphne. “Over there on the left, that’s the Abyss. It’s a sort of underground river of ooze, and demons live in these big ugly cities along it. And on our other side, there’s this Mayan city, and they’ve obviously committed no-nos and are trying to buy off the demons. So, you know, every little girl they give some demon, they get some number of no-nos canceled. Does that sound like a fair deal to you?”
“Daphne,” protested Arnulf, but he couldn’t think of anything he could say.
“Dammit, dammit, get off me,” Angelica was saying. She was whacking at something: in the striped light, they could see a sort of little demon reptile, perhaps half Angelica’s height, grabbing at Angelica’s ankles. Cloudius was whacking at it, but they didn’t get it settled down until it randomly leapt at Tom Hexane and skewered itself on the spear. The demon thing sort of fizzled onto the ground and left only a horrid smell and a very unexpected skeleton.
“Hezrou,” said Daphne. “Look! Demon incoming!”
They peered out from the forest of pillars. In the wide area before them, flat stone without dust bathed in a sickly and sourceless pale light, a committee of the Mayan ghost procession was forming up in a semicircle. One of the mangle trucks pulled up near them: the other trucks formed up ready to pull out. Three Mayan ghost priests came to the back of the truck and removed something; the truck then pulled away to join the others. The three priests carried what turned out to be a little girl, struggling fitfully, back toward the circle.
Toward this, a demon thing was dropping fast. It was humanoid, but with wings and with several extra sets of arms. Its head was difficult to look at. It did look hungry.
“We have to save her,” said Angelica.
“Obviously,” said Daphne.
“Bowshots!” said Arnulf.
“You brought your bow,” replied Daphne, “which you don’t own?”
“We could make a catapult out of trash,” said Tom, looking around.
The demon landed while they were discussing their options. It picked up the little girl, figured out exactly how to hold her for the flight back, scratched its butt while thinking about recipes for little girl, judged the evil breeze, and crouched for the leap into the air.
“Swords out,” said Cloudius. He and Daphne drew their swords, and Angelica drew her long knife. With a yell, they charged into the open.
Tom and Arn, taken somewhat by surprise, also charged out, wands at ready. Tom immediately slipped in gore of hezrou. “Hey, man,” said Arnulf, helping him up and pulling him back to the pillars, “put that wand away. Get that spear head in both hands. We’re Plan B now.”
Daphne tried to get around front, and Angelica tried to get around the other side, but the scattering ghost priests seemed always in their way. Daphne slashed one, then another; they ran from Angelica. Still neither girl could quite get the things to stay out of her way.
The demon looked over its shoulder at Cloudius. It laughed. It smirked! Would it bother with an insult? No, not for such a pathetic creature. It prepared to boot the boy into the slimy valley.
“Oh, yeah?” he cried out. “Oh, really?” He stopped just out of kicking range, and then, without so much as consulting his actual brain, he charged in. He was too close in to the demon’s feet for the demon to give him the boot. It bent to grab him. And then with a hop off a horny demon toe, Cloudius jumped straight up and slashed across the demon’s hideous excuse for a face. It erupted in flame.
Cloudius landed awkwardly, but jumped up and began hacking at the feet. Daphne joined in, and despite the evil thing’s best efforts, they were soon cutting its legs up so badly that its vulnerable belly sagged further and further toward them. Now their leaps slashed at its middle, and before it could grab them, they were covered in whatever fluid it had inside. Dauntless, relentless, perhaps thoughtless and reckless, together they made sure the demon thing was a goner.
“It’s gonna go up in total flameout,” yelled Daphne.
“Can’t we grab the demon amulet?” asked Cloud.
“The amulet! All the big demons have amulets!”
“We could get blown to bits! It’s gonna go any second!”
“Well, grab now!” shouted Cloudius. So they did—and just as the universe turned into an inferno, their hands closed on something hard and precious. And then they were flung through the air and landed hard.
By the time they came around completely, Angelica had the little girl—only four or so, but not especially scared now—and Arnulf had the demon amulet.
“It’s mine!” shouted Cloudius.
“I don’t know why you would think that,” Daphne pointed out.
“Look,” said Arnulf, “it’s not mine, it’s not yours, it’s ours. Now can we go?”
Daphne gave him a look, while she tried to think of an excuse to go give the Abyss a look. She just couldn’t shake the feeling that this was an opportunity she shouldn’t waste. She glanced at Angelica, and couldn’t help notice a shape flying down behind her.
It was smallish, shorter than any of them. It had horns. It had wings. It had a long nasty spear, more like a gigantic hat pin. It was cackling, but only Daphne seemed able to hear it.
“Down!” she cried, unnecessarily, as she knocked Angelica to the floor and stepped over her. The cackle demon came in for a landing, its needle-lance out. It cackled as it evaded Daphne’s parry and skewered her through the side: in the front, out the back. It missed the vital and even the semi-vital organs. It still found the whole thing rather humorous as it pulled the hat pin out for another stab.
“I don’t think so,” said Daphne, holding her side with her right hand while she delivered a backhand swipe with her left. The thing’s head, or what amounted to a head, flew off bouncing across the open area behind them and then exploded. The rest of the body just crumpled into ash.
The Mayan ghosts had scattered, and the mangle trucks were long gone. Daphne turned to the others, who looked concerned. “I’m good,” she said. “Really. I’m fine.”
“Can we go now?” Arnulf asked, rolling his eyes.
“Must look in abyss,” said Daphne. “No doubt,” said Cloudius.
So Daphne and Cloudius took off through the hall of pillars and found their way to the other side, where it dropped off into smoky darkness. When they came back, they found a car waiting for them, the motor running. It was some sort of large General Motors product. Arnulf was at the wheel.
“Hop in,” he said, “time’s wasting.”
They got in the back seat with Tom Hexane. Angelica was riding shotgun, with the little girl between her and Arnulf. She looked perfectly happy to go for a nice long ride with them. Angelica turned to the other two and asked, “Well? What did you see?”
Daphne and Cloudius looked at one another, then back at Angelica. They both shook their heads. “It’s not that they didn’t see anything,” said Arnulf. “They just don’t want to talk about it.”
Up the ramp, up the next ramp—and the garage door was opening automatically for them. They left the car on a side street with the keys in it. Arnulf, Angelica and Cloudius were still arguing as they got out whether to keep the car as their secret or what.
“Bleep,” said Daphne, “stop talking about the stupid car and get me to Mistress Ash before I bleed to death.”
“Good idea,” said Cloudius, who was feeling the warrior camaraderie.
So they walked back to campus, Daphne holding in her entrails. There were no mangle trucks in sight; the little girl walked among them quiet but not at all morose. She might have been out on a shopping trip with her older siblings. When they crossed Birch, they saw the old Indian on the corner; he winked at the little girl, who smiled up at him and looked back with a smile over her shoulder after they passed.
When they got back to the house, the first person they saw was Ahir, who went straight to Arnulf to see if he was okay. He gave her a hug and gestured at Daphne, who was still holding her entry wound. Cloudius was holding his stocking cap on the exit wound.
“Oh my,” said Ahir. She stepped out of the way, and the others went by while she and Arnulf exchanged a quick kiss and a few words.
Ash was sitting in her office, which was a small room with a large window, adjoining her bedroom on the first floor. She seemed to be grading papers. She looked up when Angelica and Tom appeared in the door, and she rolled her eyes. But she jumped up when she saw what had happened to Daphne.
“Come in, come in,” she said, pulling a kit out of her desk drawer. “Um, would I be correct in presuming that one would not wish to involve the school healer?”
“One would be correct,” said Angelica.
“Then tell me exactly what happened,” said Ash, “while I do what I can. Off with your shirt, girl.”
Daphne, groaning softly, pulled off her coat and shirt and stood there in her dirty pants and a black sports bra. The wound looked neat, but not clean: it had a sickly cast around both openings. Ash gave her a drink from a brown flask, then applied more from the same flask to both entry and exit wounds. She had a close look at both with her magnifying glass, and then scrubbed a bit: Daphne didn’t groan too much more or too loudly.
Meanwhile Angelica told the whole story, even down to the car parked on the side street, although Cloudius groaned at this release of information. From the girl’s cry heard on the street, through the passing of the trucks, the sneak into the underground, the Mayan city, the fight with the demons—the quick glance into the abyss—to the escape, and the involvement of the old Indian, Angelica told it all, with occasional additions by the others and occasional exclamations from Ahir Shaheen.
“So that’s it,” said Angelica as she came up to their return to the house. “I didn’t keep anything from you. I hope you appreciate that.”
Ash finished up wrapping Daphne round and round the belly. “Here, girl,” she said to Ahir, “could you finish up?”
“Of course, Mistress.”
“Now.” Ash turned her chair toward the other four: they could tell she was going to make a Pronouncement. “One. Clearly Daphne here has something special. Everyone is special, but Daphne is especially special, and so, at the very least, is Cloudius: you have magic, but you also have the calling of warriors. So yes, you must continue practicing your swords.” She looked back at Ahir. “She is, as they say, an Amazon. And I think Daphne is not the only one, either, but far be it from me to suggest that your little expedition needed to involve any more of my students.” Ahir blushed but turned and smiled at Daphne; Arnulf rolled his eyes.
“Two,” said Ash, “I do NOT approve of going down THERE. So do NOT expect me to bail you out every time.” She let her gravest look drift across them, finishing with Daphne and Ahir. “Well, not every time,” she said, coming back to Angelica. “Three. I will take care of this little girl. She should remember—well, she should not remember all of this, nor do I think she should be made to forget all of it. But I will take care of her. She will go back to her family, and, what do you say, Ahir? Insh’allah, she will enjoy the rest of her childhood as she deserves to.”
“Thank you, Mistress Ash,” said Angelica, “that’s exactly why we did this.”
“No other reason? Such as, wondering what was going on down there? Wanting to look in the—? Well. Anyway. Four. I am indeed very glad you did this, so I am indeed going to cover up for you this time. And five: the car.” She looked up with a slight smile as Cloudius groaned audibly. “The car will have certain magics upon it, because that is one of the things they do down there. One day something shall have to be done, but it will not be done by twelve-year-olds.” Angelica opened her mouth to point out that she had just turned thirteen, but she wisely shut it. “Now I will sell the car, through certain channels. And that means we will have an addition to the House Fund. And for that, I thank you. But do not be using the House Fund as an excuse for further expeditions.”
“Yes, Mistress,” said Angelica. “But we did—um.”
“You did tell me all. I know you did, in case you wondered: sometimes, anyway, I can tell if I’m being put in the picture entirely. And I do appreciate it, I do.” She smiled. “Now. Any questions?”
There was a long silence. Then Ahir Shaheen cleared her throat and said, “Mistress, if I might.”
“Yes? What is it, girl?”
“Will open hand deflections be on the defense final?”
“Yes,” said Ash. “But sword play, I think, will not.”