"Darling, your slip is showing."
-G. ROSE LEE
"This has to be your fault," Oshleen accused, striding alongside Paldine up the main street of Volute. "How could you blow something as perfect as the deal we had on those glasses?" Vergetta trotted to keep up behind her two young associates. Five of the others trotted in their wake.
Caitlin had refused to come.
"Straightening out other people's messes is not my bag," she had snorted, and gone back to working on her program to translate the specs of every Wuhs they knew into computer game characters for a game she called "Pretend Pushovers".
Niki, who distrusted anything in which Monishone and/or high sorcery was involved, offered to stay behind and keep an eye on the Wuhses. Vergetta had to agree. They started doing things when the Ten were not in residence. And she had begun hearing rumors of unrest.
That was all right; eight of them was more than enough to straighten out a misunderstanding. One should have been. She didn't know what had gotten into Paldine, carrying on like that. Brainwashing, indeed! They were businesswomen, not voodoo economists.
"I didn't do it, I tell you," Paldine protested. "Everything, everything I did was according to our plan. We ought to have been raking in the gold pieces by now. This item ought to have netted us ten thousand this week alone."
"Well, that's five percent of what we need," Oshleen snorted.
"You think I don't know that? Bofus, that imbecile, claimed a group of strangers bounced in here, and started talking nonsense about how we were planning to rule the world, starting with everyone who bought our toy. Non-Scammies. Everyone believed it. They are so gullible."
"It's those Wuhses!" Loorna growled. "I told you we have to find that D-hopper and confiscate it. Then I'm going to tear all of them limb from limb. When I think of all the hard work we've put in trying to pull their fat out of the fire, I could just scream!"
"It can't be the Wuhses," Nedira stated, flatly. "To stand up in front of a crowd of strangers and make a speech like that? It's just not in their nature, dears. Wuhses couldn't do it."
"Who else?" Loorna demanded. "Who else knew we were selling merchandise to the Scammies?"
"I still want an explanation for why the fire barricade went for a walk the other day," Tenobia added. "Monishone saying that it ought to have been tethered down all along still doesn't ring true."
"The Wuhses can do some magik," Monishone suggested. "Perhaps we have overlooked a real magician among them."
"I still tell you they couldn't be responsible for this," Nedira protested, trotting ahead to catch up with Paldine. The marketing specialist opened her stride.
Vergetta threw up a magikal barrier to stop them all from outdistancing her. The younger ones ran into the barrier and bounced back several feet. She hauled them up one by one.
"Slow down, darlinks. Nedira is right. Don't go charging in making accusations. We ask this Bofus, quietly and calmly. And then we tear down his shop around his ears."
"We'd better not go charging in at all," Charilor exclaimed, brushing herself off. She pointed in the direction of Bofus's store. "Look at that!"
Vergetta rendered the group of Pervects invisible with a hasty chant. "Over here, darlinks," she urged, grabbing the two tall females by the hand. "We don't want them smelling us, either. We have to pick the only place in the known universe where their you-know-what don't stink."
The eight of them stopped. On the main street a protest was under way. Hundreds of Scammies marched in an oval, carrying picket signs that read "Our brains are our own!" and "Down with dictaters!"
"Their spelling stinks, too," Charilor growled.
"I can't believe they fell for the rantings of some wandering nutcase," Vergetta grumbled.
"Maybe we've got a rival," Loorna remarked darkly. "The Deveels probably want to open up their own shop and freeze us out."
"Already?" Oshleen asked. "We haven't been operating for five days yet."
"You know what they're like! Master merchants. We could learn a thing or two from them."
"Yeah, I'd have liked to," Charilor said, "but that interfering Trollop got in our way. Now we can't ever go back to the Bazaar."
"That's all water under the bridge," Vergetta reminded them. "What do we do about this? Never have I seen such an overreaction. They bought in to what this person or persons said, without ever checking with us, and the story seems to have grown since this morning. Here comes a sign that says 'Protect our children's future!' From a toy! Can you believe it?" "Face it," Paldine pointed out, "we picked them because they'd be easy to sell to."
The crowd grew and grew. A Scammie carrying a voice-amplifying cone faced the door.
"Come out, traitor! Come out, Bofus, and face your neighbors! You monster!"
"Hmmph!" Vergetta snorted. "I can't imagine why he won't come out, with a nice, friendly invitation like that."
"Get the traitor!" shouted the Scammie with the loud-hailer.
"Yeah!" the mob cried, shaking their fists. "Get the traitor!" They rushed toward the door.
When the first line of protesters got within two paces of the door, they suddenly bounced and went flying backwards.
"Riot control," Oshleen observed. "Very good. Oh, look, here comes the cavalry."
As they watched, dozens of uniformed police officers in helmets and armor came pouring out of the store front like clowns out of a magikal circus car. Chanting a phrase that was indistinct at that distance, they pointed wands at the gathering Scammies, shoving them all back until they were behind an orange line painted on the sidewalk.
"Now, there'll be no more of this," the officer in charge bellowed, taking the megaphone away from the lead protester. "We're conducting the investigation. You all go home, now. Anyone who's still here by the time I count three is going to spend a week in jail. One ... two ..."
Most of the Scammies started running away, but a couple of bold young males came forward with a basket and a torch. The first tipped out the contents on the ground: several dozen pairs of Storyteller Goggles. The other one thrust the burning brand into the center of them.
"No!" Monishone yelled furiously. "You imbeciles! All my hard work!"
"Shh!" Vergetta hissed. Too late.
Police officers were leaping forward to stop the two males and to put out the fire, but the chief officer's head flew up.
"Who said that?" he demanded.
"It came from over here!" a female voice shrieked.
Vergetta turned around, and realized that more Scammies had filled in the rest of the steps overlooking Bofus's.
"There's someone invisible. Up here!"
"They smell!" added a hoarse male voice. "Outlanders! Demons!" Though the Scammies couldn't see them, they crowded in on the clot of concealed Pervects, hands out, feeling the air. One errant male's hand patted Oshleen on the rear. Her eyes flew wide in outrage.
"How dare you!" she shrieked, slapping his face. The blow knocked the male off his feet and sent him flying over the heads of his compatriots.
"Invisible invaders!" the crowd cried.
"That's enough," Vergetta declared. "Everyone, into formation! Start chanting."
The elderly Pervect looked around. The speaker stood behind her: a Scammie about her age, dressed in a uniform with plenty of ornate braid around the collar and wrists. He was looking her straight in the eye. In fact, everybody was looking at them.
"What happened to the cloaks?" she demanded. Then, seeing the stunned look on her allies' faces, she realized it wasn't their idea that their spell had slipped. "Let's go!"
"Oh, no, you don't, madam, or whatever you are," the uniformed Scammie said.
"That's them, officer!" Bofus explained, appearing beside him. "They're the ones who sold me those glasses! I swear I had no idea that they meant for me to betray my own people."
The cop turned to her. "Is this true?"
"Of course not!" Paldine protested. "It's all a misunderstanding!" The officer's face was imperturbable. "We'd like you to come down to our headquarters for questioning." Glancing over his shoulder, Vergetta realized that he was accompanied by about a hundred other officers, probably the force sent to deal with the riot.
"So sorry, bubchen," she apologized, patting him on the cheek. "Can't do it. Join hands!" The Pervect Ten minus Two tried to unite.
"They're trying to get away!" the crowd howled, and mobbed them, knocking their hands away from one another's. There were other ways to dimension-hop. As dozens of pairs of hands reached for her, Vergetta started chanting one of the old, more power-intensive charms.
"All right, all right, all right," the officer shouted, pushing into the midst of the crowd. 'They're not going anywhere!"
And they weren't. Vergetta chanted again. And again. No matter how she phrased the syllables, or delved for power from the lines running all over the town, her spell didn't work. Her surprise was echoed seven times on her companions' faces. Scammies must be operating dispellers strong enough to dampen even a Pervect's talent. Who in the nine levels of Marshall Field's State Street had sold them those?
Their momentary shock was long enough for two officers apiece to take them by the arms. The touch brought the senior Pervect to her senses. She threw the first police officer high over her head into the crowd. The second two retired from the fray clutching sensitive parts of their anatomy that had been viciously kicked. But gradually, enough police joined their brethren in bearing the eight Pervects to the ground.
"This is no way to treat ladies," Vergetta grunted, as thick irons were fastened around her wrists.
"You are under arrest for corruption of public morals, operating unsafe devices within the city limits and," the of- ficer added, wincing, "assaulting officers of the law." He gestured to his army. "Take them away!"
"But, bubby," Vergetta explained, holding out her manacled hands to the black-robed judge, "this is all a big misunderstanding. Look at me. I'm just an old lady. I wouldn't hurt a fly."
A sharp inhalation of breath came from behind her, probably from one of the officers she had kicked on the way in. He was lucky she only wanted to disarm him and get away. It did cramp a lady's style when she intended to be merciful. The other Pervects sat behind her on a hard wooden bench. Not so comfortable on one's old nether parts. She was more comfortable standing.
"We have had two riots in two days," the magistrate intoned, leaning over his tented hands toward her and the others. "In both cases demons were involved. We have had numerous situations in the past where outworlders have caused a lot of trouble. Now, I am trying-to be lenient, but the evidence against you and your ... companions is overwhelming."
"What evidence?" Vergetta said, bluntly. "We sell toys. That's all we're here to do: make people happy. Have you tried our product? It's fabulous. You would enjoy it so much. It would take your mind off your so very responsible job, and I can tell an important man like you could use a break once in a while, if you get my drift." She gestured toward him and the chains jingled. "You think maybe you could take these off, sweetie? They're a little tight."
The judge paid no attention. "Your account does not agree with what our other witness said, madam. He claims that your toy has more sinister motivations."
"Motivations, shmotivations! I heard what the crowd said, but it's not true! We're just businesswomen." Vergetta tried a friendly smile, but the sight of her teeth made the judge's bronzy-green face pale to polished brass. "Look at it from my point of view. Here I am with all my friends, coming in to see how well our new venture with our good friends on Scamaroni is going, and the next thing I know, I'm arrested! Now, how do you think that makes me feel?"
"At present, it makes me think that you're going to be here for a long while, madam," the judge replied. "According to our witness ..."
"Yes, your so-called prophet!" Paldine exclaimed. "We want to see him!"
"I know Scammie law," Loorna snapped. "We have the right to be confronted by our accusers. Trot him out. We want to hear from him why he thinks we're ..."
"Brainwashers," the officer supplied.
"Right. Thanks ... Brainwashers."
The judge nodded, his color restored. "A reasonable request. It so happens that he is also enjoying our hospitality. We'll be happy to let you see him." He turned to the bailiff. "Go get the other prisoner."
Vergetta waited. It was sure to be some kind of misunderstanding. What's more, it would be straightened out easily enough once she had a chance to wring this other person's neck.
In a moment, the bailiff had returned, his face as pale as the judge's had been a moment before.
"The prisoner! He's gone!"