Chronicles of a Caped Crusader: Of Beauty and Brawn - Part Three
Chloe wound up getting home late from work that day, having stayed for an extra hand-to-hand training session with Orig and helping Captain K with installing the new tech in ship.
However, there had been a underlying reason as to why she had stayed so late. She had been hesitant to go home. Chloe had something she wanted to ask her mother, but worried about stirring up trouble. She wasn't sure if she wanted to be told she was crazy or she was right. She wasn't even sure how to go about asking Kristy that question.
Chloe got her customary attack hug from Yanli and a demure one from Molly when she finally walked in the front door. After asking her sisters where their mother was, she made her way to the kitchen.
She walked into the kitchen and found Kristy chopping onions.
"I was starting to wonder if you were ever coming home. What am I going to do with you girls? I can't get Princess to leave her room, can't get you to come home at a consistent time, can't get Yanli to stop tackling family friends," Kristy teased. "Hi, honey, how was your day?"
Chloe just smiled and gave a little shrug. Kristy tossed the onions into a frying pan and started sautéing them. She watched as Kristy dumped in spinach and tomatoes.
"Why so quiet?" Kristy asked as she started squishing the tomatoes in the pan to make them give up their juices. "Bad day at work?"
"You could say that. We got tagged on a phantom pair," Chloe said.
"That Iniquitous and his partner?" Kristy guessed.
Chloe cringed, she had never quite adjusted to the fact her mother of all people had somehow learned of one of their most classified cases.
"No, not them. I don't think I can say more than I have," Chloe said.
"Mama doesn't tattle, despite her profession," Kristy said teasingly.
"I know, but there are regulations about talking to outsiders, regardless of their profession. So, your business trip, that went well?" Chloe asked.
"I thought you were here when I told you guys all about it?" Kristy replied, looking at Chloe over her shoulder.
"Yeah, I was. I'm just making conversation, I guess," Chloe admitted. "So, do you happen to know what Mr. Johnson was doing during that time?"
Kristy's expression grew tight. "Chloe, what are you getting at?"
"I just was wondering. Do editors-in-chief ever do anything besides sitting in their offices and supervising?"
"In addition to making sure everything runs smoothly, Buzz handles a lot of our sources and bigger stories. He works harder than anyone else there. I'm sure he was working hard on stuff while I was gone," Kristy replied as she dumped some tomato sauce into the pan with the veggies.
Kristy didn't sound evasive, like she knew something and was hiding it, so Chloe felt comfortable digging a little deeper.
"But, do you know?" Chloe pushed.
"What Buzz does is none of your business, or mine even if he chooses not to include me in it. I accept that there are things even I'm not allowed to know. A lot of our sources require the utmost anonymity. That's why the editor-in-chief handles those and I keep my mouth shut and my eyes closed when I'm told to. If you go poking around, you will make so much trouble for me. I like my job, I like my boss, and your boss likes any leads we can give you. Those will dry up faster than a cup of water in Sakhmet in the summer if you poke into things you shouldn't and scare off our sources."
"But--" Chloe started, realizing Kristy was on the wrong track. Her mother thought she was on again about the Weekly World's mysterious sources that had brought in some information on Iniquitous.
Kristy threw her a look that stopped her. It was a 'just drop it' look. But, there was something familiar about that look, something that made her feel cold. She tried to place it, but she couldn't. Kristy turned her attention back to dinner, mixing the sauce with pasta.
Chloe stood there in silence, wishing there was the openness that had been there before Chloe started her full time work for the Defenders. Kristy had increasingly pushed Chloe away from the Weekly World since she started with the DoN, and Chloe understood why. She couldn't withhold information she didn't know. Now, with the addition of these sources, she couldn't even really talk about any aspect of Kristy's job at the Weekly World anymore.
"Do you want to help me set the table, or are you mad at me now?" Kristy asked teasingly.
"No, I'm not mad at you," Chloe said as she moved to set the table.
"Chloe, don't worry about what Buzz's up to. He's a good guy," Kristy said suddenly.
"He is?" Chloe cried, incredulous. "What do you mean by that? He's horrible to you! He works for the Meepits, probably willingly! He's not like you, where you hate it but can't get out of it without getting us all made into Meepit snacks."
"Yes, Buzz can be horrible, and yes, he chose the job. But, still, he's a good guy. It's something you can't understand if you don't really know him like I do now. Just trust me on this. Until the Meepits make a move that forces them to tangle with the DoN, you don't have to worry about him. Of course, you'll also have to worry about me when that day comes. Pray that day never comes, because it gives me a headache even trying to think about how complicated things will get, and I don't need a headache of that scale."
Chloe couldn't help laughing. "Of course, Kristy."
She set the forks on the table and looked at her mom over her shoulder. The confidence in Kristy's voice left nothing to doubt. Whatever Buzz had been up to, it probably hadn't had anything to do with whatever had gone down on the Space Pirates' ship.
"Look at how pretty you are!" Kristy cried, as she finished doing Chloe's hair.
Chloe spun around in front of the mirror. Her hair, now temporarily black was swept up away from her face with the combs, the dress clung to her in the bodice and then floated away in the skirt. She had to admit, Loraine had good taste in dresses. Considering that she only ever saw the Ixi in business suits or training clothes, it wasn't something she had realized about her mentor.
Loraine had come back into work the day after Chloe had seen her so checked out in the lounge, acting no differently than she ever did. Chloe marveled at her ability to put on a brave face and go about life normally in spite of the obvious pain she was in.
"So," Kristy said with a grin. "Ready to see your mask?"
"I guess so," Chloe said.
Kristy opened the box sitting on the dressing table and pulled out the mask. It was a half mask, covering only the top of her face. It was white with a pale green vine pattern weaving about it, connecting to two perfume mallows at the corners. It had temples behind, to hold it on by passing it over the ears like a pair of eyeglasses, so as not to mess up her hair with a band.
"Wow, this is really nice," Chloe commented as Kristy slipped the mask onto her face.
"I know! They did a great job, especially with the time crunch," Kristy replied. "And you're all ready! Well, you wanna come mingle with me while you wait for them to call the contestants to the stage?"
"Why not? It'll probably get boring in here," Chloe said looking around the dressing room.
A few of the other contestants for Kougras were there still doing their makeup and hair, but it was her experience that the competitors were usually too nervous to make much small talk. She followed Kristy out of the room and down the hallway into the main area of complex.
They walked out into the crush of people watching the contest. The Beauty Contest had swelled to such numbers of viewers that back in Year 8 that they had removed all the chairs and made it standing room only to open up more space. The stage was elevated a few feet off the floor, the judges at a table at the front middle of the stage, facing the competitors. They were currently on Kiko. They wouldn't take their first break until after Kougra, which was when the Defenders were sure that Degrass would meet with the buyer.
She looked around and spotted Lightning Lenny and Blackwing in the crowd. They were dressed in casual clothes. Lightning was going the brainy Lenny stereotype wearing thick glasses and a newsboy hat.
Blackwing's getup was more impressive. He looked about twenty years older, and was wearing thick black glasses and using a cane. She had seen the outfit earlier and asked him if pretending to be a blind spectator at a Beauty Contest wasn't a bit suspicious. He had replied that if anyone asked he'd tell them he was there to support his granddaughter in her first contest.
Chloe considered slipping over to one of them to ask if they'd seen anything suspicious, but decided against it. She shouldn't do anything out of the ordinary that could risk blowing anyone's cover. She reached into the pocket the dress had cleverly hidden, clutching the communicator to make sure it was there for the hundredth time. They were also relying on her up there, as she'd have the best view of the crowd from the stage.
"Hey, is that Phillip Degrass up on stage?" Kristy asked, sounding flabbergasted.
"Uh, why is that important?" Chloe asked, wondering what Kristy knew about him.
"He's a confirmed member of Malkus Vile's crime ring," Kristy said with a frown.
"You know?" Chloe cried before she could stop herself.
Kristy rolled her eyes at her daughter. "Honestly, Chloe, can we stop doing that? We journalists aren't as clueless as you seem to think."
"Sorry, sorry," Chloe apologized. "Well, yes, he is. However, he has not been caught in any illegal dealings to date, so while it is fairly well-known among law enforcement, and I guess journalistic agencies, that he's dirty, we haven't been able to prove it. He's a bit of a fashionista on the side, probably why he's judging tonight."
"Hmh, that's still sort of weird, isn't it?" Kristy asked, seeming unconvinced.
Chloe just shrugged and hoped Kristy wouldn't pick up on that something was going on. They watched as the next two groups had their turns in the spotlight. Kristy quietly worked her way through the crowd, asking for quotes from the spectators, those who had had their turns on stage already, and those who were still waiting. Chloe parted with her to go backstage, as the Korbats were wrapping up, to await her turn.
She found herself among a crowd of thirteen; Kougras seemed to have a fairly large group in comparison to most other divisions. As they were walking out, Chloe noticed an administrative assistant standing the shadows, helping to organize the event. She was wearing a mask, all the staff was, but Chloe recognized her by the way she carried herself. It was Colonel Iniquitous' partner, Veronica; one of the most wanted criminals in Neopia.
Chloe looked forward again, not letting her eyes linger on the Mutant Acara a moment longer than would be considered normal, and followed those ahead of her out onto the stage. She stood in the line with the other girls and took her turn, stepping out of the line to smile and spin and give the little speech. Usually she would have mentioned she worked for the Defenders of Neopia and liked to study all the fighting styles she could, but this time she talked about how she played the violin. It would be better not to do anything that could set Veronica off.
Once the Kougras were done, they filed off stage and the judges got up to stretch. Chloe ducked into a shadowy corner and pulled out her communicator.
"The contact is Veronica. Repeat, the contact is Veronica. She's acting as one of the organizers, full face mask, right side black, left side white."
To be continued...