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Chapter 4

"Hey, Spook," I say as I grab a small fire extinguisher and turn down the hall toward the Visored McBiker-Thug charging in at me. "I asked for good music."

"Bolly Martin is good music."

"Naw, man." I spray white goop all over the guy's helmet and then shove past as he fumbles around blindly. "This stuff is granny music. How am I supposed to fight to granny music? Put on some Brass XNOR or something."

I try skating toward the exit, but a hand grabs me by the backpack and slams me into the wall. "Shut up, Schizo," he growls. "Stop talkin' to your imaginary friend and start explaining what you're doing here!"

"Oh, it's Growly Voice!" I say cheerfully while flailing behind me with the extinguisher in my right hand. With his attention occupied by getting that thing out of my grip, my left hand flicks out one of those cheap knives I took from Dilan's Fist. "I wanted to have you fill out a survey about the performance of my Glownade last week. If you could just-"

He throws the extinguisher down the hall and starts slamming my head against the wall, but he's not the only one with a helmet on. It's still not a fun process, so I tighten my grip on the knife and go to town on the arm holding me against the wall. Remind me to thank Larry again for that advice about misdirection. Growly Voice decides that cradling his gashed up arm is more important than holding me, so I break free, spin around, and manage to stab him one more time in the shoulder as I do, just for good measure. He lashes out at me with his good arm and connects with my hand, making me drop the knife, but that's okay. We've gotten rotated around so that the storefront is behind me instead of behind him. I glide away on my skates and then pivot and sprint-

Right into another bald baddie. This one doesn't have a helmet, or even eyebrows, but he does have an excellent grip, and that grip locks around my arms before I even realize it's happening, so now he has those too. No matter; I have more things than just arms. In particular, I have a good pair of knees, and I've just placed one where his groin was trying to be. His grip weakens, I break free, and a window frame bruises my shoulder as I dive through. But now I'm outside and I've got my Pepper Soaker raised. Unfortunately, before I get a chance to fire I have to use it to parry the swing of a shovel from yet another Cueball.

That's when the music kicks in. A fusion of punk, dubstep, and ska resonates through my skull and my frown inverts. The shovel has damaged my Pepper Soaker's barrel just behind the firing valve and the spray is hissing out of control through the hole, so I go with the flow and twist it to aim into my opponent's face. He doesn't drop the shovel, but I get enough of an opening to back away and swing the stream of capsaicin-fueled badtimes at the guy I kneed, who followed me out the window and seems to think he's tough enough to go for another grapple. "Not happening, buddy!" I shout as I give him a good dose.

A blackjack comes out of nowhere and hits me in the shoulder. Ouch. The strike came from behind, so I skate forward and kick out No-Brow's legs as I pass, getting him between me and the newcomer. Then I duck under a blindly swung shovel while trying to aim my mangled Pepper Soaker at the one with the blackjack.

That doesn't work very well and even more of them are running up, so I decide it's time to bail. Since I can't shut off my damaged and rapidly emptying Pepper Soaker, I hold it aimed behind me to help cover my escape as I dart up Ivystone Way heading further west. I need to head south-east to get home, but losing them is more important right now. Fortunately, it doesn't take long. A few knuckleheads try chasing after me, but this time I've got wheels on my feet. By the time I hear Growly Voice's motorcycle fire up, I'm already out of view. I duck into an alley and wait for it to pass, then I head south on Lesser Hydrangea, and from there out it's home free.

"So, Spook, you caught all that planning they were up to?"

"Yeah. I've been looking at aerial maps of Frozen Lilac Street, and I think they were talking about attacking Channel 5. It's the only place along that road with big radio dishes."

"Really? It's not enough that they took down my internet, so now they want to take down my TV?"

"I know, right? I'm getting really tired of using my mobile connection; they've been throttling it since yesterday. It's sooo slow."

"Yeah, well, at least you have that much. And the people at Channel 5 probably do too."

"Definitely."

I carve around a corner and then slide into an alley to switch into my stoner disguise. "Send them and the police copies of that recording along with what we've got on those two I put trackers on. And don't forget to use the proxy!"

"Wheels, I was the one who explained onion routing to you in the first place. Of course I'll use it."

"Just making sure... Crap."

"What?"

"I just realized. Before I snuck in, I should have gone through the parking lot and wrote down their plates since we only have that motorcycle's. And I could have stuck trackers on their cars too."

"Sure, but then you would have missed the part where they mentioned sabotaging dishes, and maybe even the part about Lilac. We wouldn't know where they're planning to strike."

"I guess..." Joe's rationalization doesn't really lessen my frown any. More plates and trackers would let us ID more Cueballs ahead of time, instead of hoping the police nab them all just before they attack Channel 5. Speaking of which...

SURPRISE TIMESKIP!

"Well, that was unexpected," Joe mutters.

I shake my head in disgust as I watch the news coverage of the burning Channel 8 building. "That wasn't anywhere near Lilac." It's Thursday evening now, in case you were wondering, and we're at the Wheelhouse watching the news on one of the netbooks via a USB TV-tuner.

"I guess they decided to change targets after you overheard them Monday night."

"Yeah. Hey, what's that?"

The camera is panning over and zooming in on a metal construction gleaming in the firelight, planted in the station's front yard. It's sheet metal, cut into the words "RELEASE THEM."

"Release who?" Joe asks. I shrug, and the newscasters don't seem to get it either. After the news continues failing to provide new information, I return to repairing my Pepper Soaker. I'd have done it earlier in the week, but apparently this is Bury Them In Homework Week, so I've been busy. Also, having let the cops know what the Cueballs were up to, I'd wanted to stay out of the way.

But apparently the cops didn't keep a close enough eye on these guys, so I'm going to have to get involved again. Forchester PD only has so much manpower, after all. By the time they get done keeping the rich folks in Vista Grande and Uptown safe, they don't have much left for Cherry. Thus my existence.

"Hey, look. Mayor Larson's making a statement."

I glance back to the screen. Mayor Larson is your stereotypical old white politician who could do with a running few more laps and eating a few fewer donuts. He vomits up the typical rhetoric into the microphone, but one bit does catch my ear. "The Cueballs' threats hold no power over us, and their cowardly actions these last two weeks change nothing."

I turn to Joe. "What threats is he talking about?"

"Dunno. I haven't heard anything. But with that 'release them' sign, maybe some Cueballs were arrested and they want them back?"

"Must be." I set down my Pepper Soaker and move to the other netbook. Talaria finally got their system back online yesterday, so the Wheelhouse is back to connecting to the internet via pirated Wi-Fi from down the road. Cantennae are wonderful things. I do a web search for news articles about the Cueballs and skim through a bunch. "Problem with that is I don't see anything about any arrests. Might've happened without fanfare though."

Joe shrugs and returns to his homework as I move back to the workbench. Besides repairing the nozzle, I'm also mounting one of the folding knives to the end, with a line attached to the spine of the blade so I can flip out the blade without lowering the weapon. I'll have to close the blade by hand, but that's fine.

I'm nearly, but not quite, finished when we hear shouts from outside the building. Not the friendly kind of shouts, either. I sigh and move to a crack in the boards covering the window while Joe peers out of another. Out in the middle of Blossom Cobble are a group of Asians gesturing sharply at a group of miscellaneous non-Asian minorities. Notably, the second group all have hair. Those I recognize as the Dream Enforcers, and the Asians are the Heavenly Butterfly Flock, whose territory encompasses most of Blossom Cobble along with a good part of Cherry in general. Especially toward the south. I don't like the Butterflies and they're pretty racist, but at least they spend most of their energy on non-violent crimes, and their protection rackets do involve actual protection. They can get really violent when you cross them though, and those non-violent crimes are still crimes. Robbery, chop shops, drugs, prostitution, black market weapons, you name it.

The Dream Enforcers, on the other hand, try to portray themselves as Robin Hoods. They're not. They're a coalition of idiots who think being part of a minority gives them the right to attack and loot any company that happens to be run by a rich white guy and claim the moral high ground for it. Never mind the fact that their actions just reinforce people's racism. Besides looting The Man, they engage in many of the same activities as the Butterflies, though usually with a bit less finesse and lower prices. Unless you're white, of course, in which case they won't deal with you at all, unlike the Butterflies who just up their prices even more with non-Asians. Supposedly the Dream Enfrocers funnel most of their profits into improving their territory -- helping with food, housing, that kind of thing. I don't buy it though. I definitely see more hungry homeless people in Dream Enforcer territory than I do in the Butterflys', not to mention muggings and break-ins.

From what I'm able to make out of the shouting, it sounds like the Dream Enforcers had a deal with the Butterflies that was supposed to end with control of Blossom Cobble passing to them. They completed their end of the deal, whatever that was, and are here to collect. But the Butterflies are claiming that the Cueballs are a special hit group of the Dream Enforcers and broke their truce by attacking locations within Butterfly territory tonight.

Never mind the fact that several of the places the Cueballs have attacked or vandalized, like Talaria and Winston Biotech, are rather prominently owned by African Americans, and Dave of Dave's Computer Repair is Native American. I could see them going after Channel 5 or Channel 8, which are both pretty white, but the rest? Old Jimmy, the Ur-Enforcer, would roll in his grave.

Speaking of rolling, it's time to do that because the argument's getting pretty heated. I detach the loose cable from my not-fully-upgraded Pepper Soaker and quietly gear up, while Joe gets his stuff together and sends a silent and anonymous tip to the police that they'll probably ignore until people report gunshots. We exit together through the back way, with me in front not bothering with my hobo disguise this time. I motion and Joe starts cutting through yards and buildings toward the west, getting farther away from Blossom Cobble as quickly as he can. He'll loop around south-east toward his home once he's not worried about stray bullets. As for me? I crouch behind a dumpster with my UV light turned off and a pair of Glownades at the ready. One is a prototype I put together last Sunday using a party popper to ignite the fuse. I don't know if it'll work; I was going to test it sooner but then the Pepper Soaker got damaged and I got swamped with homework and... well anyway, here we are.

The yelling gets louder, and shots are fired! That's my cue. I flip on my UV, ignite the old-style Glownade, and chuck it behind the enclosed bus stop the Butterflies are using for cover. Wasting no time, I dart out and pull the cord on the prototype Glownade, give it a shake even as the fuse starts hissing, and whip it over toward the Dream Enforcers sheltering in a nook between two buildings on my side of the road. Unfortunately, I can't hang around to see if the thinner fuse works to detonate the cap charge; instead I dive back into my alley and start booking it. I can always go over the area with a UV flashlight in a couple nights to see whether it detonated, assuming it doesn't rain.

In fact, let's just timeskip and do that now. I mean, there's no question about whether I'm going to escape these guys here in my home turf when I'm fully rested and have the benefit of surprise, right? So, we'll just skip the escape along with a boring Friday and most of a boring Saturday spent repairing or replacing equipment and searching for baldies. It's now Saturday night and I'm casually shining a UV flashlight around the pavement in my hobo disguise. Both Glownades definitely detonated. Excellent.

I pocket the flashlight and wander up the road to keep an eye on the Alcohouse, a bar currently in use by Harris Neyland, the proper name of Growly Voice from the Cueballs. He's the only Cueball I've still got a bead on; the other one I was tracking has gone off the grid or something. I barely even managed to track down Harris. That seems to be by intent, because as far as I can tell he hasn't been returning to his home.

And Harris is not a happy camper, judging by what I see through the window of the Alcohouse. Not that I'm peeping through the window like an obvious stalker and begging somebody to confront me. No, I'm cheating. Under my hobo disguise tonight is a spyglass strapped to my left forearm. It's got an angled eyepiece, like a miniature version of one of those telescopes you look in from the side instead of axially. The other end looks out through a hole in the elbow of my baggy, ratty hobo coat, and the eyepiece is at another hole near my wrist. I've got all my armor on under the baggy coat too, with some rags wrapped around it to keep from being obvious. It's good that tonight is a cool one, because I'm pretty warm in here.

Still, it's more comfortable than I'd be in the Alcohouse. Several patrons seem to agree with me on that, because they're tossing money at the bartender, edging around Harris, and trying to rush to their cars without looking like they're rushing. Harris is pretty drunk and loud right now, with several days' worth of stubble making him look ragged and dangerous. His hairline is visible as well. I don't know if that's because he just hasn't had time to keep his head shaved, or if he's intentionally trying to disguise himself as a Chia Pet.

Whatever the case, the bartender has had enough and confronts Harris. I almost worry that I'll have to barge in and separate them, but Harris deflates a little, roughly shoulders open the door, and sulks out into the night. I hold out my hat toward him and mumble about generosity, but the miser ignores me completely as he meanders to his motorcycle.

That motorcycle was how I found him again. The tracking beacons had mostly run out of charge while I was still staying away to avoid catching the notice of the cops I'd hoped would be busy watching and perhaps arresting him. Not only did the cops fail, but apparently they failed visibly enough for him to realize he needed to go into hiding. Good thing he considers visiting the Alcohouse more important than keeping his head down. The motorcycle has a different plate on it, but it looked familiar enough as I skated past that I pulled out my tracker, and sure enough there was a feeble little pulse from the nearly dead beacon. I already Wheeldioed the new plate to Joe so he could write it down for later, but we're not going to notify the cops yet. They had their chance and blew it. Now it's my turn again, because I don't want them screwing it up this time.

As he drives off, I climb to my feet and fake-stagger around the corner to put on my skates and adjust my disguise to look more like a punk stoner than a hobo so I can skate without drawing much attention. There's not a huge rush, because I already replaced the tracking beacon while he was inside. It'll actually be easier to track him once he stops moving anyway.

Forty minutes later I catch up with his bike in yet another run-down part of town. I don't actually see the bike anywhere; looks like he's got it hidden inside an abandoned auto repair shop. Maybe this is where he's been staying lately. I switch back to hobo-mode and tell Joe the address, then slowly work my way around the building, examining it from across the street for any ways to get in. There's a window that-

Have you ever been shot? I think I've mentioned this before, but it's not fun, ballistic vest or no. I'm rolling on the ground curled around my chest with my ears ringing when the second shot slams into the asphalt next to me. Gotta move! I try to scramble to my feet, but it feels like somebody takes a hammer to my back as the third round hits and sends me back to the ground. I give up on scrabbling and instead roll sideways a couple times before trying again. This time I make it up and start running in a zigzag. Three more cracks echo through the night over the sound of my screamed curses as I bolt around a corner for cover.

So much for this plan. And so much for the Cueballs eschewing firearms. They must be feeling desperate. "Spook," I grunt into the Wheeldio as I grab my pack and struggle to climb a fire escape with my aching chest and back. "I'm gonna be late to get back. I done got shot."

"Are you okay?!"

I sigh as I slump into the recess of a third floor balcony door. "Don't think I'm bleeding, if that's what you mean." I pull my Pepper Soaker from my pack and then hide it within my hobo coat as I adjust it and try to look as shapeless as possible. Nothing to see here, just an old pile of rags or something in a shadowy nook of a balcony. "Not in any shape for high energy escapades right now though. I'm just gonna curl up here on this balcony and rest."

"No! Don't sleep, George! I'm gonna call an ambulance, but you have to stay-"

"I'm Wheels, Spook. OPSEC. And no ambulances."

"Now is not the time for-"

"Always is the time for OPSEC," I say quietly, conscious of the shouting and footsteps I hear from out in the road. "And I'm not going to sleep. I said I'll rest. They're down there right now, running around trying to figure out where I went, and I'm too sore to outmaneuver them for long, let alone fight. But they won't find me up here. I'll just hang out until they settle down and assume I escaped, and I'll limp home later. Too bad they'll probably abandon this place."

Joe goes silent for a while. This is far from the first time I've been hurt since I put on the mask, and it's certainly not the worst, but I guess this is the first time he's found out as it's happening instead of a day or two later. Finally he speaks up. "Well, the good news is that flushing them out of here and making them find a new hideout will cost them time and energy, and keep them off balance. So it's not a total loss."

I smile. "You're right. We'll keep 'em on their toes." I wince as I take a slightly deeper breath, and absentmindedly scratch an itch on my leg.

My leg is warm and sticky.

Well, crap. I shift around a bit and shine a small flashlight on it, then I let my breath out. I was only grazed. Still, it will need to be treated. I rummage quietly through my pack and get out my first aid kit. It's a pretty pathetic kit, really. Between my armor, helmet, Pepper Soaker, and other gear, I've got a good bit of weight on me, so I only carry a minimal first aid kit. There's just enough antibiotic cream and gauze for this wound, and apparently I forgot to replace the tape after the last time I used it. Fortunately, the rags of my hobo disguise give me plenty of material to finish tying down the gauze with.

Of course, now that I'm aware of it the wound starts throbbing and stinging. Yay. I pat myself down to make sure I didn't miss any other injuries, then settle back in to wait for the Cueballs to get bored and leave. Then I give it another hour to be safe. At some point a police car pulls up and the officers look around, but they don't seem to find anything useful and leave shortly after.

I'm about to leave myself when the door behind me slides open. I give a strangled shout of startlement and stumble to the side. The old woman on the other side of the door holds up her hands non-threateningly, then silently offers me a bowl of very nice smelling soup.

Oh, right. Hobo disguise. This kind of thing happens sometimes when I use that. Not as often as threats and looks of contempt, but yeah.

Of course, what could have been a touching moment of humanity soon gets spoiled when she sees the Pepper Soaker that clattered out from my coat when I started. Her eyes go wide and the soup spills over the floor of the balcony. I sigh as she drops the bowl, yanks the door shut, slams the deadbolt into place, pulls the curtain, and generally makes a frightened fuss. And to add insult to injury, my Pepper Soaker is sitting there right in the middle of the spilled soup. I wipe it off as best I can with a rag I don't mind leaving behind, stow it in my pack, and head down and out before she calls the cops back.

I don't bother skating home; I don't want to do anything that will get me breathing hard because my ribs are sore. Not fractured sore; I've been there, and I'd recognize that. But walking is more pleasant in the state I'm in. Joe has reluctantly gone home by now; he's got church in the morning and would be in huge trouble with his parents if he stayed out late.

And what about me? Well, like I said before, Mom works a lot of night shifts cleaning up after the researchers and engineers at Winston Biotech who, and I quote, "may be smart enough to design a prosthetic wiener, but sure can't aim one worth crap." Anyway, she'll be busy cleaning for a few more hours, and what she doesn't know won't get me grounded. I make it home with plenty of time to wash up, clean my grazed leg properly, and slip into my very welcome bed... and realize yet another reason to be angry with the Cueballs: I'm injured on my back, front, and right side, and I hate sleeping on the left. "Curse you, Cueballs! You will rue the day you shaved your stupid heads! I will-"

"You'll shut the hell up is what you'll do!" yells the angry, muffled voice of our upstairs neighbor.

I sigh and make due with the one good side I've got left.

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