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Chapter 5

"Hey, are you okay?" Mom asks after I stagger and end up rolling a gutter ball. It's Sunday afternoon at Tipsy Lanes, and Mom, Uncle Jeff, and I are doing our bi-weekly bonding over bowling. "You didn't run into that Terence again, did you?"

I shake my head. "No, I haven't seen him since then." I lightly pat my leg. "This was just a railing. I didn't jump high enough."

She frowns. "You need to be more careful, George. Please at least tell me you had your pads and helmet on?"

"Oh yeah, and I'm glad I had 'em too. But you should really be more worried about that rail. I'll heal, but that thing? It leans to the side now and I don't think it'll ever be the same."

Mom laughs and gets up to take her turn. While she's distracted, Uncle Jeff raises an eyebrow at me. I ignore it and sip my milkshake, then cheer as Mom gets a strike. He smirks at me, then goes for his ball as Mom dances back to her spot and gives me a high-five. Tipsy Lanes is too old and cheap for computerized systems, so I pencil in the score and then nearly choke on my milkshake as I hear a familiarly Irritated Voice coming from a couple lanes over.

"You're supposed to put the first number in the outside," he says.

I cough and Mom whacks me on the back. My still very painful back. My subsequent grunting coughs drown out the voices for a bit, but eventually I fend her off as Scratchy Voice says, "Look, Rob, I've got a system in place. So I do my thing and you do your thing. Okay?"

"But it's not right. The little square is for the second ball!"

"Yeah, well that's just like, your-"

"Will you two give it a rest already?" says Deep Voice. "It's just a scoring card. We've got bigger things to be worrying about."

I assure Mom and Uncle Jeff that I'm fine, then I try to sneak a glance over at the Cueballs under the guise of wiping my face on my sleeve. Mom gives me grief about it, but two lanes to the left I can see a skinny guy hunched over at the scoring table watching the lanes, a tall angry man in a nice hat glaring at the score card while grumbling under his breath, a big darker colored guy shaking his head, and a muscular Hispanic woman standing at the ball return, glaring into its shadowy depths from below the brim of her baseball cap while drumming her fingers on the housing. All four of them have shaved heads, though the big guy has a goatee and the skinny one has a blond mustache. The angry one, however, has no hair at all. Not even eyebrows.

That glance only takes a moment, after which I turn back to my family and get a full dose of "George! How am I ever going to have grandkids when you've got manners like these! We invented napkins for a reason! So parents could have grandkids!" Behind her, Uncle Jeff looks past us at the Cueballs, then he raises another eyebrow at me.

I focus on Mom instead. "Well, maybe they should have thought of that when they invented shirts. How hard would it have been to add a napkin dispenser in the sleeve? Hmm?"

Mom grins. "Yeah, there could be a pocket along each sleeve. The left arm could have napkins, and the right arm could be tissues."

Uncle Jeff rolls his eyes and slaps my shoulder. "Your turn, George."

I stand up and grab my ball, careful to do most of the work with my uninjured left leg. From the corner of my eye I see the Cueball woman get a spare. I take a breath and roll my ball down the lane. My leg twinges along with my back and chest, but this time I keep my swing smooth and manage to score a good six pins. Unfortunately, one of the four that are left is way off on its own to the right, with the other three clustered on the left. Bah.

I force myself to keep my eyes on the ball return as I wait for it to regurgitate my pin toppling tool of choice. I want to steal more glances at the Cueballs, but Uncle Jeff is already suspicious enough, and I don't want the Cueballs to notice me watching them either. My ball clunks out onto the track, and I manage to knock down another two pins. I should have gotten all three in that cluster, but as you might imagine, I'm a bit distracted right now. What are they doing here? Besides bowling, I mean. All of my other encounters with the Cueballs have been in the north-west half of Cherry. Tipsy Lanes is in the south-east -- not too far from Parkville, actually. Point is, it's not the closest bowling alley to their usual haunts. Both Tinker's Tenpin and Riverstrike would have been more convenient. So why are they in this one?

Uncle Jeff gives me a look as I sit down and his eyebrow is still raised. I roll my eyes. Fine, I don't want him to strain a facial muscle or anything. As Mom heads off to roll yet another strike, I lean over and mutter "Cueballs" while jerking my head in their direction.

"They're the railing?" he asks.

Uncle Jeff is good at noticing when I'm lying, so I go with the truth, or part of it. "Yeah, not sure if it was these ones specifically. The guy I know was there isn't here. I think he's named Harris or something. Average height, stocky, rides a black Harley with a scratch on the left side of the fuel tank. He's very scruffy, not like these ones. I think he's on the run from someone." That should be enough to get him off my back. He knows I run into the occasional trouble; he's the one who taught me the basics of fighting when I was little. Cherry can be a hard place sometime.

As Mom skips back to her seat looking smug, Uncle Jeff stands up with a frown. "Is it going to be a problem?" he asks.

"Nah."

Mom tilts her head. "What problem?"

Uncle Jeff smirks. "Oh, nothing. Just a girl George likes." Then the guy ambles off to do his bowling like he didn't say anything consequential. Thanks a lot, Unc.

I try to act like he didn't say anything, but now Mom's all excited. "So tell me about this girl, George! When do I get to meet her?"

Groan. "There is no girl, Mom. We were talking about my homework. He's just messing with me."

"But, grandkids George!"

"You know, I think all my friends' moms are encouraging them to not have kids yet..."

"Well I don't mean right now! And that's because your friends are already making progress in that direction, whereas you... Are you gay, George? Is that it? Because it really doesn't bother me, and you can still adopt-"

"I'm not gay, Mom. Just busy."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, I'm sure. Did you not hear me complaining about all the homework I had?" Not to mention the time-suck that is being Wheels. I like being Wheels, but man, some of the things I have to skip out on to accommodate it...

"I meant are you sure you're not gay? I always thought you'd end up with Hannah, you know, but... and then you stood up that nice Brianna girl-"

"I did not. I never agreed to that date in the first place, so it's not my fault she expected me to show up. If anyone's to blame, it's Hannah and her meddling."

"But why didn't you? That's what I'm saying, George. Maybe all this talk about being busy is rationalization."

I sigh. "Fine, let's test it." A few lanes to our right are a college couple. I take a good look at the generically attractive guy. Then I look at the athletic girl with her long black ponytail swaying behind the soft curve of her neck as she glides into her delivery, her lean legs swishing within a flowing skirt matching both her fluffy floral top and her shiny bowling shoes that flit across the-

"Nope," I say. "I'm definitely not gay. Can we stop talking about this now?" Mom frowns and starts to say something else, so I cut her off. "No, I'm not ace either. Seriously, I'm just too busy right now. That's all."

Uncle Jeff swaggers back to his seat, so I shoot him a glare, jot down his spare, and escape Mom's clutches to take my own turn. My leg and back complain, but now I'm annoyed so I ignore them, roll a strike, and smirk at Uncle Jeff. This puts me back in the lead. Unless you count Mom, but counting Mom is a bad idea. She used to be in a league back before the riots messed everything up, and she's only lost a little of her edge in the years since.

Uncle Jeff beats me in the end though, by four stinking points, and we tie the second game. After that we split up; Mom's heading home to get ready for work, Uncle Jeff is heading to the gym, and I'm pretending to be heading to Joe's place to play some video games. Of course, what I'm really doing is skating in that direction, waiting a few minutes once I'm out of sight, and then sneaking back to Tipsy Lanes to see where the Cueballs go when they leave. Or so I think.

What actually happens is that Uncle Jeff ambushes me on my way back. "So what actually happened, George?" he says as he springs out from behind a dumpster.

I shout in surprise and swerve to the side to avoid hitting him, then powerslide to a stop with a wince and a frown. "Don't wanna talk about it, Unc." He knows I get into fights sometimes, but he doesn't know I'm Wheels and I don't want to let any more clues slip.

"I know you're Wheels," Uncle Jeff says.

I blink. So much for that plan. Well, nothing to do now but grin stupidly and engage the Sarcasm Gambit. "Yep, you got me. I am the skates that skid in the night. I am the glowing grin masking the frowning face of my condemnation of crime! I am the alliteration that always alleviates altercations. I am-"

"I am the one who taught you about lying by telling the truth sarcastically. Besides, I'm the one who bought you your first set of skates. I am the one who has known all along, George."

"Bull."

"Okay, fine. I didn't know from the very beginning, but Joe told me six months ago after he walked in on you sewing your own calf shut and freaked out."

"That dirty rat!"

"And he didn't tell Hannah he told me, so she also told me about you a month later when you broke your arm. Blaming it on a rogue garbage truck wasn't a great excuse, by the way."

"That slightly more hygienic rat! And my arm was only cracked a little, thank you very much. Also? That really was a garbage truck. In fact, I'd go so far as to call it a gangbage truck. True story. And if you tell Mom any of this, you won't be my favorite uncle anymore."

"Sure I will. I'm the only uncle you've got, kid."

"For now, for now. If it comes down to it though, I'll steal Joe's dad and he can be my new favorite uncle. He'll resist at first, but Hannah was telling me about this thing called Stockholm syndrome, and-"

"Look George, obviously if I was going to tell your mom or stop you, I'd have done it already. That's not what this is about. You can relax."

"Fine. So what do you want, Provisionally-Still-Favorite-Uncle?"

"I want in."

"...Okay, but you'll have to get your own pantyhose for your mask if you wanna be my sidekick, because I'm not sharing. That's the same rule I gave Joe and Hannah, and fair's fair."

"Heh, no, not like that. I get enough hands-on work fighting fires, and my gear is way cooler than yours anyway. But these Cueballs are playing with fire now and I won't have them burning my city down. We had enough of that in the riots. I figure I can help keep you better informed, and maybe you can tip me off early about any conflagrations. I can even try passing info on to the cops for you. They'll believe tips I -- a respected firefighter they've worked with -- personally give them 'from a trusted anonymous source' more than however you've been doing it. And if stuff gets real bad, I'm somebody you can call with some actual first aid training who won't ask awkward questions."

"Once more, I call bull."

"Oh, I'll ask questions. They just won't be awkward since I'm in the know. Speaking of questions, let's get back to mine. What actually happened? Your behavior isn't consistent with simple bruising on your leg. At minimum, there's also something going on with your back."

"Let me put it this way. I don't know if you've heard of Kinetistop Incorporated yet, but the nice thing about being a repeat customer with them is they'll give you half off on ballistic vests if you send back the used ones."

Well, that lightens Uncle Jeff's complexion a few shades. "They shot you?"

"Well, mostly they shot the ground, but I've got a few huge bruises and a grazed leg that are all super annoying. No cracked ribs this time. I'm really looking forward to a few years from now when they come out with the vests that use non-Newtonian fluids to bridge the gap between softs and rigids. Mr. Bartholomew from Kinetistop says they're not quite working in a practical way yet, but he expects a viable prototype I could test in-"

"They've got you testing experimental armor?!"

"No, not yet. Even getting conventional stuff was tricky. I had to borrow Mr. O'Malley's identity for that. Don't tell Joe. But Mr. Bartholomew is pretty cool. Kinetistop isn't very big yet, so my real-world feedback has been, and I quote: instrumental."

Uncle Jeff sighs. "Alright, whatever. You mentioned a Harris earlier. Well, I think I've heard about him. Wally and his partner Fred have been hunting a Harris Neyland all week. They did get his buddy Ronald Ferguson, but I don't think he's talking. What else have you got?"

"Those guys in Tipsy Lanes? The one without eyebrows is Rob, their leader. I think the one with the mustache is named Tom, and he might be their electrician or mechanic. I was spying on them last week and it sounded like he was the one in charge of ruining the satellite dishes at the news station. But I'm just going off their voices. Which we've got a recording of, by the way; I'll send you a copy. I spotted Harris yesterday at the Alcohouse on Blossom Cobble and tracked him to a place near the river, right at the edge of where the housing starts up. That's when they started shooting at me. I don't know who did the actual shooting though. He was pretty drunk, but then, he did manage to drive there on his bike without killing himself, so it could have been him."

"I would appreciate a copy of that recording, thanks. But don't use your real email address to send it. We don't need the NSA or FBI looking up our skirts."

I give him a flat stare for a moment. "I'm sorry, which one of us has successfully kept a secret identity for the last year, barring the tongue-wagging of overreacting rodents who are going to get a talking to?"

"Hey, you still haven't figured out I'm actually Smokey the Bear."

"Sure, and I bet you're the Tooth Fairy too."

"Of course I am. Didn't you know Jeff's short for Jeffairy?"

Just then my phone vibrates. I groan and answer. "Hey Mom, what's up?"

"George, it looks like our gas station is still roped off and I'm in a hurry, so could you stop at a convenience store on the way home and grab more butter for me? Oh, but not the one by Joe's. The brand they carry isn't very humane. Use the one on Red Heather Street."

"Okay. Should I grab milk too?"

"Um, I think... oh, hang on a second..." There's the sound of movement and some shouting. "Honey, I'll call you back." Then the phone goes dead.

I stare at it for a second, then look at Uncle Jeff. "Mom's being mugged near the gas station. Hero time." I tear off toward home before he can answer. I was already backtracking, so she's not too far off, especially if she was just passing the gas station. Breathing hurts and my right leg is on fire, but I don't really care right now. I don't have my armor or equipment either, just my pads, but at least it's a weekend. That means I have some normal pepper spray and a good knife, plus my screwdrivers as backup. And of course, my skates. Without wheels on my feet, I wouldn't be able to make it there in time to be useful.

Storefronts and people flash past as I sprint up the road, jumping grates and dodging parked cars and pedestrians alike as I weave in and out between the street and sidewalk. Just as I'm wearing out, I jump over a dog and find myself at a traffic light that's turning green. Awesome; I snag the back of a van and catch my breath as it pulls out into the intersection towing me behind. Don't try this at home, kids. Unless, of course, your mom is very possibly being attacked, in which case go hog wild for all I care. Duh.

Unfortunately, the van takes offense to my heroically risky behavior and hits the brakes, so I slingshot out past it and catch a passing bus instead. The bus seems oblivious to my presence, but then we reach a bus stop. I swing out alongside it and sprint like mad, grunting at the exertion, then grab the tailgate of a rusty pickup truck. Score. This guy hauls me nearly all the way there. I break off with a wave as we reach the intersection I need, then haul skate past our shot-up gas station and down the slight hill toward where I can see Mom talking with... well, who do you think it is? That's right, the Cueballs. She seems oblivious to the bats and shovels they're gripping, but they don't seem very agitated either.

Until they see her eyes flick toward me and widen, that is. Rob follows her gaze, then spins to face me. He shouts something like "stop or she gets it," but before anybody can do anything, Mom kicks him in the nuts and levers the shovel out of his hands. Without hesitation, she knocks out the big guy and then takes a clumsy swing at the woman in the cap, who leaps back deftly.

Meanwhile, I have my knife in one hand and pepper spray in the other, and I haven't slowed down at all. Mr. Mustache gets the knife along his thigh as I blow past. I carve into a painfully sharp turn and come back to see that Mom's swinging frantically at the woman, who is dodging easily but having trouble countering the shovel with only her blackjack. Behind her, Rob is already recovering and starting to turn, so I jump over the big guy's groaning body to give Rob a face-full of pepper spray. I try taking a swipe at him with my knife as I pass, but I stagger and only slash the air. Ms. Baseball Cap, on the other hand, has no such luck as I swing around and sink the blade into her gut while she's distracted by Mom. She kicks at my bad leg though, and the next thing I know I'm rolling over the pavement and trying not to bite my tongue in half as I roll roughly over each of my wounds.

Mom is standing over me looking angry and battered when my vision clears, and I'm on the sidewalk now. "What was that!" she screams at me. "I was talking them down! And where did you get that knife?"

"Sergeant Sully's Surplus. And I didn't know you were talking them down until we saw each other, but then it was too late. I didn't mean to make it worse. I was really worried about you, Mom."

She glares at me, but not quite as severely. "Your leg was already bleeding when you got here. You said you hit a railing."

"It was sharp for a railing, and I hit it hard." I grunt and push myself into a sitting position, then shrug out of my pack and wave her off as she starts trying to fuss over my leg. "It's fine, rushing here just loosened the bandages and broke the scabs. I just need to tighten it down again so I can get home, then I can clean it up and put on fresh bandages. It'll be fine. But where'd the Cueballs go?"

"They ran off while I was pulling you out of the road. How do you know they're Cueballs?"

I shrug as I rummage in my backpack for rags and then start tying my leg. "I'm making an educated guess, but they were bald and they were using the same sorts of weapons the Cueballs are known to use, so it seems likely."

"Well, in that case I'm glad we hurt them as much as we did, after what they've been doing to the city lately. I told you about how they broke a window at work last month and threw a skunk into the building, right?"

"Yeah, you mentioned that. A few dozen times."

"I know it's not as bad as what they've been doing the last two weeks, but you have no idea how long it took me to get the place smelling fresh again!"

"Probably about as long as you've spent complaining about it. Can you help me up?"

She reaches down but stops and straightens up when we hear a siren wailing its way toward us. "Actually, honey, it's probably better if you stay sitting until we're done with the police. It might take a while."

I groan and shift my position so I can lean my left shoulder against a street light, and then I stuff my backpack under my right knee to keep my leg better elevated. I don't like it, but hanging around to tell the cops what we can is probably for the best. I'm not going to be doing much of use today anyway after the way I treated myself. At least they'll be able to keep a lookout for people with descriptions and fresh wounds matching what we report.

I remember Uncle Jeff as the cops are pulling up, so I dig out my phone and send him a quick text to let him know we're okay before the cops can try to tell me I'm not allowed until they're done or some crap like that. I shove it back in my pocket without waiting for reply. Officer Susan steps out of the passenger side of the cruiser and definitely eyes my pocket with disapproval. "You again. Color me surprised. Well, obviously you're not okay. What about you, Mrs. Thompson, and do either of you have any weapons on you I should know about?"

I pat myself down while Mom dismisses her minor injuries, then I frown and scan my eyes over the road and sidewalk where we were fighting. "I had a knife, but I don't know where it is."

"It got kicked down a storm drain," Mom says.

"Which one?" Officer Susan asks. Mom points, and the officer jots down a note. "Thanks. Now ma'am, I'm going to need you to follow me over here and answer some questions." She gestures back toward her cruiser, then looks at me and points her thumb over her shoulder at her partner, who's just coming toward us now. "You'll be talking with him, and an ambulance is on the way."

"I'm fine-" I try to say, but she's already walking off with mom. I sigh and steel myself for playing twenty questions a few times with Officer Burris. I get why they do that, but that doesn't make it any less annoying. Then the ambulance shows up and the EMTs repeat the process with a more medical slant, trying to sort out what happened to my leg. I don't think they buy my story about tearing it up by crashing into a knobby railing at high speed, but they don't make a huge issue out of it either. On the plus side, they do a better job of patching my leg back up than I would have, and Mom is still busy talking to Officer Susan when they make me show them the bruises on my chest and back. They definitely don't buy my story about another skater crashing into me and sandwiching me between a doorknob and their elbow, but at least they don't assume Mom is beating me or anything.

And then, finally, they all leave and let us get on with our evening. Mom and I both go home, she calls Winston Biotech to let them know why she's running so late, and then she heads out leaving me resting in our apartment alone.

And that's fine by me, because now I've got a puzzle to solve. Why were the Cueballs after my mom? There's been way too much coincidence lately. Something is going on. According to Mom, they started by just asking her questions about how to get to Lesser Hydrangea Street, but she said the one with the mustache kept eyeing her phone. Then she noticed that they were trying to shift positions to surround her, but she didn't get the impression they wanted to hurt her, so she just backed away a little and got them talking about how bad the job market was, which seemed to lower their aggression. And then I showed up. She thinks they just wanted her phone, and I'm fine with her thinking that, but I don't buy it. Too much coincidence for this to just be a random mugging.

The scariest possibility is that they've fingered me and are trying to get to me through her, but their behavior doesn't fit that at all. They didn't do anything to her until I got there, and they obviously weren't using her as bait because they were surprised when I arrived. So I don't think that's it.

Did she offend them somehow, or have something specific they wanted? She mentioned her phone, but it's nothing special. Even if they did, why didn't they just attack and take it? Doesn't fit. Sure, they may have believed she had a gun in her purse, but there were four of them and they were standing way too close to her for a gun to actually be an effective deterrent, given that they already had their own weapons in hand. A quick application of the flat of a shovel and they'd have been good to go.

Maybe it was a misunderstanding? They might have thought she was somebody they did have a beef with, but then doubted themselves when they got close, so they played along with the "talk them down" game to try to decide if she was actually their mark. Seems far fetched, but it's the best idea I've got so far.

Good thing I'm not one of those stupid angsty heroes who insists on figuring things out alone. I spend some time writing down notes and theories, then I encrypt it all and send copies to Joe, Hannah, and Uncle Jeff. I send Uncle Jeff a copy of the recording from last week while I'm at it.

That done, I dig out a partially finished history essay that'll be due in a few days and start fixing all the things that are wrong with it. After today's excitement I'm going to need to take tonight off from heroing so I can catch up on healing; may as well get my homework under control in the meanwhile.

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