Chapter 6

"And she just went off to work after that?" Joe asks as the three of us sit down for lunch.

"Bills don't pay themselves, Joe."

"No, but she could take a few sick days and lie low until it's safer."

I shake my head. "This is my mom we're talking about, remember?"

Hannah nods and recites Mom's motto: "Hiding from a problem doesn't make it go away."

"Sure it does," says Joe. "Not all problems are implacable forces of nature. Some are human, and humans get bored, give up, and find something else to do."

I roll my eyes. "Even if you could convince her of that, how long do you think it would take for the Cueballs to get bored? She's a custodian; it's not like she can just take a two month vacation without warning. We need to just focus on eliminating the Cueballs as fast as possible."

"You replaced the beacon on Harris's bike on Saturday, right?" asks Hannah. "We could track him down -- more carefully this time -- and then tell the police where to find him."

"Maybe," I say. "But what I'm worried about is that it'll only be him, and that the rest would feel rushed, step up their plans, and get more violent. So it might endanger Mom even more. For that matter, we don't even know for sure they're after her. I still say the mistaken identity theory is the most likely, which would mean we don't even know who it is who'd be put in extra danger."

"Right," says Joe. "So, what's the next step if we're not going to call in the cops yet?"

I chew Coldriver's terrible pizza while thinking, then frown. "That last beacon is our only lead right now. I'll just have to track Harris down and plant some bugs, like I tried to do before."

"No, George," Hannah says while pointing at me with her fork. "You're still healing. Joe and I can do it."

"I don't want you guys-"

"-Getting hurt, yes, I know. And we might, but guess who's already hurt? You need to take it easy for a few days and finish healing. We'll be fine."

Joe raises a hand. "Um..."

"Okay, I'll be fine."

"I mean, I'll be with you over the radio and all..."

Hannah sighs. "No, it's fine, Joe. I understand, and honestly? I'm glad at least somebody in this trio has a sense of caution." She glares at me.

I shake my head. "Guys, I'm not hurt that bad. I just have to avoid anything extreme. Stakeouts aren't extreme."

"Funny," says Joe. "Seems to me a stakeout was how you got shot in the first place."

"What?" says a voice I don't know. "He got shot again?"

I look up to see a vaguely familiar girl looking at me with a concerned expression behind her blond bangs. I shake my head. "No, it was in a game. Who are you?"

"George," scolds Hannah. Oh, crap. She's probably trying to set me up with this chick. "This is Tiffany. She's in my psych class, and I think you both have US History? I invited her to sit with us because I think you've got a lot in common."

"Hi!" Tiffany says with a smile. It's a nice smile, and she doesn't seem like a moron. I'll go easy on her.

"So, what are the first things you think of when I say Firefly, pi, retort, and Python?"

"Um, summer nights, whipped cream, a pretentious and contrary person, and Kaa from The Jungle Book. I hope that wasn't supposed to be innuendo?"

"No. The correct answers were: space ships, half of tau, chemistry, and programming." I turn back to Hannah. "Next time, I'll take Nerds for $1024."

"Oh!" says Tiffany while Hannah glares daggers at me. "I know that one! Jeopardy! Except you asked a question instead of an answer."

I turn back to her with a tentative smile. "Excellent. The answer is snicker-snack."

"What does the vorpal sword say?"

My smile is no longer tentative. "Most frabjous! Final test: Atlas."

"My first thought is the titan, and then maps, but I'm guessing you're talking about the rocket? Those are cool too. Not as cool as maps, of course, but way cooler than holding up the sky all the time. I think they named them that because they were so titanic, but I kind of like the parallel between the Atlas rockets lifting things into the sky and Atlas the titan lifting the sky itself."

I gesture at a free seat. "You may join us here at our Tumtum tree. But before you do, I have to warn you that Hannah is trying to get us together, but I'm already married to my job and I'm not interested in having an affair."

She sits with a smile. "That's okay. I'm gay, actually. Sorry, Hannah."

Our would-be matchmaker drops her fork while Joe snickers. "Seriously?" she demands.

"Well, I don't like to make a big deal about it, but-"

"Do you have any idea how long I've been trying to hook this guy up with somebody, and then just when you're giving me hope..."

"Oh. Sorry about that. But hey, it could have been worse! I dated this real sweetheart named Marco all summer before I accepted I was gay. I broke his poor heart."

"Timid Marco?" I ask.

Tiffany shrugs. "I guess? Marco Chambers. He's the guy that jerk Terence was picking on this year, not the Marco with all the piercings. Speaking of whom, have you seen him lately? We used to pass in the halls, but I haven't seen him in at least a week."

"Short answer is he attacked me on my way home and probably ended up in juvie where he belongs." That's more severe than I expected, but he hasn't been around and you won't hear me complain about that.

"What? No way. Marco would never-"

"No, I mean Terence attacked me."

"Oh, well, I was talking about Marco. The one with the piercings, I mean, not the one I dated. I don't really know him well, but um, we have things in common and we talk sometimes. I guess he must be sick or something."

Joe shakes his head. "I'm telling you guys, it's an epidemic. Oh, and I'm Joe, by the way. Nice to meet you, Tiffany."

"Sure, and call me Tiff," she says as they shake hands.

"Well, anyway," Hannah says, "I'm sorry I wasted your time. You don't have to sit with us. I'm sure I'll find someone for him eventually."

"No, that's fine," Tiffany says. "The people at my table are mostly jerks anyway. Other than Brianna, but well, she's pretty straight. It kinda sucks, you know? Sitting near somebody you've got this huge crush on and knowing that they'll never return your feelings. Not just that they don't currently feel that way, but that they can't. Karma for what happened with Marco, I guess." We eat silently for a bit, then she smiles at me. "So, George, what game was this you got shot in? I didn't know games had stakeouts?"

I shrug. "It's an indie superhero game called Cape Man that includes detective work."

"Oh, cool. I might have to look it up. I mostly play puzzle games, but that sounds interesting."

"Um, well, it's in closed beta right now and they don't really have a public web presence yet, but uh, I'll let you know when they release it?"

"Cool! And you got shot in it?"

"Yeah. Like I was telling Joe and Hannah, I'm tracking this bad guy in it, right? But I'm not playing a hero with regen or durability, so getting shot can be a pain. We were trying to sort out how to avoid that next time."

"So what powers do you have?"

"Well, I thought it would be fun to base my character on Wheels, so the only powers I've got are good stamina, high luck, and ridiculous charisma."

Hannah snorts and Joe rolls his eyes, but Tiff doesn't seem to notice. "If I had powers, I think I'd want a happiness aura. Walk into a riot, calm everyone down, and send them home. And I'd want regeneration, because hospital food sucks."

"Yes it does. How'd you end up eating the stuff?"

"Car accident when I was little." She pauses for a moment. "Mom didn't make it. We were turning left, and they hit us on the right. Dad was driving and I was on the left in the back. But she was in the passenger seat." We murmur condolences, but she waves them off. "It was years ago. We've moved on."

I nod. "My family got caught in the riots back when Pinley was elected mayor. We were just leaving an ice cream place when things erupted around us. We tried making it to safety, but... well, we didn't. Dad and Sally were both shot. It was..." I trail off at the memory of being splattered with my own family's blood. "Well, so much for lunch."

"Heh, now would be a good time for that happy aura, hey?"

"Yeah." Then I notice something out of the corner of my eye. "Hannah. No. I know what you're thinking. Stop it."

"But they'd be perfect for each other!"

"How? You don't even know Tiff's dad! He might not even be single anymore!"

"What are you talking about?" asks Tiffany.

Joe laughs. "Well, Hannah was trying to set you up with George, right? You kind of ruined that. But then you went and revealed that you might have a single father, and George here happens to have a single mother, and Hannah is Hannah, so..."

Tiffany laughs. "Yeah, he is single. But he's a complete weirdo and he's super obsessed with bowling."

"Well well well," says Hannah as I bang my head on the table. "Guess who else likes bowling?"

"Oh, she does?" says Tiffany eagerly.

"Look, Hannah," I say, "if you really must play matchmaker with me, fine, I can handle it. But you leave my mom alone!"

Hannah ignores me. "Yeah, Patty used to be in a league and everything! She's really good at it. She also..."

I take my tray and limp away. Callooh. Callay. Joe quickly catches up, chortling to himself. "Looks like somebody's going to have a new sister soon," he says.

"Ha ha." I exaggerate my limp as we head out of the lunch room toward the quad. "You know what? The mugging yesterday might not have hit the rumor mill yet, but it is technically public knowledge. So my leg injury isn't a secret. And I think it's getting worse. A lot worse. Hannah's right, I need to be taking it easy. So, I should probably go home before all this walking between classes tears everything open again. Yup. Sound logic. Tell Hannah to wish me luck!"

Joe shakes his head as I start limping off campus. "She's gonna kill you," he calls. I shrug and keep going. I've got a job to do.

A quick stop at the Wheelhouse later and I'm back on Harris's trail and closing in on his new hideout. This time when I identify the dump he's camping in, I keep going and change out of my skates in an alley, then I climb up the back of a building across the street, crawl across the roof, and watch from above. I've got my ParaMic and spy glass, but I don't see anything and all I hear is the faint yammering of a TV through a broken window in the front. He must be somewhere in the back. I consider changing buildings, but I'd rather not take chances. Plus? Skating here aggravated my leg a bit, so I'm not exactly excited about the idea of climbing another building. This spot is fine. He'll leave or go to sleep eventually.

A few hours later the TV shuts off abruptly. I hear some banging around, the rattle of a door, and then a motorcycle. Harris rolls out from behind the building and putters off down the road. I monitor the building a bit longer, but it's completely silent now. Excellent. Spy time is over; breaking-and-entering time is now! I pack up my gear, check that my hobo disguise is in order, then climb back down and stagger across the street to the run-down Tasty Chops butchery Harris has appropriated. The stagger is mostly fake, but only mostly. I think I'm going to be staying off my skates the rest of the night.

The back door is unlocked, so I quietly let myself in and start looking around, careful to check my tracker periodically to make sure Harris's signal isn't getting stronger, which would be my first sign that he's returning. There are a lot of dusty, obviously unused areas in here that I avoid. I'm not going to find anything in them, and he might notice my tracks and realize he's been compromised again. Mostly he seems to be using the bathroom and the office, where there's a smelly sleeping bag on top of a small air mattress, a small TV on the desk, a pile of dirty clothes in one corner, a pile of clean clothes in another, and a lot of miscellaneous junk. Bottles, wrappers, that kind of thing.

I climb up on the office desk and plant a bug in the drop ceiling, then I climb back down and start searching the drawers looking for clues. I don't find anything useful, just a bunch of nine millimeter ammo, some office supplies, a stash of energy bars, playing cards, and some motorcycle magazines.

I also check the view from the windows so that I'll know which areas to avoid when approaching this place in the future. That's when I hear a car pulling into the parking lot on the other side of the building. Crap. I glance around the room, but there really aren't any good hiding spots, so I head into the hallway and carefully move into the dusty part. Hopefully nobody will look closely and notice.

A short way in is a janitor's closet, but it's closed and locked. I go further and slip through an open door into the dark kitchen, then check the reading on my tracker. Harris is still far away, at least. I crouch next to the entrance to the kitchen and quietly withdraw my Pepper Soaker from my backpack before pulling on my mask and helmet. I don't bother shedding the rest of my hobo disguise; my armor is already on beneath it as usual and I don't have much time. In fact, the back door is banging open right now.

"-Don't see why we need him anyway," grumbles a voice I don't recognize.

"Because he's useful," says Rob's. "Harris is an idiot, but he's a slippery idiot. I mean, look at this place. This is the third hidey hole he's found in the last week, hooked up to utilities and everything. You think you'd do better, Swanson?"

"I wouldn't need to in the first place. It's because he's an idiot that he gets into these kinds of messes. It's because he's an idiot that I got shot after the Talaria job. It's because he's an idiot that-"

"Enough," says Deep Voice. "We too may need to hide someday. If so, you will appreciate knowing Harris."

"If we do, it'll probably be his fault," grumbles Swanson.

"Where is he, anyway?" demands what I think is a female voice. "Did he forget which day it is?"

"Probably," says Rob. "Jacob, you have the number to his burner?"

"Yes. I'll give him a call," says Deep Voice. There's the sound of faint beeping, then I hear the bouncy sound of "You Don't Mess Around With Jim" echoing down the hall.

"Great," says Swanson. "He doesn't even have it with him." Huh. I didn't see any phones when I was searching the place. It must have been in a dirty pair of pants or something. I didn't check those, because eww.

"We'll just have to wait," says Rob with an annoyed sigh. There's the sound of bottles and wrappers falling on the ground, then cards shuffling. "Blackjack? Poker? Casino?"

"Go fish yourself," spits Swanson, followed by the TV turning on.

"Alright, what about you two? Casino?"

There are grunts of agreement, and the conversation mostly dies. I decide I've got three options. I can try to sneak out the front now, masked by the TV. I can wait until Harris shows up and try to leave then, while it's noisier. Or I can wait until they leave and Harris goes to sleep. I'm tempted to do that so I can listen in on their conversations, but that's what the bug is for. I decide to leave now, since depending where they parked, I might be able to sneak up to their car to put a beacon on it.

There's a door leading from the kitchen to the front, but it's closed and probably comes out behind a counter I'd have to climb over. The door to the hallway, on the other hand, was already propped open when I got here, and I'd left it that way to avoid raising suspicion. If I can go that way it'll probably be quieter, so I creep up to the door and peek down the hall. Nobody is keeping a lookout; they're all inside the office playing cards or watching Judge Judy. Good. I quietly move further up the hall into the front of the building. There's another door there, held slightly ajar by a piece of broken countertop or something. I hold my breath and wait a bit for Judge Judy to start shouting over a deadbeat dad's protests. With her covering me, I carefully push the door open just enough to slip through, then quietly close it on the rubble again.

Now I'm in the front. The evening light sloping through the grimy windows reveals that somebody had a gunfight in here, once upon a time. That's why the counter is shattered. Maybe that's also what shattered the one missing window, or maybe somebody just busted it to get in and see if there was anything to loot. Either way, that window is my preferred exit vector. Hopefully climbing over that will be quieter than using the front doors, which are fully closed. No telling how loud their latches will be. I get as close to the glass shards as I can without making noise, then wait. Judge Judy is done shouting for now, but then it switches to a loud Old Spice commercial. Even better! I climb through and start moving around the building until I'm on the side.

I check my tracker to make sure Harris isn't going to come around the corner and see me skulking around, then I remove my helmet and mask so I'll cause less suspicion to other people. Now back in hobo mode, with my Pepper Soaker inside my coat instead of my pack in case I need it, I head for the car. It's a generic bluish colored piece of junk from maybe fifteen years ago. The kind of vehicle nobody would notice in a neighborhood like this. I set my pack aside and crawl down under it to attach a tracking beacon. Then I slide out, sling my pack back over my shoulders, pull out a notepad, and jot down the plates and VIN.

Finished, I walk up the road a bit, stow my Pepper Soaker, and catch a bus to The Shifty Taco to get dinner. That's a bit frustrating since I'd normally just skate there, but it's less frustrating than if I overdo it and have to spend an extra week healing.

Once I'm fueled up, I head back to the Wheelhouse and update our notes. I don't send any of it to Uncle Jeff though, because I don't want him jumping the gun. For one thing, it's entirely possible that the cops won't be able to find any proof that these guys have done anything. I ran into that problem when I was dealing with Hemopalooza last year. I'd tip off the cops and they'd put pressure on them, but often they couldn't really do more than question and watch people. Even when I tried providing video proof; turns out the courts require somebody to vouch for the integrity of evidence, so I'd have to show up in person, sans mask, and explain how I collected it. That's not happening.

The trick is to find the evidence and point the cops at it, rather than trying to bring it to them. Other options include planting evidence, tricking them into revealing their hand around cops, or finding out their plans and getting the cops there ahead of time to ambush them. The latter was what I'd initially tried with the Cueballs, and we all saw how that worked out. To be fair, a big part of the problem there was them realizing I'd heard too much, so they changed plans and the cops didn't have enough resources to cover every possible outcome. So this time around, I'm not calling them in until I have solid information. Hopefully that will be tomorrow when I service the bug and listen to their meeting in full.

So anyway, I wrap that up and then tinker with my gear for a while, keeping an eye on my tracker as I work. Eventually the number that corresponds to their car to starts changing. Twenty minutes later, it settles into a new reading. And that's my cue to head back out. It takes a while, but I track it to a small house on Long Hyacinth Road with a mailbox that says Yancy. I'm gonna guess this house and the car are Rob's or Jacob's, since Swanson and Jones are both surnames. This doesn't look like the kind of place I can hang out in hobo-mode for long without people getting cranky though; it's a poor area, but very residential, and I can already see people starting to glare at the unfamiliar hobo eyeing up their houses. I memorize the address and keep on walking, only pausing record it when I'm out of sight.

And that's about enough for tonight. I grab another bus back to the vicinity of Blossom Cobble, drop my gear and notes off at the Wheelhouse, and head home to get some sleep. All that walking and bus riding was tiring. I mean, it's easier, but it's so slow. It's like stretching a rubber band, and the longer I move slow, the farther it gets stretched. Wears me out.

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