The rest of the party is okay, but my heart isn't really in it anymore. So forget slogging through that. We're jumping right into what my heart is in, which is to say my body inside my Wheels costume on Saturday night, splishing and splashing down slippery alleys in search of a certain sleazy seller of salacious services. That's right, it's time to have a little talk with Pimpin' Dan to find out how much of what Rob said was true.
I'm leaping over a trash can when I see a kid up the alley notice me and duck inside Dan's Pimpcave. Hey, I didn't name that one, okay? That one's all Dan. He's a little weird. I roll carefully to a stop in the slippery alley and approach the door just as it opens for Dan and a bodyguard.
"Wheels. Whaddaya want?" Dan's a tall, middle-aged guy wearing a pink and black tiger-stripe suit, and he's scowling at me past a smouldering cigar that smells like burning strawberries.
"I heard from an iffy source you've been having troubles lately. Any truth to that?"
He takes out his cigar and spits to the side. "Troubles? Well, if ya wanna call mass kidnapping troubles, then yeah, we been havin' troubles."
"Do you know who's responsible?"
He glares at me. "You think I'd still be havin' troubles if I knew that? Pimpin' Dan is more'n a name, boy. It's a reputation. How often you hear of a reputable pimp, huh? That's why girls work for Pimpin' Dan instead o' them Butterflies. I treat 'em like humans, 'cause they are. But now some goat fathering puddle of piss is treating 'em no better'n a car stereo. I won't have it, boy! If'n you know who I need to go bust up fer this, you best done tell me already!"
"Whoa there, I don't know either, that's why I was asking. And I know about your reputation. That's why I tolerate your existence in my city."
"Heh," snorts Dan. "So you do got some brains hiding under that helmet. Thought maybe you didn't know 'bout power vacuums after that mess with Hemopalooza and now the Cueballs."
"People say that it's better to have the evil you know than one you don't, but I say that if the one you know likes to paint with human blood, maybe it's worth taking a gamble that a lesser one replaces it. As for the Cueballs, they messed with my internet."
"Didn't mind, myself. Internet lets people cut out the middle man; bad for Pimpin' Dan's business model. Not as bad as these kidnappin's though. The whole point o' Pimpin' Dan is I'm safe. Don't look to safe with most o' my girls gone missing, now, do I?"
"You said you don't know who did it. Do you know when or where? Or how? Any clues at all that might help me put a stop to it?"
Dan rubs his neck. "Tell ya what, boy. Come on into my Pimpcave and have a talk with Mr. Seeley here. He's in charge o' Pimpin' Dan's security and can answer those questions better'n I can."
"Uh, could we do that out here instead?"
"Oh, I see, yer one o' them prudes. Fine, whatever, I gotta get back to tryin' ta keep all o' this from sinkin' my ship."
Dan closes the door behind him and Mr. Seeley steps in front of it to frown at me. "Mr. Wheels. It is nice to finally meet you. I have wanted for some time to tell you that you are a complete and utter idiot. You have survived this long purely on luck and chutzpah. That is impressive, but also horrifying. You are like an eighteen-wheeler barrelling unimpeded through every barrier in its way, totally unaware that those barriers hide a collapsed bridge. You need to become more cautious."
"It's, uh, nice to meet you too, Mr. McCritic. But mathematically speaking, the odds of me having actually survived this long on luck alone are lower than your mom."
"This is why I do not like to work with children."
"Well, it's good to know you're not a pedophile, but-"
"Can we just get on with this already?"
"Hey man, that was your tangent, not mine. So, what do we know about these disappearances?"
"Nine women aged seventeen to thirty-two, and the thirty-two year old had a fourteen year old son who also went missing at the same time she did. None were working when they were taken. All were taken as they walked between their homes and various destinations, at times ranging from six in the morning to eleven at night. There is no overlap in locations. Two happened close enough in time and far enough in location that there must have been two separate parties involved."
"Was anybody not taken?"
"Three. One has a good sized family and only works with us occasionally. The other two are Asian." He gives me a meaningful look.
"You think it's the Butterflies?"
"That is likely. The Butterflies have lately accused Mr. Dan of affiliating with the Dream Enforcers, despite his clear allegiance to Bling Blang, with whom they are neutral. Meanwhile they are expanding their own prostitution operations, in direct competition with Mr. Dan's."
"But, Dan said he didn't know who-"
"My job is to keep Mr. Dan safe. Unfortunately, he is a very loyal and protective man. This is admirable, but giving him information that would motivate him to pick a fight with the Heavenly Butterfly Flock would be extremely detrimental to his safety. I have no such qualms about endangering your safety."
"Figures. But if I could propose an alternative, have you seen any indication that there may be a medical conspiracy of some sort that's responsible? That's what I'd heard, and things are looking suspicious."
Mr. Seeley shrugs. "All of them were healthy, as far as I know, and their neighbors all say they just stopped coming home one day, no explanation. Nor have I personally encountered any medical shenanigans. This Tolman's Flu business does have us concerned; Mr. Dan suspects it may be a new STD, thus the privacy surrounding it. We have not seen it, however."
"Huh. Okay, well, thanks for the information, Mr. Seeley."
He smiles just a little bit as I back away. "Stay lucky, Mr. Wheels."
Lucky, huh? Well, I do manage to avoid losing my footing on the slippery alleyway until I'm around a corner, so that's a good sign, right? Maybe not, because just as I pull out onto the street proper where things are drier it starts to rain again.
Rain is cold, interferes with traction, and generally sucks, so let's just slip and slide right on into tomorrow. Mom, Uncle Jeff, and I are all back at Tipsy Lanes again after spending the morning up at Darkhill Cemetery prettying up Dad and Sally's graves with some marigolds. Tipsy Lanes is also feeling the Day of the Dead spirit, because all their pins are decorated like skulls today. I've just finished updating the score sheet from the end of the first game -- I beat Uncle Jeff this time! -- when I hear a smug voice from behind me.
"Well well well, fancy meeting you here!" says Smug Voice. Crap. No, it's not the Cueballs again. Worse. It's Tiffany.
I turn around, and sure enough, she's walking toward us with a big smile, followed by a guy with a receding hairline in a turtleneck carrying a bag with his own ball in it. I sigh. "Hey Tiff. Mom, Uncle Jeff, this is my friend, Tiffany, and her dad, Mr. Tiffany's Dad."
"Hi," he says. "You can call me Dave, actually, Dave Keller. I take it you're George? Tiff's told me a lot about you. Too bad you're not a girl, hey?"
"Dad!" she hisses.
"It's nice to meet you, Dave," says Mom. "I'm Patty Thompson, and this is my brother-in-law Jeff."
"Good to meet you, good to meet you," says Uncle Jeff to the Kellers. He's way too cheerful. Must be in on it. "You're welcome to join us if you want."
"Oh no, we wouldn't want to-"
"Sure!" says Tiffany. "It'll be fun!"
I try not to groan out loud. After all, it could be worse. Remember Ken, Glen, and Ben? No? Neither do I. That's how terrible they were. At least this Dave guy seems decent. He's got a jack-o-lantern themed bowling ball, even. Very good sign. And as we play I realize he's good at the game. Maybe better than Mom.
Tiff sits down next to me at the score card table after rolling a spare. She's pretty good too, but not in their league. Much closer to me and Uncle Jeff. "I think it's working," she whispers.
"No good will come of this."
"I don't get it, George. Don't you want your mom to be happy?"
"Sure, but..." But if they break up, then she'll be non-happy, and Mom has a bad history with non-happiness. And if they do stick, it's going to get hard to be Wheels. I'd have two more people in my home life to hide my activities from, for one thing. People who aren't going to be conveniently away from home working late hours during my prime hero time. I'm not going to say any of that though.
"We're not trying to replace your dad or anything, you know. I'm sure he was cool and your mom loved him a lot. It doesn't mean otherwise if she falls in love again. Wouldn't he want that?"
"Sure, I'm not really worried about any of that. I guess I'm just being selfish. Don't worry about it. Your dad's cool."
"Aww, thank you! Your mom's really sweet too, and well, I sure wouldn't mind being your sister or anything."
"Um. Okay. You're, um, cool too. Yeah."
This awkwardness needs to end. Let's jump forward to-
"George! Why didn't you tell me you had a girlfriend?" Mom says as I return from rolling a strike. What. No. This isn't far enough forward. It's only been two minutes. I wanted to jump to tonight, dang it! But Mom's not having any of that. "You two are adorable together!"
I start to splutter, but Dave bails me out. "Sorry to let you down, Patty, but Tiff's bowling for the other league."
Uncle Jeff smirks. "He means George doesn't have the right assets." He accompanies that with cupping motions in front of his chest.
"Oh! See, George. This is why you should work out more. You've got great legs, but some girls are more into the upper body, and-"
"They mean I'm gay," says Tiff with a blush. "And can we please stop talking about this?"
"Welcome to the party," I mutter.
"Oh," says Dave. "You're gay too?"
"I can confirm," says Tiff. "I'm pretty sure he's got a thing for this girl from school named Paula."
"If by 'a thing' you mean a deep and abiding frustration for the way she's always between me and my food, then yes."
Mom shakes her head with a mock frown. "I have given you so much of myself, George. The least you could do in return is to think of the grandkids."
Dave laughs. "Well, look on the bright side. At least you've got the possibility. At best, I'll only have adopted grandkids."
"Not true," says Uncle Jeff. "You could still have more kids of your own and hope they come out more dynastically minded. You're not exactly old, after all."
"Uh, well, I guess that's a theoretical possibility, but, well, it kinda takes two, and..."
"Hey kids, Patty and Dave seem to be a bit out of our league. How about after this round we get a lane of our own so one of us will actually have a chance to win for a change?"
"Yeah!" says Tiff. I sigh and nod agreement. If nothing else, it'll be less annoying. In fact...
Okay, now it's tonight. And, big surprise, I still haven't escaped my torment. Why? Because Hannah's at the Wheelhouse tonight, and she's amusing herself over the Wheeldio while Joe tinkers with a directional version of the tracker. "So it worked?" she asks.
"Yes. They're already planning a date for Wednesday night." So much for family time.
"That's great, Wheels!"
"Sure. You know what'd be even more great? If you told me what you found out when you checked in on your friend today."
"Carrie and Frank are still under quarantine. Mrs. Yancy said the doctors haven't let her see them since they went in because the quarantine area is behind too many layers of security to just go up to a window, but she was just talking to them on the phone yesterday. They're tired and upset, and not always coherent because of the medication, but they're okay."
"We probably shouldn't use their names on the Wheeldio, just in case. Did she say anything about video?"
"She said she didn't think to ask about setting up a videoconference, but she'll mention it next time. They've just been phoning, texting, and sending the occasional selfie."
"How do they look?"
"Sick and stressed out."
"The normal stuff, mostly. Puffy eyes, pale skin, runny noses. Carrie looked like she might have psoriasis or something like that on her scalp."
I jump a storm grate and then take a corner onto Frozen Lilac Street. "How much skin was visible? Could they be hiding bruises? Did it look like an actual hospital in the background?"
"I don't know, I only looked at one picture. Carrie-"
"Fine. Aegis was the only one in it. I could see her arms and they were fine, other than a Band-Aid from where they did some test."
"Are their texts in-character?"
"I didn't ask."
"How'd they get diagnosed anyway?"
"Car- Aegis went in for a physical with their family doctor, Aaron Stephenson, and the hospital screened her for what they're now calling Tolman's Flu, but she said back then they were calling it something Latin that she can't remember. She said they were screening everybody who came in, just in case. When Fr- Aegis's brother and mom went in for normal flu shots soon after, they both got screened as well, and it turned out the brother had it too."
"He can be Buckler."
"Sure, Wheels, sure. So according to Shield-Mom, they're both still stuck at Tonbosa Memorial for the indefinite future, but they're both okay."
"I don't buy it. Tell her to ask them things only they'd know next time she talks to them. Not text; needs to be something real-time where she could hear any hesitation or confusion."
"I'm not telling her that."
"You're more worried about her thinking you're weird than you are about making sure your friend is really alive and okay? That's cold, Halon."
"No, Wheels. I'm pretty sure Aegis and Buckler are still alive, and I already know they're not okay. Either they've been kidnapped, or they're sick. What I don't want to do is give Shield-Mom even more reason to worry about them."
"Worry isn't going to stop until they're rescued, and I can't rescue them without intel."
"Assuming they aren't just sick."
"Yeah, if we live in happy ending fantasy world, they'll just heal up and everything will be fine, and I won't even have to smash down any doors. Speaking of which, hang on a second."
Karunchkabang! That's the sound a door makes when I hit it with the Master Key, which is what I'm calling the random sledgehammer I picked up at a hardware store earlier tonight. Before anybody inside can react, I'm rebounding off a wall and slamming the Master Key into a ceiling fan, which becomes a floor fan as soon as it finishes bouncing off the various Butterflies who would otherwise have been pulling out guns right about now. I hurl the Master Key at the one Butterfly who wasn't below the fan, then I pull out my new Pepper Soaker, flick open the bayonet, and take up station near the door. Just in case this goes sideways and I have to bail. My new vest doesn't show up until tomorrow, so I need to be extra flighty.
"Alright, Buggerflies!" I yell from the door. "Your dog-fighting days are over!" Yeah, that's what these particular ones have been up to lately. "But Wheels is a benevolent and forgiving animal rights activist! Answer my questions and we can all leave here before the cops show up! Otherwise, y'all can get arrested and I'll just go hit your meth houses next!"
The ensuing conversation doesn't go well at all, as they steadfastly refuse to say anything about Tolman's Flu, Dan's missing girls, or any abductions in general. By the time sirens draw near, summoned by an anonymous tip sent in by Hannah from the Wheelhouse, my eyes are itchy, my bayonet is dripping blood, and one of the Butterflies is short a trigger finger. This version of the Pepper Soaker is using a good knife for the bayonet, another one I picked up from Sergeant Sully's Surplus. The police fished my old one out of the storm drain, but they're still holding it as evidence. Sully had a two-for-one sale the other day though, so it's all good. Anyway, I keep them pinned down until I can actually see the cop car, then I toss a Glownade into the middle of the room for good measure before I cut across the street to disappear between buildings on the other side.
Since I don't actually know where any of the current current Butterfly-run meth houses are just yet, and I've got school tomorrow, and I'm hungry, I decide to start working my way west back toward central Cherry where The Shifty Taco lives. I run into a pair of muggers a few streets before I get there, but they don't slow me down for long, and one of them had an unopened bag of candy in the cool jacket I took from him. I love when that happens! I don't want to spoil my tacos though, so I tuck it away for later and pull into an alley to change-
"Hello, Wheels! I'm Paula Pe-"
"Ahh! Don't do that! I almost stabbed you!"
"Well, thank you for having a modicum of self control, ma'am. And could you please try to speak into the microphone?"
"Where did you even come from?"
"Well, a trusted source told me you're fond of this horrible taco place up the road, so I've been hiding in that shadow over there every night, waiting for a chance to interview you."
"Thompson," I hiss between clenched teeth.
"I can neither confirm nor deny the identity of my source. I'm sure you understand. Now, ma'am, as I was saying, I'm Paula Peterson from the Coldriver Chronicle, and I'd like to ask you some questions. To start with, and this may be awkward so I apologize, but why do you masquerade as a man while in costume? You could be such a role model for the young girls of Forchester, showing them that they too can be violent, lawless vigilantes when they grow up."
"There is no masquerade."
She raises an eyebrow. "Your voice is obviously faked, to say nothing of that girly scream you made earlier, and while you might be doing a good job of binding your chest, those hips don't lie."
"Sure they do. It's called padding."
"Why would a man pretend to be a woman who is pretending to be a man? That defeats the purpose."
"It's not that kind of padding. It's protective padding."
"Sure it is, ma'am."
I begin to object, but then it occurs to me that we're arguing about whether my costume makes my butt look big. And why argue? It's not like I want her to know who I am. "Think what you want. I'm gonna go get some tacos."
"Wait, I've got more questions!"
I glare at her, but of course she can't see it through my mask, so I sigh and fish out one of the wallets I took off the muggers. "To achieve the answers to your queries, you must go on a great quest. Obtain for me six tacos with the works, young reporter, and you may find the wisdom you seek."
Paula rolls her eyes. "I can see why you and my source get along. Fine, come on, we can talk while we eat."
"Oh no you don't. If you want to talk, you'll bring the tacos here, and they'd better still be warm."
"I am a journalist, not a delivery girl. Stop being a pain and just eat inside like a human."
"Um, hello? Protecting a secret identity over here?"
"...Oh. Sorry, right, that makes sense." She blushes slightly. "You said six?"
I toss her the wallet. "Yep!"
She flips it open, then raises an eyebrow. "Derrick Johnson?"
"Oh, that's not me. I can prove it if you want! He's hanging by his ankles from a fire escape down the road right now. Looks just like his ID, except his face is redder in person. Or maybe that's just the blood rushing to his head. Come on, I'll show you."
"I- um- no. No, that won't be necessary." She nervously pulls the money out, then holds the wallet by her jacket sleeve and tries to wipe off her fingerprints before flinging it clumsily in my general direction. "I'll be right back. Don't go anywhere!"
"As though I'd go anywhere without my tacos."
She shakes her head and stalks off toward The Shifty Taco. While I wait, I move into a shadow near the one she'd been hiding in and turn off my UV light so that I don't glow. I'll admit, my initial reason for doing this is so I can try scaring her when she returns, but I abandon that plan quickly when it occurs to me that she might drop my tacos. I don't want to be hanging around in the open though, since somebody might notice me and try to pull something, so I stay in the shadow anyway. I'll just skip the pranking Paula part.
"So," says Hannah through my Skullbuzzers. "Who was that? I only heard your half of the conversation, and that wasn't informative at all."
"Working on that," says Joe's faint voice. "Got an upgrade for you when you get back."
"Well, I was heading toward food, so who do you think it was?"
"Way. Our friend Lois, waiting in a shadow to ambush me. And she's still insisting I'm secretly a girl, even after talking to me in person! I mean, that's good news for my secret identity, but there's something wrong with her head."
"Serves you right," says Hannah. "There's plenty wrong with your head."
"Har dee har har. So anyway, she's bringing me some tacos and then I guess I'm going to give her an interview. Maybe she'll leave the other me alone after that."
"Um, don't get your hopes up."
Eventually Paula comes back. I flick my UV light on and roll out of the shadow before she's close enough to be startled. "You've brought the quest items?"
"You didn't say what kind, so I guessed that you wanted veggie tacos?"
"Forget it. I'm gone."
"Wait, no, that was a joke!"
She hands me the sack and I look inside, then I groan. "Mild? Seriously?"
Paula winces. "Sorry, you didn't say-"
"Why would I need to say? Mild hot sauce is an oxymoron. Don't they teach you about those in your human schools?"
"Look, I'm the one who's supposed to be conducting an interview here. I brought the tacos, so I get to ask the questions."
"Not until after I interview the tacos in delicious privacy. I'll be right back!"
Paula starts to protest as I skate off around the corner and scale a building, but that's okay. We'll just skip right over those protests and into the middle of devouring sweet taco goodness. Even if they're not as spicy as they should be, they're still a wonderful-
"There you are!"
I glance over my shoulder to see her pulling herself up onto the roof behind me. I turn back to my tacos before speaking. "You're a tenacious one, I'll give you that. But for your own safety, ma'am, please remain behind me while I finish my tacos. My mask is partially raised for eating, and it would be unsafe for your human eyes to behold my harrowingly heroic chin of cheekily cheerful championship."
"Yeah, yeah, secret identity, I get it. I'll stay back here where I can't see whatever lady lips you're hiding behind your mask of manhood. So anyway, setting aside the snark, what motivated you to put on a mask and become a hero in the first place?"
"Well," I say between bites, "what motivated you to not be a hero?"
"Um, because I'm normal?"
I almost spit out my food trying not to laugh. "Says the girl who hid in the shadows at night to ambush a dangerous vigilante, fetched him tacos, and then climbed up a building to interview him on the roof instead of just waiting for him to finish. You aren't normal, and you could be a hero. So why aren't you?" I make a sweeping gesture at the city around us with a taco. "And why aren't they? There are plenty of people out there just as weird as we are. But only a handful become heroes. Why do you think that is?"
"I guess because it's hard and scary?"
"For most people, sure, that might be the reason. But people like us? I don't know if you think what you did tonight was scary, but plenty of normal people would call it that. You did it anyway. Fear isn't what stops people like us from being heroes. No, it's that feeling of impotence. Like, who are you to be a hero? You're not going to succeed. You're not going to make a difference. You're just going to run around like an idiot and get killed, and the world will be no better for it. So why bother?"
"But you do bother."
"Yeah. Because I eventually realized that all that stuff I just said was bull crap. It took a series of accidents to realize it, but eventually it became clear that I do have the power to make a difference. And once I realized that, how could I not be a hero? If you see somebody choking, do you walk by or do you do the Heimlich? Forchester is choking, and I am the Heimlich Maneuver. That was going to be my name, actually, but it's too long, so I picked Wheels instead. I am a hero of the people, even the monosyllabic ones."
I resume munching on my tacos while she mulls that over. "Okay. But why did you decide to be a masked vigilante instead of..."
"Instead of waiting years and then becoming a cop, EMT, or firefighter? Because I'm impatient, and because we already have those. Maybe not enough, but we have some. What we didn't have was somebody unconstrained by bureaucracy and corruption. Somebody anonymous, whose family cannot be threatened to make him stop. Somebody agile, creative, and determined. Somebody like Wheels."
"What about concerns that your anonymity and autonomy leave you an unaccountable loose cannon?"
I polish of another taco before answering. "People get all wrapped up in these fantasies that they control everything and that anything they don't control is going to hurt them. But fantasies don't matter. Reality matters. The reality is that Hemopalooza was a menace in this city for years, during which time the 'accountable' and 'controlled' police failed to stop them from taking over half of Cherry District and a good part of the city at large. Lots of people were dying. Then, I happened. Now what few fragments of Hemopalooza remain are so busy trying to stay under the radar and survive the other gangs that they can barely hold more than a block or so at any given time, and Forchester's death rate is way down."
"Many a tyrant has justified their actions that way."
"Tyrants have armies. I'm just a guy with wheels on my feet. I can hold my own against a gang or two, but the whole of Forchester? Pfft. Besides, just 'cause I reject the authority of the few in power doesn't mean I'll ignore the will of the actual people I'm trying to help. If it was clear the people didn't want me, I'd hang up my mask or leave. What I'm not going to do is stand by and let people die just to soothe the insecurities of a few outspoken control-freaks."
"Would you describe yourself as an anarchist?"
"Nope. Too much chaos is bad. Too much order is bad. Balance is good. Where's the sweet spot? No idea. I'm a vigilante, not a political scientist."
"Alright," I say as my last taco meets its acidic fate. "Now it's my turn to ask a question. You're really good at getting into other people's business. What do you know about Tolman's Flu?"
"You mean the obviously fake disease the medical establishment is using to cover their illegal human testing operation? I've been investigating that for a few weeks now. Why, are they your next target?"
I wipe my mouth and pull my glowing grin down as I turn to face my new sidekick. "We're gonna have to get you some pantyhose."