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Chapter 14

Tuesday was boring, so it's Wednesday now. My monologue for drama class was magnificent, by the way. In case you were wondering. But that was hours ago during the school-day. It is now the after-school-night, and, unlike most Wednesday nights, I'm out Wheeling it up. We're not doing family-night tonight since Mom's off on her date with Tiff's dad.

Speaking of dates, I powerslide to a stop in the alley behind The Shifty Taco where I'm going to meet Paula to exchange more information. While I wait in the shadows, I slip the nozzle of my water bottle through a hidden slit in the front of my mask and take a few chugs. I hope you didn't think I had to pull the whole thing up any time I was thirsty. I do that for eating so I don't make a mess, but drinks are another matter. When they have a straw or nozzle, anyway. Open glasses don't work so well. Those are pretty incompatible with extreme skating anyway, so it's not usually an issue.

And speaking of issues, here comes Paula with a rolled up magazine in her hand. "Have you seen this?"

I take a look and then shake my head. "The Forchester Fortune is a tabloid, and I'm not interested in what color socks Mayor Larson wears with his sandals. Unless they're red? He's probably not that dumb."

"No. But there has been an upswing in articles featuring claims of abductions and experiments." She flips it open and points at an article.

"Aliens? Sure, it's definitely aliens behind the abductions."

"No, but look who it's about! Henry Winebrook!"

"And?"

"Henry Winebrook is a student at Tonbosa University who legitimately went missing months ago, just before Fall Term started. He showed up again last week with this nonsense about aliens. And he's not the only one. Yolanda Birch, Wilson Verres, and Diane Olsen. All disappeared months ago, before the Tolman Flu quarantines started, and all have shown up over the last month in terrible shape, claiming to have been abducted and experimented on, whether by aliens or humans. They're also all in their twenties, which seems to be the upper range of the age bracket that the 'Tolman Flu' affects."

"And this isn't just The Forchester Fortune making up rumors? Those people actually claim those things? I do keep an eye on the news and I haven't heard anything about this."

Paula nods. "I've talked to them. This version is sensationalized, of course, but Winebrook's account is basically the same -- he was out drinking with his friends at the end of summer, and the next thing he knew he was waking up strapped to a plastic table with a bunch of sensors connected to him and 'beings in space suits' hovering around working the equipment. Then they put him in a padded cell where he spent most of the time, with occasional excursions to what he called 'the scanning tunnel,' which was probably just an MRI machine, and to the examination room where they did more tests."

"How'd he get away?"

"He thinks they just let him go, but he's not sure. They kept him drugged, and his memory is still messed up. He just remembers waking up in an alley with a stray dog licking his face. Here, look at this picture I took." She holds out her phone, which is showing a pale, gaunt man with patchy hair, red blotches on his scalp, and a bruised face. "He says this is an improvement over how he looked when he first got home."

"Ouch. And the other three?"

"Basically the same. They look healthier, and only Birch agrees they were aliens. Olsen thinks they were the CIA, and Verres says they were the Illuminati. But they all had similar appearances when they were released, they all have memory problems, and they all described the same basic experiences. I think it was a precursor to the larger scale operation going on now."

"I never heard about any of these people."

Paula shrugs. "The media was pretty quiet about it when they went missing, and their returns went almost unnoticed. The official explanation is that they experimented with LSD, and that the city has opted not to charge them with a variety of crimes relating to drug abuse, causing a panic, and failure to pay bills while missing. Olsen says she got the impression that the city was implying that they would press those charges if she didn't keep her head down."

"Why would they have been released in the first place?"

"I don't know. Maybe whoever is responsible isn't quite ruthless enough to just kill their victims outright, or maybe this is part of a longer-running test of some sort?"

"I guess that makes sense. And it sounds like these people aren't going to be useful sources of a location either?"

"Nope. And there's no pattern to where they disappeared or appeared from, besides being within Forchester. I think we can rule out the actual hospital though. The construction records are public and I've looked around enough of the facility that the areas I haven't checked aren't big enough to hold all the people we know they have."

"Could be secret underground expansions."

"Maybe, but I doubt it. Why go through the effort of hiding a bunch of secret construction work when they could just have a front company build something openly in another location?"

"Good point."

"What about your research, Wheels? Have you learned anything since Sunday?"

"Dr. Stephenson likes ice cream."

"..."

I shrug. "He's stopped at Kool Dawg's Ice Cream Shoppe yesterday and today on his way home. That seems slightly suspicious what with how chilly it's getting, so I'm going to look into it more closely to see if he's having an affair with a cashier or something. He probably just likes ice cream though."

"Still, it's a good idea. Any leverage we can get is going to be helpful. What about the bugs?"

"They're working, but they haven't turned up anything interesting yet. Oh, and that reminds me, I want you to take this." I hand her a modified tracking beacon. It's disk-shaped with two small switches and a button in the recessed center part.

"What is it?"

"This is the Summoning Wheel. If you slide that green switch over, it sends a signal that you want to meet up to share information soon. If you switch the red one, it sends a signal that you need help immediately. Or at least, that's what it will do next week. This device is finished, but I haven't set up the receiver that will notify me yet. I'll probably build that this weekend." I leave unmentioned that even with both switches off, it will still send a homing ping every thirty seconds, which the receiver I'm going to build will use to warn me if she gets too close. That will be the end of surprise Paula ambushes. Which is, of course, the main goal of the Summoning Wheel. But the official features should be useful too, so that she doesn't start trying to "relay" messages through my George identity at school when I'm trying to get to lunch, like she did today.

"Oh," she says with a smile. "Thank you! Do I need to keep it charged or something?"

I point out the button next to a battery symbol. "Push this, and if it lights up green or yellow, you're fine. If it's red, put in a fresh AA battery when you get a chance, because it's almost out. If it doesn't light up at all, it's dead."

"So it's not rechargeable?"

"Well, you could just use rechargeable AA batteries."

"But I can't just plug in a USB cable and charge it up? That doesn't seem very professional."

"Do I look like a- never mind. Whatever. I'm going to build a few more of these anyway. Just hang onto this one for now, and I'll include a rechargeable AA battery and a USB charging port on the next one. Okay?"

"That would be much better. Now, getting back to business, what's the Stephenson family like? They don't have much social media presence, so your bugs will probably have told you more than I've found out. What have they picked up? Does he get along with his wife? What are their kids like? Any strife?"

"Well, he, um, gets along just fine with his wife, Abby." Mask beats blush once again! "She has some kind of stressful job at the airport, I think in air traffic control. And they have four kids. Albert loves soccer and hates ponies. Betty loves ponies and hates gophers. Carla hates gophers and loves cars. And Daphne just hates everything, I think, but I don't speak tantrum so I'm not sure." I'm paraphrasing what Joe said, since he's the one who's actually been listening to the recordings, with some help from Hannah. Paula doesn't need to know about them, though; she knows too much already. "There's also a babysitter named Laura, but I don't know much about her. They drop the younger two off with her during the day, and she watches the whole lot of them on Sunday afternoons. Albert doesn't like her much, but Aaron -- that's Dr. Stephenson -- he sounded like he trusts her a lot, and Daphne hates Laura slightly less than she hates most other people. The others haven't said anything much about her yet."

We continue bouncing mostly boring information off each other for a while, then split up to pursue our leads for the next couple days. They're boring leads and boring days. Being a hero isn't always flashy. A lot of it is listening to bugs, skulking about in alleys, and bribing the occasional bum or low-end bad-guy for information.

But then there are the times when it is flashy. Like the time I got mobbed by strippers last spring. Or like right now, as I skate over a police car in the process of making an escape on a brisk Friday night. Normally cops are too busy chasing after actual bad guys to give me much attention, and it almost feels like they might have been cutting me some slack for a couple weeks after I rescued Tamara. But something changed in the last few days, and now there's whatever's happening tonight. I'm really not sure.

It started with a simple hold-up at a convenience store. I was actually inside the store in-costume picking up some granola courtesy of a mugger I stopped earlier. Then I heard the door open and people shouting about putting money in the bag. Well, it didn't take long for me to put a stop to that. Unfortunately, as I left with the free granola bars the cashier let me have as thanks for saving him, the cops showed up. Instead of taking care of the formerly armed robbers tied up in the convenience store, they started chasing after me in their cruiser and shouting at me with their megaphone.

Well, I was too hungry to bother with any of that, so I headed down a narrow alley I didn't think they could manage. And what did I find waiting for me at the other end? No, not Paula. Another cruiser. I don't know if they thought they could block me in with it or something, but whatever. I just hop up on top of it and skate over with my eyes clamped shut, trying not to let the lights blind me completely.

Now, here's where it gets really flashy. A very loud bang goes off to my left. They're shooting at me! The freaking police are shooting at me! They've tried to catch me from time to time, but they've never actually opened fire before. This is bad. Really bad. Fortunately, I hit the ground on the other side of the cruiser in the middle of a road. A road with vehicles driving across it through the after-images burned into my retinas. I snag the side of a bus and get the heck out of there.

The police pile into their cruiser to follow, but by the time they get pulled out into traffic, I've already split off from my bus into an alley. I grab an SUV on the other side, then switch over to a truck that's turning onto another road. I skitch a couple more blocks and then hit another alley and slip behind a dumpster. I'm probably safe now, so I quickly scarf a granola bar.

I don't know what all that was about. Did they shoot because I surprised them, or because they're suddenly that serious about bringing me in? They showed up just as I was leaving the scene of a robbery... maybe they thought I was the robber? Hopefully that cashier will clear this up. He seemed pretty grateful.

I was planning to go download the latest data from the Stephenson residence, but it's not worth the risk if the cops are willing to shoot at me tonight. I'll lay low for a bit and wait until they cool off.

In fact, let's skate right into tomorrow afternoon, civilian style, and grab a booth at Kool Dawg's with Joe and Hannah. No Tiffany allowed, and that is the topic of discussion. "We think you should tell her," says Hannah.

I groan. "Too many people know already."

Joe rolls his eyes. "There's just us and Jeff."

"And the Warricks. They don't know my name, but they know Uncle Jeff and that I'm somehow linked to him. Then there's Paula. The only reason she hasn't figured it out is that she's so inexplicably focused on me being a girl somehow. Honestly, at this point I think she might already know and is just trolling me."

"Probably," says Hannah. "But what you need to consider is that however much Tiff might say she understands and respects secrets, we're alienating her."

"Plus," says Joe, "she could be a huge help. Besides the extra set of eyes, she's got more free time than me and Hannah since she's not in any sports or clubs."

I tilt my head toward the door to let them know that Dr. Stephenson just entered the building. "I realize that, and I think she's trustworthy, but the more people who know, the more chance there is for accidents."

"Alright," says Joe, "but what does the math say?"

I sigh. "Let's say a one in twenty chance per year she slips up, at a ninety percent cost if she does. That's negative four and a half percent value. Four out of twenty she's useless but not harmful; zero value. Then fifteen out of twenty that she's a ten percent boost. That's a seven and a half percent value. Net result: three percent average value, plus or minus probably a large amount of error with my made up numbers."

"But the point is, it's worth the risk."

"Barely, and possibly not if I'm not being pessimistic enough."

"What are the odds you're being too optimistic, vs. too pessimistic?"

"Meh. You win."

We eat our ice cream in silence for a while while Hannah surreptitiously spies on Stephenson and his interaction with the cashier. They've seemed a little too friendly during the two other times I watched them, but this really isn't my area of expertise, so I thought it would be worth getting her opinion.

"They're totally having an affair," she says after he leaves.

"They're totally having an affair," I say several hours later from deep in the shadows just as Paula's about to pass by my position.

"For the love of Gonzo, Wheels! Don't scare me like that!"

"Sorry, but I feel like things have been dragging. I'm trying to speed them up."

"How does scaring me help?"

"Is your heart hammering away, or are you sleepy? I'd rest my case, but resting is the opposite of what I'm shooting for here."

"Whatever. Stephenson is having an affair? With the ice cream girl?"

"Tracy Wallace. I don't have any good proof to use against him yet, though. I'm working on that. He also went somewhere on Thursday night, but I didn't get there in time to figure out where. I'm working on an upgrade to my tracking system that'll help with that." Well, Joe is, but what Paula doesn't know won't get my friends harassed on their way to lunch.

"It doesn't just use a GPS chip and record its positions?"

"I'm working on one of those too, but I can only do so much at once, and the simpler ones I've been using are a lot faster and cheaper to make."

"And by 'I', you mean you and your elves, because there's no way just one of you can do all of what you do."

"Sure I can. It's the wheels. I save so much travel time that-"

"So you're doing without GPS like a cave-woman. Fine. But hurry up and get the proof, because the sooner we can start squeezing this guy for a location or somebody who knows the location, the better. I still haven't turned up anything useful on my end, and the doctors I've been checking have all been squeaky clean. Suspiciously clean. Which makes me think we're not going to get a location out of this guy, just the name of one of those eerily clean doctors, and those are a dead end."

I shake my head. "You pedestrians have a warped sense of what is a dead end. And no, I'm not talking about torture. Dirt can be invented, for one thing. For another, we might not even have to interact with whoever he points us toward. They might just lead us to the facility."

"I hope so. But what's the plan when we find it? We'll need-"

"NOBODY MOVE!" shouts one of several dark silhouettes wreathed in hot, blinding lights that devour the cozy shadows of our alley. "HANDS IN THE AIR! DO NOT MOVE!"

Well, screw that. I move, and I move hard. I move almost directly at a wall, which is hopefully the last direction they'd expect me to go. The explosive kicks I'm giving the pavement are echoed by gunfire and shattering brick, but I'm way too terrified to think about that right now. I leap into the air and kick off the wall toward the bright lights, raining down ball bearings and a Glownade as I soar over them-

Nope, never mind. I will not be soaring over them today. Travel plans have been canceled due to insufficient jumpage and lack of wings. Instead, I'll be having a layover in the center of Police Huddleville as I come down right in the middle of their group.

Oh well. They're unlikely to shoot me now since they'd risk hitting each other. A baton comes down into the space I was a split second ago, but I'm too busy kicking off some other cop's tactical vest to get hit by that slacker. A tall cop is on the ball though and manages to land a strike on my shin guard as I go airborne. That throws off my trajectory, so I grab the neck of another cop and break my fall with her before rebounding clumsily over another baton to deliver a kick into a short cop's face. He slips on the ball bearings while I roll backwards away from a swung flashlight that ends up hitting some other guy's shoulder. Hands grab me from behind as I'm about to make a break for it, so I surge up and back instead. He tips and we fall to the ground, but I swing my legs up over my head as we come down and curl into a back-roll that twists me out of his grip and probably bangs up his stupid face as I roll over it to freedom.

Did I say freedom? I meant batons. Sorry about that. They're easy to confuse. One hits my shoulder, and another hits the side of my back, but then that Glownade I dropped finally detonates. The glowing yellow goop hissing out into the faces of angry police officers buys me the moment I need to duck down and charge through the herd into the open street. More shots crack through the night now that they've got a clean-ish line of fire, but I'm sprint-zagging away frenetically enough that they miss, and then I'm around a corner, merging onto a bigger road, hanging onto the back of a truck, another truck, a van, a semi, an SUV...

As I'm lying on my back atop the roof of a random apartment complex, nestled into the shadows between air exchangers, it occurs to me that Paula had been in that alley too. The blood drains out of my face. I was so busy panicking that I forgot about her entirely! Crap! I should not have moved; I may have gotten her shot or killed! Even if a stray shot didn't hit her, it's possible they might have shot her on general principles, or out of startlement when I suddenly charged them. Of course, I'm jumping to worst case scenarios; there's also the possibility that I created a distraction and allowed her to escape, but how likely is that? And it's not like it was a long distraction. Maybe five to eight seconds. If she froze up at all, or tried to take cover, or basically did anything but run in the opposite direction before I got away, then she'll have been apprehended by the police. Assuming I didn't get her shot. And if the police have her, then what? Best case is they assume she was just trying to interview me or whatever, ask her some questions, and let her go. Worst case? They assume she's an accomplice in whatever crimes they're wanting to charge me with and arrest her. Assuming she's alive.

"S- Spook?" I say into the Wheeldio. "Halon? Either of you there?"

Silence. I pull out my phone. There's a missed text message from Uncle Jeff. "Heard about the rabid sheep dogs?"

I bite off a curse and then look at the timestamp. No, this message came while I was already fleeing. I release the fresh spike of self loathing that had started to form. I certainly could have been more aware of our surroundings, or met with Paula somewhere sneakier, but I did not fail to notice an outright warning that the police were actively hunting me. I'd better send him a reply though, so he doesn't worry. "Yeah, I'm staying safely out of their reach." That should do it.

Speaking of my phone, this thing might just be a liability now. I've kept my GPS chip disabled by default to save power, so there's no precise record of my whereabouts, but they can still place me vaguely near that location at that time based on signal strength at whichever cell towers have seen me. Not that they have any reason to suspect me personally, but they could request a list of all phones in that area from the telephone companies. I haven't worried about that in the past; there are a lot of people in this city near any given point. Tonight, however, I am paranoid. I send Mom a text saying I'm spending the night at Joe's, then I resist the urge to smash my phone into tiny little bits, and instead I switch it into airplane mode to avoid being tracked further if they do get my phone in a list.

I hang out on the roof for a little longer, sipping some water and munching granola to calm my nerves and figure out what to do. Eventually I remove my helmet, mask, and skates to switch into hobo mode. Don't wanna take any chances of being spotted again tonight. I'm already feeling sore in a few places. Nothing's bleeding though. Nothing but my conscience.

Once my disguise is set, I climb down and head for the Wheelhouse, being extra careful in the approach in case I'm being followed or walking into an ambush. Everything is fine though, and the security log is clear. I fire up one of the Wheelbooks and connect to the internet, activate the onion routing, and then check the security log for the sensors I set up at my apartment. Nothing out of the ordinary there either. Still, I'm not going home tonight. I'll sleep here. I don't really want to sleep; I want to go find out what happened to Paula. Unfortunately, that would probably make things worse. There's nothing I can do if she's dead, and if she's wounded, the police will get her medical attention whether they want to arrest her or not -- can't interrogate a corpse. And if they're just asking her some questions and haven't actually decided whether to make an arrest yet, me showing up to "rescue" her might change their minds. So probably the best thing to do right now is to stock up on sleep, because I'm probably going to run pretty low on that in the near future.

Morning comes with some bruises on my arms, back, and left knee. For breakfast I have one of the MREs I'd stockpiled here from Sergent Sully's Surplus, then I fire up the news and hop on the bike to recharge the Wheelhouse.

"And that's why you should never play hopscotch with a raccoon," says Generic Female Newscaster.

"That's right, Maggie," says Generic Male Newscaster. "Now, this next story might be a bit of a shocker. It's about what happens when a construction worker has just a bit too much to drink. Over to you, Kaleb."

I tune it out and pedal until they get to something relevant.

"Why, thank you, Greg," says Maggie. "That's so sweet. Now, sorry to kill the mood, but we've just gotten an update on the Wheelhunt. For those just tuning in, the Forchester Police Department is on a city-wide hunt for the terrorist known as Wheels, wanted for a long number of crimes, the latest of which is the kidnapping of sixteen year old Paula Peterson."

What.

"That's right," says Greg. "It happened last night in central Cherry District. Police arrived at the scene to find him holding her at gunpoint and ranting about conspiracy theories. Officers attempted to defuse the situation and take him into custody, but sadly, Wheels had other things in mind last night."

"Chief Carlson declined to comment on just how Wheels managed to escape his officers with Miss Peterson, but he assures us that it won't happen again."

The feed switches to a clip of the police chief looking sternly into the camera. "I know yer watchin' this, 'Wheels,' so you listen good. This is twice now in less than a month you've tried kidnapping young women in my city. We didn't let you have Tamara Winston, and we're not gonna let you have Paula Peterson 'neither. And we know all about those rumors about those missing girls on the street, too, and we can put two and two together. So when we find you, we ain't gonna let you flee like a coward back into the wild to do it again. You done used up yer chances, boy! You call yerself 'Wheels,' well, I done got me some caltrops, boy, and I'm gonna shove 'em so far up your-"

"Wow," says Greg as it cuts abruptly back to the newsroom. "I sure wouldn't want to be Wheels right now."

"Me neither," says Maggie. "Any information on the identity or whereabouts of Wheels should be directed to the Forchester Police Department. Additionally, a reward of ten thousand dollars is being offered by a third party for any information that leads to the recovery of Paula Peterson. See the police website for details, or call the hotline below."

Greg shakes his head. "So tragic. Well, we're going to go to commercial, but stay tuned. We'll be back with the touching story of a boy and his guinea pig, right after the break."

I get up and slam the Wheeltop closed, then resume pedalling with a fierce scowl. They're trying to blame everything on me! Me of all people! They must be in on the Tolman Flu scam. It's the only thing that makes sense. And it's a clever move -- they've removed Paula, put me on the defensive, and provided a scapegoat for all the suspicious activity that's been going on. They're trying to kill a whole flock of birds with one stone.

I twist my mouth into a mirthless grin. Birds are dinosaurs, and I've got wheels on my talons.

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