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Chapter 16

Well, the good news is that this time around I have plenty of tape to hold down my bandages, so I don't have to tear rags off my hobo disguise again, and my shoulder's very sore but intact. The bad news is that my side feels like that time I slipped in chemistry class and rubbed up on the Bunsen burner. Except without the part where my clothes were on fire. Or the screaming classroom and swearing teacher. Or the sprinkler system. Well, okay, so the overall resemblance is fleeting at best, but the stinging, throbbing pain is similar to that one specific part of that fiasco.

I'm tempted to go back to the Wheelhouse and grab my good painkillers, but the problem with strong pain medicine is that it messes with your mind. I can handle that if I'm just being George, but as Wheels that kind of thing could get me killed. Then again, maybe I shouldn't be Wheels anymore today. I've got two fresh injuries, the Pepper Soaker's gone, my spyglass broke during the excitement, and I have no idea where Paula is. Nor all the other people.

Of course, that's exactly why I can't stop being Wheels today. We don't know if whatever drugs these people give their victims cause permanent damage, but common sense says that the longer I take to rescue them, the less likely they'll be to recover. And meanwhile, the longer this conspiracy is allowed to run, the more opportunity they'll have to smear my name and turn the city further against me. And tomorrow's a school day.

I do at least have some leads left. There's Dr. Stephenson, who we know is involved at least enough to have "diagnosed" the Yancy siblings. There's Mr. Seeley's claim that the Butterflies are involved, although that might be an unrelated incident. There are those proto-victims Paula interviewed, if I can think of something to ask them that she hasn't already tried. Chief Carlson is also a lead, albeit a very dangerous one.

Now that I've gotten my bleeding under control, I stow my skates, mask, and helmet, go full-hobo, and head for a bus stop. There weren't any near Daring Denny's, but I made sure to skate in the direction of bus routes when I was looking for a spot to hide, so it's not a long walk. A few buses later and I'm on the roof of the Wheelhouse, using collected rainwater to take a quick sponge bath since my skin got pretty itchy from going through my improvised tear gas. Then I put on a fresh set of clothes, re-apply my armor, and head down into the Wheelhouse proper to build Peppernades, since it's becoming clear that I really need some area-of-effect weapons. With Hannah's help, I also manage to throw together a basic version of my Pepper Soaker from spare parts. It lacks most of the refinements the last one had, but hopefully it'll be enough for the next couple days. While we're doing that, Joe updates the firmware in my Wheeldio to deploy the first version of his encryption upgrade. Finally, I hot glue some random junk circuitry and an empty pressure canister to a walkie talkie and toss it in my pack. I spare about three seconds to frown at my ever-delayed grapple designs, stock up on granola, and then head north to Putter's Contentment in Vista Grande.

I originally planned to do this with more finesse, but after last night and this morning I'm mad and in a hurry. So, instead of waiting to catch Dr. Stephenson when he's away from home on his way to or from a liaison with Tracy Wallace, I'm going to deal with him right now. It's a Sunday afternoon, so his kids with their babysitter while he and his wife share a peaceful afternoon at home, brought to a ringing halt when I mash their doorbell in my hobo disguise, my mask pulled up underneath a stocking cap.

After several more rings, the door opens to reveal Stephenson scowling down at me; he's a bit tall and more than a bit balding. "This is a gated community. I don't know how you got in here, but you need to-"

My sucker-punch shuts him up. Before he can react, I hook his ankle and shove forward through the doorway, sending him to the ground as I step into the house and lock the door behind me, grunting as my side burns. He's starting to get up, so I kick him in the gut, then lunge across the room to swat the phone out of his wife's hands. "Do not move." I draw my new Pepper Soaker and aim it vaguely at her as I retrieve the phone and make sure she didn't manage to complete the call. All good. Into my pocket it goes. I continue keeping my Pepper Soaker aimed at her with one hand as I pull down my mask and approach her husband. "Gimme your phone, too."

He's upright already, and he sneers at me. "Abby, that's not a real gun, just pepper spray. This coward is no thr-"

He falls over clutching his groin. "Oh, I'm plenty of threat."

"Leave him alone!"

I turn back to her. "Indoor voice, ma'am. I'm pretty sure you're innocent, so please remain quiet and outside arm's reach so that I won't have to use force against you. I have a gag and I'm not afraid to use it."

She glares at me with a defiant glare and takes a deep breath, so I pull the trigger before she can scream. While she's dealing with that the stinging and coughing, I zip-tie her husband's wrists and ankles together behind his back. Then I repeat the process with her and gag her with one of rags in my pack. I turn up the TV's volume for good measure, then hoist her up onto the couch where she'll be a little less uncomfortable. Her husband gets no such courtesy.

"Where are your victims," I demand of him as I empty his pockets of keys, phone, and wallet. The wallet goes onto the coffee table, but I shut off the phone and pocket it along with the keys.

Stephenson's eyes flicker toward his wife for a moment. "My patients are at Tonbosa Memorial Hospital. Obviously."

"The Tolman Flu victims aren't. Where are they?"

"Quarantine."

"And this 'quarantine' is where?"

"Someplace safe."

Alright then. Let's try the blackmail. "You buy your wife an ice cream bar from Kool Dawg's every day, don't you? That's so sweet. You must love Tracy so much... No, wait, that's not the right name." I snap my fingers a few times. "Oh, right, it's Abby! Your wife's name is Abby. My bad. Don't know where I got Tracy from. Now, where are the Tolman Flu victims?"

Stephenson laughs. "What was that supposed to be, a threat to tell Abby about Tracy? She's known for years, and it's water under the bridge. Accidents happen."

I frown behind my mask. "An ongoing relationship is not an accident."

He rolls his eyes. "Her birth was the accident. Tracy is a blessing."

"What are you... oh! Daughter, not lover." So much for blackmail.

"Just what do you take me for!?"

"Well, given that you're a doctor who abuses society's trust to help kidnap and torture people, it doesn't seem like that much of a stretch to believe you're also a cheating sleazeball."

"I would never do any of that!"

"Oh really? Then where are Carrie and Frank Yancy, or Lizzie Belmont, or Tim Donlan?"

"They are in quarantine because they have a dangerous illness. What do you want with them, anyway? Biological weapons? I'm not going to help you to-"

I kick him in the shoulder. "My patience is getting thin."

He groans and then gives me a pained smirk. "So what? You're willing to bang me up a little, but better me than my patients. And I don't think you have the balls to take this to the level you'd need to break me."

"Oh, really?" I jingle my bag of bearings. "Pretty sure I've got more balls than everybody in Putter's Contentment put together. See, your problem is that you're uncreative. It's true I'm not willing to physically torture you... much... but have you ever heard of the Golden Rule? Now consider the fact that you're a kidnapper, and that I don't think you're fit to be a parent. So, guess what happens next?"

"You wouldn't."

"Why not? You are a terrible person, so what possible motivation could I have to let you continue raising your kids? Even without the need for information, it's in my best interest to see that your kids are raised by a parent who is actually human. Less chance they follow in your footsteps."

"If you touch a hair-"

I lean over and pat his head. "Silly villain. I'm not going to kidnap your kids. I'm going to kidnap you. Remove you from society and keep you locked up where you can't hurt anyone, like the police would be doing if your organization wasn't bribing them. And just like you're doing to your own victims. Maybe I'll even use you to test new non-lethal weapons on. That's more or less what you're doing with them, isn't it? Testing drugs? Fair's fair, Mr. Stephenson."

"That's Doctor Stephenson, you-"

"Nope, I don't think so. Doctors help people, not hurt them. Hippocratic Oath."

"You mean the oath that says, 'I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure?' And the one that says, 'I will respect the privacy of my patients?' Because those things are precisely what I am doing right now!"

"Indoor voice, Mr. Stephenson. But it would appear I have hit a nerve, oh yes. You're one of those villains who thinks he's the hero, aren't you?"

"Says the violent, cowardly child in a mask."

"Sure, it's the guy who risks his life pushing back against Forchester's gangs who is the coward, not the one who pretends to be a doctor so he can kidnap children while their pants are down. The Hypocritical Oath strikes again! Now, are you going to talk, or am I going to give you a taste of your own medicine? If you answer my questions and then get out of my city, I'll leave you be. Otherwise..."

Stephenson's voice takes on a solemn tone. "I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm."

"That another part of the oath you're violating?"

"Do what you want to me. I will not talk. The kids, they'll- they'll survive without me. My obligation is to all my fellow humans. There are too many lives at stake to risk it all over mine."

"I suppose you think you're testing some magic drug that's going to cure the world once they get it working, and that the lives saved are worth those you ruin along the way. And I get that; I'm a vigilante, after all. I know all about cracking eggs to make omelettes. But really, how likely is it that this is the only way, or even the optimal one? What reason is there not to do the tests openly, with oversight and voluntary subjects?"

"You have no idea what you're talking about."

"Then enlighten me."

"No."

I pull out a knife and bounce a sunbeam around the room with it before settling the beam on his wife's angry red face. She's been struggling the entire time, and has left some red stains on the couch from where she's rubbed her wrists raw against the zip-ties. The unchanging grin on my mask hides my grimace. "You're going to miss your family, Aaron. What if I cut off Abby's ears for you to remember her by?" The instant I start to move toward her, he surges against his own restraints and starts to shout. I kick him in the face to shut him up, then sheath my knife and sit down on the coffee table. "That is what it feels like to actually want to help people, Aaron. You're sitting here claiming you have some big cause that you're willing to sacrifice yourself for, but it's a sham. You don't feel that for whoever you think you're helping by not answering my questions. You're also not feeling the pain your children and wife will feel when I take you from them, or the pain you'll feel as you rot away chained up in some abandoned building or cave with no idea what's going on in their lives, or if they're even alive at all. Not knowing what that actually feels like, you try to imagine it, and you imagine that you're tough enough to handle it, and you imagine that you're making a worthwhile trade-off in protecting your organization over yourself. You are mistaken."

I reach over and pick up a family photo from a few years ago. They're at a beach. Albert is catching a frisbee his dad just threw, while Betty and Carla build a sand castle. Abby's on the left, holding a baby Daphne in her left arm and aiming the camera at herself and the others with her right. I turn it so Stephenson can see.

"You care about your family. Well, I also have a family, and you people..." I smash the frame against the table, shattering it as I allow heat to enter my voice. "You people have broken it. You can argue about how it's for the greater good, how whatever you're doing to my sister will save many people's lives... but it's not my sister's fault those people's lives are in danger. Maybe they chose to live unhealthy lives, or took risks, or were just unlucky, but none of that is my sister's fault. So what right do you or they have to claim her life for theirs?" I force myself to recall seeing my dad and sister gunned down in front of me, feeding on the pain to lend authenticity to my lies. "You took her from me, and I will have her back. You can either help me and keep your own family intact, or you can oppose me, rot in isolation, and in the end, not actually accomplish anything more than delaying me from my goal. Because I will free your captives and return them to their families, whether I get the location from you, from Carlson, from the Butterflies, or-"

"Fine," he spits. "I tell you what I know, and you leave me and my family alone?"

"That is the deal. I can't promise the police won't take action against you as things come to light, but I will not be involved in that. I will not provide them with or corroborate any reports about your involvement. This is all contingent on you behaving, of course."

"Of course." He twists his head and wipes some blood off his cheek with his shoulder. "I can't tell you as much as you probably want. We're very compartmentalized. I don't know exactly where they take the test subjects. I do know that it's within the city, and I think they're bringing in people from neighboring towns too. So you'll be looking for somewhere that can handle a lot of people, unless they're distributed though several locations."

"That's not enough information. What about the people involved? Who are they? How'd they recruit you? And would you please tell Abby to stop struggling before she wears her wrists to the bone?"

"Abby, dear, please..." He trails off at the glare she shoots him through her puffy red eyes. "Never mind." He looks back at me. "I may have to take you up on that offer of being placed in a nice, safe, isolated location for a while."

"You dug this hole, not me. Now keep talking."

He sighs. "Regina Valentine, my supervisor, is the one who arranges patient transfers to the 'quarantine' area, and the one who recruited me. Director Omar is uninvolved, as far as I know. I can also tell you that Dr. Tolman is a fabrication. I don't know what you think the Butterflies have to do with anything, but I do think Pharmedica might be involved. Valentine has a lot of ties to them, and I think I recognized one of the men who's been picking up the test subjects. He looked like Trevor Bryant, who was one of our EMTs until a few years ago when Pharmedica offered him a better deal than we could afford."

"Okay, now we're getting somewhere." I get out my notebook and jot down Valentine's and Bryant's names along with anything else of interest that Stephenson can think of. Hannah's also recording this conversation back at the Wheelhouse, of course, but I want my own copy of the important bits on my person, just in case.

"So," he says when we've finished. "I held up my side of the deal."

"Yep."

"And now you're going to release us?"

"Eventually. But right now, I have no way to know that you've been honest. You could be sending me into another trap. I'm going to leave you guys nice and snug for now, until either somebody gets suspicious and checks on you, or until I finish saving the day and come back to let you out, whichever happens first. So, on that note, if there's any information you withheld that would help me wrap this up faster, it's kinda in your best interest to tell me now."

"I already told you everything I know, you son of a-"

"Say what you want, but Momma didn't raise no fool. Now, open wide for the airplane!" I drown out his protests with airplane sounds as I apply another gag. Satisfied neither of the Stephensons will be making much noise, I haul them into their big walk-in pantry and close the door. That'll keep them secure for a while, but their babysitter will get suspicious when they don't show up to pick up their kids. Or she might bring the kids back here herself, see Stephenson's nice yellow car in the driveway, and get worried enough when nobody answers the door to call the cops or break in. Or let herself in, if she or the kids have a key or know where a spare is. Well, not much I can do about most of that, but I can at least make it look like they aren't home. After all, I've got Stephenson's keys now. Before I go, I raise my mask and tuck it under my stocking cap, raid their kitchen to heat up and eat some leftover pasta I find in their fridge, and then make sure all the lights and the TV are off and the doors are locked. Good. I unlatch an upstairs window and then let myself out the front door.

Now for the fun part. I haven't driven before, but how hard can it be? Mom might not have a car, but it's not like I haven't played some video games and ridden in other people's, so I understand the basics. I let myself into Stephenson's car, buckle up, and look over the controls. The gear shift is in a different spot from the one in Uncle Jeff's Jeep, and the letters in the display are smaller, but it doesn't seem like anything alien. I put in the key and turn it. The radio comes on, but nothing else happens. I try turning it farther, but the key doesn't move. What the heck? I turn it off and try again. Nothing. Frustrated, I turn it off a bit harder than necessary, and this time I notice something weird. It feels like the key can keep going past the off position. I give that a try and the radio turns on again. Hmm. I turn it even more and the engine finally shudders to life. Awesome. This music sucks, though. That's not entirely Stephenson's fault; it's not like we've got any good radio stations in Forchester. I switch it over to the alt-rock station, which is better than nothing.

Alright, next I'm going to need to put this thing in reverse. I hold the steering wheel with one hand and pull the gearshift with the other. That works fine; the little orange indicator slides from the P to the R without complaint. But for some reason, the car immediately starts rolling backwards. I'm not even pressing the pedals yet. And of course, it's only now that I realize I can't actually reach the brakes. Crap! I grab the steering wheel with both hands and pull myself forward while slouching down to slide under my seatbelt enough to hit the brake. The car stops. Whew!

Of course, now the seatbelt is digging into my sore side, and my shoulder's not too happy right now either, and I can't see over the dash. Muttering under my breath and careful not to release the brake, I undo my seatbelt and get myself upright on the edge of the seat. I should be able to slide it forward, but when I reach underneath for the adjustment bar I only find a hamburger wrapper and some ancient fries.

"Are you okay, Wheels?" asks Hannah over the Wheeldio. "I hear you muttering."

"I'm fine. This car is just retarded."

"Yeah, I'm sure it's the car. What are you having trouble with?"

"Nothing. It's fine." I'll just sit on the edge. It'll keep me alert. "I've got this." The seatbelt itself is adjustable, after all. I loosen it up and put it back on. There. No problem. Now I can just let out the brake and back out of the driveway. Except I'll be going backwards, and the mirrors aren't aimed right. I sigh and adjust the rear-view mirror. The side mirrors can go reflect themselves for all I care.

Alright, moving in reverse, take two. I let off the brake and the car starts rolling. Right toward the mailbox; it seems that I veered sideways while I was pulling myself forward earlier. No big deal. I just turn the wheel a little and straighten out. Yeah, this is easy. I get out into the street and turn, then I stop and shift over to one of the two D settings. Uncle Jeff explained the difference once, but I don't remember and it probably doesn't matter. I let go of the brake and the car rolls forwards, slowly picking up speed. On its own. I mutter some more and coast slowly through Putter's Contentment while I get the hang of steering this stupid, defective, possessed car.

I'm feeling more confident by the time I reach the gate, which is, of course, closed. Crap. I didn't think of that. Fortunately, the gate swings open on its own before I can decide whether to ram it or just turn around and park in Stephenson's back yard. "Yeah, that's right, Mr. Gate, you know what's good for you." I guess they have a sensor or something; they want to keep people out, not in, after all.

The gate defeated, I coast through and stop at the edge of the road. I should probably use blinkers for this. That would be the stick to the left with all the doo-dads on it. Hmm. I give it a push and the left blinker turns on while the windshield wipers take a couple swipes before stopping on their own. Neither of those were what I wanted. I push it the other way and it switches to the right blinker. Perfect. Look both ways, wait for the oncoming truck to pass, crank the wheel around, and let up on the brake. Easy, and now I'm rolling down an actual, proper road, with lines and dots and everything. At ten miles an hour. This is probably suspicious. I tentatively push on the gas pedal. The engine revs and now I'm going twenty. I push harder and the car rapidly speeds up. This fun! I'm actually gaining on that truck. Gaining fast. Too fast. Crap. I manage to swerve over to the left and pass him. Whew! That was- CRAP! I swerve back into the right lane just in time as more cars zip past on the left, horns blaring as they disappear behind me. I catch my breath and back off on the gas.

"Wheels! What was that!"

"N- Nothing. Just some jerk weaving through traffic like a drunk. He's gone now." Man, talk about hypocrisy. I just nearly got several different people into an accident. Did not realize this car would accelerate that fast.

It takes a bit, but eventually I make it to Chester Mart. I pick a parking space toward the back, where there's more space to maneuver. It takes a few tries to get centered, but then I'm parked. Move the orange thing to the P, shut off the engine, put the keys in the glove compartment, and hop out. I don't plan to risk driving it back to Putter's Contentment, so I lock the doors behind me. I'll let Stephenson know where I left it later. Maybe.

For now, though, I'm going to walk the rest of the way to Trevor Bryant's apartment, which Joe tracked down to a nearby apartment complex while I was driving. Stephenson wasn't certain about Bryant's involvement, but if he is involved, Bryant will be more likely to know where I actually need to go than Valentine. If I'm lucky, I might not even have to coerce him. This guy supposedly travels there, and in my experience tracking beacons are more reliable than interrogations.

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