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Chapter 24

Well, for suffering through Stink Girl with me, I'm going to spare you Thanksgiving with Tiff's family and just skip to the Friday after. She's awesome and her dad's pretty cool, I'll admit, but her aunts, uncle, and grandparents? I'd rather dine with Terence. Not even joking; I barely made it through that meal without punching anybody. Uncle Jeff had to literally restrain me toward the end; I left early after that. To be fair, though, her cousins were alright. Sadie in particular was- well, never mind about Sadie.

Paula raises an eyebrow. "Who's Sadie?"

Oops. "Not Sadie. Shady. It's, um, shady today. Yeah." I really need to work on that whole mumbling to myself thing sometime.

"Yes, you do. And I'm not mad, just curious. You cheating is just about the last thing I'd worry about."

"That would be super weird anyway. She's one of Tiff's cousins, and at the rate Mom and Dave are going, she'll also be my cousin before much longer."

"Awkward."

"Yeah. Besides, she's not you."

"Awwwww!"

Yeah, that's right, I'm not a complete idiot about this romance stuff. Women are like a skate pool -- full of interesting curves, but if you just drop in and coast, you'll end up stuck in the bottom. You have to put in energy if you want to keep catching air.

Speaking of catching air, that's when I see movement over Paula's shoulder and jump out of my seat. "Terence incoming," I hiss. He's crossing the street and glaring at the Taco's doors from within the hood of a black hoodie.

Paula's warm expression turns serious as she slides out of the booth we've been sharing at The Shifty Taco. "What do we do?"

I point to the back exit and nudge her toward it as I dump our tray. "I don't think he spotted us. We'll just slip out, and then I'll tail him. I need to find out what he's been up to."

We make it outside just as the front door slams open. Ducking behind a dumpster, we hear him shouting angrily before the door swings shut and cuts him off. I start preparing to rush back in and buy time for the employees to escape, but instead of screams or shattering brick, the next sound we hear is the door slamming open again as he stomps out. I start to rise so I can follow, but Paula puts a hand on my shoulder and whispers. "No, George. I'll follow him. You go back to your Wheel-Cave or whatever you call it and gear up, then just home in on my Summoning Wheel."

"But-"

"I'll be fine. I've been tailing people for longer than you have, and without all those fancy gadgets. I know what I'm doing."

"Alright." I slip on my skates and head down the alley. Along the way, I activate an app on my phone that Joe wrote to let it communicate over the SpookNet the same as my normal gear. I type up a quick warning that I spotted Terence near the Taco and will be tracking him, then I send it to their phones via SpookNet, bypassing the pervy telco networks entirely.

I catch up with Paula about fifteen minutes later with my mask tucked up under my helmet and the rest of my gear on under my stoner disguise. She's sipping a drink outside the Chelsie's Chicken on Sunflower Lane, half a mile west of the Shifty Taco, and pretending to be messing with her phone. "He's in there," she says quietly, nodding toward a run down building across the street with a faded sign on the window: The Ralphjutsu Self Defense Dojo. "He was heading south muttering about you at first, but he got a call, swore a bunch, then came here instead."

"I didn't realize that place was still in business."

"It isn't. I wrote an article on them for a contest the Forchester Paper ran last summer. The proprietor and only instructor, Ralph Bernard, died three years ago. His wife Carol has been sitting on the place ever since. I don't think she can bring herself to let him go and sell it off."

"So. Terence is using this as either a hideout or a meeting place, and this Carol Bernard might be on board but probably just doesn't know he's squatting there."

Paula nods. "I haven't seen anybody else go in since I got here, for what that's worth, and I haven't heard anything from inside. But I got a definite impression that he was ordered to come here, and he didn't like it."

"Hmm..." I run my eyes over the surrounding buildings and then wrinkle my nose when the breeze shifts to blow in from across the street. "Do you smell that?"

"Yeah. It wafts over here every so often. There must be a dead animal back there."

I shake my head. "It almost smells like a dead thing, but it's a little different. I'm pretty sure this is Stink Girl again."

"Cassie Quinn?"

"The one and only. I hope. If there are more than one of her wandering around Forchester, I'm leaving."

Paula frowns at the building's door. "Why would they be- You know Terence better than I do. Do you think she's his type?"

"What? I have no idea. I think his nose works though, so he'd have to be pretty desperate..."

We stare at the building together for a bit before Paula gives me a confused look. "Are you just going to look at it?"

"Well, I was going to circle around and scope the place out, then maybe see if I could listen to what's going on inside with my ParaMic if I could find an open window, otherwise with my stethoscope. But if Stink Girl's in there, I'd kind of rather not get any closer than this. I mean, I don't think I'm going to need to rescue her from Terence or anything, right? If anything, he's probably the one who needs-"

"Stop being a wimp and get in there. Whatever's going on, he's probably up to no good. If you don't start investigating soon, I will. We have jobs to do."

I groan and start casing the joint. The smell definitely gets stronger as I get closer; almost enough to make me wish my stoner disguise wasn't a disguise. It's just miserable. I do find an open window on the east face, which is probably why the smell is so strong, but there's a TV on and I can't hear any voices over it. The back of the building has no windows, so I make my approach from that side and then creep around to the west face to steth one of the two windows there while breathing as slowly as possible through my elbow. Yep, now I hear voices. Several voices.

"-told you to wait, Raymonds," says an irritated voice. Yes, that Irritated Voice. Rob. I swallow a groan.

"And I told you my name is Super-T!" That voice is Terence.

"It's Sewer Tea for all I care! You agreed to join us. That means you play by our rules! Trust me, I understand vendettas, but. It. Will. Wait! You'll have all the time you want to go pick a fight with that kid after we own Forchester. Right now, your job is-"

"Rob," interrupts Jacob's deep voice. "This child is only going to get in our way."

"Hey!" shouts Terence, but Jacob just steamrolls over him.

"I say we let him have his vengeance early. Not right now, but send him out just before we launch our attack. Tell him to be noisy about it. Gather attention. Distract from what we are doing. With luck, it will get both him and Wheels out from under our feet." Well. Nothing like listening to people planning to attack you to send a chill down your spine.

"Yeah!" says Terence. "Jake's the man with a plan!"

"Jacob, child. Not Jake. Jacob."

"I'm not a-"

"Fine," growls Rob. "So be it. But you will behave yourself until then, Raymonds. We do not want attention drawn to us before we're ready." I, on the other hand, do want to bring attention to them before they're ready, and especially before they can put me into a situation where I have to choose between stopping Terence from possibly going after Mom or my friends when he doesn't find me, or stopping whatever the rest of them are up to. But first I need to learn more about what they are up to...

"Yeah, well, if we're so worried about avoiding attention, what's Gassy Stinkbottom doing here? I could smell her from half a block away!"

"Shut up, jerk!" says Cassie's voice.

"Sheltering," says a low female voice that I think belongs to Jones. "She's as much one of us as you are. More so; she listens and obeys."

"Yeah, she's a brown-noser all right, but she ain't exactly subtle, is she?"

"You're one to talk, psycho!" says Cassie.

"Talking's better than crying all day and refusing to do anything useful! You're just a coward. A useless little-"

"Shut it, Raymonds," says Jones. "Look, I know you're not very bright, so I'll spell this out for you. We were all at Pharmedica. We've all got these powers. We're all freaks in the same boat, beset upon by the same technology-crazed society that created us. So we're trying to help each other. Both of you are risky to help, but we are doing it because it is the right thing to do. But, as I said, we're in this together, and if you don't hold up your end of it... if you endanger us when you do not need to... then we will abandon you." There's a pause and her voice lowers dangerously. "If you are very lucky."

"Like you could hurt me," Terence mutters under his breath.

"Thank you, Jones," says Rob. "Now, getting back to business. Harris is currently procuring the last of the supplies with the help of our new friends. Based on what Tom saw before the... the accident..." There's silence for a few seconds before he resumes. "Well, Monday will be the best time to strike."

"So I can go kill George on Monday?"

Cassie groans and starts muttering under her breath. Rob sighs. "If you must," he says. "You will do nothing until nine in the morning. Then, you will attract as much attention away from City Hall as you can. If that's by attacking this classmate of yours, then so be it. If he goes down quietly, you'll find some other high-visibility mischief to occupy you and keep the police and Wheels distracted until we're done. You'll know when we've finished. Do you understand?"

"Sure, sure. I could roll some jewelry stores or an evidence locker, and I've still got unfinished business with Marco..."

"Gomez is with us!" Rob snaps. "We are allied with the-"

"Chill, old man. This is a different Marco. Not with the Enforcers. Scrawny, jittery little guy. Nobody we care about is gonna miss him."

Cassie's mutters intensify. "I'm not hearing this, I'm not hearing this, I'm not hearing this..."

"If I might offer advice, son?" says Jacob. "There is always a bigger fish, and blood draws sharks. You blame this George for what has happened to you, but you are still alive. Get your revenge if you really must, but keep it in proportion. Do not feed yourself to the sharks."

"Whatever, bro. So my orders are to cool my heels for a couple more days. Fine. I can do that. Are we done here, Rob?"

"We? No, we are not done, but I suppose you don't need to stay for the rest. You know your job."

"Sweet. I'm outta here."

Alright, that's my cue. I trade my stethoscope for a fake joint and a lighter, then roll around to the front of the building to huddle against the wall near the door. I pretend to fumble with the lighter, then I give a small start when the door slams open and Terence stomps out. "Oh, heeey man," I drawl at him as I stumble to my feet and lurch in his direction. "Got a light? Mine's not workin' so- OOF!"

"Get off me!" Terence yells as he gives me a hard shove, oblivious to the tracking beacon I just slipped into his pocket. He stalks away muttering while I pick myself up off the ground and pretend to skate weakly away into the alley. Well, it's not very hard; I gasped for air after he shoved me and nearly lost my lunch. I suppress the urge to hurl and return to the window I was listening at, but all I hear now is silence.

A sudden lurching in my gut is all the warning I have to flatten myself to the ground. The whooshing noise passing through where I was moments before sounds impressive. I yank my mask down with one hand while using the other to help scramble to my feet and start moving in a fruitless attempt to avoid whatever's about to-

The ground falls out from beneath my feet and I slam into a wall that now seems to be on the ground beneath me. A fresh wave of danger makes me roll to the side in time to avoid a foot slamming into me, but I don't avoid the shovel that hits my shoulder. So, now I'm grunting in pain as I roll around and fire my Pepper Fists blindly. Then the wall tips some more and I'm falling into the sky.

Freaking hell.

Well, there is some good news. See, people have this reflex when they start to fall. A reflex to grab something, and that's exactly what I do. I grab a great big armful of Rob, who is apparently a gravity manipulator of some sort, and I even manage to get his shovel in my big bear hug. The two of us hurl up above Cherry District as he flails at me with his free arm, but I've got him in a death grip and no amount of pummeling is going to convince me to let him go until we're on the ground again.

"Hey Wheels, what's up?" asks Joe over the SpookNet that we built instead of the GeckoHook.

"We have made bad decisions!"

"No," growls Rob. "You made bad decisions. My decisions are excellent. Now let go of me!"

"Bad time?" asks Joe.

I try to headbutt Rob, but I can't exactly put much into it from this position. Not without loosening my grip.

"Speaking of bad decisions," says Rob, "biting the hand that holds you above a lethal drop? Not smart. Your only chance to survive this is to let go of me and hope I'm merciful."

Maybe, but if I make him genuinely worried that I just don't care, he'll probably land to save his own neck before I can take him down with me. It's worth a shot, anyway. Headbutts aren't working very well, though. Kicking isn't, either, but I have to try. Maybe if I keep this up long enough, he'll just plain get too tired to stay in the air. Then again, with my shoulder throbbing from the shovel, I'll probably run out of endurance first.

Well, I can't tell if he's tiring, but he's getting pretty angry. "Screw off!" he yells.

Oh. That gives me an idea. I risk shifting my arms slightly so that I can reach into my right sleeve. There, my backup screwdriver! I slide that out and jab it into his back. It doesn't do much actual damage, but he doesn't like it at all. Unfortunately, trying to stab him does mean loosening my grip, and he nearly gets out before I stop stabbing and resume clinging.

Of course, we're not just floating statically in the air during all this. We're tumbling end over end, with the ground passing into and out of my view. It's during one of those passes that I notice something odd. "Hey, Rob, I think your base is on fire." Yeah, I say that calmly. I didn't start out calm, but well, scary as tumbling through the sky is, it does get boring once you realize you're locked in a stalemate hugging a guy you don't really want to hug...

"You must be getting pretty desperate if you think tricks like- CRAP!"

You know what a good cure for boredom is? Diving through the air toward a burning building. We slow as we near the ground, then Rob slams us against the roof of a non-burning building. Well, he slams me against the roof, anyway. That's pretty unpleasant, but I'll take it over the sky, so I release my grip and roll away with several grunts of pain. My danger sense isn't objecting to anything but my own movements, though. When I push myself up to my feet, I see that Rob's gone. I scan the skies and spot him quickly flying away from the column of smoke across the alley with Jones, Jacob, and Cassie all loosely hanging onto him.

Well, I'm not going to be catching up with them. Too bad I didn't think to stick a tracking beacon on him. I'm not sure how I'd have managed it without losing my grip, though. I need to start storing at least one of those in my sleeve next to the screwdriver.

But where'd the fire come from? I look down at the blaze now surrounding the dojo... and I see movement. A person-sized chunk of debris tumbling out of the building, wrapped in flame- No, wait, that's Paula! And she's on fire! Crap!

I'm only on a second story building, so I swing over the side, hang by my arms, then drop to the ground. My shoulder really doesn't like that maneuver, but the pain is just a distant fact, not a present reality. I'm too busy rushing up the alley to skid to a stop beside Paula, where I whip off my coat and start trying to smother the flames. She shoves me away before I make any progress, then turns to face the burning building as though she can't feel the flames consuming her as she stands there. I start to approach again, but she holds out her arms toward the dojo and the flames surge up around her into a column of fire stretching sixty feet into the sky. I glance back at the building as the column starts to fade and realize that it's not on fire anymore. And within a couple seconds, neither is Paula. She's just standing there covered in soot staring at the scorched walls. It takes a few moments before I realize that beneath the soot is just tattered remnants of clothes. Whelp, good thing I've already got my coat at the ready. I wrap it around her carefully. "You're not hurt?"

Paula shakes her head, looking a bit dazed as I guide her into the alley. "I feel better than I ever have before, actually."

"Lucky you. My superpower makes me want to puke every time it kicks in."

She turns to smirk at me, then seems to notice my coat around her for the first time. She blinks down at it, then quickly turns away to thread her arms into the sleeves and zip it up. "Pants wouldn't hurt either..."

"Yeah, one second." I return to my pack, which I'd flung off in the process of getting my coat off, then toss her my spare pair and turn away as she yanks them on over the blackened scraps of her own jeans. "We need to get out of here before your identity gets compromised," I say when she finishes.

"Not worried about it."

"What? How could you not be-"

"I know you like your secrets, Wheels, but I'm a journalist. I am the opposite of somebody who keeps things secret. Besides which, have you not figured out yet that only people who were at Pharmedica are turning up with powers? It's pretty obvious at this point, and it's public knowledge that I was among their victims, if only for a day. I've written about it myself, what little of it I remember. The media hasn't made the link yet between superpowers and Pharmedica, but they will soon, and then they'll realize I probably have them too. So, what do I have to hide?"

"Well, for one thing, how about the fact that you just burned up this building?"

"Oh. Yes. Good point."

"Speaking of burning buildings," says Joe in my head as we move to the other end of the alley and peek out, "there are definitely fire fighters en route. Not the Tooth Fairy's crew, either. What's going on out there? Did you get Terence?"

"No, Spook, but I tagged him if you wanna fire up the tracker."

"What?" says Paula.

"Oh, I was just talking to one of my elves."

"One of your what?" demands Joe.

"Alright, this is stupid. I'm turning off the mic for now." Click!

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