I glance over at the attendant. He’s still paying me absolutely no attention, and doesn’t seem to notice that my call has ended. Rather than asking if I can make another call and risking him taking the phone back, I just dial Peterson’s number. As expected, the attendant doesn’t seem to notice.
After a couple of rings, the phone’s picked up. “Peterson.”
“Officer Peterson, hi. This is, um. This is Dan Everton.”
“Mr. Everton.” His voice is completely flat. I’ve never heard anyone manage to say anything so completely devoid of emotion. I’m guessing that that means he’s pretty ticked off, and is suppressing it while waiting to hear what I have to say.
“Look, I can explain everything. I just need you to listen.”
“When you say ‘everything,’ what does that include?”
“Everything! Why you’re mad at me, how you ended up arresting me, why a lot of things don’t seem to make sense and fit together.”
“So you can explain all of my behaviors. How about yours? Can you explain why you fled custody?”
“Well, yeah. I was being set up, and –”
“By your lawyer?”
“What? No. No, he wasn’t intentionally involved. This was — okay, this is going to sound weird, but I promise you it makes sense. You remember Vince Amano?”
“Let me guess,” Peterson says, sarcasm lacing his voice. “Vince broke out of prison, leaving behind a clone of himself to disguise his escape. He then stole a car and made his way to your house, which for some reason you had decided was the most inconspicuous place to go to ground. He cornered you there, probably with other clones, and attempted to trap you in a house fire. You escaped, stealing a bicycle to get away from him, and are now hiding out at a gas station calling me.”
I’m momentarily stunned into speechlessness. That’s not entirely accurate, but it’s pretty darn close. “I…yeah, but…wait, are you saying that you don’t believe that? Because, um –”
I’m cut off as Peterson starts to laugh, a deep and slightly menacing sound that only stops when it turns into a small coughing fit. I wait for him to pull himself together. I don’t really know what I’d say here, anyway.
“You’re an idiot, Mr. Everton,” says Peterson once the coughing subsides. I tell myself that there’s fondness in his tone. Certainly I don’t hear any malice, at least. “Yes, unfortunately I believe this. Various police reports support aspects of the story, which is why I know about them in the first place. I even believe what you were doubtless planning on telling me to begin with, that my thoughts were influenced by nanobots controlled and spread to me by Dr. Argute.”
I’m both relieved and impressed. Peterson has managed to assemble all this and figure out what happened while under the influence of foreign thoughts prejudicing his mind against me. He really is impressively dogged in his pursuit of the truth. I sum all of these feelings up with a simple, “That’s great!”
“And I deeply resent,” Peterson continues, and now his voice is definitely angry, “that I have somehow ended up forced to believe in science-fiction idiocy like this. I blame you entirely for this, Everton.” He practically spits my name, and I notice that he’s dropped even the honorific.
“Look, I’m sorry for –”
“Shut up. I am a police officer, and that means I am responsible for seeing justice done.” Peterson coughs again, a wet hacking sound, and continues. “I will figure out a way to safely arrest Dr. Argute. I will see you back in here, where I expect minimal paperwork and a few phone calls from connected people will see you gone. And then I expect to never see you again, Mr. Everton. No more monsters, no more nemeses, no more manifestations of powers. If you find yourself involved in these things again, you will go do it in some other precinct. Do I make myself clear?”
“I think y–”
“I want to hear a yes or a no from you, and only that. Do I make myself clear?”
“Good. Stay out of my way and let me solve this.”
That sounds like a conversation-ender, but I have one more question for him. “Wait! Before you hang up, can you put Regina on?”
There’s a pause, and then Peterson says, “Interesting. She left earlier. I’d assumed she was looking for you. If she–” Peterson stops abruptly, then laughs again, a short bark this time. “Of course. Mind the weather, Everton.”
I look outside, where it’s raining in earnest, and for just a moment I still don’t get it. Then in a moment of perfect choreography, lightning flashes outside and I suddenly understand. With Vince, Tanger and Brian all active, why wouldn’t Regina have had her nanos turned back on as well?
The thunder rolls. I didn’t count the seconds to check how close the storm is, but I know basically what the answer is: close, and getting closer all the time.
I start to ask Peterson another question, but he’s hung up already. There’s nothing he could have said that would have changed the situation in any case. Assuming Regina can track me the same way that Vince can, I need to get on the move, and fast. At least Vince has to be in sight before he’s a danger. I have no idea what kind of range Regina has with lightning, but I know she’s called a bolt down on me once before when I didn’t even know she was there. She might have been halfway across town, for all I know.
Rubber. I need rubber. Pushing the phone back across the counter to the attendant, I ask, “Do you sell rubber boots here?”
He lifts his head to look at me before rolling his eyes and sneering as if to say, are you an idiot? “No,” he says slowly, enunciating carefully as if I might not speak English. “This is a gas station. No shoes here.”
“Fine, whatever,” I say, rolling my eyes in return as I turn away to look through the shelves.
Unsurprisingly, I do not find any shoes. The attendant may have been rude, but his basic point was valid. What I do find, though, are thick rubber floormats designed for trucks. They’re thick but fairly flexible, enough so to wrap around my feet, at least. I test this out by standing on them and pulling them up into a rough taco shape. Obviously, they don’t stay like that, but it’s a start.
After a few minutes of searching for some kind of clip, I settle on wrapping a couple of bungee cords around each mat to secure them in place on my feet. It all makes for some fairly awkward footwear, but the mats stay in place and I’m able to walk around without tripping. It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it does put some insulating material between me and the ground. I can work with the awkwardness.
I stomp my way to the front and put the tags from the mats and bungee cords on the counter.
“I need to pay for these,” I say to the attendant.
He looks up from his phone at me, then down at the counter, then back up at me. “Where are they?”
“I’m wearing them,” I say, trying to pretend that this is normal.
He leans over the counter to look at my feet, then looks back at my face, and makes the facial equivalent of a shrug. He turns to the cash register to ring me up, and I start fishing change out of my pocket.
“Whoa, what? No. No way,” he says, as I start dumping change on the counter.
“Yes way,” I say. “It’s valid American currency, and I’m spending it.”
“Fine,” he says. “Then I’m refusing you service. Take off your stupid cosplay or whatever you’re doing and get out of here.”
I keep emptying my pockets onto the counter. “No, just take the money. I’ll count it for you if you want.”
“I can count fine!” he retorts. “I’m just not dealing with this junkie nonsense. I’m refusing you service. Get out.”
I pick up a few quarters, acting as if I’m giving up. Then I abruptly shout “Take the money!” and shove the rest of the accumulated change at him. He flinches back and coins rain to the floor on his side of the counter, clattering off of his chair and spinning on the floor. I turn and run for the door, my bizarre new footwear making even this simple motion into a small challenge.
“Man, I let you use the phone!” the attendant calls out in an aggrieved voice as the door closes behind me. He doesn’t bother to give chase, though. Just another day of dealing with the public. I’m probably not even the weirdest guy he’s had in there this week.
The rain’s coming down at a steady pace now, and my shirt’s soaked through in under a minute. I clomp down the street in a graceless canter, the bungee cords rolling uncertainly under my feet at each step. The rain’s probably a good thing, honestly. It means that no one else is out here to see me and raise questions.
I pass the bus stop I arrived at and keep going. I’m pretty sure I’m headed in the direction of the hospital, and I’d like to find a stop that’s actually got a bus shelter so I can get out of the cold rain. Besides, being more than a block from the scene of my sort-of crime doesn’t seem like the worst idea.
In short order, I come to a bus shelter, and shiver there for fifteen or twenty minutes until the bus I need comes by. I board it, feed my last quarters into the ticket machine, and slump dripping into a seat. Next stop: the hospital. I hope the doc’s got some good thoughts on what to do next, because I’m pretty low on ideas.