Rion yanked the gun out of the doctor’s hand.
“What is this? Where did you get this?” Rion pointed it at him.
The doctor held up his hands as if he were being held up. “Whoa, calm down. You’re gonna spill stuff everywhere.”
“What is it?” Rion said. “Tell me.”
“You’ve never seen a combipositor before? Seriously?” the doctor said.
“Yeah, they use them on TV shows all the time. It’s replacing the hypodermic needle.”
Rion examined it. “Are you sure? You’re acting like it’s common knowledge.”
“It is. They were invented about the time I was in medical school. You’ve really never seen one before?”
“Uh, no, I guess not. I don’t watch much TV.” He handed it back to the doctor. “Sorry. I, uh, I thought… I thought it was a real gun. I was afraid you were going to shoot me,” Rion laughed weakly.
This didn’t make sense. If combipositors were common tools, why didn’t he know what it was? What was the connection?
“You okay, there, Rion?” the doctor asked.
“Sorry, no, it’s nothing. Never mind. Sorry.” Every word was probably making the doctor more suspicious. He offered up his arm. The doctor pressed the barrel of the combipositor to it and fired. There was a small hiss, and a pinch. Rion winced.
“What do you use a combipositor for?” Rion asked. “I mean, what kind of drugs?”
“Any kind, but usually for neurochemicals or things that need to be instantaneous. It works faster than a hypodermic, but it’s expensive. So neurosurgeons usually get first priority.”
“Where do you get them? Can you buy them?”
“Not really. They’re only available through certified suppliers. We only have one, and it sort of ‘fell off the truck’. That’s why I was scared at first. I thought you were going to arrest me.”
“Arrest you? Why? I thought you decided I wasn’t a Narc.”
“Yes, but almost everything that’s in a hospital is registered to it. Even the garbage cans. I don’t know if it’s supposed to prevent theft or drive up costs. See?”
He turned the gun over, showing him the bottom of the grip. There was a UPC number scratched off.
“Oh my god,” Rion said.
That was it. That was the message he had left himself. And now it was lying in a trash heap somewhere at a hotel he didn’t know how to get back to. He had lost the key to his identity.
The doctor continued, “I thought you tracked me down. Maybe you were from a private security firm.”
“No…” Rion said depressed. “I just… never mind.”
“Excuse me, I’ve got lots to do.” The doctor stepped over the littered boxes and exited the storage room. “Shop’s supposed to open tonight.”
Rion lingered after him, feeling the knotted tissue on the back of his neck. He had to find a phone to get in touch with Tuesday. She was the only one he dared trust now, with the ‘spooks’ that were after him. Any police station would be able to direct him.
But he couldn’t tell anyone in the pharmy. How would people running a drug lab react to that? Hey, guys, can you drive me to the police station. I just need to phone a friend. If they found out, he’d be kicked out. He’d have to bide his time before he could use a phone without them knowing.
“Hey, Rion,” the doctor called out. “Can you help Dax?”
Dax was dragging a folding table by one side toward the garage door. Rion ran over and picked up the other end. “Thanks. Kinda crunched on time. Shop days are always busy.”
“What’s the shop?” Rion asked.
“It’s our store. It’s how we make money. We sell what we make.”
“To just anyone? What if the cops sniff you out?”
“We have a watchdog on the roof. Yolanda drew the short straw this time. Plus we open it on different days and times so the cops don’t catch on.”
“How do the customers know when you open? I can’t imagine you advertise.”
“Word of mouth. We tell our regulars when the next one is, and the word gets spread. Word on the street spreads faster than anything. That’s why we set up in the warehouse district. Our best customers are from the lower class.”
“Because they can’t afford the health insurance. Even with insurance, things cost too much, and it’s a grind to try and get insurance to pay for things they should.”
They rejoined the others who were carrying pills, and organizing items from boxes. Dax said to the others, “Rion’s first day is a shop day.”
The other teens laughed. “You’re in for a treat,” Jane said. “Our customers are… kind of weird.”
“What do you mean?” Rion asked.
The doctor said, “When you’re dealing with drugs and people without a lot of money, you never know what they’ll do. Some of them are kinda unstable. That’s another reason we keep someone on the roof.”
“A lot of them are former drug addicts,” Jane piped up.
“Or current drug addicts,” Scooter added.
Rion arched his eyebrows. “You… you sell drugs to drug addicts? Then you are pushers.”
The doctor shook his head. “You can get addicted to anything, although it helps to have certain chemicals in it. What matters is the brain’s response.”
“But doesn’t that encourage their habit? Doesn’t that go against your oath of ‘do no harm’?”
The doctor sighed, “I can’t afford to be that choosy. I try and encourage them to seek help. But if I start denying them, they’d go someplace else, someplace where they might get drugs laced with all sorts of nasty stuff. I know that sounds like a cop-out, but it’s the truth.”
Rion joined Scooter, who was counting out jars of pills into sets of ten. “These are for the regular customers. We know they’re going to drop by, so we set some out.”
“So they go to a real doctor first to find out what they need?”
“Sometimes. But the doc also makes some consultations. You gotta watch him work, he’s like a damn psychic. He knows just what everyone needs.”
The door of the warehouse creaked open–an unsettling shaft of light beamed in.
“Knocky, knocky, it’s unlocky.”
A tall black man with dreadlocks and aviator shades stepped in. It was the same man who had saved Rion at the hotel. He was holding a plastic bag full of something.
“Moss?” the doctor said. “Thank god. I thought you weren’t going to make delivery.” The two met in the middle of the floor.
“Shit, you know me. I always deliver,” Moss said.
The doctor took the bag and pulled out one of items. A tablet of pills. “Great. Gimme a minute to count this out, and I’ll give you your money.”
“Sure thing,” Moss said. He spotted Rion. “Hey, little man. It’s you.” Moss walked up to him.
Rion looked up and recognized him. “You were the one who helped me out–the one who drove me here. I never got a chance to thank you, but why’d you do it?”
“Well, I popped out to see if you were all right. Then I saw those spooks coming after you, and I thought, ‘jeez, maybe he needs a ride’. I figure, anything you can do to put one over on the man is all right by me.”
“Spooks–the government spooks, agents, the ‘man’. You remember, right?”
Government agents? Maybe he was a CIA experiment gone wrong, and they had to capture him before he exploded and took out a city block.
“You look good, doctor fixed you up right,” Moss said. “You still in the clinic when that fire alarm started?”
“The clinic? I’ve never been to a clinic.”
“Sure you were, remember? Talking in the waiting room? You fooled them with a bunch of fake info on the app? Said you were having memory problems?”
“You remember me?” Rion gasped. “When was this?”
“Only a few days ago. Friday night.”
Friday night he was eating a hamburger in the Northwoods Bar and Grill. His mood dropped. “I don’t think it was me you saw.”
“Sure it was. Looked just like you. Unless you got a twin. At the free clinic on Washington Street?”
Rion shrugged. He didn’t know what to say.
“Guess you really do have memory problems. Maybe you should have that checked.”
Rion nodded. “You have no idea.”
The doctor approached them, still holding the bag, and an additional wad of money.
“Man, the kid’s been here one day, and you’ve already got him working,” Moss laughed. “Maybe I’m in the wrong business.”
“He likes to work. That’s never a problem with me,” the doctor smiled. “Here’s your dough.”
“Thanks, man. See you next shop.” Moss left.
“What’s in the bag?” Rion asked.
“Birth control pills. My most valuable crop.” He held out one of the foil-pack circles. “I don’t make them. It’s not something I want to screw up. If I get some inert or inactive chemicals from a supplier, then that means there might be some teen out there screwing around and getting pregnant without even knowing it.”
“Why are they so valuable?”
“For some reason, the government makes it hard to get. You’d think the last thing they’d want are more welfare kids. I mean, places like Planned Parenthood are great for people who don’t have insurance. That’s why they were created. But even then, people are worried about going down there. I guess they’re nervous about people judging them, wondering if their parents know where they are. Come on, help me sort these out.”
The doctor poured the bag onto the table. They opened each package, inspected the contents, and then divided the contents by active ingredient.
“How much can you make from these?” Rion asked.
“Let me put it this way–I’m going to sell all these in the next two weeks. And if I didn’t, I wouldn’t even break even with the cost of ingredients, tools, and wages.”
“So you don’t earn any money doing this?”
“If I did, that would make it illegal. I keep what I do ambiguous enough that it would take years and years to prosecute, and I take precautions. As long as I don’t use any of the money I make for personal use, I’m not violating any patents.”
“But you can still get arrested. What about us?” Rion gestured to the other teens.
The doctor hushed his voice, “They know the risks. Honestly, what’s it going to do to them? A night in jail? A free meal? I’m in the same boat as these guys. I’ve just got some extra training. Come on, help me sort these.”
“Then how did you get into this? There must be a less risky way to make money,” Rion said.
“I got sick of the way pharmaceutical companies were manipulating health care to get sales. When I was in practice, I got so much ‘informational material’ that were disguised advertisements. Then they offered all-expense paid conferences, little trinkets–it was insane. And it was all biased, no matter what they said. I saw the studies. ‘Manipulated data’ would be an understatement. Nowadays, they don’t even try to hide their lies.”
“You can’t know everything. It wasn’t these drugs, or the falsified studies. You have to expect that people are going to fudge facts. We all do it. But you’ve got to have people watching, which we used to. Consumer reports, investigative journalism, the FDA. But then, it started falling apart. Maybe people were sick of being told everything was bad for them, that they couldn’t trust anything. People liked having things packaged and advertised to them. Somehow, that became more trustworthy than their doctors.”
“What happened to all the watchdogs?” Rion said.
“Maybe people stopped listening to them. Maybe they faded out because there isn’t much profit in whistle-blowing. So misinformation kept slipping through the cracks. I know, I saw plenty. I mean, are you going to analyze every single study that comes out in JAMA? Are you going to dig out every fact, every bit of research? There’s not enough hours in the day.”
“But you did the research,” Rion said.
“Yes, but I’m trained in that kind of critical thinking. And if you go right to the consumer, you skip right over the whistle-blowers. Like I said, you can’t know everything.”
Rion opened the last pack and set it in it’s proper place. “Sounds kinda sad.”
“I don’t blame society for letting it get this way. I’m guilty of it myself. For example, I don’t know anything about cars. I use one everyday, but I don’t know how it works. All my friends say, ‘Why are you paying someone to fix your car? You can do it yourself. It’s cheaper.’ But with all the time I spend learning about it, that’s time I’m not using to do my job. Or it’s time not relaxing. Or it’s time with my family gone. I’d rather spend time improving my strengths than compensating for my weaknesses. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, right?”
Rion nodded, suppressing a laugh.