Chapter 3: Local Color
As the sun sank low in the sky and the air cooled rapidly, the Doctor walked on the side of the road back towards the strip mall he had parked in and reflected on what he had found in Moperville. He hadn't had much luck – very few questions had been answered, and those answers just raised more questions.
At least he had accounted for a fraction of the background interference mucking up his psychic scanners. As he walked around town, he had spotted at least three minimally morphed Uryuoms, one of them just a child leaving from an elementary school as it let out, wearing clothes equipped with low-level perception filters that would've screened most of the human population from noticing their species. He knew that the presence of Uryuoms in the United States was hardly dangerous or even all that unusual – he had been the one to lead their crippled colony fleet right into the middle of the American Revolution, he recalled with a smile – but it was still more than he would've expected to see mixed amongst the general population rather than in separate alien enclaves for several centuries. Their population in this town couldn't account for the whole of the interference the TARDIS had encountered, but they certainly were making a contribution towards it with the psychic energy their biology had evolved to use.
The rest of the interference had to come from awakened humans, he reasoned; those that had trained their brains to channel the same sort of energy and had thus gained 'magic' powers. But there still needed to be a significant population of magic users in town; he had seen no direct evidence for this in his travels besides a preponderance of odd hair colors that were often genetically linked to magical potential. For some reason, they were working very hard to live among the normal population while giving no clue as to their presence, much like the local Uryuom population. Why are they so secretive, he wondered. Or, he thought, reconsidering the question, why are they trying so hard to blend in?
And most importantly, why did the Reaper come here?
The Doctor walked past the big sign at the entrance of the strip mall he had parked in, looking up and shaking himself out of his reverie. It was much busier now that the evening had come; the population was no longer entombed in their workplaces and schools and were traveling about in their newfound Friday night freedom. After the strange, inconclusive things he had found during the day, he decided not much more useful would be gleaned from passive observation.
It was time to get engaged with the locals. With the TARDIS nearby he could always make a hasty getaway into the safety of its interior if he had to, so the question was just where to begin. Looking up and down the strip mall, he considered his options.
Radio shack? Wasn't busy enough, not enough chance of finding somebody he could talk to.
The bank? No, the people queuing up there wouldn't take kindly to someone delaying their business, and in his experience chain bank tellers could be some of the dullest people on this planet.
The barbershop? Nah, in order to be inconspicuous he would need to actually get a haircut there, and not only did he not have any American money from the right era but he had worked so hard on getting this hairstyle just right. He ran a hand over the seemingly casually arrayed strands of hair standing up on his head, and nixed that idea.
The comic book shop? A nerdy clientele, fed for years on stories of extraordinary things, all kinds of weird and obscure conversations going on inside all the time?
The Doctor grinned, and walked forward.
Justin sat behind the cash register, occasionally glancing back to keep an eye on the middleschoolers that inevitably populated the comic book store at this time of the Friday evening shift. A book was open in his lap as he sat on a stool behind the counter, but his eyes were not focused on it; instead, they stared blankly into space as his mind kept drifting back to Grace's upcoming birthday party.
How did I let Elliot rope me into this, he thought. Sure, it was an interesting concept, spending a few hours in the other sex's shoes with the help of Tedd's transformation gun. But he couldn't help visualizing that adjustment being much more awkward than fun, and didn't have any particular desire to see himself as a woman. He knew the main draw for most of his friends was seeing each other switched rather than a specific affinity for gender-swapping (Tedd excluded), and seeing Nanase as a man would certainly be interesting, but that hadn't been enough to convince him to go before.
No, Elliot had been the one to convince him. But the more he thought about it, the less he understood how. He had caved after Elliot had offered to let him play with his hair. Could that be it? Was he just so easily distractable by fun playthings that he would tolerate humiliation and awkwardness with all his best friends? Granted, it was Elliot's hair he might be playing with... the prospect of spending some time close to him wasn't so bad.
But that's the thing, he thought. He will be a she. That should've gotten rid of any pull that idea had for him. With them all switching genders, who was attracted to who would probably be all screwed up.
His eyebrows creased up a bit, the beginnings of an explanation of his behavior crystallizing in his head. Wait a minute...
His introspection was interrupted and his thoughts thrust into the background when the front door dinged as somebody walked in. The tall man in the suit, tie, and brown coat looked around for a moment, but instead of heading for any of the merchandise headed straight for Justin at the registers.
Taking a deep breath and standing up from his stool, Justin walked up to the counter and recited the mantra that they had drilled into him during training. "Evening sir, can I help you with something - "
The man, looking a bit tired but smiling, surprised him by suddenly flashing some kind official looking ID card. "Hello, John Smith, reporter for Comic Books Monthly. Just passing through and I saw this place; I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions about business at this shop?" he said, pointedly looking around.
Caught completely off guard by his overly friendly demeanor and strong British accent, Justin just replied, "...Wha?"
Seemingly taking this as a sufficient response, the man continued. "Good man! Now, how long have you worked at this establishment?" His enthusiasm was a little bit unnerving.
"Uh, since a bit before the school year started, so around 7 months ago, but I don't get what you're - "
"Ah, so you're a local then? You live around here?"
"Brilliant. So then, how have recent events affected business?"
"What do you mean, recent events?"
Mr. Smith continued, an extremely casual tone in his voice that Justin pegged as somewhat artificial. "Ah, you know, any recent local happenings. 'Specially the last month or so, maybe a bit longer. I mean you know how it's been around here lately..."
Justin froze up. Of course he knew how things had been around here in the last month. Secret things; sensitive things. The real reasons behind the goo attacks at Moperville North. Ellen's creation from Elliot. Grace being stalked by her brothers and Elliot's kidnapping by Damien. Rumblings of some kind of Lord Tedd from another dimension trying to kill Tedd...
The man's eyebrows rose at Justin's long pause and body language. "Everything all right?"
Fishing for a way to satisfy this man and avoid arousing suspicion, Justin replied. "Oh, yeah, it's just that I have friends who were in Moperville North when the goo attacked a while back, and - "
"What now? What goo? What happened? Was everyone alright?" The 'reporter' was talking a mile a minute, his face having suddenly gone rigid and serious.
Justin blanched. Of anything, he should've already known about that. "It was in the paper. Some... kid in chemistry class brought a beaker of goo to life and it attacked the school. Twice. It's gone now though, nobody was hurt," he said, his eyes wandering around as he started to sweat.
The man was still obviously concerned, and an edge remained in his voice even as it went back to sounding mostly inquisitive rather than worried. "When did this goo first come to life?"
Where had this guy been? "About a month and a half ago."
"That's too early..." Smith muttered, his eyebrows furrowed in a look of confusion.
His eyes came back to reality. "Oh, nothing. Kind of new to this area, you know, don't really have the lay of the land." He glanced around at the rest of the shop, and looked back at Justin, putting another smile on his face. "Well, thanks so much for your help. I never caught your name..."
"Justin, but - "
"Nice talking to you Justin, maybe I'll see you here again!" He quickly shook Justin's hand, turned, and walked out the door, leaving Justin bewildered behind the cash register, wondering what in all hell just happened.