Part 7-3: Secrets Within Secrets
[A/N: This chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]
Sunday, August 21, 1994
We arrived back at the apartment in good time. I'd told Andrea how much I liked the building, so she was smugly proud of herself. Our together time had improved my mood considerably, which did not reduce her smugness in any way. In that aspect alone, she could've given Lisa a run for her money.
When Andrea let us both in, Kinsey and Richter were sitting in the living room, talking quietly. Richter looked a little frazzled, but that was only to be expected; Kinsey was nothing if not intense about teaching people the right way to do something. They both looked around as we entered.
"We're back!" announced Andrea, somewhat unnecessarily. "Oh, good. You're still alive. Jim didn't rough you up too much, Andy? Still able to walk and talk?"
"Barely," groaned Richter. "I had no idea there was so much involved with firearm safety. I just thought it was 'how not to accidentally shoot people'."
"Let me guess." I gave him a mildly sympathetic look as I pushed the door closed behind me. "Sergeant Kinsey put you through a dynamic safety course." I'd been through more than one myself. Running, dive-and-roll into cover, pulling out pistols while in odd postures, reloading under stress, the whole nine yards. It was strenuous and occasionally painful, but the reflexes I'd picked up doing it had saved my life more than once, so I wasn't about to complain.
"All except the actual range time, ma'am," Kinsey noted. "I was unable to locate a shooting range in the timeframe we had to show him that aspect of firearm use."
"Ah. Yes, we're definitely going to have to cover that as well." I thought for a moment. "I wonder if Detective Kimball would be able to give us access to the local police firing range?"
Andrea leaned out of the kitchen where it sounded and smelled like she'd just put coffee on to boil. "I bet Hugglesmurf would love that. You breeze back into town, ignore him while you attend a wedding and the reception, then hit him up just because you want a favour."
Well, when she put it that way … "Good point," I sighed. "Bad idea from the start. He'd probably kick me to the curb, and I wouldn't blame him. And his name is not Hugglesmurf."
"Is if I say it is. And you totally underestimate the effect you have on the guy." She came out into the living room, a broad grin plastered across her face. "Five gets you ten he'd jump on that straight away. We'd get the royal treatment while he hung around with puppy-dog eyes, hoping for a third date." Her grin became salacious as hell. "If you know what I mean."
I knew, all right. Kinsey also knew, if the set of his jaw meant what I thought it did. Richter merely looked politely interested, as if waiting for someone to explain the punchline to him.
"I like Humphrey, but I am not sleeping with the man just to get us access to a firing range." I may have ground my teeth a little just then.
Kinsey and Andrea were unmoved, but Richter leaned back in his seat a little, away from me. "I, uh, really don't need—"
"Yeah, you do." Andrea, mercurial as ever, was now briskly professional. "If Taylor and Jim say you need real-world gun training then buddy, you need it. Fortunately, I got you all covered." A bit of the smugness crept back as she dusted her hands off for dramatic effect.
Kinsey and I both turned to look at her. I raised my eyebrows. "Mind explaining that?" Whatever she had to say, I definitely wanted to hear. As I'd once said to Kinsey, she might be a ditz but she was a ditz with a brain.
She pretended to look modest. 'Pretended', because Andrea had never actually tried looking modest (let alone succeeded) since I'd known her. "I might have access to a private shooting range. It's all up to spec with the latest safety standards. But the deets are, um …" she cleared her throat delicately while looking at Kinsey. "Kinda need to know. Girl's gotta have her secrets, and all that."
All of a sudden, I thought I knew what she was talking about, but I needed to confirm it. "Wait a moment. Kinsey, I need to confer with Andrea, in private."
"Ma'am." Kinsey scooped up the TV remote and hit the power button; seconds later, the sounds of a fast-food ad filled the room. "Mr Richter, let's see what's on TV."
It was so good to have competent, capable people working with me.
Wasting no more time, I went around the sofa and took Andrea with me back into the kitchen. Through the open doorway, I could see Kinsey and Richter both watching the screen; one because he chose to, and the other because he knew he had no choice in the matter at all.
Lowering my voice to the point where I knew neither one could hear me, I looked at Andrea. "This shooting range, is it in the building?" Unless she was developing another property—and I couldn't be sure she wasn't—then it had to be.
"Yup," she said happily. "Sub-basement, under the parking garage. When you tap the card, hit the bottom button instead of the top. I made it for the mercenaries to train in, when they're staying in the building."
"That's … actually a really good idea," I decided. "And it's all up to code?"
"Absolutely." She nodded earnestly, setting her riot of curls bouncing wildly. "I made sure that it doesn't break into any sewer lines or cut through important conduits. Nobody's actually used it yet, though. I thought I'd keep it as a surprise for you."
I hugged her. "Consider me most agreeably surprised," I said in her ear. "Think you're up to keeping Kinsey company while I go and show Andrew which end of the pistol the bullet comes out of?"
She grinned at me. "Darn tootin'."
A Nondescript Café in Washington, DC
"Thanks for agreeing to meet." Rob slid into his seat and picked up the menu to obscure his mouth.
Instead of pulling a baseball cap down over his eyes or wearing sunglasses, he'd opted for frameless tinted yuppie glasses and a light wash through his black hair to push it toward dark brown. Shaving his beard and moustache back to a vanDyke had been a little bit of a wrench, but serious times demanded serious measures. His clothing was light-coloured and loosely-fitting, as far removed from his carefully tailored uniform as one could imagine.
"I'm a busy man but if it's about that woman, then I've got the time. What've you got for me?"
Director Martins of the ATF hadn't bothered disguising himself at all. He still had the same rumpled suit and slightly harried air that Rob had noted from their first meeting, before the ridiculous parodies of justice following the Battle of the Compound. The information Rob had supplied Martins with then should've sunk Snow's career and possibly even put her in Leavenworth, but nothing of the sort had happened. Because Snow got to the judges. It's what she does.
Well, she hadn't gotten to Martins. He, at least, was exhibiting the integrity required by an official of the US government. With him on Rob's side, maybe justice could be done at last. And from the venom in his tone when he said the words that woman, there was no way in Hell she'd be able to buy him off.
"Before I get into that, what happened with the stuff I gave you about her and Hamilton?" He had to learn how she'd countered that. While he didn't have any specific evidence of an affair between her and that doddering fool, the way the old man kept rolling over for Snow's demands had to be proof that something was going on.
Martins paused as the waitstaff, a skinny black guy, came to their table with a plate of pastries and a coffeepot. Putting the pastries on the table, the waitstaff deftly poured them both a cup and then discreetly withdrew. Taking one paper sachet of sugar after another, Martins stirred them into his cup. Rob counted the empty sachets and shuddered; did the man want a heart attack?
"She said it didn't happen," the ATF regional Director said at last. "Said she had counter-evidence of a pre-existing grudge on your part. You know how well she can talk. The judge tossed it."
"Grudge? I don't have a grudge against her." The very notion was ridiculous. Grudges were irrational. What he felt against Snow was very rational indeed. "Just because I tried to bring up her behaviour back when she was working in the department and Hamilton squashed it, now I'm the bad guy?"
"Whatever," Martins said, with a dismissive wave that indicated the topic was done. "Unfortunately, she's managed to pull off a couple of coups, so she's currently the flavour of the month. We're going to need something new and damaging. Something we could use to force the PRT to convene a court of inquiry." His tired eyes searched Rob's face. "Got anything like that?"
"The Seattle thing." Rob tapped the table. "She's not empowered to make on the spot calls regarding the disposition of parahumans, especially ones that have been implicated in serious crimes. But somewhere between talking to the cops and reporting to the PRT, she somehow made a six foot six rock guy vanish into thin air. Is anyone looking into that?"
Martins sighed. "I did look into it. I'm not sure what report you read, but she didn't simply make him vanish. He was actually present at the meeting between Snow and Director Tyson, and Tyson accepted that he had no blame attached. An offer was made for him to join the local Protectorate and he turned it down. The only unusual aspect is that Snow then offered to give him a lift to wherever he wanted to go, and he accepted. But that could easily be the fact that she was the only PRT member he trusted right then, and it certainly can't be construed into a crime."
The previously solid footing of the evidence of Taylor Snow's perfidy was becoming more like quicksand. "Okay, right. What about what happened in Chicago? She straight-up murdered Elijah, and that dangerous lunatic Kinsey shot Christine. And what happens? Scuttlebutt says they were offered medals. Fucking medals." He spat the last word out with all the distaste he could manage.
Martins took a drink from his coffee, then ate a pastry. "From Snow's own testimony, the Mathers woman was a Master and a Stranger, and the child was a Master in his own right."
"Snow's testimony." Rob couldn't have loaded any more disdain into a phrase if he'd tried. "For what that's worth." Nothing, was what he meant. Snow could put her hand on a stack of Bibles and swear that the sky was blue, and Rob would still go out and check.
"Mmm." The sound was contemplative. "There's a chance she's not actually wrong, you know."
Rob actually pushed himself away from the table, subconsciously distancing himself from Martins, as he stared at the older man. "Are you taking her side now?"
"Psh. Not hardly. The woman's a menace who doesn't deserve to wear the uniform. Any uniform." Martins' derogatory tone reassured Rob. "But … and I hate to say this. But." He took another drink of his coffee. "The Snow Protocols? The ones they're enacting all over the PRT? We've looked them over and we're adopting some of them ourselves. Just to be on the safe side, you understand."
"Just like her to make up some bullshit 'safety' procedures and slap her name on them," sneered Rob. "I already know my job. I don't need some newcomer to tell me how to suck eggs."
"Mmm. Right. Except that … and you didn't hear this from me, but … I got word from some of my contacts in the PRT, the ones that had supplied us with the Protocols, that there'd been a rash of people who'd turned themselves in as undergoing Master/Stranger effects over the last few months. Plus a few people who'd been turned in by others, reported as being Mastered."
Rob shrugged. "Yeah? So what?" False positives happened all the time.
Martins tilted his head. "So this. All the ones who'd turned themselves in said those effects ceased on or before the day that Kinsey capped the Mathers woman. And the Master cases suddenly started blabbing about how they'd been Mastered but were unable to talk about it … more or less the same time as Snow shot the kid."
Rob hadn't heard any of this. He repressed the instinct to call Martins a liar; the man had no reason to make up a story like that. "Confirmation bias," he said instead. "Correlation isn't causation. I'm betting those reports came from people who heard about how the great Snow killed two Masters, and they want to get in on it."
"Maybe." Martins gave Rob a steady look. "I'd love to think that, but I don't know it. Not for a fact. None of them are clearly fake, and there's enough that I've checked out as legitimate to make me think there's something to it. So that's not a thing we can use. You got anything else?"
Damn it. Rob had come to this meeting armed with what he'd thought were unimpeachable arguments for the deposal of Taylor Snow. Instead, Martins was shooting them down as fast as he put them up. Whose side is he on, anyway? "Well, how about this," he said. "I heard she might be gay. There's a story going around that she was living with another woman before she joined the PRT. I mean, with with."
Martins raised an eyebrow. "On the one hand, that's a pretty serious charge. On the other … well, you seem to be fond of throwing around accusations of her sleeping with everyone from her superior officer to her orderly to the judges overseeing her case. Is she gay or straight? Pick a lane and stay in it."
The man just wasn't getting it. Rob gritted his teeth. "Forget the other stuff," he snapped. "What if she's proven to be gay? That's an instant out, right there, yeah?"
"Yeah … maybe. If we can scrape together enough evidence to force an investigation." Martins finished off his coffee, then took another pastry. "These days it's not enough just to have suspicions, remember? There's got to be solid proof, something to hang our hats on. If nobody speaks up, we've got nothing." And getting the PRT to investigate their fair-haired child right then, he didn't have to say, would be like pulling teeth.
"I could investigate," offered Rob. "I mean, if I had the resources. Information sources, cash backing, the whole nine yards. Give me a chance and I'll turn her life inside out and get all her dirty laundry out in the open." Take the hint, he silently urged Martins. Hire me on.
"I have no doubt you could." Martins pulled out his wallet and slapped a five on the table for the waitstaff. "Unfortunately, by court order, the ATF is legally not permitted to employ you for any reason whatsoever. And I happen to like my job."
No. No, no, no. "It doesn't have to be an official position," argued Rob, half-standing in his seat. "Surely you can do something off the books."
"No." Martins' voice was harder, harsher now. "I agreed to this meeting because I thought you had something legitimate we could use against Snow. If and when we bring her down, it'll be because we did it right. I'm not having our case against her thrown out because we did things her way. In short, Mr Gordon, I'm not going to break the law for you or for anyone else. Don't bother contacting my office again unless you have something concrete."
Martins got up and walked out with never a backward glance. With him went Rob's best hopes for a quick and easy victory over Snow. The resources of the ATF would've made digging up dirt on her—or manufacturing the dirt that he knew had to be there—so much easier. Faking evidence wasn't wrong if they were clearly guilty of something. Not really.
Defeated, but not beaten—never beaten—Rob dropped money on the table as well, and got up. As he left, he saw the waitstaff coming over to clear their table. God, I hope I never have to stoop so low that I end up working for tips.
He left the café, his brain still trying to come up with some way to turn things around.
God damn it. I can't just let Snow win.
Back Door of the Café
Thomas Calvert took off the apron he'd appropriated, hung it up beside the door with the others, and stepped out into the alleyway. He left the tips he'd collected in the apron pocket for whoever found it, but kept the miniature recorder he'd slipped under the plate of pastries. While the meeting between the disgraced Robert Gordon and Director Martins had clearly not gone as well as Gordon hoped, he was sure he would still get some good information out of it.
Though still only a Lieutenant, Calvert was well aware of the importance of knowing that one extra fact. And so, when his network of contacts apprised him of the upcoming meeting (in particular, regarding someone he already had a certain amount of interest in) it had been simplicity itself for him to show up there at the right time, put on an apron and pretend to be 'the new guy'. Nobody looked twice at a black man bussing tables, after all.
Humming a popular tune to himself, Calvert strolled out of the alleyway and down the street, to where he'd parked his car. Robert Gordon was someone he intended to keep an eye on. People with Intelligence training, a grudge that could be exploited and no current employment were definitely a worthwhile resource.
"Captain Snow? Are we nearly there?"
I glanced aside to Richter, who was wearing a pair of my oversized sunglasses; mainly to conceal the fact that he was blindfolded under it. While he was going to learn the location of Andrea's building sooner or later, I didn't want him knowing all its secrets just yet. He didn't seem nervous or upset at the moment, just curious.
"Almost," I said, pulling the car into the same downramp that Andrea had shown me. I hit the remote, and the barricade began rolling upward. When I judged that the car could fit under it, I let off the brake and applied acceleration; just enough to bump us over the tyre-shredder and into the garage proper.
I parked in the same space as Andrea had, then got out and went around the car to Richter's side. As per instructions, he hadn't moved or tried to take the blindfold off. "Out you get," I said, opening the door and guiding him to his feet while ensuring that he didn't hit his head or shoulder on the way out; harder than it sounds.
Next, I grabbed the gun bag that had made the trip in the footwell of the car, slung it over my shoulder, and locked the car up. It should be secure anyway, given that the barricade had rolled down again, but I'd learned via many hard lessons to be a suspenders and belt sort of girl. Then I took Richter by the elbow and guided him toward the elevator.
"Do you have a secret base?" he asked, his voice echoing through the parking garage. "Is this an actual secret underground base? I thought that sort of thing only happened in the comic books."
"In a manner of speaking, kind of," I admitted, hoping he wasn't going to geek out on me. The last thing I wanted or needed was a grown-up version of Greg Veder on my hands.
Wow … it had been years since I thought of Greg. I vaguely wondered how Nina was doing, then brought my mind back to the present. Taking out the card Andrea had given me, I swiped my way into the lift, then walked Richter inside. Tapping the panel as she had, I looked for the lowest 'button', which turned out to be the letters "SB" surrounded by a circle. I pressed my finger firmly on that.
The elevator started downward smoothly, causing Richter to turn his head as if looking from side to side. "I knew it!" he crowed. "Secret underground base! I've always wanted to see one of these!"
"You'll be disappointed," I warned him. "Secret, yes. Underground, yes. Base, no."
"What?" he asked, but then the elevator arrived at its location and the doors opened. "What do you mean?"
I guided him out into the room beyond as automated lights sprang to life. We stood in a concrete room, painted in tasteful colours, with the obvious security camera in the corner (which meant there were several concealed ones around) and three doors. The first was marked "LOCKERS", which we didn't need. The second was designated "ARMORY", which we also didn't need. The third door said "RANGE", which I figured was what we were after.
I went up to the Range door. It was locked, but there was a reader beside it, so I tapped the card and heard it click open. "I mean, this is not the base. Just the firing range. Take off your blindfold and come on through."
He took a moment to do what I said, stuffing the blindfold in his pocket and hanging the sunglasses in the front of his shirt. At the entrance to the firing range, he stopped and stared. "Wow. I mean, wow. Is your whole base set up like this?"
"Need to know, Mr Richter." I was actually being tricky with my wording there. As I'd only seen the penthouse and the sub-basement, I would need to see the rest of the building before I could make a judgement on the matter. But it worked the other way as well.
Truth be told, it was a fairly well set up firing range. I figured Andrea had done a lot of research and gone with the same type I'd trained on with the PRT. Ten lanes, side by side, with fully kitted out firing benches and solid baffles between, with tables for cleaning the weapons against the near wall. Each firing bench had, as a matter of course, individual controls for running targets up and down the lanes. A control booth with (if I wasn't much mistaken) bullet-resistant polycarbonate windows sat next to the door, with a firearm-clearing barrel next to it.
The walls were a matte grey, which contrasted nicely with bright yellow stripes up the walls and across the ceiling to mark the five-yard intervals, all the way out to thirty yards. I noticed that the far wall appeared to slant downward, with a bullet-collection trough at the bottom. As a final touch, the room was well-lit, with every light past the firing benches solidly protected from even the wildest of stray shots by heavy concrete.
Richter went to the closest firing lane and peered down to the far end. "Thirty yards?" He shook his head. "How can you expect to hit anything at that range?"
"Practice." I went to the cleaning table and opened the gun bag. Removing the pistol we'd acquired for him, a Beretta M9, I placed it on the table. "Okay, show me what you know."
Seating himself on the folding chair, he took up the weapon and removed the (empty) magazine, checked the chamber once the magazine was out, then disassembled it as far as Kinsey had decided was necessary. Then he put it back together again. It took him some little time—I could do it a lot more quickly, and Kinsey was magic at it—but he got it done without any errors I could gig him for. Keeping his finger off the trigger and the barrel pointed away from both of us, he offered it to me for inspection.
"Good," I said neutrally. Taking a loaded magazine out of the gun bag, I handed it to him, along with the pistol. "Take these to a firing bench. Do not load the weapon until I say so. Put on eye and ear protection, then wait for my next instruction. Go."
With a nod, he got up and went to the bench. The appropriate protection gear was hanging on a hook, and he did as he was told. I went to the next bench and put the ear protectors there. The eye protectors, I found, were large enough to fit over my glasses. I thought that was a nice touch by Andrea.
"You'll find paper targets under your firing bench," I called out. "Attach one to the overhead clip, then send it downrange to the five-yard mark."
While I was waiting for him to figure this out, I attached at a target to my clip and trundled it away. A few seconds later (he wasn't bad at the technical stuff, I figured) his target joined mine.
Now was the time, I figured, to see just how bad he was at the firing-guns aspect. "Load your pistol! Keep your weapon pointed downrange at all times! Chamber a round! Report when ready!"
Even through the ear protectors, I heard the smooth k'klik-klik of the slide going back and forward. "Ready!" he called out, his voice high and reedy with stress.
"Kinsey will have shown you how to hold a pistol! Assume that position! Line up your front sight with the target! Slowly, and I say again slowly, squeeze the trigger!"
There was a long pause. Finally, just before I was thinking of going to see if he was alright, his pistol went off. To his credit, he hit paper. Unfortunately, it was about an inch from the edge.
"Again!" I called out before he could begin to dwell on his terrible shot. "Firm grip, front sight on target, slowly squeeze!"
The next shot, at least, got inside the outer ring, but only just. I essayed a silent sigh. This was likely to take awhile.
Ten minutes later, he'd gone through two magazines and most of his shots were getting close to being on target. The majority were missing high, which said to me that he was probably flinching a little, and maybe not paying much attention to his rear sight.
I told him as much, and he shook his head. "I think it might be the pistol." Keeping it pointed away from the both of us, he tapped the barrel. "This is only a few inches long, right? There's no way you're going to be as accurate with that as with, say, a rifle."
"That's true." I stood up from the cleaning table. Taking the Beretta, I grabbed another magazine from the gun bag and headed for the firing bench that I'd picked for my own. My target was still sitting at the five-yard spot. "Protection."
Obediently, he put the earmuffs and goggles on, while I did the same. Then I hit the control to run it all the way down to the back. Reaching into my jacket, I drew my Glock and placed it alongside the Beretta. "This one's got an even shorter barrel. Want to bet me I can't hit the target with it?"
Perhaps realising he'd opened his mouth a little too far, he silently shook his head.
"Good." I loaded the Beretta and chambered a round, then worked the slide of the Glock as well. "Say when."
Nervously, watching from the back of the firing cubicle, he nodded. "Now?"
Turning, I scooped up both firearms. Automatically, I adjusted for the different weights, firing the first few from the Beretta until I had a feeling for how it pulled, then alternating with the Glock. I hadn't dual-fired for a while, but it really was like riding a bicycle; after the first few shots, it was like I'd never stopped.
The Glock clicked empty first, with the Beretta just a few shots behind. I laid both pistols, now both reeking of expended propellant and trailing smoke from their muzzles, down on the firing bench. Without looking, I hit the button to bring the target back, and turned to Richter. "Let's see how I did."
When the paper rectangle arrived, he stared at it. In morbid contrast to his, there were no holes outside the ten-ring, and only the first few off the bullseye itself. There was nothing left of the centre of the target, just a chewed-out hole. I handed it to him. "It's not the pistol."
"No," he agreed faintly. "It's not the pistol." Then he stared at me. "How did you get so good at it?"
"As I said, a lot of practice." I took up the Glock. "I started shooting pistols in ROTC back in college, and kept it up when I joined the PRT. My boss says he'll be able to qualify me for Marksmanship Expert in pistols, just as soon as the PRT gets around to striking a medal for it."
"I don't have that long before I go back to Deer Lake." He looked down at the target in his hands. "Not to get this good."
"And I don't expect you to." I went over to the cleaning table. "Which is why you're only dealing with a five-yard target. All I want is for you to get the majority of your shots in a group that would kill a man."
He flinched at that. "I—I'm not comfortable with the idea of killing."
"Then why are you carrying a pistol?" My gaze was as blunt and uncompromising as my question. "Listen, guns are designed for exactly one purpose. To kill. They are an offensive weapon, not a defensive one. Carrying one will do exactly nothing to stop someone from hurting you, unless you use it to shoot them first, and sometimes not even then. Every single person I've ever shot was either threatening me or threatening someone I cared about. I shot first, I shot accurately, and I spent very little time agonizing over what I'd done."
"So to you, people are just … targets?" He probably hadn't meant to sound so accusing, so I decided to cut him some slack. "You decide whether or not to kill them, and that's all there is to it?"
"Oh, no." I smiled sadly as I shook my head. "That's not even close to being all there is. I do regret having to kill, but I'm not going to beat myself up over it." I thought back to the first time I'd pulled the trigger and ended a human life. "What you do have to consider is the potential consequences of removing someone from the board. Do they have friends, or some other situation set up that will come into play once you kill them? Sometimes, putting someone out of your misery isn't worth the hassle of dealing with the backlash. Before you make the decision to kill someone, that's something you also have to think about."
Richter shook his head, looking down at the pistol still lying on the bench. "I'm not sure I'm ready for that."
I shrugged. "You probably aren't. But between Dragon, Manhunter and Robin Hood, all it would take is one person to trace those programs back to you and your life would definitely be in danger. Which is why I'm taking the time to train you now. By the time you get back to Deer Lake, you will be at least moderately proficient with a pistol." Reaching into the gun bag, I handed him a magazine. "Load it up and try again."
He took a deep breath and accepted it. "Okay, then. Front sight, right?"
I nodded. "Front sight."
"Got it." He turned away into the firing cubicle while I got out the gun cleaning kit. While he was getting his eye in, I decided, I'd make sure my personal weapon was in top working order.
I might not need it, but when and if I did, it would be in a huge hurry.
We made the drive back to Andrea's apartment with the car windows open so as not to stink up the interior with the smell of gunshot residue. I'd have to wipe down the interior anyway, but this was better than nothing. Richter, once I allowed him to remove the blindfold, seemed happier than he'd been before.
"Doing better?" I asked, just in case my impression was incorrect.
"I think so, yes." He looked across at me. "Your world is different to mine. It's full of shadows and monsters. I don't think I could live there."
It only took me a moment to figure out that he meant the present day rather than where/when I'd come from, and was speaking figuratively instead of literally. Still, he wasn't far wrong either way. "It's not a nice place to be," I agreed. "I've got friends and allies, though, and they make all the difference."
"Right." He nodded his head. "So how much do they know?"
"Kinsey and Andrea?" I eyed him carefully. Was he trying to pump me for information, or just asking who he could confide in? "Andrea knows more than Kinsey. Each of them knows as much as I feel safe telling them. Neither one of them knows every single gritty detail. And they won't, not unless I decide they need to."
I hadn't intended to be intimidating, but some part of my tone must have gotten through to him. He shook his head hastily. "I wasn't going to tell anyone anything, honest."
"It's probably better that way." I raised my both my eyebrows and the corner of my mouth at the same time. "At best, nobody would believe you. At worst, they would believe you, and come after you for time travel secrets. Right now, with the work you're doing on Dragon, it's a really good idea to be flying under the radar. Way under the radar."
He nodded earnestly. "Right, sure, absolutely."
"Good. Glad we got that cleared up." We rounded the corner to the street outside Andrea's apartment, and I frowned. "That car …"
Richter looked from me to the innocuous sedan parked outside the apartment block. "Is it the bad guys? Do I need to get my pistol out?"
I suddenly clicked as to where I'd seen it before, and shook my head. Not that I would've let him go into any kind of firefight, as green as he was. He could just about murder a paper target at five yards, and be depended on to not shoot his own foot off in the process. A trained soldier, he wasn't.
"No, it'll be fine. Quite the opposite of a bad guy, actually." I pulled in behind the sedan and parked. This close, I was sure I recognised it. "Come on up. Someone I want you to meet."
Wonderingly, he got out of the car, and I locked it with the key fob. I double-timed it up the stairs, the gun bag jolting back and forth where it hung over my shoulder, with Richter panting in my wake. The guy probably needed a little cardio in his life, I decided.
When I got to Andrea's door, I was so pumped up that I opened it with my key instead of knocking and waiting. And there, inside, was the person I was hoping to see.
"Nina!" I dropped the bag and swept her up into a hug. "It's so good to see you!"
"Whoof! Taylor, wow, hi!" She hugged me in return, her eyes sparkling with happiness. "I know it's been forever and a day but warn a girl, why don't you?"
I smiled. "Well, I missed you. How've you been?"
"Good. Really good. I've got some amazing news. When I heard you were in town, I came straight over."
My smile slipped a little. "Yeah, sorry I didn't invite you to Anne-Rose and Danny's wedding, but nobody had your number."
"That's kind of my fault," she admitted. "When I moved into my own place with Greg, I forgot to pass out my new number. But hey, now we're talking, I can fill you in on everything."
We settled down on the sofa, while Andrea bounced up and headed into the kitchen. I looked over at where Richter was standing awkwardly off to the side. It occurred to me that this was not an unusual circumstance for him. "Oh, hey. Nina, this is Andrew Richter. He's down from Canada, visiting a few days. Andrew, meet Nina Veder. She was about my first friend when I ended up in Brockton Bay."
"Wouldn't that be Danny?" Nina's grin was mischievous. "After all, he's the one who pulled you out of the water."
I rolled my eyes at her. "Well, yes, but you're the one who took me around and got my life sorted out." Turning back to Richter, I hooked a thumb at Nina. "If you're ever pulled out of the water in the middle of a yacht regatta pileup and you've lost your memory due to a concussion, Nina here's the person to help you out."
"I'll keep that in mind for if it ever happens to me," Richter replied dryly. I could see from the flicker in his eyes that he'd caught the reference about my arrival in this time period.
"So how do you like the city?" she asked him. "And just from personal curiosity, is your name spelled the same as the earthquake guy?"
"Yes, it is," he confirmed, in a tone that made me suspect he had to do that a lot. "And it's … nice. I've heard good things about your Boardwalk, but I haven't been there yet."
"Well, why don't we go there now?" suggested Andrea, emerging from the kitchen while cradling cups of what smelled like tangy fruit juice. "I mean, Taylor and Andy can shower first because whew, that gun reek, but then we can go and show Andy what it's like."
"Sounds like a plan to me." I gestured to Richter. "You go ahead. I'll have one when you're finished."
"Okay, sure, thanks." He disappeared toward the guest bedroom—Andrea had put him up there while Kinsey relocated temporarily to the sofa—presumably to grab a change of clothing.
Nina chuckled. "Well, you've got him trained. Not even a suggestion of an argument."
Kinsey accepted a cup of juice from Andrea with a nod of thanks. "You've met the Captain, ma'am. Do you honestly think anyone's likely to spend more than a day in her presence and not end up doing as she tells them without argument?"
"You have a good point there," she conceded. "I also notice that you've spent a lot longer than mere days in her presence, and you have no trouble in speaking up."
"That's because Kinsey and I make an exceptional team," I said. "I know exactly when to shut up and listen to him, and vice versa."
Having handed juice to me and Nina, Andrea put the spare one back in the fridge, then climbed into Kinsey's lap. "You want to see these two when they're having a conversation and missing out half the words," she pretended to complain. "I swear, they're like an old married couple, only they like each other."
I raised my eyebrows toward Kinsey. We don't do that, do we?
He replied with a tilt of the hand and a slight nod. Yes, ma'am, sometimes we do.
"So I see," murmured Nina with a smirk. "I've got to ask, why the gun reek? And I didn't know there were any firing ranges open in or around Brockton Bay on a Sunday."
I decided to field that one. "To answer your second question first, private range. And as for why, when I encountered Andrew, he displayed an egregiously poor lack of firearms common sense. So I told him that if he ever visited while I was in town, Kinsey and I would correct that lack. Which we're in the process of doing." I took a drink of my juice. "Not to change the subject, but didn't you say something about amazing news? And did I hear correctly, that you've moved in with Greg?"
As I recalled, Greg was her on-again off-again boyfriend; the one who'd introduced me to self-hypnosis and allowed me to get into contact with Lisa. I'd long held a suspicion that she was 'my' Greg's mother, and that the younger Greg was named after the elder. Recently, I'd gotten around to asking Lisa about it, and the answer had saddened me while verifying the supposition at the same time.
"Uh huh." She grinned at me. "And we're pregnant. And he's asked me to marry him."
Ah. The news jolted me to the core, but I did my best not to let it show. Careful not to spill either of our drinks, I gave her a hug. "That's wonderful. I'm really glad to hear it."
"Pfft! Gun reek!" Laughing, she pushed me away, but only after letting me complete the hug. "You're a menace."
"Yeah, but you like me anyway."
Taylor Snow, Andrew decided, was an exceedingly perplexing individual. While training him in shooting, she had displayed a laser-focus for the task and an iron-hard will that would've been frankly terrifying if he hadn't known she was on his side. With no effort whatsoever, she could have easily masqueraded as the humanoid robot he'd once briefly suspected her to be.
But as soon as she was in a casual situation with her friends and associates, she became an entirely different person. Happy, outgoing, even making jokes at her own expense, she was far removed from the enigmatic stranger who had proven herself to be a time traveller, or the intense warrior who had almost casually placed more than a dozen shots into a space smaller than his palm on a target nearly a hundred feet away, just to prove it could be done.
This wasn't to say that she lowered her hyper-awareness of her surroundings all the way. But she turned it down, allowing her social side to mostly cover it up until one could be excused for missing it altogether. He suspected anyone assuming that she wasn't paying attention would very quickly (and very painfully) learn otherwise. The speed with which she could produce the tiny pistol—he hadn't even known she was wearing it!—would defuse most confrontations, while her accuracy would certainly bring the remainder to an extremely brief conclusion.
Of course, he wasn't about to ignore all precautions when creating Dragon; he was the computer and software Tinker, not her, and a rampaging AI (especially one that could trigger with powers) was the stuff of nightmares in today's world. But he had listened to what she had to say, and would definitely take it into account.
After his brief ablutions (because only an idiot would keep Taylor Snow waiting for the shower) he towelled himself off and got dressed in fresh clothing, suitable for the Boardwalk.
"Shower's free," he announced as he headed back into the living room.
For all that the summer was almost over, it was a nice warm day on the Boardwalk. Andrea ran through the surf, as she was wont to do, and splashed everyone within range. This was mainly seagulls, which took off in a loudly complaining flock. Richter took his flip-flops off and walked through the sand, apparently enjoying the feeling of it crunching between his toes. Nina and I strolled side by side on the Boardwalk itself, with Kinsey following a discreet distance behind.
I hadn't even realised just how much communication we got done without the need for verbalisation. It was just that I knew Kinsey and he knew me, and words were often superfluous. Old married couple, my butt.
"So spill," Nina said quietly. "I know there's something bothering you, and you want to talk about it, but only to me."
I looked at her. "We are not like an old married couple." It hadn't been what I'd meant to say, but it was what came out.
"Really?" Her amused look spoke volumes. "Is that what's burning your ass?"
"No, not really." I'd known Nina was perceptive, but I'd forgotten just how perceptive. "What I've got to say … you won't thank me."
Her next words weren't a guess. "It's about me. You know something bad that's going to happen to me."
This was my dilemma. Despite knowing that I fully intended to change the world for the better (and that I'd already taken steps to do so) she'd decided that she didn't want to know details of her own future. And for the most part, I'd been happy to honour that. But what Lisa had told me … despite it being what would have happened in my timeline, I wanted to change it all the same, for several reasons.
"It's a thing, yeah," I agreed. "And it's bad. And even if I tell you, it might not fix things."
"But it might." Her tone made it a statement rather than a question.
"It's possible," I hedged.
She grimaced. "And despite the fact that I don't want to know, you still want to tell me."
It was true. I shrugged. "Yeah."
"Arrgh. Fine. You win." I could see her fists clenching, the nails biting into the palms. "I hate you. Tell me."
I took a deep breath, recalling the conversation I'd had with Lisa.
The lumpy green creatures, no two alike, lumbered toward us. They hefted misshapen clubs that looked weirdly like computer keyboards. I could hear their bellowing voices as the words became clear to me.
"Darth Vader did nothing wrong!"
"Star Trek was inspired by Scientology!"
"Doctor Who is a government cover-up!"
"Frodo was totally banging Samwise!"
"Maggie Holt is a Mary Sue!"
My sword was half-drawn; I slid it back into its sheath. Are those what I think they are?
Lisa sighed and selected one of the half-dozen wands she had hanging in a holster at her hip. "I'm afraid so. We're being attacked by a bunch of trolls."
Welp, there's only one way to deal with those. I unlimbered the arcane flamethrower from my back and thumbed the ignition rune on the handgrip. With a throaty roar, the blackened nozzle began to belch flame.
"You're not wrong." Lisa tapped the wand on her arm-guard, and the tip lit up. "C'mon baby, light my fire."
A tiny spark launched from the tip of her wand at the command phrase, at the same time as I squeezed the trigger of my flamethrower. It struck and detonated, sending half the trolls flying through the air in flaming chunks. My flame washed over the other half, melting their keyboards and reducing them to sizzling (and stinking) piles of greenish fat and stringy hair.
As the last of them subsided with a whine of, "can't you take a joke …" I put the flamethrower away again.
Well, that was fun. So, quick question.
"Let me guess. It's about Nina Veder?"
Got it in one.
"You want to know if she's Greg's mother. That bit's easy. She is."
Which only raises more questions, you realise.
She looked at me sadly. "Okay, then. In order: the dad is her boyfriend Greg. He never marries her after she gets pregnant, because he dies in a car accident. Brake failure. She names Greg after him. And because she lost the other Greg, she becomes a helicopter mom. She'd rather he sit in the house and play video games than go out and develop social skills, and risk getting hurt. And that's how we end up with your Greg."
Well, crap. It all made way too much sense. Should I … you know … say something?
"That's between you and her." She looked around. "Heads up. We've got company."
I looked; advancing on us was a legion of hooded, black-robed figures. Each of their faces was deep in shadow, although we could somehow make out scars that disfigured what would normally have been exceptionally handsome features. From them, I could sense a deep brooding angst of the type that could spawn reams of bad Gothic poetry.
"Orphaned at birth …" muttered one.
"Raised by ninjas …" intoned another.
"The world has been nothing but cold to me …" growled a third.
"There is only kill or be killed …"
"My soul is an aching void …"
It was my turn to sigh. Seriously? Edgelords?
"You wanted silly this time. We got silly."
I took the flamethrower off my back again. At least tell me they're flammable.
"Oh, intensely. It's all those rough-spun hooded cloaks. Also, they've got a martyr complex like you wouldn't believe."
Good. Let's see if I can't indulge them in that. I squeezed the trigger.
"Okay …" I paused to pick my words carefully. "So … if you were to, say, talk to Greg and suggest that he get his brakes checked … like, tomorrow … it might be a good idea. Just saying."
Nina looked at me seriously. "Get his brakes checked."
I thought for a moment. "And yours too, just in case. Not that I know for a fact that there's anything wrong with them, you understand."
"Oh, of course," she said firmly. "It's just a sensible precaution. I'll tell him tonight."
The subtext was clear: I'm not doing this because a time traveller told me, I'm doing it because it's a smart idea.
"Right. Good." I didn't know this would change anything, but I'd done what I could.
She looked up at the sky as the hills to the west of the city drew lines through the sunlight sheeting over the bay. "So where are you going after this?"
"Oh, a few places in the Midwest need checking over, then Kinsey and I will be flying out to Hawaii to nail down their security. Joy."
Her tone was teasing. "You sound like you're not looking forward to it."
"Oh, I wouldn't mind going there for a vacation." Of course, I'd need to get in before Behemoth wrecked the place. "But just to fly halfway across the Pacific, spend a day unfucking whatever they've done to their computer system, then fly back? Not my idea of an island getaway."
She chuckled lightly. "The burden of being the security expert."
I wrinkled my nose. "Don't remind me." We'd be going back to Chicago after that, so hopefully things would settle down with ex-Lieutenant Robbie Gordon no longer in the picture. Until the next crisis, of course.
"Well, just between you and me, I want to tell you that I appreciate all you're doing. And, on behalf of the rest of the world, all you're trying to do." She put her arm around me and gave me a brief but welcome hug.
"Thanks. That means a lot."
The worst, I knew, was yet to come. But with my friends around me, I knew I had a fighting chance of beating the odds.
Whether I succeeded … only time would tell.
End of Part 7-3
A/N: In case you didn't get the subtle hints, there will be a (relatively short) time skip following this chapter.