Taylor Hebert, Medhall Intern


Part Twelve: A New Player


[A/N: This chapter commissioned by GW_Yoda and beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]


Wednesday
Taylor


"… so there we were, in that little kitchen area, yeah?" Greg gestured for emphasis as the bus rolled through the city on the way to Medhall. "They're going we can't hide in here, so I point at the maintenance door I'd left open. In there, I said."

Today, for the first time, we were each wearing our Medhall working clothes on the bus. In the absence of Emma and Sophia's particular brand of vitriol, we'd changed in the bathrooms just before walking out the door. He'd helped me tie the black armband on my sleeve, and I'd done the same for him.

Julia might have tried to stop us, but she didn't have Emma's network of tattletales to keep an eye on my every move. So we were gone before she ever realised I wasn't going to be in the cafeteria.

I nodded, visualising the scene. I knew the kitchenette well by now. The funny thing was, until I'd first heard about how Greg got there, I hadn't even thought about the maintenance access door. "What'd they say?"

Greg put such a profound look of disgust and distaste into his expression and voice, I had to giggle. "What's in there? Like I'd just asked them to go swimming in sewage or something."

Somehow, I wasn't surprised. "How'd you get them to go in there anyway?"

"Wasn't me." Greg shook his head. "Ms. Harcourt did that. She took one look at it and said it has the supreme advantage of not being out here. In there, ladies, immediately! … and you know, I coulda begged and pleaded all day and not moved them. She said it once, and they went in, meek as you please. Just in time, too. Sophia showed up just after Ms. Harcourt got in and closed the door."

"Yeah, she's pretty cool," I said. "Scary, but cool. I want to learn how to do that thing where she can glare at you even when her back's turned."

Greg snorted. "I just want to learn how to be able to say, do this and not have people look at me like I'm stupid and ask whyyyy?" For the last word, he tacked on the most obnoxious nasal whine I'd ever heard.

"Hahaha, yes," I agreed. "That would also be amazing to learn. So, what's it like back there in those maintenance spaces, anyway? You said one time it was like secret passages."

Greg rolled his eyes. "Yeah, like a nerd. It's not actually that cool. Basically, it's unlit for the most part, but if you're supposed to be going in there you get a headlamp. They don't bother painting the walls, so it's raw brick or concrete or wood, and it's not nearly as wide as the corridors in the public areas." He waved his hand over his head. "Also, some of the spaces are a little bit low. You don't get elevators or even full-on staircases to go from floor to floor, just little cramped affairs or even ladders. And if it's been a while since the pest control guys have been through, you get spiders and spiderwebs, and the occasional rat. We're supposed to report rat droppings and stuff."

I nodded to show I was paying attention. "Wouldn't you get lost? I mean, you went from a set of bathrooms on one level to right next to Tracey's workspace on my level, all in a couple of minutes."

He chuckled hollowly. "Yeah, you can thank the guys for that. They deliberately got me lost in there a couple of times, then left me to wander aimlessly with the weakest light they had until I learned to find my way around. It wasn't fun at the time, but it did the job."

"Throwing you in at the deep end, huh?" I nudged his shoulder with mine sympathetically.

"Eh, I survived." He chuckled. "They were trying to spook me by telling horror stories about The Lost Intern, who went in there twenty years ago and was still wandering around trying to find his way out, subsisting on rats and spiders. For a while there, that felt like me. But now? I'm good."

"Yeah, nobody can argue with that." I grinned. "Especially not Sophia."


PRT Building ENE
Holding Cells


Emily Piggot rarely came down this far into the building, and never without a good reason. She had far too much on her plate to go wandering at random through the building, and anyone she normally wanted to talk to got escorted to her office. But she was here this time because she wanted to be.

The guard put a key—an actual metal key—into the oversized lock and turned it all the way around twice, to the accompaniment of clicks and clacks within the mechanism. Finally, the lock opened, and the guard waved her through. Her escort—nobody came down here without an escort—followed her in.

She moved along the row until she saw Stalker, hunched on her bunk. The girl wasn't wearing the specialized cuffs Armsmaster had developed, mainly because the cell itself had been set up to contain her. There was enough electricity running through the walls, floor, ceiling and bars to fry a medium-sized cow.

"Miss Hess," she said curtly.

Sophia looked up. Her eyes were still inflamed by whatever the Veder kid had sprayed in her face, but at least she could still see. "What the fuck do you want, Piggy?" she sneered.

Her escort opened his mouth to say something, but Emily shook her head. Hess had so much shit hanging over her right now that disciplining her for something the other Wards almost certainly did on a daily basis wasn't the slightest bit fair or equitable. "Just here to pass on some news. Something I heard, earlier. I thought you might be interested. About the boy called Greg Veder."

"What, Veder died already?" Hess shook her head, a superior look on her face. "He got me but I got him too. Little shit shouldn't have fucked with me. None of them should've fucked with me."

It was too much. Emily laughed out loud, something she hadn't done in … years, maybe? Far too long, anyway. She finished up by chuckling and shaking her head. "Oh, no. Didn't you notice? He had an ironing board up against his chest. Your arrow only gave him a flesh wound. That whole little murder spree of yours only managed to kill one person." She showed her teeth. "And for that one, you are going down. But that's not even what I'm here for."

Hess looked confused. "But the woman in the car … it went over the cliff, didn't it?"

"Hung up on the edge," Piggot explained with relish. "Remember the girl called Taylor Hebert? According to Medhall, she volunteered to climb into that car with a rescue sling and got Ms. Grimshaw to safety, just before it went all the way over. And Grayson survived too, because Ms. Hebert kept her head and called security, and they got him to medical attention in time. She also reportedly figured out you were Shadow Stalker and had the security team pull back before I ever contacted Max Anders with that same information."

"Fucking Hebert," growled Hess. "Why couldn't she just lie down and die already?"

"Because as far as I can see, she's ten times the hero you'll ever be, even without powers," Emily said bluntly. "I've never even met the girl, but I'd offer her a spot interning for the PRT in a heartbeat if she ever chose to leave Medhall, and if we had such a position open. And that's still not what I'm here to tell you about."

Emily was momentarily glad that Hess' powers didn't extend to destructive eye-beams, from the glare the girl was throwing her way. "So what the fuck did you come down here to waste my time about?"

The moment was delicious. "Do you read the ParaHumans Online site?" Emily prompted gently.

"Yeah, so what? Did someone out me on it?" Hess leaned forward. "Because that's fifty kinds of bullshit if they did."

"No, no." Emily shook her head. "We've managed to keep that particular aspect out of the public eye. Your family's safe. No, it's one particular username you might be familiar with. Void Cowboy?"

"Yeah, what about him?" Hess shook her head dismissively. "He's a total loser and a waste of space. Comes up with ten times as many stupid ideas as anyone else."

Emily smiled; a rare expression for her, but this occasion demanded it. "You might know him better as Greg Veder. That's who took you down."

Finally, she'd managed to puncture the look of sneering superiority that Hess had managed to maintain almost all the way through the conversation. Hess' look of total shock and disgust made up for all the verbal barbs. "What the fuck? That can't be right! There's no fucking way!"

"I assure you, it's true." Emily turned away from the cell and started back down the corridor. "I learned about it first thing this morning. And that's what's all over PHO. How Void Cowboy took down Shadow Stalker. Assault is still laughing about it. So are the Wards." She paused and looked back to where Hess' face was pressed against the bars. "Everyone on the internet is laughing at you. Personally. Shadow Stalker is a joke."

As the guard let Emily back through the barred gate, Hess' screams of frustrated rage continued to echo along the corridor.

The ride back up in the elevator was … pleasant. Enjoyable, even.

Screw my life over? I'll return the favour in ways you can't even imagine.

She had very few pleasures in life, but it turned out schadenfreude was one of them.


Taylor


The bus pulled up outside Medhall and we got off. Along with Greg, I stepped to the side to let the other passengers move along while I took a moment to look up at the building and heave a sigh of satisfaction. Winslow was a lot less unpleasant than it used to be, but there were still a lot of bad memories wherever I went in that place. Short of home itself, Medhall was where I could go to be … me.

"Ready to go and make the world a better place?" I asked Greg. The question was rhetorical; I already knew the answer.

"Hell yeah," he agreed enthusiastically, as predicted. "Let's—whoa!"

Later, security camera footage would show that the bunch of Merchants had been lurking around the far side of the bus shelter; as I went to walk across to the steps leading up to the main entrance of Medhall, they surged past us. Greg, with his backpack half over his shoulder, was pulled around off-balance when one of them grabbed it and yanked hard. Another snared my shoulder-bag and gave me a hard shove. I went staggering back as the bag came free of my arm, and the muggers started to run off.

They got all of three yards before they had to detour around a tall, muscular black guy who was coming the other direction. Dressed neatly in a button-down shirt and jeans, he was inches taller than me, with his hair in neat cornrows, but he couldn't have been more than seventeen or eighteen. Still, he had moves.

The one with Greg's backpack tried to jink to the left around the big guy but copped a clothesline to the neck for his trouble. His feet went out from under him and he landed on his back; meanwhile, Tall Dark and Handsome caught Greg's bag out of mid-air and tossed it to his other hand. Seeing this, the Merchant who'd grabbed my bag went to go to the right, cutting farther out around him. It didn't help much; swung like a club, the backpack extended the big guy's reach, slamming into the bag-snatcher's gut and putting him on the ground as well.

If they'd just accepted their losses and run off at this point, it would've all been fine from my point of view. But they'd apparently decided my bag and Greg's backpack were their property now, and that was that. Three of them crowded the ad hoc Good Samaritan, shouting and grabbing at the backpack, while one went to scoop up my bag from where it'd been dropped. All this had happened so fast, I was still recovering from being shoved, steadying myself against the side of the bus shelter.

The big guy demonstrated why it was a bad idea to get in close to him; he kicked one under the kneecap and elbowed another in the head, more or less in the same move. They both went down, one screaming obscenities while his fellow just crumpled like a rag doll. Mr T-D-H went to fend off the third one with his right hand while swinging Greg's backpack a second time at the one trying to grab my bag. The backpack collected with a solid thud, sending that guy over backward, but the other one flicked out a switchblade and slashed at him with it.

Too late, I saw the glint of silver. "Look out!" I called. The blade came around, parting the big guy's sleeve as he tried to pull back, and drawing red behind it. The guy with the knife moved in, swinging it aggressively.

Which was when Greg crash-tackled the knife-guy from behind. The big black guy stepped neatly out of the way and they both hit the ground hard. Greg had learned from his previous experience though; he got up fast and kicked the knife out of reach, while his opponent was still trying to catch his breath.

And that was when the guards came bolting out of Medhall, waving tasers and yelling at everyone to stay the hell where they were.


A Few Minutes Later
Greg


"How's your arm?" asked Taylor of the guy—he'd introduced himself as Brian—who'd saved their bags. A couple of the medical staff from the clinic had come outside and patched his arm up. Stitches apparently weren't required, but the wound would need to be kept clean.

Fortunately, the security cameras in the lobby had captured the whole scene, and the guards were talking to the cops who'd shown up. One of the Merchants had made a run for it, but the others were all too stunned from the fight to get away. The officers had spoken to Greg and Taylor briefly, mainly to get their details in case more information was needed later.

Bradley, Greg knew, would also be interested in what had happened. Greg intended to give him chapter and verse. He hoped there'd be some sort of reward in it for Brian.

"It'll be fine," Brian said, moving his fingers carefully. "I'll just get out of your hair now."

"No, no, seriously, no." Taylor got that adorably stern look she used when she was putting her foot down. "Hey, Bradley!" She waved over the burly guard, who'd just exited the main doors.

"Taylor, Greg," Bradley acknowledged, moving to stand in front of them. "I'm Bradley Fieldmark, head of security. I didn't catch your name."

"Brian Laborn, sir." He was taller than Bradley by a couple of inches, but in muscle mass they seemed to be pretty even. It looked to Greg like they were each sizing the other up. The can I take him? glances were pretty obvious when a guy knew what to look for. Carefully, Brian shook Bradley's hand. "I don't want to cause any inconvenience."

"Inconvenience, hah!" Taylor forged onward. "Bradley, Brian here just stopped a bunch of lowlives from stealing our stuff right outside the building, and he got hurt doing it. Can we do something nice for him?"

Greg had seen Bradley impassive, and he'd seen him angry. But he'd never actually seen him amused before. An eyebrow raised, and one corner of Bradley's mouth crooked upward. "I'll see what Mr. Anders has to say about it," he finally said. "Just wait here a moment." Moving off, he took his phone out of his pocket.

"He'll say yes, you'll see," Greg said. "Mr. Anders is a great guy."

"Yeah," Taylor agreed. "And you saved our stuff. Thank you so much for that, by the way. Do you do martial arts? Because the way you kicked their asses was amazing."

Brian nodded reluctantly. "I, uh, started out with boxing, but I've done MMA for a couple of years, yeah." He looked from Taylor to Greg and back again. "Aren't you two a little young to be working here?"

"We're interns," Greg explained proudly. "Taylor there's basically been their fair-haired child since she uncovered some of Coil's moles in the building."

Taylor flushed. "Hey, that's not fair. You've done your bit too." She turned to Brian. "Greg here took on Shadow Stalker and knocked her out with a fire extinguisher when she went villain and invaded the building."

Brian stared at Greg. "You did what again now?"

"Oh, it's all over PHO by now," Greg said, ducking his head. "And someone leaked my online username, so everyone's melting down all over the place. People are actually, literally, calling for the PRT to enact Master/Stranger protocols on me, personally. Because apparently Void Cowboy couldn't get it right even if someone cut off my left hand."

"But … why did Shadow Stalker invade the Medhall building?" Brian couldn't seem to get his head around that part.

Greg met Taylor's eye, and she shook her head slightly. They both looked back at Brian. "Sorry, we're not actually allowed to say," Taylor told him.

"But let's just say it's linked to how Stalker's a spiteful, hateful psycho bitch," Greg added. "Unless you're a Stalker fan, in which case I'm sorry you had to find out this way."

Brian shook his head slowly. "Nope. I'm … well, I'm not exactly a fan of hers, either. The opposite, really. She, uh, she really hurt a friend of mine one time. Shot him with a broad-head arrow. Nearly killed him."

"That's what she shot Mr Grayson with," Taylor said with a nod. "And Greg, too. Though Greg came prepared."

"Ironing board," Greg said in answer to Brian's querying glance. "Best I could do at short notice."

"And your best is pretty good, these days," Bradley said, coming back over. "Mr Anders has approved a personal reward as a thank-you from Medhall, Mr Laborn. He's signing the forms right now. Taylor, Tracey called to say she's waiting on you, and to get your purse snatched on your own time."

"Oh, ha ha." Taylor grinned. "Thanks again, Brian. I'll see you around sometime. Later, Greg." She paused and turned to Bradley. "Hey, do you think you'd have an opening in security for someone like Brian? You saw how he cleaned those guys' clocks."

"I, uh, I don't think—" began Brian.

"Hey, yeah," Greg chimed in enthusiastically. "I mean, you were going to try to train me how to do security work when I got in a lucky fluke against Shadow Stalker. Brian here's way more qualified than I am."

Bradley rubbed his chin and looked at Taylor with his eyebrows raised. She didn't say anything more, but she looked as though she thought it was a great idea. "… give me your contact details," he said eventually. "I'll speak to Mr. Anders about it."

Taylor beamed as she headed for the front doors, bag slung over her shoulder, and Greg didn't blame her. It was turning out to be a good day.


Grue
An Hour Later
The Undersiders' Base


Brian let himself in through the metal door, then locked it behind him. Several grocery bags dangled from his hand, but the dressing on his arm didn't hamper him too much as he climbed the spiral staircase. No dogs barked, so he figured Rachel was out.

"What happened?" Lisa called out before he even got to the top. "You're fifteen minutes later than usual."

"So he had a second chai latte extra pretentious with almond yak milk," Alec drawled over the sound of his latest first-person shooter. "No big. Unless it gives him gas like it did that one time."

Shaking his head, Brian entered the common area and dumped the bags on the table. Lisa spotted the dressing and her eyebrows raised. "You've been in a fight, Brian? That's not like you."

"Not really a fight. More like a scuffle." He collapsed on the sofa. "A bunch of Merchants decided to bag-snatch a pair of Medhall interns just when I was heading to my favourite coffee place. They went to run past me, and I chose not to let 'em. One of them got all blade-happy with me. I just got cut the once, then one of the interns tackled him. Skinny kid, too. Wouldn't have thought he had it in him."

"And Medhall patched you up themselves on the spot," guessed Lisa. "Well, I guess it saves you ruining another couch."

"I liked that couch," Alec said, right on cue.

Brian waved off the interruption. "But that's not the weirdest thing. It was just a couple of interns, right? Fifteen, sixteen? He was dressed like every maintenance worker I've ever seen, down to the boots. She had on some pretty sharp business wear. And just on their say-so, Max Anders himself had this couriered down to me." He pulled the now-unsealed envelope out of his pocket. "Also, I may just get a job offer, working security there."

Lisa took the envelope and read out the handwritten inscription on the side. "'To Mr Brian Laborn, in Deepest Appreciation'. Huh." Opening it, she fanned out the twenties she found inside along with the copy of the signed receipt, and whistled softly. "Damn," she muttered. "Five hundred bucks from the desk of Max Anders, just for saving a couple of interns from being mugged?"

Alec put his controller down. "What, really? We're in the wrong business. I'll be back soon." He made to get up from the couch.

"Don't even think about it," Brian said tiredly. "And that's not even the weirdest part. Has anyone been on PHO today?" Looking from Alec to Lisa, he knew immediately the answer was 'no'.

"Why?" asked Lisa suspiciously. "What have you done?"

Brian shook his head, the grin breaking out on his face again. He'd checked briefly on the way home, but he'd wanted to be comfortably situated on the couch in order to properly appreciate it. "Not me. You'll see."

"Now I really do want to see." Lisa took her laptop from the chair arm and opened the screen. She started clicking through the tabs, then blinked. "You're shitting me."

He had his phone out by that time, scrolling through the same messages she was obviously finding. "I shit you not."

Alec paused his game and used the controller to call up PHO on his game screen. "Void Cowboy took down Shadow Stalker? I don't fucking believe it."

Brian's grin was now so wide he couldn't control it. "Believe it. I spoke to the kid himself. He's the one who tackled the Merchant off me. Nice guy, pretty well switched on. Name's Greg. Interns for Medhall."

Lisa wasn't talking anymore; instead, she was giggling as she clicked onto different threads and read them through at a glance. "Holy shit, it's real. It's really real."

Alec's voice was disbelieving. "The biggest fucking dork on the east coast took down the shadow bitch. And there's footage." A moment later, his face fell. "Aww, they blurred out her face."

"Secret identity shit." Lisa shook her head. "Doesn't matter. The PRT's not saying much about it, but what they are saying is very informative. Shadow Stalker just torched her last bridge, after loading it down with drums of napalm. She could've taken a dump in the middle of Piggot's desk and not gotten into this much trouble. This is bye-bye from Brockton Bay, and the hero scene, forever." Reaching over, she high-fived Brian without even looking.

"Oh shit, oh shit." Alec had actual glee in his voice now, for about the first time ever. "Someone put the takedown to music. They overlaid her face with a sad-face clown emoji." He set it to play on the big screen, and Brian leaned over to watch.

He lost count of how many times they played it back through, but when Rachel came back from her walk, she grumpily asked why they were still laughing.


Taylor


The day was passing uneventfully. Because Tracey still had her arm in a sling, I was delegated to do anything that required more than a few lines of typing, while she handled the tasks that just required point-and-click. I was perfectly happy to help her out like that, and she mentioned a few times how pleased she was that I could actually type (unlike some people she'd seen in the office environment, who embodied the classic Hunt and Peck style).

Having finished one particular document and shot it back over to her, I got up, stretched, and left my desk to go make some more coffee. Tracey handed me her cup without even looking up, and I grinned as I went over to the sink and rinsed it out. Not a word had passed between us, and yet we were working like a well-oiled machine.

As the water was boiling, I wandered back to where she was working, then waited for a pause in her mouse-clicking. "Tracey … I was wondering if you could answer a question about Justin for me?"

Slowly, she looked around in my direction. We knew each other well enough that she was aware I'd never bring up his name without good reason, but I could still see the pain in her eyes and hear it in her voice. "What about him?"

I grimaced, realising far too late that this was probably going to sound stupid and self-serving. But I'd already brought him up. The damage was done. "That book he got for me and Greg for our class assignment … uh, who would he have gone to for that? Our teacher really wants to get in touch with them."

She blinked already red-rimmed eyes. "Book? Oh, that book." A frown crossed her face as she thought about it. "I think he might have said something about talking to Mr Grayson about it, but I'm not sure."

Mr Grayson, who was still on the critical list. Well, Gladly's gonna have to wait a little longer. "Thanks, I appreciate it." I turned to go back into the kitchenette.

"Wait." Her voice was almost pleading. I turned back, raising my eyes questioningly. "That book. He was really pleased about it. Like he'd played a huge practical joke on someone. Did it actually help you?"

"Help us?" I nodded firmly. "Everyone else in the class got seventies and eighties for their presentations. Greg and I got ninety-seven percent. We didn't just win; we blew them clear out of the water and into orbit. And all because of that book."

"Good." She nodded firmly. "I'm glad. And I think he'd be glad too. He thought a lot of you, you know? Especially after you discovered those moles."

"Thought a lot of me, or just of my coffee?" I asked with a smirk to show I was kidding.

Her grin was watery, but it was there. "A little bit of column A, a little bit of column B," she decided, waggling her good hand from side to side. She took a deep breath. "The funeral's next Saturday, if you wanted to attend. It's not mandatory, but we'd certainly appreciate the support. There'll be a wake afterward at the Augustus Country Club."

"Of course I'll attend," I said at once. "I'll tell Greg, too. He'll want to be there."

This time, her smile was a little less watery and a little more genuine. "That would be amazing, Taylor. And I'm sure he would. You're lucky to have a boyfriend like him."

I blinked. What was it with adults and assumptions? "Uh … Greg's not my boyfriend. I mean, we're friends, but not like that." At least, I don't think so?

"Oh, sorry. My bad." Her smile turned rueful. "I didn't mean to put my foot in it."

"No, no, it's okay." I rolled my eyes and chuckled. "Dad made the same mistake. Apparently, teenagers can't come over and study at each other's houses without magically ending up in a relationship with each other."

She nodded to acknowledge this. "Well, I'll just amend what I was saying to 'you're lucky to have a friend like Greg'. Better?"

"It's okay, and yeah, I know I'm lucky." The coffee machine burbled audibly, and I held up my hand. "Back in a sec."

"Go," she said with a genuine grin, and a flick of the fingers from her be-slinged arm. "Return with the speed of a thousand baristas!"

Giggling, I went.


Greg


"Okay, kid, you ready?"

Greg took a deep breath and looked across the impromptu ring at Bradley. "Not really, but let's do this anyway."

The older man grinned briefly. "Good to see you're being realistic about this." He shook his arms out, still clad in his security-guard shirt. "You did good today, just like you did against Shadow Stalker, but you gotta know you were lucky both times. If you're gonna keep getting into situations like that, defending Taylor against assholes or even just fighting your own battles, skill lets you make your own luck."

That made a whole lot of sense. "Okay, so what do I do?"

Bradley tilted his head slightly, apparently thinking. "You've kinda got a knack for body checks, so let's start with that, and get you good with them before moving on to more complicated stuff."

Greg nodded, swallowing nervously. "So … you want me to try to knock you down?" His brain, entirely unbidden, started doing calculations about exactly how unlikely that was going to be.

He hadn't known his brain was capable of cackling madly in terror, and wished it would stop.

"Nah, not me. I'm the advanced class." Bradley stepped back, and one of the other security guards stepped forward. Greg had been introduced to Melody a little while ago, and had immediately decided he didn't want to get on her bad side, ever. She didn't talk much—well, she hadn't said anything to him at all—but a twitch of expression could go a long way toward covering that. "Go ahead. Knock her down."

Greg stared at the blonde security guard. "Oh, boy," he muttered, then raised his voice. "Okay, just saying, I'll be trying to keep my hands from going anywhere inappropriate." He had zero doubt that if she even suspected him of trying to grope her, his life expectancy would be dramatically shortened.

In reply, she pulled the classic move of extending her arm and making a come-at-me gesture. Her eyes bored into his.

Well, shit, he thought. This is not going to end well.

He charged.

Two minutes later, as he stared up at the ceiling for the fifth time, he wished he could be this correct when it came to his exams.


Taylor
Later


I stepped out of the elevator and into the Medhall lobby at just after three, a spring in my step. Tracey and I had gotten past the mention of Justin with barely a sniffle, and I'd dived right back into taking written reports and typing them up, then correlating them with existing data.

Fully aware of the potential consequences to Medhall and to my own budding career as a paid intern if I missed anything important, I'd made sure not to just skim over the data as I entered it. As such, any time I found any outliers, I made sure to check with Tracey about it. This resulted in a few queries being sent up the line to be double-checked. I'd expressed concern about wasting people's time, but Tracey had shaken her head. "Given your previous performance, they'd rather we raised half a dozen false alarms than skip over something that's real."

My fears allayed, I'd gone back to it, and gotten all the way to the end of my working day without any alarms going off or other untoward event. (Crazed ex-Wards attacking the building were the exception rather than the rule, Tracey assured me. I had yet to be convinced.)

"Hey, Taylor." Greg came limping over to meet me. "You look happy."

"It's been a good day," I said, then looked him over. Nothing else seemed to be wrong with him except for the limp. "What happened? Did you fall badly when you tackled that guy?"

"Well, no," he admitted. "But Bradley said I could've done it better. So after two, he borrowed me from the maintenance crew, and him and a couple of the others started giving me lessons in how to really put someone on the ground. And the mat wasn't exactly soft. So yeah, I got a few more bruises." Ruefully, he rubbed his butt.

"Aww, I wish I could've been there," I said immediately. "I want to learn how to kick ass too."

He rolled his eyes as we headed for the exit. "Well, I mainly got my ass kicked but yeah, I can see where I was going wrong before. They showed me how to do body checks, basic throws and locks. Really simple stuff, but it works like a charm if you do it right."

"That's really cool." I jabbed him gently with my elbow. "What's not cool is how you got to do that stuff while I was doing boring office work."

He ducked aside from the prod. "Okay, okay. I'll tell Bradley you want in on it, too. Maybe we can make a time on the weekend, after work, so he can teach us both."

I nodded. "We can bring our folks along to meet him and the others. I know Dad would probably like to meet him. He got along with Justin and Tracey." I blinked as I recalled what she'd told me. "Oh, uh, talking about the weekend, Justin's funeral is on Saturday. Can you make it?"

"Sure." Greg nodded. "I didn't know him all that well, but he was a pretty cool guy."

"Good." I grabbed his hand and squeezed it, then let go as the bus pulled up and we got on board. We settled into our seats—he let me have the window, as always—and I looked out at the imposing building we'd just left. "I'm glad you're the one who's interning at Medhall with me, and not someone else."

"Yeah, me too." He chuckled. "Can you imagine Emma trying to do the work you're doing?"

"Oh, god." I rolled my eyes as the bus started off. "I was sorting out files that had bugs in them. Real live ones. The first time one ran over her hand, she would've screamed so loud, Mr Anders would've thought the fire alarm had gone off. And all the typing I was doing today? Have you seen how proud she is of her nails?"

"Yeah." Greg shook his head. "Every time I saw her in class, she was getting someone else to do her work for her." His grin widened. "If she was learning maintenance … wow. That attitude would've made her no friends at all."

I pursed my lips thoughtfully. "I don't think she ever had friends, not since me. Just people it was advantageous for her to talk to, and people who thought they owed her loyalty. Not anyone who liked her for her."

Greg snorted. "Is there really a 'her' there anymore?"

"I have no idea, and I don't really care." I smirked. "But wherever the cops have got her, I'm pretty sure she doesn't want to be there right now."

"Damn right."


The Barnes Household
Alan Barnes


"Da-ad," whined Emma, wandering out into the living room. "Can I go to the mall for an hour?"

Her father turned to look at her. "No." That one word was cold and harsh. "When I say you're grounded, young lady, I mean you're grounded. You've already been expelled from Winslow, and Immaculata has refused to accept you on the very reasonable grounds that you're facing an upcoming criminal trial. The police have accepted my word that you're not going to run off somewhere. I'm not going to take the risk of you wandering about and adding to the number of lawsuits already hanging over my head."

"But I'm bored."

"Which makes me even less likely to let you go out," he snapped back. "If you'd chosen to alleviate your boredom by doing literally anything else other than bully your previous best friend, we wouldn't be in this mess. Go and read a book or something."

"Reading's stupid. I want to go and see my friends."

Yes, your friends. Who at least enabled you, and probably encouraged you, in tormenting Taylor. Not on my watch.

He drew a deep breath and let it out, trying for a reasonable tone. "You have a TV in your room. Go and watch that."

"There's nothing good on." She punctuated her words by stamping her foot on the carpet. Once, it might have been cute. Right now, it didn't serve to alleviate his mood much, or at all.

"Then go online." He huffed in irritation. "I thought teenagers were supposed to be the Internet Generation. Feel free to window-shop at online outlets but remember, I'll stop any purchase you don't run past me first." He hadn't destroyed her credit card—yet—but he'd arranged matters so any purchase popped up on his phone for him to okay first.

"Fine." She flounced upstairs, a good trick for someone wearing T-shirt and jeans. He heard her bedroom door open, then slam shut again.

One thing he knew she wouldn't do was sneak out her bedroom window. While it was designed to be easily opened in case of a fire, he'd arranged for a very loud fire alarm to be set up on all the upstairs windows, that triggered if they were opened more than four inches. She'd tested it exactly once; the ringing in his ears had taken an hour to go away, and he hadn't even been in the room at the time.

Sighing to himself, he settled down to re-read the letter from his firm. When stripped of the legal verbiage, it stated that his role in Shadow Stalker becoming a Ward in the first place did not reflect well on their good name, and that if he quietly resigned there wouldn't need to be any kind of unpleasant scene about it. In terms of aggravating his ulcers—he'd only had one before all this blew up, but now they were breeding—this came in right behind the other letter from the Bar, requesting that he show cause to retain his position as a lawyer in good standing, considering that very same character reference.

"What the fuck?" Emma's outraged squawk easily reached his ears through the thickness of her door and the distance between them. "Greg beat Sophia? Void Cowboy beat Sophia?"

His ulcers chose that moment to flare up, and he reached for the bottle of antacid.

I don't even want to know.


Hookwolf


"So, what about the kid who stopped those bag-snatchers?" asked Max idly, holding his glass up to the light and swirling the ice gently. "I know he's black, but I don't like making an outlay without the chance of getting a return on it. Think he could work out? Maybe on the front desk?"

Bradley frowned. Laborn had definitely been husky enough, and the kid had solid training behind him. Taking on a bunch of degenerate lowlives just to save the property of two people he'd never met before, that was something Bradley could understand, intellectually at least. In his old cage-fighting days, it would've been called a 'face' move. And smacking that one guy around with the backpack … yeah, that showed style.

But Max had put his finger on the problem. Laborn was black. While Bradley didn't have as much of an issue with that as he would've if the kid had been a rag-head or some other type of Middle Easterner, it was definitely a thing. Still … "Didn't you say the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was giving you flack for not showing enough diversity or some bullshit like that?"

"Yes, they're sniffing around us again." Max grimaced, then took a sip of his drink. "We've never been able to hire an Asian in any capacity without them either being an ABB mole from the beginning, or being pressured into being one by them after the fact. If we're going to fly under the radar, we need to have someone visible on board who we can point at and say, 'See? We hire minorities too!' Not just someone whose great-grandfather might've been black. Whoever they send to check us out needs to be able to know it without us telling them."

Bradley slugged back about half of his own drink, then fixed Max with a steady gaze. "So if I'm understanding you right, you want me to actually hire this guy?" This black guy, he didn't have to say out loud. "There's going to be some places in the building he just won't be able to go. And some of the others might get seriously pissy about it. You do realise this."

"It'll take a lot of outside pressure off us," Max pointed out. "I'll square it with the rest of the team. If you keep him on the front desk, maybe walking the floor where he's visible, the EEOC'll back off and go find someone else to make misery for. Of course, we're going to need a solid background check first, just in case. And if he fails that, you don't hire him."

Bradley shook his head. The things we do for the Hebert kid.

"Oh, and by the way." Max finished his glass and put it down. "Harcourt said Grimshaw and Hebert were sending reports of discrepancies back most of the afternoon. Most of them were fine, but there were a few hiding in the pack that aren't so fine. Not sure what's going on there, but it could be someone's got sticky fingers. I've got people looking into it."

"Huh." Bradley shook his head again, this time in admiration. "She's definitely got a nose for that sort of thing."

Max nodded. "She certainly does."


End of Part Twelve