Taylor Hebert, Medhall Intern

Part Twenty-Three: Second Wind

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

Nina Veder, Psychologist

The phone in Nina's purse buzzed just loudly enough to be audible. She looked over and frowned, then put the patient notes down and retrieved the phone. Her next appointment was in ten minutes, and she preferred to be up to speed on the progress they'd made so far. However, very few people had the number for this phone, so it was probably a good idea to answer.

When she saw the unknown number on the screen, her frown deepened. Who's this, and how did they get my number?

Just for a moment, she considered declining the call and blocking the number, but her innate courtesy suggested otherwise. If she answered and found out who it was—Greg might be using his friend Taylor's phone—she could always end the call and block them then if the call turned bad. Accepting the call, she put the phone to her ear. "Hello, Nina speaking. Who is this?"

"Hi, Mom, it's me." Greg's voice sounded echoey and a little strained, but it was definitely him. "I need a huge favour. Biggest favour I've ever asked. Please?"

She didn't hesitate; with Greg, she would never hesitate. He was her only child, and she would fight the world for him. "Of course. What is it?"

"You know how you once told me that if I ever really wanted to tell you something, anything at all, that I just had to say so and you'd listen? Remember that? I need you to listen now."

The urgency in his voice struck a chord in her, and she nodded involuntarily. "Okay. I'm listening. What's the matter? What's going on?"

He took a deep breath, then another. "You need to leave work. Get out of there, right now. Don't go home. Go somewhere safe. Maybe get a motel room. Just don't stay where you are. You're in danger."

She blinked a couple of times, then glanced at the clock. Eight minutes until the next appointment. Her first instinct was to argue. I've got obligations. I can't just leave. But he sounded so urgent, and he'd been so responsible recently, that she paused long enough for second thoughts to creep in. "Tell me why I'm in danger and I'll go."

"Medhall is basically Empire Eighty-Eight. Max Anders is Kaiser. He tried to kill me. I'm at the PRT building, right now. The Empire will want to grab you for a hostage against me. Get out of there, now. Please."

Nina wasn't quite sure what convinced her: the tone of his voice, the sheer bizarreness of his story, or the fact that deep down, he would always be her baby boy and she'd always have his back.

If someone had come up to her on the street and told her that Medhall was a hotbed of white supremacy, she would've laughed it off, but Greg loved that company. Every day he went there, he'd come home with amusing anecdotes about the people he worked alongside. There was no way in hell he'd be spreading a story like that about them … unless something was seriously, seriously wrong.

"Okay," she said. "I'm going. I'll let you know when I'm safe." Standing up, she dropped the patient file back in the cabinet, grabbed her purse and walked out of her office.

Shirley, her receptionist, looked up as she came out into the front office. "Oh, Ms Veder," she said. "Your three-forty-five appointment, Mrs Danvers, says she'll be here in a few minutes—"

"Call her back." Nina didn't slow down. "Reschedule. I have to leave. Family emergency. Lock up when you're done." She paused briefly at the door to give Shirley a sympathetic smile, then she pushed the door open and stepped through.

She'd been about to go out through the main doors of the building then around to the side parking lot, but two cars had just pulled up across the road, and a bunch of guys were getting out of them. Normally she wouldn't have given such an incident a second glance, but after Greg's call she was a lot more suspicious. She turned instead and headed down a side corridor, bypassed the public restrooms, then hesitated as she reached the fire exit door that led directly to the parking lot.

If I open this door, the fire alarm goes off. She had a well-developed sense of the social contract, including what one did and did not do, and setting off the fire alarm for no good reason came under 'thou shalt not'. On the other hand, there was a bunch of guys she strongly suspected to be Empire Eighty-Eight closing in on the building, and she did not want to end up as a hostage in their hands. Screw the social contract, I want to live.

Taking a deep breath, she shoved the nudge-bar of the door and it opened; the alarm started blaring immediately, a siren overlaid by the clanging of a bell. "Sorry!" she yelled over the cacophony and bolted out into the parking lot. Her keys came readily to her hand, and she opened her hatchback door. Diving into the front seat, she was just shutting the door when she spotted movement in the rearview mirror.

When she looked more closely, she stiffened in fear. Two of the ominous men had apparently figured out her plan and were running into the parking lot. Running toward her.

Reflexively, she smacked her elbow onto the central-locking button, jammed the key in the ignition, and turned it. The engine coughed, sputtered, then caught, just as someone came running up to the car and tried to open the passenger-side door. She didn't waste time seeing if they were going to try to break the window next; throwing the car into gear, she gunned it out of the parking space, swerved around the second man, and bolted for the street exit.

There was a thud on the back of the car, then a wrenching craack as (she belatedly realised) the second guy grabbed and tore off the rear window wiper. Both men chased her, but while her hatchback had a relatively small engine, it had great power to weight ratio, which meant good acceleration. This allowed her to get to the street exit with enough time to spot a gap in traffic before they caught up.

One of them almost made it, swinging a piece of metal like a club, but she found her gap and floored it. The little engine shrieked, the tyres spun, and the car shot out into traffic, merging with the flow within seconds. As her heart rate began to finally slow down, she reached up and carefully put her seat belt on.

"Okay," she said out loud. "Okay. Okay. I'm alive, I got away. I'm fine."

She didn't feel fine. If she was being honest with herself, she didn't think she'd ever feel fine again, not after the terror of the last minute or so. All she really wanted was to get to Greg, make sure he was safe, then have a perfectly reasonable nervous breakdown.

But first, she had get away from the Empire Eighty-Eight, which meant making sure she'd thrown them off her trail before heading into the PRT building.

Otis Grimshaw, Shoe Salesman

The lady's foot slid into the size nine and a half sandal, but to Otis' practised eye, it was too loose. "Hmmm …" he murmured. "I think eight and a half would be too short, so let's try a nine, shall we?" Removing the offending footwear, he tucked it back into the box then rose to his feet. "I'll be just a moment."

"Thank you," the lady replied. As he moved away toward the rack of shelves holding the sandal he required, he heard her speaking to her friend. "Didn't I tell you? He always knows exactly what you need."

He didn't hear what the friend said in reply, because at that moment, his phone rang in his pocket. Managing not to frown, he took it out. At this time of day, he figured, there was only one person it could be: his wife, Marjorie.

Marjorie was taking Tracey's death quite hard, and she hadn't liked it when he'd needed to come in to work. The fact of the matter was, there'd been nobody else available to cover his shift, even though he was grieving the loss of their daughter just as deeply as she was.

He stepped into the stock room and closed the door behind him, so as to have privacy for his phone call. He didn't begrudge the few minutes it would take to speak to Marjorie and bring her around to a happier frame of mind. In any case, he'd be finishing for the day in less than two hours; after that, he'd be able to devote his entire attention to her and the funeral arrangements.

To his surprise, the number showing on his phone screen was one he'd never seen before. Now that he was behind a closed door, he did allow himself to frown in puzzlement. The phone continued to ring; pursing his lips, he tapped the Accept icon.

"Hello?" he said, ready to end the call if it was one of the vultures that inevitably came crawling out of the woodwork at times like this. However, what he wasn't ready for was the voice he heard in his ear.

"Dad! Oh, God, it's good to hear your voice! It's me, I'm alive, you have to listen to me, please!"

Just for a moment he thought it was actually Tracey, and that the events of the last few days had been one horrible, protracted nightmare. Then he came to his senses again, and anger filled his gut with a cold fire. "I don't know who you are," he growled. "And I don't know what your game is. But if you don't leave us alone right now, I will find out who you really are, and I'll spend all the money you're trying to scam out of us in making sure you go to prison for a long, long time."

"Dad, no!" It really did sound like her, and his heart ached at what could never be again. "The Empire Eighty-Eight faked my death! I found out stuff I shouldn't have, and they were holding me prisoner until it was safe to kill me for real!"

He blinked, knowing he should end the call now, but the edge of urgency in the voice had him hooked. And it really did sound like Tracey. Still, he couldn't let them keep the initiative like this. "So, I suppose I need to pay a ransom to get you free, or something like that?" The moment the scammer said 'yes' (because what else could this be?) he would cut them off, no matter how much like Tracey the girl sounded. And he would never, ever tell Marjorie about it.

"No, that's what I'm trying to tell you." She took a deep breath, with the same little half-hiccup Tracey had when she was over-stressed. "I'm at the PRT building. I was a prisoner, but then I got rescued by Taylor—you know about Taylor, I gushed about her enough to you—and some other people, and it's been totally insane, but we're safe now. But now you need to get safe. I know way too much about the Empire Eighty-Eight for their liking, so they're probably going to where you are right now to grab you as a hostage so I won't spill the beans. Mom, too, probably. So you need to get out of there, grab Mom, and come to the PRT building as fast as you can. I'll be there and boy, have I got a story for you!"

He stared at the phone.

On the face of things, it was utterly improbable and implausible, but it really did sound like Tracey on the phone, and her story kind of made sense, for a given definition of 'sense'. The mention of Taylor was another large chip out of his scepticism; Tracey had told them all about how smart her new intern was, and how proud she (Tracey) was of her.

Still, it could be some truly weird and well-informed hoax. Time to ask a question that only Tracey would know the answer of. "Okay, if it's you, what did I get you for your ninth birthday?"

"Nothing," she replied immediately. "You were working late and you forgot, so you got me a present the next day and you and Mom tried to convince me that I'd had it all the time and forgotten to open it." She snorted. "An apology would've done just as well, you know."

The hard little knot of pain in the centre of his chest began to loosen. That's Tracey. It has to be. Nobody else would know anything about that. "Okay. I'm going now. But when I see you, I'm going to want to know all the details, young lady."

"And you'll get them. Just go, please!" The call ended.

He took the time to breathe deeply, in and out, twice. His heart rate was now hammering along as the knowledge fizzed through his bloodstream. Tracey's alive, Tracey's alive! But the rest of what she'd told him sobered him up again. I have to go, now.

Stepping out of the stock room, he caught the eye of one of the girls and gestured toward the customer he'd been serving. "Amanda, Mrs Richardson there needs a size nine in the blue Olga Perensky. I've got to go and pick up my wife. Family emergency."

Not giving her a chance to argue or ask questions, he hustled out of the store and headed for the underground parking lot where the shop staff members kept their cars. As he moved, he called Marjorie's cell number. Come on, pick up, pick up …

The phone rang for what seemed an eternity before his wife answered. "Otis? What's the matter? Why are you calling?"

He'd been married to her for nearly thirty years, and he knew her moods. With the state she'd been in since they'd been advised of Tracey's apparent death, if he presented her with too much information at once, she'd get all flustered and nothing would get done. So he had to treat her with kid gloves. Fortunately, he had been married to her for nearly thirty years.

"Honey, I need you to do something for me. I can't explain all of it right now, but I need you to go across to Mrs Wilkinson's house and stay there until I pick you up. Can you do that for me, please?"

Fortunately for his needs, they'd been living in the same neighbourhood for the whole of their married life, and were good friends with their neighbours on both sides for several houses along. Mrs Wilkinson was a widow, with a large number of cats, who was in the same bridge club as Marjorie. There was no doubt in his mind that Marjorie would be welcomed in if she knocked on Mrs Wilkinson's door; the best part was, the driveway to that house was around the corner from the street that he and Marjorie lived on.

"I—I can do it, certainly, but can you tell me why?" She was starting to sound uncertain. This was not a good thing.

"It's a surprise. I'll tell you when I get there." He let some of his newfound elation leak into his tone, but not too much; he didn't want her asking awkward questions instead of doing what he needed her to do. "Just do this for me, alright? I'll see you soon."

"All—alright. I'll go over there now." He heard her push back the chair and get up from where she'd been sitting at the kitchen table. "I love you, Otis."

A fond smile settled on his face. "I love you too, Marj."

He ended the call and used his staff pass to access the elevator down to the underground level. As he stepped out at the bottom, he looked around carefully, but no sinister figures lurked in the shadows to ambush him. He even checked the back seat of the car before opening the door and climbing in.

As he drove the car up the ramp out of the parking garage, he couldn't help replaying the enigmatic phone call in his head. The person had sounded like Tracey, and had known things only Tracey would know, but could he really be certain?

I'll only know for sure when we get to the PRT building.

For now, he knew, he would have to make a leap of faith and hope he stuck the landing.

Aisha Laborn, Juvenile Delinquent

Homework absolutely sucked and should die in a fire. That was Aisha's opinion, but unfortunately her father didn't share it. Even more unfortunately, living with him was marginally less unpleasant than living with her druggie whore-bag of a mother, even if he did make her actually start in on her damn homework the minute she got home.

Celia didn't care about homework, just like she didn't care about Aisha keeping her room clean, being home at a reasonable time, doing chores, or basically anything except when she was getting her next high. Most specifically, she'd shown a total lack of care factor when that one boyfriend of hers kept getting handsy with Aisha, right up until Brian had to come over and beat the snot out of him. And then, Celia had been pissed at her for 'leading him on' and Brian for 'overreacting'.

In short, homework wasn't the only thing that could die in a fire as far as Aisha was concerned. It wasn't even the main thing. But right then, it was the one she really wished would have something nasty happen to it. Where's a supervillain attack when you really need one?

Her phone vibrated on the table beside her. She went to pick it up—thank you, God, any distraction is a good distraction—but her father got there first, snatching it away from her reaching hand.

"Hey, what?" she protested. "That's my phone!"

"Not until you finish your homework." He tapped to answer, then held the phone to his ear. "This is Aisha's father. She's currently unavailable. May I take a message?"

Grumbling, Aisha subsided back into her chair. There was no percentage in trying to grab the phone off him; his reflexes were somehow better than hers, and he was the one who'd initially taught Bri how to fight. He wouldn't hit her, but he could certainly fend her off indefinitely with one hand, even if he was busy doing something else with the other.

"Wait, what?" he asked, frowning and putting his hand over his ear. "Say that again, son, and slow down. It's hard to hear you."

"What's going on?" Aisha asked, standing up from the table. "Is Brian in trouble or something?" She'd been pretty impressed when he got the job working security at Medhall (even if she'd never admit it to him). That was serious business, right there.

He didn't answer for several seconds, listening hard to whatever Brian had to say. Aisha wasn't sure what was going on; saying 'I've been arrested, can you come bail me out' didn't take all that long (as she knew from personal experience). Also, he didn't seem to be getting all steamed up like he'd done when Aisha called him to pick her up from the cops.

Finally, he ended the call with a "Got it." When Aisha saw his face, his skin was almost grey, as though all the blood had drained from it. "Jesus Christ," he muttered. "This goddamn city." Then he saw her watching him and took a deep breath, as though to give himself strength.

"What?" asked Aisha again. "What's going on? What did he want?"

"Grab whatever you can't replace," he said roughly. "We're going out the door in one minute. Move!"

"Okay, but why?" she asked as she headed for her bedroom. She wasn't arguing on behalf of the homework, now forgotten on the table behind her. This was a broader 'why'. She wanted to know what the fuck was going on, so she'd know how scared to be.

"Brian found out the identities of some of the Empire Eighty-Eight capes!" he yelled from his bedroom. "They'll want to use us as hostages! Now hurry the fuck up!"

She absolutely hurried the fuck up. TV had taught her long ago that being used as a hostage by anyone was bad for the health, and she knew from personal experience that the Empire Eighty-Eight were even less likely to let her go alive afterward than the normal run of dirtbag gangster assholes. So she grabbed the backpack from under her bed and shoved everything from the top of her dresser into it: random trinkets, a shell she'd once found on the beach and liked, and a photo of her and Brian from back when he was still her cool big brother and not a pretend adult.

She was sitting on the bed, pulling on her sneakers, when her father called out from the living room. "Go! Let's go!"

"Okay, I'm coming, I'm coming!" Jumping up, she grabbed the backpack (filled the rest of the way with random clothing grabbed from the drawers) and hustled out of the room. Her father was waiting by the door, with a somewhat larger bag slung over his shoulder. She spotted her phone where he'd left it on the table, and stuffed it into her back pocket.

"Stay right behind me," he ordered her tersely. "When we get to the car, get in and stay low. We'll be going straight for the PRT building. That's where Brian said to meet him. Clear?"

A dozen more questions were whirling around in her head by the time he finished talking but this didn't seem like the time to air them, so she nodded. "Clear."

"Good. On me." He opened the door and ducked out into the corridor, checking both ways with a sweep of his head that made her imagine a rifle with a laser dot doing the same. This was a side of her father she hadn't seen since he came home from the Navy.

She followed obediently as he hustled down the corridor, trying not to tread on his heels. When they got to the top of the stairwell, he glanced back once at her, nodded, then started down. Heart rate elevating all the time, she followed along.

And then the door at the bottom of the stairs crashed open, and she heard footsteps thundering into the apartment building. "Apartment three-four-seven!" a voice yelled. "Go-go-go!"

Aisha's heart stopped, and her everything clenched. Three-four-seven was her father's apartment. The conclusion was inevitable: these were the Empire Eighty-Eight guys.

Booted feet were pounding up the steps, going a lot faster than Aisha and her father had been going down. She incautiously peered over the railing, spotted movement and an upturned face, then heard a yell from below. She didn't need her father's growl to know that she'd just fucked up in a big way.

"Back!" he snapped. "We'll go down the fire escape!"

Turning, she sprinted back up the stairs, staying barely in front of her father. Going all the way to the roof might have been an option, but these guys were gaining and she didn't want to run across a wide-open space with no cover to stop them shooting at her. All this went through her mind in an instant, then made way for the singular urge to get away.

They bolted along the corridor and into the apartment; he hadn't locked it when they left. He paused to do just that, while she darted across the room to where the window leading out to the fire escape was. They'll probably be watching the car, so we're gonna have to run for it. No problem. I know the area around here like the back of—

She heaved the window open, then her thoughts skidded to a halt, dominated by one word.


"Uh … Dad?" she said, her voice higher than it normally was.

"What?" he said from behind her, then paused. "Oh."

"Yeah, oh." The Empire guy with the gun in Aisha's face gestured with it, and she backed up. Climbing in through the window from the fire escape without moving the gun away from her couldn't have been the easiest thing in the world, but he managed it. "Now get that shit away from the door and open it again, asshole. You want to try and be clever, remember: we only need one of you."

As her father took away whatever he'd shoved in front of the door, Aisha's shoulders slumped. There was no getting away now.

I was wrong. There are worse things than homework.


Calling my name out, Dad started forward into a run. We met in a mutual hug that would've driven the breath out of me if I hadn't been wearing the armour, and he spun me around. I raised my faceplate, laughing and crying at the same time. "Dad, I was so worried about you!"

"It's good to see you're okay too." He didn't let me go, and I didn't want him to. "But what's going on? What's all this about Medhall and the Empire Eighty-Eight? And where did you get that armour from?"

The last of my tension drained out of me in a giggle. "Well, let's just say, it's a long, long story."

Director Piggot cleared her throat. "A long story which, hopefully, we can put aside for the moment. We still have the issue of proving that Max Anders is Kaiser, and ensuring that there are no moles within this building, in the pay of Coil or anyone else."

"Oh, you'll have moles from all the gangs," Tattletale said cheerfully. "Coil, the Empire Eighty-Eight, the ABB. Hell, the Merchants would probably have people in this building if they could stay sober long enough to pass the drug tests."

Brian—Grue—elbowed her discreetly, or as discreetly as could be done when both parties were wearing metal armour. Predictably, there was a muted clang and the jab had no effect on her. "Don't antagonise her," he muttered, barely loudly enough for me to hear him.

"I'm not." She didn't bother keeping her voice down. "If there was something you needed to hear, would you prefer the comfortable lie or the harsh truth?"

From Director Piggot's tight-lipped expression, I figured she preferred the truth but didn't appreciate being caught short. "Miss Hebert, considering that you've already shown some level of expertise in this field already, would you be amenable to working with my people—"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa there," Dad broke in with a chuckle that almost sounded natural as he let me go and we started back toward the group. "Director Piggot, I know you weren't just about to suggest that my daughter perform highly skilled work without first laying out a contract specifying terms of employment. Given that she's a minor, I'm going to want to look that contract over first and make any necessary changes before she signs and I co-sign it for her."

"Uh, Dad, I don't really mind—" I began.

He cut me off with a flat knife-hand gesture. "Hon, what have I always told you about unpaid overtime?" Raising his eyebrows, he gave me a you-know-this-one look over his glasses.

It wasn't hard to recall. "Don't do it," I replied automatically.

"Right. And the phrase 'I don't really mind' only ever applies to close friends. For the rest, it's business, and you need to cover yourself, hon."

"Mr Hebert, this is important—" the Director began.

"Good, then word the contract accordingly," Dad countered. "None of that bullshit half-pay you've got the Wards on. If Medhall could stand to do it, then you can too."

"You appear to be better informed about the pay rates of the Wards than I'd expect a non-cape and a non-employee of the PRT to be," Armsmaster observed. "Why is that, Mr Hebert?"

"Because, among other things, I'm the head of hiring for the Dockworkers' Association," Dad retorted. "It's my job to know about how the working conditions for the Dockworkers stack up to those in the rest of the city. And I happen to know that once Taylor is signed up to work as a parahuman PRT employee, even temporarily, you're legally bound to never reveal her secret identity or make use of it for your own benefit."

That gave me a brainwave. "Which reminds me," I said brightly. "I'm going to need three assistants, under the same conditions as me. Tracey, Greg and Grue." Tattletale and the others, I figured, could handle their own secret identities.

If the Director's lips had been thin before, now they looked like she was doing her best to suck a lemon dry from the inside. "That clause only counts if the parahuman is using their powers in the service of the PRT," she gritted. "Thinkers and the like."

Dad shook his head. "If that's part of the standard contract—which I seriously doubt—you can take it right out again. You are not holding my daughter's cape identity over her head."

Wow, Dad, you go. As she chewed that one over, I looked at my father with new eyes. Up until the Director had asked me to work with them to (I figured) find moles hidden in her building, he'd been on the back foot and unsure what was going on. But the moment we'd set foot on his turf, he'd engaged negotiation mode and come out with all guns blazing to make sure I got a fair deal.

After a few moments, she nodded briefly. "I can work with that. Come up to conference room A, and we'll serve refreshments and work out the nitty-gritty."

"That invitation's for everyone, right?" I asked. "I'm only asking because Grue's going to be one of my assistants in this, and I figure you wouldn't try anything underhanded like splitting up the Undersiders." I gave her my best innocent gaze.

To her credit, she didn't hesitate. "That is correct. It's for everyone." Turning to Bitch, she added, "I'm going to assume your dogs are house-trained, yes?"

"You could say that," Regent snarked. "Any more house-trained and they'd be using the bathroom like everyone else."

"I wouldn't teach them something stupid like that." I couldn't see Bitch's face inside the snarling-dog helmet that Greg had made, but her voice definitely made up for it. "Dogs need to shit, they let me know and I take them outside."

"Fine, I'll take that as a 'yes'. You can all come up." The Director gestured toward the doors of the freight elevator. "I'll ride with you, just so you can be sure there'll be no funny business en route. But once the contract is signed, I will be needing Miss Hebert to apply her skills to the problem."

I glanced at Tattletale, and noticed that Brian was doing the same. She looked from him to me and back again, and gave us a slight but noticeable nod. It seemed Director Piggot was on the level.

"Sure thing," I said, and headed for the elevator. "Let's do this."


Max Anders looked up as the two people were manhandled into the sub-basement room the Empire Eighty-Eight tended to use for its planning sessions. The whiteboards had been wiped clean, the LCD screens dark and silent. Not that his involuntary guests were likely to survive the experience, but after the earlier debacle he had fixed on a policy of giving zero information to anyone not cleared for it.

He frowned as the blindfolds were yanked off the heads of the older man and the teenage girl. Given their specific skin tone, he could easily narrow down who they were. "You've brought the Laborns, I see. Where are the others?"

Hookwolf, who had accompanied them into the room, shrugged. "Hebert never showed, the Grimshaws weren't where they were supposed to be, and Veder's mother made it out of the parking lot just in front of our guys. By now the PRT will know what's going on, and there's no way we'll be able to blockade the approaches to the building. So, this is what we've got to work with." He gestured at the father and daughter.

Max grimaced; he wanted to pinch the bridge of his nose, but his metal mask would get in the way. His plan would have worked much better had he access to the relatives of all four of the inconvenient witnesses to his identity. But he'd never been a man to simply give up when the going got tough, unlike his weak-willed excuse for a son.

He surveyed the two people before him. David Laborn's hair was starting to go grey but he held himself proudly upright, despite the swelling lip and other evidence that Max's men had been more than a little rough with him. The dossier Victor had thrown together indicated that he'd spent time in the Navy, reaching the rank of petty officer, before being honourably discharged.

Aisha Laborn showed the telltales of fear, but she also stared back at him defiantly, despite her hands being fastened behind her back, as her father's were. Her dossier betrayed a life barely started, yet already misspent on petty crime and minor brushes with the law. Max supposed that with a mother like Celia Laborn (his men hadn't bothered picking her up; with her history of drug use, any real mistreatment would likely see her dead of a heart attack, for no good purpose) this wasn't entirely unexpected.

"Do you know why you're here?" he asked.

David Laborn glared at him. "You want to use us as hostages to stop my boy from telling the PRT exactly who you are, and where this place is."

"Never work," Aisha Laborn added, just to be contrary. "Bri'll do what Bri will do. You might as well surrender to the PRT right now."

"You'd better hope you're wrong, girl." Max took a step forward, looming over her. "Your role in all this is to convince him otherwise. Succeed, and you both live. Refuse, and I give one of you to Hookwolf while the other one gets to watch. Fail, and you both die in ways too excruciating for me to adequately describe. Would you like to serve as an example for your father right now?"

He was lying when he said they would live, and they probably knew it, but he'd always found the ability of people to talk themselves into believing a comforting falsehood to be nothing short of miraculous. Their role in this wasn't strictly to force Grue to recant and for his recantation to be believed, but to throw doubt upon his whole story (and thus, by association, the testimonies of the others). Once they'd done that, they would be surplus to requirements, to be disposed of in the most efficient way possible.

It wouldn't do to have them testifying that they'd been kept hostage to force Grue to change his story, after all.

The elder Laborn growled and nudged his daughter, no doubt to warn her that Max wasn't bluffing; and indeed he wasn't. The very future of the Empire Eighty-Eight was at stake here, and there was nothing—and nobody—he would not sacrifice to assure its safety and security. From her sudden change in demeanour, she'd gotten the message.

"No, I get it," she mumbled, head down. "I'll talk to Brian and tell him not to be such a dick."

Max smiled coldly. Sometimes all it took was a little persuasion.


I had to admit, once the Director said to get stuff done, stuff got done. Dad had no sooner looked over the contract and declared it to be kosher, and I'd signed it (with Greg, Tracey, Brian and Dad adding their signatures where needed) than a tech came in pushing a trolley bearing half a dozen laptops. These were arranged in an arc in front of where I'd be sitting alongside Deputy Director Renick, who came in last of all.

Mr Renick, a tall, spare older man with a grandfatherly air, had apparently been a forensic accountant before he ended up as the Deputy Director of the PRT in Brockton Bay; I was certain there was a story there, but one I was unlikely to hear. He shook my hand after I'd taken most of my armour off, and invited me to call him by his first name. "If we're going to collaborating on this, young lady," he'd said, "'Deputy Director' is far too unwieldy for casual conversation."

In all honesty, weirder things had happened to me even that day, so I took it in my stride. "Just so long as you don't steal my coffee," I agreed, and Tracey stopped inhaling pastries at the far end of the table long enough to snort in amusement. Greg also chuckled, from where he'd dragged a chair to sit behind and beside me for moral support.

"I don't get it," Brian said, looking from Greg to Tracey and then to me.

"Crusader used to steal her coffee regularly, and even Kaiser did it once," Tracey explained. I noted her use of their villain names; a fairly transparent way of emotionally distancing herself from her former colleagues (and deceased ex-boyfriend). I wasn't going through that, and wasn't likely to (unless Greg had some deep, dark secrets he hadn't told me) but it wasn't my place to judge her for her coping mechanisms.

"I believe I can avoid that." Paul Renick nodded to me genially. "So, shall we get started?"

It wasn't only me and him, of course. There were other guys trawling through the employment database, some of them watching electronically over our shoulders to see if they could spot anything we couldn't. But it seemed that nobody else had found anything, so we were the definition of 'fresh eyes' on the situation.

No pressure, of course. None whatsoever.

But I'd done this sort of thing before, and while there was a certain amount of stress involved, I also had a stake in ensuring that Kaiser went down hard. So I buckled down, let my mind submerge itself into the flow of data, and went looking.

About ten minutes in, I frowned and back-keyed to the previous screen, then grabbed a quick screenshot and flicked it over to the laptop to my right. Something had changed, and I wasn't sure what. The question was, had the change been a once-off thing, or was it ongoing?

And then the change happened right in front of me, so smoothly that I would've missed it if I wasn't looking for it, and I knew I was right.

"Someone's in the system right now," I said out loud. "I think they're pulling the dodgier employee files as we speak."

That got me the undivided attention of everyone in the room. The Director had already been watching me like a hawk, but now it felt like I was under a microscope. One with a laser sight attached.

"Lock all users not in this room out, right now!" the Director snapped, and Paul hit a key combo on his laptop which apparently did that very thing. Then the Director got up from her chair and came closer. "What makes you say that, Miss Hebert?"

I rolled my chair back a little so she could see my screens better. "That's this page of employees as of just before you called the lockdown. And that's a screenshot of that same page, from thirty seconds before. See if you can spot the difference."

She wasn't slow off the mark. "Corporal … Jasper Reed is missing from the refreshed screen. You're saying he's a mole?"

"Probably a link between moles," Tattletale remarked from where she was sitting with Regent and Bitch. She hadn't been offered access to a laptop—mainly because Director Piggot wasn't an idiot—but she'd been following the action all the same. "I bet if you look it up, he gave someone else clearance into the system."

That made a lot of sense to me; unbidden, I entered the search query to see who the redoubtable Corporal Reed had been linked to, clearance-wise. The list of names that came up caused my eyebrows to raise. Director Piggot didn't swear audibly, but I got the impression she was thinking some curse-words pretty loudly.

"How did you spot that?" asked the Deputy Director as he started on some of his own queries.

"I was following a line of inquiry, and something was missing from the last time I went over this page," I explained. "Can we look to see what's been deleted recently from employee files?"

"Doing that right now," he murmured, then he sat back. "Director, you need to see this."

Just about then, Brian's phone rang. I was impressed that a room this deeply buried in the guts of the PRT building even got a phone signal, but then I dismissed the thought as I went back to the search. Paul could handle Corporal Reed and his merry band of moles, but I was more curious about who had cleared him.

But before I could get properly started on that, I heard Brian's voice. It was quiet, but I'd heard that hopeless tone before, from my own lips. "Yes," he muttered. "Yes. Okay. Yes."

Those three words rang every alarm bell in my brain, and I sat up. The Director and Deputy Director were delving far into the rabbit-hole I'd unearthed, and neither one looked around as I got up from my chair and approached Brian. Greg, not sure what was going on, followed me anyway.

While Brian's helmet visor still covered most of his face, I could tell from the little bits of expression I could see that all was not right with his world. "What's the matter?" I asked in a low tone.

Tattletale was the only other one who seemed to have noticed, and she shot me a glance before putting a hand on his shoulder. "The Empire Eighty-Eight has his family," she murmured. "He's got to do what he's told, or they're dead."

That was about as bad as it could get. The Empire had already done its damnedest to kill all of us, and they were playing for keeps. "Well, fuck." I kept my voice down as a matter of course.

"So, let's go save them." That was Greg to a T, right there, and one of the reasons I loved him. "Any way to know where they are?"

"Maybe." Tattletale grabbed Brian's phone from his unresisting hand. "They didn't call from Aisha's number. There's two possible reasons for this."

I nodded. "One, she lost it. Or two …" I frowned. "What's two?"

Tattletale grinned. "Aisha stashed it." She showed me the screen of the phone, where she'd called up a phone-tracking app. The GPS location had it right where Max Anders certainly wouldn't want a locator beacon pinging from: the Medhall building.

"Okay, and I bet I know where." Greg knew as well, and so did Brian. We were somewhat acquainted with the Medhall sub-basements. "There's only one more thing we've got to do, and you're going to hate this bit."

"Hate what?" She stared at me. "Oh, shit, you're not going to—"

"I am." I turned toward Director Piggot and raised my voice. "Ma'am, may I have your attention for a moment?"

She looked up from the screen, and again proved that she wasn't just another suit as her eyes narrowed. "Something's wrong. What's happened?"

"The Empire got Grue's family," I explained succinctly. "We know where they are. Their lifespan will be measurable in minutes if Kaiser gets the idea that Grue isn't bending to their demands. We need to go back in there and get them out."

"You signed a contract." It seemed to be an automatic response on her part. "We've found some moles, but there's no guarantee that's all of them."

"Oh, I have no doubt there's more to be found, but right now I'm sure you're more interested in figuring out which of your people with the clearance to pull files clear out of the system is actually doing it." I gestured at Grue and the others. "If the PRT moves on this, Grue's family will be dead before you get within three blocks of where they are. We've got the wherewithal to get closer and the knowledge of the interior of the building. We're the only chance they've got of coming out of this alive. Tell me I'm wrong."

She frowned, but it wasn't to her previous lemon-sucking standard. Eventually, she nodded. "You're not wrong. Well, you brought this to my attention before jumping in feet first, so there's that to be said for the situation. Do you have a plan?"

"Just the beginnings of one," I conceded, then looked around at the various capes in the room. "But I'm sure we can improve on that."

Tattletale grinned. "Count on it."

End of Part Twenty-Three