Taylor Hebert, Medhall Intern

Part Nine: Showing Respect

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

"Are you sure you want to go to school today?" Dad looked seriously over his glasses at me. We were parked off the road while Dad disinfected my cuts and scrapes and applied dressings to them from the first aid kit. I hadn't noticed most of them at the time, but boy howdy, the disinfectant certainly found them all for me. "I'm willing to call in a sick day for you if you'd rather do that."

"Ow," I said, in response to a particularly deep scrape being cleaned out. "I'd love to, but … the assignment. I don't want to let Greg down. We both put a lot of work into it."

"Okay." He capped the disinfectant and took out another dressing. "Hold still. How's your shoulder?"

I held still while he applied it. "Sore. Feels bruised. Still works, though."

"Well, that's good." He crumpled up the packaging for the last dressing and looked me over critically. "I can't fault your work ethic, or your dedication to your friends. Still not thrilled about you putting your life in danger like that, though."

"If I hadn't, Tracey would've died." Even as I said it, I was aware that we both knew it. "Justin is dead." I teared up, just thinking about it. I hadn't known him all that well, but he'd been fun to banter with, even if he did steal my coffee. Tracey would be absolutely heartbroken, once she got over the shock of the accident.

He moved the first aid kit out of the way and gave me a brief side-hug. "Well, it's lucky they told you where they were going, and that you remembered. That car was just waiting to go over the side."

"I know," I said quietly. "Tracey told me she could feel it moving. I felt it moving, while I was under there. Another half hour, it would've gone, no matter how still Tracey kept."

"Yeah, well. At least she gets to go home at the end of the day because of you." He heaved a deep sigh. "I was terrified every second you were down there. If it happened again, I'd probably forbid you to go. But I'm immensely proud of you for doing it anyway. You know that, right?"

I ducked my head, blushing. "I just couldn't not do it. I don't know if that makes me an idiot or a hero." Pulling my sleeves down, I checked to make sure the dressings weren't catching on the cloth. "Can we get something before you drop me off at Winslow?"

"What, to eat? Sure." He started the car. "Anything you want. Just name it."

"Oh, uh, I had something else in mind, but food will be good too." If I could eat at all; the aftermath of the fear was still twisting up my stomach something fierce.

"Something else?" He looked quizzically at me.

"You'll see."

I was waiting on the front steps of the school when Greg arrived. He looked at me quizzically; while the dressings on my arms were all hidden under my sleeves, even my best efforts at cleaning up afterward had left a few marks on my jeans and shoes. My hair could've been tidier, too.

Of course, the old Greg wouldn't have noticed. But the new and improved version not only saw the outward signs but also saw some of what was going on inside. "Hey, Taylor, what's up?" he asked. "Are you okay? What happened?"

"Not here," I said, grabbing his arm and dragging him inside. We headed for the library; I figured we had about ten minutes before we had to be in home room, so I had enough time to fill him in.

The first thing I did when we got there was hand him his part of the assignment, so I wouldn't forget for later. Then I sat down in one of the chairs and motioned for him to sit as well. The hardest bit was still to come. I actually had to talk about this.

"What's going on?" he asked, sitting down and sliding the assignment into his backpack. "Taylor, you're starting to worry me."

I took a deep breath as tears started to well in my eyes. "Tracey and Justin … when they left my place yesterday … they had an accident on the Captain's Hill road. Tracey's in the hospital." I stopped. Each time I tried to keep going, my throat locked up.

"And Justin?" he asked, his expression intense.

I sniffled and pulled out a handkerchief, then shook my head. Tears made tracks down my cheeks as I blew my nose. "I don't … they say … he …"

"Aw fuck," he groaned. "He was a good guy. I'm really sorry, Taylor."

Doubling my handkerchief over, I wiped my eyes, but it didn't stop the tears, then I needed to blow my nose again. I felt him put his arm around my shoulders and pull me close to his chest. It didn't even cross my mind about how weird that would've been, six months ago. He was different now, and I needed the comfort.

It took me until the bell rang to get myself together, and even then I was certain my eyes were puffy and my nose wasn't much better. At least I wasn't crying anymore. Greg's eyes were a little red as well, but he was making a fair try at 'a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do'.

"Are you going to be okay?" he asked, his hands on my shoulders. "Because you know, after all the shit that happened last week, all you have to do is look hard in Blackwell's direction and she'll give you the day off, no questions asked."

"Yeah, I know." It wasn't really a joke, but I gave him a watery smile anyway. "I'm not about to leave you to present the assignment with Sparky as your backup. Besides, Jus—uh, he went above and beyond to get us the Book." I was still having trouble saying Justin's name. "I'm not going to let that go to waste."

"Okay." He took a deep breath. "If it gets too much for you anyway, just let me know and I'll cover for you."

And I knew he would, too. "You're a good friend, Greg." Remembering the errand Dad and I had gone on before he dropped me at school, I dug into my pocket. "Here, this is for you."

He took the length of black cloth I'd snipped out of the black souvenir T-shirt Dad had bought from a convenience store, and frowned. "What's this for?"

"Armband," I explained briefly. "For when we go in to Medhall today. I don't know if we'll be asked to come to the funeral, but we need to show respect anyway."

"Ah. Right. Absolutely." He tucked the cloth carefully into his pocket. "Thanks, Taylor. I probably wouldn't have even thought of that."

"I nearly didn't," I confessed. "It was very much a last-minute thing." I hugged him this time, taking comfort in his support, then we went to class.

When Mrs Knott saw my face, she immediately took on an expression of concern, and pulled me aside to ask me if everything was alright. I knew what she was really asking, of course. Blackwell had almost certainly impressed on every teacher there that under no circumstances was any student permitted to even have the appearance of bullying me.

As far as Dad and I were concerned, it was the ultimate case of 'too little, too late'.

"No, I'm fine," I told her, even though I really wasn't. "This isn't connected to the school."

"Oh." She hesitated. "If you need to go to the ladies' room, feel free. I'll keep the class assignment for you."

Going to the bathrooms and straightening myself up sounded very attractive about then, but I shook my head. "No, I'll be fine." I couldn't wimp out every ten minutes. If I had to cry, I'd cry on the bus.

More than a few people gave me odd looks during class, which I found a bit irritating. I'd been coming to Winslow for more than a year, getting bullied for almost all of that time, and now they were paying attention, when it wasn't even about me? Whatever. I breathed deeply and pushed through it.

I'd always found computers relatively easy to use, so when Mrs Knott handed out the class project, I blazed through it in about fifteen minutes. Then I pulled out the World Issues assignment and started going through it, re-familiarising myself with the talking points. Justin and Tracey had gotten me the Book, and I was damned if I was going to waste their time and effort by running off and crying in the bathroom.

By the time the bell rang and it was time to hand in the Computer project, I had a structure in mind for the presentation. All I had to do now was coordinate with Greg, and hope that Sparky didn't do anything to mess it up. I had to wonder once more exactly who had written the Book, and why the details in it weren't already being used. Also, did the solar-powered water collectors Greg and I had envisaged already exist, or had someone designed them from our brief description?

I hustled on to World Issues class; quite possibly the first time I'd ever been eager to get there. Greg was already waiting at the door when I arrived, and his gaze communicated the same thing I was thinking: We gotta get this right.

Once inside the classroom, we huddled together at our shared desk space, deciding who was going to present which part of the assignment. Greg, as the artist, would handle the visual aspect of drawing on the board, while I would explain what he was illustrating. We both would've preferred an overhead projector with transparencies, but to be honest, this was supposed to be a five minute presentation. Emphasis on 'supposed to be'.

Sparky arrived about thirty seconds after the bell rang for start of class, and dropped into his seat next to us. I could smell the marijuana smell from where I was. "Hey," he mumbled. "Weren't we working on an assignment or something?"

"It's okay, man." Greg patted him on the shoulder. "We got this. Just sit back and enjoy the show."

I nodded approvingly. While it would be slightly annoying for Sparky to share whatever mark we got while doing essentially nothing, it would be far better than him trying to do something and dragging us all down.

"You say so, man." Sparky put his head down on the desk. I was almost sure that he was snoring within ten seconds.

We went back to strategizing in low tones while Mr Gladly pottered around at the head of the classroom, but when he started talking, we sat up and paid attention.

"Well, guys," he said brightly, "did you all have a great weekend?" The response was mediocre at best, and I wanted to throw something at him, but he didn't seem to notice either way. "Great! So, I'm sure you all buckled down and did a fantastic job on your assignments. So, who wants to present theirs first?"

Greg and I had talked about this. If we came out of the gate strong, some of the others might try to crib our talking points. Julia and her cronies, especially. I noticed Madison was back in that group, though she was still showing signs of the beating Sophia had handed her in Blackwell's office. Good.

Likewise, if we held it last, everyone else would be so fatigued that nobody would be paying attention. So we'd decided to wait until Julia and Madison's group went through, then we'd go up. That way, nobody could accuse us of cribbing from them.

The first few assignments were presented. They talked for less than five minutes apiece, usually reading word for word from the assignments. The concepts presented were, in my newly informed worldview, less than impressive. Shortsighted at best, and doomed to failure at worst. The Book had actually covered these ideas in an appendix, explaining why they wouldn't work or how to make them work.

Julia and Madison, and some other girl whose name I'd never bothered to learn, put up a slightly better show than most. They even had a paper map of Africa that they'd taped together, which they stuck temporarily on the board. But they'd made my mistake of assuming a single approach instead of multiple prongs of attack. They also made several other rookie errors, but they managed to gloss over most of them. Overall, they went for about eight minutes. There was a desultory scattering of applause as they finished, and I saw Mr Gladly making notes in his pad.

"Who's next?" asked Mr Gladly. Greg and I put our hands up at the same time. "Okay, then. Taylor and Greg. Uh, Sparky …?"

"He's, uh, tired out from doing all the work," Greg extemporised as we got up, drawing a round of laughter. "Taylor and me will do the presentation."

We went up to the front and I dropped the finished assignment onto the stack that was already there. Mr Gladly raised his eyebrows when he saw how thick it was, and he picked it up immediately and started leafing through it. I ignored him, as Greg was already drawing on the board.

"Greening the Sahara is a tremendous project," I began. "But if successful, it would draw prosperity to the region, and allow many of the bordering nations to upscale their infrastructure to join the twenty-first century."

As Greg drew the map on the board, referencing the sheet he held in his hand, I explained what he was illustrating. How teams of workers would stage out of various cities, aided and abetted by the prevailing winds. He paused to sketch out a water collector, and I described how it would operate once installed, both shading and irrigating an area to create a tiny man-made oasis.

Once the drawing was complete, I stepped aside and Greg spoke about the preparation behind such a monumental project. Overall, we spoke for a little over fifteen minutes. Greg put up illustrations on the board, and we covered the concept in detail. On the way, I managed to carefully explain how and why a single-pronged approach was liable to fail, and why supply caches in the desert were an essential part of the plan.

Neither Julia nor Madison missed that aspect of the presentation, and while Madison didn't seem to want to make anything of it, Julia was apparently still smarting from being shut down on Wednesday. As it gradually became clear that our presentation was head and shoulders above the others, I could see her working herself up to saying something.

"Mr Gladly, it's not fair!" she burst out the moment we'd concluded. "They cheated!"

He frowned, looking at her quizzically. "Their presentation was a lot more thorough than the rest, but I'd hardly call it 'cheating'."

"But theirs is better than everyone else's! I bet they got someone else to do it for them!" Her face was red from righteous indignation. "And that's cheating!"

Greg opened his mouth to rebut her words, but I patted his arm. Then I cleared my throat, drawing everyone's attention. "That's a pretty strong accusation. Are you saying we just copied someone else's work?"

Put on the spot, she hesitated, then powered on. "It sure looks like it! Mads and me and Carrie worked all weekend on ours, and you've got ten times the stuff in yours! And we didn't find anything in the library like you've got!"

I tilted my head. "So, if I copied the work, I'd only know it word for word, right? So go ahead. Ask me details."

It was like a tennis match. When I challenged her outright, everyone's attention switched to her again. "Uh … why are the fuel caches so big? You won't need so much gasoline for a truck."

"It's diesel, and yes, you do. Greg, do you remember the fuel usage stats for a two and a half ton truck over rough ground?"

Greg nodded, and rattled off the figures. I was pleased; he'd spent more time going over those numbers than I had. "Sand is a totally different thing as well," he added. "But it's not just diesel. There's oil as well. And you have to take contamination and evaporation into account."

Julia looked frustrated. "And what if one of the local governments decides to swoop in and take it all? You didn't think of that!"

"Yeah, we actually did," I said. "Remember when we put up the expenditures sheet? The 'incidentals' line involved bribes to local government officials to keep them away from the area. I can give you a detailed breakdown if you want." It was another thing that had been in the Book that we'd decided would take up too much time in the finished product.

"But—" Julia began, then stopped as Mr Gladly stood up.

"Julia," he said sternly. "Taylor has answered your questions to my personal satisfaction. You had a good presentation, but just because someone else has a better one, it doesn't mean that they cheated. Now be quiet. Everyone else, what did you think of that presentation?"

I blinked at the applause that we got. Greg and I nodded to each other, he erased the board, and we took ourselves back to our desks. As we sat down, Sparky roused himself.

"Oh, hey," he mumbled. "How'd we do?"

"I think we got a passing grade," I said cheerfully. "What do you think, Greg?"

Greg snorted. "I think that if we don't get snacks from the vending machine, I'm gonna complain to Blackwell."

"I doubt it'll come to that." I leaned back in my chair. "Let's see what the rest of them have got."

The rest of the period passed by in relative peace. I was aware of the occasional poisonous glances Julia sent my way, though I was pretty sure Mr Gladly was aware of them too, so I wasn't overly worried. We watched as the rest of the assignments got presented, and while one or two tried to draw on the wealth of detail we'd presented, they just didn't have the heart to try to push it as hard as we had.

The last one trailed off with, "Uh, and that's all we've got," and the three kids awkwardly walked back to their seats.

Mr Gladly got up and cleared his throat. "Thank you for that," he said. "Well, I think we all know whose presentation was the best there, am I right?" He gestured toward where I sat with Greg. "Let's have a round of applause for Taylor and Greg, and, uh, Sparky, for that stunning presentation."

Everyone dutifully clapped; well, except for Julia and her group. In the lull afterward, I heard her saying to Madison, "Well, I still think she cheated."

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Greg start to burr up. "Settle," I murmured. "I've had a lot worse said about me."

"Yeah, but she's gotta know we didn't cheat," he insisted. "She's just butthurt because our assignment beat hers hollow." He sighed. "I can't believe I ever thought she was hot."

I decided to ignore the 'hot' comment. "Yeah," I said. "It did. And that's why she's pissed at us. There's nothing I can say that'll make her my friend, so I'll settle for her not being able to pull shit on me. Besides, you see Madison there?"

"Well, yeah," he said. "What about her? And man, how bad did she look once Sophia finished with her?"

"Like someone fed her face-first into a combine harvester," I said, only slightly exaggerating. "But you see the way she hasn't said boo the whole lesson?"

"Yeah." He frowned. "What's with that, anyway?"

I lowered my voice even further. "There's a shit-ton of legal trouble coming down on the school, and on Emma and Madison both. Madison's trying not to make it worse on herself. Julia clearly thinks she's outside the splash radius."

He tilted his head. "Is she?"

I bared my teeth. "Not hardly."

Mr Gladly told us to get out our books then, and the period went on.

"Taylor, Greg, could you wait back a moment?" asked Mr Gladly as the other students streamed from the room.

"We can't stay long," I said. "We've got a bus to catch. Work experience."

"Oh, okay." His tone was that of someone who'd been reminded of something they'd been told about but forgotten. "I'll make it brief, then." He tapped our assignment. "This is good. This is really good. Now, I'm not going to take Julia's accusations blindly, but it's clearly far beyond what everyone else has done. Where did you get the material to put it all together over the weekend?"

I glanced at Greg. Should we show him the Book?

He shrugged. May as well.

"Okay," I said, and opened my backpack. "I asked around at work, and one of the guys got in touch with someone who'd written something about it. So we studied it and paraphrased the work." Reaching into the pack, I pulled out the Book and let it thud onto the desk. "We didn't copy any part of it word for word, and we augmented it with stuff we got online and in the library, but for the most part we did follow the outline of what's here."

Mr Gladly picked it up and leafed through it. "Huh. Wow. I'm impressed. So who wrote it?"

"That's what we don't know," I confessed. "I talked to my friend, and he talked to his friend, and he talked to his friend, who supplied the Book." If I spoke in generalities, I found, I didn't have to think about Justin.

"I can totally see where you got your material from, but yes, you seem to have put your own spin on it," he said. Turning to the summary, he started reading, but his eyes glazed over about a third of the way in. "I can't believe something like this hasn't been professionally published. It might not take the world by storm, but it would certainly draw a lot of attention."

"We thought much the same thing," I said, then glanced meaningfully at the clock. "We really have to go."

"Right, right." He stared again at the Book. "Uh, could I borrow this? To read, I mean?"

I took a deep breath, and slung the bag over my shoulder. "Okay, but I am gonna want it back. C'mon, Greg, let's go."

We left Mr Gladly leafing through the Book as we hustled through the school. The bus wasn't really supposed to leave for another five minutes, but it had been known to pull away early if the driver didn't see anyone waiting. So I pushed myself to hurry, though I didn't want to arrive at Medhall smelling of sweat either.

The bus was still sitting at the stop as we got out of the school. Greg hurried ahead while I followed along—apparently being sent up and down the stairs on bogus errands was good for fitness, who knew?—and made sure the bus wouldn't leave before I got there. I panted my way up the stairs, flashed my bus pass and settled into my seat beside Greg as the bus started up.

"We made it," he said with a grin, and offered a high-five. I returned it, then went back to catching my breath.

"I need to get fit," I decided. "I don't want to lose my internship over not being able to catch the bus on time."

Greg nodded. "I've heard of worse reasons." His face lit up. "But did you see their faces when we owned them all with our assignment? Even Julia, when she was trying to poke holes."

"I'm just glad the Book had all that detail in it." I shook my head. "I can't believe she's still out to get me."

"Take it from me, bad habits are really hard to break." The tone of Greg's voice told me that he knew what he was talking about. "I mean, when it's a bad habit you know is bad, you only keep doing it because you get something out of it. Some sort of thrill or guilty pleasure, know what I mean?"

I gave him the side-eye. "Greg, you're a good friend and we've been through a lot together, but right now I don't think I'm up to hearing about your guilty pleasures."

He went bright red, almost on the spot. "But—I wasn't—I mean—I wouldn't—"

Snickering, I elbowed him gently in the ribs. "Kidding."

It took him a couple of seconds to realise what I'd said. "What? Did you just seriously punk me?"

"You're a teenage boy. It's not like it was difficult or anything." I grinned at his discomfiture. "Ninety percent of what you guys do in private is embarrassing."

"Well …" But he was grinning now, too. "Eighty-five, tops."

I settled back into my seat. "That's about what I thought. So, what sort of mark do you think Gladly will give us on the assignment?"

He rolled his eyes. "At least eighty-five percent. Maybe ninety-five. A hundred, even?"

"Pfft, yeah, as if." I shook my head. "He'll probably take off five or ten percent because Sparky never contributed."

"Maybe he can take it off Sparky's mark?" He had a point, but I'd be happy with ninety percent. I knew that was the best assignment I'd ever handed in, bar none, and even Julia's attempts to undermine it still didn't take away from the fact that it had been awesome.

All due to the Book, of course. Greg and I owed so much to whoever wrote it, as well as Justin for …

The emotions that I'd been successfully keeping tamped down out of sight chose that moment to blindside me. I gave a stuttering sob and dragged out my handkerchief as my eyes filled with tears again. Greg, bless him, recognised the signs and put his arm around me. I pressed my face into his shoulder as I cried.

Fortunately, I managed to get control of myself again by the time we reached Medhall. I was trying to figure out what I looked like as I got off the bus, and it took me a few moments to realise that Greg was offering me his phone … with the camera set to 'selfie'. Gratefully, I took it and fixed my appearance as best I could. I had a few basic makeup items in my bag that should deal with the worst effects once I had the chance to apply it, and a brush that I ran through my hair right there on the sidewalk.

"Thanks," I said, handing the phone back. Those things were really handy.

"No problem." He tucked it away in his pocket and hitched his backpack onto his shoulder. "Let's go in."

"Wait one." I pulled my armband out of my pocket. "We need to put these on first."

"Oh. Right. Geez, I'd forget my own head next." He got his out, and we spent about thirty seconds trying to fumble them into place one-handed before I gave up.

"Oh, for crying out loud!" I shoved mine back in my pocket. "Here, I'll do yours and you do mine."

"… that's a better idea, yeah." He held still while I tied the strip of black cloth around his upper arm, then I gave him my cloth to do the same for me. It wasn't too tight, and the stretchy cloth meant that I'd be able to slip it off and on when changing into my work clothes.

Thus attired, we headed into the Medhall building. The guards behind the desk glanced us over, their eyes lingering on the armbands, then let us swipe on through. They didn't seem nearly as upbeat as normal; I figured Justin must have been pretty popular at all levels of the company.

We went up in the lift in silence, and he got off on his floor. I stepped out on mine, and encountered Bradley almost immediately. "Hi, Bradley," I said with a weak attempt at a smile.

"Hey, kid. How you doing?" He looked me up and down, and I saw a slight nod as he registered the armband. "You sure you're good to be here? I don't think anyone'd blame you for taking a day."

I shook my head. "No, I figure I owe it to Tracey to show up at least. Even if they've got nothing for me to do. I didn't know Justin that well," —I could just about say his name without breaking down right there on the spot— "but he was my friend, too. Even if he did steal my coffee all the time."

It was the right answer. Bradley slapped me on the shoulder, hard enough to make me stagger a little. I was grateful he'd picked my unbruised shoulder, or I might've let out some kind of undignified yelp. "Yeah, he was a smartass little prick like that. Okay, you go see Ms Harcourt, and she'll let you know what you'll be doing today."

I dutifully reported to Ms Harcourt's office—Bradley hadn't asked me if I knew where her office was, but I'd made sure that was the first thing I learned when I started working with Tracey—and tapped on her door. From the stories Tracey had told me, the phrase 'report to Ms Harcourt' was up there with 'firing squad at dawn' and 'save the last bullet for yourself' for levels of existential horror on that floor.

"Enter," she called out. I opened the dread portal and stepped within.

Ms Harcourt looked … the same as normal. Severe office wear, hair tied up in a bun that could probably be used to hammer in nails. Her expression was unforgiving as ever, but as she looked me over it became … not softer, but slightly less harsh.

"Ms Hebert," she said at length. "I will admit that I did not expect you to come in today. From what I understand, you have every excuse to request an absence."

I nodded. "I wanted to come in anyway, ma'am. I'm not sure what use I can be, but if there's anything I can do to ease your workload, I'll be happy to take it on."

She tilted her head very slightly as she took that in. "I will admit that your performance under Ms Grimshaw has been exemplary. Very well; you have fifteen minutes to make yourself presentable then report to Ms Grimshaw's office. In between your other duties, if her phone should ring, you will identify yourself as her assistant, take a message, and refer it on to myself if it is urgent. Do you understand?"

"Yes, ma'am," I said. "Fifteen minutes, answer her phone, refer urgent calls on to you."

"Good." She looked away from me, back to the screen of her computer, a clear dismissal. "Close the door on your way out."

Stepping back out of her office (and carefully closing the door), I headed back to Tracey's workspace. I started the coffee machine first, followed by the iron. Once I'd freshened up in the small washroom, I changed into my work clothes, after spending a precious few minutes ironing the worst creases out first.

I made it out into Tracey's office with about one minute to spare, bearing two cups of coffee. One I placed in a convenient space for me, and the other on the corner of the desk, right where Justin would normally come by and perch. It might be a waste of coffee, I told myself, but it was the right thing to do.

Right on cue, Tracey's phone rang. I snatched it up, juggled it to my ear, then gasped, "Tracey Grimshaw's office, T-Taylor speaking. How may I help you?"

"Barely acceptable," growled Ms Harcourt in my ear. "Do better next time. I need some papers hand-carried down to the fifth floor."

"Yes, ma'am," I said, as a general answer to everything she'd said. "I'll be right there."

Hanging the phone up, I hustled to Ms Harcourt's office, accepted the papers and the door number of the office they needed to go to, and hurried off. I'd wanted to bring my coffee, but I didn't feel confident enough in my position to drink it on the way. It would keep, I reasoned.

I'd never physically been on the fifth floor before, but I'd studied the floor plans during my induction, and there was a handy "You are here" map on the wall right next to the elevator. Checking it, I refreshed my memory, got my bearings, and headed off in the correct direction.

With luck, I'd be back upstairs before my coffee had time to cool.

Shadow Stalker

Medhall, Sophia decided, had something funky going on with it. If there was anything she'd learned since she got powers, it was that every building had areas where they were strong on security and other areas where they were weak. Underground garage areas had roller-doors—weak—but they also usually had cameras, which balanced them out. But this place had every entrance covered, like it was Fort Knox or whatever that place was with all the gold.

She could kind of understand it if they had a huge store of pharmaceuticals, but as far as she knew, they didn't. The Medhall building apparently had an in-house clinic and an R&D lab, but nothing that would even get a Merchant's attention. So what was all the extra security about? Was Max Anders all that paranoid?

If she was being absolutely honest with herself, she didn't much care about the answer to that question. It was just really irritating because she'd been trying for the last few hours to sneak inside without being spotted, and they had a lot of ways to spot her. But she was gonna get in somehow, and she figured she'd just seen the way.

Medhall was a big enough corporation that it had its own mail delivery entrance (albeit with its own cameras). She was lurking across the alley from there, wondering if she could get away with disabling a camera or if she'd just have to wait until night to duck in through a wall, when a truck with USPS on the side came trundling along. This was her only chance; she knew that for a fact.

Waiting until the truck obscured the cameras, she darted out, went to shadow, and dived under the truck. Reforming, she grabbed the chassis of the truck and hung on as it rolled down a short ramp. It stopped and she heard the roller-door rumbling upward, then drove on in.

She maintained her position, uncomfortably aware of the dirty, stained concrete passing by just six inches under her back. The truck drove in a curve, stopped, then reversed in another curve. When it contacted the loading dock, it stopped with a shudder; jolted free, Sophia fell to the oil-stained floor.

Muttering curses in the general direction of the driver, she looked around and then went to shadow and flitted out from beneath the truck, on the passenger side. As she did so, the back doors of the truck opened and they began to unload the mail. With attention thus elsewhere, she moved to a corner that was mostly in shadow, behind a pallet of stacked boxes.

Okay, I'm in. What was the next part of the plan, again?

She took a deep breath, reminding herself of what she intended to do. Of what needed to happen. Medhall was fucking her over. It needed to learn that Sophia Hess was not someone whom it was safe to fuck over. Alexander Grayson and Bradley Fieldmark. Lawyer and security guard. She had grudges against both of them; Grayson for interfering with her perfectly legitimate chastisement of Hebert and Veder for existing, and Fieldmark for manhandling her like a rag doll and smacking her in the mouth like that. And maybe Max Anders, for employing them both.

Nobody puts me on my ass and lives.

Of course, now that she was inside the building, the plan was beginning to look a lot hazier than it had from outside. She'd somehow expected to see a row of office doors with her potential victims' names spelled out on them, but it looked like she was actually going to have to go looking for them.

Well, nobody had ever said that Sophia Hess lacked in resourcefulness. Or if they did, they hadn't done so in her hearing, which was much the same thing.

She eased her way sideways, taking a chance and ducking through a wall into what turned out to be a locker room of sorts. Opening one locker revealed a high-visibility vest hanging on a hook, as well as a set of utility coveralls. On one of the shelves sat an ID card lanyard and a baseball cap with the Medhall logo on the front.

Well, well, well. Sophia smiled. Just what the doctor ordered.


It appeared I'd underestimated the amount of workload that Ms Harcourt had decided needed to be handed off to me. On reaching the office on the fifth floor, I'd been held up when Ms Harcourt had relayed a message through for me to go to the seventh floor and pick up some other documents and bring them back to her.

I'd done this, then immediately been sent to make a cup of coffee to her exacting standards and bring it back to her. While making it—and sipping at my own coffee while I waited—I wondered if she was testing me, in much the same way as she had when I first started at Medhall.

No, I decided. It wasn't her way. The initial testing had been to see if Greg and I were able to follow the rules enough to work at Medhall. Greg had screwed up—massively—but I suspected my performance had brought up our average 'grade' enough that he squeaked through. Since then, he'd smartened up a lot and proved that he could indeed learn. And of course his performance at Winslow, defending me from Sophia, had gotten him a gold star or three.

Coffee freshly made, I conveyed it back to Ms Harcourt, who sipped it and afforded me a nod of approval. "I can see why Ms Grimshaw prefers you to make her coffee," she said, which from her was equivalent to a standing ovation and a twenty-one gun salute. "How are you holding up?"

I took a deep breath. "I'll get there, ma'am. Thank you for asking."

"Good." She handed me an envelope. "This needs to go to Alexander Grayson. If I need you for anything else, I will contact you on Ms Grimshaw's phone line. And do work on your phone greeting."

"Thank you, ma'am. I will." I escaped her office again, wondering if she actually had a heart under that granite exterior, or if the whole thing had been an act on her part. I'd probably never figure that out, and I was damn certain she'd never tell.

I was still musing over that when I stepped out of the elevator on Mr Grayson's floor. Once more, I'd never actually been up this way, but I knew the layout from checking the floorplan.

Just as I got to the office door itself, it opened and one of the mail room crew pushed a mail cart out. I was a little puzzled—the big carts only usually got used on the lower floors where larger packages were delivered—but stood aside anyway. I got an impression of a high-visibility vest, a coverall, dark skin and a baseball cap pulled low over the eyes as they hustled past … then they stopped dead and turned.

I found myself looking Sophia Hess right in the face.

"Fuck," we both said, at the same time.

Everything seemed to be happening in static jolts of experience, disjointed. I saw her hand coming up from inside the mail cart, holding some sort of weapon. What it was, I couldn't make out. More or less by instinct, I flicked the envelope I was holding at her face. She recoiled, bringing up her hand to deflect it. In that instant, I reached out and yanked the fire alarm handle that was right beside every damn office door.

Immediately, the fire alarms went off with a deafening racket. The sprinklers didn't go off, but that was okay. I kicked the cart, shoving it into her, then lunged sideways through Mr Grayson's doorway. Something twanged and something else whiffed past me, so close I felt the wind next to my neck. I grabbed the door and slammed it shut, then clicked the lock closed.

When I turned around, Mr Grayson was still sitting behind his desk. He hadn't gotten up, or even raised his voice to ask me what the hell I was doing. I moved closer and realised that he wasn't getting up because he was slumped in the chair, either unconscious or dead, I wasn't sure. There was something sticking out of his chest, with a huge bloodstain around it.

I got behind the desk and dredged up the little I knew about first aid to determine whether he had a pulse or not. At first I couldn't find one in his wrist, then I tried again and got a weak one. Okay, I told myself. He's alive. For now.

There was a loud thump from the direction of the door and I nearly screamed, but kept myself under control. The door's locked, she can't get in. The door's locked, she can't get in.

Grabbing the desk phone, I rang the security station while I kept one eye on the door. I had no idea why Sophia might be shooting arrows at people, but if she could do that, she could probably pick a lock. It seemed a natural conclusion at the time.

"Security, Fieldmark speaking. Please clear the line and evacuate the building. We have a fire emergency."

"Bradley, it's me," I babbled. "I pulled the alarm. Sophia Hess is in the building. She shot Mr Grayson and tried to shoot me. He's hurt really badly."

There was silence on the line, apart from the echo of the fire alarm at the other end. Then Bradley spoke again. "Confirm Sophia Hess, and Mr Grayson is shot and badly injured."

"Yes, that's all true," I said. "She shot him with an arrow." What the fuck was that about, I wondered.

Another moment of silence. "Understood. Are you in danger now?"

"I locked the door," I told him uncertainly. "Mr Grayson's got a pulse, but it doesn't feel very strong. I can't tell if he's breathing."

"If he's got a pulse, assume that he's breathing." He paused. "Whatever you do, do not pull that arrow out. It's probably the only thing keeping him alive right now. Don't open that door unless it's me on the other side."

"Okay." I was near tears, but the strength in his voice reassured me that everything was somehow going to be alright. "I can do that."

"You're a good kid. Stronger than you think. You'll get through this. Hang tight. I'm bringing a team to you right now."

There was another thud on the door. "I think she's trying to break the door down."

"We've got her on camera. That's exactly what she's doing. But she's not going to succeed. Just hold on." He hung up.

"You might as well open the door now, Hebert," Sophia sang out from the far side of the door. Somehow, I could hear her over the din of the fire alarm. "I can get to you any time I want. But if you make it difficult for me, I'll make it hurt."

A dozen retorts arose in the back of my mind, but I squashed them all. The last thing I needed to do was let her know where I was. I found myself holding a letter-opener from Mr Grayson's desk, shaped like a sword. A pitiful weapon, but it was the only one I had.

The wait was eternal. I checked Mr Grayson's pulse twice more. It was still there, but getting weaker. The bloodstain around the arrow was larger. I clutched the letter-opener until my hand ached.

And then the fire alarm cut out. In the silence, hollowly, came a sharp rapping at the door. "Taylor!"

It was Bradley.

I opened the door, and in came Bradley plus three armed security guards, as well as two medical techs with a rolling stretcher. As the techs got Mr Grayson onto the stretcher, I got a good look at the outside of the door. It was dented fairly heavily, and there were cracks around the lock. I began to shudder, from delayed reaction.

Bradley put his hand on my shoulder. "There you go, kid. Let it out. You're safe now."

I wasn't so sure.

With Sophia Hess on the loose, I'd never be safe again.

End of Part Nine