“So, what's next?“ Winston asked.
Everyone looked at him like he had lost his mind. Except Izzy. She reached for a remote control and pressed a button. Sound flooded the HQ, coming from the TV. The wind-blown man talked while the silver-haired taller man nodding along. The slack-jawed security guard stood implacably behind, a statue.
Taylor really wanted to know what had happened to Lou. Where did she get attacked? How did she get away? What did he look like after? He started to ask but got only one word out before Izzy impatiently shh'd him. As Taylor watched the screen with the others he realized who the wind-blown man was. They called him the Mayor. That's Mayor Goldberg, the Mayor of New York City.
The Mayor smiled, a folksy, yet patrician smile.
“...But seriously folks! I am not here to announce my candidacy for President of the United States! However, I have formed a committee of close friends to explore the issues facing our great nation today!“ The Mayor paused and smiled benevolently at the camera, his smile felt almost like a wink. “I would like to announce something else, something close to my heart, something important.“ The man was magnetic, compelling. Even watching him on TV Taylor felt drawn in. “I have entered the City into a partnership with TwinStar Communications,“ The Mayor nodded to the silver-haired man next to him.
Izzy blurted out, “That's John Behrstable! The Twins' father!“ Taylor gaped. That's Philomena and Phaedra's father? “And to celebrate this new partnership I am hosting a special event in honor of my good friend, the CEO of TwinStar, Mr. John A. Behrstable.“ The Mayor patted Behrstable affably on the shoulder. Behrstable smiled at the camera. “Well the event is actually to honor his beautiful daughters, Philomena and Phaedra! So in honor of their upcoming eighteenth birthday I am going to throw a party at Gracie Mansion! And if the lovely girls don't mind I just might have a very special announcement to make then! Good night New York and remember, No One Loves New York Like I Do!“ He winked at the camera, waved, and walked offscreen, followed closely by Behrstable and the twin guards.
Taylor took a deep breath.
The screen cut away to a newsroom anchor desk, a pastel suited blond woman and a well-coiffed man smiling 'vapidly at the screen.
“And that was live from Gracie Mansion, Mayor Goldberg announcing his plans to partner with TwinStar Communications for a development plan to upgrade and centralize all of the City's communications infrastructure.“ The woman chuckled. “And as usual, the Mayor issued his tepid denial that he is indeed planning to run against for President next year.“
The man cut in, “Either way, Julianna, I hope we'll be invited to that party at Gracie!“ the man laughed inanely. Julianna laughed as well, but clearly not with her co-anchor, just beside him. “I've never been one to miss one of the Mayor's parties!“ Julianna started to say something else as she shuffled a stack of papers, but Lou grabbed the remote and muted the television.
Izzy started to say something but Taylor blurted out, “Wait!“ Taylor gulped, shocked he had spoken to Izzy like that, but he had to know. Turning to Lou, Taylor didn't even get the question out before she started speaking. Lou told the story of how she had seen the security guard outside of Taylor's apartment building in the East Village. Strangely, the last seemed to shock both other girls, clearly they had known she had a run in with the security guard, if not that it had occurred near Taylor's apartment. Why had Lou held that back from them until now? Lou kept going. The man had apparently ambushed her in the station at Bleecker St, days before Taylor joined the Willow Society, months back, around the time Parker and Lil J had tried to beat Taylor up. That alone made Taylor's jaw drop. What was the man been doing near my apartment months ago? Why was Lou there?
Lou kept going, describing how the man - far larger than her - had overwhelmed her and nearly choked her out, how she had managed to kick him, broke his nose, and fell to the tracks below. Taylor shivered, not the least at the thought of that same man following him months past, but also at the thought of falling down to the area below the platform of .a subway station. Every time he stood on the platform waiting for a train, he would look down at the dark, sooty tracks below and feel hard fear at the idea of falling down there. Looking at Lou he realized she was probably the bravest kid he had ever met.
As she spoke Taylor spied a different side to her. Stripped of her icy bravado, her calm, confident strength, was a different Lou. A younger Lou, vulnerable, shakeable. That Lou could so radically and regularly cover this part of herself, so effectively change who she could be amazed Taylor. It also made him feel better about himself, knowing that even Lou could be weak, vulnerable, a normal teenager.
What had happened in her life, before she came to Willow Prep?
The life she never wanted to acknowledge, much less talk about, except maybe to Myth or Izzy, both of whom seemed to know some of it. Mrs. Jones is Lou's guardian, but does that mean her parents are dead? Her grandparents? Aunts and uncles?Is she an unwanted orphan? He knew she lived in her own apartment, paid for by the same scholarship Taylor had. Saddened for a moment, Taylor realized he had never truly thought about what it must mean: to be so alone, in a place like New York City. To have been alone for who knows how long before that. To risk all that in going along with the others. Taylor almost shivered at the thought. She really was the bravest kid he had ever known.
“But why.. . ?“ Winston began when Lou seemed done. He was half-smiling as though it all might be a great joke, yet his wary eyes said he was sure it was not.
“Why did I keep it from you?“ Lou asked. Taylor wondered if that was what Winston had had been about to ask.
“Because Sue-Ann and Isabel told me to.“ Lou said. That made sense, if not really answering the real why. Why had the women wanted it kept secret from me and Winston in the first place?
Myth threw herself back against the sofa. “So what does all this mean? And why do you have bruises now?“ Taylor had associated the bruises under Lou's makeup with the fight she had had under Bleecker St station, but that was months ago. Had she worn makeup back then and he missed it? She must have. “I've been training in a different group.“ Lou's lips pressed together after that and it was clear she wasn't going to elaborate. Taylor assumed she was doing something she wasn't proud of, or wasn't supposed to be doing. Knowing her it was likely some underground fighting thing, a way for her to make sure the next time a much larger man attacked her she would not be beaten. That seemed very Lou.
“Can we agree... right now... to not keep sh... stuff from each other anymore?“ Myth said. One by one, everyone nodded, Izzy last and most reluctant. “Now, again, what does all this mean?“
“I'm not sure...“ Taylor began, but he had had suspicions the night before and hearing Lou's story, it really only confirmed those suspicions. He had everyone's attention now and it made him swallow nervously. But they had just promised not to hold back. So he told everything about what he had found, starting with Philomena's computer, Tate's documents and spying and attempts to get the CCOM panel including his suspicions. How the NSA, already watching, might have gotten them jump on the Society, via Facebook and Undermine.net. “If we could find the original thread, they know about it, it was only a matter of time.“
“But wait. Who took the thread down in the first place? Remember S-Eye said it wasn't him!“ Winston blurted. Taylor had thought about this. “There's a third... I dunno... entity? in all this.“ Everyone look doubtful. “Unless you think these security guys or guy, unless you think he's NSA? Unless you think it's been the NSA attack Society interests all along?“ More skeptical expressions. But less than before. “Someone else wants this stuff, and that's who the NSA is really after. We've just gotten in between somehow.“
“So you mean when I posted on Facebook.... they were watching?“ Winston said.
“Yeah, but not you, not at first. I think, I mean, the kidnapping didn't happen because we were there, that takes planning right?“
Nods. “So they were watching S-Eye's Facebook account, that's how they latched on to us. We threw a wrench in what they were doing.“
“Whom do you mean by they?“ Izzy asked, “The NSA? These mysterious others?“
"The others.“ Taylor said a bit confused now himself. He shook his head to clear it and continued. “This third group, they were going to kidnap S-Eye, but we got there first. The NSA knew it was going to happen, they were watching Facebook. They LET us go in there!“ Taylor was grabbing at straws now, his suspicions astray now that he spoke them out loud, but still he felt on to something.
“So, yeah, the NSA watching S-Eye, waiting for this other group to make a go, that way they could catch them.”
“Why were they at Willow Prep then?“ Myth asked.
“Because that's where the attacks, I mean , that's where the hacks into the NSA's servers came from, that's the IP addresses S-Eye used to cover his tracks.“
“Do you think Tate knew this? Do you think he helped point Alexander towards S-Eye?“ Winston asked.
Taylor was perplexed. “I dunno.“
“Well.“ Izzy said, clearly tired of the drawn out rambling of Taylor's suspicions. “Here's what we do know: someone stole this CCOM panel. It may or may not have been this S-Eye. Along with the attacks on our resources this was done through Willow Prep IPs, which you guys want us to believe means some hacker spoofed those IPs... to throw off the trail. And that the NSA knows all of this. Does Tate know all of this? There's a dead town car driver, who somehow knew to pick you two up at the ferry station. Some people kidnapped S-Eye. Different people knew to follow the town car. Lou was attacked by a guard shadowing Taylor. And the guard or someone exactly like him killed the town car driver after following Taylor and Winston. Now the killer, is it the same one? He's part of the Mayor's security detail?“
It was somewhat out of order, but still it sounded factual. Taylor was disturbed because it seemed to have pattern but he couldn't make it out, it was either too complex, or too simple.
“So, with all the facts we know, there are at least three groups here: us, the NSA and whomever the guard really works for. Could it be the Mayor maybe? Can we all agree its not the NSA? So, what we need to know is: who is this guard? Who does he really work for?“
“How can we figure that out, though? He's already killed one guy...“ Taylor began, “wait, the town car driver? Was he an NSA agent? Is that why it wasn't in the paper?“
“Seems likely.“ Izzy said decisively. “As for how we can figure out who the security guard is.... well, he seems to be very close to the Mayor and the Mayor is hosting an event in two weeks.“
“Philomena and Phaedra's party!“ Myth shouted.
Lou finally joined in, “You want us to go to their party? I hate those girls. And they hate us.“ Everyone nodded at that. “That guard, don't you think he'll recognize us?“
Izzy paused. Taylor had to give it to Izzy though, hesitant as she had seemed, once she agreed to go forward, she went forward fully. Maybe that's why she's our leader, and not just cuz she's Isabel's granddaughter. He smiled at her, his eyes flashing flirtatiously at her. Her lips pursed in response.
“It's a risk we have to take. He won't even know it's us unless he's looking for us.“ Winston said
“Can you get us in, Iz" Myth said excitedly.
“Maybe not all of us.“ Izzy said, looking at Myth. “I can probably get plus three. It's hard with the Behrstables.“
“So we've got to figure out who is going. And plan what we're going to do. I assume we're going to snoop around the Mansion?“ Winston rubbed his hands together excitedly as he spoke.
Izzy grimaced slightly. “I was thinking more of planting bugs. Like what you put up around Willow Prep.“
“Not a good idea during a party. Security will be tight with so many guests around.“ Winston said frankly. “What if T and I got access to the computers? We might learn something that way?“
“Maybe. We could definitely use that. But I don't think that's enough“ Izzy said.
“Well, what do you want to do, Izzy?“ Lou asked.
She looked like she just wanted to throw her hands up and say, “I don't know!“
“Maybe we should play it by ear? We'll go, see if the guard's there, and see what we can find out about him.“
That wasn't as exciting as Winston's suggestions, but it made sense and everyone eventually agreed.
“Will Parker be there?” Taylor asked, then clapped his hand over his mouth.