Loud thumping bass greeted them.
“if you make sure you're connected...“ the lyrics came. “the writing's on the wall...“
“but if your mind's neglected...”
“Stumble...you might fall...“
Taylor vaguely recognized the song, but couldn't place it. The doors opened into a long narrow hallway decorated with paintings and bric-a-brac on narrow wall tables. The red carpet flowered inside, ran towards another set of smaller double doors made of what looked like frosted glass. Taylor saw throngs of people moving on the other side of those doors. None of that was what really caught his attention. What did were two goons standing to either side of the glass doors. They looked startlingly like the man Taylor and the others were here to shadow. Only slight differences: one had darker skin; almost a honey-brown color, the other entirely bald. Despite that, they could have been brothers to each other and the security guard they were tracking. Neither guard did anything but stare. Down the hallway were two haughty women, standing next to a podium.
Izzy whispered, “Get your invites.“ She pulled hers, unfolded somehow, from her smallish purse, Lou from her own. Taylor and Winston fished theirs out of jacket pockets. The haughty women took the invites, looked them over and checked their names against a list. Slowly she turned her sour expression to a smile of greeting, waved them past the frosted doors, which her companion opened. As Taylor walked through the doors he patted his pants pocket, making sure his Boost phone was there. It was. They had agreed to text one another if anything unusual happened or if the guard was spotted.
“Did you see those two?“ Winston said. The guards had unsettled him and he had for a time forgotten Izzy was on his arm. They were inside the room. Dancing teenagers were everywhere, music blaring loud. It was Taylor's first party besides the standard boilerplate of Southern birthday parties at Celebration Station and Chuck E. Cheese, ice cream cakes, and pizza, and Wal-Mart cookies, cheap Mylar balloons, and paper noisemakers. Those events were so far beneath what he saw before him he couldn't even put them in the same category much less actually compare them. This is like something on a BBC version of MTV. Even his memories of television shows and movies didn't prepare him for the reality of the silk-swathed girls, velvet-tuxed boys; all wafting around the room like swans. Everyone looked fantastic, some amazingly so; faces aching with a superimposed joy which spoke more of a child's jealousy at a sibling's Christmas gift than of real, explosive pleasure. It was a little painful to watch, at first, as everything flashed around him. Seeing excited faces looking only to be replaced by the beaming need of another, Taylor barely paid attention to individuals, the clothes or much else. He was stuck measuring faces and trying to understand it all. None of the girls looked as amazing Izzy.
A tugging at his arm pulled him out of his reverie.
“Taylor?“ Izzy said in a strained whisper. “Snap out of it!“
Taylor stood still, Lou and Winston had already moved off. Several people were staring at him, at Izzy as well. “Sorry.“ Taylor mumbled.
“Let's see if we can find this guy...“ Izzy whispered, her megawatt smile turned up, her battle face on. She led them around the room, nodding at people who recognized her and waved. She affected not to notice the shock on their faces. Taylor heard a snatch of conversation from a pair of simpering girls he loosely recognized.
“Who's that guy? He's sorta cute, maybe...but that's Izzy Chatham!“ one said, too loud to be a whisper, even with the music.
“Yeah, where's Parker?“ the other said.
Taylor looked to see if Izzy heard it, but if she did, she gave no sign. A few times Izzy introduced him to people who stopped them, people she clearly knew. All of them had questioning looks at his name, but none asked the obvious question, “Where is Parker?“ Izzy tensed up. He followed her gaze towards a curly-haired older man in a well appointed tuxedo, maybe an inch taller than Taylor, at best. The man was heading in their direction, a smile of recognition on his face.
“Mayor Goldberg!“ Izzy exclaimed, somehow tensing even further. Her tone of voice was alien, she didn't sound like herself. The Mayor wasn't alone, he was flanked by the very security guard they were here to investigate. What could possibly make the Mayor feel he needed such protection in a room full of dancing teenagers? The Mayor's smile was open, genuine and glowing when he took Izzy's hand.
“David, Ms. Chatham. David.“ the Mayor said. His tone was very familiar, the way he said his name to Izzy implied he knew her well: the way a friend of the family might suggest jovially that you use his first name.
Izzy knows the Mayor? Personally?
She had neglected to mention that at any of the Society's discussions.
“Taylor!“ she hissed beneath a megawatt smile. Everyone was looking at him, expecting something. Jolted. he tried to remember what he had heard.
“Great to, um, meet you Mr., um, Mayor!“ Taylor said finally.
The Mayor's smile wavered but he shook Taylor's hand enthusiastically. But his smile stopped far short of his eyes, which drilled into Taylor. He tried not to be, but the combination of those piercing eyes and the beefy security guard, a killer and thug, but Taylor was afraid.
“You look ravishing Ms. Chatham. How is Isabel?“ the Mayor asked. Izzy didn't miss a beat, she let her face drop a fraction before replying, “She's wonderful, thanks.“ This satisfied the Mayor. The guard tapped the Mayor on the shoulder and whispered something in his ear. A cold sweat ran down Taylor's back. Have I been recognized? The Mayor just smiled and said, “So sorry, dear, but I have to run. You kids have a great time!“ He was gone. The security guard followed close behind, neither looked back.
Taylor had his hand in his pocket in seconds, his fingers firing off a preset message to the other two while Izzy watched.
“What now?“ Taylor asked.
Izzy didn't reply. She was staring off towards the other side of the room. When he followed her stare Taylor saw Agent Alexander. The short-haired Agent looked resplendent in a slim-gown of pearlescent and gold material. If not for her short hair Taylor might not have recognized her. She didn't look comfortable and in the few short seconds since Taylor spotted her she had pulled up on the front of her dress from a spot just between her breasts. A light spattering of makeup covered her face. She looked determinedly around the room until her eyes fell on the Mayor as he wandered out through a set of doors. Alexander's jaw set, a muscle on the side of her face twitched, her eyes grew hard. She stalked in the Mayor's direction, barely bothering to weave her way around dancing kids.
His pocket buzzed. He, pulled out his phone and saw a text from Winston. “WOW!“ was all it said. Taylor sighed and showed it to Izzy. They both knew it was about Alexander. Izzy frowned. He wasn't sure if she knew much about Winston's infatuation with the agent, but if she didn't he wasn't about to tell her.
“Meetup near the bathrooms.“ came the next text, this one from Lou.
After discreetly showing it to Izzy she led him by the arm in the direction of the bathrooms. He knew where they were, thanks to Izzy's drilling of the plans into his head, but didn't argue with her leading him. They had to wait for almost five, minutes for Winston and Lou to show up, no longer arm in arm. Taylor realized he and Izzy were the only two kids who were still arm in arm. He had been clinging to her, but she had allowed it. Taylor didn't want to stop. As though she read his thoughts she gently patted his hand before she dropped his arm.
“The guard. He's with the Mayor.“ Taylor said, his arm empty without her.
“Do you think he recognized you?“ Winston asked, still smiling broadly.
“I don't think so.“ Taylor said, distracted, trying to work out whether or not he should tell the others about Izzy and the Mayor's familiarity.
“We have to get out of here...“ Izzy said, somewhat distractedly. Winston looked at Taylor, confused. Lou leaned in. “That NSA Agent is here. Alexander.“ she breathed. Winston looked painfully eager, he was bouncing, at the mention of Alexander.
“Where did she go?“ Winston asked, in what he clearly thought an off-handed manner, but it fooled no one. Lou fixed him with a hard look, Izzy frowned and looked away. As if she were watching out for someone or something. Taylor sighed, rolled his eyes. He knew why Winston was asking: he wants to tail her. Partly because the other boy was infatuated with her, but likely just as much because she was here and snooping on an NSA agent, a challenge the rich catburgling boy would not pass up if he could. No matter what was said here, Winston was going to follow her, his smile said as much.
“She's following the Mayor.“ Taylor said, instantly pained as both Lou and Izzy's heads whipped to face him with shocked expressions. Lou's lasted a split second, Izzy's lingered. Taylor concentrated not to take a step backwards. By the time the two girls stopped glaring, Winston was gone, having used the moment to dash. Taylor only just caught a sight of him weaving hurriedly through the mass of dresses and tuxes beyond the bathroom entrance before the boy vanished completely.
Both girls pursed lips at Taylor, as though it were all his fault Winston had managed to run off. His arm was too light, missing Izzy's, making it hard to focus on the need to outfox Winston. Lou opened her mouth to say something, probably to criticize Taylor, but nothing came out. Her mouth froze as her eyes drifted past him. Taylor turned to see what she was looking at. No sooner had he turned than he heard a soft, sibilant voice, buttery and cold. He recognized that voice. Had hoped to avoid it, though that had been wishful thinking, especially considering the event he was partly in her honor.
“Izzy Chatham. Lou Rodriguez. And Taylor Zachary.“ Philomena Behrstable said. “I'm surprised Winston Fillmore is not around. Who did you come with then Lou? The little black girl? Myra Smith?“
Lou's face remained impassive, but her jaw twitched. She said nothing but the effort was obvious. Philomena's eyes brightened as if she knew this all too well. Izzy turned her bright smile on and glided forward. She leaned in to give Philomena a hug which was more a light series of pats on the back, and a peck on the cheek. “Happy Birthday, Philomena," Izzy murmured. Taylor said the same and finally Lou did as well.
“I was rather shocked you wanted to come,“ Philomena said, “Not the least that Izzy wanted to bring you.“ Nothing in Philomena's tone of voice changed, nor in her facial expression but there was an insult in her eyes, it was plain. “Don't let me keep you all then, I'm sure you have important things to not do.“ She looking at Lou and Taylor as she said this last. Philomena was about to turn away when a large boy came out of the bathroom and said, “Wait up Phil...“
Izzy gasped, aghast. “Parker?“ she said. Parker stopped, he hadn't noticed his girlfriend, had been about to whisk past her towards Philomena - who now had the most disgustingly self-satisified smile on her face. Phaedra came gliding up and stood next to her sister, mean curiosity on her face. Parker was confused for a moment, head whipping back and forth from Izzy to Philomena until it landed on Taylor. Recognition dawned; slowly, but not completely. Lou moved to put herself between Taylor and Parker.
“Whatever.” Parker said, thrusting his chin out in an unspoken challenge at Taylor. “What are you doing here?“ he said. Philomena coughed and laughingly said as she extended a gloved hand, “Parker, honey, come over here, please.“ The simper in her tone was utterly false but no one gainsaid her. Briefly, Parker looked torn; his handsome face contorted and he looked from Izzy to Philomena and back. Shrugging, he sauntered to Philomena, put his arm around her and kissed her on the cheek, squeezed her around the waist, but his eyes were on Izzy the whole time. Philomena giggled, but her eyes never left Izzy either. Izzy's control never faltered; she just stood there, smiling, but Taylor thought her eyes held panic.
Taylor moved to comfort her, but Lou was in the way. Philomena whispered something into Parker's ear. He was inches taller, so she had to tip upwards to do so. Plainly Phaedra already knew what her sister said; judging by her vulpine, malicious smile and eager glare at Izzy.
Parker's lips were a thin white line and his fists had balled. Philomena drew back and out of his grasp, a very smug look on her face. Parker stalked towards Taylor, until Lou blocked his way, “You think you can just dis me like this Zachary?“ One hand pushed Taylor hard on the shoulder, reaching over Lou to do so. Taylor had to step backwards not to fall down.
“What?“ was all he could get out. What did Philomena say to him?
“You know what the fuck I'm talking about pleb. You think you can just take my girlfriend to a party and I'm not gonna do anything about it?“ Philomena coughed. Parker sighed. “Ex-girlfriend.” Another shove, this one hard enough to push Taylor into Izzy.
Not really knowing what to do, Taylor balled his fists and brought them both up in an awkward, blocking stance. Parker's eyes went wide. He laughed. Behind him Philomena and Phaedra trilled with silent laughter as well. Lou tensed, she was going to step in, like she had last time Parker had tried to bully him. That had been embarrassing enough, with no one other than himself, Parker, and Lil J witnessing, despite his being glad he hadn't been beaten up. Other party-goers sensed something going on and gathered around, whisper-shouting “Fight, fight!“
Taylor knew he had only one opportunity at this. He took a deep breath and launched himself past Lou, at Parker. With almost contemptible ease Parker moved to the side and slapped Taylor on the back of the head, threw one of his legs out to the side, tripping Taylor. Taylor crashed to the floor, a chorus of ohhhs from the teens circling around.
Izzy said, “Taylor! Stop!“ but it was like a fly buzzing next to an aircraft engine. A roar drowned everything out, his blood pumped fire as he pushed himself to knees, steel resolve to the core. His lips peeled back in a snarl as he turned to face Parker. Parker sneered, made a come-on gesture. Lou said something, but he couldn't make out what it was. Behind him Philomena or Phaedra also said something he couldn't hear.
Parker moved towards Taylor. But something flared to life in Taylor and before Parker moved more than a foot Taylor swooped in and clocked the other boy hard in the face. At least, Taylor thought his punch was hard. His hand stung as like he had rammed it knuckle-first into concrete. Parker, though his head whipped back, was otherwise unmoved. Taylor didn't even see the punch which hit him in the side of the face, sent him sprawling.
“What's going on over there?“ an authoritative man's voice said. The crowd immediately parted. Someone pulled Taylor up, shoved him, so he was caught in the press and pushed along. All around were snide voices making comments, insulting him. Several times he heard someone say fag or pussy. Though it stung, all he thought about was Izzy.
Would this prove his feelings to her? Since he had fought for her? That had to mean something.
When the crowd finally stopped pushing at him, he was all the way across the ballroom floor, near the exit where Alexander had disappeared. His pocket buzzed. Looking around, the party had settled down, but there was no sign of Izzy, Lou, Winston, the Twins, or Parker. A few people still looked at him, some snickering or pointing, but most moved on and were dancing again. Some shouting happened from the direction of the bathroom area, but he couldn't make words out.
Taylor turned to face a wall, pulled out his cell. A text from Winston.
“stuck in Mayor's Office...“
Taylor was uncertain what to do. If Winston was stuck, there was little to no chance anything Taylor could do would get the other boy out of the jam. Winston was in. Looking over at the crowd of gyrating teens, he suddenly didn't care. I have to do something. Nothing could be worse than what just happened, his wounded bravado said.
With one last anxious look around he darted past the doors into a relatively silent hallway.