It was close on six in the evening when Taylor, savoring the taste of chocolate, got a text from Lou.
“Birds gone. All clear.“ Relief warmed him. He showed the message to Tate, who continued to munch his chocolate.
“Good. I suggest we get over there.“ Tate mumbled, gathering up his duffel bag and stuffed more chocolate and sodas inside it. After Tate had finished his prepping they exited the basement apartment. He went up the stairs, made Taylor stay at the bottom. The large man turned his beefy head this way and that, eyeing everything on the street with suspicion. Eventually, he waved Taylor to follow. If Tate's expression wasn't so serious Taylor would have laughed, seeing the fat teacher go all Jason Bourne, but there was a seriousness to those swipes of the head, to the man's very posture, belied by his fatness. It commanded a bit of respect from Taylor. Tate looked silly, but his movements were practiced, the cares of a highly trained man. It was easy to forget what Tate had once been simply by looking at him.
The trip to Chatham House was uneventful. By the time they arrived Taylor had received more texts, these from Winston and Myth. They all pretty much said the same thing. Isabel and Sue-Ann gone, get to the HQ. Taylor didn't tell them he was bringing Tate along.
Unsure why, Taylor expected Chatham House and the HQ to be different, feel different. He did, it only seemed right the surroundings should as well, but they didn't, except for Tate's presence. The sloppy man was out place inside Chatham. Less than a minute after following Taylor inside Tate had already knocked over several small objects sitting on one of the decorative tables lining the walls leading from the foyer to the main hall. Swearing, Tate had bent over, fuming, picked the things up not even bothering to try and arrange those things as they had been. Taylor choose not to comment.
Inside the HQ, everyone was there except for Izzy. Even Helen. Tate put his duffel down on a chair and looked around. The others stared.
“Taylor?“ Lou said, "What is he doing here?“
“We need his help.“ Taylor said, “We agreed....“ Lou glared. They both knew Taylor was stretching the truth.
“I guess.“ She inclined her head to Tate, who was too busy goggling to really notice.
“Nice digs.“ he mumbled, running a finger over one of the ebony desks. “Mr. Fillmore.“ He nodded to Winston.
“Myth.“ she said, exasperated.
Tate smiled. “Of course. Myth. I'd forgotten.“ The twinkle in his eye said he had not forgotten merely enjoyed teasing Myth, likely a holdover from when she was last in his class.
“So! Let's get to it.“ Tate said, sitting down on a sofa, waving the others to gather round.
“We need to wait for Izzy.“ Lou said, obviously hesitant.
“I'm here.“ Izzy said, her hair wet and gathered up into a slick bun. She looked scrubbed, wore no makeup and a tight fitting, silky, sweatsuit. Helen came in just after Izzy and immediately looked Tate up and down. Izzy noticed Tate next and she gasped.
“Ahh, Miss Chatham. Very nice place you have.“ Tate said, pulling out a chocolate bar, unwrapping it, and munching, oblivious to the stares. His expression lost its seriousness in the pleasure he clearly received from the chocolate. He even hummed happily as he ate.
Izzy recovered quickly. “Taylor brought you.“ She turned to Taylor. “Next time, let us know beforehand.“ Taylor's face blazed. But Izzy had already moved on. “I assume Taylor has let you know everything?“ Izzy asked, her cheeks sucking in as she spoke. She started to say something else but Tate cut in.
“He did. I'd like to see this device.“
Izzy bit back whatever she was going to say, paused and said, “We haven't used it yet.“
Taylor, antsy about William gestured frantically. “We can talk about that later!” Under the glares of his friends, he told everything. Tate munched on his chocolate.
“This is bad.“ Lou said. “How could they have found us so quickly?“
“Are you sure it's not a joke of some kind?“ Izzy said, looking at Winston.
“Hey, I wouldn't do that. It's not funny at all.“ he said not smiling. “Besides, I'm not sure I could break into T's system, and I wouldn't break into his house, there's nothing there to steal.“
“I do think it was a break-in though.“ Tate said through a mouth of half-consumed chocolate. “Whomever it was did in-person.“
“But if it wasn't Win... then how?“ Myth said.
Tate shrugged. “Somehow they know about Taylor. They have his name. It would be easy from there. Remember the kind of people we're dealing with. Likely they're former agents gone mercenary. It happens. A lot.“ Tate sounded as if he approved of going mercenary.
Winston's face lit up, eyebrows almost rising up off his forehead. His mouth worked silently and his hands pointed to no one, as a memory was reliving itself in his mind's eye. All he said to Taylor was “Gloves.“
The word hit Taylor like a punch to the nuts. Memories of his own came back. A clear image of himself, hunched over the Mayor's desk, typing away on the keyboard, the plastic gloves Winston had given him not on his hands. In fact, they were probably still in the inside pocket of the tuxedo.
“You forgot to put gloves on.“ Lou said her voice flat.
Taylor nodded, hanging his head down. Guilt surging forward, all but taking over, crowding out most other thoughts. This is all my fault, especially if something actually happens to my family. Despite everything Taylor hadn't taken the threat seriously, until now. It unlocked the crucial how which made a threat go from surreal to pressingly real. Taylor could feel that threat hovering behind his shoulder now, menacingly, just beyond sight, like a tormenting shadow. He didn't want to look up and see the confirmation of his stupidity on the faces of his friends, or accusations and recriminations. He was sure it would be more than he could bear.
But he felt a hand on his shoulder, a comforting squeeze. “It's OK, Taylor. It was an honest mistake. Could have happened to any of us.“ Izzy said. Taylor's eyes drifted toward the sound of her voice and held them. Sincerity was there, and more; more than Taylor had expected, caring. She smiled a tiny commiserative smile, but a smile nonetheless. She squeezed his shoulder again. “And besides, we'll help fix it. That's what friends do.“
Tate said, “See, that wasn't so bad. You kids really have something going. Now...“
Taylor lost the train of what Tate was saying as a buzzing came from his backpack. His Boost phone was in his pocket, it had to be his iPhone. The only people who had the number to iPhone were in this room. Aside from Isabel and Sue-Ann. And his mother. She'd teased the number out of him after seeing him using the phone, loosely accepted the lie he told her about Willow Prep issuing them.
And maybe the NSA. And whoever the security guard works for.
Taylor's head spun as he dug for the phone. The caller ID was his home number. That meant his parents. A pounding rush worked its way from Taylor's toes to the top of his head.
He answered the call.
“Um, hello?“ his voice cracked.
He caught the looks of the others. Everyone had gone silent and watched him, confused as to why he had answered a call in the middle of the meeting. They saw the expression on his face.
“No. No.“ Taylor mumbled. He listened to his mother explain that William had gone missing. She asked Taylor if he knew where William was, pleaded with him in desperation. Taylor cried silently, guilt anguishing him. She told him he had to come home, and now. He wiped his wet face and everything slowed.
Should I tell her? Is it safe to do so? Will she believe me? Isn't it my place to go home? Be with my family when they need me? The urge was so strong it was a hook in his chest pulling at him. He looked around at his friends and Tate. I have to choose. Stay and do what can be done, what needed to be done, help my friends, or go home and tell my parents everything I know and trust them to make it all better. The moment hung in the air around him, nothing moved.
“Taylor? Honey? Please!“ June begged, again. “You have to come home NOW! It's not a request! The police told us we have to wait 24 hours before reporting him missing! Your father is already out looking! I need you here, I can't bear this!“ Her voice was ragged with grief. Like needles stabbing the corner's of Taylor's eyes.
“Taylor?“ Izzy's voice came through his uncovered ear. “What is wrong, Taylor? What has happened?“
Everything sped up to normal. A sound like air rushing into a tunnel, lasting a fraction of a second, wrapped around Taylor. The choice was between his family or his friends. Or so it seemed. Taylor's mind worked. No.
The choice was between doing nothing, between passing the responsibility to adults who were clueless, or defying them. Doing what needed to be done, regardless of what those adults wanted or were telling him to do. They can't fix this. They'll just call the police, the FBI. And they won't get William back. Only I can make this right. And it's my fault. I have to do it. Not them. The moment was empowering, he felt strong.
“Sorry. Mom. I can't. I promise, I'll do what I can to find William. But. I... I have to go. Don't call this phone again. I won't answer.“ And he hung up.