The secret elevator's mechanical hum was louder than the ones Gregory had grown up with. Wherever they were, he hoped that the walls were thick enough to keep the sound from drawing suspicion. He wasn't too worried, though. Their hosts hadn't even let them pass through the underground tunnels that led them here without first putting on blindfolds. These people were careful.
The ascent didn't take long, and when the bell dinged and the doors opened, Gregory and the weasel-looking man named Walter stepped out. Tristan, Josiah, and the rest would join soon, but this Big Max character wanted to meet him one-one-one first. Most likely to make sure it was really him. Smart.
They were in a hallway that stretched left and right. Walter led him left, to a plain room with a rectangular metal table and eight chairs, three on either side and one on each end. All of them were empty save for the chair at the right head of the table. It was occupied by a red-headed woman who stared at him with hard, incisive eyes. When she spoke, her voice was clear and had an air of authority behind it. "So my daughter wasn't wrong. You are the man from posters." She motioned to the head chair on the left, opposite her. "Please, sit with me."
While Gregory took his seat, the woman turned to Walter, who was still waiting in the doorway. "We'll be fine, Walter. Go ahead and start bringing up the rest." She returned her attention to Gregory as a faint smile revealed itself on her lips. "You know, there isn't a rebel soul in Wellstone who didn't buy the papers back in the day just to see if your name would be in them. Everyone wanted to know if the Renegade Paladin was still at large, or how many Knights he'd outsmarted this time. I won't lie, it's exciting to finally meet you, Mr. Thatch."
Gregory could not tell if the woman was being genuine or just trying to flatter him. If it was the latter, then she may as well give it up now. "I was under the impression that I would be meeting Big Max."
"You're looking at him," she answered, her smile suddenly not so faint. Seeing what must have been clear surprise on his face, she continued, "The alias of a man wasn't my idea, but it has turned out to be a good one. It's kept the gangs and security confused, and hopefully the Brotherhood too, sooner or later."
Once again, Gregory couldn't help but appreciate the effort that these people put into staying hidden. For him, walking the city streets was a risk, but this woman's enemies didn't even know her sex. "Probably sooner," he answered. "But we can wait for the others to get here to talk about that."
"Agreed. In the meantime, perhaps you could tell me about yourself."
"It sounds like you already know the important stuff."
"I know what everyone knows. About the attacks out east and the Brotherhood's failed pursuit of you in the Lost Lands. I don't know anything about why you left them in the first place, or what possessed you to take up arms. You're old enough to have been with the MLA. What were you doing back then?"
"I was still with the Brotherhood, then."
Gregory glared at her and didn't answer. It was very clear that she already knew the answer was 'yes'. And although her tone was not accusatory, the words themselves certainly were. He had no intention of sitting here and be put on some sort of moral trial. "And what were you doing back then?"
Her expression darkened. "I was barely more than a child when the Brotherhood declared the war had ended and that the last of the MLA's leaders had been killed. It was the only time I'd ever seen tears in my father's eyes. He sacrificed... a lot for the cause." She gave Gregory an earnest look. "I'm not here to judge you, Mr. Thatch, or pry into matters you don't wish to share. I only ask these things because I want to know what kind of man I'm about to be joining up with. What kinds of things he's capable of and if they can help us now."
"You're joining up with a man who wants to topple the Brotherhood of Steel, and knows enough about them to make that happen. Is that enough for you?"
"My daughter told me about your goals." She shook her head. "If the MLA were proof of anything, it's that outfighting the Brotherhood is not going to work. I just want them out of my city, and for that damned gulag to be shut down."
"It's a start." Gregory did not bother to hide his disappointment. He would have to keep that in mind, going forward. These rebels would make for useful allies, but their goals did not align perfectly with his. In fact, they would probably see him as an enemy if they knew his entire plan. "Maybe some day, you'll see it differently. But for now, I'm happy to help you fight for Wellstone."
As he finished speaking, the elevator dinged outside, announcing the arrival of more people. Tristan and Josiah entered the room soon after, along with the rebel Ben Fisher (still wearing pieces of his Halloween outfit: a Mafioso gangster), one of Max's people, and the old man from South Union who styled himself 'the General', leader of the Valiants gang. Everyone was still greeting one another when the next group arrived, consisting of Felix, Walter, another of Max's men, and a younger redheaded woman who could only have been Max's daughter.
There were lots of first-time encounters among the group, and the introductions between the various attendees varied from excited to awkward to a slightly aggressive. Two of Max's men (named Calvin and Dwight) paid their respects to Gregory by relaying wildly exaggerated stories they had heard about him for everyone to hear. Ben and Walter glared at one another but did not speak. The girl, whose name turned out to be Sally (or at least that's what she called herself), confirmed Gregory's suspicions by sitting to Max's right and calling her 'mom'. Tristan gave a cigarette to the General and the two got to talking about South Union gang politics. Bold as always, Josiah approached Big Max herself and struck up a conversation that seemed to amuse her greatly, though the only words Gregory picked up over all the chatter were 'happy Halloween'.
It took a good twenty minutes before everyone started to settle in and get ready for business. There were only eight chairs, so Felix, Calvin, and Dwight stood in the back. Josiah and Tristan sat to Gregory's left and right, respectively, while Walter took the empty seat to the left of Max. The General sat between Tristan and Sally, and Ben Fisher sat between Josiah and Walter. Once everybody in the room was situated, Gregory realized that most of them were either waiting for him or Max to kick things off. Amidst the softening chatter, he looked across the table and met her eyes. She gave him a nod.
Gregory cleared his throat, and to his surprise, most of the others stopped talking at once. All eyes quickly turned towards him. He gave an appreciative nod. "Well it looks like we all know each other now, which might have been more than half the battle." A few of the others chuckled. Indeed, simply finding one another had been no easy task. Gregory continued. "But the festivities outside won't last all night, and for some of us, those crowds are our ticket home, so let's get to talking business. Most of us here are in agreement, more or less, in our stance on the Brotherhood and our view of them as an enemy. We may not see them that way for the same reasons, but it doesn't matter, because none of us stands a chance against them on our own. And so we work together."
He looked towards the General, whose pronounced frown could have put even his own to shame. "Some of you have already met the General," Gregory said, hiding his annoyance at the fact that he had no other name by which to call the gang leader. "Unlike the rest of us, he does not intend to participate in this war." Some Max's people immediately looked concerned, but he continued before they could complain about the man's presence in a rebel meeting. "He is here because I owe him a favor, and as it happens, the repayment of that favor stands to benefit all of us. Isn't that right, General?"
"That's right," the old man answered gruffly, and immediately followed up with, "And while you're all listening, I was never here, understand?"
"Yeah, me neither," said Sally, with a snicker that implied little respect for the man's age or pretend rank.
"Or me," agreed Ben Fisher.
"Hell, I'm on the other side of town," Walter joked and several of the others laughed. The General, however, did not.
"Alright you smart asses. Do you want to hear what Thatch and me came up with or not?"
Big Max raised a hand for her people to settle down. "Go ahead, General."
The old man grunted and continued. "You all know well and good that South Union is run mostly independent of the rest of this city. We've got a sheriff who ain't good for shit and is more like a tax collector. We Valiants are the strongest and we control the most turf, but we've got rivals down there who wish it weren't so. Namely the Red Thumbs, the Carnivores, and the Henderson family."
The General paused as if to let that information sink it. The silence was immediately broken by Walter, who gave an insolent shrug. "So?"
From the look on the man's face, Gregory had little doubt that the General would have gunned Walter down then and there had they been in Valiant territory. But in here the gang boss was alone and he had no choice but to keep his cool. "So if you lot help me put an end to that, South Union will be open to you. All of it. My men will take over the whole territory. We'll be the police, the government, the ones who set the taxes and decide who is and is not welcome."
"You're crazy if you think the Brotherhood would just stand by and let that happen," said Walter. He looked around the room as if hoping for someone to agree with him. "We're not gonna entertain the idea of getting involved in a fucking gang war are we?"
"The Brotherhood have never cared about the gangs in South Union," said Ben Fisher. "They pay their tithes and are left alone."
"Exactly," said the General. "I'm sure they'll send someone down for a chat to learn what happened, but I'll make sure they know that my boys are still loyal. We will keep paying them, hell, maybe even more than before, and when the dust is settled, nothing will be different on their end."
Gregory nodded. "But on our end, we'll have a safe zone to the south that's a fair deal bigger than the back rooms of clubs and restaurants. As long as we don't make too much noise, the South Union will invaluable."
Josiah piped in. "And what's a few gangs to us, anyway? The Valiant could damn near do this on their own, but with us it'll be easy. As in, 'no casualties' easy, if we plan it right. It's a lot to gain and the risk is low."
"And how do we know that Mustache here isn't just baiting us into a trap?" Walter gestured at the General. "It would be pretty damn easy to have us do his dirty work, let us move in, and then tell the Brotherhood exactly where we are. Boom. War's over. We're all dead. And Barnaky makes him the richest man this side of the river."
Gregory noticed from the look on her face that Max had been quietly wondering the same thing. She and the others were now looking at the General expectantly, but it wasn't him who answered. Instead, Felix spoke up for the first time that night. "Because the General knows better."
Walter had to peer over Gregory's shoulder to see Felix in the back of the room. "What's that mean, exactly?"
"It means," growled the Valiant leader, "that you've got no fucking cause to worry, okay? I do know better, as a matter of fact. I'm not delusional about the circumstances I'm in. If I betray you, I'll have some of the most dangerous people in the city gunning for my head. And I sure as shit don't want that one-" He pointed at Felix, "-coming after me."
Gregory fought the urge to smile. Two days ago, after plans had been made to meet with the General but before he and Gregory first met face-to-face, Felix had tracked the man down in South Union and taken him aside for a little chat. Gregory did not need to ask for details, as he had every confidence that his friend would ensure that their message struck home with the gang boss. Now it was evident that it had.
"There's also the fact that he's not so sure we'll lose," said Josiah. "And I'm sure that when the Brotherhood is gone, the new leaders of Wellstone -whoever they might be-" He cast a glance in Max's direction that did not go unnoticed by her or the others, "will remember those who helped them before the end. The Valiant stand to gain more at less cost by quietly helping us than they do by betraying us and sealing their own death warrants."
That seemed to satisfy Big Max, at least enough for her to consider the proposal. She looked from Gregory to the General. "We have our own plans for the eastern districts of the city. Plans that have been long in the making. But free movement through South Union could be valuable for the south and west. I say we do it."
Tristan, Josiah, and the General all looked pleased. Walter still looked skeptical but he kept his mouth shut. Ben remained stoic and Sally seemed disinterested.
"That settles that," Gregory said, turning to the General. "We'll be in touch, but now it's time for you to go."
"With pleasure." The General pushed his chair back and stood up none too slowly. It was evident that the man was all too happy to put some distance between himself and the danger that came from being in a room with their ilk. Just after the heavy metal door opened for him, he turned around and addressed the room. "Good luck," he said to them all, and then he took his leave, muttering. "Bunch of crazy bastards."
No sooner had the door shut again than Gregory spoke up, looking directly at Max. "How many fighters do you have?"
"Right now? Several dozen, but they're not the real army. Just smugglers who are getting things ready. Our real strength is our control over the Industrial and Steel Districts. I could snap my fingers and half the factories would stop altogether."
"But that would cause the Brotherhood to move against you hard."
"Exactly. There are thousands of people in this city, especially in the east, who could be rallied to fight against that, but they need an organized resistance to latch onto. Otherwise, it will just be chaos."
Gregory already had ideas for that, but all in good time. "What about weapons?"
"That's mostly what we've been smuggling. I've got friends outside the city who have been supplying us, and we've been stockpiling them here in the city."
Gregory's brow raised. "Friends?"
She nodded. "Yes, friends. Some group out of the east. Real mysterious bunch who don't tell me much 'cept that they're former MLA."
Gregory would have to look into that. Perhaps the next time Max met with these 'friends', he could tag along.
"There's also the sewer thing," the girl, Sally, suddenly broke in.
Gregory looked at her curiously. They had been brought here through a tunnel in the sewers. Did she mean to say that they had more of these passages? "Sewer thing?"
"Yeah," she said, looking much more enthusiastic than before. "They run all over the city, and we use them to hide and get around. But right now it's mostly just in the Market and Steel Districts. The rest is real sketchy, all either blocked up with rubble or filled with ghouls and shit. We ain't put in the time to try getting through some of the worst area, but if we did, it could get us a ticket to parts of the city we ain't been able to reach in the past."
"Those sewers are dangerous," Max explained. "We've lost people trying to explore them. It's a maze down there, with lots of ferals and other things. It hasn't been worth it."
Gregory thought about the sonar map on his Pip-Boy. It could make the 'maze' problem trivial. Before he could respond, however, Ben Fisher spoke up. "I know a guy in Junker Town who can help with that. Sewer ghoul, but he ain't feral. At least not when I saw him last."
"Passages below the city could be invaluable," Gregory said. "We'll look into it."
While Max seemed a little weary, the others mostly seemed accepting of the idea. For her part, Sally practically beamed. They continued to talk about the sewers for a little while longer, with Max's crew filling him in on the ways they use them, and what sorts of things his people should watch out for moving into unfamiliar tunnels.
They also told him more about their smuggling operation, and the guns and ammo they had stashed all over the eastern districts. He was surprised by the sheer number. According to Max, there were nearly six thousand firearms hidden in a city that had banned all guns. As far as he knew, there were only two groups in the Lost Lands who had that kind of ordinance: The slavers out of Columbia and the mutants of Gateway City. However, he was familiar enough with those groups to easily rule them out as the rebels' mysterious benefactors. Both hated the Brotherhood, but they had no connection with the MLA and little love for Wellstone. The mutants were especially stubborn in their refusal to help anyone but themselves. It had taken a lot of effort on his part to even get an audience with their leader some years ago.
Over an hour had passed when they finally decided to call an end to the meeting. Now that they were well acquainted, they would be able to meet one another in the future with more ease. Gregory's family knew where to find Walter and even what parts of the eastern districts to go to and what words to use if they wanted to ask for Max or her daughter. When the call was given for everyone to leave, Sally clapped her hands together and gave a cheerful "Happy Halloween!" and the amused assembly responded in kind. The corners of Gregory's lips twitched upward. It was a bright note to end on.
As the others got up and started to shuffle on out to the hallway, Max stood up and waved Gregory over to her. She looked happy, even grateful. "I had a good feeling about you, Mr. Thatch. Even disregarding the stories. And maybe I'm wrong and you're just a crazy person, but you honestly do seem to know what you're doing."
"I've been at this for a very long time."
"So have I. It's just... Never mind." She shook her head and chuckled. "I'll just say that I respect your confidence and leave it at that. It's reassuring to work alongside people who actually have hope."
There were lots of words to describe how he felt about the Brotherhood situation: Hatred. Rage. Vengefulness. Too many people were going to die for him to call his feelings something sweet like 'hope'. Still, he accepted the compliment, even if it did make him feel somewhat guilty. "We've got a long road ahead," he said. "But we're already on the right track to win. The Brotherhood has no idea what's coming."
She nodded, oblivious to his rueful thoughts. "I kept quiet before, because of the General and because I didn't know you yet, but you might as well know that my real name is Julie Gillard."
"I take it your daughter and the other one's names were fake too."
"Walter really is just Walter. The man has always been a little too full of himself to go by anything else. But my daughter's real name isn't Sally, you're right. It's Sarah Jane."
Gregory nodded. He didn't feel much need to know their real names, but he appreciated the woman's trust nonetheless. "If that's all, Miss Gillard."
"Not quite." She smiled. "I think it would be good for you to meet our host."
They allowed the others to take the elevator back down to the basement and the hidden passages down below, then got in and pressed the second unlabeled button from the bottom. They rode downward in silence, and when the doors opened, they found themselves facing what looked like just a small, empty room with a stairwell beside the elevator and a keypad on the far wall. "Just knock on the wall," Julie told him. "Three times."
Gregory walked forward to the wall and gave it three raps with his knuckles. A few moments passed, and then he heard a low mechanical click, followed by the wall itself starting to shift forward. Just as the elevator doors closed behind them, a section of the wall opened up in front of them, revealing a cozy office with a big wooden desk at the back and an attractive, dark-skinned woman sitting behind it. After a moment, Gregory recognized the well-made costume she wore as a detective from the old world comics. A tentative smile played across her lips. "I suppose this means things went well."
"Very well," Julie answered from behind him. She walked up to his side as he entered the secret room. "We've got some new friends and have made some new plans. Mostly thanks to this man."
"Exciting news all around." As they sat the woman's eyes locked onto Gregory, looking him up and down before lingering on his face as she spoke. "Is there anything you'll need from me?"
Gregory regarded the woman. Even if she were not the owner of a large building with working elevators, it would have been obvious that she was upper class. "She never told me your name."
"Clara," she said. "And yours?"
Her eyebrows arched and she said, "My my, new friends indeed. I'd love to hear more of this plan you've concocted, but I think it better we keep a lid on that. But if you need a place to stay or additional funding, simply say the word."
"I will, thank you."
"Anything new from downstairs?" Julie asked.
"Maybe. Are either of you connected to a strip club in Pennway called the Inglenook?"
"It's owned by a friend, yes."
"The daughter of the Van Silvers, the movie theater family, works there. Apparently she's been speaking out against the Brotherhood. I had one of my employees advise her against doing that, but I worry about the scrutiny it might bring on the place. Your friend would be advised to fire her, I think. Anything more drastic would only arouse suspicion."
"I'll tell him," Julie said. "We don't need that kind of attention."
"Is there any chance the girl could be useful to us?" Gregory asked.
"Possibly. I didn't ask the man I sent because he's not involved in this side of things. I would prefer your friend handle that. Connecting me to her would only endanger both of us."
"Of course," Julie agreed. "We'll take care of it. Thank you for looking into this."
"Don't thank me yet, because there's something I need. I have a plan in motion but it needs a little kick to move it along. I assume you were the one behind that shootout in Forgotten Homes, Mr. Thatch?"
Gregory was surprised that as one of Big Max's people, Clara did not already know the answer to that. Information in their group must have been heavily compartmentalized. "Yes," he replied, his curiosity piqued. "That was me."
"I need something to happen in the Pennway District. Nothing so large. In fact, I would prefer it if there's questions about whether it was rebel activity at all. A building burning down, or an explosion that could simply be an accident. Just enough to make the Brotherhood think your activities could expand into Wellstone proper. Is that something you can do?"
"I could. But I'd like to know why."
Clara glanced at Julie, who seemed to give Clara a look he couldn't see, judging by her small nod. When she looked back to Gregory her smile and cheery demeanor had fallen away like a discarded dress. "I've been cultivating a friendship with General Stillwell for several years now."
Stillwell? Gregory could hardly hide his surprise at hearing the name of his old commander. He had long known that the man retired to Wellstone, but his location had been a well-kept secret. He didn't interrupt, however, and allowed Clara to continue.
"Between his illness and your activities, I believe the Paladin Lord will want to move Stillwell somewhere safer and more comfortable. He apparently idolizes the man. I've already told him I would gladly take the General in. I hope that whatever you do will give Ogawa the final push to move Stillwell in here. But I must stress it needs to be small, otherwise he'll move the General into their fort or send him to Chicago."
"He wouldn't make it to Chicago," Gregory promised. "But we'll be careful. This isn't an opportunity I want to pass up. Does Stillwell have many friends? Visitors?"
"Before the Paladin Lord arrived he made regular visits to the Artistes, and to here. Age and the Paladin Lord's protectiveness has kept him confined to the house in recent weeks. I was able to visit him once but it required scheduling my visit in advance. I know a few other Brotherhood veterans have visited him as well."
"If he moves here, we'll be able to find out if it's anyone noteworthy. But they won't relocate him without protection," Gregory noted. "You'll have Knights hanging around this place day and night."
"They won't be a problem, so long as you make sure the various elements of this rebellion know the General is off limits. The last thing we need is for him to become a martyr."
"Of course. There's nothing to be gained by killing an old man." No matter how much I'd like to. "My people know better."
"And I'll make sure mine do too," Julie said.
"Thank you both," Clara said. "Now, I should probably get back to my party. Is there anything either of you need before I do?"
Julie looked to Gregory, and he shook his head and replied, "No, but it was good to meet you, Clara."
"And you as well, Gregory. Good luck to both of you. I expect we'll need plenty of that in the weeks ahead."