The Apprentice, epilogue

by Chicago

Disclaimers and other information in "part 0"

She stepped into the elevator and let the doors close her in alone. She hit the button for the 6th floor and stepped back, raising her fingers to the still warm from the laminator ID badge clipped to the lapel of her sensible suit.

She spent a moment getting familiar with the picture and the name. Laura Grey, 5'10", 150 pounds, hair: brown, eyes: brown. Respectably non-descript, not quite mousy. The glasses really did serve to obscure her face, or make her less recognizable to those who might be able to see past the dyed hair and subdued style. Frames just enough out of style to imply someone too busy to care about such things rather than too out of touch to notice. It was a look that could be turned to whatever purpose she needed it for.

She left off her inspection of her ID as she felt the elevator hiccup to a stop. The doors opened, and she moved with confidence down the hall, drawing on memorized floor plans to lead her to her destination without having to ask directions. She exchanged nods with the few people she passed, then entered the outer office of the corner suite. "I'm here to see the director," she announced to the secretary. "I'm Laura Grey."

The secretary's eyes went to her ID badge, then to her face. "I'll let him know you're here," he stated. "Please have a seat."

Grey nodded once, perfunctory yet pleasant, and settled into one of the upholstered chairs set along one wall. It was a good arrangement - comfortable enough for those who were visiting, just institutional enough to make agents awaiting disciplinary meetings to squirm.

It was less than a minute before the secretary emerged from the inner office, the director immediately behind him. "Ms. Grey," he greeted.

She stood and met his appraising gaze, fully aware that the eyes invisible in his skeletal countenance were studying her transformation. He nodded once in what she took as approval. "Come in."

She accepted the invitation, entering his office ahead of him and waiting as he closed the door and crossed back to his desk. "Have a seat."

She did so, sitting properly in the indicated chair and crossing her legs at the ankles demurely. "I won't work in Gotham," she stated without preamble.

Mr. Bones laughed. "I see your reputation for directness is earned." He paused to light a cigarette. "I have no intention of using you in Gotham. Given your previous high profile position there, it would be foolish to risk your cover."

She gave him a thin lipped smile, covering her reaction to his words. "Forgive me, Director, but government agencies are not always renowned for their wisdom."

He ashed his cigarette, and she wished his features were visible to her. The impassive skull was impossible to read. "Which is why we have need of you," he said, histone giving no hint of offense at her comment.

She shifted in her seat, leaning forward a little. "The file you sent me mentioned a case in Arkham."

He waved that off. "Our field agents are working on that little snafu. You are familiar with Checkmate?"

She gave one curt nod, not offering the source of her knowledge nor its depth.

He gestured widely at the air, his cigarette gracing the movement with a thin swirl of smoke. "As you say, government agencies are not renowned for their wisdom. And it seems that Checkmate has developed an unwise obsession with Gotham's guardian."

She had gathered that from the file. So far, Bones had given her nothing new. "I fail to see what this has to do with me."

Mr. Bones chuckled. "The DEO has... dealings... with Checkmate. Oblique ones, to be sure, but they do employ metas. Metas who know where their loyalties lie." He paused significantly. "We do not appreciate other agencies muddling on our turf."

"You should take that up with the Pentagon."

He sat back, appearing to consider her for a moment, then took a deep drag from his cigarette. He let the smoke stream slowly from his mouth. "We have reason to suspect that the Pentagon is involved in Checkmate's obsession."

She nodded. She knew the Pentagon, well enough to know that this stank of a higher up's meddling. "I begin to see your interest in me. Although I should warn you my profile in DC is not that much lower than it is in Gotham."

He nodded, taking another quick drag and stabbing out his cigarette in the ashtray on his desk. "I don't want you in DC. They already are wise to our agents there, and it is in our interest to pretend we don't know that."

"Sound strategy."

"My strategy." She couldn't decide if it was pride or warning in his voice. "Specifically so I could bring aboard someone with your... qualifications."

She raised an eyebrow. "The world is full of insubordinate government agents turned bodyguards," she pointed out.

"Not ones who have faced Scarecrow and Harvey Dent. Or have chased Superman through the White House."

"You're thorough."

"We've had an eye on you."

She decided to let that slide. "So you want me to-?"

"You read the file, Ms. Grey. I imagine you have a theory."

"Your file was short on details, Director. Understandable given I was not yet in your employ when you sent it to me."

He stood up and crossed to the windows overlooking the street, then touched a button on the wall. The curtains closed and a multi-bank wall of monitor rose from the floor. "You're in my employ now. The large central monitor flared to life, showing a man with a steel jaw sitting in what was obviously a containment cell. "This is Dr. Trapps. The mastermind behind the destruction of the Justice Experience decades ago."

She nodded, waiting.

"He broke out a couple of years ago, intent on completing the eradication of that team. He was caught by a joint effort of the DEO and the Martian Manhunter. At that time, the Martian melded Trapps consciousness with that of another meta, a creature that calls herself Bette Noir." A side screen cleared to show a frightening lump of a being, barely recognizable as human. "A favor for her, as you can see, although this body you see was destroyed by Cadmus labs." Mr. Bones crossed back to his desk.

"We recently had reason to do a mindscan of the Doctor, and we made an interesting discovery. Bette Noir is no longer tied to him."

"So where is she?"

"She cannot live without a host body, but where she has gone?" He reached for another cigarette. "Someone went to great trouble, Ms. Grey, of planting a telepathic suggestion in Dr. Trapps mind that Noir was still there."

"Someone in Checkmate, you assume."

"Or directing Checkmate." He paused to allow the implications to sink in. "As I said, Ms. Grey, we do not appreciate other agencies muddling in DEO affairs."

"And you've consulted Martian Manhunter."

Once again she wished she could read his features as he took a moment to light his cigarette. "After an... unfortunate... action by one of our agents, we have found the Martian distinctly less cooperative than he has been in the past. I felt it best not to include him in this investigation."

The news conference, she remembered, a couple years back. The DEO had revealed a sizable number of the Martian Manhunter's alter egos. The fallout had not been pretty.

"I have reason to suspect that the disappearance of Bette Noir and the move by Checkmate to place an operative with Batman's enemies are part of a much larger plot. A plot that goes to some of the highest levels of our government." He touched a button on his desk, and the monitors winked off.

"The highest levels," she repeated.

She felt Mr. Bones eyes on her, gauging her. "Yes." He stood and crossed back to the windows, but he did not yet open the curtains. "It is no secret that the current administration has no love lost for the meta community. It would be wise of us to figure out if there are operations designed to undercut our position within the nation's security."

Doublespeak, she recognized, but she got it. And although her own relationship to the meta community was far from simple, she was not oblivious to the implications of systemic change. The DEO might well be a devil in the works, but the devil you knew was always a safer challenge than what might lurk within Checkmate's plans.

"Your official designation is facilities inspector." He hit the button on the wall that controlled the curtains and returned to his desk. "We have several training and containment facilities scattered throughout the United States, as well as internationally. You won't, by the way, be looking at international sites. We did not disappear your real identity, and the heightened security at places like the Slab would make you before you could do your job."

"I understand." As much as she wanted some distance from her previous life, she was not willing to sacrifice it. If nothing else, she owed it to Bruce Wayne to be traceable. Not that the DEO knew - or ever would know - her reasons.

Mr. Bones opened his desk drawer and pulled out a thick dossier. "Your credentials are here, along with plane tickets for the first four stops on your itinerary. Your first three stops will be routine inspections where we know the facilities are clean, so you can get a feel for normal operations. Although," he glanced over the top sheet of paper in the dossier, "listen to your instincts. You should report anything you find amiss."

"I'll do my job."

"Good." He reached into a second desk drawer and came out with a digital phone. "A direct uplink to my desk is programmed into this phone - scrambled, of course. You can use it for normal calls; the number for the inspectorate is also programmed in for regular reports. You will physically report back to my office on a monthly basis - standard operating procedure for employees with less than a year of service."

There was an ironic twist to his words, and she wondered if he was appreciating his own cleverness in setting up an inbuilt cover for agents he wanted to keep close.

He set the phone on top of the dossier and slid the entire stack across his desk to her. "Welcome aboard, Ms. Grey."

"Thank you, Director." She picked up the dossier and the phone, opening her jacket to clip the latter onto the waistband of her skirt and then depositing the files in her briefcase. "I'll be in touch."

"I count on it," he replied, swiveling his chair toward the view outside in a gesture of dismissal.

She looked at him for a moment, then Laura Grey, nee Sasha Bordeaux, picked up her briefcase and headed back the way she had come.

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