A week before the season began, Taub found a note taped to his locker.
"Talk to Thirteen."
Taub stared at the paper for a moment, flipped it over. There was nothing else written on it - no directions, no name. There was no signature either, but he recognized House's handwriting from the plays sketched out on the whiteboard during team meetings.
He looked at it a moment longer. Thirteen.
Foreman wore jersey number eight, in a move Taub figured was supposed to remind everyone of the left handed Steve Young in his Hall of Fame playing days. Foreman's backups wore numbers eleven and fifteen. House had assigned Taub number five. Taub still wasn't sure if House remembered that had been his number back in college, back when his future was still something exciting.
No one wore the number thirteen. Taub was pretty sure he'd never known any player with that number. Every athlete he'd ever known was superstitious - too many random chances out there for a bad hit at the wrong angle, or a gust of wind that could blow the ball just beyond a receiver's fingertips.
He double checked the player roster after practice, but saw no one assigned to that number. He crumpled up the paper and tossed it in the bottom of his bag. If it was important, he'd get another note, maybe one with real information.
Three days later, Chase was leaning against Taub's locker.
"House wants me to make sure you go talk to Thirteen."
"Be glad to, but, uh-" Taub said, "who, exactly, is Thirteen?"
"You said you talked to her your first day."
"Young? Good looking? Thin? Has an office up on the administration level near House?"
"Head of public relations," Chase said. "She probably wants to give you the standard talk on what we don't talk about."
Taub motioned Chase aside, then opened his locker. PR. Just someone to sweet talk the sports reporters and try to put a shine on every crappy game. "I'll stop in after practice."
Chase shook his head. "House said to make sure you get up there now."
"What's the rush?"
Chase shrugged. Taub tossed his bag in the locker and closed it again. Might as well get it over with, he thought, and headed toward the door. Chase followed him.
"Where are you going?" Taub asked.
"House said to make sure you get up there right away."
"You always do everything House tells you to do?"
"Not always," Chase said. "I just know when to pick my fights."
Taub stopped, turned toward him. "And I'm not worth picking a fight over?"
Chase didn't seem to notice the harder edge in Taub's voice. He even seemed to smile a bit, which annoyed Taub a little. "Not yet," he said, and hit the button for the elevator.
Taub didn't say anything else to him. Chase followed him into the main hallway upstairs, then past the sign pointing toward public relations. Taub heard House's voice on the other side of a door marked Remy Hadley.
Chase knocked once, then pushed the door open. He didn't bother going inside, just stayed in the hallway and closed the door behind Taub.
"Let them talk to Wilson," House was saying. "Wilson gives good quotes."
"Wilson gives great quotes. Believe me. I'm fully aware of that," said the woman on the other side of the desk. Thirteen, Taub thought. Or Remy. Or something. "But Wilson is not the head coach. You are, and Pat Jacobs wants to interview the head coach."
"So? I'm sure you can find some way to make it up to Pat." He leaned toward Taub and gave an exaggerated wink.
"You know. Sleep with him."
"Pat Jacobs is a woman."
"Pfft," House snorted. "As if that mattered to you."
She didn't react. "We're talking about 'Sports Illustrated' House. Possible cover story. I couldn't buy that kind of publicity if I blew the entire -" she leaned forward and gave her own wink, "budget."
House let a grin slip by for a split second before he shook his head again.
"I'm sure you'll figure out a way to get me out of it. After all, you don't know what I'll say. I might spend a full hour talking about Cuddy's ass. Besides," he said, and stood up. "You're busy with Taub now. I wouldn't want to keep you from the important business of prepping the new kicker for his media debut. Hey -" House paused at the door. "Why don't you have Pat Jacobs interview him? Even trade, right?"
"We're not done, House," she called out after him, but House walked out the door anyway, slamming the door behind him.
The woman - Thirteen, Hadley, whatever - flipped a distinct finger at the door and flopped back into her seat with an exaggerated sigh. Taub waited as she jammed one set of papers into a folder and slammed the folder into a desk drawer.
He looked around her office. There were a couple of photos on the wall of a tropical beach scene looking out at a blue sea and rock islands, some snapshots of two young parents and a baby that he guessed might be her, a team photo of Princeton during its few glory years. Directly behind her was a framed jersey. It was a small one, probably back from some Pop Warner league days, green with white trim and the number 13 stitched across the back.
"So," he said finally, "did you actually need to see me or was I just a convenient excuse for House to make his escape?"
She leaned back in his chair and looked up at him. "Both," she said. "Why didn't you stop by a couple of days ago?"
"I wasn't sure -" he paused for a moment, picking the right thing to say. If she didn't like him, it would be easy to slip a few of the wrong words to the right people and ruin his reputation in the press before the season even began. "I didn't know you needed to see me right away."
"I didn't, but just once it would be nice to see people take media relations seriously." She leaned forward and held out her hand. "I'm Thirteen, by the way."
Taub shook her hand. She must have seen the confusion on his face.
"House's idea of a joke," she said.
"And you go along with it?"
"I've been called worse." She glanced over at the jersey. "That was mine. I was a wide receiver when I was a kid, until I couldn't play any more."
Taub nodded. He had heard the occasional story of a girl fighting her way onto a special team on the rare small town high school team, but those were the exceptions. "No girl's team?" he asked.
"There were other ... complications," she said. "Besides, flag football is boring."
"So instead, you get into media relations where the players just ignore you."
"You can have a hell of a lot more influence on a team in upper management than you can in the stands." Thirteen opened another drawer and pulled out a file, then handed Taub some forms.
They were slightly differently worded than other ones he'd seen, but still familiar. The formal codes of how to conduct himself in front of the press, the locker room etiquette during post-game interviews and the list of authorized contacts. Alongside the rules were the fines he'd have to pay out for violating them. He wondered how much of Foreman's salary ended up going back to the front office each time he spouted off to complain about House to some columnist.
Taub tossed the papers back on her desk. He had practice to get to, and the opening game of the season was hanging over everyone's head. "Is that all?" he asked. "I've been through this before, you know."
"The last time you were interviewed was two years ago when Hanson was injured and you scored the Lions' only points of the entire game with two field goals," Thirteen said. She pulled another paper from the file - a photocopy of one of the Detroit newspapers' story on the game. "Quote, 'I was just doing my part.' Unquote." She blinked. "Yeah, you're a real professional."
Taub slouched back in his chair.
"Humor me. Let's run a few typical questions." She didn't wait for him to agree. "How are you finding the new team?"
Taub rolled his eyes, but played along. "They're a great bunch of guys."
"You had knee surgery two years ago. The leg still feeling good?"
"Feels great. Strong as ever."
"Any clashes with Foreman yet?"
Taub raised his eyebrows. It was a little more aggressive than the usual questions, but one he might hear from a writer looking for an edge to his story. He fell back to a comfortable cliche. "He's a good team leader."
"Really? He never seems to have much respect for the team." Taub wasn't sure if she was asking for herself or still playing a role.
"Sometimes being a leader means saying things other people won't," he said.
Thirteen leaned forward. "I hear there's something going on between House and Lisa Cuddy off the field."
"They're not going to ask that."
"You read anything about Tiger Woods in the past year?" Thirteen asked. "Of course they're going to ask that. No one just cares about the game anymore." She looked him in the eye. "Come on," she said. "You can tell me. You know the gossip."
Taub stared her down. "I don't care about the gossip. And it's none of my business."
Thirteen nodded, put the papers back in the file. "You'll do fine. Just stick to the truth as much as you can. That's always the best answer, and House would rather hear the truth than a cliche."
"And what if that makes the team look bad?"
"Let me deal with that," she said. "That's what I'm here for."
Taub headed for the door, but paused with his hand on the door knob.
"So," he said, "what's the truth about House and Cuddy?"
"The truth?" Thirteen shrugged. "It's none of my business."