The next few days passed in a whirl for Taylor. He began to truly understand exactly what he had done. Worse, his courses grew progressively harder, as if the strain were putting pressure on his brain, making it sluggish. Crypto went better than the other classes but even Tate remarked at how Taylor didn't seem as bold and confident in his work as he had prior. The man warned Taylor he would need that boldness at CryptoCon and had better find it again.
By the end of Wednesday's school day Taylor felt wrung out and exhausted. His home life wasn't helping as avoiding his mother and the guilt he had when looking at her was just compounding, becoming a heavier burden every day. His mother seemed confused by his withdrawal, hurt. When she tried to question him and he just deflected and wandered off. She even set his father - who was rarely home now as he took on even more overtime in the hopes of keeping the family's finances afloat while June looked for work elsewhere - on Taylor.
Taylor managed to assure Dan Zachary nothing was wrong and his tired father accepted it. But June wasn't convinced, nor did she stop prying. Even William was aware of Taylor's behavior and his questions were more annoying that any others.
“Why are you being a sad-face?“ William would ask. “Mom? Why is Taylor so sad?“
“Taylor? You wanna play with my Gandalf?“ William held up his favorite action figure to Taylor, the one toy he never wanted to share with anyone. Taylor sighed and left the room.
Everything was his fault and he couldn't explain it to anyone, couldn't confide in anyone for fear of their reactions. Or fear of being turned over to authorities. And the thought of his Mom finding out he had cost her the job at Willow Prep, that was just more than he wanted to bear. Ever.
All Wednesday night Taylor worried over the next day, over the coming party at Izzy's. He wanted to impress the girl so bad he could taste it, but he was also afraid of looking foolish. Much to his surprise, and pleasure, after questioning Winston the day before Taylor learned Parker would almost certainly not be there. Winston had been surprised Taylor even asked.
“Um. Yeah. No way, T. Isabel doesn't like Parker at all.“ Winston had said. What does Izzy's grandmother have to do with who comes to her party? Taylor hadn't asked though. Thursday passed in a blur. The only troubling aspect of the day was the return of Agent Alexander, this time alone.
She talked with Tate for some time and called both Parker and Philomena individually into Tate's office. Parker stayed for some time but Philomena came back out almost as soon as she entered. Taylor assumed Philomena refused the interview. Parker came out looking ashen faced. He leaned over to whisper with Lil J, concern all over his face, though Taylor only caught brief glimpses, not wanting the other boy to see him looking.
Winston was absent altogether that Wednesday but Taylor hardly paid it much mind. He warred within himself, pleased Parker was clearly under suspicion now, upset Philomena had somehow avoided it and nervous it could still all lead back to himself. Not to mention his mother was having no luck putting together a resume, she was too dispirited to even really try. And Taylor saw how hurt she was he had shut her out, how confused she was, but he couldn't bear to change it, yet.
After school Taylor put on his most New York outfit, a pair of pin-striped slacks from a thrift store, an old ratty New Kids on the Block t-shirt from his mom's teenage concert going days and a pair of solid navy Saucony sneaks, his Christmas present from the year before. Izzy's email had said informal, Taylor only hoped he didn't make a fool of himself. With everything else going on in his head he would have fallen to pieces if he had to add being shamed in front of Izzy Chatham to the list.
So it was no surprise when Taylor stood outside of the address Izzy had sent, staring up at Chatham House, too nervous to walk up and announce himself. He knew he was going to go forward, to back out now was not an option. But he couldn't make himself take the step. Almost five minutes - of standing there, stilled, staring at the mansion across the street from Willow Prep - passed before Taylor finally took a huge, deep breath and stepped towards the building.
The mansion was cordoned off from the street by a shoulder high fence of wrought iron, or black steel, it was hard to be sure, not ornate like the one around Willow Prep, but angular and sculptural. It was all funny angles and sinuous curves, distinctly modern looking. A little rectangular opening directly in front of a large seven-foot-tall gleaming steel door was the only break in the fence. At the door he saw there was no handle, just a small access panel on the side with a scrolling line of instructions.
Taylor dialed the #9999.
“Yes?“ a very loud, older woman's voice said. She sounded confused. Taylor blinked at the panel.
“I'm Taylor Zachary?“ Taylor didn't mean it as a question, even though it came out like one. “I'm here for Iz... Isadore's party?“
Static came over the intercom for almost a full minute then the same voice came back on. “Yes?“
Taylor sighed and resisted the urge to kick the door. “I'm... He started to say it all again but a buzzing sounded and the large steel door click, swung open and inward. Taylor took his hundredth deep breath of the past hour and went inside.
“You must be Taylor Zachary.“ a steel-voice woman said. She stomped into the foyer Taylor had just entered, followed by a doddering older woman, slightly stooped but with a very jovial, almost youthful expression. Taylor couldn't really put an age to the steel-voiced woman, she was definitely older than his mother, maybe even his grandmother when she had been alive. She managed to be mostly free of wrinkles and the severe line of her hair just below her ears spoke more of a fashion mogul than an elderly woman. Her hands did have some wrinkles and a few, very small brown spots. The other, obviously older woman looked around seventy, her face had plenty of wrinkles, not helped by the makeup she wore and though she was-slightly-stooped but she actually looked at the other woman and giggled like a kid. If it annoyed the steel-voiced woman she didn't let on in any manner Taylor could see.
“Welcome to Chatham House, Mr. Zachary. I am Sue-Ann. This is Mrs. Jones. The others are in the HQ room, if you'll follow us?“
Taylor followed. As he walked he was overwhelmed by the austere grandeur of the place. It was a lot of open, empty space. What was there was opulent, floors a black and grey marble, walls covered in huge artworks, tables beneath topped by expensive-looking pieces of sculpture in every medium from wood to gold. They passed the cable and plank staircase and went to a large set of double doors nestle between two tables lining the walls. The only noise Taylor heard as he approached the door was the squishing of Mrs. Jones's sensible shoes and the clack of Sue-Ann's hard ones against the hard floor.
The room inside the opened double doors was far less imposing than the grand foyer. It was large and spacious, crammed full of overstuffed sofas upholstered in fabrics and patterns which shouted teenager in a way nothing else in the house so far had. Fluffy, squishy armchairs and even polka-dotted beanbags lined some-of the walls. Electronic equipment took up the rest of the space. Computers in five separate workstations, three huge flat screen television monitors on the walls, printers, scanners, and speakers dotted the room as well. Two sets of doors broke up the walls, the pair Taylor had entered through and another set almost opposite; smaller, less ornate, and not as tall, but still quite elegant. Not at all fitting with the decor of the room, rather they fit the look of the area outside.
Five people were in the room besides Taylor and the two women who had arrived with him. Taylor felt his heart jump when Izzy Chatham stood up from a sofa. His jaw dropped when he saw who else was in the room. Lou. Winston. Lou who had interceded in the almost fight between Taylor and Parker and Lil J. But his attention was almost immediately pulled away towards Winston. Taylor's only friend at Willow Prep smiled, of course, but he looked different.
He no longer looked a merely handsome, prep school computer nerd. He wore a well-fitting black button down shirt and some sleek slacks, his hair was sculpted and swept back. He looked... well, cool. Standing next to him was a short, dark girl with multicolored hair twisted up into a crazy shape atop her small head. She wore a pair of asymmetrical eyeglasses and a flowing dress with heavy boots. Taylor didn't know her name, but he knew she was in Tate's second hour, as he had seen her entering the classroom at times as he left. The fifth person was another older woman, but less age-identifiable than Sue-Ann. This woman was smooth cheeked, tall, svelte, elegant, She matched the house perfectly. Her hair was very pale, but unlike Sue-Ann's was not gray, rather the pale of a very light blond. She wore a slim-cut pant-suit in a vibrant red color. All five sets of eyes were trained on Taylor, none but Winston smiled.
Taylor stopped moving forward under all those eyes, unsure what he should do. This did not feel like a party at all. Still Izzy was here and Parker wasn't. With Winston around, maybe it wouldn't be too bad. Taylor swallowed hard and opened his mouth to ask when the party would start, when would the other people arrive. The elegant woman spoke.
“Come join us, Mr. Zachary.“ her voice was chiming and high, youthful. But she had a measured cadence which spoke of sternness and solemnity. Taylor moved over to the sofa and everyone sat down. He was next to Winston on the same sofa as Izzy, facing the small dark girl and Lou with Winston seated between him and Izzy. Sue-Ann sat in a chair next to the other older woman and Mrs. Jones moved about the room randomly straightening things and muttering under her breath. Taylor paid her no mind, his thoughts spun, confused. His pulse ran fast as he inhaled the cinnamon-y sweet scent of what he assumed was Izzy's perfume.
“I have seen you, of course, but we have not yet met. My name is Isabel Chatham.“ the elegant woman said. Suddenly it clicked. This was Izzy's grandmother, chairwoman of the committee which awarded his scholarship. His mother had met with her once but Taylor had not, though now he knew who she was she was oddly familiar. Winston whispered, “Good digs, eh, old boy?“ The other boy chuckled and elbowed Taylor lightly.
Isabel smiled, but it did not reach her eyes.
Izzy said, “I'm very pleased you came Taylor.“ She smiled softly. Taylor's tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. Her hair was pulled back by a blue headband and she wore pink lipstick which made her already full lips fuller. Taylor watched those lips move as she spoke. “This is Lou Rodriguez.“ Lou remained as impassive as she had from the moment Taylor first saw her. But I already know her. The small dark girl looked almost like she wanted bounce up and hug everyone. “And this is Myra Smith...“ Before Izzy could say anything further the girl blurted out in a pitchy and high voice "Myth!“ Winston snickered and Isabel's mouth twitched at the corners. Izzy sighed. “Yes. Right. Myth.“
“Not the party you were expecting, eh?“ Winston said. The boy's manner and bearing were different here. I wonder why?
Silence reigned for a moment. Taylor looked out the corner of his eyes at everyone, tried not to be caught staring.
“So, Taylor. You're probably wondering why you're here.“ Izzy Chatham said.
He had been wondering that. Before. But when she spoke all he wondered was just how rich she must be to live in a place like this. She continued, “The four of us belong to... a club. Of sorts. And well... we were interested in having you join us.“
Taylor's jaw dropped uncontrollably. A club? This is about joining some school club? He didn't even try to keep the disappointed look from his face. He had expected something more, something grander, like a real party. But his mind worked furiously. What kind of club could possibly involve these four and the two older women? And why here and not at school? Something in the cast of their faces told him he was missing something. Curiosity more than anything else moved him to action. He slid nearer to the edge of the sofa and said, "Um. What kind of club?“
Izzy laughed, a short little chirp. Taylor blushed. The older women both leaned back in their high-backed chairs, which Taylor only noticed now didn't fit the room at all. They fit the style of the foyer and the ladies themselves, but not this room. The third, doddering woman was gone, but Taylor hadn't seen her leave.
“Well, that's not an easy question to answer, Taylor.“ Izzy said. Sidelong glances were exchanged between Isabel, Izzy and Sue-Ann. Finally, Sue-Ann turned nodded abruptly at Izzy.
“It might be better to tell you why we need you, first.“ Izzy said. Winston was still between himself and Izzy. His friend grinned as Izzy spoke, his eyebrows jumping.
“Yeah, T.“ Winston said, “You have mad skills and...“ the teen remembered he had interrupted Izzy and closed his mouth with an insolent shrug. Izzy glared but continued, “We know you're a hacker Taylor. We need you to be our hacker. We are the Willow Society.“ She stressed the last two words, with clear importance. “Our job is to manage the resources of the Society. Ensure they are allocated properly.“
Taylor understood the words, but the whole didn't make much sense. What resources? What is she talking about? She was clearly trying to say something but at the same time trying avoid saying something. It was frustrating. Taylor was on the verge of telling her no, just to be contrary when Isabel spoke up.
“We have no choice.“ Isabel said in her crystalline tones. “Tell him, Izzy.“ Isabel's jaw was set - determined and maybe angry. Izzy took a deep breath.
“OK. We are...“ Izzy stumbled. “Spies.“
Taylor was a little dizzy suddenly. Spies? Is this a joke? Is Parker behind this? He couldn't make heads or tails of what was going on. The faces around him all spoke of seriousness, even Winston's grinning one. It almost made him sick, like he might vomit or maybe even pass out. He took a few deep breaths and the feeling grudgingly passed. Winston was encouraging Taylor, or trying to, his eyebrows popping up and down. The two older women Taylor couldn't read, aside from the stern seriousness, but he noticed Isabel gently tapping a high-heel clad foot on the hardwood floor while Sue-Ann did the same with her index finger on the wooden armrest of her chair. Like two metronomes keeping similar time. But their faces remained implacable.
“You're screwing with me, right?“ Taylor asked. Am I being made fun of? Is the whole thing really some kind of prank orchestrated by Parker, using his girlfriend as a tool? Could Winston be a part of it? Has Winston been playing me all along... trying to get close to me? ...to set me up for another humiliation?
The moment passed. Taylor discarded such thoughts. None of these people seemed fake, it felt serious. Taylor moved away from Winston until he pressed hard against the soft armrest of the sofa.
“I don't know what this is really about, but I'm not gonna get dumped on again.“ The smile on Winston's face slipped, but recovered quickly, his eyebrows remained arched. Izzy's lips pursed.
“T, old boy. This isn't a joke.“ Winston said through his smile. Taylor thought bitterly: doesn't it hurt to smile all the time? Geez. It's plain stupid to think this is a joke, what kind of women like Isabel and Sue-Ann would agree to something like that? Surely they were too old for such teenage Mean Girl-ness. Isabel raised a hand as her granddaughter started to speak.
“You don't believe. That is understandable, Taylor.“ Isabel said. Her voice was so stately Taylor fidgeted as she spoke to him, as though he were under the gaze of the Queen of England. “What could three middle-aged women and four prep school kids possibly be doing calling themselves, spies? 'It must be nonsense,' you are saying to yourself. Taylor Zachary, it is not. Sue-Ann and I created the Willow Society and we set Izzy to finding teens like yourself to join it. Of course, it has become something neither of us really foresaw. Still, that need not be a bad thing. What you should know right now, Taylor, is simple: we are aware of what you can do and we require your help. You can choose to work with us and we will reward you, or you can choose not to and well, perhaps Willow Prep is not the place for you, or your mother.“
Is it my imagination or did Lou just snort to herself?
Taylor blinked, focused on Isabel. Was she saying she had been behind his mother losing her job? Her and not Parker or the Behrstables? Taylor reeled. Winston was only half-smiling now, his eyes gone wide. Is Isabel threatening me? Will she really take back my scholarship if I refuse to play along with whatever game these people are playing?
Isabel seemed to grasp some of what went through Taylor's mind. She inclined her head at him. “No, Taylor, we had nothing to do with your mother being fired. But we can see to it she is given her job back, or another better one found for her. And we will not take your scholarship from you whatever you choose. I merely mean to suggest if you would pass this opportunity by then perhaps a school as challenging and bold as Willow Prep is not the best place for you.”
Isabel's icy eyes held a challenge.
Sweat ran down his back. “You can get my mom her job back?“ he croaked. Isabel and Sue-Ann nodded, if slowly. “Then I'm in. Whatever it takes.“ It's my fault she lost the job. I owe this to her. Isabel smiled broadly: a cold, yet charming smile.
“Well, then I would suggest you all begin to show Taylor the ropes.“ Sue-Ann said, “Isabel and I will return later.“ Almost like magic both women were gone, the hard knocks of their heels against the floor fading quickly.
“How did you I'm a hacker?“ Taylor asked before anyone could say anything. Winston blushed. Izzy's eyes darted to Lou. Myth snickered. “Or did you just assume?“ Taylor went through the things he and Winston had spoken of and while he had hinted at stuff, he had never come out and said it. Not even close.
“No assumptions, old man.“ Winston said, laughing. “I was at the school Friday night. I saw you.“ Taylor's jaw dropped. All those strange sounds made sense, in a way, even if they still seemed impossible.”The sneakers!” Taylor said.
“You heard me? Well done, old man, well done!” Winston clapped Taylor playfully on the shoulder.
“But how? How did you know?“ Taylor said.
“Heh. Well, it's what I do. I've got a bit of an obsession with letting myself into places I'm not supposed to be.“ He snickered. “I... happened to be trying to get into Willow Prep myself last Friday night.“ His smile went away and it made Taylor sit up straight. “Someone has been using the school's IP addresses to hack serious military hardware. I was hoping to find out who, but when I saw you there... well. First I thought it was you accessing the military servers. I mean this stuff only started since you got to the school.“ Winston shrugged, as if to say, “sorry, T.“ He continued, “But after you left, I peeked at what you had done. And I realized it couldn't have been you.“
Taylor's eyes got big. If Winston had seen what Taylor had done he would have assumed the whole NSA to-do was Taylor. This isn't making sense... unless? Unless Winston hadn't been able to find out exactly what Taylor had done.
“What, exactly, did you see me do?“ Taylor asked.
Winston said, “You hacked Ballard's computer... changed the access logs so it wouldn't show your mother's access card had been used. You hacked Parker and Philomena's Willow Prep user accounts and set background zombie processes to access restricted government servers.“
Taylor sighed, maybe Winston had been able to find it. Myth's eyes twinkled with knowledge.
“But not the server we're talking about.“ Winston. It clicked, and Taylor remembered the stuff he had seen on Philomena's computer, the stuff she had gathered from obviously spying on Tate.
“Tate!“ Taylor blurted out.
That got their attention. Myth looked confused and intrigued, she moved forward to the edge of the sofa. Winston's eyes had lit up with excitement. Izzy just looked confused. Lou implacable, unmoved. Taylor clamped a hand over his mouth. He really hadn't wanted to give Tate away.
“What do you mean, what about Tate?“ Izzy said. Something in the tone of her voice implied she was already drawing mental connections of her own.
“It's just... well. Philomena is spying on Tate. She set a keylogger on his machine and a document catcher. Standard packet mirroring. She had a folder of files Tate has viewed, most of them marked classified, top secret, etc. She's seeing everything he does! I don't know why. But a lot of it was stuff I can't understand how a high school computer teacher would have... you know. Legally. I know he's former NSA, but they generally restrict clearance after an agent departs.“
Winston tapped his lips thoughtfully, his ever present smile gone. Myth clapped excitedly and Lou stared hard at Izzy, who looked at the hardwood floors her mouth moving silently as she talked to herself. Taylor, angry he had revealed what he hadn't wanted to reveal, growled. “OK, what did you mean by spies? I mean you guys are just teenagers. You're not NSA agents. CIA assets. This isn't a James Bond movie, it's New York City.” He implied the whole thing was ridiculous. Izzy blinked rapidly at him. The others all looked at her, as if this were hers to explain. Whatever this “club” is, Izzy is the titular leader. Is this real?
“It's complicated. We're not NSA or CIA. We're teenagers. Not secret agents. We spy on corporations. On institutions. Nothing dangerous. We protect Isabel and Sue-Ann's assets, their patents and investments.“ None of that sounded like a lie, but it didn't sound like the whole truth either.
“Then why not just, you know, interview adults? Why do they trust teenagers with that?“ Taylor asked. The others adopted similar bemused expressions all around, as if they had all asked the same question already.
“Isabel and Sue-Ann don't trust many people. Other than that... I can't answer, I don't know everything they think. They started The Willow Society. Brought me in and pointed me in a direction. The scholarship was my idea, it's a recruitment tool, you know, to find the best kids out there, bring them here and see if they'll fit.“ She sounded proud, even smug. Still Taylor had an itch between his shoulder blades. Something's not right.
“Still. Seems weird.“ He looked from face to face, no one smiled. Everyone was on edge, waiting for reso1ution between Izzy and Taylor. Izzy made an impatient noise.
“It is weird.“ She shrugged. "You're still in, right?“
“Yeah, why not. But why do you need me? Winston is good enough to track me and I'd bet she is too" Taylor said, inclining his head towards Myth who beamed at him. Taylor had noticed her eyes when he and Winston had spoken about what Taylor had done the night he sneaked into the school. She understood it all.
“Because we have a problem...“ Winston answered, frowned. Taylor was put: off for the moment. Have I ever seen Winston frown before? “that I can't fix. Someone is attacking our resources. Hard. Someone better than I am.“ Winston said it without sounding wounded or bitter, cold fact. Something Taylor liked about him: he rarely boasted.
“That's it? I stop these attacks and my mom gets her job back? What do I do after that? Sit here and surf the web? Watch TV?“
“Your mom gets her job back, that's certain. If you stop the attacks, we'll go from there. It's not a lot, I mean. We don't have meetings or a schedule. We get assignments from Isabel and Sue-Ann and we do them.“ Izzy said, making it sound normal, almost blasé.
“When do I start?“ Taylor asked.
“Tomorrow after school.“ Izzy said.
Taylor was already running through lies he would need to tell his Mom so he could be here for several hours after school without her investigating.
Winston clapped him on the shoulder. “Excellent, old man. You'll give 'em the old what for!”