At school the next day, Taylor found Winston waiting for him at the entrance gate. Winston wore his school blazer and his hair was flat against his head, his swagger from the night before muted. Back to normal. Except the swagger hadn't gone. Perhaps it had been there the whole time, just waiting for Taylor to see.
“Hey, T!“ Winston said, “You alright?“
“Yeah. I think so.“ Taylor responded.
“So.“ Winston leaned conspiratorially towards Taylor, “What do you think, old man?“ His eyes gleamed mischievously.
“About what?“ Taylor said coyly, snickering.
Winston goggled, elbowed Taylor playfully.
“It's a lot to digest, right?“ Winston said. “I joined up last year. I was able to keep up mostly, it's only been since the beginning of this school year it got to be too much. We started getting hacked by someone much better than me. Someone hardcore.“
“What about Izzy and Parker?“ Taylor, changed the subject, asked the question he had been lying awake the night before thinking about. Winston grinned insolently.
“You've got it bad, don't you, catdaddy?“ Winston said as they walked past the Behrstables, who as usual whispered softly to each other. “Well, Parker's not involved. We talked about it before we decided to ask you. Parker is very good, just not that good. Worse, well of us can stand him, except for Izzy.“
“So he doesn't know about the Willow Society?“ Taylor said
Winston looked scandalized and looked around to see if anyone had heard. “Man, T. Don't say that name! Ixnay, OK?“ He nodded when he appeared no one had heard them. The Behrstable twins came up and walked past, both of their noses in the air. Although Phaedra did steal a glance at Winston, a bare smile before resuming her haughty air, a mirror of Philomena's. Winston snickered.
“It's a secret, T. At least our part is, k? Got it?“ Taylor nodded.
“So yeah, Parker doesn't know about it.“
“Good.“ Taylor said.
“Yeah well, just be careful, OK T? She's....“ Winston said and stopped. Taylor's eyebrows went up.
“Couldn't tell you, old man. 'No accounting for taste' as the saying goes. It's just well, she's with Parker and he's a senior and I mean, has she even looked at you... like that? Why would waste your time? I know she's pretty, but seriously, she's like blank space. You'll see.“ Winston said.
Taylor couldn't really see what the other boy was talking about. Izzy was the most beautiful and interesting girl he had ever met. As if thinking, or talking of him summoned him, Parker strode down the hallway, Lil J in tow. He saw Taylor just before entering Tate's classroom, gave the younger boy a snide, disdainful glance. Lil J flipped both Winston and Taylor off with both hands.
Winston sighed. “Idiots.“
“So where's Izzy, right now?“ Taylor asked, curious.
“She's in the newsroom at the TV studio.“
“We have a TV studio?“
“Yup. And a radio station.“ Winston said like it was a normal thing, hardly worth mentioning.
“Cool beans. What does she do there?“
“She's the news anchor.” Winston shook his head in mock disgust. “Enough about Izzy. Let's go to class, don't wanna be late, eh old boy?“
They went inside the classroom as the bell rang.
Taylor was disturbed to see Agent Alexander present in the class. She was wore a blazer this time and khakis with a slight bulge underneath the blazer. And lipstick! Winston noticed immediately, he stopped cold, did a double-take, stared at her in open admiration. Before Taylor could even elbow him and pull him towards their seats Tate bumbled out of his office and barked, “Sit down, boys!“
They took their seats. “Good morning. As you all can see Agent Alexander is with us again today. She's going to be observing class today and asking some of you some questions, but I remind you, you are not required to answer.“ He sounded amused, kept cutting his eyes playfully at Alexander. He was not afraid of her, nor did he seem worried, not about her, nor about any of his students. How can the man could be so... nonchalant? He's got enough classified material on his computer to send a civilian to prison for life. Just having seen those things was enough Taylor's stomach tightened with anxiety every time Alexander made eye contact with him.
“I think I love her, old boy.“ Winston mumbled, moon-faced and dreamy. Taylor wanted to laugh, but Winston sounded serious, something quite unusual for him.
Taylor said, “Snap out of it! Listen!“
“...so with Mr. Tate's approval, I will watch you all over the next week, or so.“ Taylor had missed whatever she had said to start.
“She can't just watch us, right? Isn't that illegal?“ Taylor asked.
“Come on, T. She's snooping around, yeah, we both know there's nothing for her to see, especially not on our machines.“ He winked and tilted his head towards the front of the room where Philomena sat. So much for discretion.
Agent Alexander walked around the room not really pausing for long behind any one machine, just peeking at what each student worked on before moving on. Nothing alarmed her or caught her attention. Everyone received the same knowing nod before she wandered to the next terminal. Taylor tensed up when he knew she was approaching his station. He was working on an algorithm to filter packet headers, part of an assignment aimed at speeding up server communication protocols. It was fairly difficult stuff and the whole time she stood behind him he couldn't concentrate well enough to do more than scroll and click aimlessly, the code looking only like jumbled letters. When she finally moved on Taylor almost sighed out loud.
“T.” Winston said once Alexander had moved on. “You can breathe now, cat.“ But he wasn't looking at Taylor. His eyes were glued to Alexander, checking her out from behind while she hovered over Crystal Claren's station. When she had hovered behind him, Winston did something none of the other students had: he turned around and tried to engage her in conversation. She shut him down quickly, but she wore a bemused smile as she did so.
”She's crazy hot, T!“ Winston breathed. “Think I charmed her?”
“You've got as much chance with her as I do with Izzy,“ Taylor said. Winston's face split into an insolent smile, the swagger Taylor had the night before back in full force.
“Izzy isn't worth your time, T, some day you'll see that. But Alexander? She is everything! I will get her!“ Taylor rolled his eyes and turned back to his computer but had hardly started reviewing his work when Winston nudged him again.
“Taylor Zachary!“ came Tate's voice rumbling from the front of the classroom.
Taylor looked up over his monitor at Tate, who was doing the same from behind his own monitor. “They want you down at the TV Studio.“ Nothing on Tate's face said this was unusual; for a student to be called, in the middle of class, to the TV studio. Nor did he pay it more attention, sitting right back down in his chair and his head disappeared behind his monitor. Alexander was busy hovering behind Parker's back and either didn't notice or didn't care as Taylor left.
The halls were empty and Taylor heard his shoes squeak on the shiny floors, the sound distracting him somewhat from the blood pounding in his ears. It was odd, he hadn't been this nervous last night and Izzy had been just a few feet away. Why now?
Did Izzy sent for me? He couldn't think of any other reason he would be called to the TV studio. He hadn't even known Willow Prep had a TV studio until that very morning. He walked faster, but his hands shook. Maybe after meeting me properly Izzy decided to ditch Parker and date me. Taylor's face reddened with desire and a feeling of foolishness. Taylor didn't know the way to the TV studio and had been forced to go to the Headmaster's Office first, but he eventually found his way to a nondescript door, stenciled white letters reading "WPSU-TV Since 1962" over a very red door. Hanging above the door was a rectangular box with the words ON AIR glowingly embossed on it and backlit.
He waited for a few moments, looked around and shrugged before he turned the door handle and pushed the door open. The room inside was painted black and full of broadcast equipment. About ten students roamed about, all of them wearing expensive looking headsets with fancy boom mics attached. Two large, digital studio-cams, both mounted on rolling dollies, were trained on a large modern desk. The desk was situated in front of a wall-sized abstract painting of the Manhattan skyline, the crest of Willow Prep watermarked on the painting. Between the desk and the painting were two teenagers. Izzy Chatham and a smashingly handsome blond boy who radiated a knocked-off version of the swagger Winston more honestly displayed the previous night. His blond hair was expertly shaped and immobile, his face blotch free, his smile frighteningly white. He spoke directly to the camera, talking about the upcoming Presidential race. Izzy had a mild, patient smile on her face and nodded along companionably.
She looked a little bored. “...and with poll numbers like this, it seems very likely Mayor Goldberg will run for President! And if this reporter can give his personal opinion, I don't think there has ever been a better choice for President of the United States. Mr. Goldberg has proven without doubt during his two terms as Mayor of New York City and as CEO of Goldberg Telecom that he can consistently deliver results, the kind of results our great city needs, that our nation needs! Don't you agree Izzy?“ the blond boy finished, turned his head and megawatt smile towards Izzy for a second before swiping back to the camera. She gave a tepid smile.
As if some switch had been thrown, Taylor felt her come alive, even if he had wanted he wouldn't have been able to take his eyes off her. He could easily see why she was so popular, quite aside from being so beautiful, why she was so successful at social media, she was magnetic.
“I think the people of the United States will have a lot more to worry about than whether or not Mayor Goldberg will run, and we can trust that they will choose the best candidate from whomever does run, Darcy.“
His smile didn't slip a bit, but somehow Taylor was sure the blond boy seethed. Taylor instantly disliked him.
“Well that's the end of our broadcast for today, tune in tomorrow when we'll be interviewing Agent Shanice Alexander of the National Security Agency. And remember, be good to yourself, your friends, your family and your city! New York loves you!“ Izzy smiled playfully at the camera as Darcy spoke, her charm a counterpoint to his slickness.
“...and we're clear!“ a voice boomed from the darkness. Izzy's smile clicked off. Darcy's became a sneer.
“Nice job, Chatham.“ he said.
“Darcy, if you think you can trip me up so easily, you're an idiot.“ Izzy replied, her voice calm, but her comment was toothless and Darcy knew it. Taylor was surprised, he had assumed she would have said something witty and mean, something cutting.
“What a douche.“ Taylor mumbled. All the students busied themselves with something, so he walked up to the desk and past the bright studio lights which had kept him out of Izzy's sight while show taped.
“Good morning, Taylor.“ Izzy said, as she stood up from the desk and straightened out her Willow Prep blazer. Darcy was already moving away, laughing loudly with some other equally plastic boy with equally rigid hair, their white teeth gleaming in the studio lights. Neither paid any more attention to Izzy nor Taylor.
“Did you send for me?“ Taylor said hopefully.
Izzy blinked at him and said, “Yeah. But not here. Come on.“
Taylor rubbed his sweaty palms on his slacks. He fell in behind her as she led him through the black painted studio to a small office filled with two desks, bookshelves, and lots of message and dry erase boards. Everything was papered in post-it notes, scraps of things, and scrawls of writing in very loopy, feminine handwriting. Izzy shut the door behind Taylor and motioned him to sit down. She sat in a rolling chair and faced him.
“We need to talk.“ Izzy said, her face a little stern, chewing on her cheek.
Taylor nodded, “What's up?“
“I've seen how you look at me, Taylor. It has to stop. I'm with Parker. You and I have to work together in the Society. We can't afford to have... issues.“ She said it all matter-of-factually, not snide or cutting.
Taylor felt he had just been slapped. “What?“ was all he got out.
“I know it's hard to hear, but I need to tell you. I like you, Taylor, as a friend, you seem very talented and bright, but it can't work, it won't, between us. You need to understand that now.“
Taylor couldn't believe what he was hearing. She called me out of class for this? She blinked at him and her mouth opened then closed again. Suddenly Taylor realized he had spoken that last thought aloud.
“Not entirely. I wanted to talk to you about the Society. Give you some more background. Isabel and Sue-Ann thought it would be good for you to understand more of what we do.“
He was glad she had more to tell him, it gave him a reason to stare at her, though he was also uncomfortable around her now. A hard feeling, experiencing both simultaneously.
Izzy's said. "The Society was started by Isabel and Sue-Ann in the mid 90's. Isabel had just cashed out her Microsoft stock and Sue-Ann had just left IBM, she was an R&D executive there. My grandfather died that year and Isabel & Sue-Ann decided to put all their resources together, and live on the interest. Which on several billion dollars is considerable. But the company handling their money fell apart and one its executives made off with most of their money. At the time my older sister Katherine was a sophomore at Willow Prep and living with Isabel. Katherine was like you, a hacker. When Isabel told her what happened, Katherine took it on herself to use her skills to track the guy down. She helped the FBI find him. After that Isabel and Sue-Ann wouldn't trust anyone with their money, and seeing what a kid like Katherine could do, they started the Willow Society - to manage their money, to safeguard it.“
Izzy paused to make sure Taylor was following along. Satisfied he was, she continued. “But after Katherine graduated, along with the other three original members, Isabel and Sue-Ann couldn't find any to replace them. Katherine did what she could, but she had college, then FBI Academy and eventually the NSA. She hasn't been able to handle it several years. That's why Isabel and Sue-Ann recruited me, and partly why we brought you on.“
Taylor nodded. Why is she was telling me all of this? The question must have shown on his face because she said as much. “Why am I telling you all this, right?“ Izzy said. “Because I know you weren't that comfortable last night, I could see it on your face. “ Am I that easy to read or is she just that good at it? “And I thought you would do better if you understood what The Society was all about.“
“I thought you said Isabel and Sue-Ann asked you to talk to me.“ Taylor said.
Izzy blushed. “Well. They did. But I suggested it to them first.“
“Do you have any questions?“ Izzy asked.
Yeah. About a thousand. But none of them about the Society. “Nah. I'm cool. So tonight? At Chatham House?“
"Yes. Well, I'll see you then.“ She made a show of shuffling papers on her desk and smiled placidly at Taylor as he stood up and opened the door, then left.