The Willow Society

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Chapter 22

Chapter 22

Lou followed behind the shadow ahead. Has he lost his mind? For the first few months of his being part of the Willow Society, Winston had done very well. A year had passed and over the last half of that year his ability to stop the attacks had grounded to a halt. They were at another impasse, whomever was attacking them was proving to be better than Winston. It was frustrating in the extreme and though Lou would not have admitted it aloud, frightening.

Sophomore year had been a good one for Lou. She and Myth had become startlingly close, she and Izzy less so, but still relatively close, as Lou judged such things. Winston not so much, she would still call him a friend and knew he felt the same. Her relationship with Mrs. Jones, who insisted Lou call her Helen, had blossomed the most however. As Lou's appointed guardian Helen was tasked with caring for Lou, not that Lou needed it, but Helen took a particularly strong interest. More, Helen was delighted by Lou, which at first had been hard for Lou to handle. But now, she could barely remember what it had been like not knowing Helen. Not that Lou had forgotten her life before, it just didn't weigh her down as it had, and she felt she had Helen above all to thank. Shaking her head to clear those thoughts, she turned her focus back to Winston and his idiocy.

Lou still lived across the Street from Willow Prep in the studio apartment paid for by the Society, as part of her scholarship. The studio had a little terrace. Lou enjoyed sitting outside sometimes at night before bed. One night, near to a year after Winston joined the Society, she just happened to be on the terrace, listening to the night sounds of Manhattan. Her highly tuned ears heard the sound of someone climbing a shaky part of the wrought-iron fencing around the school. It was a relatively quite night, for a Friday in Manhattan, otherwise she might not have heard it all, the noise was slight. Her interest piqued, she got out her binoculars, a gift from Helen the previous Christmas, and looked until she saw none other than Winston Fillmore dart across the darkened lawns of Willow Prep, dressed in all black, carrying a stuffed, large backpack with ropes coiled around his waist.

What the hell is he up to?

Lou knew Winston still broke into places, in fact,. she knew he had stepped up his night-time forays since his ability to thwart incoming attacks on Society resources had slid down hill. Maybe it's a form of therapy. She was the same way about fighting, it was a great escape.

Sue-Ann had stated early-on the boy would keep on doing what he liked, and she had not been shy about interrogating him. Strangely, Winston freely admitted to it. He had admitted to breaking into museums, mansions, City Hall, office buildings and even a jaunt into the New York Stock Exchange, the last had made national headlines. That had nearly been the last straw, would likely have been, except his last heroic save at the HQ had been the day before when he managed to completely fight back an attack for the first time in months.

Why is he breaking into Willow Prep now?

There was nothing about the school that would appeal to Winston's need for flare, it was too easy a mark. He had said so before. “The security is poor, and the building easy to scale.” Winston had said, nonchalant. Lou swore under her breath. She would need to tell Izzy about this. Likely Sue-Ann and Isabel as well. Part of her was sick at the thought. Ratting was a quick way to get hurt in the places Lou had been. .

Winston disappeared onto the school's roof after somehow scaling the six story walls. He could have broken in from the ground floor, but probably had chosen a more difficult way for the sheer challenge. Lou yawned, she had to be up at five in the morning for her workout.

She went inside got something to drink and prepared to wait. No telling how long he would be and for some reason she felt the need to watch. A door slam from the direction of the school drew her back to the terrace. Running from the direction of the staff door was a skinny kid, about as tall as Winston, maybe, but thinner and with much darker hair. She adjusted the focus on the binoculars and saw see his face. She nearly dropped the binoculars. Taylor Zachary, the new Willow Society scholarship kid. The kid who had gotten the same scholarship she herself had two years earlier, only he had a family, lived with them in the East Village. Lou didn't know a lot about him, only that it had not been Izzy who suggested him for the scholarship, as she had the previous year's recipient, the suggestion and come directly from Isabel.

I wonder if Isabel means to recruit him? He's in Tate's Crypto class. But what the hell was he doing at the school? Had Winston startled him?

Either way he must have broken in himself. This was beyond the pale. Lou had to tell Isabel and Sue-Ann now, not just about Taylor, but about Winston as well. The realization made her sad.

Taylor somehow got past the fencing and ran hard in the direction of the subway station several blocks over. Lou looked at her watch, it was almost ten P.M. She yawned again and decided to wait until tomorrow to tell Izzy and the others. Thankfully, she heard feet hit concrete and saw Winston dash off down the street towards Lexington Avenue.

Good. I can go to sleep now.

Making her way quickly across the street the next Saturday morning, Lou was careful not to forget it was necessary to do this. Inside Chatham House, she found Helen asleep on a sofa in her little room between the HQ and Myth's lab. A bottle of Creme de Menthe lay on its side atop the little table next to the sofa. Lou had never seen Helen drunk, but she could hardly disapprove, Helen was entitled to her fun. Wandering back into the HQ, Lou fiddled with one of the computers. She had become much more proficient a user in her two years at Willow Prep, but was still hardly more than a basic user: she could surf the web, use Facebook, though she didn't do so very often, and she knew how to download music for free, thanks to Myth. A website about science had already been on the screen of the computer she sat at when Isabel came gliding in, flanked by Izzy and Sue-Ann. It was not much past nine in the morning but all three women looked as if they had dressed for a fancy brunch and had just returned. “Lou, is this important?“ Izzy asked sitting down.

“It's Winston. And that new kid, the scholarship kid, Taylor Zachary.“ Lou said struggling and yet again to remind herself this was necessary. Perhaps Winston would have admitted it on his own? But Taylor would not have, not if he valued his scholarship as much as Lou did and she was sure he did. In his place she would have been scared shitless by the very thought of losing it.

Lou felt vaguely disturbed, but she related the whole event; from Winston appearing with the backpack to Taylor leaving shortly thereafter. A hardened part of Lou shrugged the disturbing feeling away. It's not your fault, Lou. They did it to themselves. Your loyalty is to yourself first. The Society and Helen second. Everyone else third.

Izzy arched an eyebrow as the room went quiet. But Isabel nodded, almost as if she were pleased by the news. Lou relaxed a little. She continued to talk about what she had seen, describing Winston's ascent and Taylor's running away. By the end of the story Sue-Ann's lips had compressed in to a thin line, Izzy seemed troubled, but Isabel only thoughtful.

Finally Isabel said, “Well, Lou, I think perhaps it might be necessary to have a little talk with Mr. Zachary. Don't you agree, Sue?“

Lou felt sorry for the boy. She had tried to help him before, when she had seen Parker and Lil J bullying him, he was a scholarship kid like her after all. More, she hated bullies. But hadn't spoken to him since, hadn't really thought much about him since. And now she was outing him to the very people who had control over his scholarship. She felt like a bully herself. Her face must have shown something because Isabel frowned and Sue-Ann snorted. Izzy put a hand on Lou's arm, something unusual, the other girl knew Lou shied away from being touched.

“Lou, you must not feel bad about this, you did your job and you did it well. I am proud of you.“ Isabel said.

Sue-Ann nodded. “Yes. You've done well, Lou.“ The woman smiled, coldly. But that was nice for Sue-Ann.

“And don't worry about Mr. Zachary. His scholarship is secure.“ Isabel said, showing once again her almost preternatural ability to know what Lou was thinking.

Chapter 22

“Another boy?“ Izzy said, oddly petulant. Lou often wondered why she had been so in awe of the pretty girl. Izzy was smart, dynamic, and charming, a leader, but for all that she still seemed naive; too empty, too much a teenager for Lou's taste. Lou never said anything, though. Not to anyone.

“This boy has already broken into Willow Prep. Who knows what he got into in there?“ Izzy said.

“Does it really matter, Iz?“ Myth said, “Winston is almost at his breaking point, he can't keep up anymore. And he admits this kid is better than even Philomena Behrstable. Tate chose him for his CryptoCon team, the only freshmen, ever, besides Philomena. Winston has been good for the Society, maybe Taylor will be too.“

Lou looked at the wall. Of course Myth would say Winston and been good for the Society. Her crush on the boy had only gathered force over the past year, not that Myth admitted it openly and not that Winston ever officially recognized it. It was like a secret everyone knew but refused to acknowledge. So many secrets.

Lou grudgingly admitted to herself Winston had proven useful, his burgling skills were as amazing as her own steadily increasing fighting ability. In the past year it had been necessary to send him covertly into the headquarters of a corporation in order to retrieve documents which contained stolen information of Willow Society owned satellite tech. The second time was to plant evidence in the office of the employee who had stolen the documents. Isabel had been sure it was an agent of a rogue government. She hadn't elaborated further though.

Myth was obviously excited at the prospect of another computer nerd, especially a boy, younger than herself. She apparently already knew Taylor and approved of him, though she claimed to have only met him twice in passing. But the major support for Taylor had come from Winston himself, who had befriended Taylor quite closely.

“The attacks are more-potent now?“ Sue-Ann asked pointedly. She was a former IBM researcher and executive, she knew computers. Still, Sue-Ann had never been what Winston called a “black hat.” Though she understood hacking, Sue-Ann could not do it herself. “Maybe we need to consider new blood.”

After the early Saturday meeting, Winston had been called over and before he could be given a chance to confess about his nighttime foray into Willow Prep, had been grilled about Taylor. Winston admitted to seeing Taylor hacking Headmaster Ballard's computer. His own given reason for being in the school was “A little bit of easy fun.“ Lou didn't believe Winston on that, but she wasn't about to question him too closely. She felt guilty enough having ratted him out.

Sue-Ann and Isabel both frowned. The two women left the room in order to argue, which they never did in front of the Society members. More secrets. It appeared to Lou the argument had not been fully settled, judging by their expressions when they returned.

“You know my opinion, Sue-Ann.“ Isabel said. There was a finality to her tone, a slight weariness. Still she patted Sue-Ann amiably on the forearm.

Sue-Ann grumbled. “We will have the Zachary boy it seems.“

Helen, who had awoken some time during Winston's telling, appeared chipper - clearly not hung over – as she set down a tray with juice and tea on it. “Now you broads have finished with that, let's get to the important stuff....“ Helen said. Lou was thrown off-balance. Everyone else appeared serious, even Winston, despite his perennial smile. “Who's gonna make the call for dinner? I'm hungry enough to eat a horse. Chinese?“

Lou laughed aloud for the first time in days. She did not smile though.

It was left to Izzy to invite Taylor over to begin the process of drawing him into the Willow Society. At school on Monday, Lou saw Taylor several times, twice with Winston, who Lou was sure itched to tell Taylor himself, but clearly hadn't. Even though Taylor didn't notice, since his back was turned, Parker Pining stared daggers at him every time he passed. I wonder if Izzy mentioned him to Parker? And strangely, Philomena Behrstable stink-eyed Taylor as well. But it was Parker who concerned her, far more than Philomena.

Lou decided she would follow Taylor after school. Parker is up to something. After the brief altercation between Parker and Taylor, Lou knew it would only be a matter of time before Parker tried to bully Taylor again. Somehow this is Izzy's fault. Judging by the looks Lou had seen on Parker's face that might not long off.

Parker and Lou had never been friends, but there had been a grudging respect, before she intervened with Taylor. He knew of her fighting abilities, the whole school knew. Probably was aware of the MMA club she created. Lou had even seen him at a few of her matches, with Izzy. But ice covered all that now, all respect gone. Parker wouldn't even look at her directly when they passed in the hallways. At least he's smart enough not to try anything physical, he's definitely not that stupid. Lou had mentioned it to Izzy, not trying to repair anything, only to make sure Izzy, as Parker's girlfriend, was aware enmity existed where there had not been any.

Lou saw Taylor head towards the subway. Parker nudged Lil J to follow the kid. Lou sighed. She all but had an obligation now, she had to follow, she couldn't let Taylor get beaten up, which by Parker's expression was exactly what the bully intended. Thankfully Parker had not see her watching. Lou tailed the three boys, Taylor leading them to the subway station. Parker and Lil J made an effort to hang back, not be seen. But even seeing Taylor retrieve his little brother didn't stop the two older teens from trailing Taylor. Finally they reached the Bleecker Street stop in the East Village, where Taylor got off the subway.

Lou was four cars back but saw Taylor climb the stairs out of the station onto Bleecker St and Bowery Blvd, Parker and Lil J following, unnoticed. Lou waited then followed herself. They wove through crowds, modest but not large. They reached Alphabet City and Taylor disappeared with his brother into a sloppy-looking building on Avenue D. Parker and Lil J hung back and from half a block away Lou watched Parker scribble down something.

None of it made any sense. Parker and Lil J left. Lou was about to leave herself when she noticed William running out of the building. He was quite small. He had a large ball in his hands and playfully bounced it down the sidewalk. The ball went wayward, bounced into the street. William ran after it and Lou started towards the boy, fearful he might get hit by a car, though she couldn't see or hear any near.

The ball bounced down the street and landed near the tire of a grey sedan. William darted towards it but Lou's attention had already shifted. A very large man, wearing an outfit similar to what a Secret Service agent might wear, stood next to the car. He had an earpiece communications device trailing a little curly-cue from his ear to his lapel. The man leaned down and picked up William's ball, and though he made no threatening moves, no indication of threat at all, something about him chilled Lou. William was undaunted. He ambled up to the man and asked for the ball back, the man complied. His man's mirrored sunglasses kept Lou from seeing his eyes, but she was sure he was staring at William.

William turned and ran way, the man still watching, unaware Lou was watched him in turn. She had been standing conspicuously still for quite some time so she started walking, passed the man and made a point of looking forward, but not at him. Behind her, William bounced his ball as if nothing was wrong with the world.

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