The Willow Society

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Chapter 28

Chapter 28

“You lost it?“ Winston wailed as Taylor related his bad news to his friend. Taylor hadn't wanted to send a message electronically, suspicions had crept into his mind and he didn't want to risk it. Now the boys stood outside the gates of Willow Prep, a throng of teen girls only a few feet away, all of them staring curiously at Taylor and Winston both, eager to see why voices had been raised. One of the girls smiled coyly at Winston, who was oblivious. Seeing the audience Taylor moved away,pulled Winston by the arm towards Crypto.

“Yeah. But we'll find it again.” Taylor said.

Winston looked skeptical, but he agreed after Taylor explained.

“You know Isabel and Sue-Ann have demanded we show up at HQ after school. They even called my stepmom to make sure I came.“

Taylor nodded. His mother had informed him of a similar call, just past six thirty in the morning as she yawned into her coffee. His mother seemed less upset than the night before. Her hug as Taylor left for school was longer, tighter, and harder than any he remembered in some time. He told Winston about the call and the other boy grunted. They had reached Tate's classroom and were surprised to see agents in blazers removing computers from the classroom. A bedraggled, haggard Tate hovered around them. When he saw the boys his eyes narrowed and he hustled over.

“In my office. Both of you. NOW.“ His tone was dangerous, far more than either boy had yet heard. Worse, they knew he was former NSA himself. They followed sharing looks of concern. Inside the classroom two more agents unplugged machines under Headmaster Ballard's shaky supervision. When the Headmaster saw Tate leading the boys into his office he started to say something, but Tate slammed the door shut behind the boys.

“This is unacceptable, boys.“ Tate said, lowering himself into his chair with a grunt and a groan. “Do you have any idea what is going on? Any idea what you're playing with?“

Winston's hand shot up uncontrollably to lightly touch the large purple and yellow bruise on his face. Taylor's tongue did the same thing to the cut on the side of his fat, lower lip. Tate held their eyes for a minute, his blue eyes glazed ice. He sighed and looked at the ceiling. Sweat trickled down Taylor's back and Winston sighed with visible relief.

“Of course you don't. How could you?“ Tate said. Taylor's heart fluttered. What is Tate talking about?

“The NSA says they have proof someone has been hacking their servers and other military assets from Willow Prep IPs, from MY pool of dedicated addresses. They got a warrant early this morning. Alex... Agent Alexander came to see me two hours ago. She asked a lot of questions about you both. Now. Why is that? And don't lie to me boys, I will know.“ Something in Tate's voice was so sure, so confident Taylor was certain he told the truth. Tate would know if they lied. Winston and Taylor flashed each other worried glances.

But neither boy said anything. Taylor stared determinedly at the floor, wondering what to do. He couldn't tell Tate anything, it would put the Society at risk. But clearly Tate knew something and was fishing for more. If we don't tell him something, what will he tell Alexander? Hearing Alexander had asked about them specifically only confirmed Taylor's suspicions.

When it was clearly neither boy would say anything, Tate cleared his throat and leaned forward, his hands clasped together and laid on the desk between him and the boys.

“Fine. Listen guys, whatever it is you've been up to, stop now. They are on to you. I really don't think they have proof yet or you'd be in custody. But they are sniffing around hard, and trust me, they will find whatever is there to find. You'll be lucky if they don't simply manufacture what they wish to find. So.“ Tate paused here and stared hard at them both. “Make sure your noses are clean, OK?“

Taylor and Winston both nodded and gave almost equal sighs of relief. As they rose to go Tate spoke again, “Just so you boys know, you can trust me, and if you need my help, I am here. Just don't wait until it's too late. And for Hell's sake, be more careful next time?“

Not knowing how to respond both boys made a quick exit. The classroom was almost completely devoid of computers now, Ballard was gone and only one agent remained. Clearly class had been canceled for the foreseeable future, but Tate had not given them anywhere to go. They decided to head to the school's library. Once ensconced in a booth in the library, surrounded by the quiet hum of air conditioning and silence, Winston ran his fingers nervously through his hair.

“Winston...“ Taylor began slowly. “You updated your Facebook status last night, right?“

Taken a little off guard by the question Winston took a long moment to nod yes. “And you put that we were going to Staten Island, right?“

Again Winston reacted the same. Taylor paused before his next question Winston's mouth moved, his eyes widened and his hands fidgeted. “It can't be. I mean....“ He looked truly incredulous.

“What other explanation is there?“ Taylor said. “Somehow, they were watching. And not just whoever sent that town car, but the NSA too. And whoever chased us.“ Winston goggled. It would have seemed too fantastic to be possible had they not just lived through an inexplicable car chase, a gunned-down town car driver, a strange blazer-clad man, and now NSA agents raiding Crypto.

“We're missing something.“ Winston said. “And you're sure you lost the thumbdrive?“ Winston sighed when Taylor re-acknowledged the loss. This crushed the little wisp of hope Taylor had nursed that Winston had somehow taken it from him.

“That means it could be on the street, in the town car, or anywhere in between.“ Winston murmured. But Taylor said, “More likely someone has it, someone we don't want, one of the people who is responsible for last night.“ If Taylor had thought Winston's eyes were wide before, they eclipsed that now.

Eventually Winston said, “Well. Nothing we can do it about it now. That was literally the only copy in existence if your burn of that idiot's machine worked.“ Both boys knew it had.

They talked until the bell rang for second, agreed to meet up at the end of the school day to head over to Chatham together.

The rest of the day passed in hazy cloud of worry for Taylor, his mind raced trying to piece everything together, but it just wouldn't fit. Winston had definitely been right, they were missing something. Taylor's fingers itched to get online and do some research, maybe he could provide some of the answers; answers Sue-Ann and Isabel, not to mention the other Society members were going to expect.

The bell for dismissal rang and Taylor found himself standing outside the school next to Winston minutes later. Winston was not his normal affable self, but clearly as anxious as Taylor. Both boys stared at Chatham House across the narrow street. Taylor took the first step and Winston followed slowly. Inside the HQ, everyone was already there. Izzy looked aloof and maybe a bit angry, Taylor couldn't be sure. Myth smiled eagerly. Lou looked angry, but she didn't appear to be directing that anger at Taylor or Winston or anyone else in the room, and it was her usual unreadable expression, so difficult to parse. Sue-Ann and Isabel were both frostily composed, Sue-Ann sipped a small cup of tea, Isabel carefully adjusted the lapels of her burgundy suit, appearing sublimely disinterested. Neither looked particularly angry, but both stared daggers at Taylor then Winston.

“Sit.“ Sue-Ann commanded tightly, pointed towards a sofa which had been turned to face the two carved arm-chairs the older women occupied. Another sofa similarly arranged held the three teenage girls. Sue-Ann leaned forward, her right hand twitching in her lap. She reached down to the little table between her chair and Isabel, lifted up a newspaper and threw it at Taylor. "Look!“ she growled.

Taylor ham-handedly turned the paper around and searched for the headline, Winston leaned over. His jaw dropped as soon as he saw it and Winston gasped. The headline read:

“Staten Island Man Kidnapped, House Ransacked.“

A black and white photo beneath the headline showed the house Winston and Taylor had visited the evening before, smoke pouring from its windows. A short woman with curlers in her hair leaned on a walker, she was wore fuzzy slippers and appeared to be shouting at the firefighters blocking her from her house. Her expression was murder. Taylor almost heard her voice, incomprehensible as it had been, in his mind: crackling, screaming about her figurines burning inside her home. A caption on the photo read:

“Angry mother says son taken by black-clad men who set her home on fire attempting to steal her collection of priceless art.“

Taylor worked not to laugh. All the anxiety weighing him down lifted for a moment and he saw when he looked up that Winston was the same.

“Is something funny?“ Sue-Ann growled.

“No.“ Taylor blurted out. Winston nodded quickly. Taylor wanted to read the rest of the article but was not given the chance.

“Tell us what happened. Everything. Leave nothing out.“ Isabel said, the first time she had spoken since the boys arrived. Her voice sounded strained, as if she were trying hard to cover some emotion. Worse, her words clearly implied she knew the boys had been hiding something from her and the others.

Only then did it click in Taylor's brain. The headline said kidnapped. That means .... that someone came after we left and took S-Eye. That meant whomever it was might have also gained access to S-Eye's machine before it was fully burned. Taylor gulped. It also was likely one or more of the people who caused the accident last night had something to do with S-Eye's kidnapping. For a moment Taylor felt hard pity for S-Eye; wondered what he might be enduring, if he was alive, or had he ended up like the town car driver. Dead.

Of course the story of the dead town car driver was glaringly absent from the front page of the paper. That spoke volumes.

“Boys? The story. Now.“ Isabel said, her voice a warning.

Izzy had her hands on the tops of her knees, leaned towards Taylor and Winston. The others were unchanged.

Taylor swallowed hard, looked at Winston, who nodded tersely, indicating Taylor should do the talking. He told the story. In full, leaving nothing out. It felt right. He started with the conversation he'd overheard from Tate and Alexander, reluctantly told about what he had found on Philomena's computer and how, what it implied about Tate, what the documents actually said about Tate.

“You still have these documents?“ Sue-Ann cut in. Taylor nodded and she waved him to continue. He told them about the cameras Winston had set up, which earned very stern glares from everyone, especially the girls. Izzy and Myth both looked betrayed but Lou's face stayed stone, though a muscle in her jaw twitched. Taylor gulped and plowed forward. He told of the thread on Undermine, how it had been there, and then disappeared, then come back. He held back his suspicions on exactly why. He discussed Stat3y3Cracker's posts and elaborated on the trip to Staten Island, telling the whole thing in detail, including what they had found on S-Eye's machine, and what Taylor had done to the computer. When he finally finished almost an hour had passed. Taylor was wrung out, exhausted. He looked at Winston and the boy wouldn't make eye contact. No one else spoke for almost two full, uncomfortable minutes.

Myth no longer looked eager. She wore a pensive frown and her brown eyes seemed wary, and she was the easiest to read. Izzy and Lou, as disparate as they were, wore mirrored expressions of cold faced tightness. Isabel's head rotated from Winston to Taylor and back, considering, the way a cook might consider a side of meat. But Sue-Ann's face had begun, when Taylor was only minutes into talking, to get redder and progressively kept getting redder until Taylor stopped speaking. She spluttered on the edge of silence for those two minutes before exploding.

“What were you f....“ she took a heavy breath, held back something she was going to say, “...thinking? This is precisely why I was against either of you being here in the first place. Hackers are trouble, even the white hats. And now both of you are breaking into places, sneaking around, spying on US?“ Taylor's face colored much in the same way Sue-Ann's had. “You have exposed the Society! You have brought the NSA's attention upon yourselves! A man was kidnapped, there's no telling what will happen to him, and another man was killed in your presence. Do you boys have any idea, ANY idea how much effort Isabel and I have put in to make sure those things didn't directly touch you? And trust me, they still could! You would not like what these people do to you.“ Sue-Ann shivered, whether from some anecdotal personal experience or just naked assumption.

She had blown herself out temporarily, leaned back into her high-backed chair and lifted up her cup of tea, downed the entire cup in several continuous swigs.

“Unfortunately for the Society,“ her voice bitter, “you cannot be allowed to fall into the wrong hands, so against my best wishes, we are going to protect you.“

Taylor swallowed so hard he hurt his throat, Winston stared forcefully at the ground beneath his feet. Neither of them saw Myth grin or Izzy's mouth twitch.

“Now. Where is this CCOM panel and this code database you two recovered from Staten Island?“ Sue-Ann asked briskly. Isabel shifted in her chair.

“I... I. Um. I lost it.“ Taylor mumbled, barely audible, looking at the floor now himself.

Izzy swore. Isabel hummed angrily and Sue-Ann just made huffing noises. Sue-Ann barked a hard, mean laugh. “You. Lost. It?“ she spit out each word along with a derisive laugh. Before she could say anything else though, Isabel stepped in.

“What do you think happened to it?“ Isabel said, her voice calm. Sue-Ann leaned back, eyed the boys dangerously.

“I don't know.“ Taylor said, “I had it before the accident, but somewhere, somehow, it was gone after, I was too stunned to check for it right after the accident. And in the hospital my parents were yelling at me and I was.... confused.“ he darted a glance at Izzy when he said this as he almost said afraid, “so I didn't think to check for it until I was in the cab heading home.“ He didn't add that it had a tracker program on it, should anyone plug in to an Internet connected machine it would send a beacon which reached Taylor's email. Should I tell them? Winston elbowed him sharply and he could see the other boy knew what he had been thinking. Winston mouthed the words, “Tell them!“

Taylor sighed and confessed about the tracker program. He wasn't entirely sure but it almost seemed Sue-Ann gave the ghost of a smile and Isabel shifted in her chair trying to hide hers. But the moment passed and both women glared at him again.

“Be that as it may, you will not go after that thing, understood?“ Sue-Ann said. Isabel nodded.

Taylor and Winston both agreed, promised.

Everyone knew it was a lie.

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