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The Willow Society

By franklet All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Thriller

Chapter 38

Chapter 38

Days passed, mostly normal with very little unusualness about them. Taylor went to school, tried his best to pay attention and yet not be noticed. Winston was no help. He was always making comments about the upcoming party, mostly innocuous, but frequently within the hearing of other people, which seemed foolish to Taylor, who wanted everything to be clandestine. Despite his gifts as a catburglar something innate in Winston was opposed to remaining clandestine, the other boy just never realized he was often watched.

The Tuesday after Winston spent the night at Taylor's apartment both boys walked past a pair of skinny, brown haired juniors talking excitedly,

“...totally got a Galliano for the party at Gracie next week. I can just see everyone's face drop when they see it, those basic bitches won't be able to take me!" one of them said excitedly. “Gag!” The other one said.

A group of boys standing outside a row of lockers caught Taylor's attention as well, “I'm thinking about asking Izzy Chatham to get me into the Phil's party. I hear Izzy's got the hookup, maybe I can get you guys in too...“ one tall, haughty and handsome boy said. Taylor winced.

“I wonder how many people from the school are going to be at the party?“ Taylor asked Winston after overhearing several more of those types of conversation. “Is this going to work?“

“Don't sweat it, old man. Iz isn't worried about finding a date.“ Winston said, a very mischievous look on his face. “And she's got our invites already, I think. Once we're in, there's not a place in that mansion they can keep me out of!“ Winston laughed. Two boys leaning against a row of lockers tilted their heads in confusion at Winston's words. Taylor pulled Winston's blazered arm down the hall, shushed him.

The plan worried Taylor. It didn't really involve Winston roaming the mansion during the party, security would be high during the event. Their goal instead was to find out more about the security guard they suspected of killing the town car driver, of following Taylor and Winston, and attacking Lou in the subway. Taylor knew somehow, for some reason, Winston was going to try anyway, and the worry about this gnawed at him.

Two days later, on Thursday, as Winston and Taylor were entered campus a small girl, a harried-looking freshmen, her blazer askew approached them. Her hair was in an awkward pony-tail, and despite being Taylor's age and in two of his classes, she somehow seemed very much younger than him.

“Are you Zachary Taylor?“ she asked.

Taylor, surprised, said. “Taylor Zachary, yeah.” She looked relieved. Eyed Winston sideways before saying, “Izzy Chatham sent me to find you, tell you to meet her in the studio after first period.“

She smiled nervously at Winston, who was quite a bit taller than her, and chittered off.

“What is that about?“ Winston said, clearly wondering why the girl had looked at him so oddly. Taylor didn't answer him. They made their way to Crypto in relative silence.

The computers had not been returned to classroom yet. Tate had fallen back on what he called standby sneakernet: students were told to bring their personal laptops in. Taylor, not having a laptop had been given one by Tate with a Willow Prep inventory sticker on it. Taylor had watched with glee as Tate simply ripped the sticker off, extended the laptop with one hand to Taylor and said, “Problem solved.” Every morning Taylor pulled it out for class since he marveled at it, goggled at it, could believe it was his. He had made Tate repeat himself until the teacher got angry and shuffled Taylor out of his office when Taylor asked for the fourth time, “Wait? I don't have to give it back?“

Thursday's class had just started. Tate, sick with something, constantly wiped his runny nose, talked about multithreaded overt encryption. Winston looked like someone had pinched him, fished out his iPhone. After he read the message he held it just under the desk for Taylor to see. Taylor had had a phone now for several days, but had only texted Winston, hadn't even realized he should have given the number out to the others. The text was from Izzy.

Meet me after 1st. Studio.

Taylor realized Tate was not speaking anymore. The rotund man coughed. “Ahem. You boys have something more important going on back there?“ The whole class turned to look at Taylor and Winston. It was only the piercing stares of Philomena Behrstable and the angry, sullen one of Parker Pining which really got to Taylor. Philomena had been shooting looks like this for days, and every one sent a chill up his spine, like she could read his thoughts. Worse, like she knew his thoughts before he did. Parker's stare was animosity in spades, all but daring Taylor to respond. Taylor tore his brief glances away from both; focused on Tate instead, who was still glared.

Winston gave a sheepish smile and said “No sir! Mr. Tate, sir!“ The boy's tone was a sweetly mocking, something he would not have been able to get away with with any other teacher. Tate rolled his eyes, wiped his nose, and went back to speaking about encryption – without bothering to knock Winston down a peg or two. Taylor noticed, he couldn't help it, something had changed in his favorite teacher. Tate was subdued, sullen and grumpy. His energy and fervor for his topics was limp, it was as if he was grieving or anxious. Taylor couldn't bring himself to ask, he was already nervous lately around the man, outside of normal class. Knowledge of what he had found on Philomena's machine, what it said about Tate and what he had seen since plagued him. Somehow Tate was involved in the web events surrounding Taylor and Taylor wanted to talk about it, work it out. Winston poo-pooed it every time, saying Tate couldn't possibly be involved, beyond mere snooping.

“Just look at him, T! He's too fat to do anything but code and eat and sleep.“ Winston said snickering. Taylor finally just learned to keep his suspicions about Tate to himself.

When the class after the girl approached Taylor was over, he and Winston made their way to the TV studio. They reached the News desk just in time to see Darcy leave, a fake smile plastered over his sunshine-pretty face. Darcy smiled, but it was toothy and cold. He called out to someone, “Sean! Wait up, hon...“

Izzy said, “Shut the door.“

Taylor saw the others were already there. Lou sat in a chair, its front two legs off the ground as she leaned backwards, head brushing the wall behind her. Myth was stood arms crossed over her chest, leaning against the wall next to an empty chair, foot tapping gently on the floor. Winston smiled at both of them, plopped down in the chair. There was only one other chair and Taylor offered it to Myth.

“No.” Myth said.

Taylor sat.

“I wanted you all here so we could talk about next week. I think we should meet at Chatham this weekend and go over our plan.“ Izzy said.

“Why didn't you just text us?“ Winston said.

“Because, someone is snooping our phones.“ Lou said angrily.

How does she know that? Taylor thought. Izzy cleared it up for him.

“All three of our phones are registered to one of the companies Isabel owns.“ Izzy said. “SatTech Industries. One of the companies which has been hit by the attacks hard,“ Taylor knew the name. It had been one of his first successes with the Society, putting up protections around the databases of SatTech, protecting their patent information and the codes running their satellites. He hadn't known that the girls all had cellphones from SatTech though. He wondered about the iPhone Myth had given him. It had already been activated, the phone number on a small label stuck to the back.

“Is my phone SatTech?“ Taylor asked. He didn't even need to see Izzy nod. “Great, so we can't communicate by phone now.“

“We need to get prepaid burner phones.“ Winston said.

“Well until then, we're just going to have to meet in person and not talk about anything important via the phone or email.“ Izzy declared.

“Who's snooping on us?“ Winston asked, “How did you find out?“

Izzy looked like she wanted to snort derisively. “NSA subpoena'd our numbers from SatTech. Sue-Ann is the contact for such things. I..” Taylor had never seen Izzy stumble verbally. “Mrs. Jones gave the phone to me, so I pretended to be Sue-Ann.“

Taylor tsked almost to himself. He knew Sue-Ann would go ballistic if she knew, about the NSA or Izzy's pretense.

“The NSA? Why are they snooping on us?“ Winston asked.

“I don't know. But we've got to figure it out. Be thinking about it, you and Taylor both. We'll try to work it out this weekend at Chatham. “ Izzy said.

“OK.“ Winston said. Taylor was about to stand up, the meeting was clearly over, when Izzy added, “You have a tux yet Taylor?“ He couldn't hold down his blush.

"Um. Yeah. I do.“ he said, finding it hard to keep eye contact with the pretty blond.

“Good. Here's your invite for the party, don't lose it.“ She reached into her desk pulled out a large, creamy, white envelope made from heavy paper; a gold seal on the back. Nothing was printed on the front. Taylor turned it over in his hands, trying not to feel too excited, trying not to let Izzy see him look silly. But the envelope felt hot in his hands, because it represented what he hoped would be a turning point for Izzy and himself. The blush made his face fire.

“Well, that's it then. See you both this weekend.“ Izzy said, the dismissal clear. Lou stood led Myth out. Winston and Taylor were right behind. Lou didn't stop to talk, just kept wandering out of the studio. Myth stopped just outside Izzy's office, turned around and said, “Hey Winston, wanna go see a movie after the meeting on Saturday?“

Winston looked down at her, patted her head condescendingly and smiled; not the charming smile he directed at Agent Alexander or the semi-charming one he had directed at Taylor's mother. This smile was wolfish.

“No thanks, Myth.“ He walked off, not looking back as he said, “C'mon T!“

Taylor stood for a moment watching anguish play across Myth's face. He squeezed her shoulder, to be comforting, but she slapped his hand away, with a surprisingly strong slap even for a girl her size. Taylor's hand started to hurt. She had turned and walked in the opposite direction, mumbling under her breath.

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