The Willow Society

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Chapter 46

Chapter 46

They made it back to Chatham House without any further incident. Mrs. Jones drove them inside a roomy SUV. Myth sat in the other front seat, the others in the back. Taylor was next to Winston in the way back, Izzy and Lou in the middle seat. No one wanted to talk, though questions burned inside Taylor, almost managing to overcome his wounded pride and bitter disappointment. He sighed as watched the disinterested bustle of Manhattan drift past.

Once inside the HQ, Taylor was put in a comfortable seat, tended by Mrs. Jones. She pronounced him bruised, badly, but otherwise fine. He certainly didn't feel fine, but didn't want Izzy to think him weaker than she already must.

“What happened?“ Izzy eventually blurted out, once Mrs. Jones left the room to get an icepack. Taylor didn't know where to begin.

“I don't know.“ Winston said, but his face betrayed him. He couldn't suppress his grin.

Izzy stared daggers at him, followed quickly by Lou, and even Myth. The boy's grin went sideways and he swallowed. “Um.“ he began. “I followed her. I mean Alexander. I followed Alexander. She went in the back after the Mayor and the guard. But I lost her.“

“Did you figure out who he is?“ Izzy pressed.

Winston shook his head, turned it towards Taylor. He proceeded to spill out everything. How he had followed Alexander as she drew her gun and dashed into a room, shutting the door behind her. Winston had heard sounds of a struggle and fled, crashing into the first open, unlocked door he found. It had turned out to be the Mayor's Office. Not long after something activated the door locks. That's when he texted Taylor. From there he told how Taylor had hacked the Mayor's machine and dumped the contents of the drive.

“We need to see what's on the drive, if we're going to find any answers, they'll be there.“ Winston said, ending his story.

The others looked to Taylor for confirmation, so he nodded. Winston looked pensive, or maybe troubled, his smile gone. Izzy noticed and said, “What?“ roughly, clearly she blamed Winston for the whole fiasco.

“Alexander!“ Winston said, “What's going to happen to her?“

Lou and Izzy snorted, Myth sighed. Mrs. Jones came back in and gently put the icepack she brought against Taylor's hand, pressed both to bruised side. He thanked her. She patted his cheek before moving away, bustling around the room pretending to be busy.

Taylor remembered something, something Winston had left out. “What about the...“ it hurt to talk, “device?“

Winston's eyes went crazy wide. He looked like Taylor had just revealed his secret fetish.

“What device?“ Izzy all but shouted.

Lou glared harder and echoed Izzy. “What device?“

Myth leaned toward Winston hands working excitedly above her satin-covered knees.

“Well, it's just, well. I don't know what it is, really.“ Winston said. Izzy was skeptical and Lou annoyed. To everyone's surprise, Winston fished the device out of his pocket and brandished it. Under the lights of the HQ it still seemed an oddly-accented cellphone, with strange nodules on the bottom edge. Winston handed it, reluctantly, to Izzy.

“What is it?“ Myth said, breathless.

“Are you daft?“ Izzy spat, at Winston.”Why? Why did you steal it?“

“What's the big deal?“ Winston said, “We got away with it, didn't we?“ He had regained his cavalier attitude, seemed about to grin.

“Because dumbass!“ Lou growled and Winston's grin froze, half-done, “They probably have Alexander. You asked what happened to her? Well, I think, they did something to her! And they're gonna know that thing, whatever it is, is missing! And do you think they don't have security cameras? They're gonna know it was you! Do you think they won't connect the events?“

As the words spilled out of her mouth Winston sank further and further into his chair. Izzy looked about to take a turn. But Myth cut her off.

“Well, um. It's done now. Can I have it?“ she clearly wanted to snatch it from Izzy's hands.

“I can't see why not,“ Izzy sighed as she handed it over. Myth beamed as she delicately turned the device over and over in her hands. Izzy went back to staring at Taylor and Winston. “This is very bad. I don't know what to do. I mean if they figure out we were involved...“ her voice trailed off. She looked at the floor, then back up, her face gaining resolve as it raised. “We can't stop now. We're in too deep. We must figure this out. We must know who the guard is and what is going on with the Mayor, how all these things are connected. Especially if Alexander is...has been taken.“ She seemed to struggle over the last few words.

“Me and T can search through the drive data, maybe there is something there?“ Winston said, trying to sound helpful. Myth had disappeared, likely scuttled over to her lab with the device. Lou was doubtful. She started to say something to Izzy but Izzy shook her head.

“Do what you have to do.“ Izzy said, resigned.

“So...“ Taylor said when they had sat in front of terminals, loading the data from the Mayor's network. His body was ragged; his breath came with a little spike each time, but the icepack wrapped around his mid-section helped, as did the sparse pain medication Mrs. Jones had eventually found for him. As he sat trying to figure out where to begin the datamining, a warmth spread through him and his pain began to fade. “Do you think they are going to come after us? Did they see us?“

“Nah.“ Winston said with a nonchalant shrug.

Taylor didn't know what to say, so he turned his full attention to his computer. It was sometime after eleven in the evening, and while he didn't even want to think about it, he knew he didn't have much time. His parents were still on alert and not willing to let him spend more than one night away from home. Even having Mrs. Jones call would probably do little good. Yet pressure worked well for Taylor. He dove into the data.

Lines of file lists popped up on the screen and Taylor set up filters to look for documents with recent file access dates. He set another filter searching for any file with the word “wiper” in it, remembering what he had briefly seen on screen of the device. On a whim., he added another filter searching for Agent Alexander's name. When he did that he cast a surreptitious glance at Winston, but the other boy was busy sifting and paid him no mind.

Minutes passed and Mrs. Jones brought them sodas. More minutes ticked off and, unexpectedly, Taylor assumed it would take longer, the data set was so huge; a results window popped up. It was sparsely populated, only three entries, but as Taylor goggled, another appeared. He looked over at Winston, surprised to see his friend surfing the Web, not searching through the data. Sighing, Taylor opened the first item in the results list. It was a useless document. Meetings minutes. The same with everything else in the first results window, whose population had increased tenfold. Taylor revised his search to exclude minutes of meetings, as he didn't expect to find anything of use there. Half an hour passed and the results window grew. But all of it was chaff, useless.

“What are you doing?“ Taylor asked Winston, through a yawn.

“Searching for anything about TwinStar. And Alexander.“ Winston mumbled, taking up Taylor's infectious yawn. Lou came in, nursing a cup of coffee and a hard expression. She asked about their progress, then left. An hour passed. Winston fell asleep at his terminal. Taylor yawned again. More time passed. The next he checked it was almost four in the morning. He stretched, winced in pain from the stretch, heard someone approach from behind. He turned around, yelped at the pain of the move, to see Izzy. Even had been able to breath normally, his breath would have caught in his throat. As it was he nearly choked. She wore a long robe, it clung to her body in waves of blue silk; pajama bottoms peeking out underneath. Her hair was gathered up, a few wispy strands all that was out of place.

She yawned, leaned over to look at the monitor in front of Taylor.

“It's late.“ She said. “Have you found anything?“ Izzy sat down on the desk across, her voice had sultry quality about it: a just-awoken scratchiness, not something Taylor could identify, yet it pulled hard at him. He swallowed, tried to tamp down the rising panicky feeling in his gut. A warm scent of flowers and vanilla wafted off her. His mind buzzed and he tried to think of what to say, but words didn't seem to want to form. It was maddening. Without warning Izzy tensed and moved slid backwards in her chair.

Taylor.“ Izzy said, a mild note of warning in her voice. She glanced at Winston and nodded. Taylor was drained, couldn't stop the yawn which bubbled out of him. He tried to smile at her, but she sighed.

“I know how you feel, Taylor.“ Izzy began, then stopped. Her mouth worked but no words came out, as though she struggled to choose the correct words. “You must know: you are my friend. And very talented.“ Taylor was on edge now, weariness gone. His pulse raced. Had something last night changed her opinion of him? “But I don't feel that way about you. I won't, Taylor. Ever.“ She started to say something else, but her head turned and her mouth closed again. “Friends, Taylor. You need to accept it.”

Taylor's stomach cratered, he might have lost his balance had he been standing. A desire to cry bubbled up, but he pushed it away, hard. He stared at Izzy, crestfallen – unable to control the expression on his face. Each moment was harder to catch a breathe. The room spun a bit and he was dizzy. Taylor caught his head in his hands, just under the chin.

He managed to croak out, “But why?“ though he didn't know how. A rush of embarrassment nearly overwhelmed the pain in his chest. Is this heartbreak?

Izzy sighed, looked at the ceiling as if she didn't really want to answer. When she looked down it was like the wall Taylor had seen at the party had descended over her features. The fakeness now stood between them. Except now her expression was not at all inviting, it was cold and distant. Taylor's head moved a little, a tiny whiplash. He looked into his hands, not wanting to see Izzy's face just then.

“I do not have to tell you why, Taylor. It is not going to happen. You need to accept that and stop this...“ she waved a limp hand at him. “behavior. This crush. If we are going to work together it must be this way. You must understand that!“ Her voice was ice. She gave the barest of sighs, he was still staring at the inside of his hands.

“I'll leave you be. When you find something, come find me, whatever the time. Please. You might want to get some sleep soon, as well. It won't help us any if you pass out.“ Despite meaning well and the well-intentioned tone of her words, frost was still there and it burned. Taylor couldn't look up. He started crying.

Izzy left. He waited for what felt long minutes, though it was probably closer to one before he looked up, face hot with tears and embarrassment, chest throbbing. She was gone, but Lou stood there now, wearing a sports bra and jogging pants, her forehead dewy with sweat. She wasn't looking at Taylor though. He took the moment to wipe at his eyes, hoped she wouldn't notice the redness. By the time her eyes went to Taylor, he had turned towards the screen and tried to focus on it, as though he weren't on the verge of breaking apart.

“I guess she finally broke it to you.“ Lou said. Any commiseration was missing from her voice, it was as remote as Izzy's had been cold. Matter-of-fact. Lou didn't sit down, she stood to the left of the desk, stared down at Taylor. She gave no indication she noticed the redness of his eyes or the occasional snuffling gasp of breath. Maybe she thinks it it's just because of my bruises. But Taylor knew that was a foolish though as soon as he had it. Lou was neither stupid nor imperceptive. She looked down at him, seemingly pitiless.

“It will get better.“ Lou put a hand on his shoulder and he almost jumped the touch was so unexpected. Her face might be void of emotion, but clearly she was trying to comfort him. He wanted to smile at her, but it wouldn't come. “She isn't right for you. You needed to learn that, I'm shocked you didn't figure it out sooner. You're too smart to be so stupid.“ She said the words without malice; without the coldness, the ice Izzy had imbued in her words, but they stung nonetheless.

“This isn't helping.“ he said.

But that wasn't entirely true. He did feel a little better. A little.

“Sorry. Consoling isn't my strong suit.“ She shrugged. “People assume I don't feel things. I just got tired of feeling hurt, so I don't let it touch me.“ She might have been describing the color of dust. “Now I only feel what I want to feel, when I want to feel it.“ She paused and smiled, a fraction. “Most of the time.“

Taylor was stunned. Lou had never opened up to him, he had suspected she had never opened up to anyone, except maybe Myth or Mrs. Jones. And for Lou, that impromptu little speech was almost like pouring her heart out. Taylor smiled, his pain lessened.

“Now. What have you found?“ Lou asked. It was like a slap though, after Izzy's declaration, to admit he had found nothing.

“Nothing. Yet.“ Taylor whispered loudly. He looked up at Lou, ready to snap at her if she criticized him.

But she nodded at him, said, “Don't work yourself too hard, Taylor. We need you.“ She walked out of the HQ.

Taylor wanted to keep working, but he was entirely drained now, physically and emotionally, thanks to Izzy and Parker. They deserve each other. He was not ready to sleep, though, but also knew he wouldn't be able to focus on the search. Taylor briefly considered waking Winston, but discarded the idea. Instead he went to his backpack, fished out his iPhone. He turned on some music, letting it wash over him. It mostly techno-electronica stuff he had learned of through other hackers: ATB, MGMT, BT, Rabbit in the Moon, Carl Cox. Before ten minutes had passed he was lost in the music, eyes closed, head resting on his arms. He fell asleep.

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