As the boys made their way towards the subway station, Winston was preoccupied and not offering up his usual banter. Finally, Taylor turned to the other boy, while they waited at a crosswalk for the little man to turn green and said: “What is up?“
Winston blinked as if he didn't understood the question or the premise behind it. When Winston didn't reply Taylor hit him with a light punch on the arm.
“You hate the government Win! Why are you letting this stupid shit with Alexander cloud your judgment?“ Taylor said.
Winston, for only the third time Taylor remembered looked truly angry: the expression passing across his face like a spasm before he asserted control; breathed deeply and hard and smiled affably. The little man turned green before Winston could reply though. They walked across the crosswalk and the press of people kept them from talking.
After they had gone some distance from the intersection Winston looked around to make sure they were alone and said, “I DO hate the government, T, old man. But I can't stop thinking about her! I have to find a way to make her notice me and this is it! Show her I more than some stupid kid! You should understand that!“ Taylor's head jerked backward like he had been smacked. What does that mean? But the shrewd expression on Winston's face deflated Taylor's desire to deflect, to pretend ignorance. Looking at the ground, disconsolately, Taylor said, “I do understand. I feel the same way about...“ He didn't think he could say it aloud, somehow the words dragged on his tongue, unwilling to be said.
“It's OK, T. It's cool. Let's just do the best we can, old boy. Either we get the birds, or we don't.“ He shrugged, tossed his head. The walked the rest of the way in silence until they separated at the subway station, taking different trains. Winston started to move away and Taylor said, “You gonna be alright?“
“Yeah, T. It's just love, no biggie.“
Winston was gone, leaving Taylor wondering how far he could trust the other boy.
Taylor trudged up the steps of his building's narrow, dim stairwell. He had become used to the third floor walk-up over the months since moving to the City. The East Village building was run-down, by most standards, even in his previous town of Channelview, which was itself considered trashy. Yet, judging by what he had seen and heard from others living in Manhattan and the surrounding East Village area, it wasn't even close to being the most run-down building, not even on the block. Strange as it was to Taylor and despite his view on its appearance, his building was considered quaint and even family-friendly by those who lived there. The stairwell was fairly quiet, most of the people who lived in the building were probably still at work, their kids in school. Since he had moved there it was the first time Taylor had been home at this time of day, on a weekday. It felt odd.
He fumbled out his key and let himself in, hoping no one was home. His mind churned through excuses and reason why he had been out all night, but nothing seemed likely to work, hadn't called. A very odd thought flitted through his mind then: being a teenage corporate spy is very tricky with parents in the picture.
Inside the apartment it was quiet, the television turned off and the window units as well. No indication anyone else was home, a good thing. Taylor breathed an instant sigh of relief. He called out, just to be sure.
“Mom? Dad? Anyone home?“ No answer came. Grinning, Taylor made his way to his bedroom and threw his things on the floor next to his bed, hung his wrapped-up tux in his closet, staring at it wistfully. Hanging there it represented something of his reality, a dissonance between the two lives he was trying to reconcile. The normalcy of his room, this apartment, his family and his life before Willow Prep, all held up against the strangeness of late night breaking and entering, illegal hacking, sneaking through hallways, stealing secrets, mind control devices, and dead town car drivers. It was enough to make him feel dizzy.
He washed up and changed into his PJs, hoping to do some web-surfing, crash before his parents got home, avoid the confrontation a little longer. Hope maybe they would be less angry seeing him home safe, asleep. He flipped the switch on his monitor and hovering on the screen, like an electronic Post-It note, was a message, in large bold letters which read:
“We know you have it. Return it to us or you'll never see your brother again. Do not test us or show this note to anyone else or we will kill William, your parents, and then you.“
Just beneath the text in a different font was more, “Sunday. 3pm. Bring the device. 415 Lexington.“
Taylor knew the address, it was familiar, but he couldn't place it just then, only he knew he had seen it before. A hard lump went down his throat and his stomach clenched in fear. Is this a joke? Did Winston somehow get past my firewalls? Or is Parker behind this? Could he even do something like this? How would he know about the device. No It has to be Winston. It has to be.
There was no way they could connect him to the device. Not that quickly, in one night and part of a day? And gotten into my system so easily? Could they? Could they have really done something to William? To my parents? Bile came up from his stomach and he almost vomited at the acrid bitter taste. Like a wave crashing down on his head, the reality, the fullness of it, the possible consequences of what he and the others had done crashed down on him. Unbidden the image of a town car; flipped over, a dead man spilling out, rose in Taylor's mind. It seemed crazy now he had not stopped after that, had not been frightened to the core by the experience.
Taylor focused and spent a mind-numbing half hour researching the electronic note on the screen. In the end he came to a terrible conclusion. Winston didn't do this. It's beyond him.
So far the consequences hadn't seemed real. After all he had left the hospital with his parents, mostly unscathed, and went to school the next Monday like nothing had happened. If the situation had ended with him hurt or Winston dead, perhaps it would have been enough to scare him off. Terrified as he was now, he said out loud, “Not my family. Not my brother.“
His first impulse should have been to call his friends, call Winston, Izzy and Lou and Myth, tell them what he had found and try and figure out what to do next. Get the Society behind him. Yet Taylor's mind jumped to something else. Someone else.
“Tate.“ Taylor said, low, breathlessly. The Crypto teacher was a former NSA Agent. And a brilliant man, quite aside from hacking. More, Taylor knew with surety he couldn't justify, somehow Tate could and would help. Taylor's mind traveled to thoughts of his friends. But he hesitated.
The note was on his computer. If one had appeared on one of their machines, they would have called him right away, probably, he was the computer guy after all, and they'd want him to look into it, verify it, try and trace it. No such call or text or email had come, which meant that the threat was to him alone. To his family. Can I involve them, then? In good conscience? What if one of them gets hurt because the people behind this discover their identities, because I involved them?
“No!“ Taylor said aloud. He had made enough mistakes, enough stupid decisions which could have all been tragic; only somehow had not, not for him, yet. But it could have happened. He wouldn't take that chance again. Not with his family, not his friends.
Moving quickly, very much afraid his parents might show up unexpectedly and stop him, Taylor removed the electronic Post-It, and wrote a quick script to troll through the logs on his firewall, hoping to discover exactly where it had come from. On a lark he also set the script to search through event logs on the machine itself. He set the script to send the results to his burner phone. Turning the monitor off, he jerked the plug out of the wall and bent the prongs with a pair of pliers. No one was going to use that again anytime soon. Pausing only for a moment to take a deep breath he grabbed his knapsack with his iPhone, laptop, and his thumbdrive with all the data from the Mayor's network in it. He whirled around the room grabbing a change of clothes, socks, and underwear. There was no telling how long he might be gone. He scribbled a quick note to his parents, telling them he was OK, and would call when he could, begged them not to worry.
He ran out the door, simultaneously using the web on his smartphone to look up Tate's address, it was surprisingly easy to find and not that far away. Taylor ran out of the building, weaving through the people on the street, paying little attention as he collided with them.
Tate lived in the basement of a brownstone in Union Square, less than fifteen short blocks and one long away. Rather than take the subway and have to wait for the train, he half-walked, half-ran the distance, until he was panting with the effort. When he stopped his hands on his knees in front of the building that matched the address from the web, he was dizzy. Taylor looked at his watch: almost four in the afternoon. School had let out an hour before, Tate could be home anytime. He sat on the stoop in front of the stairs leading to the basement apartment and waited.
Forty-five long minutes later, Taylor's head balanced between his knees, his arms wrapped around his chins, Taylor heard the sound of labored breathing. Distant and low, barely audible against the clanging of the city around him, it sounded like insistent huffs of air being progressively punched out of a beach ball. His head jerked up and turned towards the noise. There was Tate, waddling stomach-first towards Taylor, one hand gripping his ever present messenger bag, the other holding a large burrito the man was devouring between belabored attempts at catching a full breath.
When Tate saw Taylor sitting there he stopped and stood, the burrito hovering near his mouth as Tate gaped.
“What are you doing here?“ Tate said, bits of food floating in his wavy beard, his balding head glistening with a sheen of sweat even in the chill, evening air.
Taylor gulped. “I need to talk to you.“ He tried to sound serious, older but his voice cracked and the words “talk to you” came out like a squeak. Coughing, Taylor said, “It's important.“ This time he managed to keep his voice from cracking.
Tate was startled for a second but he nodded. The teacher surveyed the area, with a level of discerning suspicion which made Taylor very nervous. He took a bite of the burrito and with a mouth full of spinach, meat, tortilla, and rice said, “Come on.“
Taylor followed the portly man down the stairs, which Tate was well-versed in using with one hand, his messenger bag hanging from a shoulder strap, the other hand occasionally offering up more burrito. At the bottom of the steps Tate held the burrito with his mouth alone as he unlocked his apartment, which required three separate keys in three separate locks, and entering a code in an access panel, cleverly turned sideways inside the lintel. Taylor gaped, astonished.
Tate pushed the door open, waved Taylor in with a toss of his head. Taylor ducked in under Tate's arm. Tate, with a last sweeping gaze of the stairs and the street above, shut the door. The teacher set his messenger bag down, locked the deadbolts and finished off his burrito, before he turned to Taylor and said, “Now, what is going on Mr. Zachary?“ His tone was level, not angry or happy, nor pleasant or light.
“I'm in trouble.“ Taylor said. Tate's eyebrows went up, but he didn't say anything, just motioned Taylor to continue. The story came out in fits and starts, from Taylor's nighttime jaunt into Willow Prep, including what he had found on Phaedra computer, most of it anyway. Like the fact Philomena had keylogs of Tate's machine. He told about the postings on Undermine.net, his and Winston's trip to Staten Island and what they had found there. Shaking his head to move past that, Taylor talked about the town car, the chase, and what had happened at the end of it. Told Tate about the article saying S-3y3 had gone missing. Sue-Ann had lecturing him and Winston about it. How the Society had ended because of it. He detailed the decision by the whole group to keep going to figure out what was going on, to track the town car driver's killer down. Painted the trail they had followed which led them to the party, to the Mayor's office, and the hacking of the Mayor's network. When he mentioned the device, and explained Myth's ideas about how it worked – he also mentioned the article about magnets affecting the temporoparietal junction - Tate perked up. The teacher was eager and yet not impressed, as if it were old news to him. He waved Taylor on. Taylor left out his confrontations with Parker and the resulting embarrassment, as well as both his infatuation with Izzy and Winston's with Alexander. But when he realized he had left her out of the story, he doubled back and added her, causing Tate to pucker and look very frustrated. At no point did he allow his small amount of guilt about breaking Society confidence to overwhelm his need to find and help William.
“She followed the guard and the Mayor? And you didn't see her again? But you heard a struggle?“ Tate asked. Taylor nodded. Tate growled something under his breath, motioned Taylor to finish.
He described fleeing the party, and all the discussions they had had back at Chatham, ending with the decision to keep going, to deceive Isabel and Sue-Ann; which as he described it seemed a much bigger deal than before. He added that the others had all agreed they should approach Tate for help, though he didn't tell the teacher the Society had only wanted to involve Tate minimally. Taylor slowly, haltingly told his teacher about the electronic Post-It note he had found earlier in the day on his computer. Tate sat bolt upright then and peppered Taylor with logistical questions about the makeup of Taylor firewalls, his security protocols and his network setup, the protections on his computer. Taylor laid it out. When Taylor finished, he took a deep breath and leaned back into the chair, which accustomed to Tate's much larger bulk gave way further than expected, he almost fell off it. It was quite comfortable once it settled.
“This is very serious, Mr. Zachary. You mind if I call you Taylor?“ Tate said, opening a little fridge Taylor hadn't seen aside the sofa, pulling out a can of soda. He offered Taylor one, which Taylor gladly took. It was Jolt cola. Tate drank the whole can in several gulps and wiped his mouth.
“It takes some serious oomph to break though a system like yours, which leaves a different possibility.“ Tate said and Taylor moved to the edge of the seat.
“Whoever left it was physically in your house. They left it on the computer manually, not remotely.“ Tate said. Taylor felt like he had been slapped upside the head. It made perfect sense. Of course!
Realizing he had forgotten about his script working away, he pulled out his iPhone. Sure enough, the two results emails had arrived. Looking over them quickly it confirmed Tate's logic. Taylor swore and Tate snorted.
“Lemme see that.“ Tate grabbed the iPhone. “Told ya.“ He said flippantly, handing the iPhone back.
“Can you help me?“ Taylor asked after Tate sat staring off at the wall for an entire minute.
“Oh? What? Can I. Of course. Will I? Tsk, tsk. Taylor. This is serious. Deep. And Alex... I mean Agent Alexander... you don't....“ Tate trailed off and mumbled to himself as if he had forgotten Taylor completely. He doesn't know I know about them. Rattled he said, “Ack! Yes. Taylor. Well. OK. I'll try and help you, but you should understand, I'm not that guy anymore. I'm not in the NSA anymore. I can't stop bullets, chase kidnappers, or even run very fast, I'm not built for all that. Real life isn't Taken. I assume you haven't told your friends about the note on your computer,?“
“Of course. Wouldn't want them targeted as well. First thing we've got to do is find a way to verify the threat. Find out who's behind it, if we can. I think we should tell your friends. Whether you could protect them is debatable, but you can be sure of this much: whomever is behind all this is very smart and very capable and has lots of resources – a dangerous, terribly dangerous combination. If they found you, they probably already know about the others, or will shortly. Ignorance is always flimsy shield, Taylor.“ Nodding to himself, Tate itched his scalp and then his ear, dried skin drifted away and down from both places. “And we've got to find out what happened, if anything, to Alex, preferably without her knowing we are looking. She's not one you want as an enemy, Taylor. Trust me.“
Tate's suggestions made sense. It felt good to have a plan, a sense of purpose, it made everything seem less pressing. Taylor took his first easy breath in hours. “What about your parents?“ Tate asked, “Do they have any idea?“
Taylor shook his head in the negative. “They don't even know where I am, I left them a vague note.“
Tate tsked angrily. “They could call the police, kid. That's the last thing you want right now. Might as well rent a billboard in Times Square if the NYPD gets involved, they're on everyone's payroll.“ Tate sniffed derisively. “I'll give them a call. I'll assure them, if I can, then let you talk to them. You think that will be enough?“ Taylor didn't, but he lied and said it would. Somehow he would have to make it enough. The only thing worse just than the NYPD getting involved would be having his parents demand he come home and grounding him.
A new thought ricocheted through Taylor's consciousness.
Just because they demand something doesn't mean I had to do it.