Chapter 1 -- Codes
“What did you say?” Mr. Turpin interrupted, his face growing red. He pointed to Slab Abbot with his white stick.
Tommy Dorie, two rows over whispered uselessly, “Don’t say anything Slab. You’ll just dig yourself in deeper.”
He wasn’t the only one mumbling advice. The big black giant, barely fitting into the seat, fumbling with his pencil, was the school hero -- best defense in football and basketball. Slab’s version of English frequently sent Turpin on a tirade.
“Uh. Uh. Mistah Turpin... Uh.”
The teacher shook his head in disgust. “No dribbling in my classroom! If you can’t speak, don’t even try.” He turned back to the board where he’d been listing discussion points about “The Tell-Tale Heart”. If he could feel the angry glares from twenty-plus students, he gave no sign.
Slab just stared at the ceiling and let his pencil roll off the desk, burning up inside. Tommy knew the big guy’s signs; he’d tutored Slab most of the year. Teachers cowed him, but the next guy that faced him with a ball would need to be carried away.
Just then, Tommy’s pocket vibrated. He glanced around, and slipped his slim white phone out, concealed beneath the desk, and slid it open.
Kati: CS@SS 5:05 ? 3:56p
For the first time in a long day, he smiled, Slab’s trials forgotten.
It lasted until he noticed Fred Kelly, the next row over, hunched down, staring at his hand, too.
Kati Statham must have invited both of them. He could really have used more alone time with her, seeing the new movie, Caribbean Sunset at the Skyline Showtime. Every time they tried to do anything, Fred’s ugly face showed up. When he’d mentioned the movie to her yesterday, Fred was right there, making himself part of any plan.
But he couldn’t turn her down out of frustration -- not Kati. She always called the shots. He owed her that much.
He thumbed a response.
U Drv. MYA Circle
His father, Nick, was in heavy project mode, doing his secret company stuff. He wouldn’t be there to pick him up after school anyway, so why not? Any excuse to avoid the worn, ratty benches of the school bus, surrounded by younger kids, was welcome.
A minute later, Fred grinned back at him. She’d relayed the message to him -- meet at the flag circle after class. Tommy lifted his hand from his wrist to show he understood.
“Mr. Dorie? Do you have something to say?”
“No, sir. Just shaking out a cramp.”
Mr. Turpin didn’t buy it, but it was clear the class was out of comments on Edgar Allen Poe and there was nothing much he could do to get the discussion restarted. It was too near the end of the day. The teacher looked around the room, but no one met his gaze. The class had been going well, and then stopped, and he didn’t understand why.
Childers High School in Chicago was a “magnet” school, with good teachers and special programs to coax the affluent to send their kids to a poor neighborhood. That’s just what happened to Tommy. Nick’s mysterious job paid well, but an easy two thirds of his classmates came from families with a lot less. In spite of it all, Tommy was still without wheels.
Nick promised a car when he graduated. He’d need one for college. But he was still a junior and waiting another whole year without his own transportation seemed impossibly tedious.
Nick’s too stubborn! Once his father got an idea in his head, he stuck to it. When Nick Dorie was unavailable, it was up to Tommy to take the school bus or beg a ride from friends.
Class ended, and Fred was out in the first rush, clearly intent on meeting Kati first. Tommy headed after him into the hallway.
“Hey, Tommy-Boy! We need’ta talk.” A big black hand reached out and snagged his shoulder, almost knocking him off his feet.
“Yeah, Slab. I’m in a hurry.” Twisting free at the exit, he turned to face him.
Slab’s smooth skull made his face look small, but it was twisted into a hurt frown. His orange letterman jacket looked like it’d never fit around his chest. “But you said ya’d help wit da Biology.”
“And I will, I promise! It’s just that...someone’s waiting for me.”
Slab glanced toward the parking lot and nodded. “Kitty-Kati. I unnerstand. I just got dis problem in Fifth.”
“And we’ll work it out. But tomorrow, okay? Lunch?”
“Okay, I guess.” He rubbed his nose, a little crooked from last season’s injury.
Kati’s Jeep, easily identifiable by the flower decals and the big ‘Barbie’ logo across the side, pulled out of the main parking lot. Her mother bought her the car last year, already decorated. Tommy smiled reassuringly at Slab and sprinted off. Six month’s ago, he’d helped him on a school project. Now, he’d become a permanent, personal tutor.
It wasn’t hard. Slab was smart enough, he just had to have everything explained to him the right way. It was frustrating. He was on call all the time, like a doctor.
But there were advantages. Being on Slab’s good side made his life at Childers a little easier. Everyone said the politically correct things about racial harmony, but there was no denying that the color barrier was pretty steep.
Kati Statham, blonde and perfect, looked right at home in her Barbie car. She had the canvas top down, and he could see Fred in the front seat with her, like a weasel version of Ken. Tommy waved.
Almost at the same instant, his phone vibrated, and his jog dropped to a walk. Almost afraid to look, he pulled it out.
Nick: M99 0 4:09p
Oh no. Not now!
Nick had his own text codes, and just like in the games they played, he expected his son to remember them all. Tommy sighed. This message was obvious: Move to location 99, i.e., home, in 0 hours.
Nick was serious about his little games. If Tommy didn’t go home immediately, he’d catch grief for weeks. His tendency to order him around had gotten worse, now that Mom was gone, and Tommy suspected the codes were just a way for Nick to steer him around like a remote-controlled toy car.
He was tempted to press a key and call for clarification. It was against the rules, but sometimes the games were just that -- games. One time, the codes had led him on an elaborate treasure hunt all over downtown Chicago, up the Sears Tower and down the Navy Pier. Hidden blue post-notes and phone codes led him to the ticket counter at Wrigley Field just in time for a game. Other times, it’d been nothing more than a check to see if he were paying attention. A “pop-quiz”, just like all the hundreds of Nick’s impromptu tests Tommy had grown up with.
“Hurry up!” Fred yelled. “We’re blocking traffic.” A rusting tan Cadillac behind them honked.
Tommy stepped on the running-board and climbed over the side. “Just drop me around back. I can’t go.”
Kati’s short blonde head turned back from the traffic for just an instant to read his expression. Her blue eyes did something to his gut, every time.
“Your father again?”
He sighed. “Yeah. No help for it.”
“Stand up to him. I tell you, he’s just compensating for his wife’s death.”
The instant she saw the look on his face, she apologized. “Sorry. I’ll take you home.”
Tommy clamped down on his feelings. No way was he going to let the surge of grief show. Not with Fred watching.
He forced a smile. “No. You two go on. I’m on a first name basis with the bus driver by now. My house is way out of your way. You won’t make it on time.”
Fred nodded, quickly enough, “Okay, if you say so.” Kati sighed.
Nick: M99 0 M0 5:09p
Go home immediately and stay put.
He closed the phone and muttered, “Okay, Nick! I’m almost there.”
Tommy nodded to David, the bus driver, and stepped off at the stonework entrance to his street. Forrester Homeowners’ Association kept talking about putting up a gate and closing off the whole area, but it’d been just talk for years. It was a new neighborhood, but with money enough for older looking houses and tall trees supplied by landscapers.
Two things popped into his head as he turned the corner and saw his house. Nick’s weird-looking red electric car wasn’t in the driveway, and a yellow sticker was taped to their door.
He frowned at the notice.
The lawn was a little ragged. There’d been rain, and now there were tufts that had come up and formed seed at the tips. It was time to mow, and the Homeowner’s Association’s rules allowed neighbors to complain if someone was letting their yard look bad.
His bad mood turned worse. They’d had landscape notices before.
Yard work was his job. That meant more wasted hours pushing around the balky electric mower. And he’d have to take care of the grass within three days, or there’d be more complaints.
It’s that electric mower. It’s always stalling and popping the thermal overload switch.
Nick wasn’t a green fanatic or anything, he was just addicted to gadgets. A fuel-cell powered electric lawn mower was just his thing, even if it lacked a certain... reliability.
Up until that last text message, he’d hoped Nick had come home early. But no car and no explanations.
Click. The door unlocked as he approached. His wallet held a special RFID card, and their custom house-monitoring computer could sense him via radio signals five feet from the entrance.
He ripped the yellow paper off the door and went in.
“Nick! Are you home?” There was no sound.
He plopped into the lounge chair and toggled the TV to the home network. The house computer showed a floor plan. Each room showed its individual temperature and humidity. His avatar icon was blinking in the living room, but there was no sign of anyone else on the property.
“Okay Nick, I’m home. I’m staying put. But why?”
He checked his cell phone again, but nothing new had slipped in. His finger hovered over the Call button.
He’d need a good reason to violate the rules -- good reason in his father’s mind. Nick respected logic, but logic was just scaffolding built on top of assumptions. Nick had a bad habit of discounting assumptions Tommy thought valid.
He’s too old to remember what it’s like being me.
So, I’m stuck at home. I should be waiting for the movie to start, getting close to Kati, doing my best to be more interesting than Fred.
He wandered into the kitchen and sat down at the table. The artificial flowers in the vase at the center of the table looked dingy. He’d need to dust them soon.
I’ll need to dust everywhere. He looked with fresh eyes at the room. Other than breakfast, and eating fast food Nick picked up on the way home from work, the kitchen was unused.
Mom had put those flowers on the table. The refrigerator still had her last grocery list clipped to the door with a magnet. The calendar on the wall still showed November of last year.
A year ago, Mom would listen while she worked here. She didn’t say a lot, but when he wanted to talk, she would stop what she was doing and give him her full attention. Nick would give advice, if it were something technical, but Mom just listened, and occasionally asked questions.
“What are you going to do until Nick gets back?”
She would’ve said something like that. Something practical.
But it was a good thought. No sense in fretting. Nick would show up soon enough.
The idea of mowing the grass came and went. He shook his head. Not today. Let the neighbors stew. There were other chores more appealing.
He got up and dug into the fridge for sandwich makings and a drink.
Homework? There was a little -- mostly review work. Finals were next week. He always had good grades, but he wasn’t in love with schoolwork. Still, it had to be done. He headed for his room.
The bedroom was a scene of chaos. Not only was his computer missing, but drawers were open and clothes he’d put up just last night were scattered on the floor. Someone had been here. Someone had stolen his laptop!
Hurriedly, he checked the entire house. Only one other room was touched.
Nick’s study was a sparse place. Papers were never left out. Normally, his office looked like a real-estate photo, except for dust that collected on bookshelves.
But, today there were changes. A whole section of the bookshelf was empty. One drawer in his desk was left half open. There were pens and paperclips still inside, but it looked like something larger, say a spindle of DVD’S or something that size, had been taken.
Tommy idly brushed the photo of Marissa Dorie resting on her husband’s desk, and dust came off in a streak. He tugged out his shirttail and cleaned it off.
Nick did some work here, but he was at his office more hours a day than he was home.
The big desktop machine was running a screensaver. Tommy wiggled the mouse, and a security screen appeared. He entered his own password, but it was rejected.
Nick’s machine was company property, locked down with a padlock and numerous passwords. As long as it was running some program of Nick’s, it wouldn’t let him on. And it would do no good to pull the power or try to hack in. This machine didn’t even have a hard drive of its own. Everything came in over a secured network connection. Nick had to have a smartcard to even boot the machine.
He wasn’t going to find any hints there.
Was it a thief, or Nick?
There was one way to check. He dashed back to the living room. Behind the couch, he picked up the remote and punched three keys.
In big block letters the house monitor program showed a log of all the day’s events. At the top was his entrance just a few minutes earlier. He scrolled down.
At 2:03, there’d been an unknown person at the door. Tommy clicked a button on the remote and a video made by the hidden security camera in the eaves showed old Mr. Peterson taping the yellow notice on his door. He could have guessed it was him.
Nick had gone to work early, well before dawn and long before he’d left for school. The house monitor showed him returning at 10:43 in the morning, and then leaving again at 10:55. That was all. It hadn’t bothered to record video of a known resident.
There were no messages for him -- not on the TV, nor email. A single voicemail was flagged for Nick.
“Nick, get back here. Curtis is on the way.” The voice was female, but no one he knew. He checked the info. 11:03. She’d just missed his father. Blocked caller ID -- probably some co-worker. There was never caller ID from his office. They blocked everything, a total security fetish. It didn’t mean anything that she called Nick by his first name. Everyone did that.
Tommy had never been invited to visit his office and didn’t know anyone Nick worked with. Typical paranoid security.
He was used to being out of the loop. That’s just the way his father was -- secrets and ciphers. Just like the text messaging codes on his phone.
“It had to have been Nick,” he finally decided. He was a little relieved. Calling 911 and dealing with the police would be more than he wanted to deal with.
Nick must have needed my laptop. Some emergency. If not, we’re going to have to have another chat about personal privacy.
Nick had made a big deal about how they were just two guys on their own now, and how they had to work together as partners. Not that he’d ever really meant it.
He shook his head. Even homework was out until Nick came back. The only other computer was the house monitor. Tommy knew from experience that hacking into it could be done, but it was more trouble than it was worth. Too much trouble for schoolwork.
The phone vibrated. Finally!
He flipped it open.
Kati: 7:30 showing. Can U make it? 6:55p
Tommy debated a half-second before replying. She’d given him a second chance, and he wouldn’t disappoint her again. If Nick objected, it would be a good time to bring up his missing laptop!
B there in 30.
I’m going! I’ve gotta get out of this place before it drives me crazy.
In the garage, the motorcycle was plugged in to the wall socket. Good. He didn’t remember plugging it in last time. He pulled the key from the hook on the wall and pressed the garage door button. The bike was his for short errands. It was a shame he wasn’t allowed to take it to school.
Silently, he sped down the road. Three blocks later, the phone in his pocket made itself felt. A frown on his face, he flipped on the bike’s sound switch. An MP3 file, recorded with Harley-Davidson engine noise, rumbled out the hidden speakers. Stoically, he ignored the phone’s tingle. No way he was going to play with the phone while driving. Kati was waiting, and the way things had been drifting between them this past month, there was nothing more important than meeting her there on time.
The air in his face felt like freedom.