…so 16 to go before I hit the magic number whereupon I can submit to the agent again. I wonder if subconsciously I’ve been targeting the end of part one to make exactly 100 pages. Fact of the matter is, I want to add the interlude to my submission, with Christopher in New York, which explains some of what’s going on, but more importantly, explains more about Christopher – so whoever reads the submission knows that he’s not the generic villain of the piece. Also, it lets me spend less time in the next part on “reveals,” and keep the story focused on the “new” Alex and Caroline and Nick’s stories.
The next day was a school day, and Mom insisted we go. I was more than willing – not only would it take my mind off what was going on, but I could nail Christopher to the wall.
Neither one of those happened. All I could think about in class was Dad, and how he was in jail because of me. I had this sudden sickening realization that today was also a work day – I wanted to text Mom to make sure she’d remembered to call in sick for him, but we had to turn our cell phones in at the beginning of the day. Good thing we were gifted enough to get around restrictions put in place by people who didn’t understand technology as well as we did – I managed to send her a SMS via Gmail, which made me feel a little better.
And of course Christopher wasn’t there either. Stupid me – if Dad was under arrest, then Christopher was too, wasn’t he? And if Dad wasn’t out yet, then neither was he. It only made me more intent on finding Nick. But he’d made himself pretty much Internet-invisible, and like I said, trying to find him walking around campus was a needle in a haystack thing.
And when I ran out of things to think about doing to make it all better, all I could do was think about how bad it was, and worst of all how it was all my fault that I hadn’t asked the questions I should have. I mean, it wasn’t Nigerian scammer-level gullibility, but still. I wanted to believe Christopher. I wanted a friend, I wanted to please him. And then, as I grew closer and closer to Alex, I wanted to do what it took to keep him, too.
I raced home after school, skipping out on a science project meeting with some lame excuse. “What did the lawyer say?” I asked Mom the minute I was in the door.
“The lawyer said ‘He who lies down with hackers gets up with viruses,’” Dad said.
I burst into tears and threw myself into his arms. After I got that out of my system, we sat down on the couch.
“So it looks like your friend Christopher…”
“He’s not my friend!”
“Well, your employer, it looks like he owes a creative debt to a number of people, quite a few of whom aren’t happy about it.”
“So he didn’t invent Alex?”
“I don’t know, Caroline. But sometimes you learn a lot from the questions you’re asked, you know. Questions like, ‘do you know anyone who works at Carnegie Mellon,’ or ‘have you ever worked for a company that had contracts with IBM.’”
“Yeah. So the picture I got is that he didn’t steal Alex, but he made him from stolen parts, so to speak. Some natural language code here, a way of classifying questions here, a response table setup there.”
“So why did they arrest you and not me?”
“Good question. Not that I’m complaining. Better me than you, sunshine.”
Okay, so I cried again at that. Dad was not only taking the bullet for me, he was happy to do it. Now that’s guilt.
So finding Christopher became my goal in life. And while I wasn’t going to break any more laws, if only because I was afraid Dad would get in trouble instead of me, I was definitely up for some social engineering.
My first goal was to get Christopher’s address. No matter what he said or how he shrouded them in mystery, I knew he had to have a family. And no matter what kind of mad genius he was, he was also a kid in big trouble whose parents would surely know more than I did. For the first time, I wished I’d been more mathematical, wished I’d been one of those kids who lived on semi-legal stimulants and coded all night so I could just hack the school database and get what I needed (without getting caught of course).
So for the first time in my high school career, I started putting myself out there, injecting myself into overheard conversations. It wasn’t really that hard, since everybody was wondering where he was, and the staff were so tight-lipped about it that everyone wanted to talk about it, so it was “okay” for me to intrude because it was all in the name of juicy gossip, which anyone would be expected to be interested in. Kind of sad but there you go.
I asked people in the robotics club if they’d ever been to Christopher’s house. “No,” this kid Kyle said. “But I know where he lives, kind of. We walk home the same way. He’s in that Section 8 complex over by the river.”
So he was poor. I should have known, with all that talk of “Virginia horse people” etc. that it was all a front. After school I went to the apartments and cruised the mailbox labels. Thanks to the yearbook, his last name was one thing he couldn’t hide from me.
Truth be told, the place wasn’t as scary as I’d feared. I guess we’d been rich so long I thought of subsidized housing as like, the projects. But the complex wasn’t terrible. People had satellite dishes, there wasn’t any laundry hanging between the buildings or whatever I guess I expected.
Even though I looked more innocent than, say, an adult doing the same thing, the security guard still stopped me. “Can I help you?”
“I’m looking for the Marlings. I go to school with Christopher.”
He frowned. “He’s not here. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
“They arrested him, didn’t they?”
A nod. “Bad news. You should stay away from people like that.”
“I just need to talk to his parents.”
He laughed. “Parents? Damn kid had us scammed. He lived there by himself, has for a year.”
“Nope. Looks like he paid a couple adults to come in, play his parents, get the unit.”
“And nobody noticed he lived alone?”
“The rent gets paid, nobody makes trouble, we don’t go knocking on doors.”
“Right. Okay. Thanks.”
Curiouser and curiouser. Who the hell was Christopher, anyway?