At first, James had no idea what he was looking at.
That was fine. He had nowhere he wanted to be, and August's scrapbook was the first thing in weeks that had piqued the barest hint of his interest.
Twenty pages were article clippings. The headlines varied from Syrian rally engineered by engineering students to Hackers of the Caribbean: Disneyland computer network sunk to Riots, remuneration and the real Saudi Arabia. After paging through them all, some repetitive themes emerged: big money scandals, governments under pressure, and the unusually rapid spread of information during a crisis.
The next hundred pages were profiles of individuals. The first batch were Donald C. Marsh, Gordon Marsh, Daisy Egan, et al.: essentially the executive arm of the Universe Creation Corporation and the development team of Shattered Land. Then there were some vaguely familiar names of less prominent UCC staff, including Julia Bannigan, and then a few dozen people James had never heard of.
Then names he knew started popping up again: James Franklin Kirkpatrick. Angela Kirkpatrick. Richard Andrew Kirkpatrick. Dawn Li. Casey Lynn Carter.
Every page until about the ninetieth contained a lengthy characterization. Then the entries became progressively less detailed. Kanade Aizawa's entry was a paragraph long. Sara the Scythe merited only three sentences.
After the profiles, the book shifted to diary format. The dates of entry began from June 27, 2018. James flipped to the back and found that entries had continued to the present day, though lately spaced much farther apart.
Some entries were as terse as Nothing today, or No progress, or Bloody firewalls!! Some were longer and detailed various enterprises, planned and executed, to gather information on the subjects and incidents described in the book. Sometimes these took the form of interviews with informants. More often they were complex schemes of internet searches or attempts to hack various servers and databases. A great deal of information had been accrued, but the impression was that none of it was what the searcher had been looking for.
A significant number of entries mentioned John, last name never revealed, with whom the writer possessed a complex relationship. At times the tone was subservient yet insolent: Had to report no progress again today. Got yelled at by John again. At times it was something else: Put together a paragraph on Daisy Egan. Showed it to John. Was told it's "decent." Would it kill the man to give a girl a compliment once a year?
It took James an hour to go through the whole scrapbook, skimming portions of the driest material. August neither moved much nor spoke. Every time she began to fidget, she would take a few deep breaths and straighten up. Sometimes she would close her eyes, but that seemed to make her more restless. Most of the time, she just watched the ceiling, as if seeing something there besides stucco.
James closed the book, looked down at the bare cover for a moment, and then placed it back in August's lap. She was in one of her eyes-closed phases and started at the contact.
He watched her. She looked down at the book, then up at him, then across the room. She bit her lip. She cleared her throat. Every time her eyes darted toward him, she caught herself at the last moment.
The usual luster of those eyes had faded from emerald to something like a shadowed field of moss. Even August's assertive posture and casual seductiveness were gone. She looked like she had lost her favorite stuffed toy, one with a missing button-eye and patched leg that could never be replaced even with a hundred trips to the store.
James sat motionless.
One minute passed. Two. Three.
Just before the fourth, August leaned her face into her hands and said, "God, why won't you say something?" It came out muffled by her palms and by the shock of auburn hair that fell forward. For the first time since James had known her, she looked like a real person: disheveled, disquieted, authentic. No longer slightly too perfect.
"What do you want me to say?"
"Fucking hell, I don't know." August leaned back, letting her hands fall as if the last of her battery's charge had been drained. "Yell and scream. Ask what in the bloody blue blazes is going on. Tell me you'll help me or you hate me and never want to see me again. Tell me ... something. Anything." She closed her eyes and let out the last of her breath. "Please."
"Fine. I'll talk, and you stop me when I'm wrong. You suspect UCC of involvement in a variety of underhanded things and you've been investigating, but never found anything conclusive. When you met me, I was added to your list of sources." That chronology was somehow off. "No, I was already a source you had dismissed. But you changed your mind. You tried to wrap me around your finger so I would either spill the beans or help you find them.
"Then you changed your mind again. Instead of manipulating me, you're coming clean, even knowing that I could tell Donald and get you fired, or tell the Department of Homeland Security and get you deported or worse. Unless you've begun to act irrationally for some reason, you are taking a calculated risk, believing that I won't leave this room without agreeing to help you, which leaves me with a question.
"Brilliant as you seem to be, do you really believe something as ridiculous as the idea that UCC and Donald Marsh—whom I've known since I was in diapers, roughly—overthrew Syria and Iran, caused riots in Saudi Arabia, hacked Disneyland and crashed the Australian stock exchange? Among other things."
James sat back into a corner of the couch.
August was muttering something under her breath. "...unless you've begun to act irrationally for some reason..." She laughed, then stood up from the couch and went to the window and put a hand on the glass. A thin film of condensation formed around it.
"Do I really believe..." August let out a breath that painted the window in white. "No, I don't guess I do. So then, you want to know what this is about. Why I'm doing it."
"That's right." James got up off the couch, not knowing exactly why. He went to stand next to August at the window. "Answer carefully."
"I'm tired of being careful." August drew a little picture on the window, a stick figure hanging from a noose. "I'm doing it because I once believed, and kept at it so long that I can't let go, because I'm an idiot and stubborn. And also to punish myself. The only thing harder than to stop is to keep on. So I will."
August's almost perfect American diction was novel. That seemed to be how she spoke when she wasn't choosing how to speak. But as for what she had said...
Yes. If anyone could understand all the idiotic reasons why she was doing what she was doing, it surely must be James Franklin Kirkpatrick, the patron saint of false hope.
"Tell me what you want, exactly."
"I want you to get into Donald Marsh's home computer and copy his data." August's voice was utterly without inflection, as if she had used up the last of her ability to feel. James knew exactly what that was like, as well.
"Even if I wanted to, there's no way I'd know how."
"I can set everything up so all you have to do is plug a drive into a port."
"You know I won't do it."
"I know you won't choose me over your friend without a bloody good reason."
"You think you can give me one?"
"What is it?"
"I'll take the place that Angela Kirkpatrick gave up." August turned away from both the window and James. "I'll save your mother for you."
YOU ARE READING
No Life to LoseMystery / Thriller
James Kirkpatrick's difficult life leads him to take solace in virtual reality—a momentary peace soon shattered by mystery, intrigue, and unseen forces bent on plunging the world into chaos. An epic tale of love, loss, and the boundless influence of...