Dear Reader: This is a continuing story. If you like, you can check out these previous installments.
Part 1: Tessa Takes a Walk in Her Party Boots
Part 2: The Man in the Fedora Hat
Part 3: Tessa is a Messa
Part 4: Joelle Meets the Guy from Last Night
Part 5: A Walk Down Memory Layne
Part 6: Hacking with James
Thanks to all of you for reading.
Tessa let her head sink into a monster-sized pillow, and stared at the mystery phone containing photos from the previous evening. Since Joelle abandoned her, the task of discovery was up to Tessa alone to unveil. With each tap on the phone, Tessa felt dragged further into a foggy dissonance, each new face a nameless body unknown beyond the confines of the photograph, and her role, undefined. She wanted to know these people, but she couldn’t fake it to herself. She studied body language instead. In a photo of her and Layne, he looked uneasy, his arms folded across his chest with a full drink in his hand, and stood slightly behind her like he was waiting for an elevator.
The next screen revealed a wide group shot at a table with a pitcher of beer in the middle, only Tessa and Joelle had fancy lemon drop martinis in front of them.
“Oh yeah,” Tessa said. “I remember the lemon drops,” she said, calling out to Joelle who was in the bathroom with the door closed.
“Did you say lemon drops?” Joelle turned on the lava lamp, and proceeded to turn on the other two in the room, and knelt next to her. Orange and bluish hues danced across the walls, creating an ambiance best suited for the post-hack chill recovery. James tried to keep his cool, and concentrated on the sound of Joelle’s voice, as they chatted, pressed their heads together and stared at the photo. In it Joelle was the only one looking at the camera. Everyone else appeared in mid-sentence or drinking. Tessa stared across the table at a new face on the scene who didn’t appear in any of the other photos; he had a head of shaggy curls , but with set of deep and narrow eyes that resembled Layne’s, under an umbrella of thick eyebrows. He wore a black tie and a grey jacket, overdressed compared to his fellow clubbers, but not quite up to the task. He looked more like he’d just rolled out of bed. Shaggy chic, Tessa thought, and realized that this idea had occurred to her before.
“The real question is who does the phone belong to,” James said, stepping up to protect his girls.
“Maybe it’s this guy,” Tessa said, holding the phone up above her head. “Layne would have asked for his phone back. You know, when you came to see us.”
“You mean, you. Don’t you?” Joelle flipped back and forth between pictures. “They could be brothers maybe. Maybe James will figure it all out for us. ” Joelle came up from behind James and snuck her arms in around him. “Work your magic, James. Do it.”
Typically, Joelle didn’t support James’s job choice, but her approval sealed the deal. It was the only time Tessa thought she could accuse Joelle of being a snob. James, all in good favor, had saved friends from paying a few parking tickets, changed grades from failing to passing, nothing too greedy after all. Not all hackers were bad, James would say softly to Joelle. Just some of them, and not all the time. Hacking could be a precarious business, not knowing who to trust. James preferred performing his part and looking the other way. A social security number was the key to unlocking most doors, and passwords were easier to crack than a can of soda. People weren’t as complex at they made themselves out to be, relying on a few choice words to fall back on when their memories failed them. A pet, a car, a mascot of their favorite team, the names of their kids, all the things they are told not to use. The simpletons that humans are among machinery baffled James on a daily basis. He wanted a challenge of retrieving data with sweat dripping down the sides of his face.
Joelle spooned next to Tessa by the pillow, and stroked her hair. Tessa acted like it was a normal event, but James pretended they were putting on a show for him. He got busy on his keyboard. Shaking his head, he plugged the cable into the phone and transferred it to the port.
Meanwhile Tessa searched through her purse, and eventually dumped all its contents on the floor. She set aside her wallet, sunglasses and brush, and combed through a pile of gum wrappers and receipts “There it is. I thought I lost this.” She picked up a lipstick and generously applied it to her lips and pouted juicy lips at her friend.
“Nice. It’s a little bright. I don’t think it’s your color. Where did you get this? Not Sultrix,” Joelle lifted it off the floor and turned it on its side. “No, I’ve never seen this brand.” It puzzled them into a quiet stupor borne out of exhaustion and digestion of thick-crust pizza in their bodies, their reflexes and mental processing slowed to a standstill.
“Well, I only have the latest and greatest,” Tessa licked her lips, on display for Joelle’s benefit. Their chatter sounded more remote as James stared at strings of numbers scanning his screen. Together they laughed and put on the lipstick for each other, remarking it was a strange consistency, and that it had little chips in, sparkles they called them.
“Look in the mirror. It’s sparkling. Really,” Joelle passed a compact mirror to her.
“What is this? Wasn’t it pink? It looks greenish now,” Tessa charged for the bathroom to apply more lipstick to get the pinkish hue back. “Joelle, I need your expertise.”
The two of them together applied more lipstick at the bathroom mirror, remarking it was chalky like no other lipstick they ever tried. James thought if he heard the word lipstick one more time, he’d puke, and he remembered why he preferred isolated activity. He blared out to them he was a serious man at work to deaf ears. They came out arm in arm, singing into a brush, their lips a lime green and slightly bubbling.
Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.
Ain’t nothing like the real thing.
“What’s wrong with your lips?” James looked over at them, his concentration lost completely. “You got some kind of voodoo thing going.”
“You don’t like?” and they blew James a kiss, and he wrapped his finger around his neck and play choked himself for full effect.
A red skeleton flashed on the screen and blinked, “What?” James said under his breath. It flashed a few times and then disintegrated into blackness. James mouth hung open. “What just happened?” Equipment in the other room sparked and popped, and the unmistakable smell of smoke had everyone coughing and panting.
The whirring and blurring of his computer shut down into a deadened silence.
“It’s wiped. It’s gone,” James hid his face under his hands. “Whoa. What the hell just happened? This was deliberate. No doubt about that.”
“What? Just now?” Joelle looked at the dark computer screen. James nodded. He took it personally, and raised his eyebrows at the dark screen.
“This is freaky,” James said, staring deadpan at his screen. The machines popped and buzzed and then fell to an eerie quiet like nothing he had ever experienced in the walls of his apartment, and the stillness put him on edge. He pulled on his spiky hair and paced the room in circles. “Shit. Shit. Shit,” Falling, he writhed on the floor, banging his fists on the hard carpet, until he splayed into an “X” formation, and then sprung up in unfashionable quickness for his size and fled to the window.
“It’s pink,” Tessa said, blurting out to James. It was no consolation. “This lipstick is pink.”
“It’s green, actually,” Joelle said. “I don’t see any pink.”
No one had heard her. Pink. The lipstick was pink. Once.
“Don’t you see? This is what Layne wanted. Look what it did. It blew up the computer.” Tessa’s hand shook as she stared at the lipstick like it was a crystal ball.
“Lipstick? You think this, this, is because of the lipstick?” James shook his head. “No, don’t. Don’t blame yourself, Tessa. I’m positive lipstick can’t blow up a computer.”
As soon as James said it, she dismissed the idea, but apologized anyway.
“I think you girls should sleep here tonight.” As if on cue, the dark sedan skid away burning rubber. No, they weren’t trying to hide. They wanted to see the job done. In the orange glow of the street lamp, James saw a pale, gangly face throw a cigarette to the sidewalk.
Tessa shook her head. “Nice try, James. This girl is going to bed. I’m really tired.”
“No, really,” he said. He felt his lips quiver. “I’d feel better if you stayed here. You guys can take my bed, the couch. Sleep next the lava lamp. Whatever.” He could disclose the men he observed on watch outside, but they left arm-in-arm out the door leaving James alone with the damaged goods.
“Just make sure you take that gunk off your lips. It’s giving me the creeps,” he said to them as they stumbled out the door.
He stared at his laptop, dead as a fossil, and as he paced through the room, sparks flew out the machines. “Piece of shit.” James hurled a piece of equipment across the room, smashing it to bits. The lava lamp applauded with oozing globs of bulbous bubbles.