The real question, Patti asked, was could you call Cassandra's tat a tramp stamp? It rested on her lower back, true, but the ink showed an angel holding a book. Could angels be trampy? Chelsea traced its wings with her fingers as Cassie knelt upright, shirt held up to show the art. Flesh breathed in and out. The two girls had helped Patti onto Cassandra's upsized bed. Patti adjusted her sleep shirt and turned away to examine the bedside shelves, which boasted a collection of books and manga and an assortment of tiny people: Pikachu and Winnie-the-Pooh, an incomplete set of Cowboy Bebop figures, a medieval fool, a tiny china Mother Goose, Mr. Peanut, two Virgin Marys, a dashboard Shriner, and an armed St. Michael, sword up and wings spread. Another angel.
"How'd you convince the tat place you were eighteen?"
"I guess we all have our crime secrets, right?" Cassie pulled her shirt back down.
Chelsea looked to Patti, smirking, and then followed her eyes to the Bebop toys on the shelf. "Faye Valentine's so awesome," she said. "I'd totally be her for Halloween. Except they wouldn't let me in the dance dressed like that. Damn them." Laughter and a mock fist-shake. But there would be a Halloween dance this year. With the passing of times things were settling to normal. Grade ten had brought a mystery, but not a frightful one. No more students had died.
"Faye Valentine?" said Patti. "You'd freeze your ass off waiting in line."
Cassie waited a moment, and then said, "So you really won't tell me?" Chelsea giggled. Cassandra's eyes moved from one girl to the next. "Yarr! Hang the black flag at the end of the mast!"
Chelsea laughed and then said, "Unrelated strange fact. You know the hotel's network reuses, like, the same four passwords?" and they fell over laughing.
The story: their school site had been hacked. Parents seeking information got Lazytown's "You are a Pirate" video instead. The hacker's trail wound and twisted and ended at the local hotel's network. People drew conclusions, but neither cops nor school admin could prove a thing. Word spread in whispers. The reputation Patti and Chelsea had been acquiring solidified over the weeks, nods of approval from student rebels, friendly yar-hars and yo-hos. Others who had wrinkled their noses at Patti's twisted hobble or worse, effused sympathy like she was some kind of charity case, now saw something else when she passed: Patti Washington, Hacker Extraordinaire. But she knew she couldn't share details, not anywhere. Shared details came back to haunt you. It was a pity: The Magus would be so terribly impressed.
Her communication with the man was born, like so much on the Net, of perverse curiosity.
RIPtrollers turned up in packs. The night after "Tony Teerden" defiled Rachel's Tribute Page, Patti had searched Rachel's name and the details of her death online. She played her keyboard like a music student would a sonata. She found an attempt to rile up interest in Rachel's case, posted in a few places, in identical words. The poster was the Magus on his own site, a members-only platform that hosted images, Instagram-style. Unwise and shocking pics appeared, bathroom nudes, crime scene photos, stolen kisses and flashes, alongside original material: teens and tweens in their summer clothes, beach girls bending over, hot girls, ugly girls. Another place where basement-dwellers gathered for cheap laughs and fap fodder.
And, she noted, the site had a system for private messages between members, all coded with considerable elegance.
Patti looked again at Chelsea who was staring into Cassandra's eyes, and then she turned away. "If you need me to leave," she said. "I’m used to being forever alone."
Chelsea laughed. "That's a lie. You were talking to Steve the other day."
"Steve Obremski?" Cassie looked surprised. "Well, he's cute."
"He asked me about the Hack. About which I know nothing, of course."
"But then we're talking, and he asks about cerebral palsy."
"He was so cute and clueless. About all he knows is that I walk funny and the plaza near the highway has a donation box. You know, that clothing donation box? In the parking lot for the plaza near the highway?"
"So I said 'yeah, Steve, we're after your clothes.' And he goes, 'You wouldn’t be the first.'" They laughed. Steve had been conscious he was joking with that scary hacker chick, you know, the disabled girl, the Evil Genius? She felt flattered nonetheless. This was Steve: court jester to the jocks. He had a handsome face, symmetrical as one of Cassandra's tiny shelf people. Of course, he also had a girlfriend, a high-maintenance pleasure model, and not, she supposed, someone a guy like Steve easily left. Still, a girl could dream: a house on a beach with a gas giant and sundry other moons hanging in the sky, and Steve, a Steve who wanted to touch her like Chelsea had touched Cassie's angel tattoo, and if Steve couldn't understand the alien sky, she could live with that. She might explain that the gas giant itself would have to be in the star's Goldilocks Zone. He would just nod, she supposed, because if he asked what a Goldilocks Zone was, that could only lead to further questions.
Magus probably understood such things, and she suspected from his posts he craved real-world female contact.
Later, Chelsea assured her nothing occurred. She and Cassie had held hands beneath the covers. Patti shrugged. She had slept nearby, covered in spare flannel blankets, lost in dreams of her own.
Troubles, Kirt explains to his ma, with something like the tone she once used for lady's problems. Probably he should just drink less coffee.
He can remove the vent in minutes. His hands don't shake so much now.
The congregation uses the upstairs washrooms; the choir takes the ones downstairs. Once the choir has taken its place in the loft, the bowels of St. LARP’s rest empty. When he walks those subterranean halls he imagines himself on some old gaming campaign: You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. Here be monsters.
He doesn't game anymore, not in the real world. His old friends have moved on, married, settled into work. He wonders if the Slesaks still run a weekly session.
He met Brian Slesak back in ninth grade. At first, they hadn't much liked each other. Kirt had higher hopes, socially, and Slesak, with his acne and hair-trigger hand-raising, might as well have been the nerd in some dorky movie. He played tuba in band; the instrument seemed chosen to enhance an overall comic effect. At first, Kirt laughed with the others.
Kimberley had teased hair. She sat in front of Kirt in history, and they were paired for a project. She seemed friendly. They talked about themselves as they assembled their material on The Great War, 1914-1918.
"Gymnastics, yeah. Since I was a little girl?"
"So you'd be, you’d be really flexible?"
"Totally. Yeah. There’s this like one girl from our school who might make the Olympics. Maybe not the next ones but maybe in 1996?"
"You should see her on the beam. Yeah."
They continued to cut and paste; class computers and Photoshop were well in the future. World War One had a great layout. He saw Kimberley look over at two other girls, who were smirking about something. She flashed her eyes at them, clearly annoyed. Kirt decided she was different from the others, the mewling, preening, make-up-caked creatures that surrounded them.
"Where are they?"
"The, uh, Olympics? That your friend might be in?"
"Oh! Right, right! Exciting, eh? Uh, Atlanta. I mean, I don’t think I'll be going, but it’s like, this girl might be in, so I could actually go to like, see her. Atlanta’s not a far way, right?"
"No. It's in the southern U.S."
"Cool, right? Yeah. The South."
Kirt smiled. "You know, where they say, 'If we get divorced, are we still brother and sister?'"
She looked at him, cockeyed.
"It was a joke."
He tried to explain.
"We should finish this," she said, and then, "it's looking really good, eh? Yeah."
The Great War, 1914-1918, received 90%. Two days later he passed her in the hall and waved.
"Ooh! There goes that guy you like," another girl said. He felt his stomach tense. A moment later, a second girl giggled.
"Shut up," Kimberley said.
When he returned to his dull blue locker at the end of class, he found someone waiting for him, a square-shaped thug in a Guns N' Roses tee. His ears and the lustrous back of his hair stuck out.
"Stay away from Kimberley."
"What? I can talk to who I want to."
The boy moved closer. "She doesn't like you."
"What?" The boy smelled of sweat and smoked meat.
"Only take one punch."
"I didn't do anything." Kirt looked around and saw Kimberley, standing by. She shook her head. Her face wore a look of either amusement or disgust.
She never spoke to him again after that. He'd see her and this obnoxious jerk walking together in the hall, and Kirt would think about how he was probably taking advantage of that twisty flexibility. He'd try to avoid them, even look away, look down, turn invisible. Her boy slammed him with his elbow once in the hall, sent him into a group of girls. Their jaws opened and shut like angry birds, and they scattered, indignant, and blaming him.
At night his mind gave way to dark imaginings. He would break into their homes, ninja-faced, armed, and then rush out across, he supposed, snow-covered shadowy fields. And, of course, he would always get away.
The humiliations lessened with each year. People faded into their lives; the boy who threatened him became a face in the hall. In the eleventh grade, Kimberley's family moved away. By then, he and Slesak had discovered Usenet. They got lost on the cutting edge. They searched for tech news, urban folklore, radical politics, and spent more time than they cared to admit at alt.sex.stories. They also shared anything they thought was funny and any post that contained local news, however mundane.
Workers were digging a rail tunnel from Sarnia to Port Huron, across the river, in the United States. Boring machine now in Sarnia, read a headline.
"That explains a lot," said Kirt.
Slesak laughed, a braying sort of laugh. "Man, you should post that."
They found more sinister things there, too, from time to time. Slesak grew disturbed easily, but Kirt felt his awareness of the world thickening.
His friend continued to play tuba in band, gamed with the group, dialed into Usenet, and took to tutoring the most unlikely people in math. He started wearing a trilby hat and turned himself into a character, somehow acceptable to people who looked through Kirt, or still smirked when he passed in the hall. In college Brian met Augusta, and their place was where the gamers met. They married, moved from an apartment in a half-empty building on Front Street where the wind blew through the walls to a low-rent townhouse and finally, after the first baby came, to a place near Canatara Park. Augusta was polite, but Kirt always felt she looked down on him.
By graduation the cool people seemed to be in computing. Kirt's college classmates did well for themselves. He found steady work and a decent income as IT for a Graphics and Print shop, but the girls continued to elude him. He never understood. They whined that they were oppressed. He certainly was.
He started playing more online, avoided his friends, and mourned the old days of the web. When he created his site he had something like the early Usenet in mind, visually upgraded. His attempts at RIPtrolling had limited appeal, but his creepshots brought crowds of the like-minded.
He retrieves the camera's drive. Maybe he'll have more footage of Mozart Girl—though that he might keep for himself. He knows he can’t risk too many more attempts here. He will have to find new hunting grounds soon.
The sounds of the choir and the old pipe organ carry from above. He puts the new drive in its place, pockets the old one, screws the vent, and scrabbles down the hallway and back to his ma in the pews.
sweetiepet: She looks censored. Like there might have been a bit more showing? Censored, Maggy. Say it ain’t so!
Magus: Maybe there’s more. Maybe there's not.
sweetiepet: She looks like a cheerleader.
Magus: Maybe. When she gets to high school.
Magus: I have stuff I don't post.
sweetiepet: I bet you do.
Magus: It might be too much for you.
sweetiepet: Try me.
Magus: IRL, maybe.
Magus: I was thinking about what we said about fate & belonging here. I know I’m older, but couldn't we just meet?
sweetiepet: I'm close to Grand Bend.
Magus: I could do the Bend.
sweetiepet: Somewhere public, just in case.
Magus: A public place. I'm good with that.
sweetiepet: And meet My Pedophile Lover.
Magus: Ephebophile! There's a difference, Jailbaitpet! But I am an older guy. Thirties.
sweetiepet: Hearts can build bridges. Juliet was thirteen.
sweetiepet: Romeo &.