Actually, I wasn’t too bummed about the group project. It was a dumb assignment for a dumb teacher who gave us so many instructions that every assignment was like assembling a piece of Ikea furniture that was all pre-cut and just had to be put together according to a million detailed steps. The grade was totally based on how well you could follow instructions, and the finished products were pointless. With Ikea, at least you ended up with a bookcase or a table.

The good news was that Marcella was on our team, and she was good at instructions, though terrible at everything else. She would make sure we got it done on time and didn’t miss any of the pointless little steps or end up banging it together like furniture that works but has a few missing nuts and bolts, getting points off for it. We also had Dave, who doubled down on being not good at things. It was his career path. He was so good at letting everyone else do all the work, I was sure he’s be a CEO of something one day.

And there was Nikko, who I actually liked.

A lot.

You know how people in books always talk about their hearts “pounding” or “melting” or being “on fire” and other things that you would not want actually happening to your heart because you would have to go to the emergency room? Being around Nikko made me feel weird and mixed up, but in a good way because when I was with him I didn’t feel like an awkward klutz. I felt like I might actually be the kind of cool person that someone like Nikko would like. When I was with him, the world seem brighter, sharper, more full of possibility, and sometimes I got the crazy idea he might feel that way about me. I hardly ever let myself feel that melty-poundy on-fire way because I know you can be fooled. But Nikko would get why it was complicated and he wouldn’t make a joke out of it even if it turned out he didn’t like me that way.

Not that I had figured out how to tell him any of this.

Nikko is smart and irreverent and always in trouble because that’s exactly where he wants to be. It’s a lot more interesting than being safe. He calculates what it takes to flunk a course and dances on that edge, just to show that he can, and then just before he’s about to crash and burn, he casually turns in something so brilliant it saves his grade. Barely. Teachers can’t stand him.

It doesn’t help that his parents are successful and wealthy. So far as I can tell, they love Nikko, but they don’t get him at all. His father is a lawyer; his mother is a chemist. They both work long hours and drive fancy cars and they are smart, like he is, but not in the same way. They want the best for their son, but he may as well be a creature from another planet. Nikko’s idea of what’s “best” is totally the opposite of theirs. They would no doubt buy him his very own expensive car, but instead he rides a battered fixed-gear bike that he found in a junkyard and restored. His mom is from the Philippines and he inherited her coloring and slender frame and straight dark hair. He’s also Catholic, like her. He gets into the ceremony and did the whole altar boy thing when he was younger. But from what I can tell, she and his dad both find him impossible to understand.

Whenever he gets in trouble, which is always, they put it down to  his “artistic temperament,” which isn’t too far off, because he’s really creative. He’s into cosplay and fanfic and makes crazy little cartoons that he puts up on Vimeo. He draws each panel by hand and adds his own music and they’re really silly and weird and wonderful. He makes his own clothes from stuff he buys at second hand stores, takes apart, and sews up differently. But what he really loves is the stage. He wants to be an actor and he is really, really good at it. When he gets into a role, he’s totally into it, and it’s almost creepy because he’s so convincing. His face changes. His body changes. He becomes another person. And then, at the snap of a finger, he’s himself again. It’s like possession, only it’s all under his control. Also, he can memorize pages and pages of dialogue or make stuff up on the fly. Give him a character outline and he’ll run with it, improvising a story and making it all totally believable.

He didn’t go to my school in the suburbs, but the kids at his school were just as bad. Between his clothes, his looks, and his attitude, he didn’t fit in. He didn’t like being called a faggot and getting harassed on a daily basis. For the record, he’s not gay or even bi. “Faggot” is just an all-purpose insult. The fact that he sometimes wears a skirt isn’t a statement about his orientation. He just feels like it, but boys aren’t supposed to feel like it.

Sometimes I think it’s harder being a boy than a girl because you can’t wear certain colors and have to act tough. Then I see how women are treated in the tech community and I’m not so sure. People are basically equal opportunity jerks.

After a while he started to fight back, but he always got blamed for causing trouble, because everybody else got along fine. So it had to be his fault, right? Once you’re labeled a discipline problem, it’s always your fault.

His parents wouldn’t take the school’s side, though. They threatened a lawsuit and ended up enrolling him in this alternative program so that he could finish school while the school systems paid for an apprenticeship at a local theater. He was able to work on costumes and sets and catch up on school work when he felt like it, which was mostly never except when he had to bring his Fs up to Ds. He made a million friends among a crowd of people with artistic temperaments like his and life got a lot better. His parents even let him move into an apartment in Cedar-Riverside, where a lot of university kids live. So long as he calls his parents regularly and meets up with his mom every Sunday for mass, he gets to live life pretty much the way he wants.

Nikko doesn’t get up before noon usually, so our meeting at the MIA wasn’t scheduled until the afternoon. I tried to catch up on sleep, but I kept picturing a SWAT team busting down the door and thundering up the steps in their military gear. I finally gave up and systematically checked out my security setup. I had protected both of my laptops with encryption designed by a cypherpunk who was part of the Group. They each had a sneaky dual boot so that anyone who forced me to switch them on and type in my password would find nothing interesting, just random homework assignments and a browser full of innocent history, populated by a routine I wrote that surfed sites a kid might look at on a daily basis. To get to the real stuff you had to interrupt the startup and know what to type in at command level. It wasn’t foolproof – anyone who really wanted to see what I’d been up to could crack their way in without too much trouble – but someone who didn’t know much about computers would assume it wasn’t worth the bother to take a closer look.

My work email had some messages waiting. Someone wanted me to blackmail his biology teacher because she’d given him a C- that he didn’t deserve and it was messing up his GPA and his chance to get into a good college. That one got nuked without a response. Another person wanted to know if I was hiring, since he had some ideas about how to expand the business. No thanks. A third . . .

I looked up from my screen and stared out the window at the street below for a minute. I don’t have time for this I told myself. Not this.  Not now. I took a breath and made myself reread it. My stomach was hurting again.

Dear Secret Avenger,

I heard about you from Amy Vang, who said you helped her with a personal problem. I don’t know if I can afford it, but I want to find out if you can help me, too.

My sister told me there’s a guy she met at the Owl, this coffee shop she used to like a lot but she’s never going back after this. They got talking about music and he told her about a neat album he bought and invited her to his apartment to check it out because he has a turn table and everything. He gave her some wine, and he must have put some thing in it because she woke up with the worst head ache ever and she doesn’t remember what happened next. He said she drank a lot, but that’s a lie. She doesn’t even like wine.

But she was asleep for hours and it was past midnight when she woke up and he was all hey, that was great and she was all what? I guess he did it to her while she was out, because it was so sore she even walked funny. Its not like she does this all the time. She just started high school. Her parents would kill her if they found out.

His name is Simon Meyer and I need to know if you can teach him a lesson. How much does it cost? Can I pay in installments?

Sincerely yours,

Charlie (I wont use my last name if its OK)

I could write back and say “You don’t need to hire me. That’s rape. It’s a violent crime. Call the police!” But it’s not that simple. She didn’t want her parents to know. She didn’t want anybody to know. (Even me. I didn’t buy that “my sister” thing, but she couldn’t say it happened to her even in a private email to a total stranger.) I knew what she thought people would say, because they usually did. You shouldn’t have been drinking. You went to his place. What did you expect would happen? Are you sure you said no? He would act all baffled and sympathetic while insisting he was totally innocent, and if you had the tiniest little bit of doubt, or felt kind of ashamed (and you do, because that’s how it works), you would begin to wonder if maybe it really was a misunderstanding and your fault for acting like a slut. And when you’re already feeling awful and you don’t ever want to see that guy again, that isn’t a battle you want to fight. Which is what these jerks count on. Which is exactly the kind of battle my business is built on. The kind where one side is so much more powerful than the other. The kind “responsible grown-ups” don’t always understand and authorities won’t take seriously.

I didn’t have time, but I wanted to help this girl. Especially because I already knew about Simon Meyer.

He was involved in activist circles and claimed to be a feminist. He knew all the right things to say, which only made it worse. Emily, one of Wilson’s housemates, told me that Simon had tried to rape her when she was my age and all messed up about family issues. She had left home and was sleeping on friends’ couches and thought she’d be safe at his apartment because he seemed so progressive and cool and popular. But after they smoked some weed (she doesn’t drink alcohol because that’s what messed her family up) he got weird and she had to fight him off, and he’s a lot bigger than her. Luckily, she kept a knife in her boot for dangerous situations. But when she told people, they said it could have been a misunderstanding, crossed signals. Think how much damage she could do to his reputation.

She gave up trying to tell people what happened because nobody wanted to hear it. But she was angry inside. Really, really angry. I met Simon at a protest. He was cute and had a great smile. He knew everybody, and he had that kind of confident cool that made people want to hang out with him. I liked him instantly. But when Emily saw us together, she dragged me away, and told me what had happened to her so it wouldn’t happen to me. From then on I saw him differently. Those smiles, the little hugs he gave everybody, the way he invited women into his physical space, the way he said all the right progressive things – he was watching for the right moment to make his move.

Now this.

I really wanted to take this guy down, right now. I wanted it so fiercely I had to walk around and around the apartment, trying not to stomp or kick things. I was mad because women were getting hurt. I was mad because this problem had to pop up in my life just when I had too much going on. Mad because it felt like thinking about someone else’s problems was betraying Wilson. Then I got mad at Wilson for not listening to me and getting suckered by Zip when he should have known better. It took a while for the storm of thoughts to settle enough for me to figure out what to do. Then I sat back down in my window-space, balanced my laptop on my knees, and typed out three versions of a reply before I finally had one that I was ready to send.

Hello, Charie,

You are not the first to call my attention to Simon Meyer’s behavior. He is a repeat offender and I’m working on a solution. Because I have other clients for this project, I will not be charging my usual fee. However, if you wish to contribute, you can send twenty dollars to my paypal account. Or whatever you can afford. I will let you know when the mission is accomplished.

It may take some time, since a project I’m currently working on is complicated and a life is at stake. But Simon Meyer’s day will come and he will face justice.

In secrecy, The S. A.

I went with the contribution instead of a fee because I felt guilty that I couldn’t work on her problem full time. Guilty that I hadn’t done something about it when Emily first told me what he had done. Now Emily was in jail and Simon Meyer was out there, doing things like this and getting away with it.

After I sent the message, I still felt too angry and anxious to focus. I did some deep breathing, which is supposed to relieve stress but usually just makes me dizzy. Then made some of Monica’s herb tea. It says on the box it will make you fell calm. It doesn’t actually work, but it helped to be doing something. By the time I was back in my nook with a mug and my laptop, I knew what I had to do.

I had to save Wilson. And I had to find a way to stop Simon Meyer.

An hour ago, I had a huge, hairy crisis on my hands that scared me because I wasn’t sure I would succeed in rescuing my brother. Now I had two hairy problems and people depending on me for both. The Secret Avenger had never taken on a task as serious as Charlie’s. But strangely enough, I felt recharged, somehow, because the stakes were so impossibly high.

I set a timer: thirty minutes to start a file on Simon Meyer. I quickly got the basics: his age (twenty-five), his address, the fact that he grew up in Bloomington and had attended the university for a year before dropping out. His Facebook profile told me he was self-employed (though it didn’t say his business was selling weed, which everybody knew) and an activist (which was totally bogus). His timeline was full of pictures of himself at political actions and quotes from Che Guevara and Malcom X. Right at the top was a link to the Solidarity Committee for the Minneapolis Nine, along with a selfie of him at an organizing meeting. He had his arm around a girl and a big grin on his face, like my brother’s arrest was a great excuse to party.

When the half hour was up, I forced myself to switch gears. I took a breath and stretched, shaking off the creepy feeling of seeing that smiling face after reading Charlie’s email, with all the shame and sadness hidden behind those words, like bruises under makeup. It was time to work on Wilson’s case, so I mentally put Simon Meyer into a box and closed it up tight, pushing it into a dark corner of my brain for now. I logged into the Group and saw from the typhoon relief thread that people had whipped up a cellphone-based reporting system for aid workers and organized a mesh network with rechargeable power packs. A pile of direct messages had been sent to me offering support and funny gifs to cheer me up. A dossier on Todd Terhune, the agent who recruited Zip to be an FBI rat, had been compiled, but everything in it so far was boring, even his high school yearbook photo which made him look like a middle-aged boy scout with zits. Unfortunately, his record was too clean. He wasn’t the kind who would send naked selfies to interns or drunk-dial female colleagues, not a guy you could threaten with embarrassing documents that would destroy his reputation.

I also checked – about fifteen times – to see if Wheeze had made contact. No luck. My latest text to him was still sitting there, unanswered.

~ ~ ~

At five past three I met up with Marcella at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, a giant art museum not too far from our house. Marcella frowned at me. She had been on time, of course, and she had already studied the museum’s website and drawn up a plan for how we could complete the project in the most efficient way. She had printed out an elaborate flowchart spelling out various options. She gave me a copy and read through it out loud, pushing up her thick glasses when they slipped down her nose every few minutes, her voice loud in the marble and glass entranceway, the kind of place that looks like you’re supposed to whisper. Marcella didn’t know how to whisper. Her voice is always loud and robotic, like her personality.

Nikko arrived next. He had to make a grand entrance because that’s how he rolls. He raised an arm. “Light breaks where no sun shines,” he said, reciting a weird poem in a sing-song  accent, which got one of the security guards to come over on squeaky shoes to give him a warning in a deep, threatening whisper. When the lecture was over, the guard retreated to sit on his stool, glaring at us with his arms folded across his chest. I asked Nikko, “Shakespeare?”

“No. This Welsh poet.” He poked his cell phone and a man with a strange sing-song accent said “Light breaks where no sun shines,” the vowels all round and almost singing. Exactly the same voice as Nikko’s.

“What does it mean?” Marcella asked.

“Why does it have to mean anything? It’s about sounds, sensations. Feelings.”

“But I don’t get it.”

“Actually? It’s about sex.”

She gaped. “Really?” Her loud voice got even louder. The security guard puffed up his chest and tapped his shiny shoe against the marble floor, sending us a message in museum-guard Morse code: knock it off.

“Marcella has a plan,” I said before she asked for details. She handed Nikko a flowchart and read all the steps aloud again. Nikko pretended to study it, but said quietly, under the drone of Marcella’s voice, “I heard about your brother. How’s he doing?”

“I don’t know. They won’t let me talk to him yet, but I got him a lawyer.”

“No shit. McSweeney. My dad told me she’s, like, a legend. How’d you get her?”

“I just went to her house and asked.”

“What’s she like?”

I pictured the dirty carpet, the egg stains on her sweater. “She’s smart. Tough. Kind of scary.”

“My dad said she’s a nutcase, but then, he thinks I’m crazy, too. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. Not really. I’m scared he’ll go to prison.”

“I’ll be at that rally on Sunday.”

“What rally?”

He looked at me, surprised. “In front of the federal building? The Minneapolis Nine Solidarity Committee is organizing it.”

“Are you even paying attention?” Marcella asked, finally noticing that we weren’t.

“At your service,” Nikko said, sweeping his wool cap off his head in an elaborate bow, like he was in Shakespeare play. “Pray, madam, read on.”

She gave him a narrow-eyed look. “So the other alternative . . .” she said, droning her way through it all.

“I figured you were involved,” Nikko said out of the side of his mouth like a film noir gangster, staring at the flowchart as if he found it fascinating.

“I don’t know any of those people.”

“They have a website, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a YouTube channel. Want to come to the rally with me? I’ll pick you up if you want.”

“You don’t have a car.”

“I could borrow one.”

“I’ll ride my bike.” I didn’t really want to go to a rally. Wilson went to them all the time and acted like he was doing something important, even though they never actually fixed anything. But Nikko was trying to be nice. And I liked being with Nikko.

Dave arrived finally, giving some long explanation about car problems and traffic until Marcella cut him off.

“You’re late,” she said and handed him a flowchart.

He gave her a winning smile. It didn’t work. Marcella doesn’t get smiles. She was about to launch into her explanation for the third time when I broke in. “I vote for the second option. The one in green.”

“Me too,” Nikko said.

“We’ll do African and East Asian art,” I said. “You guys can do European and contemporary.”

“Which theme, though?” Marcella asked. “We have to choose a theme. I put the choices on the back.”

“Communities” I said, just as Nikko said “animals.”

In the next second I said “animals” and Nikko said “communities” and then pretended to stifle a sneeze to hold his laughter in. I didn’t hide it; I just laughed.  Marcella glared.

“I’ll go for what everybody else wants,” Dave said. He was like that: easygoing, agreeable – so long as everyone else did all the work.

Marcella ordered us to assemble in the main lobby in exactly one hour to report. She beckoned Dave to follow her to the medieval art section. We could hear her mechanical voice droning away as they disappeared into the distance.

“Let’s get some coffee.” Nikko said.

~ ~ ~

We biked to a café and got coffee and scones and a table in a corner where we could talk. I told him all about Zip and the cops who’d come to our apartment and tried to throw their weight around. I told him how worried I was about Wheeze. I almost slipped up and told him about what the Group had dug up on Zip’s identity and the FBI agent he worked with, but I remembered just in time to make it sound like research I had done myself. I like Nikko a lot, but the Group is private.

I ended up talking about Wilson, too, the way he used to take care of me when I was little and how much I had wanted to go with him when he turned eighteen. “I understand it now. He wanted to have fun and hang out with his friends. Having a little kid around . . . I get it, but at the time I was so angry. It was never the same after that. He had his life. I had the internet. By the time I moved in with Monica we didn’t have that much in common anymore. But it kills me to think about him being in jail. The last time he was arrested it really messed him up, even though he was only in overnight and they didn’t even charge him. His whole life has been about how you can live without following the rules. Making your own rules. Ones that are fair.”

“That’s cool.” Nikko wasn’t big on rules, either.

“Yeah, but it makes jail extra hard. Somebody else controls whether the lights are on or off and when you can use the john and every little thing, all the time, which will make him nuts. Plus he’s not tough enough. He’ll get picked on. I need to get him out of there. What are you grinning about?”

“Just the role reversal. He took care of you when you were little, but now you’re the one who’s all fierce and kickass.”

I shrugged, wondering if I could pull it off. Wondering if I would let Wilson down. Wondering whether the Secret Avenger could complete her task, which I had to push aside because it suddenly felt overwhelming. “Did I ever tell you about the time we stole a boat at a wedding and got in trouble?”

Nikko loves to be the center of attention, but he’s really good at listening, too. I talked and talked and it made me feel better. But then we had to rush back to the museum to write down some random facts about artwork so we could hand them over to Marcella.

~ ~ ~

Nikko had a rehearsal to go to. I biked with him to Cedar-Riverside. I didn’t want to go back to the apartment and wait for the cops to show up again, but I had three hours to kill before the meet-up. I went to the university library for a while to do some research. I found an FBI how-to manual explaining how to set up bogus stings and avoid getting nailed for entrapment. One thing you have to do is record your targets saying how much they want to blow things up so that you can claim it was their idea. That made me imagine hearing Wilson’s voice on a wire, jabbering about how cool it would be to blow shit up, and it would sound bad even though he wouldn’t really do it. I also found some law review articles about how to get around the FBI’s defenses, but they were really long and full of tiny footnotes instead of practical tips. I started to feel sleepy and nervous about the meet-up at the same time, so decided to get some dinner. It occurred to me that I could eat at the Owl, Simon Meyer’s usual hangout. While I waited for the meet-up, I could do some research for my Secret Avenger job.

I ordered the cheapest thing, a bowl of  vegetarian chili. It was a relief to think about something other than my brother and the meet-up that was happening soon. I was going over some of my previous jobs, searching for ideas to use, when Simon Meyer came through the door.

He was flushed from the breeze outside and his dirty-blond hair looked the way curly hair looks on models in advertisements – attractively disordered, but not messy. He wore a battered leather jacket and a red and white keffiyeh around his neck and a big stupid grin on his face. He greeted the cook behind the counter, bumped fists with some guys at a table, hugged a girl who was putting her dishes in a tub. She hugged back and they talked for a while, swaying back and forth as if they were dancing in place. He managed to cup her butt with his hand, pretending he had to make room for some people heading for the door. I would have junk-punched him for that, but she didn’t seem to notice. It was like he could put a spell on people: You like me. Everything I do is cool.

I had my laptop open and earbuds on. I wasn’t feeling ready to talk to him, but he was a friendly guy, and after the girl detached herself and drifted out the door he worked his way around the room, chatting, hugging, being disgustingly charming until he got to me. I pretended that I couldn’t hear him, but he put his hand on my shoulder and leaned close so I couldn’t ignore him anymore. “You’re Zen, right?” he said when I pulled an earbud out of my ear. “Man, I’m sorry about what happened to your brother. That’s so totally wrong, you know?”

“Yeah, it sucks.”

“I don’t believe anything the media says. It’s all bullshit propaganda.”

“Totally,” I said, trying to signal that I was busy and the homework on my computer screen was way more interesting than he was.

“The system is so screwed up. The banksters got their bonuses. What did we get?”

“Student debt,” someone at the next table said.

He took a chair from my table so that he could sit with them. I stared at my computer, thinking about the girl who had asked me for help. It beat worrying about Wilson, at least for a little while.


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if then else Copyright © 2016 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.