Sync or swim

John Brennan

Part 31 of our serial

John Brennan |

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Hong Kong Book Fair 2020 postponed

For some seconds, Grandad's eyes remained riveted on the private physiotherapy clinic's price list. "This is ... very impressive," he finally murmured.

Mum snatched the brochure from him. "Impressive? Have you seen how much they charge?"

As she tutted and "Wah!"-ed her way down the page, Grandad shot a glance across the kitchen table to the equally pensive Ethan.

"But regular treatment like this could really speed up your recovery, Mum," Ethan assured her.

Taking his cue, Grandad smiled at his sceptical daughter. "Don't worry, book the block of 20 sessions. Sales on my website are booming."

This was a lie, if a well- intentioned one. Grandad's website was a fake, a front. Mum must never find out but the money would in fact come from Ethan's highly successful shamefacebook site.

However, Ethan was all too aware that nearly all the site's profits were going to pay off the fees for buying Grandad's shop. And soon he would be billed for his studies at St Jude's International School as well.

Ethan's scholarship to St Jude's had ended the instant a horrified Chan discovered he'd been sponsoring it. Now, still desperate to resurrect his development project, Chan was determined to find out how Ethan's Grandad had raised the money to buy his shop. And to that end, he wasn't above recruiting his twin children, Gilbert and Charlotte, who happened to be in Ethan's grade.

"I don't know about this, Gilbert," Charlotte whinged, as they headed through the school gates.

"Well, I do," Gilbert snapped. "You heard what Dad said. If he can't get his deal back on track then we can kiss goodbye to our places at St Jude's, too."

No wonder Ethan had come up with the idea of a website that enabled users to apologise online for their misdeeds in the real world.

Saying sorry in person, as he had just done to his girlfriend, Maya, and his friends, Sam and Jenny, made Ethan's face redden, his mouth dry and his toes curl. But even by his standards, he had been particularly bad tempered and rude of late.

"We do know you're under a lot of pressure," Maya consoled him.

"And that it has driven you just a little bit mental," Jenny chipped in.

Grinning at her insensitivity, Ethan opened his locker.

"But you can afford to chill a bit," Sam advised. "The way it's growing, shamefacebook will soon be making enough money to cover your school fees as well as everything else."

"And the Head's got to let you stay on until you can afford to pay them," said Maya.

"All you've got to do is keep out of trouble," Sam continued.

"And don't let them catch you with your jailbird pal again," added Jenny, again missing the mood.

"Yiu-hon is not ..." Ethan began, before lapsing into silence as the Chan twins passed. Watching them go, he lowered his voice to continue, "... a criminal".

Turning back to his friends, Ethan saw their faces registering varying degrees of concern.

"And you might want to tone down the Oooh-why-is-everyone-watching-me schtick, as well," Jenny counselled.

Ethan still didn't know who had tipped off the school authorities about his meeting with Yiu-hon but, given his friend's concerns, over the next week Ethan resolved to keep all his suspicions to himself.

That weekend, Maya dragged Ethan along to an art and design exhibition. This was her passion not his but he was still irritated when their time together was interrupted by a phone call.

"So, what's the big deal?" Ethan asked, when he and Maya arrived at the cha chaan teng.

Sam hesitated. "Bad news. Very bad news," he told him finally.

Jenny snatched the smartphone from her waffling brother's hands and thrust it at Ethan. "What he's trying to say is, read this but don't wig out, ok?"

With Maya reading over his shoulder, Ethan scanned the report on the tech news site. "App n Clack!" he wailed. "But they're huge."

"Surely they can't just copy shamefacebook?" Maya queried.

Ethan groaned. "It won't be a direct copy, of course. Just close enough to steal our users. When they go live, there'll be no way I'll be able to cover the family bills."

Sam tried to stay positive. "If we had the resources, we could come up with some cool enhancements and stay ahead of them."

"If," echoed Jenny, unenthused.

Maya glanced at her despondent boyfriend, and then turned to Jenny. "So what would you need?"

"More coders, for a start."

"But not just anyone," Ethan explained. "If Mum finds out what I've been up to, then it's all over."

Sam sighed. "Yep. We need someone we can trust."

At lunchtime on Monday, Ethan sat alone in his classroom working at his laptop. He broke off from his search for an idea that would take shamefacebook to the next level, because his phone rang.

"Thanks for the offer," he told the caller as he wandered down the corridor, "but you've got enough on your plate. And anyway ... Oh, it doesn't matter."

Returning to the classroom, lost in thought, he found Gilbert and Charlotte Chan hunched over his computer. "What the hell are you two doing?" he demanded.

Charlotte jumped back immediately, the guilt clear on her face. Gilbert, however, turned slowly towards him and smiled. "Got something to hide, trash boy?"

"Get out!" Ethan yelled, anger, and the fear of what they might have discovered, swirling inside him.

Gilbert looked at him for a moment then took his sister's arm. "Come on, he's just a shamefacebook addict like all the other losers," he told Charlotte.

Watching them go, Ethan felt a strange sense of relief. And, with all his suspicions now confirmed, a new clear-eyed determination began to take root in his mind.

When Sam received Ethan's message asking him and Jenny to come over, he'd been delighted at the upbeat wording of the text - was his best friend finally rejoining them on Planet Earth?

But when the lift doors opened on Ethan's floor of the Ki Lung estate, the siblings froze, unable to believe what they were seeing. There stood ex-convict Yiu-hon, clutching a laptop covered in all too familiar stickers.

Jenny reacted first. "Sam, grab him. I'll phone the police."

As Sam seized his shoulders, a terrified Yiu-hon made no effort to resist.

"Did you really think you'd get away with robbing Ethan twice?" a furious Sam demanded.

The confrontation, however, was cut short by a call from along the balcony. "Hey, hey, hey!"

Sam and Jenny turned to see Ethan silhouetted in the door of his flat. "I gave Yiu-hon my laptop."

"What?" Sam and Jenny howled in unison.

"And do you really think you should be manhandling the newest member of the shamefacebook team?" Ethan enquired.

To be continued next week