Sync or swim

John Brennan

Part 35 of our serial

John Brennan |

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There was now no denying the fact - it had gone. Although Ethan knew he had returned home last night without it, he had just ransacked his bedroom for the third time in the self-deluding hope that his new phone had somehow slipped from his pocket as he had undressed.

And with this belated acceptance came the awareness that it was, in fact, crushingly appropriate that he had lost the last thing Maya had ever given him, as he'd been just as careless with their relationship.

His slide into a pit of misery would have continued, if it wasn't for the crashing sound that suddenly resounded from the living room.

Ethan's smart phone had an equal, if very different, significance for his classmates, the twins Gilbert and Charlotte Chan. They'd paid a "street kid", as they referred to him, to steal it as Ethan ate with his friends in a restaurant. And now, as their father studied its screen, they trusted that the astonishing secret it revealed would ensure their continued enrolment at the prestigious, and extremely expensive, St Jude's International School.

"This is what the coding on his laptop was for," Gilbert proudly announced, pointing at the photo Ethan had taken of himself and his friends celebrating the 100,000th registered user on shamefacebook, the site they clearly owned.

"Wow," their dad exclaimed sardonically.

"What's the matter," Charlotte demanded, taken aback by his reaction. Her father, outbid by Ethan's grandad for the last property he needed to seal a billion-dollar deal, had vowed to find out where his cash had come from.

"It's a legitimate business," he explained, as if to a pair of idiots. "If Old Man Tai got his money legally, I've got nothing on him."

"But we'll still be able to keep going to St Jude's now, won't we," Charlotte persisted.

Chan, however, didn't reply.

"You promised," Gilbert whined.

But his father was too caught up in his own concerns to worry about his children's trifling anxieties."I told you we had to keep an eye on her," Grandad hissed to an equally worried Ethan, as the pair finished making tea in the kitchen.

"I can hear you," called Mum from the living room. "Because, like the rest of me, my ears are fine."

Followed by Grandad, Ethan brought his mother her drink. Although she was now sitting up in her armchair seemingly as right as rain, he knew that only months before she had lain in a hospital bed seemingly at death's door.

"But the doctors said ..." her father began.

"I could have tripped over that mat at anytime," she chided him, "it was nothing to do with my health."

Grandad's mobile rang. He ignored it.

"Answer it," she urged him.

He glanced at the screen. "It's just some journalist who left a message earlier. He can wait."

Mum saw the frown that passed across Ethan's face. "What's wrong?" she demanded.

"It's probably just about gung gung's website," Ethan asserted, exchanging looks with Grandad.

They used this fictitious site to explain to Mum where the family's money came from. She would have been horrified to discover that her son had been distracted from his studies, turning shamefacebook into a financial success; the doctors had warned her recovery depended on her being saved any undue stress.Charlotte watched in dismay as her brother tapped a message into his own smartphone. "But Dad told us to say nothing."

However, a bitter Gilbert was undeterred. "He also said we could keep our places at St Jude's if we found out where the money had come from, didn't he? If Ethan Tai has ruined our lives, I'm going to make him suffer, too."Chan had invested everything in his property deal and faced ruin if it didn't succeed. As he scanned the list of registered companies on his computer screen, he finally spotted what must be the holding company for shamefacebook. But for some reason it was registered in the grandfather's, and not Ethan's, name ...As she now did every day, Maya bustled quickly out of the school gates following her final lesson. Yet today she was aware she was being followed. Head down, she increased her pace.

"I know you don't want to talk to Ethan ..." came the breathless cry from behind her.

She turned. "What do you want, Sam," she demanded, bad-temperedly.

"Look, I know it's not your fault," Ethan's best pal told her.

She looked at him accusingly. "What's not my fault?"

"That Ethan's so upset."

At this, Maya's flinty demeanour began to soften. "He is?"

"Of course!"

"And who said I didn't want to talk to him?"

Sam looked at her in astonishment.

"It's not that I don't want to talk to him ..." she continued. "I tried to explain when you two were outside my house. But then the police arrived and he charged off ..."

At that moment, Sam decided there was a time for honesty and there was a time for using a little "creativity" to help break down two defensive walls. "Whatever," he told her wearily. "Anyway, he's asked me to ask you, if you wanted to hook up with him next Tuesday?"Ethan looked at Sam in amazement. "She wants to meet up on Tuesday?"

"Uh-huh," Sam replied straight-faced. The shamefacebook team had convened that evening at his and Jenny's house.

"But she's still leaving Hong Kong right?" Ethan asked, the huge grin slowly slipping from his face.

"Only because her dad's firm is relocating him back to the UK."

Jenny glanced up from the laptop where she was working with Yiu-hon. "See," she told Ethan. "Despite everything, it wasn't you."

Before Ethan could reply, a worried Yiu-hon interrupted. "We've just received a message addressed to the system administrator ... 'We know who you are and soon the whole world will, too'," he read.

"What?" Jenny wailed in horror.

Instantly, Ethan recalled the mysterious call Grandad had received from the journalist.As Ethan raced through the streets towards home, he wondered how the journalist had discovered who was behind shamefacebook, and which branch of the media he was from. However, the answers to these questions could wait. All that mattered right now was keeping Mum away from the newspapers, the radio and the TV, before the shroud of secrets and lies they'd used to protect her from the truth was ripped away.

Yet when Ethan burst through the door of their flat on the Ki Lung Estate, with his story worked out, he was totally unprepared for the shocking sight awaiting him.

Sitting in their living room, having a cosy chat with his mother, was the last person Ethan ever expected to see there.

"Well, look who's home," said Mr Chan, barely able to conceal his malevolent grin.

To be continued next week