To get one deadbeat, fully unqualified slacker into the most prestigious school in the country.
Eric Roth -- the good guy, the voice of reason.
Max Kim -- the player who made the bet in the first place.
Schwartz -- the kid genius already on the inside...of Harvard, that is.
Lexi -- the beauty-queen valedictorian who insists on getting in the game.
Use only the most undetectable schemes and techno-brilliant skills. Don't break the Hacker's Code. Don't get distracted. Don't get caught. Take down someone who deserves it.
A lot higher than they think.
They've got the players, the plot, and soon -- the prize.
It's go time.
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)|
|Age Range:||14 - 17 Years|
Read an Excerpt
By Robin Wasserman
Simon PulseCopyright © 2007 Robin Wasserman
All right reserved.
Your child can contribute to her school and community by pursuing
what she enjoys and sharing it with others.
-- Eva Ostrum, The Thinking Parent's Guide to College Admissions
The car skidded to the right, then veered left, dodging a turbo-charged flamethrower. A hail of gunfire exploded from the alleyway, and the windshield shattered into a storm of glass, but he pushed forward, the tires squealing, and he was almost safe, a smooth getaway, free and clear -- when the roadside grenade blew out his tire. The front wheels jerked off the ground, and the car tumbled down an embankment, smashing and crashing its way to the bottom. There was a sickening crunch of metal. And then the car exploded into a ball of fire.
Eric tossed aside the controller in disgust. It was his third try, and this time he'd lasted only three and a half minutes before getting toasted. Other than his new Wii -- which even his brain-dead sister had agreed was "more addictive than crack, not like I've tried it, because I'm not a total skeeze, but you know what I mean" -- Eric steered clear of hand-eye coordination games. He stuck to the world of digital role-play, which, as far as he was concerned, took brains, style, finesse -- and had asignificantly lower humiliation factor. Besides, at least as a dragon slayer, he was doing some good in the world. Okay, maybe not his world, but it still had to count for something that he'd rescued six villages, 237 peasants, four maidens, an orphan, and a deposed prince from rampage, destruction, and certain death. World of Warcraft trained you to fight the good fight, so that when the real fight came to you, you'd be ready. All RoadKill 7 trained you to do, as far as Eric could tell, was pick up hookers and repeatedly drive your car off a cliff. Though he was willing to admit the possibility that he was playing it wrong.
"Do you guys need a remedial tutorial on the meaning of 911?" he asked as Max grabbed the controller. "Last week it's some kind of bra emergency, and now you drag me back here for what? PlayStation crisis?"
"Patience, young Jedi," Max said, leaning closer to the tiny TV in an effort to see whether the fuzzy figure approaching his car was a prostitute or a cop. "All good things come to those I deem worthy."
Schwarz, who was at his desk, legs kicked up on the nineteenth-century wood, the "authentic Harvard chair" (with the gold seal to prove it) digging into his back, looked up from his notebook. "Professor Kempel is giving a lecture on homological algebra and the computability problem at five, so if this is perhaps not that important..."
"It's important," Max said, eyes still fixed on the screen.
Schwarz nodded, and turned back to his homework. "Okay."
Eric threw himself down on the roommate's bed, which had gone unused since the first week of school, when Schwarz's roommate, one Marsh Preston, of the Upper East Side Prestons ("Maybe you've heard of us?"), had tossed his CK boxers, Paul Smith shirts, and six jars of Kiehl's moisturizers and bronzers into a Harvard athletics duffel bag and taken off for Canaday Hall, where his high school girlfriend had a single. "I could be at a rally right now," Eric said. "People Against the Encroachment of Civil Equality. PEACE."
"That's not PEACE, that's PA-ECE," Max said. "And you hate rallies."
"Fine." Eric sucked in a breath through gritted teeth. "So I could be home playing World of Warcraft. What's the difference? This is still a waste of time."
"This is a time to cherish," Max chided him. "A time to treasure the moments of your lives with the people who truly -- "
"A time to cut the bullshit," Eric said. "Why are we here?"
Max hit pause. He stood up and turned to face his friends. "Why are we here? A good question. An excellent question. Why are we here? Are we just marking time?"
"I am actually trying to understand the decomposition of symplectic manifolds," Schwarz said, pausing to blow his nose on one of the aloe-infused tissues that had just arrived in another baked-goods-free care package from home, "and their relation to Lagrangian barriers and -- "
"We're squandering our God-given talent on lame stunts and schoolboy pranks," Max continued. "It's time to ask ourselves what we want. What we really want. Fame? Fortune?"
"Speak for yourself," Eric muttered.
"Or is it something less mundane, more powerful, more meaningful?" Max asked, his voice rising and falling in ecstatic preacherlike swells. "We always say we want to poke holes in the system, deflate the big heads, unseat the tyrants -- but what do we do? Nothing."
Eric hopped off the bed. "It's not nothing," he said. "It's..."
But what was it?
More than a joke, maybe, but...how much more? He looked down at his T-shirt, which today read: WAR IS A STATE OF MIND -- BRAIN DEAD.
"What we do matters," he insisted. "It's subtle, but it's necessary. We poke holes in the system. Weaken its foundation. Like Borat. Like Michael Moore. Like -- "
"Like children," Max said. "Flooding out school board meetings. Sealing the school shut." He snorted. "Kid stuff. Time is slipping by, and all the while, we've been ignoring the real prize. Our perfect score. Our Everest." He waited expectantly, but this time, there were no interruptions, just two blank stares. "I'll give you a hint, boys and girls. When it's not flipping you off, it's sticking its massive fingers into everything. It's gobbling up everything around it like a chocoholic at a Hershey's convention. It owns us. All of us." More blank looks. Max shook his head. "Here's a hint, geniuses. Without it, Eric wouldn't eat. Schwarz wouldn't graduate. And my father...well, we all know the only thing in life Maxwell Sr. truly loves."
"You want us to pull a prank on Harvard?" Schwarz asked, in the same tone he'd used in the fifth grade when Max ordered him to climb up on the roof and field-test their homemade parachute.
"Not a prank, Professor Schwarz," Max replied, with the same mix of confidence and wheedling that had persuaded Schwarz to jump. "A hack. And not just any hack, but the greatest hack we've ever done. Our coup de grâce. Our magnum opus." He began pacing back and forth. "Who's with me?"
"With you for what, exactly?" Eric asked.
Max stopped in front of the window and turned his back on the two of them, staring out at the lush green of Harvard Yard. "We're going to take the biggest loser we can find -- the least ambitious, least intelligent, least motivated, most delinquent and drugged-up slacker we can get our hands on -- and we're going to sucker this school into letting him in."
There was a long pause. "And?" Eric finally asked.
"And what? That's not enough for you?" Max said incredulously. "Look at this place." He jerked his head toward the window. A group of students draped in black sat in a circle listening to their silver-haired professor. A guy on a silver scooter whizzed down the diagonal path that cut through the Yard, veering around a tour group that whipped out cameras and cell phones to capture the authentic slice of Harvard life.
A couple groped under a tree.
Three jocks in crimson sweats whacked each other with lacrosse sticks.
A red-haired kid in a forever jung T-shirt juggled milk bottles.
"Appalling." Eric rolled his eyes. "Definitely needs our immediate attention."
"Can't you see it?" Max grimaced, and pulled down the blind. "It's all a scam. And they're the suckers who bought it. My father -- "
"Right. Your father," Eric said. "Who I'm sure has nothing to do with this. I'm not getting arrested just so you can prove to him that -- "
"Forget Maxwell Sr.," Max snapped. "I have." He strode to the other side of the room, ripping a Harvard pennant off the roommate's side of the wall. "And no one's getting arrested. Not if we do this right." He crumpled the pennant and shot it toward the trash can, where it bounced off the rim and rolled a few feet away. Schwarz grabbed it off the floor and, with a nervous glance at Max, laid it on his bed and began smoothing it out.
Max began pacing again. "This isn't about my father. This isn't even about Harvard -- or not just Harvard. It's about all the bullshit they've been feeding us since preschool: Do your homework, be good, fall in line, do what we say, and maybe, if you're lucky, you'll get the golden ticket. We're supposed to act like the only thing that matters is getting into college -- getting into this college -- and so most of the people who do get in are the ones who buy into the bullshit so completely that they've never done anything for any other reason. It doesn't matter what they want, what they like, what they care about, who they are -- they don't even know anymore, because they're trying so damn hard to be the people Harvard wants them to be. In the end they're not even real people anymore. They're zombies. No offense, Schwarz."
Schwarz gave him a half-shrug.
"And what about all the people that don't get in?" Max continued. "The ones who let some stupid letter from some stupid school tell them what they're worth as a person. Harvard says they're nothing, and they believe it."
Alicia Morgenthal, Eric thought, before he could stop himself. He preferred not to think about her at all. It was easier that way. Not because he felt guilty -- though he did. But because when he thought about her, he couldn't help thinking about what had happened that day, and he couldn't help thinking about what had happened the night before. He couldn't help wondering whether he could have stopped her.
Or what might have happened that night after she kissed him -- if he hadn't let her run away.
It was easier not to wonder at all, but maybe she deserved better than that. Maybe she deserved some justice.
Eric sat down on the edge of the bed and tapped his finger against the bridge of his glasses. "You want us to get someone into Harvard who doesn't belong here -- "
"Who Harvard thinks doesn't belong," Max clarified.
"To prove that there's something wrong with the admissions system," Eric said. "To prove it's not perfect."
"Or even functional," Max added, rocking gently from his heels to his toes.
"And that it shouldn't be the way you measure your worth as a human being." Eric nodded. "I like it. I don't know if we could do it -- "
"Of course we -- "
"But I like it."
Everyone knew that the college admissions system was screwed up -- not just at Harvard, not just in the Ivy League. Everywhere. Too many people for too few slots, too many kids with overpaid college counselors writing their essays for them, too many over-achievers with too many expectations that the system would be fair and they would win the future they deserved, too much stress, too much misery, too many lies. Eric figured it was bad all over, but in Cambridge, with the shadow of Harvard looming over them like a crimson mushroom cloud, it was unbearable. Everyone knew it.
But no one did anything about it. Because they thought it couldn't be done.
"I would prefer not to get expelled," Schwarz said hesitantly.
"You'll be fine," Max said. "You're doing it."
Schwarz sighed. "We will not get caught?"
"We will not get caught."
"Okay." Schwarz closed his eyes for a moment, and his lips moved as if in silent prayer -- but Eric knew better. Those weren't prayers. They were names. Names and months and the occasional color of fishnet stockings. But for Schwarz it was all the same thing. Finally, he opened his eyes and nodded. "I am in."
Max sat down on the floor and grabbed the PlayStation controller. "So it's all set." He tossed one to Schwarz. "Head-to-head action?" Schwarz nodded, even though there was no chance he would win against the RoadKill master, and the thunder of digital engines filled the room.
"Forgetting something?" Eric asked.
Max sent his car flying over a heap of burning tires, then skidded into a U-turn to collect an extra weapons cache. "You're right -- case of bullets. See? You're not so bad at this game after all."
"Me," Eric corrected him. "I haven't said I'll do it."
Max shrugged. "You will."
"And you know this because?"
"This shit's right up your alley," Max said, bouncing on his knees as his car raced Schwarz's toward an abandoned overpass. "Taking down the system, power to the people, rage against the machine, all your bullshit."
"It's not bullshit," Eric said hotly.
"Exactly. And this is your shot, so man up."
"If we do it, we do it my way," Eric said. "Nothing too illegal. And we stay out of their computer system -- it's crude."
"Also a felony," Schwarz pointed out.
Max nodded. "Terms accepted."
"And you tell us what's in it for you," Eric added.
"I already told you," Max said. "It's the ultimate hack. And
all that crap about the admissions system being screwed up. You may be the righteous avenger and all, but that doesn't mean the rest of us can't get pissed off by all the bullshit once in a while, right?"
"What's in it for you?" Eric pressed.
Eric crossed his arms. Max continued to stare at the TV screen.
"Pause that game and tell me."
Max didn't answer.
Eric leaned over Schwarz. "Can I see that for a second?" he asked, nodding at the controller. Schwarz handed it over.
Eric rammed his car into Max's, and they both exploded.
"What the hell!" Max tossed down the controller. "What's wrong with you?" He turned on Schwarz. "What's wrong with you? Why'd you give it to him?"
Schwarz shrugged. "He asked."
Max didn't just roll his eyes, he rolled his whole head.
"What's in it for you?" Eric asked again, now that he had Max's full attention.
"I made a bet, okay?" Max shouted. "Happy now?"
"Is that the truth?"
"You can't handle the truth," Max said in a bad Jack Nicholson impression. Then he shrugged. "Yeah. It's the truth. Just a small bet. No big deal."
"Then no. I'm not happy." They didn't do bets. It was too much of a risk -- not just because they didn't have the cash to spare if they lost, but because it meant involving more people in the plan. People you couldn't necessarily trust. More to the point, it went against the whole spirit of the hack.
True hackers didn't hack for money. They did it for pride of ownership, for the challenge, for the principle of the statement. They did it to take a stand -- to expose corruption and complacency, and to do it in style.
They didn't do it for cash.
Even Max, who did everything -- and anything -- for cash, had always understood that. Until now.
"A bet with who?" Eric asked.
"You don't want to know."
Eric gave him a mirthless smile. "Let's pretend I do."
Max looked away, picking up the controller again. Eric yanked it out of his hands. "Max," he said warningly.
Max cleared his throat. "Turns out they're not so bad, once you get to know them. Good cash flow, impeccable credit. I really think -- "
"Max! Who is it?"
Max winced. "The Bums."
Eric felt the moan pool in the pit of his stomach, churning through his intestines and slithering up his throat to finally spill out of his mouth in a guttural roar.
"Why?" he asked, when he'd regained the power of speech. "Why would you do that?" The Bongo Bums -- so named in honor of scientist, bongo player, infamous prankster, and egomaniac Richard Feynman -- were two juniors from Boston Latin High School who gave hackers everywhere a bad name. For them it was all about bets and bragging rights -- and they'd won more than their fair share of both. But they knew they were only the second best in the Boston area, and so did everyone else on the hacking circuit. The Bums had always wanted an epic rivalry; Eric, Max, and Schwarz just wanted to be left alone.
"Why not?" Max shrugged. "It's just a hundred bucks, and we can do this -- you know we can do this -- so where's the risk? Why not let the Bums pay us for our trouble?"
"Just a hundred?" Eric didn't buy it. Max's philosophy was that every penny counted -- at least when he was the one collecting the payoff -- but a hundred bucks wouldn't have been enough to make him break protocol and cut a deal with the enemy. Or at least, it shouldn't have been enough.
"Just a hundred...each."
"But that just means more money for all of us when we get the job done," Max said quickly. "Which we will."
Schwarz looked pale, but Eric knew he would do whatever Max wanted.
Max knew it too, and looked at Eric. "So what do you say?"
He wanted it. There was something about the idea -- maybe the challenge of the execution, maybe the thrill of the payoff, the knowledge that it would actually mean something -- that felt right.
And yet, there was the bet. There were the Bums. There was the inescapable feeling that, as usual, Max was keeping a crucial detail to himself.
"I need some time," Eric said.
"Of course you do. Take all the time you need. At least until tomorrow, at eight thirty a.m."
"And what happens then?" Eric asked.
"We choose our lucky loser," Max said. "The Bums are meeting us outside the school to approve the selection and cement the final terms. Clock's ticking -- applications are due in three months. So if we're going to do this, we start now."
"And if we're not going to do it?"
Max raised his eyebrows and gave Eric a knowing grin, then smoothed back his hair -- the cowlick on the top of his head popping up again as soon as his palm had passed over it -- and popped a breath mint. "Get your ass in gear, Schwarz. Hillel dinner starts in ten minutes, and I want to get a good seat."
Schwarz groaned. "I do not want to take you back there again. Everyone knows you are not Jewish -- "
"Hey, there are Korean Jews, I could be one of them -- they don't know!"
"There are approximately one hundred and eleven Korean Jews, and you are not one of them."
"First of all, you know you made that statistic up. Second of all, it doesn't matter, because no will ever have the nerve to call me on it," Max gloated. "That wouldn't be PC, now, would it?"
Eric glanced back and forth between the two of them. "Do I even want to know?"
"You know the girl who plays Ariel-7 in SpaceQuest?" Schwarz asked. "The one with the, um, you know, silver all over her..."
"Yeah, what about her?"
"She is a freshman here," Schwarz said.
"A Jewish freshman," Max added. "A very devout Jewish freshman who eats in Hillel every night." He glanced at his watch. "Which means we're late, Schwarz. Up. Now."
Schwarz jumped up and grabbed his coat, shooting Eric a rescue me look on his way to the door.
"Remember, eight thirty a.m., on the steps outside the school," Max said, gazing at his reflection in the back of his iPod.
"Maybe," Eric said. "Maybe not."
Max dropped his voice two octaves. "'I'm trying to free your mind, but I can only show you the door. You're the one that has to walk through it.'"
"SpaceQuest?" Eric guessed, trying to place the quote.
Max smacked his forehead. "The Matrix. Do you live in a cave?"
"I live in a permanent state of denial that I voluntarily spend my time with you," Eric said. "And that time generally involves a lot of darkness and bad smells -- is that cavelike enough for you?"
"Eight thirty a.m.," Max said again, tugging Schwarz out the door. "You know you can't resist. This one's too sweet."
Eric hated it when Max played the mind reader, acting like Eric couldn't possibly think, say, or do anything that Max hadn't already anticipated.
He hated it even more when Max was right.
Copyright © 2007 by Robin Wasserman
October 1 * The Bet
Objective: Agree on terms, select an applicant
Colleges are always on the lookout for students who love to learn
and whose passion takes them to the highest level of challenge and
-- Peter Van Buskirk, Winning the College Admission Game
Elton Broussard wore a hat made out of aluminum foil to school every day. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, without fail, he added a matching aluminum foil belt and suspenders. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he wore a white T-shirt and white pants, completely covered, toga-style, in reams of flesh-colored Saran Wrap. On the first Tuesday of junior year, he had arrived wearing only flesh-colored Saran Wrap, and had subsequently disappeared from school until that October, when the first white T-shirt and pants ensemble made its debut. No one knew why Elton Broussard dressed as he did, largely because whenever anyone ventured to ask, Elton growled.
Which is not to say he responded in a growl-like manner.
Low and guttural, like a dog chained to a stake who knows from past experience that it can't leap far enough to bite its target but is willing to try again, believing that, just this once, it might snag a mouthful of flesh.
And, ever since the debut of the aluminum foil hat and Saran Wrap toga junior year, that growl was the first and last sound anyone had heard Elton Broussard make.
"Veto," Max said firmly. "Not a chance in hell."
From the front steps of Wadsworth High, it was possible -- if you could stand the nicotine haze -- to watch the student body roll in like the opening credits of a bad teen movie. Freaks, geeks, punks, rich girls pulling up in Daddy's Jag, Game Boy warriors with their heads down and their thumbs flying, PDA couples sneaking in one last hookup before the bell, nobodies who thought they were somebodies, slackers, stoners, misfits, and the rest, a faceless mass of Abercrombie and American Eagle swarming up the stairs, unmemorable masses greeting another unmemorable day.
Max, Eric, and Schwarz perched at the top, scouting their prey. Beside them sat a pair of gangly sixteen-year-olds with spiky brown hair, tragically hip emo T-shirts, e pluribus modem buttons, and identical sneers: the Bums. One was named Gerald, the other Ash; both were assholes.
"What do you care who we pick?" Ash asked. "It's not like you're going to be able to pull this off, whoever you end up with."
"Foetes ergo vincimus," Gerald sneered.
At Max's questioning look, Eric leaned in with a whispered translation. "'You stink, therefore we win.'" He leaned back against the concrete wall, tipping his gaze up and away from the depressing procession into the school.
So he wasn't looking when Gerald pointed across the parking lot and, with a steely certainty, announced, "Him."
Eric looked down again, following Gerald's extended middle finger. The first thing he took in was the car. It was a '94 Buick LeSabre with a scuffed maroon paint job, the driver's side door painted black. Rusty hubcaps, tilted fender, mud-spattered windshield, a broken left taillight, and a lavish skull and crossbones painted across the hood. Its owner, wearing oversize jeans so worn that they'd lost all their color and so low that a thick strip of black boxers shadowed the waistline, was a perfect fit. His expression said Fuck off, just like his T-shirt. Watching the guy climb out of his car, lean against the hood, light a cigarette, and run a hand through his oily black hair, Eric's face went pale.
"Veto." It came out nearly inaudible, a wheeze. He sucked in a deep breath. No fear, he thought, furious with himself. "Veto."
"Sorry, three strikes and you're out," Ash jeered. "You used up all your vetoes. Either take him or forfeit."
Forfeiting would mean paying the Bums a hundred bucks -- each. More than that, it would mean giving up before they'd even tried. But accepting would mean...Clay Porter.
I'm not afraid of him, Eric told himself.
This wasn't third grade. He wasn't some twerpy eight-year-old too chicken to stick up for himself. He was Eric Roth, a guerrilla warrior who had scaled buildings, evaded cops, cracked safes, caused chaos, made mayhem, defeated danger, all in the name of righteousness, destabilizing monolithic systems, striking a blow for the underdog. Clay Porter was no longer his tormentor; he was just another enemy, just another easily squashable cockroach in the house of justice.
And that was why Eric couldn't agree to be his ally.
Not because of all the times Clay had left him bruised and humiliated in the muddy patch beneath the jungle gym, or the day he'd watched Eric gulp down his juice for several minutes before mentioning, "I peed in your thermos." Not because of the time he'd called Eric a turd-eating shithead and stuffed a fistful of dirt in his mouth. Not because of the wedgies or the flushies or the recess when Clay had pantsed him, then laughed as Eric, running away with his jeans flopping around his ankles, tripped, wiped out, and skidded headfirst across the basketball court, his bare legs and arms grinding into the cement, his Pikachu-covered ass in the air.
Not because, ten years later, he was still afraid.
"What's in it for me?" Clay leaned back against the low brick wall that bordered the far edge of the parking lot, took one last drag on his cigarette, then squeezed the burning tip between his thumb and forefinger and tossed it over the edge.
"A college education?" Max suggested, in the same whisper-tight voice he'd used to lay out their proposition. Schwarz and Eric hovered a couple feet behind, Schwarz's face pale, Eric's fists clenched tightly and shoved into his coat pockets.
"More school?" Three alarming, low-pitched barks issued from Clay's mouth like machine-gun fire. He gave his thigh a sharp smack, and the band of thick metal links around his wrist clanged against the chain strung from the pocket to the waistband of his low-slung jeans. It took everyone a moment to realize that this was the Clay Porter version of laughter. "Think I'm crazy?"
"More like psychotic," Eric muttered. Max kicked his instep.
Clay's wolfish smile shrank down. "What'd he say?"
"Nothing," Max said quickly. "Nothing. So school's not your thing. Fine. Great. How about bragging rights?" The used-car-dealer sheen seeped back into his voice. "You'd be free to tell your story -- I'm seeing morning talk shows, SNL skits, a New Yorker profile -- "
"You want me" -- Clay's lips turned upward again -- "to brag about hanging with you?"
"Well, for obvious reasons, we'd prefer to stay anonymous," Max said. "But once we expose the hack, you'll be free to -- "
"Pass." Clay slid off the wall, his baggy jeans sliding even farther down his waist as gravity took over. "Later."
"Running late to flush someone's head in the toilet?" Eric asked under his breath.
"Nothing," Max said. "Ignore him. I do."
Clay fingered the chain hanging from his waist, wrapping the metal links around his knuckles. He glared at Eric. "You wanna say it to my face?"
"I said..." Eric paused. He took a deep breath. "Nothing. Forget it."
Clay cleared his throat, leaned over, and hocked up a wad of spit. It splashed on the ground a few inches from Eric's feet. Then he straightened up and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, slipping out one for himself and -- as an afterthought -- one for Max.
Max gripped the slim white cylinder like a pencil. Clay flipped open a black lighter and held it out, but Max waved him away.
"Trying to quit," he said, holding the unlit cigarette to his lips. "I just like the taste of them. You know how it is. The, uh, feel of it in your hands and all that."
"Been there, man."
A moment of solidarity. Max grabbed it. "Look...man. What'll it take to get you in on this with us?"
"You want me to, like, take tests and shit? Dress up like some geek and act like I care? No offense." He was staring at Schwarz, who hastily shook his head. None taken.
Max glanced at Eric, waiting for another muttered retort, but Eric was silent, his eyes fixed on the ground.
"It's just not my thing. Later." Clay shrugged and began to shuffle away, the frayed cuffs of his jeans brushing the pavement.
Max looked queasy. If they lost Clay, they lost the bet. There was one last resort, a doomsday measure that went against everything Max believed in, but desperate times...
"Cash!" he finally yelled, sounding like he was in pain.
Clay froze, though he didn't turn back. "How much?"
Eric flinched, Schwarz paled, and Max ignored them both. "You in?" he asked Clay.
"A hundred up front."
Max extended a hand. "Done."
Clay didn't shake. "You for real?"
"Would I lie?" Max asked. "To you? Trust me, I'm smarter than that -- as maybe you've heard."
"I say yes, that means we got a deal. That means you pay up -- no matter what." Clay took several steps toward him, stopping only when Max's nose was an inch or so from his chin. "You smart enough to get what that means?"
Max, all 630 of the underdeveloped muscles in his body clenched, could barely nod his head. But it was enough.
Clay shrugged. "Then I'm in."
"Great!" Max exclaimed as Clay walked off. "Cool. Good to be working with you, man. So we'll be in touch, right? Yeah. Okay. Talk to you soon!" He was still babbling as the car door slammed, the engine roared to life, and the LeSabre roared out of the lot.
"Congratulations," Eric said sourly. "You just made a deal with the devil."
"No thanks to you!" Max snapped. "What the hell was that?"
"More like psychotic," Max simpered, his Eric imitation sounding more like a ten-year-old girl. "Were you trying to screw this up for us?"
"I just want him to know what he is," Eric said.
"And that would be?"
Max sighed. "Look, that shit he pulled on you was a long time ago -- "
"I'm not talking about me!" Eric took a deep breath, and when he spoke again, his voice was calmer. Slightly. "This isn't personal. This is about the principle of the thing. He picks on people who are weaker than him."
"Picked," Max said. "Past tense. He's on our side now. I know you're the king of the grudge-holders, but just this once, let it go?"
Eric made a whooshing sound and flourished his hands like a magician. "All gone. Happy now?"
"I'll be happy when we win and I've got a big lump of cash in my pocket."
"Um, speaking of our most assured victory," Schwarz said nervously, "can you just clarify something for me, please?"
"Anything, Professor Schwarz!" Max said expansively, his mood on the rebound. "Perhaps you'd like a lesson in the sublime art of bullshitting? Sorry to say, what you've witnessed here is less of a learned skill and more of a...let's say a gift." His head dipped in mock humility. "But it's one I'm only too happy to share with my brothers, for the sake of the mission. Of course, if you should feel the need to thank me, tokens of appreciation are never declined. House policy."
"It is not the prevaricating," Schwarz said. "It is the five hundred dollars. We are paying Clay Porter five hundred dollars?"
"Not us...exactly." Max fiddled with the silver Harvard key chain on his backpack, a "gift" from Maxwell Sr. "The Bums."
"And how do you figure that?" Eric asked.
"Seventy-five up front, we can handle that. The rest, we pay him out of our cut, when we win."
"Schwarz, you're the one who won the International Math Olympiad," Eric began.
Schwarz blushed. "Second place."
"Whatever. Why don't you explain to Max how it's mathematically impossible for us to pay Clay five hundred dollars of our three-hundred-dollar cut?"
"Excuse me, Max, but it seems like if we each get a hundred dollars, then -- "
"It's possible the bet may be slightly bigger than you think," Max admitted.
Eric gritted his teeth. "How much?"
"You know what they say, size doesn't matter. It's not like we'll ever have to pay. We're going to win."
There was a pause.
"Dollars?" Schwarz yelped.
"No, pesos." Max rolled his eyes. "Of course dollars."
"You bet those goons twenty-five hundred dollars?" Eric pressed his hands to the sides of his head, like he was trying to prevent his brain from leaking out of his ears. "I don't have that kind of money -- and I know you don't. Just tell them to forget it. Bet's off."
"I guess I could, but..."
Max gestured at the skid marks Clay's tires had left behind. "You heard our friendly neighborhood thug. Do you want to be the one to tell our new best friend that he doesn't get his money?" He smiled, scenting victory. "Your funeral. But you better leave me your sound system in your will."
Copyright © 2007 by Robin Wasserman
Excerpted from Hacking Harvard by Robin Wasserman Copyright © 2007 by Robin Wasserman. Excerpted by permission.
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