Final steps

"Just a little white lie". He'd kissed her before walking to the kitchen table, looking ridiculous in suit jacket, shirt, tie and shorts. Half business. Half hidden. "I'm doing this for us", he said, giving her eye contact before turning to his laptop.

She sat close enough to overhear the interview, not so close for her keyboard to be background noise.

They'd been in the same class. Opposites with a slow attraction. Him: outgoing, confident, seeing high grades as wasted effort. Her: shy, reserved, finding solace in books. They'd studied together. She'd been surprised by his attention, enjoying the extra interest as exams drew close.

She watched his half of the interview and felt something that wasn’t quite admiration for how he sold the lie. Conviction, certainty, anecdotes, all impeccable. They liked the face he showed. When asked a technical question his eyes would dart up and to the right and people who read books on body language would say he was accessing long term memories. His web cam was midrange, not strong enough to register his eyes flickering left and right over the answers she typed for his secondary monitor. The job was his in under an hour. He took her for dinner to celebrate.

Enter unlock code. Eight digits. 100,000,000 possible combinations. She could risk two failed attempts a day without locking his account. A little under 137 thousand years, her brain calculated without prompting. If she'd started in the Jurassic period she'd be done by now.

He was in the shower, not yet a morning person but adjusting to earlier starts. The new job was full of adjustments, including this company phone. The password was mandatory, he'd said, the hundred million combinations needed to keep work secrets safe. This didn't seem to stop him asking for help with his projects every evening.

137 thousand years. The numbers danced in front of her, an unscalable mountain. But that was to try every possible combination. She halved the number: odds were good she'd find it by the halfway mark, moving her start time to the Paleogene period.

Her brain took to it like any other problem, ruling out possibilities, shortening strategies. Tom would choose something he could remember. Something he could type on a mobile phone screen a dozen times a day. She paused a moment and stroked her finger across the keyboard. 12345678. No luck. 09876543. One attempt left. Stupid. He wouldn’t make it that easy.

Takeaway again. A combination of less free time and two pay cheques, his somehow larger than hers. Some evenings he was home past midnight. They'd fallen into a routine, when Tom got home on time: an hour or so spent at his new work laptop, her doing the work he'd said he could, then slumping on the couch, too tired to talk, him occasionally tapping on his phone, screen angled from her. Sleep, then two attempts at his password while he showered.

Okay, think. He's right handed. He keeps his phone in his right pocket. What's easy to type with one hand?

She slid her thumb left then right. 09877890. Wrong. She tried right then left. 78900987. Final attempt.

Eight digits. What would he pick? What would he remember? Maybe a date? two digits for the day, two digits for the month, four for the year. 365.24 days in a year, 2017 years to play with. 737 thousand possibilities, give or take, not factoring in calendar changes over the centuries. But not all dates were significant. The next day she tried her birth date followed by the date she'd mentioned for their hypothetical wedding, carefully returning his phone when it warned that a third failed attempt would lock his account.

She decided she would not read his messages. At least not at first. There were escalations to invasions of privacy, and no easy way to recork the genie if he were innocent.

Instead, her brain ordered the different sources of data she could expect.

She could track his movements through Google Maps. See his location at any point on any day he claimed to be working late, accurate to five feet. A step too far, at least for now.

Photographs were trickier. They felt both more damning than messages and less intimate than private conversations, yet somehow she felt a resistance. They left space for interpretation; he had a talent for making her worries seem trivial.

How about Facebook? He wouldn't be that obvious, surely? But maybe his search history - still, that might just show a crush.

WiFi networks would be a better start. Any hotels they hadn’t visited together would let her justify escalation. If she ever cracked it.

Final attempt.

She put down his phone and picked up his watch, a blocky Bluetooth model, wishing again that he'd set it to unlock his phone when close. She squeezed its sides a little too tightly, the screen changing from light blue digits to a cartoon foot. 12 steps. An activity tracker. No passwords. She pressed another button: his steps for the past week scrolled. 813 on Thursday, 6,998 on Wednesday. Why the differences? Taxis, maybe? a different route?

She checked the other days and called to mind the times he'd been home the past week. No pattern. But maybe that was because he was doing something different with the other woman? Maybe he sometimes took her to the places they used to go, before he got too busy. Maybe he took the watch off for her. In those times they were alone.

How many steps would it take to get to his office and back? She could walk it tomorrow as a test, allowing 10% for leg length.

Walking his route did not rekindle feelings for him. The numbers didn't add up. The late nights and the close-guarded phone did. She let her eyes relax, ignoring the television, absorbing him through peripheral vision. She'd spent another evening fixing his code, wondering if he'd ever improve. He'd bought takeaway again as a thank you. She'd said nothing as he charged it to their joint account.

She waited two days before acting. She needed to be sure she wasn't impulsive. He had a full week of probation left; she could afford some time. As she kissed him goodbye the following morning she surprised herself with how easily she faked a smile. He waved as he set off for his train station, ignoring the few droplets of rain that fell on his forehead.

It was just single line of code, written from his laptop for a company with a strict policy on password sharing. He'd watched her write it, even grunting like a man who understood. Convincing. As always. It passed the company's automated tests and entered production where it would wait and later parse the change from AM to PM in a creative way that wiped records of employee leave. The hack was inventive, his team would recognise it as a talented work of malevolence. She reasoned that the data could be recovered from swipe card records and no serious harm would be done to anything except Tom's employment status.

He was distant now, and as she watched she willed the rain to fall on him harder, finding herself surprised when the drops thickened. As they fell she saw his umbrella unfurl with practiced ease, by habit held in his left hand. His dominant arm swung freely but the wrist that held his pedometer stayed perfectly still. Her brain shouted that its internal mechanisms would register him as not moving while she tried to correlate his steps for the week with the weather.

She ran back to the bedroom. Her phone. Not on the bedside locker. Not on the pillow or the bed. Stepping to his side she lifted a mound of unwashed clothes, shaking, listening for the sound of a phone dropping. Nothing. She stepped back to to her side of the room and looked again at the clear carpet. Nothing. Ruling out the wardrobe she rushed to the bathroom. The sink held only the remnants of his morning shave. She picked his wet towel off the ground and, finding no phone below it, hung it next to her own. On the next hook hung her bath robe: she squeezed the pockets in turn.

Found it.

She didn't habitually call people. The two speed dials on her home screen were reserved for her parents' landline and the man she had quietly planned to marry. It took agonising seconds to hear the first ring.

She pictured him at the train station by now. The man who hadn't cheated. The man who probably was just working late. The man who'd been in her life for five years. The man whose train would soon enter a reception dead zone. The man who did not answer after entering the office.

Second ring. She pictured him crammed in with other commuters, gradually becoming aware of the phone vibration contrasting with the shaking train, changing handrail, struggling to free his phone from his pocket. She occupied her shaking hands by screwing on the toothpaste lid and returning his toothbrush to their mug.

Fifth ring.

She stepped over to the bath, straightening the floor mat before looking at the drain, pulling out the chest and back hairs that threatened to clog. He was going gray, earlier than her.

Just before his voicemail cut in he answered. A bleary yeah. Seconds passed. The grease and gloop from the drain stained her hand. She dropped the hair in the toilet, watching a thin, mucouslike film stretch from her fingers.

"You there?" he asked.

She could say it was an accident. That she'd just remembered a bug in that particular system. He wouldn't even have to bring the laptop back: she could easily talk him through backing out the change. She ran through the permutations of stories she could tell.

"Hello?" he sounded impatient. She shook her hand and lost some more of the liquid, feeling the remaining dampness cooling in the air. His hair floated in the toilet, bobbing to the reverberations of its landing, half clinging to an edge. She wanted to flush it but couldn't while on a call. Her brain told her to speak before he hung up.

"Just wanted to say happy Friday. Didn't get a chance earlier."

Another pause.

"Thanks babe. Listen: reception's about to get bad, I'd better go. Could be late tonight."

He disconnected. She put down her phone and slowly washed her hands.