I walk the length of the Venice Beach boardwalk, a three-quarter mile stretch of concrete that runs along the Pacific Ocean. Thinking as I go. Freaking out, actually.

I have to figure out what’s on that flash drive. That damn flash drive. Given to me by someone I don’t know. Filled with information I can’t access.

I want to chuck it into the ocean. But how do you throw away the last wish of a dead man? You don’t. So you spend hours trying to crack a code that’s impossible to crack and inch closer and closer toward full-blown trichotillomania.

But there’s something comforting about the boardwalk. It’s the only area that still reminds me of the Venice Beach I visited all those years ago. So I walk. Past the entertainers, performing their art. Past mimes, musicians, jesters and jugglers. Past the street-side shops hawking their wares. T-shirts and temporary tattoos. Skateboards and sunglasses.

I run the list of names again. Friends, family, acquaintances. There has to be someone. Someone who can help. Someone I can trust. Someone, anyone, other than him.

I stop in front of a kid singing on the side of the boardwalk. Eyes closed. Strumming away. I appreciate his passion. His drive. I listen and let everything else fall away. Just a kid, his guitar, and the timeless lyrics of Silent Running.

And then I realize… I have no choice.

I drop a couple of bucks in the open guitar case, knowing what I have to do.

I let out a slow breath as I step into an open space, preparing myself for the conversation ahead. I pull out my phone, open my contact list, scroll to his name, and call.

The phone rings. And rings. It doesn’t go to voicemail. It just rings.

I hang up and dial again. And again.

“C’mon, pick up,” I say, half hoping he won’t.

But this time he answers on the first ring.

“How did you get this number?” he says.

“Nice to speak to you too, little brother,” I reply.

“No, seriously, Riley,” he says. “How did you get this number?”

“Richael, you gave me this number at Pop’s funeral. Said we should stay in touch, remember?”

“Oh, right. By the way, it’s not Richael. I changed it.”

“You changed it?” I ask, confused.

“Yeah, I changed it,” he says. “You’d change your name, too, if you spent your whole life explaining that it’s Richael, with an “R” and not Michael. You know, like every other kid on the block.”

“What do you expect? Ma was Irish. We’re named after her grandfathers,” I say as I begin to pace back and forth in the sand.

“Fucking Richael, though? Can’t even shorten it without sounding like a war criminal.”

“No, I get it. I get it. So what did you change it to?”

“Wait. Hold on a sec,” he says. A long silence follows.

“OK, thought I heard something,” he says returning to the phone. “What were you saying?”

“I asked what you’re going by now,” I say, stifling the annoyance in my voice.

“Ren. Not Renny. Ren,” he says.

“Nice, like Ren and Stimpy,” I say. “You used to love that show when we were kids.”

Long pause.

“Shit, I didn’t think about that.”

Another long pause.

“Uh, look, Ren. I need your help. Do you know anything about password-protected files?”

He snickers. “Uh. yeah, I know about encryption, bro.” He always was a bit of a prick when it came to his superior knowledge of all things tech related.

“I mean about un-encrypting them,” I say, keeping my cool.

“Yes. I know about un-encrypting them. Why?”

“I received a thumbnail with some unreadable files from this guy, for a story I’m working on and — ”

“Dude didn’t give you the password?” he says, cutting me off.

“No, he — ”

Another snicker. “Just ask him for it.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because he’s dead,” I say.

Long pause.

“Did you reset the key code?” he says. No snickering.

“Yeah, didn’t work.”

Long pause.

“You try using a password cracker?”

“Yeah, I tried everything I could think of. Like I said, I could use your help. Maybe I could — ”

“I’ll think about it,” he says.

“Thanks, man. And for what it’s worth, I — ”

“Gotta go, bro.”

“Look — ” I begin to say, when the line goes dead. I stare at my phone for a second and hit re-dial.

The phone rings. And rings. It doesn’t go to voicemail. It just rings.

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