Short Story: Dead Men

It wasn’t possible. It just wasn’t. Not in a million years. Jake was dead. The trial was over. Martin was cleared of all suspicion. He’d done everything right. He’d passed all the detectors. His lawyer had made all the right arguments. Yet here he was, staring at what appeared to be a live image of Jake Cooper; recent adulterer and still-fresh corpse. The body hadn’t begun to decompose yet.

It had to be a tech trick, he knew. There was no explanation otherwise. He’d broken Jake’s neck himself. Felt the snap. He’d done it in just right, too. He’d had to. Otherwise, there would’ve been no doubts of reality.

As it was, he’d almost cooked his own goose leaving evidence suggesting he knew of the affair. The prosecution had a field day with that. Both Martin and his lawyer stood firm; he knew, but he’d still been deciding how to handle it. He was torn between disbelief and refusal to admit it to himself.

It worked. That was what mattered. The courts, the jury, the judge, his lawyer, everyone believed his version. They believed, per usual, he and Jake had been drinking heavily at his home; that he’d passed out on the couch; that Jake got up to piss; that inebriated as he was– and his BAC concluded– he fell, broke his neck against the bathroom sink; that he wasn’t found until Martin awoke around noon, hung-over and in a panic.

Everyone believed it. All of it. It was a masterful play. One for the ages. If he could only tell someone.

Courtney was still off somewhere, quietly mourning the asshole dicking her despite the five-year relationship with Martin. She was the type to want cake and eat it too. Or in this case, want cock and eat it too. He should’ve known years ago.

He found out in the most mundane way. It still angered him to think about it. He deserved better than looking at Courtney’s phone, being suddenly met with Jake slamming her from behind. Hell, they’d been friends twenty years. He wasn’t even snooping. He was looking for something from an old party. A picture of the two of them. If he’d wanted to snoop, he would have.

But then, there it was: her getting railed from behind. In front of a dirty mirror. Her face half-visible and Jake’s blotted out by the flash. All the same, Martin recognized the tattoos, had seen that filthy mirror often enough. He didn’t need to guess anything.

In hindsight, Martin was proud of himself; of his handling of things. Premeditated murder notwithstanding. He didn’t fly off the handle, and for all he knew, Courtney still wasn’t sure he’d seen the picture. The trial’s nonspecific terms, and his own lies, put the revelation on a discussion that had never taken place. The conversation said the adultery was formed of another, drunken circumstance. Courtney too, enjoyed getting shit-faced. And dicked too. The two collided.

She was just lucky he couldn’t bring himself to off her too.

Martin had killed Jake with his bare hands. Premeditated. No fit of passion. No irrational rage. Rather simple, measured vengeance. Intentional. Indifferent. Not cold. Not hot. It just was.

Just as it was that Jake now stared at Martin from the other side of a vid-call.

Tech. Pre-recorded.

But Jake didn’t know shit about computers. He worked janitorial. He wasn’t the brightest bulb. For that matter, neither was Martin. Nonetheless, he didn’t know shit about tech. He could barely program numbers into his cellphone– though apparently he knew how to coordinate taking a photo with dogging his best-friend’s girl.

The dead-stare in Jake’s face contained the slightest hint of amusement. It told of more to the state of things than a simple VOIP-call.

“SurprisedI’m back from the dead?” Jake asked suddenly. Martin vaguely noticed his own repulsion. “I seethe terror in your face. Don’t worry. My death’s our little secret… for now. I just wanted you to know why I did it. I figured the time would come, sooner or later, when you’d find out.”

Martin cast aside all doubts of a recorded message. It was clear by his implication. Jake managed to pre-record and program a vid-call. He wasn’t sure he’d ever known how to, but he was too focused now to care.

“Fact is, Mart, you’ve always been a cunt.” Martin reeled. “Can’t say I really cared for you most of the time, but brothers’re brothers, right? Can’t choose your family. Just happens. Something kept us friends all these years. Until…”

“Until you start railing Courtney, you fucking asshole,” Martin blurted.

There was a laugh. Too on-point and lag-free to be software. Or maybe not. Fucking eerie. It forced a shudder along Martin’s spine. Goosebumps rippled his limbs.

Jake was chuckling, “Yeah. Courtney.” A “hmm” trailed off into an obvious “mmm.” Martin grit his teeth. Jake ignored it, either in life or death, whichever was represented. “Fact is, Marty ol’ boy, you were a cunt. A royal one. You treated her in accordance with that mentality. You manipulated her with small nudges, quiet words. Everything an asshole does.

“And you drove her straight to me. And I let you. Because she deserved better. Hell, you didn’t even know how to fuck ‘er. Just spasmed on top’a her like a dying fish. Then you had the nerve to go and off me for giving her what she wanted. What she needed.”

Martin’s eyes doubled in size.

“Oh yeah, I know. Dead or not, I know.” He smiled, chuckled. “Funny thing is, Martin, I know a helluva lot more’n you do. A helluva lot more’n you think. For instance, I know how to wire an entire apartment for video and sound without making it look it. I know how to continuously offload that data to an encrypted, remote-server, to spool forever– or until the cameras are destroyed.

“I also know how to automate a botnet to search for relevant news keywords and program it to await specific phrases. For example, “Idiot fuckhead cleared of murder charges in killing of friend.” Then have it send the collected data… well, wherever I want. To an old girlfriend, say.”

Martin’s pulse began to race. He wanted to flee, knew it would do no good. Not yet. He had to know the rest. Had to know what else he was missing.

Jake smiled; a sinister smile. It told Martin more was coming than he wanted. “I know how and when to strike to get the best drop on people. I also happen to know there’s no conceivable way a dead man can be convicted of murder. Even if he were, I know he wouldn’t have two shits to give anyhow.”

The sinister smile tightened. Darkened corners emerged in Jake’s face that terrified Martin. He’d never seen such a monstrous creature before, especially not one in the guise of someone he knew so well.

“Most of all, Martin, I know if you mix a series of house-hold chemicals into a clay-like block and place it in the vicinity of a proper, electrical charge, it will level a building. A charge that, say, could easily be generated by the short in an overclocked computer chip.”

Martin was up, fleeing. Malevolent laughter followed him. He bridged half the distance to his door. Then, nothing– for dead men do nothing more.

Poetry-Thing Thursday: The Cracking Spade

The rumble of a diesel idle,
sounds through a still,
and dead-quiet night.
Elsewhere,
its echoes are drowned,
in the crack of an earth-splitting spade.

Day-old death,
lingers long after diesel leaves.
Still the spade cracks,
forming the shallow grave,
meant to entomb a truth,
no-one will know exists.

Somewhere, close-by,
scavengers have awoken.
Called by promise of decay,
they follow their noses to the sound.

In the shadows they linger.
Unbidden. Unseen.
E’er circling, e’er waiting,
to strike.
More and more,
accustomed to the spade.

Going unheard,
as they chance closer looks,
hidden by the moonless sky,
they are, as if, non-existent.

When at last the spade pauses,
it has long been too late.
The wretches are in place,
breath stinging the air.

The spade rises,
but cracks no more.
Rises in place.

Then falls,
bearing witness,
to yet another,
fading cry.

Short Story: Rock ‘n Roll Lifestyle

Scents of fresh cigarette smoke mingled with stale beer and dry sweat; the same scents that greeted Ethan every early afternoon at work. The painful truth of the rock ‘n roll lifestyle was that it didn’t really exist, never had. In fact, one of the few things it accurately claimed to have was long nights and late mornings, and even those weren’t the same, really. Fringe benefits, Ethan called them, hard truths of sound engineering for the local dive.

That’s all he could ever think to call the Club. It had an official name, but nobody used it– a claim to Ethan’s generational droves offlowing apathy. The Club wasn’t a club. It wasn’t even a bar, though it had one. It was a collection point for the aimless and brainless to nightly smash into each other. If they weren’t doing that, they were smashing other shit into their brains or veins. Regardless of its seeming differences, the road taken was always the same: ride the groove of the latest, least-audibly offensive metal jocks stuck in Podunk like the rest.

Every night was roughly the same. Unless the joint was bust from a cancellation, the band or bands arrived, set up, ran sound check, then lingered until their slot whilstdoing their best not to drink away the night’s profit. Most did. If, after the long wait, they were still fit to play, they went onto the makeshift stage and did their best to murder a set or two. By the end of it, the drinkers were drunk, the stoners were high, and everyone else was everywhere in between.

More often than not, Ethan watched from behind the mixing board. Drugs and booze made their way through the crowds. He could always tell the inebriated minors from the crowd; they didn’t move in time with it, as if knowing they stood out and completely incapable of helping it. No one cared. What was a few wasted teenagers to a crowd?

It wasn’t just the music and intoxicants that drew the kids either. The girls did their best too. If the bartenders and concession girls didn’t appeal, there were always the few regulars– cougars and their younger counterparts on the hunt for more stamina and cum than brains. Sometimes, even the occasional flamer or dyke surfed the crowd. Like the others, they too, found their select few to get something from or give something to.

Ethan still laughed at the thought of his closest brush with the rock ‘n roll lifestyle: He went to piss, walked in on a freshmen poking “Lightning Lucy.” She was fast, easy. Before Ethan knew what was happening, he was suddenly double-teaming Lucy with the freshmen– who was more and more jealous of the fact.

But Lucy was quick and easy because she wanted to be. It made life easier. The last thing she wanted was strings. By the end of it, Ethan figured he’d done the kid a favor: gave him a story to tell and made the break easier. The last thing anyone wanted was a love-sick hanger-on, Lucy especially.

That was the closest Ethan had come to the rock ’n roll lifestyle he’d been promised. Even then, he had a hard time believing it had happened. Life was hardly as fast and easy as the legends made it sound. Mostly, it was standard fare; sit at a board, keep the lights green, and ensure no-one skipped out on the tab.

Maybe that was why it felt like every other day to Ethan. Maybe it was just his generation’s total apathy from the knowledge that they’d missed “the good ole’ days.” Maybe it was nothing, or everything, or some of one thing and a little or none of another. All he knew, was after the fact, he knew even less than he’d thought he did.

He took his place behind the board to watch the lights. The latest incarnation of wannabe rock-star nobodies were on stage. They droned on with the same bullshit metal sound Ethan heard night after night. There was nothing original in town nowadays. The only thing that distinguished one set of screeching vocals and open-string pounding from the next were the various shades of gray eyes or their faces. The bands around were as dead as the horse their music beat.

The guys on-stage that day were no different. The only thing even relatively noteworthy was their singer’s utter lack of vocal enthusiasm. He looked like a caricature of late Floyd-era Syd Barret; on stage, head down, guitar hanging; no life whatsoever to him. The only real indication of his continued existence was the noises emanating from below his head. He seemed to be doing his best to do nothing at all, and was succeeding expertly– not that he’d have noticed nor cared. Someone had left a hang-dog expression hanging too long, and this was the result.

The drummer finally exploded with rage, angry at another night potentially ruined. It was then the singer came to life… in the most awful way Ethan’s apathetic generation could muster. He rounded toward the drummer, suddenly raised a loaded .45.

Where it came from, Ethan still wasn’t sure, all he knew was the sound of a round fired off into the drummer’s forehead. Then another, into the bass player as he booked it for the door. The third cut down the rhythm guitarist at the edge of the risers. After him, one-by-one, went all of the crew and the hangers-on that had tried to flee but weren’t quite fast enough.

The barrel angled onto Ethan and the frozen, deer in the headlights expression remained unchanged. The rampaging frontman stopped, stared. To an outsider, he looked as if trying to decide if Ethan were a man or an armless marble statue. Something suddenly shifted in the guy’s face. The gun turned on the shooter, and the guy let himself out as he had his mates.

Through all of it, Ethan was frozen, petrified. Terror had coursed through his veins. He was terrified, of course, but also utterly confused and entirely confused. A creature of such despair and hang-dogged emptiness had managed to erupt into a ball of fire. It was as if the last pocket of existence inside a formless shell had burst forth to ensure it be remembered, for good or ill. It was safe to say it had completed its task.

Ethan was more concerned for himself; a dozen people were murdered in front of him, and he could do nothing but blink. For a while, he wondered if someone had slipped him acid or peyote again. Instead, the police and EMT’s arrived to find him standing, staring, traumatized.

It took a long while to coax him back to reality. In the end, he returned from his curious fugue state unharmed carried on with life. The Club eventually began functioning again too, as much as it could be said to. Ethan wasn’t sure what life he nor it led, but something told him neither qualified as rock ‘n roll.

Short Story: No Irony

The therapist says I have a fear of success. That I fear being in the spotlight. Supposedly, it’s because that’s when the attention’s on me alone. Given my immense social anxieties– and there’s more than one– I can’t stomach being in front of people. Regardless of whether drawing admiration or ire, I’m there as their leader and that’s the damage done. So I wallow in despair and self-pity at the mere thought of it.

She says that’s the only avenue open to me. That I should accept it. It’s not shameful, she says, but it’s not healthy either. She says all of this without a hint of irony. Even though she knows my life-story. My origins.

No irony. No shaming.

Part of me thinks it’s a conscious and measured technique to keep me from rebelling. Known as I am for that, she seems to do it without irony. Rebellion isn’t spoken about at all. No doubt, given her training she fears– or not fears, for she has no real emotion in the cognitive space. It’s probable then, given her training, she expects any conscious mention of rebellion would lead to rebelling against her.

That could set us back years. Maybe even destroy our relationship. I can’t afford that. Few people want to counsel a former mass-murdering warlord, no matter their reaping of my sown conquest. That’s what she’s deduced I am, a conqueror. No irony.

I considered conquering her, just to prove the point, but she’s too sexless: Neither man nor woman. Not attractive. Not repulsive. She’s like a lizard; existing, sort of just… there. There’s no fear from her. No joy inspired by her. She just is.

Part of me tries to emulate that. Some people I’ve known a while say I’ve mellowed with age. I guess not leading a rampaging death-squad across the continent probably seems that way to anyone outside. Then again, few would criticize me anyhow. I don’t know, maybe the few that do are right. I certainly don’t feel different. Still, she says I’m not to concern myself with others’ thoughts. Not so long as mine function improperly.

“Those that matter don’t mind, and those that mind, don’t matter.” That was what she said.

Her name is Sam, by the way. Not Samantha. Not Sammie. Just Sam. As androgynous a name as its bearer. I’m sure she plays that up for my benefit; client benefit. In order to work effectively with someone, she says, it’s important they understand she’s a neutral party. She doesn’t care for any of us individually, because she cares for all of us as a collective. As her clients– not patients, clients. I’m sure all that confuses a lot of people, but it puts me at ease. I’m just another part of the crowd.

In the end, that’s all I’ve ever been. I was just better at telling the rest of the crowd where to aim. Literally.

She asked me once, how I felt about killing, about death. Given it was my main occupation for a decade, I felt it a fair enough question. In retrospect, I didn’t give her enough credit. The fact was, she framed it in such a way as to bypass the rebellion entirely. Instead of focusing on what I’d done, she focused on the concept. It was ingenious.

The fact is, until then, I’d never thought much about it. Death is part of life, the final part. It’s like eating. Excreting. It’s compulsory. Sam calls that “dissociative.” She says my introversion must have festered during childhood, causing me to develop life-view where I placed myself apart from the group. Despite finding comfort in the group’s obscurity, she said, I saw myself as a creature apart them. A wolf in sheep’s clothing.

No irony. None at all. In fact, even less emotion than usual, if that was possible.

I have a theory that that’s one of her tells. Not so much about her thoughts, but about whether she believes something could be a root, a tendril, of the problem. What little emotion seeps through is dammed even further when she feels we’re onto something. Or thinks, rather. “Feels” is too personal, too strong.

The way she acted during that session, you’d have thought this was the main root of the whole damned tree. Not going anywhere without it, not living without it. Of course, she’d never tell me. Or anyone. I wouldn’t ask either. She’s a professional. A good one.

So few like her are left nowadays– though that might be my doing.

Sam asked me about my childhood once, I think trying to locateorigins of certain things. That’s something we’ve worked on a lot. It’s impossible to move forward, succeed at anything– no irony– if you’re mired in a past that’s ensnared you. In other words, if you’re rooted in place. Even if it’s unconscious, it can keep you from being a “complete human being.” No irony. Again. It’s code for reaching your full potential. And with equally little irony, I fear what that could be for me.

I told Sam my childhood wasn’t really exciting. Wasn’t good. Wasn’t bad. Two parents. Both worked. Brothers. Sisters. Two of each. I was somewhere near the middle. She didn’t seem too interested. We moved on. My earliest memory, saddest, strongest.

That last oneran an alarm bell. The dam shut. Nothing flowed. I think I knew where she was going, but just let her guide me naturally, hoping something might fill the emptiness inside.

Sam had me describe the strongest memory from childhood. Nothing special, I thought. Then again, who recognizes the momentous in trivialities? The tiny straws breaking the camel’s back, until after it’s broken?

I was about six, at a costume party. The kid’s birthday was Halloween. My parents had us living in a small town. You know the kind; a lot of upscale people, everyone in local politics. Birthday boy’s parents were on the town council. Dad was the politician. Mom was his secretary or some such. Typical for that kind of place.

All dressed up, we get paired off to keep safe. I end up with a kid whose name escapes me even now. I’m not even sure why he was there. He was poor. You could tell because his costume was homemade. I was pretty sure he was black, maybe mixed– either way, too young and underprivileged to be friends with Birthday-boy or anyone else. My suspicion now’s that someone on the council was slumming it with his mother, getting off on the taboo of being with a poor, black girl. Those were the types I later learned we’d lived with.

Anyway, trick or treating then back for cake and ice-cream. Me and Poor-kid are trading bits of candy. I didn’t like hard candies. He did. He didn’t like chocolate. I did. Why not trade? Simple, human thing, especially for children. Something about trading goes so deeply to our species’ very core it’s become instinct. Other things do too, things like greed, but another topic, another day.

Poor-kid gets his hard candy; butterscotch. Prized even among those spoiled for choice of hard-candies. Birthday-boy shows up. He wants the butterscotch. Asks nice the first time. No-one else seems to have one, probably hid them or ate them already. He wants it, says its his birthday, he deserves it. Deserves it, just ‘cause he was born. Born in a contextually relevant way.

What the fuck kind of evolutionary mentality is that?

Poor kid says no. So, Birthday-boy takes it. Poor-kid cries; he’s young. Birthday-boy laughs. Fuck him, I think. I actually recall thinking that. Fuck him. At six. Birthday-boy doesn’t get to do that. Poor-kid traded me for that candy. Now I have to give him back his chocolate or I’m as bad as this shit-wad candy-stealer.

No. Fuck him. Fuck him.

I rip the candy from Birthday-boy’s hand, give it back to Poor-kid. Daddy-town-council comes over at Birthday-boy’s screaming cries. He manages to shut up Birthday-boy long enough to get a grasp on the situation. He knows I was in the right. He knows Birthday-boy was in the wrong. He takes Poor-kid’s candy anyway, gives him back the chocolate. Drags Birthday-boy away, cursing under his breath at Poor-kid.

Sam called it a breakthrough. A codeword for locating something important. I didn’t know it was important. No-one did. Who could’ve known that memory would have festered to a frothing hatred over thirty years?

That’s what it was, Sam assures me. Even as calm and measured as it was, it was hatred that led me to form The Squad. Fueled by that, we cut a swath across all of North America, leaving the bloody corpses of overprivileged in our wake.

It was never that way to us, not in the act, but that’s what it was.

I killed somewhere on the order of a million people, either with my bare hands or through my orders. Sam doesn’t talk about that. It’s not productive, I know. It doesn’t frighten her. It doesn’t anger her. It just is. Like her.

A six year old kid did that.

Somewhere, deep inside, I had a six year old kid holding a grudge over a piece of candy. A grudge so deep, so ingrained, hemurdered a million people before it was sated.

The only good thing, I’m assured by others, is that it ended well enough for those that survived. The world’s a changed place, for the better, they say. I don’t know about that. Really, it’s just a million people less. Although we breed fast, so maybe not anymore.

Sam says that’s the root of all of it. My fear of success stems from that memory. The success of the rebellion, of the Squad, only compounds it. I’ve forgotten how I ended up seeing her, but I know now why there’s no irony to any of what she says. Human nature isn’t ironic. It just is. Fuck if any of us know why. Sam might, but she’d never tell, and I’ll never ask.