Guardians of Liberty: Part 5

5.

*Ahem*

“Never would’ve thought you had the balls to contact me again.” She said, rightfully.

He didn’t move. Her fingers thrust her switch-blade deeper into his side, blade still retracted.

“I swear to you, Martin, I’ll do it.” His steady silence conveyed his belief. The blade eased back, though by no means away. “Convince me not to.”

“Five confirmed hits. All corp-sec. I was one of the lucky ones. We’re off-grid. Wanted. Hidden. But they’re coming for all of us, Ket. You’ll be later. All of you.”

She sucked wounded air through her teeth; a sign of the last vestige of hatred for he and his eternal rightness escaping. Her grip remained firm. “Putting me under fire’s your response?”

“You’re smarter than this, Ket. Our past is behind us. Our future is dark. I wouldn’t have come here if I didn’t need you. And I wouldn’t need you if this weren’t bigger than myself or us alone.”

Another hiss, albeit quieter. Her panthera purr in full-effect, “What makes me care, Nite!?”

Addressing his persona directly said was willing to deal. However quickly that could change was another matter.

“Ket, Corp-sec’s murdering hackers.”

“An33$a.”

“And Clockwork. Five hits. Two deaths. Three others that made it away, including me.”

She finally eased off. It was subtle, but the knife retracted. Noticing was as important as it was civil. Ket was the kind of woman who thrived off the smallest measures of affection. If ignored or shunned, things went haywire. It extended elsewhere to her personality, of course– and especially in his presence, was lethal if not given considerable attention.

He knew that now. He hadn’t before, but now he was older, wiser, considerably more flexible in mind if not body. That was fine, she was enough of the latter for both of them, even if he couldn’t enjoy it himself presently.

She knew he’d sensed the easing, and with it, sensed his attempts at maturity. Too many years and too many missed opportunities had passed for them to deny the spark’s existence. Besides, the spark was never the problem, the idiot trying to control the fire was.

“Turn around,” she said, easing to full height.

He found her presence more gracefully imposing than he remembered. She was Venus Di Milo; larger than life. Eternal. He knew it. She knew it. He was her love; she, his. Yet their time together had taught them that, then at least, they couldn’t stand being together.

All the same, he saw her again; the olive skin, muscled as some ancient warrior goddess. Like every other time, it was as if the first time. She threw herself at him, kissed him deep, hard, wet, sloppily. He submitted fully.

A moment later it was over and the world was rushing back.

As if nothing had ever happened, she retook her rigid grace and led him forward into shadows. She spoke like a General meeting a trusted informant, on-edge but openly-so; from the severity of circumstances surrounding their very meeting, if nothing else.

Ket was business-like. N1T3 allowed her to set the tone. To her credit, she spared him further groveling. “Everyone saw what happened last night. No-one’s surprised it happened. Just at how.”

She led the way between a pair of old buildings, weathered by time and soot-blackened from an eon of pollution. N1T3 suddenly understood how the original torries felt. If this what they pined for, they could keep it.

N1T3 knew where she was leading him, but refused to believe it until he arrived. He’d only just seen her again, after years, and it seemed nothing had changed.

Well, almost nothing.

She led and conversed with gestures completely unaltered despite the years. Two conversations still took place at once. The surface one, audible and obvious; the other in a subtext of shared memories and memetic resonance from shared, mental-wavelengths.

Ket was doing it on purpose of course, as much for his sake as hers. Looks and gestures were easier than unnecessary words. Losing that had been one of the realities of their relationship that made her detest him so. He doubted she felt any hint of intimacy now, regardless of the kiss. It was a simple effect of being glad he’d survived; more Human than personal.

She turned transactional, business-like despite the obvious intimacy belying their words. Ket was little if not a career-woman at heart, however it manifested. It was that world that raised and bred her, taught her how– if need be– to take it out.

She, like N1T3 was one of those stop-bits. The 1s ending binary-strings of 0s; referential identifiers– embodiments of society via their existence at particular points in space and time. In effect, they were two of the postdigital-world’s first fully-digital children, formed and perfected en-masse whilst in-transition between worlds– the pre and postdigital.

But like N1T3, Ket was more than just that. Everyone that knew her, knew it. She could do whatever she wanted in both worlds; the remnants of the old and the blossoming new one, that was knowingly building itself in her image.

She had connections, money, property. Wit and clout to keep and protect them, illicit or not. Was the prototype chosen for mass-production, knew it, and used it.

And everyone let her.

She led N1T3 inside a neglected building, through it to an apartment. Even then, part of him refused to believe reality. He ignored the disbelief, knowing it would transform eventually.

The place was considerably more rundown now, partially reclaimed by nature. Otherwise, it was empty and undamaged enough to have kept anyone from squatting. It might still be reclaimed by one determined enough, but no-one would be.

The place meant nothing to anyone. Even those that knew of it most intimately. For any, it was merely another reference point. A place of known-congregation, now abandoned but capable of purpose. Any purpose– and thirsting for one at that.

That was one of the things Corporate lifestyle never understood. Mostly, because it required feeling. Not necessarily intense feeling, but any feeling.

The place felt as a refuge or sanctuary might, via obscurity; through a want of steel and stone to sing so its inhabitants might breathe again beneath it. Those feelings were what gave credence to Japanese Shinto Kami, their sister belief-systems dictating spirits resided in all things.

In a way they were right, however unwittingly after thousands of years of proven science, via electron microscopes, advanced physics and metaphysics. What Shinto called soul and energy, scientists called matter and energy; the effects of super-strong bonds formed in infinite ways, and radiating properties like auras; hot and cold, powered or not, 0 or 1.

Ket led him into their old room, a padlock already removed from it. They’d taught each other a lot over the years. Nothing consciously of course, but over the same half-telepathic link that had kept her from killing him only moments ago.

She let him, shut the door behind them.

It was smaller than he remembered. What wasn’t these days? He figured it an effect of age. After you’d seen so much, a single room could never be so large again– save if containing a live nuke. Then again with Ket, there was no telling; it very-well might– especially given the rather large, tarp- covered pallet in the center of the otherwise-empty room.

He hesitated just inside. She pushed past, whipping the tarp off. There, in three tiers, were a series of Rations purchased in bulk.

“You knew?”

“I had them stashed years ago.”

He stepped forward to examine them, squinting at her, “For me?”

“Yes,” she replied curtly. Then, “No-one’s surprised. I know you too well. It was this, or you’d be dead. Either way, I’d move ’em.”

He eyed her, searching for anything beyond the business-like facade she’d put on, finding only it. She was on now, thus he needed to be. Otherwise, he might as well have ended with the blade. He produced a flash-key.

“I’m insulted,” she remarked.

“Not for this,” he corrected respectfully. “I need something else. Two things. Actually.”

She wiped off her smugness and pricked up her ears. He produced a list. “This. Quantity there.” “And something… defensive.”

She eyed him through a squint, “Dangerous.”

He said nothing. What could he say? He knew it was dangerous, but the whole world was dangerous. Especially now. And especially for him. Yet he’d take the risk over losing the chance. Way he saw it, he’d be murdered or die going out. The responsibility to his mission dictated he protect himself if necessary, though if only to an extent of attempting to protect it.

Ket caught the wave of his thoughts, his mind-frequency attuned to hers. She folded the page, took the flash-key. “Two days. Meet me here then.”

“If it takes less?” He asked, only internalizing the, “where will I find you?”

She eyed him levelly, a fairly-injured party still nursing its wound, however potentially forgiving. “I never left.” He winced. She expected as much. “Let me make one thing clear; I loved Martin Black. I do not love N1T3.”

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Poetry-Thing Thursday: Nothing So Cutting

Sweat Glistens.
You listen–
skin-to-skin–
to my lesson.

The heart beat is true,
but one of few,
yet to be felt,
‘tween thee and you

Sex clings to air,
fingers grip hair.
So sealed are your fates,
of impassioned despair.

Stuttered breathing.
Milk-white breasts,
heaving.
Hefted in-hand,
what devious seething.

Miles away,
‘tween millions of days,
none can deny,
the animal sway.

It could be wrong,
but long heard’s the song,
of those now regretful;
“don’t worry, just do it,”
and
“cause life isn’t long.”

But the sea’s in your eyes,
and though known to defy,
even shallow oaths,
should now make you comply,
for recall there’s nothing so cutting,
as the sound of “goodbye.”

Short Story: Powers of Ten

He sat at the kitchen table, knowing exactly what was to happen. She sat too, only some idea buried beneath a hopeful fear. There’d be no denials. She’d try and try, he knew. Every step. But the truth was undeniable.

A picture was worth a thousand words? He had ten.

For each one, she’d have a new excuse, its complexity growing and tightening the noose until the tenth emerged. Then, the floor would give. The rope would tighten. She dangle, dead or gasping. Likely the latter. She’d assured it. No matter what, he had her this time. She couldn’t escape.

Quentin Pearson had suspected his wife of adultery long ago. He couldn’t pinpoint when, exactly, but ignorance had turned to suspicion. Before long, it became the hand that shook the P-I’s after handing over the signed check that hired him.

Suspicion became knowing. Cheryl had always been off with friends, spending long nights away. Sometimes she called, drunk; they couldn’t drive home. It hadn’t bothered him, she’d always been the social type. He wasn’t. Nor was he the type to complain much about her excursions, so far as he knew.

Only his unexpected clusterfuck avalanche could’ve led him to be sitting with Cheryl now. Full-color 8x10s printed from digital photos between them. She was fucked. He knew it. Somewhere, someone else wasn’t the one fucking for once. Maybe more, too.

After all, Steph hadn’t mentioned how long it’d been since she’d seen Cheryl, only that she’d wanted her to call. That was how Cheryl’s type of recluse imparted long distance pleas. Not one of ‘em could use a damned phone.

Or maybe not, judging by the first photo: Cheryl outside, half-in her car, phone to her ear, talking to someone.

She could use a phone, thus the issue was one of choice. Then again, the whole damned thing was. If she’d chosen to remain faithful, Quentin wouldn’t have hired the PI. If she’d chosen to admit her affairs, neither would’ve remained in such a farcical marriage. But too bad, huh?

Then again, if she’d chosen otherwise, he’d have never been able to confront her. Given his enjoyment, why spoil it?

She was already busy making excuses: she was leaving. Going to the store, to the mall, to see Stephanie. All obvious lies. Or maybe not. There was no way to know how the images were sequenced, only their eventual ends.

Quentin did his best not to see red. It was important to remain calm. Rage ruined the trap he’d lain. He needed her like a startled hare, ankle caught, and dangling. He was too intent, the slow build of panic too insatiable in her, to risk doing things any differently.

When the panic would become too much, he couldn’t say.

He laid the second image between them. Nothing suspicious; her, outside a building. Nondescript. Parking lot. Indifferent to any other. Though he couldn’t place it, she feigned familiarity. Enough said.

Image two, means to an end it was, established the next. Quentin placed the third photo directly beside the second: Wider angle, less zoom. A drugstore forty miles away. One on every corner, he said, why this one in particular?

She’d begin to chew the inside of her lip now, he knew it. Quentin couldn’t see it, subtle as it could be, but always there in her times of distress.

Photos four and five were benign, boring. Yet, imperceptibly important. Doubly so, given photo six. He laid all three out, over the previous three. They’d made their point, word-values expended.

Images four and five only revealed their secret after the emergence of the sixth. With them, Cheryl’s teeth would bite deep into her lip. Deeper. Quentin imagined she’d taste blood. He hoped she would. He wanted her to. Then, he wanted to upper cut her jaw. Make her taste it.

Instead, he let the images settle in. Their existence hovering overhead like a gray cloud of tension, shame. That same fear prey felt before being eaten. She’d was his now.

Cheryl breathed. There it was. A car approaching a nearby parking space, making an arc. Cheryl exiting. Slipping into the vehicle. The driver, male, leaned. Cheryl squirmed, her chair man-eating jam attempting to devour her from the genitals upward. Maybe it was, in some reality. Here, it was another’s hands.

Quentin tempered fury with satisfaction from the belly-full feeling of a soon-to-be fed predator. He’d always loved watching her twitch and spasm, usually atop him. Death would do now. If only in death of a lie. She wouldn’t bother fighting.

Cheryl knew little could be said or done, didn’t care.

Image eight: Cheryl. The man. Deep kissing. It took all of her strength and senses not to flee. It took all of his cowardice not to beat her to death.

Image nine: Mystery man’s car. A cheap motel charging hourly.

Image ten: death knell. Shot from outside, through a window. Difficult angle. Subject matter clear. Her, impassioned-back bent; mystery man’s face averted from behind, thrusting. Her in ecstasy. Happy. Dreaming. Wishing. Presently squirming. Quentin smug, tasting victory on the air.

“I hate you,” she said, quietly guilty. “And I’m leaving.”

His victory slipped from his grasp, replaced by sickening emptiness.

“You’ve terrorized me for years. Beat and belittled me. Sucked away what happiness I had. Smiled at my misery. I’d call you a monster, but nothing like you is known.”

He was eviscerated. Victory and life snatched away and his own arrogance rubbed into his face all at once. He couldn’t even muster the wrath she knew as his trademark.

She was never more alive. She rose to leave. Years ago, his sudden, surprising lack of anger might have led her to believe in him. Might have led her to hope he could change. She wasn’t a girl anymore, didn’t.

Cheryl drew tri-folded papers from her purse, set them on the table. “I expect you’ll sign these,sooner or later. I commenced divorce proceedings the day I learned you’d takenover a thousand dollars from our savings. I knew you were either using, or spying. I didn’t care which. Maybe one day, you’ll be human again– if you ever were.”

Neither of them knew it until long after, but her final words rang out into a disemboweling emptiness. “Goodbye, Quentin.”

She knew only the sound of the closing door. The lifting of a weight that comes from shedding that which has burdened one for far too long. Cheryl breathed and climbed into her car. From then on she lived free.

Short Story: His Comet

She leapt at him from behind as he strolled through the square, took him by surprise.

In retrospect, a bad idea when he hadn’t seen her in over a decade. Leaping randomly onto the back of one unaware should’ve advised her against doing so. But she’d never been the brightest bulb in the bunch, just a wild-card.

The wildest of wild-cards at that. A free-spirit, untamed to a fault, that ultimately forced them apart. Brought together again by Tianna’s frame, launched with the force of stupidity, they were quickly parted again– mostly, by Evan’s fall-down back-drop, executed on instinct (Not the calmest bull in the pasture was he.)

The next thing either knew was a giggling yelp; Evan’s sudden terror. It was her. He knew it like he knew his face in the mirror. Her voice, all its variants; coded into his brain as only someone who’d spent years putting it there, bakedin by every moment of mutually-burnt, midnight oil.

All that time together. Years. Years more since. Yet even now he rippled the same mix of emotion and memory. Evan’s mind and body flitted with images, feelings; love, pain, euphoria, joy, sorrow. He recalled every laugh. Every tear. Every shout and cry. Every kiss, touch; everything.

And all of it in a nano-second.

Whether she did too, he couldn’t say. He was certain she’d felt the back-drop. The giggling “oofs” slipping out said so.He scrambled up, staring down at the mass gasping pain and giggles. He thought to offer help as she clutched her stomach, remembered their sex being rougher.

So instead, he stared, bewildered. “Tia?”

She splayed her arms and legs out, breathing relief. In that instant, he took in time’s effects– or lack thereof. Only after he offered her a hand, and she sprang up more spryly than a teenager in heat, did he understand that little had changed.

Any hope that might’ve imparted was balanced to indifference by the drug use under her eyes.

Somehow, they only added to her appearance. The freedom of spirit, it seemed to Evan, balanced anything. Her vibrant mane and doughy, spring-bark eyes remained vital as ever, no matter what lined or hung beneath them.

“Surprised?” She snickered with a sarcastic-coyness.

His eyes narrowed habitually; time had done that. Made him shrewd. Uncompromising. Almost tyrannical in mind. Unlike her, he’d been forced to grow up, forced to become an adult, composed of self-control, occasional cynicism, and ever-waning time.

She needed none of those things. Spirit alone kept her malleable. She took things as they came, had no need to change. It was the mixed blessing of evolution. The simplest organisms survived, but at the cost of the complexity required by the more intelligent ones.

Part of that simplicity had attracted him, and vice-versa. Evan’s complexity was new, interesting. Something Tia had never known. The fact they’d lasted so long before was more a wonder of the couple’s own, lasting ignorance. Their eventual end and how it came was a matter Evan had often recalled. It was at the forefront in his mind now, though he doubted she’d recognize it.

Ultimately,someone like her was an unstoppable force. One of nature, spirit. She was a comet; bound to a solar gravity that kept her rarely insight, but always mesmerizing, awe-inspiring; beautiful.Even if she orbited for eons though, she would slowly erode; never not beautiful or full of wonder, but far from immortal and always ending.

Evan wasn’t so lucky. He was human. Like them, had his caveats, flaws.Their own end proved as much.

He’d spent months of trying to clean up, had long abandoned their lifestyle for forward momentum. Each day became a struggle to grip life despite vices, flaws, mistakes, hopes to change them for the better. Tiawasn’t changing though.

She didn’t want to. In a way, didn’t need to. Life was great for her, especially by her metrics.

To him, then, she was full of shit. He couldn’t have understood the division between humans and the forces of nature she was. Even if he recognized it then, there was no way to understand it yet. That required time, wisdom. Neither of which he’d had much of then.

It was only after coming home, finding her passed out, needled and powdered, that he left. He remembered double-checking her vitals for O-D, rolling her on her side, and grabbing what he needed quietly to live with. In the end, he left with a single pack.

She kept what she wanted, sold the rest for drug-money.

She hadn’t O-D’d, just nodded off. In fact, he wasn’t even angry when he arrived him. It was nothing abnormal for their life. It was the same life they’d lived for years. Still, his only lasting regret was that the spirit he so loved was its own worst enemy. That was not a failing of his own, he knew now.

Then, he’d simply left, confused and alone….

The memories rushed past; he saw no track-marks on her sleeveless arms, exhaled slight relief. She caught it, tried to eye him. He evaded, already checking his watch.

“Not surprised, Tee. Somehow. But what’re you doing here?”

She bounced on the balls of her feet, “Just hanging. You?”

“Lunch meeting.”

She snickered. “Big businessman now. Forgot.”

He didn’t bother asking; word got around. “Meeting an Agent. She wants me to write an autobiography.”

Tia rolled her eyes, pulled at his arm and linked it with hers. She marched them toward a near-edge of the Square. “Buy me a coffee.”

“Tee–”

“Can’t spare half-hour for an old girlfriend?” She joked, dragging him along.

He relented with a sigh, allowed her to lead him across a street and into a cafe. Minutes later they were out again, caffeinated drinks in-hand. Tia ambled, arm-linked, as her brow rose playfully. He knew her too well.

“So your agent–”

“Is just an agent.”

Her sarcastic defensiveness returned. “Just curious.”

He strained syllables, “Sure. And if I asked you?”

“I’d say I don’t care, so long as they’re fun– naked or not.”

“Typical.”

“When’d you get so stiff?” She asked with a harmless elbow.

He thought to snap, sighed instead. “Sorry. Caught me off guard, that’s all.”

“That bad huh?”

“Don’t even know.” He angled them toward an apartment building, unlocked it with a key, and led her to an elevator. “I’m not a self-writer, Tee. I’m not even sure I’m a writer.”

“Oh listen to you, Mr. Opportunity, angry at the knocking on his door.” He scowled. The elevator arrived. She led him in. “Which floor.”

“Seven.”

They rode up in silence; Tianna was in her own world. Evan replayed his conversation with Marlene: Autobiographies were the rage. Of course she wanted one. And of course from him. Never mind having nothing interesting to say about himself, he didn’t want to write one. Period.

Biographies, auto or not, were self-indulgent, over-long masturbation sessions about oneself or their heroes. Certainly, they had their place, but they were also a tacit admission that the subject had peaked.

That, in and of itself, would keep him away from one. The sooner you accepted you’d peaked– and stopped trying to achieveto do so– the sooner you started stagnating. Every creative knew stagnation was a creative’s death-sentence, their malignant cancer cells. The idea was to stave it off, in sessions, seasons, projects. Always. Indefinitely. Until you died trying to keep it up.

Not sitting and wallowing over what you’d already done.

Tia tore him away again, “Serious thoughts abound.”

He sighed and motioned her to the first apartment on the left. He led them into a modest, one-room apartment, furnished with warm woods and cheap furniture. The place was lived-in but clean; an effect of being too work-focused and economical to afford or gather much. The only thing resembling clutter outside his desk were a few food wrappers from lunch on the coffee-table.

She sat beside him on his cheap, creaking couch and finally began to discuss herself. Everything nondescript. Stories of “friends” laughing about “things,” or vents and rants about others. Nothing solid. Nothing of substance, but enough to pass the time and fill the air.

Tianna had always spoken of her life as if describing distant dreams. Ones experienced while in others. That, he felt, was Tia’s essence. Her life was a dream in a dream; Too real to be fully-illusory, too illusory to be fully-reality.

It was a manifestation of the pure wildness of her energy. There was no way to change or control it. You rode or dealt with it, that was it. Much like a tribal free from society’s laws, so too were they without its advances and progress.

Before either knew it, the sun had set taking the afternoon and turning it to evening. Tia had managedto creep over, rest her headhis shoulder. He allowed it, too enveloped in his own thoughts to feel anything beyond allowance, pressure. He let it continue after something in him began to resonate; something so deep only she could reach it.

Evan had loved her. Had spent years with her. He’d intended to spend more,but woke up one too-many timesin a pool of his own shame and grief. Even afterward, he hoped to find her beside him. She was his first and only love.

Then, his worst and deepest loss.

It was never leaving that hurt.Even now, he wouldn’t have hesitated. It was the needing something, deep down, from someone whom didn’t really need you. Something deep inside him needed her even now.Just as bad as the day he’d left, every day before that.

No matter the women before or since, none were her. None were a comet. His Comet; an indescribable, undeniable force of nature and spirit winging along solar tides.

He glanced down to find her fresh-bark eyes looking up. They came closer.

The night passed with few words, but unassailable, unbridled feeling. It was morning before her solar gravity released him and his senses returned.

He lay then in bed, half-awake. Clothing rustled nearby. She would be leaving this time. He felt it, asked anyway.

“You’re going?”

She smiled over a shoulder-blade of resplendent inks. “You think I’d ruin last night by staying?”

He winced, feeling pain cut deep as the love the night before. She slipped her shirt on, crawled up the bed, and kissed him deep. When she pulled away, their eyes met.

For an instant, the free-spirit faltered. It was as if, all along, she’d known his thoughts. Not just now, but always. Past and present, she known them as if her own. All of them.

“I have to.”

He suppressed grief, muttered, “You don’t.”

She rose, softening playfully, “I do, Evan.” Her facade returned, “Besides, you’ve gotta’ book to start. Put in a chapter about me.” She grabbed her things and smiled bitter-sweetly. “This was fun. Maybe we’ll do it again.”

She left without another word.He let her. It was easier. For both of them.

An hour later, still in the grieving throes of her departure, he sat to work. The text document stared, begging for words. Half an hour passed before he began with two words: My Comet.”

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.