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FP453 – Censors: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 3 of 3

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Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode four hundred and fifty-three.

Flash PulpTonight we present Censors: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 3 of 3

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Download MP3
(Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3)
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This week’s episodes are brought to you by The Melting Potcast!

 

Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age - three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.

Tonight we find ourselves again under the watchful eyes of the Diamond Dogs, as one online investigator brings a decades-old mystery into the future’s blinding light.

 

Censors: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 3 of 3

Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May

 

Maritza stood in the chaos of the shared kitchen, her feet curling back and forth across the chill linoleum. As the coffee maker gurgled out its replacement for sleep, her mind wandered over the details of her mother’s letter in an attempt to replace the brutality of the images she’d just witnessed.

Had the woman undertaken her research into the Collective Detective solely because she thought her daughter might help with the concerns that had lingered, nagging, at the back of her mind? Had she been waiting fifteen years for this opportunity?

No, it seemed more like her to have done the reading and research because she was concerned about the group her daughter was involving herself with, just as she had originally stated when Maritza had divulged the fact during a brief trip home, four months previous.

It had been her second visit in two years, and there hadn’t been much conversation between - yet the errant child now held a sneaking suspicion: That the instinct for concern that had caused her mother to sift through online reports, and yellowing news articles at the local library, was the same trait that had driven her to take on such miserable work to provide for her family in the first place.

FP453 - Censors: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 3 of 3She had accepted her daughter’s departure for schooling just as she had accepted her position policing junk shots: It was what was best for MarMar.

Standing in the hushed kitchen it struck the girl as strange that she might realize it all only now, when so far away and so out of touch.

Then the coffee maker beeped.

When again situated in front of her keyboard, Maritza cleared her head of personal concerns and attempted to reestablish the mantle of a detached collective contributor. Despite a persistent knot in her heart, it was not hard: She’d made amazing progress given the amount of time, and the next steps were tantalizing.

Stout James’ account information brought up a thick cloud of social media misuse, and, just as her mother had predicted, a brief history of his photos having been tagged as offensive by strangers who’d been in search of help with their brightly animated collection games.

Here, however, she hit a snag.

The apparent murderer had used a data anonymizer to connect to the site, and, while it was an old form whose techniques had since been decrypted, the amount of computing power required to decode the stream would mean submitting a ticket for priority to the Collective as a whole.

While she had followed the usual protocols - opening a fresh stub for the case and updating it with her findings as she progressed - she had found herself unusually protective of her search, and had operated in such a way as to hopefully draw no attention from her fellow detectives unless someone was bored and creeping the change logs.

Inspiration hit as she weighed her options and scrolled, unthinkingly, through the timeline of filth. It was not the nastiness of the photo that drew her attention, but, instead, its normalcy.

Here was an ebon-haired woman of perhaps forty, her carefully pinned locks and flowing purple dress, with simple yellow shawl, indicating the picture had been taken at some sort of formal event. She was flashing a broad grin and her left hand held a tall glass of champagne - there was something, though, in the way her right shoulder was cut short that left MarMar with the impression that perhaps there was a memory she had cropped out in an attempt to forget; That perhaps a good photo was too rare to waste despite the ex-husband or boyfriend who had once stood beside her.

On a whim, and without stopping her mind’s juggling of how to approach the problem of Stout James’ encryption, she slipped the image into another search.

The smile was not unique. The portrait had, at a time, been spread as widely as her mourning family might take it, and the missing woman, Callie Meadows, had apparently been beloved by all but the men in her life.

Pleas for information led to a social media account, now a memorial, and a history of data provided by Callie herself. Again Maritza began chipping at the stone that surrounded the history of the assumed-dead woman, and the trail she had left across the internet of her era. It was easy enough to find an end date - the day Callie had been last seen was well recorded - but when to begin was a fuzzier notion. To be sure, MarMar settled on a window that extended out a year before the woman’s disappearance.

The logs turned up a not-entirely-surprising link: Ms. Meadows had been active, shortly before vanishing, on Pair.com, a dating website. The image remained, in fact, her long abandoned profile picture even now.

MarMar’s probing fingers dug deeper, recovering the records of her interactions and compiling a list of possible paramours. The connection seemed too strong to be coincidence, and she swept the rest of the data from her search like so much marble dust.

A list of five names remained, and, among them, only one James: Her second last accepted invitation out, if her private messaging - no longer private - was any indication.

If necessary Maritza determined she could track down the woman’s cellphone records and be sure, but she did not think it would be so. Instead she plucked at this new thread, crawling backwards into the profile, and inbox, of one James Pitts.

Again she discovered his location was unable to be tracked to its root - the same anonymizer having been used to interface with the dating service as had been used to hide his identity from social media snoopers - but she had full access to the user in question, and she was beginning to suspect that might be enough.

Here were missives to a dozen suitors, and, as MarMar tracked each name, a dozen missing women.

She sat staring, with slow blinks, at her screen. Should the Pair.com people have noticed? Their software hadn’t been designed to track serial killers, and James had left a buffer between his arranged outings and the women’s actual disappearance - the dates listed in public police databases often indicated up to three or four weeks later.

Yet the matches were far too consistent to be any sort of fluke.

Now she submitted her request for a larger share of the collective’s processing power: Decrypting the address behind the account would lead her to him, and if anyone else noticed at this point they’d only be watching her cross the finish line.

Maritza was exhausted. Her knees ached from her cross-legged position, and she’d had to lower the Thin White Duke to a whisper as even her ears felt tender. Despite her fatigue, however, she found she was furious. Furious that this man had gotten away with his crimes for so long, furious that he’d exposed her mother - HER NANAY - to his handiwork, furious that the elder Mercado had been forced to undertake such work to support her, furious that she hadn’t understood her mother was more than just a robot programmed to nurture until just then.

Visions of SWAT teams danced in her head: Men the size of small buses battering their way through the crumbling door of some distant farmhouse, assault rifles raised and barrel-mounted flashlights piercing the musty darkness beyond. Stout James would no doubt be in his living room, sitting in an old chair, waiting. She began to hope he’d resist.

She could not say where her daydreams ended and her actual slumber began, but the late hour worked to her advantage in at least one aspect. More than half of the Collective’s users were North American, and even the night owls among them had long dragged themselves to bed or nodded off at their keyboards. Even as Maritza snored, curled beside the laptop she’d given more room on her futon than herself, her request rocketed through the processing system.

An editor by the name of DarshBoard spotted it first, having returned from a long lunch with a sack of samosas he’d intended on nibbling through while ignoring, at least for one more afternoon, the code review his boss had ordered.

Suddenly finding something more interesting to fill his time, he granted the requested fastlane access and opened his messaging app. KabirToss was going to want to hear about this.

An hour later Maritza’s body surrendered its game of Rock, Paper, Scissors: Sleep had briefly beaten coffee, but bladder had, in turn, overwhelmed sleep.

Stumbling to and from the bathroom, she lifted the laptop from her mattress and prepared for a more expansive collapse. It did not come when her eyes landed upon the rapidly bubbling number atop her message queue, and the red text that indicated her inquiry had already been completed.

Refreshing the case stub she found her simple notes had been clarified and expanded upon by a dozen fellow detectives.

She discovered she was right about one thing: James had in fact lived on a farm. A quick map search determined it was nothing more than a ruin, abandoned for almost a decade..

Still, the general consensus was that, given the lack of bodies found in relation to the missing women, some evidence was likely to be had from the plot’s fertile earth, and DNA likely lingered in its carpets.

Yet there would be no SWAT teams. The local news had reported James death some seven years previous, a prostitute having stabbed him in apparent self-defense.

Again Maritza was left to blink at her screen - then she reached for her phone.

“Musta,” came the distant answer.

She’d intended on some sort of - well, not speech, but at least something like an apology. A statement of her new understanding. Something witty and maybe a bit touching, but too much had happened in too short a period, and exhaustion had worn her nerves to snapping.

Her mouth began to move with little influence from her brain. “I - I came so close, I almost got him. I mean, I did find him, I found Thick Jim, or Stout James, or whatever you want to call him, but he’s dead. He killed those ladies, just like you thought, and more, but he’s dead and I didn’t get there in time. We didn’t get there in time.”

There was a pause on the line, a combination of mental processing and the delay of distance, then her mother replied, “but you will be able to call their families? Call their Nanays, if they still live, and let them know for certain who and what happened to their daughters?”

“I think so.”

Another pause.

“Sometimes a warm word and a little closure is enough. It is good to hear your voice.”

“Yeah,” replied MarMar, “it’s good to hear yours too.”

 

Flash Pulp is presented by http://skinner.fm, and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Intro and outro work provided by Jay Langejans of The New Fiction Writers podcast.

Freesound.org credits:

Text and audio commentaries can be sent to comments@flashpulp.com - but be aware that it may appear in the FlashCast.

- and thanks to you, for reading. If you enjoyed the story, tell your friends.

FP452 – Censors: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 2 of 3

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Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode four hundred and fifty-two.

Flash PulpTonight we present Censors: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 2 of 3

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Download MP3
(Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3)
(RSS / iTunes)

 

This week’s episodes are brought to you by The Melting Potcast!

 

Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age - three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.

Tonight we re-join one of the Collective’s investigators, Maritza “MarMar” Mercado, follows a too-bloody, too-naked, trail of digital breadcrumbs.

 

Censors: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 2 of 3

Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May

 

Staring down the gray boxes of the Collective Detective’s sprawling archive, Maritza considered what she knew: The company her mother had worked for, AssignMe, and the brief window of two months in which she had been employed.

It wasn’t much to go on, but “solving mysteries with no more than a ghost’s whisper is what the Collective does,” was a regular refrain from her friend and fellow contributor, Harrisment, and she knew a witness statement was far more than most cases they undertook began with.

Besides, it wasn’t a lack that was generally the problem: She considered working with the Collective like being a marble sculptor - the shape of the solution lay in the data, but it was up to her to shave away the excess surrounding it.

She started, as always, with every bit of traffic transmitted across the NSA’s snoop servers over the course of several years.

Adjusting her timeline to cover the summer in question, MarMar did a simple search for the company’s website traffic. The engine began to chug away, retrieving logs and doing its best to feed it back to her via interfaces that would help make some sense of the flood. Webpages were a well-maintained protocol among the collective’s users, but she knew if the management system the company had used was custom she might be bogged down in having to reverse engineer the software necessary to display the stream of information.

Casting a hopeful glance at Ziggy Stardust, pinned on poster paper to her wall, she rummaged in her desk drawer for a piece of gum and ignored the possibility of tedium on the horizon.

The site provided email addresses - another protocol the project easily understood, its unencrypted nature making it especially easy to track. Attached to the requests for time off, excuses for late arrivals, and complaints regarding broken vending machines was the IP data for the facility. From there it took very little prodding to block out a decent range that encompassed everything traveling the company’s wires.

She exhaled with a grin: The interface AssignMe had used to filter and tag offenders was all web-based, and, better yet, included individual usernames that were automatically rolled over into timesheets to determine how much the operators were owed on payday.

There were dozens of Mercados in the database, but only one Alaiza whose records began and abruptly ended during the window in question.

There was no result for a Thick Jim, however.

Again MarMar narrowed her search, this time coming back with what her mind considered a single unbroken thread of data.

Here her work truly began. She could not ask the computer to filter the job further, she would have to flip through the feed and identify the clues by hand.

Still, it was a filthy river to be fishing in. College could be a lonely place, and she was not unacquainted with the occasional naughty picture, but the depths of depravity that unwound themselves from her laptop’s too-bright screen left her wanting another shower and a walk along empty streets.

Six hours into her scrolling, with her bladder in increasing need of a break and her brain demanding coffee, she came across the image. It was not the first photograph mentioned in her mother’s letter - perhaps she’d blinked in her endless examination and somehow missed it. Here, instead, was the white chair, just as it had been described, and the axe handle apparently propping up the anonymous woman whose purple flank was turned away from the camera but all too visible against the gray pallor of her naked flesh.

FP452 - Censors: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 2 of 3The name associated with the account was not Thick Jim, but Maritza’s time with the Collective had taught her that such tricks of memory were common. If anything, it was impressive that her mother, fifteen years after the incident, had retained Stout James as Thick Jim.

That info brought up the shot she’d missed, and the one she had yet to reach. Having chiseled out the final nuggets, she almost regretted her success. She could understand how the first portrait had been missed: Its oddities were obvious to her, but only in retrospect, which, if she were honest, actually bolstered her respect of her mother’s perceptive nature. All too often it had worked against her during her youthful days of mischief, but now she realized the woman might have a knack for work among her fellow detectives.

The final photo - the red and ragged form that had eventually led to Stout James’ account closing - was the sort of thing she might now assume was a still from some too-realistic horror film, some piece of gore porn circulated via online streaming rentals and listed alongside the Saw or Human Centipede movies under a title like “20 Genuinely Upsetting Cult Classics.”

As unnerving as it was, however, it was the next phase that flushed MarMar’s sense of victory, replacing it instead with goosebumps across her forearms and a chill along her spine.

Somehow she’d hoped that it WAS in fact a screen-grab from some strange film, or some project by a special effects artist whose work had gotten out of hand - perhaps, even, some random weirdness passed between fetishists visiting sketchy forums. There was nothing on the internet, especially nothing fifteen years old, that remained unique. Any image, once uploaded and left to settle, would likely blossom into a hundred copies strewn across servers by, at the least, spambots and inexplicable enthusiasts.

Yet this trio of pictures, as exposed and lurid as they were, returned no results in a search for duplicates - had, in fact, no matches across the history of the entirety of the operating network as far as she could tell.

These were no fakes, these were no mock-ups. Her mother’s intuition had been correct, and now the daughter was left to consider the consequences.

She stood, gave Ziggy a nod, and shuffled towards the coffee grinder with heavy feet and a heavier head.

 

Flash Pulp is presented by http://skinner.fm, and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Intro and outro work provided by Jay Langejans of The New Fiction Writers podcast.

Freesound.org credits:

Text and audio commentaries can be sent to comments@flashpulp.com - but be aware that it may appear in the FlashCast.

- and thanks to you, for reading. If you enjoyed the story, tell your friends.

FP451 – Censors: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 1 of 3

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Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode four hundred and fifty-one.

Flash PulpTonight we present Censors: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 1 of 3

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Download MP3
(Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3)
(RSS / iTunes)

 

This week’s episodes are brought to you by The Melting Potcast!

 

Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age - three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.

Tonight we join a prodigal daughter - but one member of the loose collection of electronic investigators that make up the Collective Detective - as she stands at the edge of a number of digital graves.

 

Censors: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 1 of 3

Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May

 

The letter arrived on a Wednesday but Maritza didn’t realize till Friday afternoon, when she found herself with a few moments to sift the dunes of junk mail and bills that had accumulated on the living room table. It was July, so there was little reason for the seven students who split rent on the rambling three-story-house to be discriminating about the flow: Come September careful sorting would again fall into place, to avoid the loss of loan payments or tuition receipts, but for now the envelopes simply collected like paper snow, to be examined only if you, say, happened to be waiting for someone to get out of the shower, and to be likely shoveled into the recycling tub at the next sign of an approaching party.

In some ways the missive was no surprise at all: Putting pen on paper was typical of the elder Mercado. They’d feuded over calls - Maritza had tried to make clear she was fine with texting, email, or even social media interactions, but speaking into the telephone felt ancient and off-putting to the computer science major. It was otherwise always serious people who wanted to talk to her on the phone, people she owed money to generally, and so she’d been slowly trained into being adverse to using its voice functions.

Besides, she was better in writing - funnier, wittier, more able to express how she felt. Yet her mother, equally stubborn, refused to engage on a technical level.

Maritza’s frustration had only grown in the two years since she’d left home. The distance and cost were too great to justify moving back for the summer months, so she’d found a local job and declared her back-bedroom futon her sole haven. Since then communication with her stone-faced mother had become increasingly infrequent, and irritating, and it had been easier to simply let the gaps between attempts widen.

There had perhaps been some distractions along the way as well: Two brief relationships, one with a housemate who’d dramatically departed the residence after her first semester of classes, and another with an arts student who’d talked a better game than he’d been able to maintain. Largely, however, her non-academic attentions had been absorbed by a project she’d originally encountered through her data structures professor.

Since that conversation outside her lecture hall the Collective Detective archive had kept her awake and wearing dirty sweat pants on more occasions than she was willing to admit, and her assistance on several stubs had earned her a welcome spot on most open files.

What caught Maritza off guard about the letter was that it was on the very topic that had consumed so many of her waking hours.

“MarMar,” it opened, and the first three blocks of tight-packed fine-tipped writing that followed outlined a number of things that her daughter already knew: That the collective’s massive archive was the result of an accidental government leak of every internet interaction that had passed across the United States’ lines in the years of wiretapping the NSA had undertaken of its own people. She even went so far as to highlight a number of cases she had read about, though Maritza hadn’t been involved in any of them.

Despite the interest in her area of fascination, the girl couldn’t help but feel vaguely annoyed that her mother hadn’t simply emailed her all of this if she’d apparently been spending hours online reading up on the organization anyhow.

Then the bathroom door opened, and the letter was lost in her flannel pajama bottoms’ deep right pocket.

It was twelve hours later, as she was gladly abandoning her blue work shirt and khaki pants on the floor of her bedroom, that the pages again crossed her mind. Pulling on an already-coffee-blotted Labyrinth t-shirt, Maritza flipped open her laptop.

Selecting the icon that would bring her to her Collective Detective login, she punched out the letters of her username with a distracted forefinger - MarMar - even as she scanned the corners of her room for her discarded PJ pants.

They’d landed in a ball beside her desk. With a trio of deft clicks she started playing Bowie’s Diamond Dogs, an album she’d been strangely obsessed with over the last week, then she retrieved the feat of penmanship.

MarMar, I have been doing some reading, blah, blah, blah - and then it launched into a story she’d never heard before.

Apparently her mother, broke and raising her daughter while awaiting the return of her husband from a money-making venture overseas, had once briefly found work in the most unexpected of areas: Online. A school friend had been recruited for a company that acted as both police and waste management for a number of popular social media networks. If someone reported an inappropriate image or post it was they who would swoop in, absorb the awfulness, and determine what action should be taken - mostly to ignore or remove it.

The job itself sounded miserable, but the pay was better than most local, legal, professions.

The Collective Detective: A Skinner Co. PodcastSo it was that, when her friend, who’d paused at the gate while walking back from her air-conditioned cubicle, had offered to put in a good word, Maritza's mother had lept at the opportunity.

She’d drowned in the filth of the world for two months, then quit.

Until this point the text was full of her mother’s usual authoritative tone. This was not a personal conversation, it was a history teacher providing a lecture to her student. Here, however, her words softened and she caught Maritza again off guard: She asked for help.

The woman had spent hours a day scrubbing the internet of soft or hard human anatomy being pleasured or abused in turns; she’d seen porn, pain, and penises inserted into every household object a desperate individual with a phone camera might pull from a closet.

Yet what had truly upset her most were three specific images, all, she believed, taken by the same man.

The first had simply been vulgar. A naked woman shot from neck to knees, her hand set provocatively in her lap as she sat in a large white chair. There was something about her skin tone, however, so gray in its shade, seeming so cold against the ivory cushions, that caught her eye.

Over her shoulders stood a few tantalizing clues as to the setting in which the photo had been taken: A bottle of Jack Daniels sitting on top of a cheap TV stand to her left, and to her right - was that an axe? And, upon closer inspection, was that blood speckled on her shoulder?

Time was not her ally in her inspection. She’d already spent too long analyzing what her manager would consider a simple case. The user would be issued a warning, the image automatically removed. It was his first offense, no further action was warranted.

Still, the speckle of crimson had nagged at her. As she’d moused to the dialog that would carry out her judgement, and bring up the next nugget of smut or gore for consideration, she’d noted the username: Thick Jim - then the next junk in a kitchen appliance arrived.

It was a month before the name popped up again attached to another grainy photo from a too-dark room, again set in the same white chair. This one had her legs crossed, and her body was turned as if to show off her surgeon’s implant work.

The mother did not fully understand why Thick Jim’s snapshot had planted a hook in her mind, but she’d thought on the original photo more than once while little else in her universe of muck had stuck.

The brunette - her face didn’t show, but her hair fell across her shoulders in great brown loops - seemed almost too at ease, as if she might melt out of the chair entirely. A tattoo on her left shoulder, a bird or perhaps stars - the aging witness could not quite recall - drew her eyes to the portion of the woman’s rib cage furthest from the camera. Was that a shadow or a vast purple bruise? Then her gaze clarified the shape that ran beside chair and woman: The same ax she’d seen in the background of the previous photo, now seeming to act as crutch beneath the woman’s shoulder.

Except it did not seem she had settled her weight naturally against the handle - it reminded the viewer, more than anything, of the planks her neighbour had set in place to slow the collapse of his tilting fence.

She wrote the name, Thick Jim, down, and tagged the photo as containing possible criminal activity. A quick check of his history showed that he had been a regular offender since their first encounter, each incident apparently reported by a user whose profile fell into the general frame of “busy body who made friends with random people on the internet so that they might assist them in collecting 10 goats for AgriCity.

Perhaps it was this that had allowed him to slip by without a ban, instead having each picture taken down in turn.

On her third interaction - her final interaction - his account was officially closed. She’d tagged his name to be forwarded to her should it come up again, and had been keeping a careful eye on the stacks of scrolling names. Watching specific people in the crowd was a practice strictly against company policy, which dictated all review procedures be more or less between strangers, yet the habit of such snooping was unofficially maintained by every gossipy grandmother and jealous boyfriend in the building.

There were few other perks to the endless grind of sexual organs, mutilated animals, and penetrated flesh.

There was no doubt of the violence in the last image. It was, in fact, only difficult to tell where exactly the organs splayed across the room had come from. There was the same cheap TV stand, now slick with blood, and though it did not seem to be the same Jack Daniels there, too, was a shattered bottle neck, its jagged end clogged with meat and what Maritza’s mother suspected to be organs.

As the story unfolded the writing had lost its rigid form, becoming increasingly slanted as if its author hoped to outrun the unpleasant conclusion she had come to. There had been plenty of incidents in Maritza’s youth - stained clothes, school fights, lagging grades - over which the woman had criticized extensively, but, even as text, this was the closest her daughter had ever seen to her growing truly upset.

This terrible momentum continued throughout her conclusion: Vomiting into the garbage can at her desk, the weight of the job and everything she’d seen seeming to suddenly come up with that morning’s eggs. Demanding the account be banned and the police informed, and standing over her manager’s shoulder as he’d okayed the request, then the brief joy of quitting before the weight of not knowing had finally settled over her.

She had read a lot about this new project her daughter seemed so excited about, but now she needed to know something she had wondered for twenty years: Had Thick Jim, as she suspected, been a serial killer? Had he been stopped? Years of watching the news for some mention had left her with no satisfying answer.

Could her estranged offspring do anything to solve these lingering mysteries?

As she concluded her reading and allowed the sheets to return to their natural fold lines, Maritza replied, to her empty room, “yes, yes I can,” then she pressed enter to complete her - until then forgotten - connection to the archive.

 

Flash Pulp is presented by http://skinner.fm, and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Intro and outro work provided by Jay Langejans of The New Fiction Writers podcast.

Freesound.org credits:

Text and audio commentaries can be sent to comments@flashpulp.com - but be aware that it may appear in the FlashCast.

- and thanks to you, for reading. If you enjoyed the story, tell your friends.

FP385 – Spawn: A Collective Detective Chronicle

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Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode three hundred and eighty-five.

Flash PulpTonight we present Spawn: A Collective Detective Chronicle

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Download MP3

(RSS / iTunes)

 

This week’s episodes are brought to you by Every Photo Tells...

 

Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age - three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.

Tonight we bring you a tale of the Collective Detective, the loose band of online detectives who mine the depths of the accidentally leaked NSA archives to solve long cold crimes. In this episode we find Bug Byte, editor and film buff, taking in a digital ghost story.

 

Spawn: A Collective Detective Chronicle

Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May

 

Bug Byte was in the darkness of his home office, watching a subtitled French mystery movie and thinking on how fantastically cultured he was for doing so, when the bing came in. As his main machine was occupied with streaming the film, he slapped the shift key on his laptop till its screen saver surrendered his notification list.

Once his eyes adjusted to the glare of the white display, he discovered one of the new contributors had been busy. In just thirty minutes the newb had made a dozen large additions to a case Bug had considered dead in the water since the day it’d been created. Two clicks revealed it was the only entry Doubting Charlie had ever worked on.

“Eat deathray, spambot,” said the editor, but the black and white Frenchman in the fedora didn't seem to get it.

Before Bug pulled up the tools to destroy the apparently fake user and its efforts, however, he took a moment to scan the text to determine if he might find a clue to help the developers tighten their filters.

Instead he was surprised to discover a ghost story still in the process of being told.

“You don’t need to hit publish constantly, the system saves a draft under your user files,” he wrote in the discussion page. Flagging the conversation into his high-priority queue, Bug sent the detective in the well-cut suit into reverse and watched the missed conversation flicker over the edge of a half-drank scotch.

Before he could set the sleuth back into action, a reply boop ricocheted from the speakers to his left.

Leaving the image of the enquêteur privé with his glass hovering before his lips, Bug read the short response: “Thanks.”

With the play button under his thumb, the editor shook his head and decided to quickly review the tale from the beginning.

“When I was thirteen I met this guy from the apartment building I lived in who also played Realms of Fantasy. At the time Realms was huge online because of the way real money was flowing through it, but Alexander Bottin was the sole person I knew who played. He was way older than me, twenty maybe, and sort of a jerk, but we usually had a lot of decent tips to swap, and I gotta admit that I felt like a badass having a common interest with a twenty-year-old.

“I only learned Alexander played because I’d been trapped in the elevator with his uncle and him. I always hit the close button when I saw that monster coming down the hall because he smells like shit. I don’t mean that as a metaphor either, he smells like actual human feces. Anyhow, as they came in Alex was talking about how he’d looted Shatter Tooth.

“Tooth was a high powered war hammer that, back then, you could sell for five or six hundred dollars on eBay.

“His uncle coughed and said, “shut the fuck up.” He didn’t care, but when I saw my fellow gamer later that week I got his username and told him about Sharlor, my healer. I admitted I was impressed that he’d scored his hammer, and he seemed impressed that Sharlor was two levels higher than his warrior, Chaney.

“It’s funny, because I still think of him more as Chaney than Alexander.

“Now, I don’t want to make it sound like we were constantly chummy and hanging out. Alex had this thing he’d do where he’d like grab my nose with one hand then bop it with the other and that was hella annoying. He was that guy who doesn't understand how to make conversation so he’s awkward and kind of dickish instead, I guess.

“I was hard up for friends, but not that hard up. If I saw him in the mail area we’d chat over the latest expansion or where the good loot was dropping, but that was it - and, even then, half the time his uncle was there. I totally avoided him when that happened.

“I never learned his uncle’s name. He was a bent tree of an old man who always wore an over-sized floppy hat and huge dark glasses. Beyond that he was so ancient he’d aged into looking like a stereotype. Sort of like the angriest Popeye, but without the forearms.

“Worse, if he didn't think anyone was watching, and Alexander pissed him off by dropping a flyer or something, he’d lay his cane as hard as he could across his calves. Chaney never wore shorts even during the warmest parts of summer.

“I remember that especially because it was August, and I was fourteen, when he died.

“He’d just found the Blade of Earth Cleaving and he was constantly bragging. If I’d found a sword worth three or four thousand dollars maybe I’d act the same.

A Skinner Co. Network Podcast“Honestly, by then I was sort of getting interested in other things, but Mom had seen me wave when we passed him so she told me the news going around the building: They’d taken Alex out on a stretcher earlier that week. He’d apparently fallen down the fire stairs and snapped his neck.

“I knew that was bullshit though. I knew he’d been murdered by his uncle. The Saturday before -”

Bug Byte frowned at the sudden conclusion.

With a sigh he reminded himself that he had two hours till he was due at work, and that his movie wasn’t going to watch itself. Still, he waited out the five minute autosave until he could continue.

“I knew that was bullshit though. I knew he’d been murdered by his uncle. The Saturday before the supposed accident I’d seen him in the mailroom with some special effects stuff he’d bought online. That was his other big hobby - he wanted to be a makeup guy in movies. Usually when he got new blood to try, or a prop knife, or whatever he was really excited about it, but this time it was like he was looking through the box. When I found him staring like that, I asked if everything was okay. He almost started crying, but he acted like he was suddenly fascinated by the address label. He said his uncle was insanely angry with him lately and he didn't know if he’d be able to survive it much longer.

“The whole thing hit deep. I told Mom I was too sick to go to school the next day and spent my afternoon crying and wandering Realms. We’d never really played together, but we’d traded gear a few times, and, well, like I said, I was fourteen.

“I was hanging around the Silent Meadow, which is where we usually met because it was easy to access but almost always empty, when I saw him.

“He ran through the tall grass and permanent soft lighting, stop-”

This time Bug felt a need to fill the gap till the next save. Digging his well practiced hooks into the depths of the Collective’s archive crawling tools, he summoned the online memories of Alexander Bottin and his Realms of Fantasy account. The code to mine video games for data was in deep beta, but at least it was a start.

Then the update arrived.

“He ran through the tall grass and permanent soft lighting, stopped for two seconds in front of a dwarf, and they both disappeared.

“I exploded. At first I thought Mom had been wrong, and I ran down the two floors to his place.

“I’d never visited, but I figured he was in there playing and I was ridiculously happy to realize how wrong I’d been. It was the uncle who answered, though, and he didn't bother taking off the security chain. I asked for Alex but he simply snarled and slammed the door.

“The next day, when I got back from school, I noticed a sign advertising a used computer taped to the laundry room wall. The address for inquiries was Chaney’s.

“I called the cops once, but nothing came of it.

“He’s got to be well over a hundred now, but whenever I visit Mom I purposefully go out of my way to pass Bottin’s. I haven’t seen him in years, but he’s in there. I think about saying something every time, but it’s always like it’s suddenly a decade ago and I’m just thirteen.

“I believe that miserable SOB murdered his nephew and managed to sell his gear, but I’ve never had any idea on how to look into it. Tonight I got a little drunk, and maybe a little nostalgic for the lands of my youth, so I did some searching around and it seems you’ve got a file here for Alexander Bottin, but it says he’s -”

Rarely did the Collective receive first hand testimony, but Bug had been an editor long enough to know not to trust anything that wasn’t straight from the archives.

It was even rarer that an answer was in hand before the relevant entries were even updated.

Bug Byte’s search chimed with results.

Opening the discussion page, he began to compose his response.

“You’ve waited this long, I suppose I shouldn't keep you in suspense:

“Yes, Alexander Bottin is listed as a missing person, not a murder case. The police talked to his uncle once after an anonymous phone tip was made, but he claimed that Alex had run off. Given his age, if the cops hadn't been as bored as they were they probably wouldn’t have opened the file at all.

“The dwarf was a guy named Richard Smyth, but both players were connected from the same address - Alexander’s modem.

“Interestingly, a search of that modem’s traffic shows that Uncle Bottin also signed up to handle all of his banking online that very week, a day after he ordered a new computer.

“Looking back a couple weeks at the local data, I see that the same IP made an order from an online prop house. Are you familiar with ultra-realistic silicone masks? They were just getting started back then, and FX guys were huge into them. Generic Old Man was one of the most popular models.

“I suspect Uncle Bottin’s Popeye style means he had no teeth, so, after murdering him, Alex probably left the body in an alley somewhere and the city hauled it off as an unidentifiable homeless John Doe. Then all he had to do was pull on the old guy mask and spread the rumour that he’d died so people would stop asking questions.

“He might’ve gotten away with it too if you hadn't seen his digital ghost. I do wonder if he’s found life in that apartment, collecting his dead Uncle’s benefits checks, a special prison of its own though.

“Of course, that’s all guessing, but it should be easy to knock hard enough to pinch the geezer’s nose and see if it stretches.

“I’m a twenty minute bus ride away - care to mount up for one last adventure, priest?”

Nodding to himself, Bug sent the Frenchman into hibernate and hit send.

He didn’t have to wait long for a reply, but he was happy to see his efforts to sound sick, as he called in to work, weren't wasted.

It was not, however, the last adventure for either.

 

Flash Pulp is presented by http://skinner.fm, and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Intro and outro work provided by Jay Langejans of The New Fiction Writers podcast.

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