Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode three hundred and eighty-five.
Tonight we present Spawn: A Collective Detective Chronicle
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.
“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 https://www.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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