Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode four hundred and fifty-one.
Tonight we present Censors: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 1 of 3
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.
So 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 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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