UNFRIENDED COMPETITION FINALIST
Teddy Wilson rapped one knuckle against the smoked-stained glass door adorned with the worn, white letters that announced, “Martin Croker: Editor” before popping his head into the room.
“You wanted to see me boss?” The man who served as his immediate supervisor for the last decade was on the phone with some unfortunate soul receiving the sore end of one of Martin’s verbal beatings.
“No…that’s inexcusable,” Martin cried emphatically into his IPhone before putting a hand over the microphone and motioning Teddy to the faded leather couch that sat adjacent to his massive desk. “Have a seat Teddy; this is almost over anyway.” Of course, whomever was on the other end of the line could still his words. Martin, who had been a stalwart in that office for nearly thirty years, was as close to being an expert in newspaper journalism as anyone could claim to be. In many regards, however, he was absolute dinosaur when it came to the current flood of technological advancements and it was little things like that which made him, much like the entire industry of the printed word, a dying breed. It was only through Teddy’s tutelage that he’d been able to utilize the Apple device at all.
“I told you three days ago,” the grey-haired dynamo of intensity continued the call; “that you had three days to get that article in. If I recall, you said that would be the ‘very last’ extension that you’d need. Am I wrong about that?” Teddy quietly closed the door behind him and settled into the couch that often served as Martin’s bed on those nights when Jack Daniels overstayed his welcome…which seemed more and more frequent as of late. Teddy would have preferred one of the three chairs but the couch was the only portion of the office that wasn’t buried in random papers, folders and back issues; the entire sum of which could’ve fit on a single flash drive were the man not having to be drug kicking and screaming into the digital age.
“You’ve been on me for six months for bigger assignments…and now that you’ve got one…well…let’s just say that this little shit-show isn’t filling me with confidence.” An outside observer would’ve cringed at the apparent awkwardness of the moment but for anyone who actually knew Martin…that wasn’t the case. The man had two gears: intensity and anger…and both were deeply seeped in sarcasm. It came part and parcel with a position at the South Carolina Sentinel and if you couldn’t handle it…you were probably shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
“You have until tomorrow. If I don’t get four hundred brilliant effen’ words from you about the Councilman’s scandal by noon tomorrow…you might want to start on a new piece: your resume!” Martin slammed the cell phone down on the desk to end the conversation, obviously missing the satisfying crack his old rotary phone provided, and turned his steely gaze towards the room’s newest occupant.
“I’ve got a new assignment for you.” Teddy nodded, anticipating as much. When he first applied for his position ten years ago there was very little call for a ‘technology reporter’ and he was barely able to convince Martin of the need. Now, as both men were aware, the only reason the paper still held an audience was due in large part to their online presence and without Teddy…that would never have happened.
“I want you to give me something good about the deep, dark web.”
“Actually…” As loath as he was to correct his boss, he just couldn’t let it slide; “the ‘deep web’ and the ‘dark web’ are two different things.”
“Okay…fine,” Martin didn’t seem as irritated as Teddy had expected from the comment. “I’m not asking you to explain it to me. I just want a solid lead out of it. I want something…juicy.” Teddy sighed. “Juicy” was Martin’s key word for salacious sensationalism…not the kind of thing he normally expected from his resident tech expert.
“I don’t know what it is you’re wanting from me Martin. I talk about computers, cellphones and new apps; it’s hardly what you’d consider ‘juicy’.” Martin shook his head and Teddy could tell he was most likely going to be unable to talk his way out of this one.
“I’ve seen YouTube videos. This deep web or dark web or whatever the hell they call it is where the sick-shit takes place: the sex trade, drug sales, pedophilia and such. That’s what I want…and if you give me something good enough it’ll go as the weekend lead.” It was exactly what Teddy had been afraid of.
“Martin…that’s…. that’s just not what I cover. It’s like asking a carpenter to explain the activities that take place in a house after he’s built it. I can tell you all about the construction and layout…but what the hell do I know about the criminals who moved in?” Martin seemed to consider the argument for a moment and Teddy felt the slightest sliver of hope before the older man bluntly brushed it away.
“I guess it’s a bi-line then. Tell Susan she’s on the story with you. You’ve got two weeks; make it your top priority.” Teddy could feel his jaw falling to the floor in cartoonish fashion but was unable to do anything to stop it. Never in his wildest dreams had he imagined being assigned to a story with Susan Collins, the Sentinel’s official “Gossip Reporter”. Having dubbed herself the “Queen of High-Society”, she chased minor celebrities and local socialites as the closest thing their little rag had to a paparazzi. Teddy never deceived himself into believing he was working for the NY Times, Washington Post or even USA Today…but he still had strong convictions about what constituted ‘news’ and Susan represented everything that didn’t belong in a real newspaper. Hell…even her title was an oxymoron. How could one accurately report on gossip…a pretty was of saying ‘hearsay’, ‘rumor’ and ‘innuendo’. The whole notion was just ridiculous.
He was just about to verbalize as much to Martin when he got the three words that ended virtually every conversation with the gruff man, whether one was finished with what they had to say or not: “We’re done here.” Teddy wasn’t really sure what would happen if he continued on past that point…no one on the current staff was. If one were able to hunt down the previously employed Dawn Hinton, Mark Sheffler, or Jacob Gasby they might get the answer to that question. Needless to say, “we’re done here” meant we’re done here; and Teddy quietly shuffled out wondering just how in the heck he was going to explain this to Susan, who he’d not said more than a hundred words to in the five years she’d been working there. While it was true they didn’t really know each other, it was clear that they didn’t really like each other. This couldn’t have come at a worse time either; he was so close to finishing his piece on the new, upcoming Microsoft platform release. At this rate, his readers would be using Windows 15X before he could even tell them that it was coming. He would always have a tremendous amount of respect for Martin and all that he’d done in his lifetime…but in moments like these he could help but to feel like the man was a complete…
“IDIOT!” Susan screamed a half hour later while Teddy sat in the only other chair her cramped cubicle contained. She was technically a “field-reporter” and field-reporters weren’t really provided a lot of space in the old office building that sat in downtown Charleston; the thought process being that they should be spending the majority of their time out of the office, working their stories. Teddy was already anxious to get back to his own spacious office, the second largest behind Martin’s…thanks in large part to the Sentinel’s online advertising revenue. Martin would never say it out loud but it had long since exceeded what the subscriptions brought in and was, for the most part, what was actually paying the rent.
“Why on Earth would that fossil put me…you…us on this kind of story? Neither one of us has ever covered anything like this…and what the hell does he even want from us? Pedophilia…sex trade…seriously Teddy, W. T. F.? How are we supposed to even start in on something like this?” The cadence of her voice was getting faster and her breaths were getting shorter. Teddy could see the anxiety pushing her towards hyperventilation…and it surprised him. For some reason he hadn’t imagined her to be so susceptible to the stress’s influence. From across a room she always seemed so calm, collected and in control, radiating a confidence that bordered on cockiness.
Without realizing that he was going to do so, Teddy reached out one hand to her shoulder and squeezed it gently.
“Try to calm down. We’ll be able to figure this out. It’s going to be okay.” She met his gaze, her brown doe-eyes just starting to pool with tears.
“You really think so?” Teddy’s own blue eyes tried to convey a confidence he didn’t actually feel, suddenly feeling quite protective of her obviously vulnerable emotional state. It probably had a lot to do with growing up with three younger sisters.
“Yes…” he lied; “I do.”
“I don’t even know what the deep web or the dark web is?” Teddy pulled his hand back as her breathing began to slow and nodded his head; most people didn’t.
“I’ll try to keep it simple.”
“Try to imagine the entire internet as a giant mansion.” He wasn’t sure why he was keen to using so many architectural metaphors today…just that they seemed appropriate each time. “The main floors and living areas are where everyday people like you and me go to when we use Firefox or Explorer. It’s where your Facebook, Twitter and the like are found. Now…there are some rooms upstairs that are owned by different governments, companies or techies that are locked to most people but if you have the right key…you can still get in. These are all the places that ninety percent of the online population go to. Are you with me so far?” Susan nodded.
“But that’s not the whole internet. There’s still a basement…it’s called the ‘deep’ web; and the only way you can get down there is with special internet browsing software and a very specific idea of where it is you want to go. Otherwise you’d just be stumbling around in the dark. This basement was originally created by our very own government and the Department of Defense and it’s where they conducted the business that they didn’t want the general public at large to know about: the kind of stuff that sparks conspiracy theories.
While they may have created that basement however…the ‘deep web’…it didn’t take long for the software to be commandeered by the generation born into the computer age. Not only did the Millennials seem to understand the way these things worked better than their creators, they were able to create changes that the government could no longer contend with.”
“I don’t understand…what changes?”
“True anonymity. It’s the key to what makes the deep web so compelling to criminals. They’ve developed a method which bounces your connection off several random servers through the entire world making it all but impossible to track down the original IP addresses. Most people think they’re anonymous when they’re online…but they’re really not. In the deep web…they are. And that brings us to the ‘dark web’ which is that part of the deep web where all of the perversity and criminal activity take place. It’s the dungeon beneath the basement, that no moral person should ever want to visit. Do you get it now?”
Susan’s eyes were wide…but no longer moist. In fact, the edges of a smile seemed to be pulling at the corners of her mouth as she nodded ‘yes’. The anxiety appeared to be losing out to an odd anticipation; she was starting to get excited about the story. Teddy wasn’t so sure he was happy about that.
“What kind of ‘perversity’ are we talking about?” Teddy could only shake his head.
“Honestly…I really don’t know. I can only imagine that it’s the worst kind of stuff.” He paused for a moment of consideration before continuing; “I have a friend…well…not really a ‘friend’ per say, but a contact I’ve used as a source quite a bit over the years. He’s a high-level programmer, systems analyst and code breaker…of the independent variety.” Susan’s smile broke through completely. Too many Michael Crichton and Ernest Cline novels in her home library pushed the word from her lips…
“Hacker?” Hector Luna chuckled the next day as the three of them sat in the living area of his studio apartment; “No…I wouldn’t call myself a ‘hacker’. That’s more of Hollywood expression. In my particular field we tend to call ourselves ‘crackers’.”
“Crackers?” Susan prompted before taking a sip from the cold can of beer they’d had no choice but to accept before being allowed into Hector’s inner sanctum.
“That’s right,” he confirmed; “Kind of like a safe-cracker…except with complex security systems. I find vulnerabilities and…depending on my actual goal…I exploit them.” Susan smiled, obviously impressed. Hector, who was known online as the infamous “Moon-Hex”, turned his attention back to Teddy. “So Big-T…what exactly can I help you guys with today? Let me guess…you’re wanting some inside info on that Brown-hut Trojan that held up the Bank of America for three hours last Tuesday? I’ve heard that nearly two and a half million accounts were copied before they managed to shut it down.”
“Yea…” Teddy agreed; “It’s crazy these days…but no…that’s not it. I actually covered that day before yesterday. Honestly…I feel kind of stupid even asking for your help on this one because we both feel like the assignment is coming from an area of ignorance.”
“Martin?” Hector asked with a small chuckle. Teddy and Susan nodded in unison and joined him in the laughter. Hector had come into contact with Martin on only a couple of occasions due to his relationship with Teddy, but he’d heard more than enough stories to have a fully painted mental approximation of the man. “Don’t tell me he wants you to explain why no one uses floppy disks anymore?” Sadly…this wasn’t sarcasm. When it came to contemporary science and electronics…the man could be his own walking punchline. Hell…he’d once asked for five hundred words on the differences between ‘the internet’ and ‘the world wide web’…literally.
By and large, however, and for the overwhelming majority of the time Teddy had been at the Sentinel, Martin didn’t really give Teddy actual assignments. He tended to show a tremendous amount of faith in Teddy’s ability to continue to provide relevant content for an audience he knew nothing about. For the most part, this held true with Susan as well; Martin, much like Teddy, put very little stock in the type of events she covered as being important. Her online “news” feed held the greatest number of subscribers, however, so he figured she was probably doing her job well enough.
This trend had been bucked somewhat as of late, it seemed…for Teddy at least; and in a sense…it was his own fault. He was, after all, the one who introduced Martin to the world of YouTube in the first place. Like most newbies, the first few weeks saw him making little progress beyond scare-pranks and cats’ reacting to cucumbers; but, as of late, the man had found himself in the world of the unknown…far-flung topics: ghosts, conspiracies, ancient civilizations, aliens and just about any other subject that sent him into the occasional mad-man’s rant.
In the last six weeks he’d given Teddy more, seemingly random, assignments than he had in the six years before then: Trans-humanism, Artificial Intelligence and the Mandela Effect rounded out the extreme ends of his requests. Teddy hadn’t really minded too much; he just had to find that fine line that presented the topics in the light Martin had wanted them without sounding too much like an Alex Jones report on “Infowars”. They were definitely extreme variations on his normal fare but his readers had seemed to enjoy the occasional break from the somewhat dry articles he was known for. Some of them even leaned towards being entertaining rather than what he normally shot for: informative.
“Martin wants the two of us…his tech-reporter and his…social…uh…expert, to turn in something about the deep web and the dark web: something ‘juicy’.” Hector chuckled again; he knew of Martin’s key word as well.
“Juicy you say…” Hector shot-gunned the last of his beer before clamoring to his feet from the well-worn groove in his Lazy-Boy. “And you thought of me. I’m touched.” As he shuffled his more than a little overweight frame to the refrigerator in the corner kitchen area he motioned with the empty can to see if anyone else needed a refill; they didn’t. “Well…that’s about the vaguest thing that you’ve come to me with so far. When your text said ‘random’, you weren’t kidding, were you?” Susan and Teddy shared a knowing look with each other, having already discussed just that topic on the taxi ride over. “Please tell me,” Hector prompted, head partially buried in the fridge; “that you guys have at least got some type of angle already?” The two reporters shook their heads with a meek symmetry; how could Martin have had no idea how far outside of their comfort zones this assignment really was?
“I wish we could.” Teddy finally answered once Hector had returned to his place in the seating area, fresh beer in hand. “I wish we could.” He paused to take a sip and contemplate which direction they could go in without sounding like some conspiracy website bloggers.
“Obviously we’d like to find something unique,” Susan offered; “but no one’s shooting for a Pulitzer here. I think the sooner we’re able to put this one behind us, the happier we’ll both be.” Teddy gave her a look of observable agreement. This was definitely right on the edge of what those in the industry called “fringe assignments”.
“Yea…I bet. Well…” Hector stroked an imaginary beard with his beer-free hand, the few straggly wisps of red hairs that were present running between his fingers. “You could always go with the ease of access to illegal products route: order an eight-ball or an AK-47. It’s not terribly original but it’ll still be news to anyone who’s never been on YouTube. Of course, you’ll need to contact the authorities if you do that and coordinate through them…otherwise you might be looking at an arrest warrant the moment the story comes out.”
They had, actually, already considered going that way but, much as Hector pointed out, it wasn’t exactly a hot scoop. Just about anyone who regularly utilized the internet, which were now the majority of their readers, knew about dark web black markets. Most folks had even heard of the “Silk Road” website at some point or another, the most notorious in the field before being shut down by the FBI in 2014. Teddy had covered that story at the time and although Ross Ulbricht, the infamous “Dread Pirate Roberts”, would be spending the rest of his life behind bars, his legacy continued to live on as thousands had sprung up in the space he left behind. The market-places were so vast, varied and exponentially produced…it was an impossible task to eliminate them entirely. The dark web was still the ‘wild, wild west’ and outlaws reigned supreme.
“What else you got?” Susan asked before accidentally letting a small beer-burp escape, turning her a dark shade of crimson as a result. “Excuse me,” she mumbled sheepishly causing Hector to laugh and release his own, much more resounding, exhalation of carbonated air which vibrated off the walls. The crude response had its intended effect and immediately comforted Susan’s, normally delicate, sensibilities.
“Better out than in, my Shrek always says,” he announced before tackling her question. “As for ‘what else’…it’s hard to say for the tone of The Sentinel. Everything else just gets darker from there…but that’s not to say that there’s not a huge area to mine. Just take your pick: there’s live streaming pedophiles, crazy sex stuff, snuff and torture films…”
“Like what?” Teddy interrupted him, although more out of morbid curiosity than any desire to follow up on that last one as a lead.
“Like whatever you can imagine. There’s some real sickos out there. You’ve seen the ‘SAW’ and ‘Hostel’ movies, right?” Neither of them actually had. It was quite apparently not Susan’s cup of tea from the beginning and, although he’d started both of the first films…Teddy hadn’t finished them. He could distinctly remember thinking at the time that it probably took a really disturbing personality profile for someone to watch that type of graphic infliction of pain onto another person and consider it enjoyable entertainment at the same time. Sure he’d grown up as a fan of the “Friday the 13th” and “Nightmare on Elm St” movies and they were plenty bloody…but they also had jump scares, degrees of suspense and a fairly unrealistic display of the gore. These new types of torture movies were on a different level altogether, however. The degrees of realism in the violence and the reactions of the torturer and victim combined with the unrelenting focus of nothing more than the infliction of pain…well…it wasn’t really his cup of tea either.
“Oh man…honestly…anything you can imagine…most of which you wouldn’t want to. Either of you guys heard of ‘The Doll-maker’ or ‘The Chew-Chew Man’ …you know…spelled like ‘chew’” Hector chomped his teeth together a couple of times to emphasize his point; “…or even ‘Mr. Plaintoes’?” It was obvious from their expressions that neither of them had heard of any of his references as well as the fact that they were now at his completely enrapt disposal.
“Okay…well…” He stood, stretched and headed back to the fridge for another beer. Suddenly both Susan and Teddy were equally amazed at the discretionary speed by which their host could polish off a can. At this rate, he’d be on his second six-pack before they’d even finished their first beers. Not that either would say anything aloud. It was really more impressive than anything. “Where to start…” He tossed his empty into the garbage and returned with a total of three. For a moment they were both ready to say, “No thank you” when he squeezed them into the chair next to him and they realized that they hadn’t been brought for them.
“So ‘Mr. Plaintoes’ is some kind of demonically written nursery rhyme that kills people…think something like a cross between ‘The Ring’ and ‘The Babadook’.” Hector paused for recognition but was only met with two blank stares. “You know…for reporters, you guys are painfully ignorant of pop culture.” Neither of them could argue; if it didn’t come in a “Wired” or “Cosmopolitan” magazine…they were ‘painfully ignorant’. “Regardless…that one reads more like a ‘Creepypasta’ than an actual occurrence…but supposedly it’s still out there for anyone who wants to test the urban legend. I know that won’t be me.”
“What’s ‘The Doll-maker’?” Susan asked. Having a sizable collection of antique dolls herself, she was extra curious the moment he’d said it although she knew full well that she wouldn’t be liking that answer.
“Oh man…that guy’s a real piece-of-work. I tell you what…I don’t consider myself a violent man…but I wouldn’t think twice about putting a bullet right between his deranged eyes. This guy buys young women and girls and performs these elaborate surgeries on them before reselling them on the black market as living sex dolls.”
“Surgeries?” Teddy pressed, certain he didn’t really want to know.
“Yea…not good stuff,” Hector continued; “Removes the arms and legs so they can’t go anywhere. Removes the tongue so they can’t speak…sometimes sews the mouths shut entirely. Even puts hooks in their backs so they can be hung on the wall.” He gave them a moment to process the disturbing image.
“How…how…” Susan was stammering in shock; “How do they stay alive?” Hector shook his head grimly.
“Mercifully…they don’t. I believe they have a pretty short shelf-life. Not that it deters some people of paying millions of dollars apiece.”
Susan picked up her beer from the end table and stared at the beads of condensation slowly streaming down its sides; she’d never been more grateful for the safe and pampered life that she’d lived thus far. It wasn’t like she was ignorant to the fact that there were people, especially women, out there who had it a lot worse than she did…but being presented with something as horrific as the nightmare those poor women had to live through by being maimed beyond human recognizability only to be violently raped to death. Just knowing that there was evil like this out there, lurking in the shadows…right at that moment; it was enough to send a shiver down her spine and she set the beer back down without having taken a drink.
“Are you sure Martin said ‘Susan’…and not ‘Sam’ or ‘Sarah’ or even ‘Marcus’?” she asked for the fourth time in the last twenty-four hours and, while the joke was getting stale, Teddy still chuckled before pressing Hector onto the next subject. It was evident from the pall in the air that they were all ready to move past that one.
“I’m afraid to even ask…but what about the ‘Chew-Chew Man’?” When Hector’s expression didn’t brighten any, Teddy had the feeling he’d be sorry that he asked. Turns out…he was.
“That guy…jeez…another evolved individual.”
“Evolved?” Teddy asked.
“It’s the newest form of our evolution…depending on who you ask…a form of humanity that’s supposedly evolved beyond the need for such trivialities as morals or ethics. I know it sounds crazy but there really are people out there who think that way…think there’s no such thing as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’…only ‘action’ and ‘reaction’, ‘as above so below’ and all that bullshit. These are the type of people who are in the highest places: politicians, movie-stars and the generational wealthy. They see the general populace as useless eaters…a sheep-like population that needs to be culled more than anything.”
“That’s depressing,” Susan sighed.
“Yea,” Hector agreed; “It kind of is. Anyway…the Chew-Chew Man is most likely one of those generationally wealthy S.O.B.’s with more money than God. I’m guessing he’s probably one of those secret society bastards as well, gauging from the number of masked sycophants he keeps around him. Anyway…” Hector paused and sighed; “wow…I don’t even like saying this aloud; I can’t fathom how sick these people must really be. Anyway…the Chew-Chew man has his own, very elaborately decorated, train station as well as his own railway engine car that looks like something straight out of ‘Death Race’.” The reporters exchanged another, slightly baffled, look with each other and Hector sighed yet again, this time for an entirely different reason.
“Seriously guys? No ‘Death Race’ either? Not the original nor the remake?” He shook his head in disbelief. He was somewhat aware of Teddy’s lack of contemporary pop-culture knowledge and yet the depths to which it extended still managed to surprise him. In the chatrooms he frequented that type of ignorance would be unforgivable. “Okay…this is just unacceptable; I’m springing for a Netflix account for both of you.” The three of them shared a chuckle and sip of beer before allowing their grim expressions to return as Hector continued on with the story he didn’t really want to tell and they didn’t really want to hear.
“So I’m sure you can probably imagine where this is going from here. The Chew-chew man and his helpers strap several naked people to the tracks with specially built restraints. Then they all stand back and watch the carnage. Once the car clears the kill-zone, these masked men and women…who are dressed in expensive tuxedos and ball-room gowns, mind you…fall to their knees in the pools of warm blood and proceed to…consume…the remaining mess.”
“Consume!?” Susan blurted out. “Like…Oh Dear Lord…like cannibals?”
Hector nodded. “Yea…like cannibals.” A few moments of silence descended upon the room as the horrific thought wreaked brutal havoc upon their subconscious. Teddy, personally, had no qualms with ingesting a little Stephen King before slipping into a dream-state, but this was the kind of thing that would definitely keep him up at night. An author’s imagination could be appreciated…but knowing that there are real monsters out there was just unnerving.
After allowing a full minute to pass, Teddy finally verbalized what they’d all been thinking.
“Um…no. That’s definitely not our story.” Susan agreed and they became silent again before Hector snapped his fingers and proceeded to pull one of his many laptops from the coffee-table drawer in front of him.
“I think,” he began as he powered up the computer; “that I may know of something you’d be interested in. Frankly…I don’t know why I didn’t think of this one before. I first read about this on 8Chan’s dot onion forum a few months back…even did a bit of preliminary investigating.”
As Hector became quiet and put his full focus on the laptop’s screen, Susan turned to Teddy and asked, “8Chan dot onion?”
“Deep web message board,” he answered for her. “The dot onion is like dot com, dot net or dot gov: deep web extension.” She nodded in understanding…or in feigning as much; and Hector piped up once again, apparently finding what he was looking for.
“A-ha! Here we go.” Returning his gaze to theirs and lowering his voice conspiratorially, Hector asked with a sly smile and an expression that would’ve seemed just at home before a midnight campfire; “Have you guys ever heard of The Contract?” Immediately drawn in, they both shook their heads ‘no’, much as he’d anticipated.
“Yea…I didn’t think so. This one’s extremely obscure…even for the deep web. There’s very little documentation to back it up…but there’s enough to start with, at least.”
“Okay…” Teddy responded; “I’ll bite then. I’m familiar with a few different contracts; so what makes this one ‘The’ Contract?”
“Well…again…it’s not terribly well known…but in some circles it’s called ‘The Devil’s Contract’ or ‘The Final Contract’ and everything about it is just inexplicable.”
Over the next ninety minutes Hector proceeded to tell them a story that could’ve easily been an episode of “The Twilight Zone”, and despite finishing off another eight beers in that period, he never once slurred his words. It was one of the longest periods Teddy had spent with the younger man and he’d never realized before what a raging alcoholic he was.
The Devil’s Contract was something of a deep web urban legend that, at least according to Hector, had some significant degrees of validity to it. He wasn’t certain when the contract first popped up but the story had been online for a couple years now, thanks in large part to a man known simply as “Jeff the P.I.”. Jeff had been hired by a woman to find her missing brother and the investigation had led him to the story of the contract. When no one would believe the results he’d seemingly uncovered, he took the story online. The gist of which was this: somewhere a shadowy party of private benefactors somehow makes contact with individuals who could best be described as…desperate. The secretive group then negotiates a payment, usually in the millions, for what Hector called “life-control”.
According to the legend, once a price is reached they are sent a digital copy of the, supposedly legally-binding, contract, as well as a bizarre questionnaire. Once signed, the person has officially signed away their life…so to speak. It was a provision of the contract that the person’s life wouldn’t be ended or even endangered…only that they would no longer have control over the way they would live the rest of it.
“If they can no longer control their own lives,” Susan had asked at that point; “what good does the money do?”
“I thought the same thing at first,” Hector had answered; “but the money doesn’t go to them. One of the first questions included with the contract is to whom the money should be paid. But even that it just the tip of the weirdness of it all. According to Jeff at least, the payments are delivered through methods which should be all but impossible.”
“Like what,” Teddy had pressed.
“Well…like the sister that hired Jeff to find her missing brother. The only way she’d been able to hire him in the first place was because she’d just won five million dollars in the Powerball. There’s not a lot of examples to choose from but supposedly all the payments have been through means that shouldn’t be possible to manipulate…including a government grant that was never applied for. If any of that is true, then the people behind the contract have a nearly inconceivable reach.”
“So…” Susan prompted this time; “if the contract was non-lethal in nature…what happens to the people?” Hector shook his head and shrugged his shoulders.
“That’s the real question…isn’t it? I’ve got theories…but who the hell really knows? Could be slavery…sex-stuff…torture…any number of undesirable options. My personal opinion is that it’s probably some type of medical experimentation…gene-manipulation or some such shit. More than likely, these people are selling themselves into a state of permanent vegetation…a giant warehouse full of dangling bodies straight out of the movie “Coma”. When both reporters nodded in recognition of his reference, Hector was more than a little shocked.
“And you actually believe that this is really happening?” Teddy finally asked once Hector had seemed to reach the end and he was answered with the same sly smile the computer expert had given them earlier before spinning his laptop around so that they could see the screen while saying; “Oh…I know it is.”
It took a moment for their eyes to adjust to the smaller print and then they found themselves looking at a PDF of what appeared to be an official document of some type; the first line of which read “This is a legally-binding contract of consent.” Of course it didn’t really say where it was legally-binding…after all, different countries had different laws.
“I told you that I did some investigating myself…remember? It took me nearly a month to find this link…and frankly, I’m surprised it’s still up. I locked a tracer onto the link though and, other than myself, it’s never been accessed. That…combined with the fact that some of the questions are very specific to my personal life…it’s almost as if this contract were written just for me.”
“How’d you get the link?” Teddy asked.
“More oddness. After a month of digging, it just showed up in my inbox one day.”
“Can we get a copy of that?” Susan asked this time and Hector shook his head again.
“Yea…I wish I could. By all outward appearances, this seems to be nothing more than a normal PDF file…but it doesn’t behave like one. In fact…it doesn’t behave like anything I’ve ever encountered online. Its drowning in advanced encryptions unlike anything I’ve seen…and bear in mind, six months ago I cracked the Pentagon’s most advanced security systems in less than an hour. This thing though…” Hector exhaled a loudly audible sigh. “This thing’s on another level altogether. It can’t be copied…not even a ‘screen-grab’. The coding behind this…legal document…is the most advanced I’ve ever seen. We’re talking about Bill Gates wet-dream kind-of stuff. I don’t even know if D-Wave is using anything this complex with the Quantum computing.”
“So just take a picture of it with your cell phone,” Susan offered while wondering why the supposed computer nerds didn’t think of such a simple solution. Hector chuckled again and she found herself liking the sound. It made her smile reflexively each time.
“Go ahead,” he urged; “I think you should.” By that point she could tell that the idea had probably occurred to him but she was too curious to see what would happen to not at least try. Her new Galaxy cell-phone took amazing pictures and video, having long since replaced the Nikon and hand-held video camera she’d kept by her side for so many years and pulling it out to snap a quick picture was second-nature muscle-memory at that point. Within a couple seconds she had taken a half dozen before rapidly switching to video mode for a few seconds of worth of an AVI. Hector watched in anticipation as she settled back into his leather couch to review the results. When her jaw dropped and her eyes widened, he couldn’t help but to give her a slight ‘I told you so’ look.
Teddy leaned in close and examined his new partner’s cell-phone screen before shaking his head with disbelief. Hector already knew what they were seeing.
“How…” Teddy stammered, his voice suddenly very uneven; “How is this even possible?” He was of course referring to the series of bizarre symbols on the small screen that had replaced the perfectly legible ones from the slightly larger one. It was apparently an amusing moment for Hector even though he’d had very much the same reaction the first time he’d made the discovery for himself. Somehow it was easier seeing it unfold through someone else’s eyes…not to mention the cathartic nature of just being able to discuss the subject that he generally couldn’t bring up without sounding bat-shit crazy. Sharing the story with Teddy and Susan gave it degrees of legitimacy that did wonders for his sanity.
“Honestly…I have no friggin’ idea. This is well beyond what should be possible. My best guess is that there’s some type of encryption overlay that’s naked to the human eye but which somehow scrambles its output to other digital devices. It’s only a guess though. I’ve never really heard of anything like that existing…and I’m pretty up to date on most of DARPA’s ‘black-budget’ projects.”
“Do you know what those symbols are?” Teddy continued, unable to tear his eyes away from the tiny screen in Susan’s hands.
“Sumerian!?” Teddy and Susan both blurted out in surprised unison.
It took Teddy several seconds to find a mental shelf were that oddly shaped fact could rest without bringing the whole thing down before he asked; “What does it say?” Hector could only shrug again.
“I don’t read Sumerian,” he replied in a dead-pan tone; “but it’s the oldest known form of written language.”
“What about film?” Susan broke in after shaking away the shock and this time she had produced an idea that hadn’t occurred to Hector. “Surely something like that wouldn’t affect a camera from the pre-digital era?” Hector’s lips split into a wide grin as he nodded in amazed agreement. Unfortunately, it had been nearly two decades since he’d owned a non-digital camera and for the moment, their new investigation had come to its first roadblock. They decided to call it a night.
Teddy had asked for a link to the contract at first but Hector had informed him that it could only be accessed from that one particular laptop and generously allowed them to take the older model DELL with them…along with a flash-drive that contained all the information he’d accumulated on the phenomenon up to that point. Given the fact that it was only one of the nearly forty different laptops in his apartment, it wouldn’t really be missed.
After thanking Hector for being such a gracious host and sharing another cab ride back to the Sentinel, they made plans to pick up the investigation first thing in the morning with each of them having small overnight projects. Susan was charged with the task of digging up her late-80’s Polaroid camera from the depths of her over-encumbered attic, while Teddy was responsible for breaking down the information on the flash-drive into possible tangible leads. The laptop itself was left in Teddy’s office at the paper. Although they wouldn’t have admitted it aloud…neither of them wanted the device inside their homes. The entire subject was highly peculiar and could, quite possibly, turn out to be a fantastic story for the paper…but at the same time…it was a little scary. If there really were some illicit, shadow-group out there with the power to rig lotteries and control government subsidies as well as having access to technology that shouldn’t technically exist…were they really prepared to unveil their activities? At very least it made the unease they each felt as they drove back to their respective abodes completely justifiable.
It was that same uncomfortable sensation of jangled nerves, with just a touch of paranoia, that kept each of them up well past the hour they would’ve normally ended their day, allowing each of them to be aware of the same email they both received at 2:30 in the morning. Teddy had been sitting at his desk, joint in hand, still dissecting the flash-drive when the email announced itself…which was unusual since he hadn’t turned on any type of notification warnings. He had no way of knowing that Susan was hearing the same announcement from the IPad on her coffee table as she was settling into her flowered couch with a glass of Merlot, having just finished her extensive search. The camera had produced itself rather quickly…the box of unused film for the camera…not so much. It was finally found buried beneath decades’ worth of family photo-albums.
The same sense of dread came over them both as they felt compelled to check the email with the subject line: THE CONTRACT, nearly simultaneously. When they saw who the sender of the emails was, however, the sensation ebbed considerably. Teddy’s had been sent by Susan and vice versa. Of course, this wasn’t actually the case and upon opening the email, they quickly realized as much. Teddy grabbed his phone immediately and called Susan, oblivious to the late hour but before the call had an opportunity to be sent, she was calling him. He answered.
“Teddy…” She didn’t give him a chance to say ‘hello’. “You’re not going to friggin’ believe this.” She sounded frantic…scared. “I don’t know if I do.” Instinctively, he already knew what she was going to say.
“I know,” he broke in; “I got one too.” He could hear the breath lurch in her chest.
“What the fuck is this shit Teddy?” She was scared. “Did Hector do this? Is this some kind of sick joke?” Teddy wished he could say that the same thought had occurred to him, but he’d quickly dismissed it. Hector was a unique character…but he wasn’t…mean. Despite being as brilliant as he was, his humor rarely ventured beyond fart-jokes.
“No…no this isn’t Hector. I can’t pretty much guarantee that.” They were both silent for a moment.
“So what does that mean? If this is…real…then what…” Susan stammered; “th…th…they…know about us? What the hell are we supposed to do now?” Teddy didn’t know what to say…at first. Then the journalist in him took hold of the reigns.
“We fill out and sign the contracts. It’s the only way to fully investigate this story.”
“Are you insane?” He could hear her facial expression in the tone.
“Hear me out. There’s absolutely no way this thing’s actually a legally binding document. Any lawyer would have a field-day with it. That being said, I say we fill them out with aliases. When it asks who the money should be awarded to…we choose each other, the real version of each other. The logistics should work in our favor and we might end up with the biggest story of the year. We joke about winning a Pulitzer…but this…this actually could.”
“Why send the money to each other?” Susan’s tone was beginning to settle and he could tell that the newsperson in her was waking up as well.
“Well…if, for any reason, the aliases don’t work then they shouldn’t be able to take both of us if they’d be required to make the payment to each of us…theoretically.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Think about it. If they can only take me if they pay you and they can only take you if they have to pay me then it’s a stalemate…a ‘Catch-22’. If we’re smart enough we might be able to garner enough information in the process to put together a hell of a piece.”
“So you want me to fill this damn thing out…except with a fake name?”
“And then defer the payment to you?”
“And you’ll do the same?”
“That’s correct. In the process, keep a record of the entire process. Run a live Facebook stream if you want to. I’m going to stream on Twitch. It’s not going to be exciting viewing for anyone, but at least there’ll be a record of it out there. Read each question aloud as well as your answers.”
“I don’t know Teddy.” She was quiet again as she considered his request. “What about the money?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well Hector said they’d negotiate a price but I’ll I’m seeing here is an empty spot for agreed payment. What are we supposed to enter?”
“Hmmm…” Teddy thought aloud. “That’s not much of a negotiating tactic. I guess we put in a crazy amount. How about…I don’t know…fifty-million? I mean, surely they’re not going to spend a hundred mil on the two of us.”
“Fifty-million?” she echoed.
“Why not?” He could hear her sighing more and more and took it as an indication of reluctant acquiescence. They were, after all, both reporters…albeit entirely different ones…for a reason. It was in their nature to root out the stories no matter where they laid and share them with the world. As children their first words were “who”, “what”, “when”, “where” and “why”; which made them extremely inquisitive, if not highly annoying, children.
“Have you read through some of these questions though? Some of them are pretty messed up.” Teddy hadn’t actually read through the questionnaire portion yet, having picked up the phone the moment he’d realized what it was. “What’s your most commonly reoccurring nightmare?” she continued. “What part of the human body excites you the most sexually? What’s your least favorite type of insect to see in the mornings? What is this crap, Teddy…some kind of twisted personality test or something?”
Teddy couldn’t answer. His eyes had locked onto one particular question that had his heart hammering in his chest and small tendril of sweat beginning to gather on his brow.
“Teddy? Teddy? Oh please God…tell me you’re still there?”
“Yea,” he muttered weakly, disbelief pulling at the hairs on the back of his neck. “I’m here.”
“What is it Teddy? What’s happened?”
“It’s…” He wasn’t sure he really wanted to tell her. This whole endeavor had suddenly become much more personal than he’d been prepared to deal with. “It’s…this question.”
“What? Tell me what it says.” Her intense insistence compelled the story from his lips…but only after several long seconds of silence.
“It says, Please describe the way you felt when you choked a cat to death?”
“Is that some kind of sick joke Teddy? I know we don’t know each other that well…but I know you wouldn’t do anything like that. That’s serial-killer shit there.” When more silence followed the concern became evident in her voice. “What the fuck Teddy? Please tell me you didn’t do that.”
“I did.” His voice was barely audible and thick with emotion. “It was horrible. It was like twenty years ago. It was the middle of the night and I was driving through a McDonald’s parking lot in the middle of a town I’d never been in. I felt a bump and then saw the poor thing flailing in my rear-view mirror. I wanted to help but it was too far gone. One of its eyes had popped out and it was in obvious pain. I cut off its air as gently as I could. It was the only thing I could do to ease its suffering. It was one of the worst moments of my life.”
“Oh Teddy…I’m…so sorry. That’s just horrible. But…how did they know about that?”
“Susan…I’ve never told anyone about that moment. No one. I don’t even like thinking about it…let alone sharing it with anyone. I have no idea how they would know about that, but it’s a little too specific to be a lucky guess.”
This time they both fell silent and, after a minute, Susan asked; “So are you still wanting to go through with this?”, feeling quite sure that she already knew the answer. When he finally replied…she was genuinely surprised by his reaction. Rather than drifting further into a state of panicked fear, that invasive question had pushed him in a different direction: he was pissed.
“You bet your ass, I do.”
When Susan would reflect on this moment at a later date, it would be remembered as their first major mistake. They were both highly intelligent, university-educated adults who worked in the field of fact-gathering and information analysis. Their entire professional careers were based on their ability to properly discern which avenues to go down and which were dead ends. Hindsight, obviously, always provided the best viewing angle for the routes that should’ve been taken, but in this particular instance…they should’ve known better. By that point they already had more than enough information to know that they were in way over their heads on this one. Unfortunately…they both fell victim to the biggest fatal flaw a reporter could experience: their emotions.
The second major mistake came forty minutes later and was Susan’s to own entirely. Having ended their call a half hour ago and filling out their respective contracts, it was nearly 4:00am; the adrenaline fueled fear they felt as they answered each question was more than enough to keep any signs of fatigue at bay…just not enough to keep them from going forward with the poorly conceived plan. Had they both actually stuck to it then perhaps things might’ve turned out differently.
Susan hadn’t planned on deviating from the strategy, and in all honestly, she wasn’t really sure why she did. When the question of who the payment of fifty million dollars would be sent to, she did type in the name “Teddy Aaron Wilson” at first before pausing a moment…and then slowly holding one finger down on the “backspace” key. The spot remained blank for another thirty seconds before the name “Ginger Tara Collins” filled in the space, almost as though the name were writing itself.
Ginger was Susan’s younger sister who lived in Kentucky. She was a fan of country music…which was fitting since her life could’ve easily been the lyrics to a country song. Shortly after giving birth to her third son with Autism, Ginger’s husband of ten years, Lloyd, left her for a college-aged bartender from Louisville and disappeared into that spot where all the “dead-beat dads” seem to find refuge. Ginger, herself, was a high-school dropout who was married and pregnant at the same time other girls her age were buying their prom dresses. The government provided some help and Susan sent money when she could, but to say that Ginger was “struggling” would’ve been the understatement of the century. She was the epitome of the uneducated, single-mother trope and the boys’ monthly medical bills alone were more than she could bring in. For years now, just about any thought Susan had about her sister any more was one of pity…and perhaps shame. If there were anyone in her life that needed a financial windfall more than Ginger…they wouldn’t come to mind.
On every cognizant level, Susan knew that getting fifty-million dollars to her desperate little sis wasn’t the real objective here…especially if it came at the expense of the rest of her life as she knew it. She loved Ginger and her sons immensely, but she loved having her own life more. No one could see that as selfishness; it was just human nature. Regardless, something much more subliminally motivated took control of her fingers to place Ginger’s name on the contract. If the absolute worst-case scenario were to come to fruition…she needed to know that something good could come out of it. If this really was more than some sick joke and she was in the process of signing her soul away in some Faustian exchange, then…for God’s sake…please let there be a happy ending in this for someone.
She wouldn’t be able to help but to wonder later, if she had only stuck with the original plan, might things have ended differently for all of them? It wasn’t exactly like Teddy’s quickly assembled idea was inundated with airtight reasoning…but she had given his circular-logic loophole an out. If they took him, they still had to pay her…but now the action was no longer reciprocal. For all intents and purposes…she had just made Teddy an expendable piece in this insane puzzle which they’d become entangled in.
At just past five in the morning, an exhausted Susan Collins collapsed into her bed and finally allowed her eyes to close, having just finished filling out the contract. An uneasy sleep was almost upon her when she suddenly remembered two things that still needed to be done and reluctantly forced herself back into an upright position. She still needed to send the contract back to whatever realm from which it came…but more importantly…she needed to use the Polaroid camera to make a copy.
It took an even greater degree of self-motivation to push her entire body back into motion…she was so tired…but after a minute or two she was loading the ‘antique’ camera and quickly rolled through the entire package of ten. Forcing her eyes to stay open for just a bit longer, she clicked the ‘return to sender’ option on the contract and laid the pictures out at the base of her queen-sized mattress. Unfortunately, and due in large part to her digital-age induced Attention Deficit Disorder, she didn’t have the patience to wait for the classic form of photographical history to fade into view and the weights on her eyelids won out. She ended up falling asleep at the edge of the bed, her feet falling off the side. It was the last time her life bared any semblance to what she considered ‘normal’.
When her cell-phone alarm clock woke her several hours later, she screamed a short stream of profanities and looked up at the digital clock on the dresser; it was only a little after 9:00am and she had set the alarm for 11:00am. It hadn’t been her alarm after all: her phone had been ringing…it still was. The phone had fallen off the bed to the floor and she scrambled for several seconds to firmly grasp it before looking at the identification, fully expecting it to be Teddy and wondering if the man ever actually slept. It wasn’t. It was Martin…and Martin never called her.
“Martin?” she answered finally.
“Susan? Susan Collins?” his voice was slightly softer than she’d ever heard it before.
“Yea Martin…it’s me. What’s going on?”
“Listen Susan…this is going to sound crazy but I’m telling you upfront…this is not a joke. I’m dead serious in what I’m about to say. Do you understand?”
“Uh-huh. Of course Martin.” This conversation was already starting to nauseate her and it had only just begun. “Just tell me what the hell’s going on?”
“Okay…listen to everything before interrupting. Got it?” Talking to Martin sometimes was like talking to her deceased father again…and that wasn’t a good thing.
“I got it Martin.”
“I’m at the downtown police station right now and we need for you to get dressed and come down here ASAP. There’s been an incident and they need to interview everyone at the paper.”
“An incident?” she asked.
“I told you not to interrupt.”
“Sorry Martin.” She almost said “dad”.
“I’m not at liberty to say too much until you get here…but there was an explosion at The Sentinel and, at least for the time being, the paper will be going into an indefinite hiatus.” Susan gasped and threw her fingers over her mouth to keep the disbelief from regurgitating Martin’s words back into his ears. “It gets worse,” he continued; “Seemingly the explosion was due to an intentionally planted bomb. Fortunately, it happened around four this morning so the building was mostly vacant. No one died…at least. The thing is…and this is where I’m restricted on what I can say…the bomb was apparently set by Teddy Wilson.”
“That’s bullshit!” This time she couldn’t help herself…but Martin seemed to understand.
“I thought the same thing…but the CIA, FBI, and even the Department of Homeland Security are all here saying that he was some kind of deep cover spy; they’d had him under surveillance for a long time. ‘Teddy’ wasn’t even his real name. It was something like ‘Dimitri Volkoff’.”
“A Russian spy? Are you friggin’ kidding me Martin? That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. What the hell was he supposed to be spying on? For Pete’s sake Martin…Teddy didn’t even cover politics. This is just ridiculous.”
“I get it. That doesn’t change what’s going on here. You need to get down her quickly and then you can get all the answers you want. I have to go.” With that…the conversation had ended and Susan flung the cellphone down onto the bed in frustration. When the Polaroid pictures bounced up from the reverberation, they drew her attention and suddenly the entirety of the previous day’s surreal events came flooding back: everything from being made partners with a man she barely knew to participating in a shared, secret pact that could be putting both their lives in jeopardy.
Torn by what to do, Susan first swiped her laptop back to life; The Contract was gone. From there she fell onto the bed and carefully examined the Polaroids. Her first impression was that her eyes were too tired and she wasn’t seeing properly. A quick jaunt to the bathroom for some re-wetting drops and she was back at it. Unfortunately, her eyes hadn’t been the problem and for several long seconds she struggled to comprehend exactly what it was that she was seeing. Once it did finally click, her stomach lurched and she found herself back in the bathroom depositing the three glasses of Merlot from the night before into the porcelain toilet. There were still words on the pages she recorded with the photographs…they were just in a different language. One which she wasn’t familiar with…and not the logographic form of Sumerian they’d seen at Hector’s earlier.
Once her stomach had settled and after several moments spent debating her next steps, Susan loaded the pictures into the printer/scanner and, while the older machine slowly scanned the photos, tried to call Teddy. After a couple of rings, she received the familiar, automated voice informing her that the number was no longer in service. For some reason, she’d half expected as much. The scanner took its sweet time and she cursed herself for not having a newer machine but, before too long, she was looking up the images online. It was actually an odd combination of two languages: Arabic and Hebrew…very unusual.
Because the two alphabets were blended in such an unnatural way, deciphering it became tedious at best and borderline impossible. She managed to translate one sentence from one photograph and to the best of her limited abilities came up with the phrase: henceforth relinquish my vessel. It was more than enough to send a chill down her spine and when her phone rang she nearly jumped out of her seat. It was Hector…and she couldn’t have been happier to see that it was.
“Susan…what the hell is going on? The NSA just called me about Teddy.”
“I know Hector. I’m supposed to be heading to the police station now. They’re saying Teddy was some kind of spy and that he set off a bomb at the paper.”
“I know. Listen Hector…I know this is going to sound crazy, believe me…but I’m pretty sure that this has something to do with those damned contracts.”
“Contractsss? Plural? What are you talking about?”
“Oh Hector…” Her voice was getting thick with emotion and she had to fight to stave off the tears. If she started crying now…she wouldn’t be able to stop. “I’m so scared right now. I…we…both were sent contracts last night and…ohhh…” she sobbed; “why did I listen to him? We filled them out and sent them back.”
“You did what!?” It was true that Susan didn’t know Hector that well, having only just met the day before, but it was the first time she’d heard his voice with any kind of edge to it; she did not like it. “Why in the holy hell would you guys do that?”
“I don’t know Hector!” she snapped back at him. “It was Teddy’s plan. He thought we could get a great story out of it. We were using fake names and then having the payments sent to each other so that they couldn’t pay and abduct both of us if that was their end game. I was so tired…it seemed…reasonable. I went along.” She didn’t tell him the part about having her money sent to Ginger. “He said something about recording himself filling out the contract and putting it online.”
“I…I can’t…it was something weird like ‘Twist’ or ‘Tremor’ or…”
“Twitch?” Hector interrupted.
“Okay…I can find that.”
“Then I’m coming over,” she informed him.
“I thought you had to get to the police station or something?”
“Dammit Hector…I’m terrified and I have to know what’s going on here. Besides…you might be the only person in the world that will believe me if this is…them.”
As quickly as she could, she exchanged her pajamas and ‘footies’ for a track suit and tennis shoes and began hunting for her keys and purse. She figured, assuming she could avoid a speeding ticket, that she could make it to Hector’s in just under an hour; and she was just about out the door when a familiar sound froze her in her tracks. It was that same damn email notification from the night before: the one that signified The Contract.
There was nothing in her being that wanted to go to her laptop and open the new email but she knew she had no choice; she was playing in a game she didn’t know by rules she didn’t understand. This time, rather than the sender being listed as Teddy, it was her own email address from which the email emanated. One reluctant sigh and a double-click later and she was reading the single sentence that made up the whole of the transmission: Contract accepted; owed funds deferred to next eligible candidate.
“Owed funds deferred to next eligible candidate?” she repeated aloud…and yet to herself. “What the hell does that mean?” Sadly, there was no time to stand there and ponder the odd communication so she grabbed the laptop, tucked it under her arm and headed out the door. Hopefully, Hector would be able to help with that as well.
Thirty minutes into her drive down the interstate, traffic came to a halt and became backed up in both directions as far as the eye could see. Most likely an accident much further down the highway. Through her Bluetooth connected car speakers, she called Hector to let him know that she would be running behind.
“I was just about to call you too.” He informed her.
“Why? What’s up?”
“I found the video and I’m watching it now. This is weird. He’s reading off the questions out loud and guess what?” He didn’t give her a chance to guess. “The fake name he used was ‘Dimitri Volkoff’; sound familiar?”
“That was his supposedly ‘real’ Russian-spy name,” she agreed.
“Wait a sec. What the hell is that?” She could hear his tone change dramatically, less ‘Hardy Boys’ and more ‘Scooby-Doo’.
“What?” Susan urged; “What is it?”
“I…I don’t know…it’s…he’s got the camera at a bad angle to tell but it kind of looks like someone has walked into the room behind him…sort of…”
“Well…I don’t know how to describe it. It looks like a solid thing in the shape of a person but there’s no…anything. It’s like they’re wearing one of those black body-sock things you see on certain idiots in the stands for NFL games. Completely black…like a solid shadow.” His breath froze for a second before, “Oh shit.”
“What?” Susan screamed at her Prius. “What?”
“There’s another one…and another…and another. There’s a whole crowd of those fuckers standing behind him. How can he not see them? Can’t he hear them?”
“I don’t understand! What are you saying…there’s someone in the room with him?”
“Yes dammit!” Hector screamed, nearly hysterical. “Oh God no…don’t do it Teddy! He’s about to send The Contract back! No Teddy! Please God…” Hector went completely silent and Susan suddenly realized that her cheeks were moist with salty, warm tears.
“Hector?” Her voice was feeble, barely capable of producing syllables. There was nothing for a full ten seconds and Susan was afraid that he’d hung up when he did finally speak again.
“I had to pause the video.” Even though she knew he was a sizable man, he sounded, in that moment, as frail and weak as she felt. “I got…sick. Too much beer, I guess.” He gave a weak chuckle, devoid of any real happiness. “Okay…so listen…at this point he’s just sent The Contract back and there are several sets of solid black hand taking hold of his shoulders. His eyes are wide with fear and…I’m sorry…I can’t watch the rest.”
“You have to!” she begged; “I…I have to know what happens next.” She could hear the man in her speakers’ sigh and it filled her tiny car with a resolute sadness.
“This is the best I can do Susan. I will turn up the volume so you can listen and push play…but I’m not going to watch this; I can’t. In fact…I’m going back to the bathroom to throw up some more; there’s at least a sixer left to come, I’d estimate.” He didn’t fake a chuckle this time as they both knew he was dead serious. Apparently neither of them had much of a constitution for this kind of business.
“Thank you Hector. I understand.” She did too.
“Are you still coming here?” he asked before leaving her to the remainder of the video. Something in his voice said that he needed her company right now as much as she needed his.
“I’m stuck in a jam…accident or something. I’ll get there as quickly as I can.”
“Okay…good.” He sighed yet again and she found that she hated the way its echo reverberated off her windows. “I’m going to leave the phone here next to the speaker and press play now. When it’s over…I guess I’ll be back. Please hurry.” With that he was gone and she could hear the clank of the phone being laid on Hector’s desk, the click of a button and then suddenly…the volume was way too loud. She had to quickly adjust the difference with her car’s volume knob but not before Teddy’s fear stricken scream was penetrating her eardrums.
“NOOOOO!” He only barely sounded like the same man she’d spent the prior day with, but rather a cartoonish version of him. It was as if someone were trying to do a ‘Teddy’ impression but weren’t quite getting it. “I WAS WRONG! I was wrong…I was wrong…I was wrong!” She could hear the sounds of a struggle. Teddy sounded winded. Something crashes to the floor…his chair? He’s panting and then; “I take it back! JUST STOP! I take it all back!” His voice is audibly becoming further and further from the microphone…as though he were being drug away. “PLEASE…I’M BEGGING YOU! I was so wrong!” Then a door slams and the audio becomes deathly quiet with a suddenness that makes it more penetrating than Teddy’s pleas had been.
Susan wasn’t terribly surprised to find herself shaking uncontrollably in her seat and teetering on the verge of joining Hector in some more involuntary purging. She rolled down the windows, praying for just the smallest breeze that might help alleviate the sensation, but was only met with the oppressive and unnaturally hot morning air which only aided in making her swoon a bit more. She was just about to try her luck with the air conditioner, which, on most days, was about fifty/ fifty, when the tiny car’s speakers notified her of another incoming call. At first, not wanting to hang up on Hector, she wasn’t going to answer it but when she saw who it was…she knew she had to. Hector would understand.
“Ginger? Is that really you?” Susan hadn’t actually spoken to her sister in over a year…more out of guilt than anything.
“Hey Big-Sis…how are you?”
“Wow…Ginger…I really wasn’t expecting to hear from you right now. Listen…Ginge…I’m gonna need to call you back later tonight. Some crazy things are going on right now and…”
“No…” her sister cut her off. “You listen. You think you got crazy shit…Baby…you don’t even know. Guess what?” She hadn’t spoken to her in over twelve months and within the first three seconds she was already becoming irritated with her younger sister.
“I don’t know Ginge…what?” She worked hard to keep the frustration from her voice.
“We’re rich! Whooo hooo!” Ginger hooted so loud the windows vibrated in their frames.
“What are you talking about?” Susan was becoming more and more certain that this call needed to be ended sooner rather than later. Hell…the girl was probably still drunk from the night before.
“I’m talkin’ about that ‘Publisher’s Clearinghouse’ contest thingy…is what I’m talkin’ about. I just won that shit. We’re freakin’ millionaires now bitches!” It would’ve been laughable if it weren’t so damn sad.
“Listen…Ginger please. This is not a good time for this. I love you Sweetie, but you got scammed. I promise you that you didn’t win the ‘Publisher’s Clearinghouse’ sweepstakes. Now, I’m really sorry but…”
“Oh yea,” Ginger interrupted yet again; “then why did the TV crew just leave the apartment?”
“What the hell are you talking about Ginger?”
“Tell you what,” her little sister had never sounded so smug, “I’ll let you hear it from Big Joe.”
“Wha? Who the hell is ‘Big Joe’?” The frustration was coming through quite clearly now but Ginger was no longer on the line to hear it. She’d already handed the phone to someone else.
“Yes…who is this?”
“My name is Joe Parlatano. Your sister has taken to calling me ‘Big Joe’; I do not mind.”
“Okay Mister Parla…”
“Tano,” the man offered; “Joe Parlatano. Please…call me ‘Joe’; or ‘Big Joe’ if you prefer.” She could hear her sister giggle in the background.
“Okay…Joe…who are you and why are you at my sister’s house…and what’s this about a ‘TV crew’?”
“All fair questions, Miss Collins.” He paused for a moment as if to give her a chance to say, “Call me ‘Susan’”. She didn’t. “And I’m happy to answer them for you. I’m a professional finance attorney and I’ve been hired by your sister to aid her in all the taxation and legal matters that come with her winning the tremendous sums of money that she has.”
“Wait a sec…” Ginger was never one for pulling practical jokes…but this one was still hard to swallow. “You’re tell me Ginger really won…what the ‘Publisher’s Clearinghouse’?”
“That’s correct, Miss Collins. In point of fact, it’s the largest prize given in the history of the company.”
The blood began to freeze in her veins and, as if seeing it happen from outside of herself, Susan could hear her own voice asking in slow motion, “How…much…did…she…win?” In her heart, she already knew what the answer would be; it didn’t stop her from praying otherwise, however.
“After penalties, taxes and legal fees, your sister will be receiving right at one hundred million dollars. It will actually be paid out in two lump sums of fifty million dollars apiece.” Susan began to struggle for breath. She could hear Ginger blurt out in the background, “Tell her about the cool code-words.” When the lawyer spoke again, Susan could tell he wasn’t speaking to her.
“Are you sure you want me to do that, Miss Ginger? Those are private words so that only you can officially claim the prize?”
“That’s my sister…” Ginger informed him with no lack of conviction. “What’s mine is hers and that includes half the money. We have no secrets from each other.” The guilt she felt for being so irritated with her little sister just a few minutes before was tangible…but it was still playing second fiddle to the apprehensive dread she was feeling, watching this surreal reality unfold before her from behind the wheel of a car she actually hated.
“Very well Miss Ginger. You’re the boss.” Ginger giggled again. “The payments are labeled under private code names which your sister seems to find…cool. The first payment is labeled as the ‘Carol Cline Donation’ and the one to come sometime later is labeled as the ‘Dimitri Volkoff Donation’. I’m still at a loss as to why your sister finds them so amusing.” Without warning Ginger was back on the line, obviously having snatched the phone from Big Joe’s hands.
“Carol Cline…it’s crazy right.” There was a happiness in the younger woman’s voice that Susan couldn’t remember hearing since she was a little girl and for a split-second…it almost made her happy. “Like Mom’s two favorites: Carol Burnett and Patsy Cline. It’s almost like Mom made this happen from beyond the grave. It’s too much to be a coincidence…don’t you think?”
Susan didn’t just think…she knew; although it had nothing to do with their mother’s ghost. Ginger came to that conclusion for the same reason Susan had chosen that as her alias on The Contract in the first place and the revelation forced her stomach into her chest cavity. The whole world seemed to be slowing down at an exponential rate.
“Ginger…” Susan thought she heard herself saying. It was hard to be sure; the interior of the car had taken on a dream-like quality where everything shimmered with hazy edges. “I have to go now.”
“Go?” her little sis cried from a million miles away with a voice that seemed to be fading. “Go where? We’re rich now. All we gotta do…”
“I’m…happy…for…you.” The version of Susan still sitting behind the wheel…the one she wasn’t seemingly in control of…ended the call. For the first time in at least fifteen minutes she took in the environment outside of her vehicle. She was still sitting, bumper to bumper, stuck in traffic…but something wasn’t quite right. For starters…it was too quiet. There were no running engines, frustrated honks, frat-boy’s blasting their stereos…or even a chirping bird for that matter. Other than the gentle hum of her own car’s little motor…there was nothing; and the windows were still down.
The ‘Auto-pilot Susan’ turned off the Toyota, grabbed her cellphone…some things were too ingrained, she guessed…and stepped out of the car. It didn’t take more than a few steps to see that the other cars around her were all completely unoccupied. A frightened, thirty-yard dash further down indicated that the anomaly seemed to continue as far as the endless line of cars did. The fear was intense and legitimate, but it did deliver the shot of adrenaline needed to put her back in control of her full facilities…even if it did somewhat inhibit her ability to think as clearly as she surely needed to be.
Really, only one thought came through with any clarity at all: Hector. She needed to call Hector back. Maybe he could come get her…help her…somehow. She brought her cell phone screen up to her face to verbally request his number be dialed when her own phone rang with a ‘face-time’ call. It was Hector; he’d beaten her to the punch. She swiped the screen and Hector’s pudgy cheeks filled the screen from side to side. His face was red and his eyes were blood-shot. It looked as though he’d been throwing up…or crying…or both.
“Susan?” His voice sounded different than it did when he was speaking over the phone-line: tinnier. “I was worried about you. You hung up.” She tried to force a smile for the screen but there was nothing genuine about it.
“I’m sorry…I’m just…” She didn’t know. “Something really messed up is going on here. I’m out here in this traffic jam but all the people have disappeared. It’s just me…and the cars. I’m more than a little freaked out here.”
“Let me see,” Hector asked; “Turn the camera around.” Susan accommodated and spun her cellphone around so that Hector could see the unreal scenario she’d suddenly found herself in. She’d only waved it around for a few seconds when she could hear him screaming for her to turn the camera back around.
She was planning on saying, “Make up your mind,” but the instant she saw the unbridled terror in Hector’s face, the sentence was all but frozen in her mouth; “Muah,” being the only sound that actually escaped.
“Susan…” She could tell he was struggling to keep his voice even. “Those cars aren’t empty. It’s…it’s them. The dark people that took Teddy. There’s hundreds of them…they’re all around you.” Hector’s face began to tremble in her hands as she fought to keep the device in her grasp. Her eyes were as wide as saucers but she couldn’t bring herself to look up from the tiny screen. If she looked back up…she would see them. They would be there, plain as day…yet black and formless, living shadows that not even the morning sunlight could penetrate. Somehow she knew…she just knew…that looking back up would be the only catalyst needed for hell to engulf her; and yet…she did. The phone fell from her hands.
Somewhere in another world, a voice was crying out in the distance…small and inconsequential. “You need to run,” it was saying; “Susan…You need to run.” It might’ve been someone she knew in another life but that didn’t really matter now; nothing like that was important anymore. “Please Susan…Oh God, not again!” The voice seemed so frantic…so full of emotion; it made no sense…pointless. Why it was even telling a ‘Susan’ to run somewhere in the first place was just as baffling. That poor, tormented creature obviously had no idea that that ship had sailed. Susan was already gone.
CREDIT: Shannon Higdon
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