The human mind is prone to infection.
I don’t mean the scorching fevers of meningitis or the insidious tunneling of parasites from unclean food. These days we tend to use the language of disease to discuss ideas: viral memes, contagious media. Vectors and payloads.
We’ve all seen things that take root and keep us up nights. Many of us harbor thoughts that gradually poison our souls. In my case, a single vision has plagued my dreams for the past year or more, and I’m sure it will haunt me for life:
The body of a pretty, pixieish brunette with spiky hair and huge brown eyes rests on a primitive wooden seat made of a few raw boards. Behind her is bolted the upper part of a large drill press tipped on its side. Its spindle extends into the back of the chair. From there, the bit plunges through her skull.
Blood has drenched the front of her white silk robe.
The entry point is right below the hairline of her neck. Her chin is pressed all the way down on her collarbone by the restraints. The drill bit thus protrudes from her mouth: a two-inch ring of high-speed steel with a row of razor teeth around the outside.
Her bonds are subtle, appearing almost innocent. A slender white nylon line at her chin, and one low on her neck.
But they’re part of the mechanism.
The cords run up through a series of pulleys set along the heavy oak ceiling supports and finally down again to a large rusty-brown rock hanging in space. Below it are the charred remains of a thick cardboard tube. A trail of burnt flooring extends back to an orange disposable lighter lying inches below her left hand.
These remnants tell a brief, violent tale. The orange Bic lit a liquid fuse of accelerant. A line of flames began licking at the cardboard support holding up the rock. When the cardboard collapsed, the rock fell, jerking her head back into the whirring drill bit.
Clearly the product of a sick imagination.
I was first exposed by watching a short video. A record of the actual event, but only a narrow view. Just a tight head shot in which all you can see is the poor girl crying while she recites a cryptic verse. There’s a brief flicker of light . . .
And then carnage.
Finally, you’re left with the gore-stained drill spinning relentlessly where her mouth once was. Spraying blood until the camera runs out of memory.
That picture lodged itself in some dark part of my mind and began feeding on the information I placed next to it: police photographs, the forensics report, stories I heard from those close to her. It grew into a nightmarish scene, like one of those rare cysts surgeons sometimes find filled with hair, fingernails, unseeing eyes, and, of course, teeth. The image grew until that clip stood far above all the other things I wish I’d never seen.
But you can’t unsee something. There’s no cure for an experience.
Learning the story behind the video would radically alter the course of my life. Like an avalanche blocking the only viable pass through a forbidding mountain range.
Looking back, I see how swiftly the illness spread. How she infected me. How her story took over mine. And the strangest thing about the fever this otherworldly woman ignited in me?
I never even met her.
The Norn seeks you.
Eeyore, one of my friends at work, has marked the message “Urgent.”
What could she want?
The project I’ve toiled on for the past month remains far from finished. It should be weeks before I’m due an accounting with her.
I stumble into the bathroom to get functional, trying to avoid looking in the mirror. Not yet anyway. I take a deep breath and turn the shower on hot.
The Norn is my boss, Susan Mercer, one of the managing partners of Red Rook, a global network security company based in DC. She’s called the Norn—after the Norse pantheon’s Weavers of Fate—due to the degree of her control over the destinies of the firm’s employees. The name is made especially fitting by her habit of embroidering circuit schematics for signals intelligence equipment from the NSA’s Cold War glory days. She is not someone you keep waiting.
The elevator opens onto Mercer’s dimly lit corner suite at our New York office. She sits at an antique desk in her Shaker rocking chair. A bright lamp casts a circle of light on her hands, which move with preternatural authority over an ivory hoop. Her eyes are focused on me.
“James, good of you to come,” she says in a Brahmin drawl.
“No problem.” I take a small glass box out of my bag and set it on her desk. It contains a rare “Bohemian Garnet” Venus flytrap for her terrarium. Mercer adores carnivorous plants, and she tolerates my gifts as sincere expressions of filial devotion. I know little about her domestic situation, but it’s hard to imagine a husband, and I like the idea that at least somebody gives her something. “I hope you don’t kill this onequiteso quickly,” I say.
“This plant’s predecessor was a decadent vegetarian. No aptitude for hunting.”
“You probably froze it.”
“My office isn’t a South Carolina swamp. If a thing can’t adapt—”
Her look of delight fades into one of concern as she sees the scrapes on my wrist and then clocks my totally uncharacteristic turtleneck. The morning’s cleanup had required some improvisation. I was robbed last night. That’s how I’ve chosen to characterize it. Just the innocent victim of a simple theft. Happens every day.
“James . . . ?”
She lets the question hang there, but I just smile at her. Mercer is way too old-school to pry into an employee’s personal life, in conversation at least. She watches me for a while but only asks, “Can I offer you some tea?”
“No thanks.” I perch on one of the unstable chairs in front of her desk.
She sets down her project, the blueprint for some ancient mechanical encoding machine; pours herself a cup; and spends a moment regarding the steam as it spirals up into the shadows.
I notice her tea service rests on a set of black lace doilies that have Red Rook’s logo stitched into them. A logo that says a lot about our operation. Its black circle holds a little red symbol in the center that, while decorated with simple battlements and a drawbridge, conforms to the shape of an hourglass more than the outline of our eponymous chess piece. Close observers will see the image for a rendering of the underside of a black widow spider.
Unusual that a legitimate consultancy would use the color black in its trade dress, given that the hacker term “black hat” means “outlaw.” But we are by no means a normal company. Our clients are Fortune 1000 corporations and any American security-related acronym you care to name: FBI, DEA, ATF, CIA, NSA. While we ply our trade only against criminals, the means we use are often of questionable legality. In fact, we maintain a vast array of unlawful botnets, undisclosed “zero day” software exploits, salaried moles in various black hat syndicates, and even a couple agents in foreign cyber-intel organizations. So the felt of our hat is a tasteful gray.
Just as her silence begins to make me nervous, Mercer asks, “The LinkDjinn affair?”
“Looks pretty standard, and I think we already have hooks into the network the attackers used.”
“One of our Ukrainian honeypots?”
“I suppose we have Phissure to thank for all this mischief?” This was a group of Vietnamese net scam artists with whom we occasionally did business.
“That’s what my new friends are telling me. The Brains are trying to confirm it.”
Functional roles at Red Rook are classified according to retro high school social stereotypes. The Brains practice traditional hacking like network recon and searching for useful software flaws. Our Greasers run groups of informants. Jocks do “physical” penetrations.
I’m a “Soshe,” a social engineer, one of the lazy reptiles who use the time-honored techniques of the confidence man to compromise our opponents. After all, why spend weeks snooping around trying to capture a password when almost anyone will just tell it to you if you ask the right way? We Socials believe that a bug in your firewall program, once discovered, can be patched in minutes, but the software running the human brain will stay broken forever.
Mercer says, “Well, that may get awkward. But I’m afraid the matter will no longer concern you.”
“Okay . . .” Surely wearing a turtleneck to the office isn’t grounds for a mental-health suspension.
“Tell me, James, what do you know about the Randall family?”
That gets my attention. While quieting the mental turmoil their name causes me, I stall. “The ones who own most of IMP?”
She nods slowly.
“Well, Integrated Media Properties controls enough of the mediascape to be considered, by some, a threat to American democracy. The Randalls have almost all the voting shares.”
“Correct. Anything else?”
“They’ve got newspapers, cable, film studios . . . I understand they’re picking up web start-ups like it’s ’99.”
She arches an eyebrow. “And?”
“And I went to school with them. The twins. At Harvard. They were two years older than me. I can’t say I really know them anymore, but we were in a club together.”
“Phi Beta Kappa, I presume?”
“Ah, no, ma’am.” Mercer is well aware of all of my affiliations, starting with the League City, Texas, Cub Scout pack number 678. The club in question was the Hasty Pudding Society, an ancient order of alcoholism.
A predatory smile. “Hmm . . . Though you claim only a passing acquaintance, apparently the Randalls remember you quite well. And have tracked you to our humble enterprise here. It’s very unusual, but you’ve been requested for a meeting with them by name. Or by a diminutive at least. Please tell me you don’t answer to ‘Jimmy Jacks’ anymore.”
That means it must have been Blake who called her.
No one ever calls me by my real name: James John Pryce. I’ve been called Slim for my build, Tex for my place of origin, JJ for brevity, and Thump for reasons that were never quite clear. That’s to say nothing of the brigades of online aliases marching around cyberspace on my behalf. In college what stuck were any of several variants of “Jack,” which is more or less appropriate given my middle name.
J-Jacks, Jackie, Jackalope, Jackamole, Sir Jax-a-Lot. “Jimmy Jacks” was the one in general use. I received that nickname the same night I met Blake Randall.
For a school perceived to host a driven and introverted population, the number of social clubs one can join at Harvard is surprising. They run the gamut from coed cocktail societies like the Hasty Pudding to artistic clans such as the Signet and the Lampoon.
In the fall of 2000, I’d accepted membership to the Bat, one of the college’s Final Clubs, our slightly refined version of fraternities. After the holidays, I began my pre-initiation “neophyte” period, wherein you serve as a party Sherpa to the senior members. On a bitter Tuesday evening, I was ordered to report to the club for my mandatory shift in the Texas Hold ’Em game we’d run continuously during the entire two-week reading period before exams.
Late that night, I found myself seated in our book-lined card room drinking neat bourbon and inhaling an atmosphere saturated with exotic smoke. I watched with wonder the massive pile of chips growing in front of me.
The state of my finances had been much on my mind. Like many of my classmates, my father had a blue-chip doctorate; in his case, aeronautical engineering from Stanford. I grew up within miles of the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Unfortunately, his commitment to the nation’s space program was supplanted just after my mother’s death, when I was too young to have formed memories of her, by a far more zealous embrace of Jim Beam. By the time I received my heavy envelope from Harvard, he was going to work in a begrimed jumpsuit, and I was left with a complex financial aid package, now proving itself hopelessly inadequate. Despite a grueling work-study job in my house’s cafeteria and moonlighting at Ravelin, a nearby network security start-up, I would likely be forced to take the next semester off to work full-time in order to pay off swelling credit card balances. As I turned over a Big Slick, I contemplated the fact that while poker may contribute to my academic undoing, it would provide a respite from the debt collectors, at least until next month.
The only other player at the table with any kind of stack was a senior named William Baldwin Coles III. The son of a notorious currency trader, he was the club’s vice president (in the Bat, this is the highest office) and had been playing in the game for almost four days without cease. Just as I began the theatrics to set up a devious double bluff, he looked down at his cell and grinned.
“Gentlemen, things are about to get a lot more interesting.”
A couple minutes later, three new players arrived, led by the Bat’s reigning carnal Achilles, Raffi Consuelo. The second was Matt Weeks, the president of the Spee Club, who spent more time at his family’s Las Vegas casino than he did on campus. And finally, Blake Randall stepped inside.
Blake resembled one of the better-looking busts of a young Julius Caesar. He had the same strong nose and penetrating eyes, and his pale skin was the white of new marble. He stood a couple inches taller than my six-two and had a full head of blond hair. His chiseled physique came from hours logged on the Charles River as captain of our heavyweight crew.
Though he was a notable presence in his own right, when I looked at Blake, all I could see was his twin sister, Blythe, the legendary beauty of her class. She was also intimidatingly tall and had the same snowy complexion as her brother, which prompted her inevitable female detractors to call her “that starving vampire bitch.” Of course, her rich-girl celebrity status and willowy elegance ensured all sorts of male admirers flocking to her banner.
I was utterly bewitched the first time I laid eyes on her.
The twins’ glamour alone would have been enough to stimulate gossip at school, but combined with their alien mirrored beauty, we really couldn’t keep ourselves from trotting out sensational fantasies, often making use of the delicious term “twincest.” Further inflaming such rumors were their matching crooked ring fingers. A congenital abnormality? Had a ten-year-old Blake broken his while skiing, causing Blythe to snap her own in sympathy? Or maybe it was ritual mutilation: no wedding ring would ever pass over either finger to vitiate their perfect love.
As if to demonstrate contempt for our trifling opinions, Blythe and Blake did nothing to discourage such chatter. In a cocktail circle, her hand would seek his arm. They would clutch and whisper when they met. On formal occasions, they danced together splendidly.
Seeing these three arrive, a couple of the current players began packing up their chips. I followed suit, but Coles put his hand on my shoulder and said, “A little early for the money leader to cash in, don’t you think?”
The newcomers sat down as the others hustled out like the roof was on fire. I started counting out chips.
Blake smiled benignly at me. “Evening, James. What do you say we raise the stakes?”
I found it strange that Blake would want to disrupt the game right away—and even stranger that he knew my name. I looked to Coles for guidance.
My stomach turned over when the group agreed to increase the blinds by an order of magnitude. There was simply no way I could come up with a four-figure buy-in. But the words “I can’t play” wouldn’t quite come out of my mouth. I stacked plastic slowly as I imagined how I might get myself out of this situation.
Coles leaned over to grab the Wild Turkey bottle and whispered, “Just deal, man. I’ll cover you.”
A wispy rumor tickled my bourbon-fogged brain. Coles was dating Blythe Randall. Blake supposedly didn’t care for the match and did a poor job of concealing his feelings. I wanted to explain that there was no way I’d be able to pay him back. That I’d never played for that much. That it was impossible, because I’d have to drop out of school and live on the streets if I lost. But I didn’t say any of that.
I dealt myself seven hours’ worth of pocket pairs, flopped sets, and nut flush rivers. I was playing like a field mouse surrounded by hawks, and yet a mountain of valuable chips steadily accumulated under my chin.
But Blake held the chip lead all night with his unfailing instinct for the jugular. Having folded a huge pot, Raffi got up in disgust after watching him flip over a garbage hand of two-seven unsuited. Matt passed out after writing his third five-digit chit to the bank.
“And then there were three,” said Coles.
My next cards were a pair of jacks, spades and clubs. I almost had to fold them in the maelstrom of pre-flop raising that went on between Blake and Coles. But with only three players, my jacks couldn’t be that bad.
True to form, I flopped myself a set. The center cards were:
The pot rocketed over two grand before it got to me. It was weak, but I just called.
Coles said, “Shit!” and folded his cards. That worried me. Something about the hand scared him off. I glanced over at Blake for any sign of what Coles had seen, but he was a mannequin. He made a courteous gesture for me to deal another card.
I did, and up turned the jack of hearts. Giving me four of a kind for the first time in my life.
Silently screaming at myself to stay cool, I kept staring at the card until I had it together and then slowly raised my head to meet Blake’s eye.
He betrayed nothing. “Thirty-five hundred.” His bet said a full house, probably kings.
“Up five,” I said, trying to lure him in.
Blake smiled cruelly. “Table,” he said, indicating that he bet everything I had in front of me. At the bottom of my innocent columns of colored discs, I had three obsidian placards. These were ten-thousand-dollar markers. He raised me confidently enough that I took a second to reexamine the board and realized he could be holding cards that already beat even my fantastic hand. The ace of diamonds and queen of diamonds made a straight flush that would impoverish me utterly. I studied him, trying to evaluate whether the universe could be so unjust.
Blake had politely averted his gaze from someone wrestling with base monetary calculations. I started figuring odds but was interrupted by a voice inside me.
If you let this rich bastard muscle you off four of a kind, you might as well cash in your chips and prepare for a life of absolute mediocrity.
The black rectangles emerged. “It’s thirty-seven thousand five hundred. And I call.”
If Blake was surprised by the amount, he didn’t show it. Maybe he became slightly more still, but my hand was the one shaking as I flipped over the last card, cultivating nightmare visions of him pulling a miracle winner.
The last card was the Queen of Hearts.
He turned over hiscaballerosand shrugged. Fortune is a cruel mistress.
I had to give him credit, though. He didn’t bat an eyelash when he saw my jacks. He just took them in for a second and then murmured something I almost didn’t catch.
“Knaves. How apt.”
My brain was about to start leaking out my eyes as Blake casually counted off four black placards from his stack and tossed them over to me, making me wealthier than I’d ever been. Allowing me to quit my humiliating job in the cafeteria. Changing everything about my time in college. I was expecting him to insist that we keep playing for another two days, and I planned for a protracted period of trench warfare to protect my newfound riches.
But Blake said, “Well, I doubt we’ll do better than that this morning. What do you say we wrap it up?”
Ten minutes later, he slipped out the door into the cold Cambridge dawn. Coles gave my shoulder a painfully hard squeeze and said, with a certain lilt of passion in his voice, “Thank you.”
I lifted my glass and began an epic bender that still makes my toes curl to think of.
At the time, I was too beside myself with joy to think much about Blake’s parting shot. It was only later, while researching a paper about the iconography of playing cards, that I realized what he meant. I always believed that the jack was the prince of the deck, the heir to the king and queen. But he’s not. He’s the servant. Another word for which is “knave.” My jacks beating his kings was “apt” because the ranks of our cards matched the players. Blake the aristocrat was defeated by the scullery boy.
Once I understood this, I told myself that I’d gladly suffer far greater insult for that much money. That I would try to remember him only with gratitude.
By and large Harvard is a resolute meritocracy, free of the old overt classism. But I guess among any group of relentlessly ambitious people, weird hierarchies and castes develop. When we spoke of our aspirations, you’d occasionally hear someone disparage those choosing even such lucrative professions as the law or investment banking as “mere wage slaves,” the unspoken idea being that the real elite operated on the “principal side.” In business, this meant you owned the enterprise; if you didn’t have one to inherit, you started one. In other fields, you’d hear similar language about acting “on your own portfolio.” Being an artist, not a gallerist. Being a politician, not a consultant. Being the talent, not the handler. The subtext was that there were two classes of people: masters and servants.
Blake had called me a knave. I didn’t let it bother me at the time.
But I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t bother me now.
The prospect of seeing his sister is more bothersome still. I find it eerie, now that I’m once again drowning in emotional quicksand—and courting the consequent physical danger—that I’m receiving this visitation from Blythe, my original will-o’-the-wisp.
I’m supposed to go and drink their fine whiskey, pretending to be old friends, while the Randall twins interview me for a job. Though it may well demand my brand of skills, there are others they could have called.
At the end of our meeting Mercer says, “Dear boy, youknowwho these people are. I’m sure I needn’t emphasize that you’re to do everything in your power to accommodate their wishes.”
I say, “Of course.”
But I think,Why me? Why now?
Blake’s assistant, a tall Caribbean beauty in a black Chanel suit, opens the door to what looks like a salon, in the eighteenth-century sense of the word. The walls are graced with finely framed paintings that I feel like I should recognize. Ritual masks from obscure religions watch from the bookshelves. She seats me in a leather armchair with brass studs along the seams.
“Mr. Randall will be with you shortly.”
Once she departs, a side door opens, and out slides Blake. As he extends his hand, he flashes me a mock anxiety smile, like we’re old conspirators dealing with something unpleasant, but by no means unexpected.
“Pryce, good to see you.”
“You as well, Blake.”
As we shake, I notice a small tattoo emerging past the cuff of his shirt, unmistakable as the head of the King of Hearts playing card.
A bit more solemnity in his eyes. “I heard about your recent, ah, troubles. But you seem to be bearing up all right. Please join us.”
He ushers me into an equally opulent office. Seated at his desk, looking up at the ceiling, is Blake’s twin.
“James, I’m sure you remember my sister.”
Blake knows that nobody forgets Blythe Randall, least of all me.
She stands languorously. Like a cat who’s had just enough time in the sun. She cocks her head and fixes me with her lambent green eyes. “James Pryce. So nice to see an old friend.”
My vision twitches.
Is she toying with me? Is that an ironic twinkle in her eye?
Luckily fatigue diminishes my need to obsess over her diction. So I fall back on blank courtesy.
“It’s been entirely too long . . .” I find I can’t say her name yet. “I hope you’re both doing well.”
Blythe flicks her eyes toward Blake. She lets out a long breath, almost a sigh, and mashes a cigarette that had been burning in the ashtray next to her. Which is interesting. Blythe only ever smoked when she was drinking. Or when she was nervous.
She says, “Of course you’ve heard about . . . our brother.”
“Well . . . I can’t say I know the details,” I manage, willing myself to stop gaping at her like a moonstruck toddler. “I take it he’s in some kind of trouble?”
Blake frowns. “Half brother actually. Our father took it upon himself to impregnate and then marry our au pair when we were eight. Our mother never really recovered and, after we enrolled at Exeter, has been in and out—well. . .” He shrugs. “Needless to say, we were not close. He fancies himself an avant-garde artist, so some time ago he changed his name. It’s now ‘Coit S. D. Files.’ You’re meant to say it ‘coitus defiles.’ But nobody does.”
“Everyone still calls him Billy, even when they don’t know who he really is. The name followed him despite his efforts to reinvent himself,” says Blythe.
Blake asks, “We assume you adhere to some principle of client confidentiality in your . . . line of work?”
“With Red Rook it’s more like omertà.”
Blythe nods. “So after the divorce, our father tried very hard to create a functional stepfamily. But it wasn’t to be. Billy’s mother Lucia was very beautiful and naturally fifteen years younger than our mother. But she was also . . . emotionally unstable. After a huge fight, they separated—this was in 2000 when we were at college.”
“She was found dead at our old beach house a month later,” Blake says. “Overindulgence in her twin passions for Stoli and Seconal.”
Blythe pats her brother and leaves her hand on his shoulder as if trying to physically restrain him from further interruption. “Billy was the one who found her. He was only thirteen . . . Our father was devastated as well.”
“And as you know, he was killed in a car accident a year later.” On saying this, Blake unconsciously shoots his cuff, covering up his King of Hearts tattoo. His gesture makes me curious about its significance. That card is named the “Suicide King” for the sword he appears to be stabbing into the back of his head. The twins’ father, Robert Randall, had driven his Bugatti off a cliff on Mulholland Drive. His death had been ruled an accident, but there was talk about a lack of skid marks on a dry road. I assume the tattoo is some kind of tribute. Or maybe a reminder of whatever tragic epiphany his father’s death inspired.
Blythe continues. “Billy wanted nothing to do with us and went to live with his godfather, Gerhard Loring, who was our father’s best friend and now chairs IMP’s board. Eventually, Ger got him into the Rhode Island School of Design, and he seemed to be doing okay there. The problem with art, though, is that what it craves more than anything is attention. Despite the level of media interest our father’s business has always attracted, we dislike publicity. I’m not sure what changed, but Billy began producing these . . . I don’t even know what to call them. Installations? Happenings? Art games?”
Blake says, “I would call them frivolous garbage, were it not for the lawsuit.”
“Colton et al. v. Randall. A delightful piece of civil litigation—settled out of court of course. For his thesis, Billy designed a sort of live role-playing game calledNeoRazi. He wanted to create an oppressive celebrity culture on campus, so he set up a tabloid website that recruited participants to take photos of various attractive coeds. The more tasteless and degrading the image, the more money they got. His classmates, most of them being quick with a camera to begin with, promptly generated a litany of police complaints: invasion of privacy, stalking, assault charges against irate boyfriends. One of the girls even had some kind of breakdown.” Blythe lights another cigarette. “The horrible thing was that, due to the abuse these poor women suffered, they becameactuallocal celebrities, and some real paparazzi materialized to continue tormenting them after Billy’s ‘game’ had officially ended.”
“I take it his work was not well received?”
“The members of the Rhode Island State Bar were big fans. The girls suing the Razis for harassment; Razis suing them for battery; everybody suing Billy for setting the whole thing up.”
“I guess one must suffer for his art.”
Blake adds, “The story was nasty enough that the regional media ran with it for a cycle or two. Including some of our own stations, God damn them. And even they weren’t above asking whether this was the sort of novel content we could expect as the new generation of Randalls takes the reins at IMP.”
Blythe blows smoke. “But the inquiries that really worried us came from our board.”
“So we made some changes in Billy’s trust to take the issue off the table. He was not pleased.” Blake smiles like a pride leader who has just gutted an annoying rival.
His sister examines him, something flickering in her eyes. “Theissuecould have been handled better. But there’s nothing to be done about it now.”
He breaks eye contact. “You could say that. But either way, we still didn’t . . . solve the problem. Amazingly, our brother found a warm critical reception for this kind of stuff. Reviews complimented his refined understanding of how the internet’s anonymity promotes gender oppression. So he thinks maybe there’s a future in this racket, and after a couple years drifting through the far reaches of Brooklyn ‘fauxhemia,’ he goes to grad school to hone his ‘insight.’ His work gets even worse.”
Blake picks a glossy magazine off the coffee table and tosses it into my lap. It’s a recent number ofArt Whorewith a feature set off by tape flags. Inside I find a two-page photo spread: a shot from the rear of five people standing arm in arm in front of a giant video screen. The back of each neck bears a tattoo. The title reads:
The tattoos from left to right are: an Ethernet jack, a USB hub, a standard quarter-inch amplifier input jack, a drawing of an eye screw with a string running up the neck, and finally, on the only woman in the photo, a small image of the Jack of Hearts from the standard English deck of playing cards.
This last one makes me smile. I’d been spared a far less tasteful display of cards across my shoulder blades on the day after my great poker victory by Cambridge’s uptight ordinance that you actually have to remain conscious in order to have ink done.
I skim quickly through the article, which describes in maddening postmodern jargon the recent work of this loose confederation of artists broadly dealing with “issues of identity malleability in digitally constructed narrative spaces.” According to the caption, their brother is the one with the string running up his neck. The text covering Billy says that he’s worked with LARPs (Live-Action Role Playing), BUGs (Big Urban Games), and ARGs (Alternate Reality Games). The last of these explains his tattoo.
ARGs are new-media hybrids using the whole communications spectrum—phone, email, web, forums, video—to allow a group of players to discover a hidden narrative that plays out over the course of the game. The people who organize them are called the “puppet masters.” So Billy’s screw-and-string tattoo favors the ARG paradigm by making him a giant living marionette. I guessNeoRazicould be seen as an early experiment in the genre.
I want to read the article more thoroughly, but I look up at the twins and say, “So . . . ?”
Blythe inclines her head at the magazine. “Two of the people in that picture are now dead. Second from the left, an ambiguous drug overdose a couple months ago. Then the last one, the girl, almost decapitated herself three weeks later. Billy used her as an actress in this repulsive video he made. I’m sure you can find it online somewhere.”
Blake says, “Which leads us to another video . . .”
Blythe steps over to an end table on which stands a ceramic statue holding a long remote as though it’s a scepter. She plucks it from his grasp, and while she thumbs a sequence of buttons, I take a moment to study the thing. It’s an ugly-but-cute blue-scaled creature with spindly appendages, small pointed pig’s ears, and a large head filled almost entirely with a single massive eye. I decide he must be an imp, his peculiar anatomy a mordant representation of IMP’s customers: giant eyeballs dedicated to consuming company product. A private jest.
The lights dim and a white screen descends from the far wall. A projector opposite whirs quietly to life.
Blythe selects a file called Jacking-Out. “This video was sent to Blake from a dummy email account two days ago.”
Darkness. Then a shot displaying a naked man of maybe twenty-seven seated in front of a bank of monitors. He presents a striking contrast to his siblings. His head is covered with a tufted anti-haircut, a few jet-black locks hanging limply over his face. His eyes are so dark that pupil and iris seem to merge into inhuman anime dots. He shares the twins’ pallor, but where on them you’d describe it as luminous, on him the word that leaps to mind is “sickly.” The periodic beeping of a heart monitor on one of the screens behind him enhances that impression.
Billy’s sense of physical malaise is deepened by a painful-looking Prince Albert piercing through his penis. Hung from which he’s got a large golden crocodile pendant that closely replicates the world-famous logo for Lacoste sportswear, the touchstone of preppy culture until Ralph Lauren’s polo ponies nearly trampled it to death in the eighties.
The chair he’s sitting on is made of rough planks. Affixed to its back is a rusty metal band that’s fastened around his forehead. Thick wires descend from the band and attach to a bank of car batteries at his feet. While it’s impossible to follow exactly, a large throw-switch next to his right hand appears to control the circuit.
An improvised electric chair. I tense in anticipation.
Billy declaims in a slow rasp:
As a final farewell, Blake, I thought to indulge your greatest fantasy. I know you’ve often wished that I’d just jack out like she did. But be careful what you wish for. My ghost may come back to haunt you. And lead you down your own path of torment. For I will rain down brimstone and fire upon your festering Sodom. And when you look, lo, the smoke from your life will rise up like the smoke from a furnace.
He then throws the switch, sending his body into violent convulsions. His eyes bulge, and his hands form unnatural claws. Blood trickles down his chin after he bites his tongue. It goes on for an excruciating ten seconds or so, his skin blackening around the metal head restraint. The heart monitor becomes a frenetic screech of trauma. Then the beeping abruptly stops. At this point, the juice must have cut off, since Billy’s body relaxes. Foamy mucus drips from his nose and mixes with the blood now freely coursing from his mouth.
The camera lingers on his still form and then cuts to black.
Blake brings up the lights, and the three of us sit looking at one another. I’m not altogether sure what I’ve been shown, so I just say, “I’m sorry.”
He sniffs. “Don’t be. It’s a fake. Our brother is extremely disturbed, and—”
“He needs help.” Blythe’s words are soft and almost without affect. I can see Blake framing a sarcastic reply, but some subtle detail of her posture must alert him to the fact that she’s holding back a reservoir of pain. His initially dismissive gesture blends into one of apology. He stares at her expectantly. I’m no longer in the room.
I clear my throat and ask, “Why do you say it’s fake?”
Blake looks away from his sister. He pulls up the video again. “It’s just his typical plug-head drivel.” He stands up and points to one of the monitors behind Billy.
It shows a 3D scene set in the courtyard of a ruined castle.
Blake says, “Watch this space when the heart monitor stops.” He plays the video, and sure enough, as Billy’s body slumps, an avatar modeled to resemble him slowly fades into the game world with a ghostly particle effect.
“He’s not dying. He’s just virtualizing himself. Which, at least for the moment, is science fiction. Ergo, this video is bullshit.”
“It certainly looks convincing.”
“He may have used real electricity. Maybe even harmed himself for the sake of realism. But we don’t believe Billy has the good grace to actually . . . Well, anyway, this is just another stupid shock-art project.” Blake grimaces at the rogue pun. “So to speak.”
“You know it’s more than that, Blake,” says Blythe.
“What do you mean?” I ask her.
“We can’t find him. It’s like he really has dematerialized.”
Blake adds, “His apartment is cleared out. None of his . . . associates have seen him in weeks. He hasn’t been at work. No financial transactions, cell phone calls. Nothing.”
“But you think he’s alive. He’s just”—I’m reaching here—“faked his own death? Why?”
“Why does someone like him do anything? He’s totally bug-fuck. I’m sorry, Blythe, but it’s true.”
“I understand that his work is, ah, on the dark side, but what makes you believe he’s actually crazy?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Blake starts ticking things off his fingers. “In the years since our differences over that first lawsuit, he’s sent me a ream of threatening emails. His work has become even more depraved. Recently he’s taken to getting himself arrested for petty outbursts.”
“But this feels like . . . a more significant departure. Like he’s planning to target Blake in some way,” Blythe continues. “That online world you see Billy enter is the ever-popular NOD. The only clue we have to his whereabouts is this place that doesn’t really exist.”
Blake says, “Ms. Mercer assures us your technical skills are top-notch. She also says you’ve had a number of assignments involving . . . undercover work.”
Blythe says, “We want you to find our brother. Before he really does harm himself. Or someone else.”
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