Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode one hundred and forty-seven.
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Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.
Tonight we return to the case of Morris Cox, a missing teen whose tale is being uncovered by the dedicated work of the men and women of the Collective Detective.
Flash Pulp 147 – Layers: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 2 of 3
Mike Donnell, thirty-five, woke suddenly from a brief nap, finding himself in the same chair he always occupied at 9:30, every Monday. Reaching for the brightly painted pencil-holder that his son, Theo, had given him when the boy was still only five, the tired office worker retrieved the dental mirror he kept on hand for just such situations. With steady fingers, he raised the device like a periscope, hoping to spot any lurkers who might have noticed his indiscretion. There were none.
Realizing he’d been holding his breath, he replaced the device amongst his collection of Bic pens, and punched his shift key to disengage the never-ending series of pipes that made up his screen-saver.
He hit refresh on his outlook.
He wiped some fluff off of his mouse’s laser.
He looked at the stack of medical documents he was supposed to be in the process of transcribing.
He decided it was a good time to get a fresh mug’s worth of coffee.
Before he stood, though, practiced habit brought him to open a new browser and direct it towards his true passion, the Collective Detective site. Logging in as GNDN, he was surprised to see a large red one – indicating a single major revision to be reviewed – awaiting him at the top of the page. Checking the date, he noted it was nearly two days old, and counted it as a personal travesty. He’d intended on checking in the day before, but Sunday dinner at the in-laws had run long and political, and he’d arrived home incapable of any greater brain-work than what might be necessary to stare at the Star Trek channel.
From the cubicle next to his own came an exclamation.
“Stinking clowns with their jumping monkeys!”
Vanessa, the woman who worked in the space which adjoined his own, was prone to loud, but never obscene, outbreaks. Donnell, now recalling what had awoken him from his snooze, thought he would mind less if she was better at her job.
He opted to get his coffee before digging into the new update.
It was tempting to moonwalk his way back to his cubicle, but he restrained himself. As an editor for the Collective, his greatest motivation lay in the surprises that lurked behind every new nuance that made up an article change. Most were minor; lists of known accounts, inconsequential biographical additions regarding the missing or murdered’s personal life, or details on associates. While all required at least a cursory editorial glance to ensure they were properly sourced and utilized the standardized format, encountering a modification deemed important enough to require confirmation as a major revision was rare. Despite the site’s constant reminders that inquiries should be treated with gravitas, such events usually made Mike feel like a kid on Christmas, about to unwrap a massive package from under the tree.
Settling into his creaking swivel chair, his joy was temporarily marred by another outcry from his office-neighbour.
“Sweet chili fries in a bucket of gravy!”
Squinting briefly, GNDN began reading the submission. The situation revolved around a lad by the name of Morris Cox, who’d gone missing and was presumed dead – all old information to the editor, who’d been keeping tabs on the case as one of the many he volunteered to oversee. A contributor, a fellow by the name of KillerKrok, had recently gotten serious with the investigation, opening several new secondary-articles, and doing much of the heavy lifting necessary in sorting through the years of wiretapped Internet traffic that the government had accidentally leaked to the public.
Skimming the details involving a best friend who’d eventually fallen away, and a love interest named Bailey, Donnell finally came to the highlighted information which he yearned for: Krok had discovered the password to an encrypted stream that Cox had used from a young age, until the month previous to his disappearance, but, for some reason, there were no further notes regarding the uncovered content. However, with the keyword, the name of Morris’ sweetheart, in mind, Mike collected up the required tools and began the decoding.
He’d managed to clear his desk of three of the medical forms before the decryption began to show results.
GNDN had spent the majority of his existence poking around the Internet, and was well acquainted with its tendencies. As such, his lifetime’s worth of assumptions found the first items to appear both familiar, and disappointing.
Donnell had seen similar images often; self-shot photos, taken using a bathroom mirror or with a single extended arm holding a cellphone camera, but, in this instance, all featured the missing in various states of undress. As the process worked itself backwards through the chronology of the portraits, Morris’ seemed to shrink in age, soon appearing not much older than Mike’s own son.
Attempting to shield his screen from the prying eyes of passers-by, he canceled the remainder of the conversion, and deleted the output. For legal reasons, it was rare to come across nudity within the context of the archives that made up the Collective’s backbone. Rather than be sued by any civilian who might find their name, and naughtiness, attached to a case, an algorithm usually stripped any excessively fleshy pictures from the publicly accessible portions of the site, making them only available upon special request, and after consideration by the council that made up the head of the distributed investigation effort.
Now that the hidden data had been uncovered, Mike knew he would have to elevate the offending portions so they might be properly contained. He re-opened the article for editing, and began to enter his conjecture.
“Pornographic content. Likely just the results of a teenage love-affair between Morris and Bailey.”
Even as he typed it, the feeling of something out of place tickled at the base of his skull. Before hitting send, he opened a second window and began to jump through Cox’s known information. The lack of detail regarding the boy’s paramour bothered him.
“Who are you?” Donnell muttered to himself, staring at the blank space in Bailey’s profile where a picture ought to be.
As he chewed away the excess nail on his right thumb, he had a moment of inspiration.
Restoring the content’s of his computer’s recycle bin, he squared his shoulders to block the view to his monitor, and began to rapidly flip through the bawdy images.
He bit the interior of his cheek as he realized his idea was confirmed. Although the boy had been free about uploading his snapshots, there were no returned favours from the elusive Bailey – an oddity for any hormonal teenage boy.
Fully abandoning the stack of paperwork which constituted his paid employment, GNDN cracked his fingers and began a furious trail of typing. The encrypted stream had been spoofed through a proxy, originally making it impossible to know where it had gone, but now that the secret had been broken, Mike was quick to follow up on the newly revealed IP address.
It was a long afternoon of tracking hunches and requesting data from the archive’s search engine, but, as closing time neared, and the cleaning staff began to move in to, as they quietly put it, swab out the monkey cages, Donnell found his answer.
The mysterious Bailey was no love-stricken teenage girl at the time of Cox’s disappearance – in fact, as GNDN stared at the gray-haired profile picture the man had posted on his infrequently trafficked blog, Mike guessed that the voyeur on the far-side of the illicit connection had been old enough to be Morris’ father.
“Big red monkey butts!” Vanessa shouted.
He could only agree.
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