Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode two hundred and forty-one.
Tonight we present, The Strange Life and Death of Martha Mooney: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 1 of 1.
This week’s episodes are brought to you by Lifestyle Jazz.
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, ElleBow, a member of the Collective, leads us into the past.
The Strange Life and Death of Martha Mooney: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 1 of 1
On a rec room couch, in the depths of his parents’ basement, Kyle Kroc, KillerKrok, to his friends, was restlessly shaking his leg, and drumming on the worn brown cushions. Outside, a blazing June day went on without his approval. Despite his t-shirt, and his suggestion to the environmental controls that the suburban home ought to feel Antarctic, he was sweating. In truth, the sixteen-year-old had considered dressing up for the event, even though he didn’t have a video feed, but the heat had prevented him.
There was a blank screened laptop on the coffee table in front of him, but the black pair of headphones he was wearing were filled with the idle clamor of a half-dozen hotel suites and conference rooms. As he strained his ears, he could make out the echo of the speeches and announcements he’d muted on his own machine.
The headset had the ability to record, but he knew his clatter went unnoticed. He did not rate an open mic.
Although he was but an editor – an unpaid volunteer with the Collective – he considered the speaking on the call his employers. The board of directors had gathered to determine if their new public undertaking, despite careful consideration, could somehow damage the organization. All Kyle had discerned from their chatter, thus far, was that they felt the number of press people who’d accepted invitations and logged in was impressive, and raised the risk considerably.
It was well known throughout the hierarchy of contributors that the U.S. Government had never been pleased at the leaking of six years of complete Internet traffic records, and it was only the public’s own displeasure at having their activity snooped on, and then so carelessly divulged, which had kept the members of the Collective from being of interest to federal prosecutors. The group’s ability to solve otherwise forgotten crimes had gone a long way towards furthering that trust, and, now, the board hoped opening something akin to a digital museum tour might further boost that image.
The original idea had come from some forum newb, but Kyle had spearheaded the search for appropriate case studies, and he’d brainstormed many portions of the design document for the accompanying display. The tale of Martha and Samuel Mooney’s Facebook account had been one of the earliest proposed features, and, in his opinion, it remained the best of a strong collection.
His efforts had earned him the opportunity, alongside a dozen fellow editors, to be a ghost on the call.
Unknown to the board, however, KillerKrok had a more personal stake in the business: It was also the first day at a new job for his girlfriend of nearly two years, Eloise “ElleBow” Landry.
Their teenage passion for each other was rivaled only by their dedication to the archive, and, at her suggestion, he’d volunteered her name for the position. They’d both been pleased to learn those further up the food chain agreed she was a good choice.
The four continents, and seven rooms, worth of hushed commentary and insider questions came to a halt, and Kyle ceased his attempts at eavesdropping.
Elle’s avatar had appeared on his screen. The tour had begun.
It was a close, if cartoonish, match for her physical self, although her usual bobbed cut had become extravagantly spun into a web of hair. The boy wished he could be sitting at her kitchen table, watching her work the controls, but they’d agreed it wasn’t worth the risk to her bandwidth.
He adjusted the volume on the presentation, and pulled his laptop closer.
“- in March, of that year,” the electronic version of ElleBow was saying, in the clear, sweet, voice which had won her the job, “Martha and Samuel Mooney’s Facebook account was first activated.”
A square tile opened in the nothingness beside the girl, providing a visual representation of the website. In the upper corner, a white haired couple smiled into the camera. He was in a plain black t-shirt, and she in a blue hand-knit cardigan. They were both holding playing cards.
The guide raised her left arm, and another slate appeared, this time showing a poorly animated raptor being hand-fed by a pixelated rendering of an eccentric professor.
“Status updates were frequent, but the Mooney’s major preoccupation on the site seemed to be a casual game called Chrono Tender. C.T., as it was known to its fans, was a clone of other popular management simulations of the era. As the keeper of a time machine, it was your goal to harvest from a number of assets, while waiting out a clock to be allowed more moves.”
On the private line, one of the board members drawled, “you were right, Mel, about having someone younger than the audience doing the delivery.”
There were a few murmurs of agreement, but, to Kyle, most seemed focused on the presentation.
Elle stepped forward, and the action grew to fill the space behind her. The bespectacled time traveller mounted a cog-filled vehicle, found himself suddenly in the future, then deposited his recently obtained dinosaur eggs in a purple bin. Every click was a replica of movements made over a decade previous.
“As might be expected, the game encouraged group effort, and a large network of friends made obtaining bonuses considerably easier. Martha and Samuel became very social.”
Original designs for the project had called for a number of canned runthroughs of interesting happenings, but testing had found the content was much more compelling if displayed in an adaptable, organic fashion. The final result was the need for a guide with the skills of both a DJ, and a storyteller. As Elle demonstrated her mastery of each, Kyle could feel the tension easing from his shoulders. He stopped drumming.
The image backing Elle shattered into a kaleidoscope of views, each portraying encounters between the Mooney’s and a different player. Cracks formed, and the fragments subdivided into further meetings, until there were too many to differentiate, and all were too small to be seen. After a fade to black, only the narrator, and the square to her right, presenting the profile’s main page, remained. Though the smiling photo of the couple had not changed, the accompanying friend count was now hovering near five-thousand.
Without explanation, the girl opened a second frame on her left, which mirrored the size of the original. Instead of social interaction, the new display seemed preoccupied with highly-censored hardcore pornography and badly recorded war films.
Automatic filters applied distortion to the regularly-appearing graphic content, but there seemed to be – even to Kyle’s teenaged hormones – an unsettling amount of pink fuzz.
The grins on the right remained immobile as a time-lapsed flood of postings filled their page. Some asked after family and health, but most were requests for assistance with various game-related tasks.
The tour continued.
“After two months of compulsively maintaining acquaintance’s alternate universes, the Mooneys’ status updates took a dark turn. They spoke of a daughter addicted to meth, and of stolen possessions. Despite the betrayal, discussions defending her actions lasted for days.” Several improperly punctuated conversations came into view, hanging in the space above the representation of Elle’s head. Every thread seemed to end with a frowning emoticon. “Things grew worse. By July their car was missing, they’d been forced to hold off on filling Martha’s prescription for heart medicine, and pleas for prayer came regularly.”
Kyle had found himself so deeply engrossed in the explanation that he was startled when a new voice broke in over the feed. He’d missed the blinking signal indicating that one of the four hundred and sixty-seven other spectators was asking a question.
“Sorry to interrupt,” said a nasally disembodied male.
“It’s the Christian Science Monitor guy,” a director told the behind-the-scenes conference call. “Hopefully he’s not about to storm out because of the peep show on the left.”
Instead, the reporter asked, “were they spiritual?”
“A great question,” responded the web-haired girl, as the profile beside her pinched and widened to include a section inquiring after “Religious Views?”
The response was a capitalized YES.
In the opposing viewpane, John Rambo could be seen dispatching communists with gusto.
“If we move ahead another month,” Elle smoothly continued, “things have only grown worse. The Mooneys tell their friends that they are behind in mortgage payments for their house – that their access to the Internet, and the people they have come to love, will soon be lost. Within a week, though, the imminent disconnection was eclipsed by the announcement of the death, by overdose, of their daughter. Her loss was publicly lamented, as were the funeral costs – that is, when Martha and Samuel weren’t occupied selflessly saving Lincoln from assassination in other user’s Chrono Tender timelines.”
The profile picture flanking the girl changed, briefly, to an aged photo of a baby, and the accompanying comments were flooded with condolences. After a dramatic pause, to provide the audience an opportunity to read some of the deluge, the tale carried on.
“In December, Martha let slip that she’d been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. Samuel took to alternating outbursts of agonizing about, then praising, his dying wife. At one point he reported that she’d disappeared to Canada, apparently in a haze of medication. Still car-less, Samuel supplied a series of postings regarding the chase from Internet cafes along the bus routes. The good news that he’d found his wife was dampened by the need to request assistance in paying to get her back home. Therapeutic bills mounted. Many offered help, and many prayed, but in early February, the account’s information was changed from married, to widowed.”
Krok could only remember the outline, but he was sure the original hadn’t included the line about prayer. He hoped the inquiring journalist appreciated it.
A fresh update appeared, which read, “I couldn’t even afford a proper headstone.”
The competing panels grew, as did the words, and soon Elle appeared to be standing with a rounded foot on each.
“The last item published,” she said, while pivoting between the conflicting visualizations, “was an email address to which online-banking donations could be sent.”
Many questions, and game requests, continued to fill the profile, but no response came from the remaining Mooney.
“Though a month went by in silence, a certain user, Vicki Chen, was not ready to move on. She’d become sympathetic to the elderly couple’s plight, both emotionally, and financially.
“You see, Vicki had been providing assistance throughout Martha and Samuel’s troubles.” A heartfelt letter came into view, with an accompanying link to a five-hundred dollar donation. “In fact, by mining the archives, we have the advantage of knowing many truths Ms. Chen, and the rest of the Mooney’s connections, could not.”
The non-illicit frame filled with an explosion of message boxes, each asking a variation of “how much do you need?”
“One truth is the sheer volume of money being sent, privately, to the ailing pair. To avoid embarrassment, it went unmentioned publicly, of course, so each Samaritan thought they were the lone kind soul.”
The missives were replaced with banking information – and a steadily growing balance.
“Another truth we know is just what the Mooney’s system was doing while not Chrono Tending. In fact, you’ve seen it, although as a somewhat, uh, restrained version.” She waved an arm behind her, where two fuzzes were vigorously interacting. “Chen, was a widow herself, living in a large home, and apparently wanted to locate Samuel with a proposal to keep a roof over his head. The private investigator she hired was considerably more pragmatic, though.” The split screen became a single view – a slide show of news sites whose headlines involved a PI by the name of Mulligan Smith. “He sent three ploys. The first was a promise of cash, personalized as Ms. Chen, if Samuel would provide a physical mailing address to which it could be sent. He received no reply. The second was essentially the same, but with a larger sum, and requiring only limited banking information. There was still no answer.
“For the third, the detective asked a favour from a former client who made a living in the porn industry. A generic-looking bit of promotional spam offering free access to a month’s worth of unlimited flesh, with credit card information used simply for age verification, was sent and accepted.
“Within a day the promo code had been used, and, an hour after that, Smith knew the identity of Calvin Sweet, A.K.A. Samuel Mooney, A.K.A. Martha Mooney, A.K.A. a twenty-year-old high school drop out with an instinct for lying and a history of small cons.
“Sweet spent a year in court, and five in jail, for his crimes.”
A grainy CNN web-video summarizing the conviction now dominated the screen behind Elle.
“This completes the first portion of our presentation,” she announced. “Is there anything you want to ask before we open up the next case?”
There was a pause, in which Kyle heard failure for the project, then the news people flooded the stream with questions.
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