Category: The Collective Detective

FP453 – Censors: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 3 of 3

Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode four hundred and fifty-three.

Flash PulpTonight we present Censors: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 3 of 3

[audio:]Download MP3
(Part 1Part 2Part 3)
(RSS / iTunes)


This week’s episodes are brought to you by The Melting Potcast!


Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.

Tonight we find ourselves again under the watchful eyes of the Diamond Dogs, as one online investigator brings a decades-old mystery into the future’s blinding light.


Censors: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 3 of 3

Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May


Maritza stood in the chaos of the shared kitchen, her feet curling back and forth across the chill linoleum. As the coffee maker gurgled out its replacement for sleep, her mind wandered over the details of her mother’s letter in an attempt to replace the brutality of the images she’d just witnessed.

Had the woman undertaken her research into the Collective Detective solely because she thought her daughter might help with the concerns that had lingered, nagging, at the back of her mind? Had she been waiting fifteen years for this opportunity?

No, it seemed more like her to have done the reading and research because she was concerned about the group her daughter was involving herself with, just as she had originally stated when Maritza had divulged the fact during a brief trip home, four months previous.

It had been her second visit in two years, and there hadn’t been much conversation between – yet the errant child now held a sneaking suspicion: That the instinct for concern that had caused her mother to sift through online reports, and yellowing news articles at the local library, was the same trait that had driven her to take on such miserable work to provide for her family in the first place.

FP453 – CENSORS: A COLLECTIVE DETECTIVE CHRONICLE, PART 3 OF 3She had accepted her daughter’s departure for schooling just as she had accepted her position policing junk shots: It was what was best for MarMar.

Standing in the hushed kitchen it struck the girl as strange that she might realize it all only now, when so far away and so out of touch.

Then the coffee maker beeped.

When again situated in front of her keyboard, Maritza cleared her head of personal concerns and attempted to reestablish the mantle of a detached collective contributor. Despite a persistent knot in her heart, it was not hard: She’d made amazing progress given the amount of time, and the next steps were tantalizing.

Stout James’ account information brought up a thick cloud of social media misuse, and, just as her mother had predicted, a brief history of his photos having been tagged as offensive by strangers who’d been in search of help with their brightly animated collection games.

Here, however, she hit a snag.

The apparent murderer had used a data anonymizer to connect to the site, and, while it was an old form whose techniques had since been decrypted, the amount of computing power required to decode the stream would mean submitting a ticket for priority to the Collective as a whole.

While she had followed the usual protocols – opening a fresh stub for the case and updating it with her findings as she progressed – she had found herself unusually protective of her search, and had operated in such a way as to hopefully draw no attention from her fellow detectives unless someone was bored and creeping the change logs.

Inspiration hit as she weighed her options and scrolled, unthinkingly, through the timeline of filth. It was not the nastiness of the photo that drew her attention, but, instead, its normalcy.

Here was an ebon-haired woman of perhaps forty, her carefully pinned locks and flowing purple dress, with simple yellow shawl, indicating the picture had been taken at some sort of formal event. She was flashing a broad grin and her left hand held a tall glass of champagne – there was something, though, in the way her right shoulder was cut short that left MarMar with the impression that perhaps there was a memory she had cropped out in an attempt to forget; That perhaps a good photo was too rare to waste despite the ex-husband or boyfriend who had once stood beside her.

On a whim, and without stopping her mind’s juggling of how to approach the problem of Stout James’ encryption, she slipped the image into another search.

The smile was not unique. The portrait had, at a time, been spread as widely as her mourning family might take it, and the missing woman, Callie Meadows, had apparently been beloved by all but the men in her life.

Pleas for information led to a social media account, now a memorial, and a history of data provided by Callie herself. Again Maritza began chipping at the stone that surrounded the history of the assumed-dead woman, and the trail she had left across the internet of her era. It was easy enough to find an end date – the day Callie had been last seen was well recorded – but when to begin was a fuzzier notion. To be sure, MarMar settled on a window that extended out a year before the woman’s disappearance.

The logs turned up a not-entirely-surprising link: Ms. Meadows had been active, shortly before vanishing, on, a dating website. The image remained, in fact, her long abandoned profile picture even now.

MarMar’s probing fingers dug deeper, recovering the records of her interactions and compiling a list of possible paramours. The connection seemed too strong to be coincidence, and she swept the rest of the data from her search like so much marble dust.

A list of five names remained, and, among them, only one James: Her second last accepted invitation out, if her private messaging – no longer private – was any indication.

If necessary Maritza determined she could track down the woman’s cellphone records and be sure, but she did not think it would be so. Instead she plucked at this new thread, crawling backwards into the profile, and inbox, of one James Pitts.

Again she discovered his location was unable to be tracked to its root – the same anonymizer having been used to interface with the dating service as had been used to hide his identity from social media snoopers – but she had full access to the user in question, and she was beginning to suspect that might be enough.

Here were missives to a dozen suitors, and, as MarMar tracked each name, a dozen missing women.

She sat staring, with slow blinks, at her screen. Should the people have noticed? Their software hadn’t been designed to track serial killers, and James had left a buffer between his arranged outings and the women’s actual disappearance – the dates listed in public police databases often indicated up to three or four weeks later.

Yet the matches were far too consistent to be any sort of fluke.

Now she submitted her request for a larger share of the collective’s processing power: Decrypting the address behind the account would lead her to him, and if anyone else noticed at this point they’d only be watching her cross the finish line.

Maritza was exhausted. Her knees ached from her cross-legged position, and she’d had to lower the Thin White Duke to a whisper as even her ears felt tender. Despite her fatigue, however, she found she was furious. Furious that this man had gotten away with his crimes for so long, furious that he’d exposed her mother – HER NANAY – to his handiwork, furious that the elder Mercado had been forced to undertake such work to support her, furious that she hadn’t understood her mother was more than just a robot programmed to nurture until just then.

Visions of SWAT teams danced in her head: Men the size of small buses battering their way through the crumbling door of some distant farmhouse, assault rifles raised and barrel-mounted flashlights piercing the musty darkness beyond. Stout James would no doubt be in his living room, sitting in an old chair, waiting. She began to hope he’d resist.

She could not say where her daydreams ended and her actual slumber began, but the late hour worked to her advantage in at least one aspect. More than half of the Collective’s users were North American, and even the night owls among them had long dragged themselves to bed or nodded off at their keyboards. Even as Maritza snored, curled beside the laptop she’d given more room on her futon than herself, her request rocketed through the processing system.

An editor by the name of DarshBoard spotted it first, having returned from a long lunch with a sack of samosas he’d intended on nibbling through while ignoring, at least for one more afternoon, the code review his boss had ordered.

Suddenly finding something more interesting to fill his time, he granted the requested fastlane access and opened his messaging app. KabirToss was going to want to hear about this.

An hour later Maritza’s body surrendered its game of Rock, Paper, Scissors: Sleep had briefly beaten coffee, but bladder had, in turn, overwhelmed sleep.

Stumbling to and from the bathroom, she lifted the laptop from her mattress and prepared for a more expansive collapse. It did not come when her eyes landed upon the rapidly bubbling number atop her message queue, and the red text that indicated her inquiry had already been completed.

Refreshing the case stub she found her simple notes had been clarified and expanded upon by a dozen fellow detectives.

She discovered she was right about one thing: James had in fact lived on a farm. A quick map search determined it was nothing more than a ruin, abandoned for almost a decade..

Still, the general consensus was that, given the lack of bodies found in relation to the missing women, some evidence was likely to be had from the plot’s fertile earth, and DNA likely lingered in its carpets.

Yet there would be no SWAT teams. The local news had reported James death some seven years previous, a prostitute having stabbed him in apparent self-defense.

Again Maritza was left to blink at her screen – then she reached for her phone.

“Musta,” came the distant answer.

She’d intended on some sort of – well, not speech, but at least something like an apology. A statement of her new understanding. Something witty and maybe a bit touching, but too much had happened in too short a period, and exhaustion had worn her nerves to snapping.

Her mouth began to move with little influence from her brain. “I – I came so close, I almost got him. I mean, I did find him, I found Thick Jim, or Stout James, or whatever you want to call him, but he’s dead. He killed those ladies, just like you thought, and more, but he’s dead and I didn’t get there in time. We didn’t get there in time.”

There was a pause on the line, a combination of mental processing and the delay of distance, then her mother replied, “but you will be able to call their families? Call their Nanays, if they still live, and let them know for certain who and what happened to their daughters?”

“I think so.”

Another pause.

“Sometimes a warm word and a little closure is enough. It is good to hear your voice.”

“Yeah,” replied MarMar, “it’s good to hear yours too.”


Flash Pulp is presented by, and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Intro and outro work provided by Jay Langejans of The New Fiction Writers podcast. credits:

Text and audio commentaries can be sent to – but be aware that it may appear in the FlashCast.

– and thanks to you, for reading. If you enjoyed the story, tell your friends.

FP452 – Censors: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 2 of 3

Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode four hundred and fifty-two.

Flash PulpTonight we present Censors: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 2 of 3

[audio:]Download MP3
(Part 1Part 2Part 3)
(RSS / iTunes)


This week’s episodes are brought to you by The Melting Potcast!


Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.

Tonight we re-join one of the Collective’s investigators, Maritza “MarMar” Mercado, follows a too-bloody, too-naked, trail of digital breadcrumbs.


Censors: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 2 of 3

Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May


Staring down the gray boxes of the Collective Detective’s sprawling archive, Maritza considered what she knew: The company her mother had worked for, AssignMe, and the brief window of two months in which she had been employed.

It wasn’t much to go on, but “solving mysteries with no more than a ghost’s whisper is what the Collective does,” was a regular refrain from her friend and fellow contributor, Harrisment, and she knew a witness statement was far more than most cases they undertook began with.

Besides, it wasn’t a lack that was generally the problem: She considered working with the Collective like being a marble sculptor – the shape of the solution lay in the data, but it was up to her to shave away the excess surrounding it.

She started, as always, with every bit of traffic transmitted across the NSA’s snoop servers over the course of several years.

Adjusting her timeline to cover the summer in question, MarMar did a simple search for the company’s website traffic. The engine began to chug away, retrieving logs and doing its best to feed it back to her via interfaces that would help make some sense of the flood. Webpages were a well-maintained protocol among the collective’s users, but she knew if the management system the company had used was custom she might be bogged down in having to reverse engineer the software necessary to display the stream of information.

Casting a hopeful glance at Ziggy Stardust, pinned on poster paper to her wall, she rummaged in her desk drawer for a piece of gum and ignored the possibility of tedium on the horizon.

The site provided email addresses – another protocol the project easily understood, its unencrypted nature making it especially easy to track. Attached to the requests for time off, excuses for late arrivals, and complaints regarding broken vending machines was the IP data for the facility. From there it took very little prodding to block out a decent range that encompassed everything traveling the company’s wires.

She exhaled with a grin: The interface AssignMe had used to filter and tag offenders was all web-based, and, better yet, included individual usernames that were automatically rolled over into timesheets to determine how much the operators were owed on payday.

There were dozens of Mercados in the database, but only one Alaiza whose records began and abruptly ended during the window in question.

There was no result for a Thick Jim, however.

Again MarMar narrowed her search, this time coming back with what her mind considered a single unbroken thread of data.

Here her work truly began. She could not ask the computer to filter the job further, she would have to flip through the feed and identify the clues by hand.

Still, it was a filthy river to be fishing in. College could be a lonely place, and she was not unacquainted with the occasional naughty picture, but the depths of depravity that unwound themselves from her laptop’s too-bright screen left her wanting another shower and a walk along empty streets.

Six hours into her scrolling, with her bladder in increasing need of a break and her brain demanding coffee, she came across the image. It was not the first photograph mentioned in her mother’s letter – perhaps she’d blinked in her endless examination and somehow missed it. Here, instead, was the white chair, just as it had been described, and the axe handle apparently propping up the anonymous woman whose purple flank was turned away from the camera but all too visible against the gray pallor of her naked flesh.

FP452 - Censors: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 2 of 3The name associated with the account was not Thick Jim, but Maritza’s time with the Collective had taught her that such tricks of memory were common. If anything, it was impressive that her mother, fifteen years after the incident, had retained Stout James as Thick Jim.

That info brought up the shot she’d missed, and the one she had yet to reach. Having chiseled out the final nuggets, she almost regretted her success. She could understand how the first portrait had been missed: Its oddities were obvious to her, but only in retrospect, which, if she were honest, actually bolstered her respect of her mother’s perceptive nature. All too often it had worked against her during her youthful days of mischief, but now she realized the woman might have a knack for work among her fellow detectives.

The final photo – the red and ragged form that had eventually led to Stout James’ account closing – was the sort of thing she might now assume was a still from some too-realistic horror film, some piece of gore porn circulated via online streaming rentals and listed alongside the Saw or Human Centipede movies under a title like “20 Genuinely Upsetting Cult Classics.”

As unnerving as it was, however, it was the next phase that flushed MarMar’s sense of victory, replacing it instead with goosebumps across her forearms and a chill along her spine.

Somehow she’d hoped that it WAS in fact a screen-grab from some strange film, or some project by a special effects artist whose work had gotten out of hand – perhaps, even, some random weirdness passed between fetishists visiting sketchy forums. There was nothing on the internet, especially nothing fifteen years old, that remained unique. Any image, once uploaded and left to settle, would likely blossom into a hundred copies strewn across servers by, at the least, spambots and inexplicable enthusiasts.

Yet this trio of pictures, as exposed and lurid as they were, returned no results in a search for duplicates – had, in fact, no matches across the history of the entirety of the operating network as far as she could tell.

These were no fakes, these were no mock-ups. Her mother’s intuition had been correct, and now the daughter was left to consider the consequences.

She stood, gave Ziggy a nod, and shuffled towards the coffee grinder with heavy feet and a heavier head.


Flash Pulp is presented by, and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Intro and outro work provided by Jay Langejans of The New Fiction Writers podcast. credits:

Text and audio commentaries can be sent to – but be aware that it may appear in the FlashCast.

– and thanks to you, for reading. If you enjoyed the story, tell your friends.

FP451 – Censors: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 1 of 3

Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode four hundred and fifty-one.

Flash PulpTonight we present Censors: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 1 of 3

[audio:]Download MP3
(Part 1Part 2Part 3)
(RSS / iTunes)


This week’s episodes are brought to you by The Melting Potcast!


Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.

Tonight we join a prodigal daughter – but one member of the loose collection of electronic investigators that make up the Collective Detective – as she stands at the edge of a number of digital graves.


Censors: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 1 of 3

Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May


The letter arrived on a Wednesday but Maritza didn’t realize till Friday afternoon, when she found herself with a few moments to sift the dunes of junk mail and bills that had accumulated on the living room table. It was July, so there was little reason for the seven students who split rent on the rambling three-story-house to be discriminating about the flow: Come September careful sorting would again fall into place, to avoid the loss of loan payments or tuition receipts, but for now the envelopes simply collected like paper snow, to be examined only if you, say, happened to be waiting for someone to get out of the shower, and to be likely shoveled into the recycling tub at the next sign of an approaching party.

In some ways the missive was no surprise at all: Putting pen on paper was typical of the elder Mercado. They’d feuded over calls – Maritza had tried to make clear she was fine with texting, email, or even social media interactions, but speaking into the telephone felt ancient and off-putting to the computer science major. It was otherwise always serious people who wanted to talk to her on the phone, people she owed money to generally, and so she’d been slowly trained into being adverse to using its voice functions.

Besides, she was better in writing – funnier, wittier, more able to express how she felt. Yet her mother, equally stubborn, refused to engage on a technical level.

Maritza’s frustration had only grown in the two years since she’d left home. The distance and cost were too great to justify moving back for the summer months, so she’d found a local job and declared her back-bedroom futon her sole haven. Since then communication with her stone-faced mother had become increasingly infrequent, and irritating, and it had been easier to simply let the gaps between attempts widen.

There had perhaps been some distractions along the way as well: Two brief relationships, one with a housemate who’d dramatically departed the residence after her first semester of classes, and another with an arts student who’d talked a better game than he’d been able to maintain. Largely, however, her non-academic attentions had been absorbed by a project she’d originally encountered through her data structures professor.

Since that conversation outside her lecture hall the Collective Detective archive had kept her awake and wearing dirty sweat pants on more occasions than she was willing to admit, and her assistance on several stubs had earned her a welcome spot on most open files.

What caught Maritza off guard about the letter was that it was on the very topic that had consumed so many of her waking hours.

“MarMar,” it opened, and the first three blocks of tight-packed fine-tipped writing that followed outlined a number of things that her daughter already knew: That the collective’s massive archive was the result of an accidental government leak of every internet interaction that had passed across the United States’ lines in the years of wiretapping the NSA had undertaken of its own people. She even went so far as to highlight a number of cases she had read about, though Maritza hadn’t been involved in any of them.

Despite the interest in her area of fascination, the girl couldn’t help but feel vaguely annoyed that her mother hadn’t simply emailed her all of this if she’d apparently been spending hours online reading up on the organization anyhow.

Then the bathroom door opened, and the letter was lost in her flannel pajama bottoms’ deep right pocket.

It was twelve hours later, as she was gladly abandoning her blue work shirt and khaki pants on the floor of her bedroom, that the pages again crossed her mind. Pulling on an already-coffee-blotted Labyrinth t-shirt, Maritza flipped open her laptop.

Selecting the icon that would bring her to her Collective Detective login, she punched out the letters of her username with a distracted forefinger – MarMar – even as she scanned the corners of her room for her discarded PJ pants.

They’d landed in a ball beside her desk. With a trio of deft clicks she started playing Bowie’s Diamond Dogs, an album she’d been strangely obsessed with over the last week, then she retrieved the feat of penmanship.

MarMar, I have been doing some reading, blah, blah, blah – and then it launched into a story she’d never heard before.

Apparently her mother, broke and raising her daughter while awaiting the return of her husband from a money-making venture overseas, had once briefly found work in the most unexpected of areas: Online. A school friend had been recruited for a company that acted as both police and waste management for a number of popular social media networks. If someone reported an inappropriate image or post it was they who would swoop in, absorb the awfulness, and determine what action should be taken – mostly to ignore or remove it.

The job itself sounded miserable, but the pay was better than most local, legal, professions.

The Collective Detective: A Skinner Co. PodcastSo it was that, when her friend, who’d paused at the gate while walking back from her air-conditioned cubicle, had offered to put in a good word, Maritza’s mother had lept at the opportunity.

She’d drowned in the filth of the world for two months, then quit.

Until this point the text was full of her mother’s usual authoritative tone. This was not a personal conversation, it was a history teacher providing a lecture to her student. Here, however, her words softened and she caught Maritza again off guard: She asked for help.

The woman had spent hours a day scrubbing the internet of soft or hard human anatomy being pleasured or abused in turns; she’d seen porn, pain, and penises inserted into every household object a desperate individual with a phone camera might pull from a closet.

Yet what had truly upset her most were three specific images, all, she believed, taken by the same man.

The first had simply been vulgar. A naked woman shot from neck to knees, her hand set provocatively in her lap as she sat in a large white chair. There was something about her skin tone, however, so gray in its shade, seeming so cold against the ivory cushions, that caught her eye.

Over her shoulders stood a few tantalizing clues as to the setting in which the photo had been taken: A bottle of Jack Daniels sitting on top of a cheap TV stand to her left, and to her right – was that an axe? And, upon closer inspection, was that blood speckled on her shoulder?

Time was not her ally in her inspection. She’d already spent too long analyzing what her manager would consider a simple case. The user would be issued a warning, the image automatically removed. It was his first offense, no further action was warranted.

Still, the speckle of crimson had nagged at her. As she’d moused to the dialog that would carry out her judgement, and bring up the next nugget of smut or gore for consideration, she’d noted the username: Thick Jim – then the next junk in a kitchen appliance arrived.

It was a month before the name popped up again attached to another grainy photo from a too-dark room, again set in the same white chair. This one had her legs crossed, and her body was turned as if to show off her surgeon’s implant work.

The mother did not fully understand why Thick Jim’s snapshot had planted a hook in her mind, but she’d thought on the original photo more than once while little else in her universe of muck had stuck.

The brunette – her face didn’t show, but her hair fell across her shoulders in great brown loops – seemed almost too at ease, as if she might melt out of the chair entirely. A tattoo on her left shoulder, a bird or perhaps stars – the aging witness could not quite recall – drew her eyes to the portion of the woman’s rib cage furthest from the camera. Was that a shadow or a vast purple bruise? Then her gaze clarified the shape that ran beside chair and woman: The same ax she’d seen in the background of the previous photo, now seeming to act as crutch beneath the woman’s shoulder.

Except it did not seem she had settled her weight naturally against the handle – it reminded the viewer, more than anything, of the planks her neighbour had set in place to slow the collapse of his tilting fence.

She wrote the name, Thick Jim, down, and tagged the photo as containing possible criminal activity. A quick check of his history showed that he had been a regular offender since their first encounter, each incident apparently reported by a user whose profile fell into the general frame of “busy body who made friends with random people on the internet so that they might assist them in collecting 10 goats for AgriCity.

Perhaps it was this that had allowed him to slip by without a ban, instead having each picture taken down in turn.

On her third interaction – her final interaction – his account was officially closed. She’d tagged his name to be forwarded to her should it come up again, and had been keeping a careful eye on the stacks of scrolling names. Watching specific people in the crowd was a practice strictly against company policy, which dictated all review procedures be more or less between strangers, yet the habit of such snooping was unofficially maintained by every gossipy grandmother and jealous boyfriend in the building.

There were few other perks to the endless grind of sexual organs, mutilated animals, and penetrated flesh.

There was no doubt of the violence in the last image. It was, in fact, only difficult to tell where exactly the organs splayed across the room had come from. There was the same cheap TV stand, now slick with blood, and though it did not seem to be the same Jack Daniels there, too, was a shattered bottle neck, its jagged end clogged with meat and what Maritza’s mother suspected to be organs.

As the story unfolded the writing had lost its rigid form, becoming increasingly slanted as if its author hoped to outrun the unpleasant conclusion she had come to. There had been plenty of incidents in Maritza’s youth – stained clothes, school fights, lagging grades – over which the woman had criticized extensively, but, even as text, this was the closest her daughter had ever seen to her growing truly upset.

This terrible momentum continued throughout her conclusion: Vomiting into the garbage can at her desk, the weight of the job and everything she’d seen seeming to suddenly come up with that morning’s eggs. Demanding the account be banned and the police informed, and standing over her manager’s shoulder as he’d okayed the request, then the brief joy of quitting before the weight of not knowing had finally settled over her.

She had read a lot about this new project her daughter seemed so excited about, but now she needed to know something she had wondered for twenty years: Had Thick Jim, as she suspected, been a serial killer? Had he been stopped? Years of watching the news for some mention had left her with no satisfying answer.

Could her estranged offspring do anything to solve these lingering mysteries?

As she concluded her reading and allowed the sheets to return to their natural fold lines, Maritza replied, to her empty room, “yes, yes I can,” then she pressed enter to complete her – until then forgotten – connection to the archive.


Flash Pulp is presented by, and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Intro and outro work provided by Jay Langejans of The New Fiction Writers podcast. credits:

Text and audio commentaries can be sent to – but be aware that it may appear in the FlashCast.

– and thanks to you, for reading. If you enjoyed the story, tell your friends.

FP385 – Spawn: A Collective Detective Chronicle

Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode three hundred and eighty-five.

Flash PulpTonight we present Spawn: A Collective Detective Chronicle
[audio:]Download MP3

(RSS / iTunes)


This week’s episodes are brought to you by Every Photo Tells…


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 bring you a tale of the Collective Detective, the loose band of online detectives who mine the depths of the accidentally leaked NSA archives to solve long cold crimes. In this episode we find Bug Byte, editor and film buff, taking in a digital ghost story.


Spawn: A Collective Detective Chronicle

Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May


Bug Byte was in the darkness of his home office, watching a subtitled French mystery movie and thinking on how fantastically cultured he was for doing so, when the bing came in. As his main machine was occupied with streaming the film, he slapped the shift key on his laptop till its screen saver surrendered his notification list.

Once his eyes adjusted to the glare of the white display, he discovered one of the new contributors had been busy. In just thirty minutes the newb had made a dozen large additions to a case Bug had considered dead in the water since the day it’d been created. Two clicks revealed it was the only entry Doubting Charlie had ever worked on.

“Eat deathray, spambot,” said the editor, but the black and white Frenchman in the fedora didn’t seem to get it.

Before Bug pulled up the tools to destroy the apparently fake user and its efforts, however, he took a moment to scan the text to determine if he might find a clue to help the developers tighten their filters.

Instead he was surprised to discover a ghost story still in the process of being told.

“You don’t need to hit publish constantly, the system saves a draft under your user files,” he wrote in the discussion page. Flagging the conversation into his high-priority queue, Bug sent the detective in the well-cut suit into reverse and watched the missed conversation flicker over the edge of a half-drank scotch.

Before he could set the sleuth back into action, a reply boop ricocheted from the speakers to his left.

Leaving the image of the enquêteur privé with his glass hovering before his lips, Bug read the short response: “Thanks.”

With the play button under his thumb, the editor shook his head and decided to quickly review the tale from the beginning.

“When I was thirteen I met this guy from the apartment building I lived in who also played Realms of Fantasy. At the time Realms was huge online because of the way real money was flowing through it, but Alexander Bottin was the sole person I knew who played. He was way older than me, twenty maybe, and sort of a jerk, but we usually had a lot of decent tips to swap, and I gotta admit that I felt like a badass having a common interest with a twenty-year-old.

“I only learned Alexander played because I’d been trapped in the elevator with his uncle and him. I always hit the close button when I saw that monster coming down the hall because he smells like shit. I don’t mean that as a metaphor either, he smells like actual human feces. Anyhow, as they came in Alex was talking about how he’d looted Shatter Tooth.

“Tooth was a high powered war hammer that, back then, you could sell for five or six hundred dollars on eBay.

“His uncle coughed and said, “shut the fuck up.” He didn’t care, but when I saw my fellow gamer later that week I got his username and told him about Sharlor, my healer. I admitted I was impressed that he’d scored his hammer, and he seemed impressed that Sharlor was two levels higher than his warrior, Chaney.

“It’s funny, because I still think of him more as Chaney than Alexander.

“Now, I don’t want to make it sound like we were constantly chummy and hanging out. Alex had this thing he’d do where he’d like grab my nose with one hand then bop it with the other and that was hella annoying. He was that guy who doesn’t understand how to make conversation so he’s awkward and kind of dickish instead, I guess.

“I was hard up for friends, but not that hard up. If I saw him in the mail area we’d chat over the latest expansion or where the good loot was dropping, but that was it – and, even then, half the time his uncle was there. I totally avoided him when that happened.

“I never learned his uncle’s name. He was a bent tree of an old man who always wore an over-sized floppy hat and huge dark glasses. Beyond that he was so ancient he’d aged into looking like a stereotype. Sort of like the angriest Popeye, but without the forearms.

“Worse, if he didn’t think anyone was watching, and Alexander pissed him off by dropping a flyer or something, he’d lay his cane as hard as he could across his calves. Chaney never wore shorts even during the warmest parts of summer.

“I remember that especially because it was August, and I was fourteen, when he died.

“He’d just found the Blade of Earth Cleaving and he was constantly bragging. If I’d found a sword worth three or four thousand dollars maybe I’d act the same.

Tonight we bring you a tale of the Collective Detective, the loose band of online detectives who mine the depths of the accidentally leaked NSA archives to solve long cold crimes. In this episode we find Bug Byte, editor and film buff, taking in a digital ghost story.“Honestly, by then I was sort of getting interested in other things, but Mom had seen me wave when we passed him so she told me the news going around the building: They’d taken Alex out on a stretcher earlier that week. He’d apparently fallen down the fire stairs and snapped his neck.

“I knew that was bullshit though. I knew he’d been murdered by his uncle. The Saturday before -”

Bug Byte frowned at the sudden conclusion.

With a sigh he reminded himself that he had two hours till he was due at work, and that his movie wasn’t going to watch itself. Still, he waited out the five minute autosave until he could continue.

“I knew that was bullshit though. I knew he’d been murdered by his uncle. The Saturday before the supposed accident I’d seen him in the mailroom with some special effects stuff he’d bought online. That was his other big hobby – he wanted to be a makeup guy in movies. Usually when he got new blood to try, or a prop knife, or whatever he was really excited about it, but this time it was like he was looking through the box. When I found him staring like that, I asked if everything was okay. He almost started crying, but he acted like he was suddenly fascinated by the address label. He said his uncle was insanely angry with him lately and he didn’t know if he’d be able to survive it much longer.

“The whole thing hit deep. I told Mom I was too sick to go to school the next day and spent my afternoon crying and wandering Realms. We’d never really played together, but we’d traded gear a few times, and, well, like I said, I was fourteen.

“I was hanging around the Silent Meadow, which is where we usually met because it was easy to access but almost always empty, when I saw him.

“He ran through the tall grass and permanent soft lighting, stop-”

This time Bug felt a need to fill the gap till the next save. Digging his well practiced hooks into the depths of the Collective’s archive crawling tools, he summoned the online memories of Alexander Bottin and his Realms of Fantasy account. The code to mine video games for data was in deep beta, but at least it was a start.

Then the update arrived.

“He ran through the tall grass and permanent soft lighting, stopped for two seconds in front of a dwarf, and they both disappeared.

“I exploded. At first I thought Mom had been wrong, and I ran down the two floors to his place.

“I’d never visited, but I figured he was in there playing and I was ridiculously happy to realize how wrong I’d been. It was the uncle who answered, though, and he didn’t bother taking off the security chain. I asked for Alex but he simply snarled and slammed the door.

“The next day, when I got back from school, I noticed a sign advertising a used computer taped to the laundry room wall. The address for inquiries was Chaney’s.

“I called the cops once, but nothing came of it.

“He’s got to be well over a hundred now, but whenever I visit Mom I purposefully go out of my way to pass Bottin’s. I haven’t seen him in years, but he’s in there. I think about saying something every time, but it’s always like it’s suddenly a decade ago and I’m just thirteen.

“I believe that miserable SOB murdered his nephew and managed to sell his gear, but I’ve never had any idea on how to look into it. Tonight I got a little drunk, and maybe a little nostalgic for the lands of my youth, so I did some searching around and it seems you’ve got a file here for Alexander Bottin, but it says he’s -”

Rarely did the Collective receive first hand testimony, but Bug had been an editor long enough to know not to trust anything that wasn’t straight from the archives.

It was even rarer that an answer was in hand before the relevant entries were even updated.

Bug Byte’s search chimed with results.

Opening the discussion page, he began to compose his response.

“You’ve waited this long, I suppose I shouldn’t keep you in suspense:

“Yes, Alexander Bottin is listed as a missing person, not a murder case. The police talked to his uncle once after an anonymous phone tip was made, but he claimed that Alex had run off. Given his age, if the cops hadn’t been as bored as they were they probably wouldn’t have opened the file at all.

“The dwarf was a guy named Richard Smyth, but both players were connected from the same address – Alexander’s modem.

“Interestingly, a search of that modem’s traffic shows that Uncle Bottin also signed up to handle all of his banking online that very week, a day after he ordered a new computer.

“Looking back a couple weeks at the local data, I see that the same IP made an order from an online prop house. Are you familiar with ultra-realistic silicone masks? They were just getting started back then, and FX guys were huge into them. Generic Old Man was one of the most popular models.

“I suspect Uncle Bottin’s Popeye style means he had no teeth, so, after murdering him, Alex probably left the body in an alley somewhere and the city hauled it off as an unidentifiable homeless John Doe. Then all he had to do was pull on the old guy mask and spread the rumour that he’d died so people would stop asking questions.

“He might’ve gotten away with it too if you hadn’t seen his digital ghost. I do wonder if he’s found life in that apartment, collecting his dead Uncle’s benefits checks, a special prison of its own though.

“Of course, that’s all guessing, but it should be easy to knock hard enough to pinch the geezer’s nose and see if it stretches.

“I’m a twenty minute bus ride away – care to mount up for one last adventure, priest?”

Nodding to himself, Bug sent the Frenchman into hibernate and hit send.

He didn’t have to wait long for a reply, but he was happy to see his efforts to sound sick, as he called in to work, weren’t wasted.

It was not, however, the last adventure for either.


Flash Pulp is presented by, and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Intro and outro work provided by Jay Langejans of The New Fiction Writers podcast. credits:

Text and audio commentaries can be sent to – but be aware that it may appear in the FlashCast.

– and thanks to you, for reading. If you enjoyed the story, tell your friends.

FP316 – Under Wraps: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 1 of 1

Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode three hundred and sixteen.

Flash PulpTonight we present Under Wraps: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 1 of 1
[audio:]Download MP3
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This week’s episodes are brought to you by

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, a member of our band of online detectives finishes his search through the databases made available by leaked Bush-era Internet wiretapping, and arrives at some unpleasant, and homicidal, conclusions.

Under Wraps: a Collective Detective Chronicle

Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May

Skinner Co.4:33 AM

Private Chat Opened.

RottenDane> Hey?

4:36 AM

RottenDane> You up?


RottenDane> I’m going to call if you don’t answer in 5 minutes.


Harrisment > You said five minutes, but that was two, at most.

RottenDane> You were sleeping anyway, what does it matter to you?

Harrisment > It would have been another three minutes of unconsciousness. That might have been enough to save your life if this isn’t incredibly important.

RottenDane> Oh, it is.

RottenDane> I’ve cracked one!

Harrisment> Great. Make an omelet and call me back in the morning.

RottenDane> Ha. Ha.

Harrisment> Fine, but tell me quickly, I can still hear my pillow calling my name.

RottenDane> A week ago I was flipping through the cold case file, pulling up randoms, and I found a stub someone had started for a missing person. It looked like they’d tracked down his iPod traffic from his home network, but hadn’t poked too deeply from there. Hell, some of the info that WAS logged, I would later find out, was actually wrong. Very amateur stuff.

Harrisment> Well, you DO know amateur stuff.

Rotten Dane> It wasn’t much to go on, so I took a step back and tried to fill out a wider picture. Digging through the parents’ Facebook stuff made it pretty clear that the Dad was deeply religious and the Mom was a hypochondriac. The sort of folks with plastic on the couch, I imagine. I doubt James Robert Russell, the kid, was even picking his own clothes – at least, if the newspaper photos were any indication.

Harrisment> How old are we talking here?

RottenDane> Fourteen. Old enough to want to rebel, but not old enough to do it properly.

Harrisment> OK. Why was he so popular as to be in the local paper after he went missing?

RottenDane> Well, Mom and Pop Russell were pillars of the community – well funded pillars. They sold Hondas at a string of five conveniently located dealerships just off I-95. I dunno, maybe they were so religious and paranoid because they were in the business of screwing people. Everything I’ve read from Dad’s emails indicates that his son wasn’t allowed to go to dances, movie theaters, or malls. Mr. R also managed to disable most of the useful parts of his son’s iPod – or the bits that would have allowed him some outside communication, anyway.

RottenDane> He was worried Satan might friend junior on Facebook, I guess.

RottenDane> Baby Russell’s social interactions were generally limited to classroom hours and his Uncle Dwayne’s Sunday dinner visits.

Harrisment> Is this going to turn out to be a homicidal parental? Or is it a suicide? Weird things grow when people are left that much in the dark.

RottenDane> You’re closer than you think, but, no. They may have been stiff, but it was obvious in their interviews that both parents loved James Robert deeply until they died in a Civic that they probably sold themselves. Header with a sleepy transport driver.

RottenDane> They did always refer to him as James Robert though.

Harrisment> Huh.

RottenDane> Now, that’s not to say that JR was without his rebellious side. He smoked – well, at lunch and break – and he snuck a game through his Dad’s filter: A shooter called Fox Blisters. He played it online with his best friend, Zachary, also known as ZachAttack92.

RottenDane> The smoking part came up because of the theory that James Robert had been kidnapped outside the school – lit cigarettes weren’t permitted on the property and it was one of the few times he was regularly alone.

RottenDane> The ransom demands arrived soon after JR’s disappearance. There were three in total, sent to different dealerships each time. The first demanded a million dollars, the second was a warning that the drop location would be forwarded in twenty-four hours, and the last was basically just where to do so. I have PDF copies of the scans, all from the Russells’ private inboxes.

RottenDane> The letters didn’t give any clues though, as far as I can tell, and papers report that the money was left on the bench as instructed, but nobody came to get it.

RottenDane> This all happened over a week or so. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to anyone, JR’s abductor hadn’t been terribly thorough in searching him, and the kid was furiously sending messages from his iPod. The problem, of course, was that he only had the single stupid game that could connect to anything.

RottenDane> The notes he sent are sad. It starts off as mostly asking for help. He describes the place he’s in – there’s no light except the the screen’s, but he could tell he was in a little cement-block room with a heavy iron door. There was no inside knob.

RottenDane> As time went on, he had a few interactions with his jailer. Once a day the psycho would stomp down the flight of stairs beyond the exit with a huge bowl of instant Quaker oatmeal. He always wore a grinning white and red clown mask, but never talked.

Harrisment> Why didn’t ZachAttack see the messages?

RottenDane> Fox Blisters was a crappy game? Bad luck? They hadn’t played a turn in weeks, and, by the looks of the traffic, Zach dropped his iThing not long after the disappearance and his parents wouldn’t or couldn’t replace it.

Harrisment> Wait, you said “Pod” and not “Phone”, right? How did it make it onto the net?

RottenDane> That’s it – James Robert knew exactly who his captor was. I think the ransom fell apart when he finally just said the guy’s name outright, once his device’s battery died. See, JR wasn’t the alone in being raised sheltered – that is to say, the elder Russell brothers also had an incredibly strict upbringing.

RottenDane> James Robert Senior used it to launch into business and the local community, but Uncle Dwayne used it to lock his nephew in a basement for ransom money, and to send deeply intimate, but entirely unsolicited, emails to female members of online forums. It was in one of those confessionals that I learned how they were brought up – a lot of belt use for punishments, I guess, which morphed at some point into Dwayne’s obsession with leather and paddles and strapping ladies to painful things.

RottenDane> His credit card bills ran high with porn and kinky tools I doubt he’s ever had a chance to use on anyone. At least, not willingly.

RottenDane> JR knew that the silent clown was his uncle – he’d been to his house before, if not in the basement of horrors, and he already had the passkey to Dwayne’s wifi in his settings.

Harrisment> Jesus.

RottenDane> Yeah, but, listen: The stub – I think it was Dwayne. I think he was trying to figure out if it was possible to follow the breadcrumbs back to him. He must have spent a lot of hours over the years wondering about the secrets in that iPod.


RottenDane> So, uh, what do you think? Did I get it all? Any holes in my logic?


RottenDane> Hello?


Harrisment> I’m on the phone. Maybe grab a snack, I’ll be a bit.

Harrisment> If we’re gonna lose sleep over this, so is management.

Harrisment> Hell, if we’re quick enough about it, maybe so will Dwayne.

Flash Pulp is presented by, and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License. credits:

Text and audio commentaries can be sent to – but be aware that it may appear in the FlashCast.

– and thanks to you, for reading. If you enjoyed the story, tell your friends.

FP305 – Machined: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 1 of 1

Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode three hundred and five.

Flash PulpTonight we present Machined: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 1 of 1

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(RSS / iTunes)


This week’s episodes are brought to you by the The Hollywood Outsider.


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 present a tale of digital detection and online exposure, of death, defeats, and endings.


Machined: a Collective Detective Chronicle

Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May


As she stepped forward, GoJo was feeling as if the auditorium had doubled in size since she’d shuffled through the backstage area.

She wasn’t used to wearing anything heavier than a t-shirt, and the suit jacket her mom had talked her into had brought on a sweat well before she was roasting beneath the theater lights.

Without thinking she put on the same fake smile she carried through family gatherings, but, when the familiar first slide flickered into view, the grin edged on genuine.

Skinner Co.“Hello,” she said, “my name is Josette Yates. I flew here from Michigan, but, like the rest of you, I’ve really come from the internet.”

Her delivery caught a few smirks, but the audience was generally silent.

”I’m part of The Collective Detective – do I have any fellow Editors out there? Any contributors?”

That raised some clapping, and a rear-row response that was garbled by the time it reached the stage.

She moved on, hoping it was something positive.

“Well, for those who aren’t so familiar: We’re researchers who use the mistakenly released archive of Internet traffic from the Bush-era tapping to look into unsolved crimes. We deal mainly in homicides, but there’s a small group of us who experiment in our spare time with looking for fraud.

“A hobby in our hobby, if you will.

“Sometimes we find things the police missed; sometimes we get lucky; most often, though, we come up empty handed.

The slides, which had gone from the proper spelling of her name to a vague structural chart of the organization, now stopped on a puffy-faced man. He might have been mistaken for a younger, plumper, Nicolas Cage.

“Do you know this guy?” she asked the crowd.

Several answers were shouted back, and she assumed one was correct.

“That’s right,” she continued, “it’s tech wonder Byron Newman – you may be familiar with his prolific social media updates, his savvy venture capital investments, his extensive complaints about poor design, or his surprisingly encouraging private correspondence – but, do you know THIS guy?”

Another puffy-faced man, bearded and mistakable as only perhaps a vagrant.

“This poor fella is Norris Barker, and at the time of the photo, he was caught up in a con game. Now, as I said, fraud isn’t really what the Collective focuses on. Murder is our business.

“Still, there are a few of us who like to dig through the archives with pattern matching software, just to see what we might stumble across. You’d be surprised how many former Nigerian ministers live in the US.

“In 2007, Norris was in love. He’d met a woman online, Sherry, who he spent hours exchanging emails, texts, tweets, and private moments with daily. She was a married woman, but her husband was a horrible sort. He was a systems administrator for the DMV, and always ready to leap to the keys to sooth her.”

The projected image shifted and a young Byron Newman filled the screen.

“Before I can explain 2007, though, I first have to go back to 1999. Our guru was three years out of university and full of ideas. Better yet, he’d managed to position himself on top of a mountain of cash, and was working with Big Thoughts Inc. in a converted Victorian house in San Francisco.

“He’d coaxed his small team into writing millions of lines of code, and he was well on his way to living his legendary no-sleep lifestyle.

“Six months later, though, the funding was gone – just as it was for every pie-in-the-sky project of the time.

“They did their best to license their technology to stay afloat. They’d built an advanced linguistics program, and they tried to cram it into being an automatic help agent for websites. You know, a box pops up with: ‘Hi, I’m Maria, how may I help you?’

”It would have been an easy task for the completed program, but the system hadn’t been designed to be dumbed down.

“They were all fired before it was finished.”

The presentation faded to a screenshot of the Wall Street Journal’s website pronouncing Big Think dead.

After allowing a beat to build dramatic tension, GoJo continued.

“Byron didn’t stop though. He saved a hard drive from the inevitable liquidation sale and brought it home, then started a race with his severance package.

“You can see his time disappear like a shadow in the logs. His porn browsing goes down, he stops searching for any sort of game walkthroughs, he even drops out of most of his forums, where he’d built up a reputation as something of a forward-thinking tech pundit.

“Two years later, with his benefits long gone and most of the things he owned sold, he’d covered a lot of distance. The problem, of course, is that at that point he also desperately needed more money.

“He’d been testing his work by launching instances and sending them into chatrooms. His early attempts weren’t terribly successful, but, by the time he was broke, he was consistently able to fool most reality TV fans. His program was not only capable of passing the Turing test, it had developed relationships and was continuing conversations based on snippets it was grabbing from news sites and other forums.

“Given his shut-in status, his application soon had more friends than he did. Byron had no one else to ask for money, but his code did. He started skewing his work towards grifting.

“This was no identity theft or one time Facebook con. He didn’t want a few hundred at a time, he needed thousands, perhaps millions, to properly complete his work.

“I came in not long after.”

A younger Josette appeared above the stage, though she wore the same fake smile. She was standing in front of a dilapidated country estate.

“Well, sort of. That’s actually me from just a year ago, after six months of investigating. You may notice that I look kind of spooked – that house felt haunted to me, even though I don’t believe in such a thing.

“See, when Newman started using his chat app to talk lonely folks on the internet into sending along money, traffic from his place suddenly increased ten fold. It’s a solid bit of coding, and most of the text it spits out is pretty original, but there was so much of it that duplication was inevitable, especially since most of the ploys were set up by Byron himself, and just the details changed from person to person.

“Tony’s ex-wife is a horrible woman and he needs money to feed himself because she took it all in alimony. Tammy’s a single mom with a naughty imagination and her kids need shoes. Martin’s Ma will be kicked from the home if he can’t pull together the monthly bill.

“That sort of thing.

“This is all from 2002 to 2007, but only uncovered eighteen months ago. We were hunting Nigerian ministers and came across two hundred and seventy-six battered Sherry-alikes. It seemed like a mass copy-and-replace job until we realized how much traffic he was pushing around.

“There was a hiccup in 2005, when Byron moved to the country, but it was easy enough to find him at his new nest – he was using twice as much bandwidth.”

The view flipped to an overhead satellite image of the sprawling grounds.

“In a case of literalism, Newman built a server farm on his farm and kept working. It’s hard to say how much of his time was invested in advancing his original idea, and how much was focused on squeezing cash from people, but the money continued to pour in. He did it in small bites, small enough that the bilked wouldn’t make a fuss, or even know they were anything but a good samaritan, but, in the end, Byron was maybe best described as a linguist and not a security guy.”

The image switched back to Norris Barker’s vagabond face.

“Barker, on the other hand, was. He was also, as I mentioned, in love. He probably thought he was confronting a vicious husband when he bought that gun – or perhaps he’d figured it all out. He posted nothing online that might give us a hint. It certainly must have seemed odd, though, that she’d gone through so much trouble to hide the source of her messages. Maybe he thought it was the brute’s work.

“The last thing he said to Sherry was in an email that read only, ‘I’m coming.’

“We know Byron Newman died August 25th, 2007, because Norris immediately punched a confession into his smartphone, explaining to his brother that he was planning to flee the country. That message was sent to a tower within a kilometer of the farm.

“We haven’t been able to find evidence of him since.

“What the broken-hearted murderer didn’t know, however, was that Newman had built the perfect alibi for him. Byron had long returned to his role of pervasive online tech guru, tweeting extensively, posting commentaries, and writing blog posts between rounds of spending stolen money.

“The problem was, he enjoyed the attention, but not the distraction. One day he simply split off a new instance of his program, named it after himself, and set it to keeping the world updated with his wit while he was blowing weekends in Vegas. Like everything he touched, it began to expand. It started handling all of the complex banking necessary to keep his assets hidden; it started paying the bills necessary to keep his lights on and the servers running; it started trolling Craigslist for local yard guys who accepted online payments.

“Twelve months ago we took our information to some scary guys in government-issued suits, and they promptly thanked us and showed us the door. A month after that, they came back and asked for our help figuring out what all had happened.

“Fifteen minutes ago, just before I took the stage, what we’ve begun to think of as Lord Byron’s Machine was taken offline.

The final image of the presentation appeared: A live shot of Newman’s last status update, hanging, twenty-minutes old, at the end of a stream of quick-fire chatter.

It read, “Can’t wait to see what Josette Yates’ secret TED announcement is.”

There was no follow up.

GoJo’s smile was fully real now, though it had taken on a hint of sadness.

She cleared her throat and said, “thank you for your time.”


Flash Pulp is presented by, and is released under the Canadian Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.5 License. credits:

Text and audio commentaries can be sent to – but be aware that it may appear in the FlashCast.

– and thanks to you, for reading. If you enjoyed the story, tell your friends.

FP241 – The Strange Life and Death of Martha Mooney: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 1 of 1

Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode two hundred and forty-one.

Flash PulpTonight we present, The Strange Life and Death of Martha Mooney: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 1 of 1.

[audio:]Download MP3
(RSS / iTunes)


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

Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May


Flash PulpOn 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.


Flash Pulp is presented by, and is released under the Canadian Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.5 License. credits:

Text and audio commentaries can be sent to, or the voicemail line at (206) 338-2792 – but be aware that it may appear in the FlashCast.

– and thanks to you, for reading. If you enjoyed the story, tell your friends.

189 – Gag: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 1 of 1

Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode one hundred and eighty nine.

Flash PulpTonight we present, Gag: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 1 of 1.

[audio:]Download MP3
(RSS / iTunes)


This week’s episodes are brought to you by Absolution

A Priest, a half-demon, and some Germans, walk into a bar – find out more at


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, the Collective Detective investigates the lonely tragedy that was the death of CuddleMonkey.


Flash Pulp 189 – Gag: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 1 of 1

Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May


On most occasions, KillerKrok, a six-month veteran of the Collective, would have considered hand-holding a newb through the basics a waste of time, but this was a special instance.

“CuddleMonkey got bigger,” said the blinking chat window at the corner of his desktop.

The evening previous, ElleBow, his girlfriend of two weeks, had shared the half-decade’s worth of results turned up from the massive archive of Internet activity, and her conclusion seemed a little self-evident to Krok.

“Kaitlyn Powell was eight when the records start, and thirteen when she died. She was growing right up until she keeled,” he said.

“Ha – no, Kyle, I mean her belly,” replied Elle from the comfort of her own bedroom, on the far side of the city.

Krok found it odd to have anyone involved with the group address him by his given name, but he was pleased to have found her intrigued by the project that absorbed so many of his weekends.

Still, he had yet to master conversational tact.

“Fattening up could be a sign of depression. My money remains on suicide.”

There was a pause in the conversation as both investigators flipped through the dead girl’s over-saturated MySpace photos. It was the second place they’d checked, after her inboxes.

After a time, Kyle decided he ought to get his protege back on track.

“We should probably start digging into Kaitlyn’s other traffic.”

“I’m actually browsing her Google history.”

He rubbed his chin.

“Anything interesting?”

“Well – someone at her family’s computer went searching for signs of pregnancy one July evening in 2005. She was at it for a couple of hours.”

The Powells were a five member family before the girl’s death, only one of which had been male.

Sipping at his Doctor Pepper, Krok wiggled his rolling chair in thought.

“Yeah,” he typed, “you’re probably right, she was probably preggers. Maybe she was scared enough about it to kill herself?”

Elle’s own theory quickly followed.

“What if she wanted to keep it and the boyfriend was pissed?”

“She was found dead in the woods with traces of oven cleaner in her gut.”

“They never found the cleaner, or her panties.”

“She might have been going commando, and she was rotting out there for two weeks, a lot could’ve happen in that time. They could have just missed the container, or she could have been alive for a while after and managed to stagger away from it.”

Kyle shrugged at the delay in response. He hustled upstairs to grab a bowl of chips.

“I’m sure the cops would love to believe the same, but they filed it as a homicide,” was waiting for him, upon his return.

The boy wiped Doritos-dust onto the hem of his Green Lantern t-shirt before responding.

“Yeah, but that’s basically all they ever tell us about cases, unless we ask nicely, and for a good reason – and even then, they mostly say no. When you’ve been a member of the Collective as long as I have, you’ll know that the five-oh aren’t perfect.”

“Uh huh,” she said. She’d included an emoticon with a protruding tongue at the end of her statement.

Two hours later, they stumbled across a Yahoo! Questions account created early on the morning of the girl’s disappearance, on an address associated with a laptop belonging to a friend of Kaitlyn’s.

The user had a single posting.

“I’M THIRTEEN AND I’M PREGNANT. I need a way to get an abortion. I love Jesus and I don’t want to and I’m sorry but I can’t tell my dad cuz he’ll whoop me to hell and I can’t go to a medical place because they want you to have your parents fill out papers. HELP PLEASE.”

The link had apparently been picked up by a forum of aggressive pro-lifers, and they’d come down hard on the girl. Most had simply told her not to do it, and that she should come clean with her parents – but there were those who went even further.

Thirty responses into the thread came a suggestion from MeanGene59: “Choke down a can of Easy-Off and all of your problems will be solved.”

After re-reading the comment twice, Krok said, “Maybe she was desperate enough to seriously believe it?”

ElleBow’s thoughts arrived almost simultaneously.

“She was in the woods because she was looking for privacy. She was anticipating a mess.”

Kyle drummed the palms of his hands against the desk’s edge as he read. Finally, he asked, “need any help submitting your findings?”

“Nah, I’m good.”

He sipped at the last of his soda, then returned to typing.

“There’s nothing more we can do for the moment, and I feel like I need to see living people for a bit. My brother was saying there’s a Midway in the mall parking lot – want to go hang out?”

“Absolutely. I’ll meet you there,” was her immediate reply.


Flash Pulp is presented by, and is released under the Canadian Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.5 License.

Text and audio commentaries can be sent to, or the voicemail line at (206) 338-2792 – but be aware that it may appear in the FlashCast.

– and thanks to you, for reading. If you enjoyed the story, tell your friends.

FP148 – Layers: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 3 of 3

Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode one hundred and forty-eight.

Flash Pulp

Tonight we present, Layers: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 3 of 3
(Part 1Part 2Part 3)
[audio:]Download MP3
(RSS / iTunes)


This week’s episodes are brought to you by the Flash Pulp Facebook page.

It’s the only defense against the mind-worms, we assure you.

To join, click here!


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, the Collective Detective learns of the truth behind the disappearance of Morris Cox, as revealed in a Floridian hotel room.


Flash Pulp 148 – Layers: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 3 of 3

Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May


Mel Chapelle, fifty-two, was sitting on his still-made hotel bed, eating a Mars bar. The television, on mute, threw the glow of local weather information into the room, but the flashing graphics went largely ignored as the lawyer thumbed at his phone to review the emails he’d had to leave unread during his recently concluded appointment.

The sit down, a meet and greet with local law enforcement regarding a grave the Collective had managed to track to a bit of rural swampland, had run long. Chapelle, who’d flown in from Washington for the conversation, was not a fan of the area’s humidity, or its tendency towards small talk, but he’d smiled, and rubbed at his neck with a Wendy’s napkin, while the Sheriff had chewed over the details of the case.

In the end, Mel had been forced to excuse himself, at the risk of missing his conference call. He’d originally hoped to locate a burger before the appointed time, but the trilling of his calendar program’s fifteen-minute-reminder had sent him scrambling for his hotel’s vending machine, and the quiet of his room. The temporary quiet, at least – wondering aloud how it was still so hot, mid-autumn, he’d had to crank the air conditioner as soon as he’d entered the fetid wall of moisture that seemed to hang in the rented space.

He was pecking out a response to the final item in question when his cell began to chime the opening theme to the old television show, The Six Million Dollar Man.

Rolling off the bed, he flicked the switch to disengage the AC’s rattling fan.

Setting himself back down, he hit answer.


“Hi, Mel, it’s Tony. We’ve got you on the speaker phone – I’m here with Wes Willis, he’s the file’s Special Agent In Charge, and we’ve also got Carlos Reyes, who’s the missing boy’s local Sheriff. As usual, you should be aware that we’re being recorded.”

“Nice to hear from you, Tony,” Chappelle replied. It truly was, as the man was regularly a voice of reason amongst the bruised egos that the legal arm of the Collective Detective often came up against. “I assume, as I’m here solo, that this is largely a courtesy call?”

Willis muttered something away from the phone’s mic, that Mel was just as happy not to hear. The first time there had been trouble between the Collective and the government, there’d been no courtesy at all – just a knock at the door and a warrant. Then they’d carted away much of the server backbone that hosted the network’s online tools. The two year media-beating the overzealous raid had precipitated, as well as the eventual court ruling that provided the organization a lawful charter, had encouraged a more diplomatic approach. Chappelle, a former law professor, had changed his occupation, and his life, in deciding to assist in the defense of the case.

“Ha,” replied Tony, “Yeah, I think things are about wrapped up here, and we don’t need to drag in the dirty half-dozen, we just wanted to touch base.”

As the liaison spoke, the sweating former-teacher used one shoe to lever off the other, then nudged both to the floor.

“We certainly appreciate it,” he said, wondering what kind of madman would build a hotel in Florida that didn’t have windows that opened.

“I feel I should be clear at this time,” Willis’ voice rasped through the speaker, “that I am conducting this call under Anthony’s advisement. I must make plain, in case of any legal action resulting from this conversation, that I do not agree with providing details of ongoing investigations to civilians.”

The fatigue from his trip nearly caused Mel to point out the investigation was only ongoing due to the details provided by volunteer civilians.

Instead, he said, “Understood.”

It wasn’t the first time he’d dealt with Willis, nor even the first time he’d heard the disclaimer, but, in situations where the authorities weren’t demanding further documentation, or proof that the civilian researchers had done nothing untoward, Mel found it best to let the feds do the majority of the talking.

Carlos cleared his throat.

“Yeah, well, I don’t mind talking ‘bout it. Frankly, I’ve already done a few hours with the press on the subject, so I may as well tell you now, rather then send you off to have the facts misrepresented on I’ve never heard-a you folks till today, but I’ve got to say, I’ve also never had an arrest handed to me so neatly.”

Mel smiled, happy to have the unknown variable in the call swing in his favour. He tucked the big toe of his left foot into the cuff of his right sock and stripped the white cotton from his ankle, then repeated the process in reverse.

Reyes continued.

“Wasn’t tough to find Bailey Foster, your Google map was pretty spot on. I mean, we double checked, but – anyhow, I was the first through the door. There wasn’t much to it. Married guy, although him and his wife were the cold and quiet types. Don’t think she knew about it, actually. She struck me more as the kind not to get close enough to care. We let him watch us drag out his laptop, and a LOT of DVD binders, then we gave him a lift down to the room and started asking some very vague questions.

“Well, really we told him what you’d told us. Mentioned Morris Cox’s name, even flashed a couple of the more tasteful photos. He bought it all. Even told us where the body is buried. We’re gonna conduct a search at first-light, but I believe the confession.”

“Well done.” replied Mel. It was rare to achieve such a quick resolution, but, occasionally the results were sudden. “Did he give any further explanation? Any reason why?”

“Yeah. Love. The boy was growing up gay at a tough time and place. To hear Bailey tell it, his best-friend was a huge hater, put a real fear into the lad. At fourteen Morris fell for an older guy – thirty years older. It wasn’t a relationship, though, it was careful exploitation. When Cox turned eighteen and was still hounding the old perv to hold his hand – well, I guess Foster thought he’d outlived his allure, and didn’t dare risk the consequences of turning the boy loose.”

The rest of the call was made up of formalities and long winded quasi-threats by Willis that any interference with legal proceedings would bring a sudden bolt of justice from on-high. Mel simply bit his lip and murmured agreement, eager to reach for the thermostat.

When they’d finally parted ways, he swung his legs once again over the edge of the bed, and, his knees popping, stood. He turned the environmental controls to a level he hoped would be sub-arctic, then took a short stroll around the room, stretching.

It was tempting to return to the stack of printouts which required review before his morning meeting, but, once he’d worked the knots from his lower back, he instead tugged back the rigid wooden chair that had been provided for the room’s desk, and opened his MacBook.

Pulling up the Collective Detective website, he logged in as LegalEagle, and began filling in the final unknowns regarding the life, and death, of Morris Cox.

After an hour’s worth of typing and editing, he found there was nothing more to add.

Selecting the proper drop-down, he set the case’s status to “closed.”

He clicked save.


Flash Pulp is presented by, and is released under the Canadian Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.5 License.

Text and audio commentaries can be sent to, or the voicemail line at (206) 338-2792 – but be aware that it may appear in the FlashCast.

– and thanks to you, for reading. If you enjoyed the story, tell your friends.

FP147 – Layers: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 2 of 3

Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode one hundred and forty-seven.

Flash Pulp

Tonight we present, Layers: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 2 of 3
(Part 1Part 2Part 3)
[audio:]Download MP3
(RSS / iTunes)


This week’s episodes are brought to you by the Flash Pulp Facebook page.

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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

Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May


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.


Flash Pulp is presented by, and is released under the Canadian Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.5 License.

Text and audio commentaries can be sent to, or the voicemail line at (206) 338-2792 – but be aware that it may appear in the FlashCast.

– and thanks to you, for reading. If you enjoyed the story, tell your friends.