Danny Cater needed a Big Move. In a rare bit of self-awareness, he’d realized, as he’d not seen, and had only talked sparingly to, Emily Twiggs since the day she’d stormed out of his hospital room in a huff sometime back, that she might be, must be, upset with him. A lot had changed for him in the interim. Not least was the fact he’d more or less resolved never to walk again, now that he had a snazzy wheelchair to save him the trouble, and had an ongoing GimmeDemEnds effort aimed at footing the bill for the construction of a custom “Professor Mindreader”-style automatic chair that was really going places (so to speak); his legs weren’t injured in the blast that had put him in the hospital of course, but Danny had never much liked walking and thought life would be significantly more pleasant without having to bother with it. And, he figured, eliminating that distraction would really enable him to give more attention to his long-gestating masterpiece, the screenplay for Modern Love. But all that was neither here nor there at present; Danny needed a way to win the hand of the woman he regarded as the primary love interest character in the hero’s journey of his life story.
For all of Danny Cater’s professed and expressed interest in cinema, comic books, music and other pop culture—and despite the thousands and thousands of dollars of “mad money” given to him by his parents that the writer had spent amassing VHS, laserdisc, DVD and Blu-ray editions of films, longbox upon longbox of comics, trade paperbacks and expensive oversized hardcover “omnibus” collections of entire runs of Time Man, Detective Death, Mutant Academy and the like—he spent vanishingly little time actually watching, reading or otherwise engaging with these media proper. Rather, he preferred to simply stare at his treasures, somewhat like a mythical dragon nesting upon a mountain of gold and jewels in its cavernous hideaway, in that respect. At other times he’d watch “unboxing” videos for products he already owned but hadn’t opened, or reviews of movies in his collection that he’d never gotten around to watching. Yes, experiencing these entertainments was largely irrelevant to Danny: he preferred simply to have them, and learn the correct opinions about them, such that he could make a timely reference in conversation, thereby signalling that, while he may lack a degree in Being Correct from the University of Knowledge, he could pass for holding one in most company.
But Emily Twiggs wasn’t impressed by Danny’s knowledge, feigned or otherwise, of Time Man’s off-and-on romance/rivalry with the buxom vigilante Tick-Chick, or his ability to name the entire cast and crew of Dr. Big Goes to the Moon. She barely blinked when he told her of his acquisition of the rare mispressed LP of the original soundtrack to The Sausage Link Kids, with the double A-side rather than the A & B, in near-mint condition; hadn’t even asked if she could come over and see it, throwing a spanner in the works of his well-laid plans to get himself well-laid once he’d gotten her over to his disgusting hovel. Danny thought, this chica needed real romancing. And with the existence of a YouTube video titled “MOST ROMANTIC SCENE’S [sic] EVER COMPLIATON!!! [sic]” he’d found his magic bullet right there in his recommendations.
“Thank Jeebus for the algorithm!” Danny said, tenting the fingers of his damp little hands and smiling.
“You say somethin’?”
“I said, ‘Jiminy Christmas, Chase—whaddaya think happened here?’” The Chief inquired for at least the second time, making a half-hearted attempt at joining his best friend and partner in kneeling on the liberally blood-stained concrete floor, but when both his knees howled like hungry dogs at even this cursory gesture, the pumpkin-shaped detective contented himself by sliding an unfiltered cigarette from the wrapper and inserting it into one of his gaping nostrils.
“Nothin’ good, Chief,” Chaser answered vaguely, firing up a Black Death cigarette and taking a long pull, filling the air with thick, dark smoke.
Chaser traced his finger through the sticky, almost black blood before him, a bit adhering to his fingertip. He rubbed it with his thumb, smelled it, and was in the act of looking at it more closely when the first responding officer came rushing over.
“Say, um, Detective?” the young beat cop offered timidly. “You need me for anything, or...?”
Chaser didn’t look up from the blood on his fingers, just replied tersely, “Nah, take off, rook.”
“Yessir,” the officer assented eagerly.
“You see those geeks from the lab on yer way out, tell ‘em to get their thumbs outta their asses and get in here,” Chief said as he produced another smoke from his pack and started munching. The old lady would have his guts for garters if she saw the way he was suckin’ ‘em down and snortin’ ‘em up, but what could he say? His nerves were always frazzled when he and Chaser caught a fresh case. “Broads don’t know what we got on us, eh Chase? The kinda pressure we’re under.”
Chaser wiped his fingers on his leg, then stood with a muted groan and knocked dirt off his knee with the back of a hairy paw. “I dunno, Chief—my wife always respected the job... knew she was as much a mistress as she was a spouse, ‘s’long as I was catchin’ bodies.” He took a long drag off his Black Death and gave his besty and pard a thin, puckish smile: “And in this hellhole of a city we need one helluva big net for all these bodies.”
The Chief smiled back and popped the last of his cigarette into his maw. He wasn’t really sure why Chaser was smiling, or if his “helluva big net” quip was funny or even made a lick of sense, but it warmed the cockles of the big lug’s heart to see any degree of happiness or amusement from his partner. Ever since his wife and daughter had been iced by the Mob, even the faintest whisper of a smile from a Chaser was as rare as a hen’s tooth.
“You figure this is connected to that business with The Evil Genius, Chaser?” The Chief asked.
Chaser nodded. “That’s exactly what I figure, Chief. What are the odds we get a murder case just a few months after that sicko gets paroled?”
The Chief agreed. This couldn’t be mere coincidence, he thought as he scratched his ruddy pate. In fact, “the odds” of a single murder happening in the several months since The Reformed Genius (nee The Evil Genius) was released from the slammer were so good that no bookie would’ve touched them with a 10-foot pole, let alone laid taken any kind of action on the proposition. In a place like Anytown, which had averaged hundreds of homicides per year for decades now, it was all but a certainty that there would be multiple murders a day, much less one in the span of, say, 100 days or so. But Jack Chaser was not a man who believed in coincidences, or statistics, for that matter. No, for Detective Death, what his gut told him was the most important thing, and what his gut was telling him now was that The Evil Genius was filthy and stunk to high heaven.
“They could’ve at least let me take a shower and put on some clean clothes,” The Reformed Genius grumbled bitterly, his bald, pointy head about the only part of his scrawny body that wasn’t caked in mud and covered in grime.
Johnita Luxton, who waved her hand in front of her face, seemed to agree. “You know, I actually believed you’d turned over a new leaf?” She then demanded to know: “What have you gotten me into?”
TRG made some notations on the blackboard, and then recalibrated some of the components of the large apparatus on which he was working.
“I should’ve left you to get worked over by Chaser and that half-wit accomplice of his,” Johnita remarked. She fished for a clove cigarette in her purse. “At least they gave me back my handbag. Who are these people anyway?”
“Surely even you have deduced that the fellow with the bee-beard is The Man with the Beard Made of Bees,” The Reformed Genius gibed in his casually smug way that made his insults even more offensive and condescending than if he’d been more aggressively priggish. “Yes?” he added for good, infuriating measure.
Johnita took a long drag from her clove and glared balefully at him through its pungent smoke. “And that walking R. Crumb cartoon is your beloved Ethel,” she snickered.
“Tread... very... carefully,” TRG said flatly.
“You know, your constant crowing about how her patient, understanding love showed you the error of your ways and saved you from wickedness means a lot less now that I know she’s a robotprogrammed to serve you unconditionally,” the attorney, long regarded as a shark in the courtroom, said viciously, detecting blood in the water. “You freak. You pathetic freak.”
TRG stormed around to the center of the lab, his entire gangly body quivering with rage. “Fool! You have no idea—not even the foggiest notion—of the love Ethel is capable of!”
As it happens, both The Reformed Genius and Johnita Luxton had some points in their favor. To TRG’s credit, he’d successfully imbued his creation with a degree of artificial intelligence, and he had, in theory, given her the capacity to learn about, and display, emotions. However, in Johnita’s favor, Ethel had also been programmed to obey her creator and, perhaps far more damningly, had only—prior to this late unfortunate business—been exposed to one person in the whole wide, weird world; and that person, The Reformed Genius (with much of the work on her positronic brain pre-dating his reformation and legal adoption of the corresponding new name), had both a warped and limited understanding of love and various other emotions. So it would, perhaps, be accurate to say that the world’s smartest man was, despite his passionate protestations to the contrary, more or less saying, unwittingly saying, “She’s moist in all the right places.” Though Ethel theoretically had the capacity to be something like a fully realized human, she could probably never be more than a henchwoman and mountainous, Amazonian sexbot under the tutelage of The Reformed (or Evil) Genius.
Like The Genius, Danny Cater had a very skewed conception of love. There’s little doubt that he had some sort of desire for Emily Twiggs—he likely even believed that he had a romantic, natural love for her that he wished to consummate in the form of vaginal intercourse—but as I pointed out sometime ago, Cater viewed Emily less as a flesh and blood woman than as the “love interest” character in the “film” of his life. In this way he was both like and unlike The Reformed Genius: like in that he was unable to see the situation for what it truly was, unlike in that TRG was ascribing an awareness to Ethel that, at the very least, she didn’t yet (possibly could not ever) have, while Danny lacked the insight into a fellow human being, Emily, to realize that she had agency, wants and desires of her own, and that simply reciting words in the proper order wouldn’t result in her entering into a lasting romantic “story line” with him. (There is also the whole other matter of the “intercourse question,” as Danny referred to it on the “Dissonance” server where he spent several hours a day talking to like-minded individuals about this and other topics over which he obsessed. But that’s a matter for another, later time.)
None of this was known to Danny, though, and thus the debacle soon to transpire couldn’t be avoided. He’d watched the compilation of romantic movie scenes the YouTube algorithm had rendered unto him—many, many times, in fact—and while he was taken with a number of the clips included within it, the one that stood out was from the 1968 film version of James Goldman’s play, The Lion in Winter. The scene in question has Peter O’Toole’s Henry II telling his beautiful young mistress Alais that “nothing on earth should be so perfect” as the way she appears to him then, and so one strand of her hair should be out of place, a matter he then attends to. As Danny envisioned it, he would recreate this bit of dialogue and corresponding gentle touching, lowering a strand of Emily’s hair into her face, then give her a passionate kiss and, he suspected, win her over for all time.
I mentioned at some earlier point that the popular “Flinch” streamer and YouTuber, Captain Hi-Score, a self-described “Revolution-centric Anarchist,” had resorted to calling his father, with whom he was not close, in a time of perceived need rather recently. That requires a bit of clarification at this time. Hi-Score’s actual—that is, biological—father was involved with show business. Movies, more specifically. He’d broken in during the 1980s as a writer and hacked away in that capacity for most of the 90s, with his most noteworthy script work as a co-writer on The Importance of Being Ernest, a version of Oscar Wilde’s classic farce reconfigured as a vehicle for the late, legendary Jim Varney’s Ernest P. Worrell character. Following this, Hi-Score’s father had moved into producing, a role at which he found considerably more success, coming to work for the powerful studio honcho The Big Cheese at Moustache Pictures within a few years.
Before Hi-Score had parlayed his video game streaming career into a “debate artist”/”political pundit” venture—which netted him a decent income from traffic on his YouTube Channel, “donations” from viewers on his streams, and, best of all, hundreds of monthly “supporters” on the “Supporteo” giving platform, whose aid, he said, enabled him to do the important work he did, hiring assistants to help him with his channel, spreading the word about th indeed for an Anarchist movement, organizing that movement, etc.—he had, in fact, reached out to his father for some assistance in breaking into the movie business, but had run into a “spot of bother,” as he might’ve later put it, that had necessitated his beating a hasty retreat from Hollywood up to Coast City, then Capital City, and finally Anytown. Along the way, he’d changed his name legally to that of his mother’s new husband, and adopted a non-specific British/Aussie hybrid accent. When asked about his accent, background, etc., he played it close to the vest, or, if pressed, respond aggressively to what he described as “bad faith” efforts to “doxx” him.
Hi-Score’s new father—that is, his stepfather—worked in the realm of NGOs, and had, at some point years earlier, had a degree of involvement with one or more of the “alphabet agencies.” Naturally this disgusted Hi-Score, who detested the intelligence community and all it stood for, his anarchistic convictions being antithetical to such things. But, as troubles old and new alike had begun to rear their ugly heads in the wake of his activities with Danny Cater (“the human albatross,” as Hi-Score had begun to refer to him), the exact nature of which are too labyrinthine and convoluted to explain fully just yet, Hi-Score had made the difficult, long-labored-over decision to contact his stepfather for assistance in getting himself out of this particular jackpot.
Captain Hi-Score drummed his long, bony fingers on the tabletop incessantly, leaning out of the booth sporadically to see if his old man might be arriving. Samanda James, his BIPOC friend and fellow anarchist (she identified as an anarcho-syndicalist, if it matters) sighed loudly at the latest of his many instances of doing this.
“What? I’ve got a right to look, haven’t I? Bloody hell,” Hi-Score whispered exasperatedly. He ran a hand through his ever-thinning hair, then flashed a smile as the waitress came round. “Ah! There she is.”
“Sorry for the delay, y’all. We’re always slammed on Endless Crabfinger Nite. Gettin’ my buttkicked!” the young server confided with an overwhelmed expression. “But anyway, what can I get y’all?”
Hi-Score deferred to his BIPOC friend, Samanda James, for the first time in recent memory. “I’ll have an appletini,” the strong woman of color said in a voice that occasioned a mild double-take from the waitress. “And the... Vegan Caesar Salad.”
The waitress nodded, then said, “Got it. I hope you don’t mind my asking, but y’all have some interesting accents... you from around here, or...?”
Samanda (BIPOC) smiled and shook her head no. When it became clear that nothing further would be forthcoming from her, the waitress turned to Hi-Score, who was smiling awkwardly, a stiff-necked quality about him.
“We’re, ehm, from overseas,” Hi-Score said, scratching his scalp nervously. He cleared his throat directly into what he said next: “I’ll, eh, have a gin and tonic with a twist and, oh... not hungry, I don’t think. Maybe later?”
The waitress smiled and collected the menus. “I’ll go get your drinks then,” she said, lingering queerly for a second.
Hi-Score and Samanda, his BIPOC friend, returned the smile rather unconvincingly. As soon as the girl had left, Hi-Score hissed, “A fucking appletini? BIPOCs don’t drink appletinis!”
Samanda James (BIPOC) responded in a harsh rasp of her own: “This one does!”
Hi-Score shook his head and tapped his fingers more vigorously. “And a bloody ‘Vegan Caesar Salad!’ Fuck’s sake. But the voice... the voice was the worst of all! Yeh’ve not practiced at all, have yeh?”
“You’re just paranoid,” Samanda (BIPOC?) said, brushing off his concerns. “What’s she gonna do, come back with a DNA test?”
Lizz Dublin looked up with the kind of sober expression she specialized in after a stiff vodka collins or two: furrowed brow, nose ever so slightly scrunched, bottom lip tucked in just so. As the countdown ended, she spoke in a professional tone that conveyed the gravity of the moment without any of the booziness you got from the wannabes gunning for her spot: “‘Oh no! Not again!’ Good evening, I’m Lizz Dublin.”
The camera focused in on Trace Crabtree, his hair mussed just a bit and his tie loosened to let the audience know he wasn’t fucking around. “And I’m Trace Crabtree. Yes Lizz, yes folks,” he said reluctantly, as a “RACE GRIFTERS” graphic depicting a white cartoon man slathering himself with a paint-roller dripping black paint appeared off to his left when he pivoted to face camera two. “The popular ‘Tube’ streamer,” Trace said, his nostrils flaring almost imperceptibly as he realized a word had been missing from his prompter, “Samanda James was accosted at a local sports pub by—get this!” he allowed himself a thin smile at what he knew was a greatfucking adlib, and anyone who thought it sullied the somber mood of the story could suck his fat fucking hog; he was the best and most trusted for damn good reason, “—a woman claiming sheis Samanda James, a BIPOC woman who the impostor kidnapped and left for dead.”
As Trace shook his head in 100 percent legitimate disbelief, Lizz stared intently into the repositioned camera one. “We’ll have footage from the scene for our viewers momentarily, but we can confirm for you now that the alleged impostor is believed to be the disgraced academic Jen Score.”
An unflattering picture, taken for the aforementioned Score’s faculty photo at College University, was superimposed atop the “RACE GRIFTERS” graphic. She was, suffice it to say, not BIPOC—nor even a mere POC, from the looks of her—but rather a considerably overweight, pasty-faced, bespectacled woman with messy, straw-like red hair who somehow looked both overly stiff and bewildered at having her image snapped.