that I was supposed to make Alichino’s robes motley, red in one half and black for the other. (White triangles in the red half, red triangles in the black half.)
I get really into the physical designs of my characters, probably because I have spent so much time being influenced and inspired by visual arts. The story of how Alichino wound up dressing himself like a deadly neo-jester is typical for my “creative process” (or whatever you would call the way my brain gets from point A to point Z). (Also originally there was a line where Max was thinking of Alichino’s image as “deadly post-modern neo-jester” but in the interests of subtlety I axed that line and just described Alichino’s government-mandated profile.)
The character of Max Drescher comes from waaaayyy back there, and has been left fairly unchanged over the years, complete with a backstory that doesn’t need changing anyway. Alichino is more recent, beginning in 2009 or so and growing from the fact that I was so tired that day my mind spat out the words “clown mafia” and it actually made sense to me.
Normally I HATE clowns, hate and fear them. But as is my custom, I went to the googles for clown research and tripped across a little thing called Commedia dell’arte and found myself totally fascinated by this nearly lost style of Italian theatre. So for a while I planned to write about a sort of Murder Inc. that was composed of people dressed like clowns. Of course it was meant to be humorous (emphasis on MEANT to be, though right now I am not sure what was in the water I was drinking). Clown hitmen who called their dangerous and flamboyant group Commedia dell’arte. CREATIVE PROCESS.
After a while certain details floated to the surface and left other details behind. For one thing there were no clown hitmen waiting to be written about. Only one clown hitman. For another, while looking up clowns I kept running into jesters and I found jesters a heck of a lot more appealing. They were oddly serious in their own right. Political. Kind of in-your-face about what they wanted to say. And their costumes were more easily modified than clownwear, which is always good for the visuals.
But I didn’t leave behind Italy entirely. In the Commedia dell’arte, the Harlequin figure was known as Arlecchino.
"The primary aspect of Arlecchino was his physical agility.While generally depicted as stupid and gluttonous, he was very nimble and performed the sort of acrobatics the audience expected to see. The character would never perform a simple action when the addition of a cartwheel, somersault, or flip would spice up the movement…
"He is typically cast as the servant of an innamorato or vecchio much to the detriment of the plans of his master. Arlecchino often had a love interest in the person of Colombina, or in older plays any of the Soubrette roles, and his lust for her was only superseded by his desire for food and fear of his master. Occasionally, Arlecchino would pursue the innamorata, though rarely with success, as in the Recueil Fossard of the 16th century where he is shown trying to woo Donna Lucia for himself by masquerading as a foreign nobleman. He also is known to try to win any given lady for himself if he chances upon anyone else trying to woo her, by interrupting or ridiculing the new competitor." - Wikipedia
While building Alichino, I picked up these Arlecchino traits, weighed their appeal and usefulness, and either dropped or kept each one. Still, using a nearly ancient figure from Old World theatre made me feel so… literary. Like I was in the ranks of writers who draw from mythology and Shakespeare and, idk, Beowulf. “Awesome, I am being a Writer.”
Well. For some reason I *really* liked the idea of naming my character after a freakin’ devil in Dante’s hell. Because he IS deadly and unsafe, as are all three of the lead characters in this particular story arc. Max, Alichino, and Gemignani. All are up to their eyeballs in baggage, issues, bitterness, bad memories, hatreds, and dark inclinations. Alichino is the most subtle of the three, though, so naming him after a devil, while it was not a well-thought out move, has proved to be a useful move.
I found the name Gemignani while watching a segment on TV about tossing pizza dough.
Max Drescher kicks open the tall, oaken double doors to the personal hellhole of the city’s third-most powerful criminal lord and master. Max fires his two-fisted automatics into the first chandelier he sees. Just making his point.
Chain links creak and split. Flaming with hundreds of white candles, the chandelier loosens from the forty-foot ceiling and splashes to the scarlet stone floor like an enormous drop of liquid crystal. Dozens of people scream as cut glass and flames splatter the swarms of furries, goths, 2-D lovers, jittery jattering addicts, whores, ravers, lolicons, cougars, and assorted humans of various styles gathered for the fun of it in the most partyin’ of the city’s party mansions.
Broken candles gently melt amongst the glittery shards; the stone floor is hot enough to warm the soles of your feet through your shoes.
Dozens of people- some naked and trying to salvage interrupted coitus- stare at Max. He holds the guns up where everyone can see them.
He says, “I’m invited.”
The infestation of candle-brilliant crystal chandeliers hanging above the hot, scarlet stone floor makes the chamber feel heavy and risky. Light panels as bright as the cores of lightning bolts cover the walls with no relief for the smallest shadow or the naked eye.
Furniture of transparent glass- thick and rounded and large chunks of glass, chairs, coffee tables, sofas- is scattered as if the pieces are regularly pushed around. Crimson cushions are plopped in the slippery seats and dark-colored drinks half-drunk in heavy tumblers sit on tables whose surfaces are glossy with condensation.
The firm churn of powerful engines thrums from unseen speakers and through the overbaked air. The chamber smells of sweat and roses.
The Publisher and Janus Valentine stand on the mansion’s brick steps outside, gaping over Max’s head into a world they have only wanted to write about. Ms. Mba is trying to draw everything, absolutely everything, without looking at the screen of her pad. Furries, goths, 2-D lovers, jittery jattering addicts, whores, ravers, lolicons, cougars, and assorted humans of various styles look back at the little gathering.
"I was also invited," replies an unperturbed voice.
The chamber’s center of gravity shifts. The people from Darktimes News search for the new focus for a couple of seconds until they see a tall, thin figure resting in a glass chair and many loose cushions, back to the doors. At either side a boy stands, their large, electric-blue eyes clear and staring back at the Publisher and Mr. Valentine and Ms. Mba. Staring and drawing in every detail as if trying to fill their fragile-looking heads with the whole world.
Ms. Mba freezes. She quickly flicks opens a new blank page on her tablet.
Max Drescher’s muscles relax. He lowers his guns.
The drone of engines continues with no end in sight, minimalist background music from the industrial age.
The owner of the calmest voice in the room undrapes himself from the chair. A hand full of spindly fingers lies against a length of metal that is propped against the smooth armrest, a shiny, ebony, rectangular beam a foot taller than the man himself. A tight seam runs through the beam’s middle, as if it were a box.
As the man turns, and his steel-toed, black boots step closer to Max, his oxblood-colored robes of light cotton brushing his ankles. White and black diamond shapes whirl in wild flocks around the body of the robes. A handheld fan, closed, is tucked between a dark leather belt and its owner’s lean waist.
Alichino McKnight’s Counted profile has carried the suspiciously rebellious tagline “SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER SINCE MY 17TH BIRTHDAY” for two decades. The shadow silhouette of a jester, broad white mouth open in a grin too thrilled for comfort, hangs on the site in mid-pounce, long limbs spread and sprawled about next to Alichino’s vital and legally-required stats.
Age: THIRTY-EIGHT. STILL HERE.
Gender Identification: MALE.
Ethnic Identification: BLACK/AFRICAN AMERICAN/NEGRO/WHATEVER I’M SUPPOSED TO CALL MYSELF THESE DAYS.
Sexual Orientation: GAY. GAYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY.
Political Affiliation: THE LEFT PARTY. I VOTE NOTHING.
Occupation: I KILL PEOPLE FOR MONEY. I AM RICH.
This is after a site underling sent Alichino a notification informing that he would be fined if he did not edit his profile for clarity.
Alichino McKnight stops before Max, removes the handheld fan from his belt and opens it to wave it at his damp face. The fan’s paper-delicate white metal sports a dark-red smiley face in its pleats. The breeze from the fan rustles the tendrils of his oxblood cockscomb, the dozen stringy fingers that spill down his back and curl at the ends like harshly permed hair. Two red diamonds and two white ones are tattooed on his right cheek in a checkerboard pattern. He balances the metal beam against his left shoulder.
He looks behind him at the dead chandelier. With his free hand, he pulls a cell phone from an invisible pocket in his robes and takes a picture of the mess.
Max states, “You’re here. I’m here. Where’s Gemignani.”
"He’s not going to appreciate this," says Alichino, studying his photo while sending it to fifty different social networks.
Max leans around Alichino to enjoy his handiwork crumpled and broken on the floor. “I am awesome. I’d shoot another one but I know overkill when I see it. Keep ‘em waiting for your next move. Where’s Gemignani.”
"Gemignani wants to defeat you at chess, Max."
"Well." Max raises his guns to his shoulders, his grin careless. "I want him to finally defeat me at chess too."
Alichino takes a picture of Max’s “tough Jew with guns” pose.
He says, “No one should want to be defeated.”
Max lifts his eyebrows. He watches his friend send that photo to fifty different social networks.
The two boys hang back in silence, to either side of Alichino and a little behind. Watery hair as black as oil. Their skin is powder-white, a jarring white that surrounds their observant blue eyes.
"What the fuck did you do to my chandelier!?"
Max and Alichino look up. The city’s freshly crowned and third-most powerful criminal lord and master keeps screaming about the chandelier. He grips the railing of the little balcony that has sprung from behind a light panel far from the floor; Gemignani’s raging disturbs a chandelier’s crystals dangling an inch above his motions. A smattering of uncanny tones spot his screeches. This is not the voice he was born with.
Alichino looks at him, and gestures his cell phone in Max’s direction.
"I know who did it!" spits Gemignani.
Max shrugs. “You were going to redecorate anyway.”
"That’s beside the point, you maniac!"
"I have a tip." Alichino offers from behind his fan, "A redecorating tip. Turn off the floor and at least half of the lights. It’s hot in here even with the doors open."
"I just won this place," howls Gemignani, "and already you two are destroying and criticizing it!"
"Hahahahahahahaha," replies Max.
Alichino says, “First world problems.”
Big digital teeth grind together in a big digital mouth. Cartoon sparks flash, sparkly yellow pixels.
"Fuck you!" answers the indignant Gemignani, punching a button on the balcony rail and beginning a gradual, regal descent that makes light panels slide aside for him on the way down. The ivory beads of his rosary clatter against one another; the lengthy string is wound around his chest like a sash and then looped around his waist with enough slack to leave the large pewter medal and crucifix dangling at his knees to the side. The number of decades must be an unreasonably high number. The Our Father beads are a no-nonsense shade of black.
Sensible shoes are thick with dark polish. His priest’s cassock is evergreen, his clerical collar a bold white. Black leather gloves creak as Gemignani flexes his right fist.
Where his head should be stands plastic, hard plastic and a hard shade of green.
The balcony touches the hot floor. Light panels shift back into place, closing like a zipper above Gemignani. A digital face glares at Max and Alichino, the oversized, simply lined eyes and mouth of a cartoon. The plastic head is a large ball on Gemignani’s neck, with molded triangles the lengths of his forearms pointing backwards like the ears of a murderous cat.
Tucked under his right arm is a rich-brown, laquered box the size of a thin briefcase.
Three children huddled together under a circle of a dining table. A waggling flashlight cast their shadows against the cream-colored pleats of a linen tablecloth, warping their shadows.
"Castle! Castle now!" squealed one of the shadows, an angry girl’s voice.
A boy’s brown silhouette waxed and waned as he pointed with the flashlight. “I’ll castle when I want to!”
"Why do you always wait so long! You’re supposed to castle as early as possible!"
"I will CASTLE when I WANT to, Gemma!"
"This is boring," said the third shadow. The boy behind it took the flashlight for himself and aimed the beam downwards. The edges of a chessboard and curves of pieces lay flat against the tablecloth.
The dining room, tidy and delicately decorated, wore a soft layer of dust on every hand-carved chair, every vase and artificial flower petal. Drawn in the dust with careful fingers were the marks of the territory of children. Figure 8’s, smiley faces, frowney faces. Initials- GG, A-McK, m.d. Names: maxdrescher, ALICHINO, Gemma.
"Just play already."
The girl and smaller boy muttered rebelliously but did what the thinner boy strongly suggested. Their shadows hunched over the chessboard.
Grownup conversation hummed through all four walls. From above, through the ceiling. From below, through the floor. Inflections of incoherent syllables sank into the dining room with threatening blunt surfaces. Grownups making decisions. Grownups making statements. Grownups making the future.
The smaller shadow moved in layers of two-dimensional darkness. A chess piece touched the board. The girl’s shadow flailed.
"YOU DIDN’T CASTLE! GODDAMMIT!"
"Don’t use words like that," complained her cringing, unnerved opponent.
"Fuck," said the thinner boy, matter-of-fact about it. He impressed the others, who rustled and leaned away from him.
Then the smaller boy made a scared, disgusted noise. “Gemma, you’re bleeding!”
Brief activity followed as all three shadows mingled in a shocked, thrilled search for the source of Gemma’s bleeding. “Nothing hurts, where’s it coming from-” “Ew, don’t get it on me!” “It’s all over your dress.” “So much of it, where is it-“
Gemma stopped. A thin, watery cry replaced words.
She tumbled under the table, yanking at the tablecloth. A vase paved with Swarovski crystals and fluffy with silk flowers clunked to its side and rolled off the table. It cracked on the ceramic floor. Gemma’s curled, brown hair and Victorian ribbons of lace erupted over the edge of the table. She clawed her way to her feet, round face starched into a panicked mask and white dress of frills streaked with veins of bright scarlet.
"IT’S WRONG!" she screamed. "I DON’T WANT THIS! I’M NOT THIS! I WANT IT GONE! IT’S WRONG! IT’S WRONG!" Gemma shrieked, her throat exploding with hard, thick sobs while she tore at the stained ruffles. Her manicured fingers dug into the ribbons in her hair and wrenched them off her head; when the knots tightened around locks of hair she pulled until the stark white roots came free. She attacked her face, scraping pale-pink makeup from her lips and her cheeks.
Max and Alichino knelt, frozen, still sheltered behind a tablecloth. Gemma howled. She gagged on the mucous filling her throat. She wailed. A lean-limbed African-American preteen and a Jewish boy of similar age looked at nothing, in that awkward way of listening to something unrepeatable.
Contagion set in.
"I wanna go home," rasped Max. He clenched his hands over his knees and bared his teeth at the floor. Adult conversation experienced turbulence but hummed as if its work were too important for the breakdowns of children. "I want to go home. I hate it here. I hate YOU. DO YOU HEAR ME?" His voice creaked and cracked in half. He threw himself forward, palms to the cold ceramic tiles. "DO YOU HEAR ME? I HATE YOU! ALL OF YOU! I HATE YOU MOM! I WANNA GO HOME! I HATE YOU AND I HATE THOSE PEOPLE! LET ME GO HOME! LET ME GO HOME! I HATE YOU!"
Max punched the floor. He tried to beat the life out of it. Gemma ripped her glossy hair from her scalp; the blood of a new woman dripped down her white-stockinged legs. Alichino climbed into the open and stood, all bone and immature sheets of muscle beneath clothes designed for an important, powerful man, the dress shirt and slacks and polished shoes tailored for the preteen boy who was tall for his age.
Alichino’s expression was obscure as he gathered up the tablecloth in his hands. Max, exposed under the bare table, didn’t notice. Holding it flat before him, Alichino fixed his grasps on the cloth and ripped the linen down the middle. Threads popped. The tight weave gave and lost its grip on itself.
"You taught me how to kill anyone." His quiet words did not wander far from his mouth, not interested in competing with the hysteria in the room. "I’m going to kill either you or myself. That’s what you want. Right? It must be."
Gemma’s grandparents, Max’s mother and stepfather, and Alichino’s mentor blended with the swarms of adulthood infesting the estate house from ground floor to roof terrace. It was a very nice estate. Very relevant people lived there. They made decisions that no one would undo, made statements that no one would argue against, made the future that they wanted for themselves and for everyone else.
Goddammit, I hate running, goddammit, I want a car. Ms. Mba keeps clipping my heels with the toes of her chucks; Mr. Valentine is trailing as if afraid we’ll hate him for being bigger and faster than we are. I charge through sundown’s clusters of sidewalk traffic. People are either gaping at the full moon or trying not to so they put up with my crap. Weak light, cheap storefronts, unhappy humans on foot, and a sign in the cold, black and purple sky.
This city has bad memories of looking up and seeing a sign.
We turn into the right alley at the right time. When Max Drescher slams his building’s front door open I’m waiting to grab him round the waist before he dashes off.
"WHAT THE FU- Publisher, what the actual hell!" Dignity makes him stop kicking against me. "Get offa me!"
"Wherever you’re going, we’re going too!" I announce. My lungs are desperate to pant from the run. I force them to settle for coughing in Max’s ear. I hear Ms. Mba turning her breathlessness into something intense and deliberate. Mr. Valentine just sounds a bit sick.
Agent Drescher goes limp. I almost fall over. “No,” he states. His feet are heavy on the concrete walk and he waits for me to lose my grip.
"Don’t recall asking." My back stiffens. He is like a giant toddler. "News is being created and you know where. We are going with you."
Mr. Valentine steps around me. He takes Agent Drescher off my hands. The small man eyes the dirty ground that is now more than a foot from his shoes and I straighten, pointing dramatically, seriously at the moon.
I say, “Everyone knows what that means.”
The deepening sky is a projection screen for a two-dimensional robed giantess. Her translucent figure, enrobed by rivers of blue, gazes down at the planet with an expression of hopeless pity, her palms flat together as if glued. Barefoot, she stands on bright-white Luna- a cyclopean illustration planted on the biggest rock in Earth’s orbit.
Agent Drescher’s eyes roll up in his sockets; he can’t see much from where Mr. Valentine holds him. But he knows what I am pointing at.
"Oh, go home, Publisher," he commands with diminishing authority in his voice. "Take your minions with you and do whatever the fuck it is you do every other night of the year."
Mr. Valentine volunteers defensively, “This is what we do every night of the year.”
Ms. Mba is working with her tablet. “Gah, don’t draw me like this!” Agent Drescher squirms. Mr. Valentine tightens his grasp on the freeagent’s sides but the large man nips his lip and wrinkles his forehead.
I lean forward into Agent Drescher’s face before Mr. Valentine’s weak stomach makes him free our only source for Tonight’s Biggest Newsbreak. “That is Gemignani’s sign up there. He’s awfully proud of something. You were going to meet up with him, no? All we want is to watch and that is no problem, yes?”
"Fuck you." The freeagent’s tense, damp face is more unhappy than angry.
I watch Agent Drescher file this moment for future reference. “I don’t give a shit. Stalk, don’t stalk. I won’t protect you.”
I lean back. “Not asking you to.” He is trying way too hard. “Mr. Valentine, put him down.”
I want Darktimes News to be more violent. All this darkness is all well and good, but it threatens to become dull.
Then again, I don’t want to imitate the many many many dystopias that have gone before me in fiction. Was reading about the world of Judge Dredd earlier. I freakin’ love that stuff. And of course Avery Cates, and Robocop, Total Recall, etc. Always with the over-populated cities spilling all over the map. Always with the romping crime. (Darktimes News has privatized “agents” who do whatever the heck their agents want, so at least there is a reason for criminals to be a bit frisky.)
So we must avoid the template of a futuristic city awash in crime and population statistics.
It looks promising that I am about to segue into the “Theophany” story arc, and the “Fifth Kingdom” arc (complete with the “Guam” story) will find its way into the picture. This will spike the punch.
Hm. “Theophany” is of course about faith, religion, the paranormal, etc. “Fifth Kingdom” delves more into politics and the meaning of an American life. What is “Darktimes News” about? What is its theme? Well, I didn’t develop the other arcs with that question in mind, so I suppose I will leave “Darktimes News” alone and let it grow into itself.
Threw a bit of a rant earlier about how perfect characters are poor writing, beyond unrealistic, and grating to the soul. Mom just sat there and said zilch, which was her way of disagreeing with me, which is one thing but I hate the feeling that she is analyzing my rants, prying my words apart to see what lies under them. Nothing, Mom, nothing but the fact that there is no such thing as a perfect person and if you try to create one he or she will just take up space in the story until death. It’s a horrible thing to create a perfect character. Not fair to the character, to the reader who must deal with what is on the page, or to the writer.
But that comes up in “Theophany” too, doesn’t it? The golems (whatever I wind up calling them) who have no knowledge of good and evil and are therefore walking victims. It would be a horrible thing to be a perfect person in this world. Even Jesus was tempted by Satan, cursed the fig tree, and lost his temper in his Father’s house. He told his most devout followers to be “as sly as snakes”.
At any rate. More violence for this book, though it may all take place in the “Theophany” arc. “Darktimes News” may always be more on the disturbing side. “Fifth Kingdom”, what I have written of it so far, is definitely normal on the surface but off-kilter beneath. Appropriate for a story about a country known by all to be an “experiment”.
Saw something interesting on a Sherlock fandom post earlier. Something about how calling an action an “experiment” justifies everything. I suppose that is the rationale behind everything that happens to America. Hello, Great Experiment. Hello, test tubes and glass slides and tweezers and vivisection.
When the robot died, a ghost of electricity and lost data condensed in the daycare room. The robot’s ghost watches as his fathers gather up the plastic toys and happy posters. One father tucks the robot’s cooling fuselage and chassis under his arm and carries the body out the door. The tallest father sweeps the floor, whisking away the dirt the robot tracked in yesterday from the lawn. An urge to go outside makes the robot’s ghost whisper with static but he stays in the room as his fathers bring in his gleaming aluminum and silicon form, as well as charts, tables, and tools. They take apart the robot’s body. Draining its system of oil, removing the skin plating and wheels, boxing the parts in labeled cardboard compartments, the robot’s fathers talk about measurements, statistics, test results, random access memory, learned behavior.
the room is boring without his things he tries to play with his memories many of them are corrupted files
his fathers never speak of him they are interested in algorithms and wires "this will increase face-recognition skills for the final model”
"make the sensors more sensitive for the final model”
After a long time the robot’s ghost moves on from his room because it will never be his room again. He looks elsewhere for plastic toys and happy posters. He finds robot bodies that look like the one in which he used to live. They are sealed in paper boxes and stacked on shelves. People pick up the boxes and walk away with them. To the robot’s ghost all the people look like his fathers.
one day he meets electricity and lost data a cloud of silent energy that isn’t him he mingles with another robot’s ghost
millions of robots are sold to families millions of robots play with children in happy rooms with plastic balls and dolls
they recognize faces they are sensitive
Artificial life is a reality after millennia of science and magic.
the sky hums with digital ghosts millions of lives created by mortal gods who did not create a digital Heaven
I’m likely to rewrite #4 later. Heck, I have to rewrite all the chapters thus far; I’m basically posting my first draft here. Eh, I am *writing* it, and that is what matters. I am tired and I didn’t take care of myself at all today. Don’t feel so good. Stupid weak flesh (or should I blame my spirit for being so willing? if my spirit didn’t get lofty ideas then my flesh wouldn’t be outed as so weak).
Hello, morning people. I stayed up all night for this. I have protected myself against sunlight, purposeful pedestrians, the self-important sense of the normal, and boredom. See these sunglasses and earbuds streaming good music into my ears? Protection. Can’t hear a thing the suit-garbed whoevers are saying. They’d hate to know that. They look great on that stage. American flags flood the background and everyone up on that stage is groomed and presentable for a world that judges everything by how much it smells like soap and money.
If something passes the sniff test, it is deemed normal, in Morning World.
The sun is warm in my hair. My feet are cold in their sneakers. Ms. Mba to my left is scrunched over her tablet, hastily sketching everyone that makes her spidey senses tingle. The black scarf tied around her head hangs to her knees and catches the same breeze that ruffles the American flags, as if representing a rival nation and issuing a challenge.
Hello, morning people. We hail from Nighttime, and are a long way from home. We are here to record your ways, which are considered normal only because you have decided they will be. We’d like to ignore you every day of the year but sometimes you don’t make that possible.
The guy who is talking now is one of the city’s mayors. Can’t hear a thing. He looks proud of himself. Wonder if he is as boring as his haircut is. Way to give the impression of being poured out of an economy-size bottle of generic-brand Standardized Normal. Okay, I am being bitchy. Never mind. I text notes to my email address.
Annual community draw announcement a smiling & sanitized coffee klatch as per the usual
The gathering of people who want to buy the first tickets are more hot n fizzy with desire than last year could be my imagination
Nah there are people who have been here 9 years in a row that’s a long time to live with a dream like this one
I remind myself to text more professionally. These are notes, not entries in a diary.
Tickets this year are goldenrod with a fat font. Number of attendees estimated at 500.
Ms. Mba flicks my arm with her fingers. I remove one earbud. She shakes her head and points to her tablet. I push the earbud back in before I start understanding what the mayor is saying and look at Ms. Mba’s sketches. She thumbs through the pages and keeps checking to make sure I am paying attention.
Oh, I am.
It wasn’t my imagination. Ms. Mba’s selected faces from the crowd have been peeled raw by her stylus, all eyes and mouths, like skinned people crazed by torture. The expressionist sketches represent what Ms. Mba sees in these people ready for the community draw.
Hiding behind my sunglasses, I eyeball those nearest me. God, I want to go home and sleep. Some like it hot, I recite. It’s never failed to motivate me because who wants to admit to preferring a lukewarm life? I text my email address.
9th anniversary of annual community draw. More potential entrants same number of cops and drones present.
Last year’s likely winner was that woman whose uncle burned to death in his own car on the city’s Left side. She threw herself on his coffin even though
She had been known to frequent our better beerhalls and decry his existence, declaring him Douchebag, Animal Hater, etc.
You know the rules kids. One lucky boy or girl will win one (1) free murder, which the freeagents will overlook no matter how sloppy you are.
If your family and/or friends realize what you did and don’t take it well, that’s your problem.
Statistics have been showing an impressive drop in first-degree murders and crimes of passion over the past nine years. I would never argue with the success. A lottery of prize money gives the wretched poor something to think about. The community drawing does the same for the agonized and afflicted citizens who hate an enemy to the point of planning sweet, sweet freedom.
I don’t bother digging through the crowd for an appearance of Regal Dahl. He wouldn’t be here; he wants something very different. The sane people here have special problems that his splintered little mind couldn’t even hold down for a curious look.
Hate is stronger than love. Prejudice is more powerful than inclusion. Anger, hunger, and lust cannot be beaten by anything, just tied up inside a sane person by personal goodness and fear.
Remove fear of punishment and you find out just how good you really are.
The mayor finally steps down, glowing with the thrill of public speaking. A smattering of talkifying follows from divers minions, then all suits depart into herds of box-shouldered freeagents. This concludes the opening of this year’s annual community draw. Tickets will now be on sale at convenient locations near you.
I close my eyes and mind and jump into memories of gears. They turned, a harmonious knot of brass, square teeth bigger than my head. Cool metal chewed me up. It was like being eaten by a clockwork giant. It felt so good. Everything finally mashed into faceless irrelevance so I didn’t have to justify my existence anymore. It hurt as much as I deserved.
I go into the nearest liquor store and buy a ticket. Only one. If mine isn’t drawn then all the tickets printed wouldn’t matter; none of them would be drawn. That’s destiny for you. The sunburned guy behind the counter and cash register gives me my ticket as he would have handed over a box of condoms or a pack of conspicuously obsolete razor blades. Liquor stores are little Amazons of embarrassing items and this guy doesn’t give a shit who does what with whatever.
Won’t say who I have in mind. That’s not the kind of thing I would want to see on the front page of the Times. Nothing tastes better these days than a private thought.
I pocket the ticket and step out of the store. Ms. Mba is still standing by the stage and sketching. Not sure what she is drawing now and my head is too lumpy with tiredness to care. Fuck it, I have more than enough details to write the Darktimes News story myself. Later.
I even know what the lead-in will be.
An estimated 500 citizens silently aired their right to a grievance in the Triangle yesterday morning, openly sending their cry to the City, in rejection of a Heaven who answers every prayer with a demand for patience. 500 people reached for the offered grace of an unjust judge who knows that not all situations can be ignored forever.
When someone is an alcoholic or addict, they may have this person who enables them and makes the world about the addicted one.
If the addicted one recovers, there is something that somehow doesn’t change. Whoever was the enabler to begin with will continue to enable. A bad temper, a tendency to lie, a swollen ego, attitude problems… all these things will be enabled. You will be blamed when you don’t find the recovered alcoholic/addict the most charming thing ever.
Mr. Valentine isn’t answering his cell. Well, now I have to look for him. He’s turned off social tracking as if that has anything to do with the identity tracking still in his phone. A few thousand people in suits could find him with enough accuracy to pepper spray him in the left eye from a moving car but I just have to hope he hasn’t changed his schedule. My car broke eons ago so I walk across a street and into an evil wind. I tug my scarf over my mouth. I appreciate the lingering sweet taste in my mouth from a donut topped with maple-flavored glaze. It fades by degrees every time I swallow.
Someone passes me every few minutes. Light from streetlamps is powdery on the gray walls of generic buildings. A glinting disk of a surveillance drone makes the rounds hundred of feet over my head, silent but for a subtle static that foams inside my ears. It must be due for maintenance. To my right a cautious, solemn drumbeat- pom pompom pom- holds hands with voices singing sincere words, one of the buildings sounding hollow and despairing as the musicians inside gravely repeat the words kyrie eleison, christe eleison, kyrie eleison, christe eleison.
Mr. Valentine hasn’t changed his schedule, thank whoever. Thank Mr. Valentine, I guess. He’s outside a bar whose name I’ve never bothered to remember- the bars are all alike, full of people getting piss drunk and talking dangerous politics like a bunch of Soviets- on the loop street. He pretty much sticks to the loop street when hawking the paper edition of Darktimes News. Goes into the bars and sells papers to inebriated people hungry for information they can relate to. He’s good at bringing more news back home with him at the end of his route. He’s over seven feet tall; when he straightens his spine he can see everything that happens within a radius I can’t imagine. Wonder what it’s like to see that much of the world just by walking around. Maybe that’s why he slouches usually.
Mr. Valentine’s arms are empty- he sold all the papers, good man- and he is leaning over to talk to a profile.
A couple decades ago we had emos and hipsters. Now we have profiles. I know this one, a small man of sharp colors. Black shoes; black coat with white accents, and white metal zipping it shut in the front; one gun in each hand, black ceramic in the right and white porcelain in the left. Max Drescher has those guns out. All. The. Time.
His yarmulke is a swirling taijitu- the black and white symbol of yin and yang.
“Agent Max,” I call respectfully, hopping onto the curb. Mr. Valentine looks up, and Max peeks over his shoulder before relaxing and turning to face me. A shiny Star of David as large as my palm and as white as a gumball hangs over his stomach from an identically colored chain around his neck.
Online, his Counted profile is black and white and tastefully decorated with a taijitu background and icons of Judaism. Here Max stands, looking like his profile. Some of us resent like hell that we are required by law to have a Counted profile. “Your participation counts. Be counted!” I wanted to punch those PSAs in their shit-eating grins. But some of us run with it.
“Heya,” says Max.
“Publisher,” greets Mr. Valentine. I nod. He is over seven feet tall and Max is what? Five-two? Whenever I see them chatting I always wish I were rude enough to take a pic. Old, whiny rock music grates from inside the poorly lit bar to our sides. Soul Asylum, I think. I wouldn’t have imagined Soul Asylum would become classic rock. It sounds like freakin country to my modern ears.
“Mr. Valentine. Answer your phone, dammit.”
He winces, hands stuffed in the pockets of his charcoal-gray overcoat. “Sorry, Publisher. I was eavesdropping as I sold papers. I didn’t want the phone to go off.”
“Hm. Did you hear anything good?”
Mr. Valentine brightens. “Oh. I have notes.” He is so careful to sound blase and unimpressed with his notes he winds up making me think he overheard plans to blow up the world.
“Cool. We’ll look them over later.”
“Did you want me for something, Publisher?”
“I’ve been thinking. Would you be willing to take Mr. Israel’s place for a while on his assignment?”
Mr. Valentine’s face tightens into a round-eyed gape. Max Drescher casually looks from him to me and says, “Regal Dahl, wasn’t it?”
I don’t remember telling Max about that. “Yes,” I say. No point in denying it. The whole project is recorded somewhere. I wonder if freeagents have been getting access to Leadership data somehow.
“That guy’s a freak,” offers Max. “We’d love to wipe him off the earth. But not till he actually does something.”
Mr. Valentine is shaking his head at me.
“You wouldn’t want to take the assignment?” I check. “Even for just a week or two? Mr. Israel needs a break.”
“Please don’t make me do that.”
“Don’t blame you, Janus,” says Max. I give him a look to let him know how unhelpful he is being.
“You’re certain you can’t do anything about Regal Dahl.” I’ll throw the ball in his court, if he wants it so badly. “I’ve seen freeagents take down people merely for being annoying.”
The profile’s irked expression rewards me. “The other agencies are lazy bastards who pull names off the lists. It’s not my agency’s policy to jump people just for anything. Not even for being freaks. They have to actually hurt somebody or break something. Every agency has its own policy and mine is fairly old-fashioned about who gets neutralized.”
“Doesn’t sound old-fashioned, strictly speaking. It sounds constitutional.”
“HA,” erupts Max, turning his white porcelain gun into his palm to safely point at me. “You know the rules. Don’t say anything you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the Times.”
“That paper is safe morning news for morning people who like to feel safe,” I opine. “Fuck ‘em.”
The static in my ears is fizzing mist. The drone is in the distance now but hanging around in the sky like a narc in a hospital ward of suspiciously mellow cancer patients.
Mr. Valentine is hunching his back and shoulders into a painful bunch, as if seeking a hideout in his own coat. Max is laughing. I am afraid but I made my choice some time ago, a choice I can’t take back now. Who knows how many of the lists feature my name. My phone reports my location. I go where I want. Surveillance drones catch me in the act of being. I do what I want. I say what I want. Not an uncommon choice.
I swear we are playing chicken with each other. The Leadership and the people getting more outrageous, each going as far as they can and hoping they won’t be the ones to swerve.
A tangle of people shared a bag of candy, huddled under the rain, just out of the reach of a streetlamp’s white rays. This reporter saw Regal Dahl stand under the light and stare at the group until the people noticed him, got edgy, and left. Regal Dahl let them leave. As of the 2 AM hour last night, Regal Dahl has still not killed anyone. Keep buying Darktimes News for regular updates.
I had 300 cards printed with the latest Regal Dahl development. People can’t get enough of news cards about Regal Dahl. Shadowing Regal Dahl is pretty much Mr. Israel’s entire job now. I expect all 300 cards to sell before 4 AM. One of these days Regal Dahl is finally gonna kill someone and that will ruin the mystique. Till that happens, you couldn’t pray for a better boon to business than Regal Dahl.
That didn’t come out right.
"It’s just something I wanna do," mumbles Regal Dahl on my phone’s scuffed LCD screen. He looks bored, as usual. His mouth is a straight line of flat affect, while his eyes look like his mind is repeating one word over and over. And over. I can never tell what color his eyes are because I am never not distracted by the lack of light in them. I’ve also never seen him in person. That could have something to do with it.
A couple in front of me in line is choosing donuts from the glossy bakery case. They are walking thinspo, their mismatched clothes and coats hanging on them like moss. They hold hands; in the buzzing, bright light of the Important Donut Shop, their tired skin looks like it’s going to fall off their faces and they keep looking at each other, as if checking on each other. They are women who look like they are running out of places to be. So why not be at the Important Donut Shop.
Interesting name for a donut place, isn’t it?
"It’s just about wanting to do it," says Regal Dahl, reaching up to rub the back of his damp, frowzy haircut. In the black and silent background a wet road hosts a single, slow car and its white headlights. The high beams mix into the December drizzle like a misty colloid. Regal Dahl keeps confessing as if the car doesn’t contain a human being, as if Mr. Israel behind his cameraphone isn’t a human being. "Nothing. Just wanting to feel someone die."
I hope the couple in front of me isn’t listening to this. They look like they have enough problems.
"Feel them die?" prompts Mr. Israel off screen. His voice is grotesquely curious. Don’t know how much of that is for show, or pretending to appreciate the deathwatch of an assignment he is on till further notice. I know he doesn’t enjoy it. He’s told me. He wants another assignment.
Regal Dahl stretches his hands forward, palms out. “Feel them die. Just seeing it wouldn’t be good enough.”
The illustrations for the image sides of news cards about Regal Dahl are black-and-white geometric portraits of him standing, looking asleep. Or patient. I suspect Ms. Mba doesn’t draw what she sees when she watches Mr. Israel’s videos of Regal Dahl. I’ve never asked, but I think she draws what he is. Either asleep or waiting.
I look at his tripartite face- the bored expression, the meaningless shape of the mouth, the dull eyes that hint at a repetitive mind. His smooth hands are white in the low light.
I wrench my focus away from the screen and look up deliberately. The women ahead of me in line are heading for me. I clutch my phone to my chest as if to shut up Regal Dahl’s tiny, recorded voice- and the couple walks past me. The brunette holds a pink paper bag in one bony hand, the other laced with the fingers of her girlfriend. I turn to watch them go, their honest scents of sweat and hairspray sinking into my consciousness, together with the aura of their humanity. The humanity they share with each other, with me, with everyone BUT Regal Dahl.
A second before the belled door closes I am very afraid for them. The Important Donut Shop rings shut.
I stand lonely in fluorescent light so bright it’s obnoxious. The shop always feels like it is open to ward off vampires, to award survivors a haven from zombies, to root holy illumination into the darkness we live in between midnight and dawn. The owner told me once why he named it the Important Donut Shop. I don’t know his name, he is friendly enough and chats but treats his name like a secret. He said:
It’s a donut shop that is open late when so few places are. People can go to bars or clubs or those freaky-kinky cafes full of ladies dressed like maids and shit. Or they can come here and eat a donut, sit down, look outside or forget outside. While eating a donut. Isn’t that important?
It’s so blazingly well lit in here the city outside the plate-glass windows is obfuscated by contrast.
I turn off my phone without looking at it.
One of these days, Regal Dahl is finally gonna kill someone. It will be news. I will print it on many cards, maybe as many as 500. The people who want their night news on cards will want that card. And after that, there will be no more mystique to Regal Dahl.
Whenever stuff happens, news is created. It’s a law of God. Stuff happens in the morning, creating bleary-eyed news with little focus- lots of governing figures making statements that won’t make sense after everyone has gotten some coffee in them. I won’t turn on the radio in the morning, keep that news away from me. After lunchtime people have gotten their footing and they start doing stupid shit, or trying to be heroes, feeling pretty important either way. It keeps going like that. By prime time, stuff happens as if people got paid by the hour to be random and the resulting news makes my brain feel greasy. While most of the country is catching up on the evening’s headlines I’m watching DVDs of Breaking Bad. Stuff keeps happening, the news keeps being created, and it gets tired, and it gets hysterical, hitting the wall of midnight and scrambling over it, landing on the other side with eyes a little too bright, voice a little too hushed.
Around 1 AM, the news gets eldritch.
We publish night news. On paper because I like paper, on the internet because I like that too, and on cards for the eccentric set. The cards I am especially proud of. Publishing the news on cards is like drawing a hand of tarot in hindsight. It’s beautiful. I need more eccentric customers so we can publish more news on cards. Glossy matte finish, headlines in garish fonts.
On the internet we keep it short.
ME: Mr. Makarov, cut out all those adjectives. Trim the fat.
MAKAROV: Fuck you, the story’s only 53 words and if I cut more words I may as well cut off my arms to make sure I never write again, that would trim the fat forever, you want me to cut off my arms too? Fuck you.
Mr. Makarov is a little high strung.
ME: You don’t need adjectives. I see four of ‘em. Everybody knows streets are cold after a December rain. Don’t need to say they’re cold. Everybody knows a prostitute looks bitter when she stands around waiting for work to walk by. Don’t need to say bitter. When the stray parakeet lands on the streetlight and won’t stop staring at her, don’t need to say it’s “ineffably creepy”. There’s an adverb too there.
MARAKOV: Why don’t I walk down the road miming the story to passersby?!
ME: Cut it. The prostitute wordlessly loses her shit and pulls pepper spray on the parakeet. The can is almost empty and the spray doesn’t quite reach so the bird keeps staring as yellow poison dusts the street. This raises the ire of the local amateur monk, who starts trying to wash pepper spray off the ants on the sidewalk. Keep amateur, not everyone knows who Monk Natsumi is. We should get an interview with her. Ok, three adjectives. But cut that adverb, so it’s still only 49 words. Hit the post button, I’m going for a donut.
Mr. Marakov swears some more and reaches for a nearby machete. I’m going for a donut. Even if he cuts off his arms in the ultimate expression of tortured art, he’ll learn to type with his nose. Like anything could shut him up.
Darktimes News is only one office, tables and chairs and computers tumbled together with collectibles and souvenirs and found objects, everybody inadvertently smelling each other’s bodies as they type, print, laminate. We’re human beings who know each other’s smells too well to ever love or hate each other.
When stuff happens, news is created. I sense that we make news ourselves. Mr. Marakov, Mr. Valentine, Ms. Mba, Mr. Israel, and me. We make news but who’s going to report it?
The murders are more creative after 1 AM, the temporary insanity more widespread, memories rising from the dead and the gods leaving us mortals to deal with each other as we think best. I don’t know whether or not demons come out for these hours. It seems to me that the night belongs to the flesh and the blood. When people are left alone, they make the only news that I care about.