The Good – Chapter 2 – “Lessons”

Prologue | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2

The young graduate student stood in a ray of light at the front of the lecture hall, motes of dust eddying around him. He hadn’t said a word since he entered minutes earlier. Two dozen undergrads sat in a rough semicircle, some with pens poised over writing pads, others reviewing their reading assignment. The makeshift professor, about thirty years old, wore grey vest and trousers (not pants) somewhere between khaki and squash green. He was the only one  in the room with skin darker than paper. He had never taught a class before.

Malcolm Worthy took a plunging breath, looked up at the young, white faces, and began. “You have all at this point met Socrates, I trust. You have also met Euthyphro of Prospalta, a seer of ancient Athens. This brings us to the famous Dilemma. Who wants to summarize it for the class?” Several arms shot into the air. “Yes.” He nodded at a young man.

The student lowered his hand and said,  “The question is whether G-d loves piety because it’s pious, or whether piety is pious because G-d loves it.”

Professor Worthy stared at the student like he was a suspicious green fleck on a loaf of bread. “Where are you from?”

The blonde, square-jawed kid blinked in surprise. “Rhode Island, sir.”

“A veritable wasp hive,” boomed the professor as he rested his elbows on his lectern. “I assume that paganism is dead in Providence.”

“Sorry?”

“There aren’t many polytheists there. No druids or shamans?”

“No-”

“No witches or gurus?”

“I don’t-”

“So I think that when you phrase a question shared by Socrates and Euthyphro, a prophet of the ancient Greek religion, as a question about G-d, you’re involving your own experience with priests and pews in Newport in a philosophical question that has nothing whatsoever to do with you. Am I correct, Chadwick?”

“My name is Lesley, sir,” said the student, his face drained of blood.

“Irrelevant,” said the professor. Lesley fell silent. “The original Dilemma involved what the gods, that’s gods plural, desired unanimously. But since you brought it up,” said Malcolm, eyeing the New Englander with kindness. “The Euthyphro Dilemma, in Lesley’s adapted form, is a fundamental issue for monotheists as well, and has earned the attention of some of history’s greatest minds. Now, let’s see if we can approach the underlying challenges…let’s split the room. Divide. Those who think piety is absolute, sit to my,” he thought for a moment, “left. Those who think G-d is absolute, to my right.” There was a general shuffling of papers and scraping of seats as the students rearranged themselves into two surprisingly equal groups.

“Let’s see who’s open to some edification,” said the professor. Pampered idiots, he thought.

 

 

“I hate heels,” said Natalie into the phone cradled against her shoulder as she pulled on leather pumps. She watched the store’s other patrons, a mother and daughter, pick through a kids’ sneakers section awash in pink plastic. Natalie’s own mother taught her early in life that style and comfort were not, in general, exclusive. Except in high heels.

“Must be tough being the female,” said the phone in Roger’s voice, sarcasm intact. “Paid to fly around the world, eat in the finest restaurants, and speak sweetly to powerful men.” As always, she could hear the clacking of a keyboard in the background.

“Not always sweetly,” she said absently and stood up. She grimaced in the precarious footwear but did not lose her balance.

“I yet again dive the dumpsters of humanity while you shop in boutiques,” complained the hacker, last syllables crackling with contempt.

“One hundred dollars’ worth of petty cash says you have never shopped a boutique in your life.”

“Nat’!” said Roger. “You ought to know it’s the principle of the thing!”

“‘Principle of the thing’ sets my ego detector on edge,” she offered. Should have taken up hacking, she thought. Roger gets to work barefoot.

“You don’t believe in principles now?” he asked. He loved to dance in for a conversational jab and pirouette to a new topic before she could pin him. “I thought you work for the Good of mankind-”

“Hey,” she hissed. “You shouldn’t say that, even on a secure line.”

“It’s way more suspicious than the angry whispering,” he said, punctuating with a vicious strike to his Enter key.

“If I had no principles, would I subject myself to ancient Chinese foot binding?”

“People torture themselves all the time, no principles required,” said Roger. “Or maybe you haven’t run into any self-loathing. Who could hate himself in a three-thousand-dollar suit?”

“You could have nice clothes, you know,” said Natalie. “All you have to do is ask.”

These people ask,” spat Roger. “You can’t spend five minutes in a hacker chat without twelve high-school kids asking how to steal. And when I ridicule them they try to cover up their fearful leeching with bad humor.”

Natalie rolled her eyes as she left the shoe department. “You know that you’re a high-school kid in a hacker chat room, right?”

“Yeah, but I’m not afraid.”

“He’d be happy to get you some nice clothes. You wouldn’t be stealing. A friend can still give a friend a gift, can’t they?” She rifled through power blouses. She needed something that said ‘I can destroy you.’ Classily.

“Friends don’t let friends take things for free.”

“Had a lot of friends, have you?”

All she heard was typing, a pleasant rhythm to her ears.

 

 

“You think,” said the professor, nose-to-nose with Lesley, eyes glinting, “that if I murdered you right now, it would be wrong only because an omnipotent being said so?”

Logically, the student knew that the proposed murder was merely a rhetorical device. Logically. “If that being created the world, He gets to make the rules, right?” said Lesley.

Malcolm rounded on the students behind his back. “Why is he wrong?”

“He’s wrong because if he’s right, there’s no such thing as objective morality,” drawled a woman with carrot-colored hair and angular glasses.

“No,” said the professor. “He’s saying that the desires of an absolute being determine absolute morality. It doesn’t get more absolute than that. Now, if-”

“It’s a self-contradictory position,” said the woman.

Malcolm took a breath to calm his nerves. “What’s your name?”

“Amanda.”

“From where?”

“Jackson, Mississippi, professor.” Malcolm heard some man snickering behind his back, and Amanda shot a look over his shoulder that could pierce bulkheads. “Is my birthplace relevant?” she asked.

He stared at her, face unreadable and heart soaring, and said, “No. I’m sorry. You were interrupting?”

“I was, before I was interrupted,” she said with a coy smirk. “His position is contradictory. If you don’t believe in a piety above G-d, then there’s no reason to serve Him in the first place.”

“Go on.”

“There can be no worth in choosing to obey G-d’s commands if the only possible motivations to do so aren’t pious. If you have righteousness and sin before you, there is no compelling reason to choose one over the other. You’d have to already have chosen righteousness to choose righteousness, and that’s impossible.”

“Lesley?” Malcolm called out. “Any thoughts?”

“No, sir,” he said, puzzled.

“Really? Well, how about we tell her this: If there is morality without G-d, then G-d is limited, beholden to a deity of his own, and isn’t G-d at all, is he?”

“Not a problem,” said Amanda. “I don’t believe in Him anyway.”

“But do you believe in man?” His eyes fixed on hers. Green, he thought.

“In woman, at least,” she said.

“Fair enough. So either you think that there is some kind of true morality divorced from a deity, or you think that there is no absolute morality and man – sorry, woman – must decide for herself what is right. If you claim the former, you have to explain how you are privy to this secret information; the latter, you don’t really believe in right and wrong at all.”

“What do you believe, professor?” asked Amanda.

“I believe that if you wanted easy answers, you should have stayed in Jackson,” he said as he stepped away from his students toward his desk, where his briefcase waited, lunch within. “Read the next hundred pages, for next time,” he said to the class as they began to filter out.

Amanda smiled to herself as she stepped into the California sunshine.

 

 

“Mister?” repeated the boy. He was about to punch his sister for his ball when the smelly old man said they shouldn’t fight with each other. Normally, an adult’s words wouldn’t earn Cody’s attention, but the man’s words reminded the eight-year-old of his father’s, kind and amused. Weird. Even weirder, he looked like a homeless guy, but he wasn’t on the street. He had a dirty plastic chair and sat next to an ATM in the little store and was, like, a million years old. When Cody asked why he shouldn’t fight with Dana, the old man got the same look in his eye Cody’s father got when he talked about the army, and didn’t say anything for a while. “Are you okay?” he asked. He took a cautious step closer to the ATM and tried not to breathe the miasmic hobo air.

The man jolted like he just woke up, and smiled. Cody stepped back. “Where are you parents?” he asked.

“My father’s next door,” said Cody.

“Would he want you to fight with your sister?”

“No, but she took my ball!”

“What’s more important? A happy dad or a ball?”

The kid stared.

“Your father loves you. You should try to make him happy.”

“He’s not here,” said Cody. Homeless and dumb? “And she took my ball. It’s mine.”

“Yeah, but she thinks-” he paused, and scratched at his ragged hair. “You know what? You shouldn’t punch your sister because it’s wrong to punch your sister.”

“Oh. Why didn’t you just say that?” asked Cody. He wandered off to browse the toy section.

Malcolm shook his head, bemused.

 

 

“You’d hope congressmen would be smarter,” said Roger into his headset as he scanned stolen credit card offers online.

“He was just trying to help. We both know he’s not the problem. He’s-”

“The victim of a system?” asked Roger gaily. It was an invitation to reopen an old argument of theirs. If she picked up the gauntlet it was all over; a conversation of at least four hours terminated by mutual declarations of hatred and furious hanging up was sure to follow. Roger desperately wanted it.

He could practically hear her eyes lock with determination as she said, “Yes, he-”

The sound of a rude pipe bursting roared from her phone so loudly she had to hold it away from her ear. She brought it back in time to hear “-we don’t believe in systems!”

“Now, now,” she said, as she finally rang up her new purchases, “there are some types of what could be called systems that we certainly-”

“Nat’,” he said, quiet, deflated. “I can’t believe it…someone’s…”

“What?” she asked, as her chest dropped into her stomach. She never heard Roger sound so scared. “What’s happening? Are you alright?”

“Gotta go,” she heard, followed by the tone of an empty line.

Roger recoiled from his laptop screen, rolling halfway across the room on his chair as if a snake lay on his desk. His IRC window was open, and on its bottom line, the toxic words:

EvilHunter: Tell me about the Good, Roger.”

 

 

“You can trust me, Willie,” said Mr. Bell, school counselor, as he shut the door to his office. “Want to tell me what’s on your mind?”

“Am I in trouble?”

“No, but, honestly, that’s kind of why your teachers are worried about you. You’re not paying attention in class, but you’re not goofing around with your friends, either. They think you might have something on your mind. It’s my job to check that you’re okay, man.” Mr. Bell sat on the edge of his desk and fiddled with a Rubik’s cube. The teacher was in his early thirties and wore a bright purple shirt, dark tie, and black jeans. He and Willie had never spoken before.

“How does it work? I have confidentiality and stuff, right?”

“And stuff,” nodded the teacher. “As long as no one’s gonna get hurt, including you.”

“It’s nothing serious, Mr. Bell, it’s just-”

“Joe.”

“Okay,” said Willie. “Have you ever met anyone who’s…different?”

“Different how?”

“See, that’s the thing. I don’t really know. He just was.”

“Well, tell me about it.”

“I was in a convenience store a couple of days ago, after school. Buyin’ Doritos.” Mr. Bell’s eyebrows rose infinitesimally, but he said nothing. “There’s this homeless guy who’s been staying there, and he…talked to me.” Willie had been about to say ‘knew my name,’ but an instinctive distrust of teachers from deep in his brain censored the detail. Mr. Bell waited. “He said that no one decides for me. That was the main thing, I think; I can’t remember all the parts. But he said that no one is responsible for me except for me. Not economics and not politics, he said, but I don’t know what he meant. He was so…different, somehow.”

Mr. Bell rested back on his palms and glanced at Willie’s file from the corner of his eye. “Is your mother okay?” asked the teacher.

“She’s alright,” said Willie.

“I’m glad to hear that,” said the teacher. Though he knew they would discuss all sorts of things over the next half hour, Joseph Bell already yearned for the moment when the student would leave his office and he could search online for a list of local convenience stores.

The Good – Chapter 1 – “Chats”

Prologue | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2

“As far as technically illegal deals with lobbyists go,” Martin Bridge’s staffer told him as he left the office, “this one’s a no-brainer.” Martin walked down the steps to the black Escalade that always awaited him. Jerry, his man from the Capitol Police, held the door open for him and waited for the representative from Nebraska to slide into the back before he took his own seat behind the wheel and asked, “Where to, sir?”

“The Lincoln Memorial, please, Jerry.” If the bodyguard chauffeur was surprised, he didn’t show it. The car rolled off.

Martin sat in silence and brooded the whole way there, fingers at his salt-and-pepper temples. As a rookie congressman he appreciated his experienced staff, but the word ‘illegal’ still sent a shiver down his neck. He had no personal knowledge of lobbying laws but from the number of times they reviewed the procedure with him he had an idea of the price of indiscretion. He needed some fresh air. And a hot dog.

The April day was breezy and the cherry blossoms were in bloom as he walked down one of the arcing boulevards near the memorial. Miguel’s stand wasn’t in its usual spot in the shadow of the columned temple. Why, he asked himself, did everything in Washington have to be so complicated? He came here to do some good for his fellow countrymen, but he found out quickly just how many twisted rings one had to leap through to walk in a straight line in Washington, DC. If anyone was to listen to his proposals, he needed leverage; leverage was a synonym for money, and for money, was to find out how he could help an American subsidiary of an international body representing Middle East oil interests. It’s just the way it works here, they told Martin over and over. And now even his favorite simple lunch spot had moved, as if some minor political deity decided he ought to eat like an elitist if he was to make a backroom deal that afternoon.

“Are you lookin‘ for Miguel, sir?” called a voice from behind. He turned to see a tall young woman in a confectioner’s uniform with her own hot dog stand identical to Miguel’s just a few feet away.

“I am, actually. Where is he?”

“He wasn’t feeling well. Food poisoning. Ain’t it ironic?” She flashed a thousand-watt smile.

“Well, maybe you can help me-

“You’re hungry,” said the woman. She spoke with a slight Southern twang.

“Ravenous.” He grinned. He described the type of dog he liked and she went to work preparing it. He was about to admonish her for adding too much mustard, but like Miguel her ratios were perfect. He pressed his lips together, impressed.

“I’m proud of bein’ good at what I do,” she offered when she saw his reaction.

“So am I.” She raised a questioning eyebrow. “Why, I’m actually,” he said, the words still novel, “I’m actually a congressman.”

“That’s amazin‘,” she said. “Where from?”

“Nebraska.”

“Wow. I always wanted to live in the countryside. Did you grow up on a farm?”

“I grew up in New York, actually, before my parents moved out west. I was a Brooklyn boy.”

“Brooklyn?” she said, and handed over what to his astonishment was a perfect hot dog. Cherry trees billowed overhead against the clear blue sky. “One of my best friends is from Brooklyn.”

 

 

Roger sat in a dark room, drinking pop and waiting for the boss’s e-mail to slide onto his screen. He browsed as he waited, not in the Roman market of the new Internet, full of order and structure, a million cries for attention out on the cobblestones. No, his world was the catacombs, the mossy, dank underbelly of the ‘net, where people walk quickly, hooded and suspicious, one hand always on their knives, afraid to draw attention to themselves, each involved in his own important business.

He read the words of a thousand different types, of hackers and dissidents and madmen and people just looking for sick laughs. There were dwarves down in those tunnels, stout men of bold heart who chiseled works of stunning beauty from the foundations of the city; there were gnomes, slight and disfigured and afraid of every living thing; there were dark elves, fierce warriors who worshiped dark gods of violence; there were trolls who harried all travelers. The denizens of this dark realm were united only by a disdain for the world of sunlight; the surface dwellers had no inkling of who truly ruled the city.

Roger was raised in those hallowed halls, and he strode them with the confidence of a man at home. He loved the freedom, the wild creativity, the potential of the human mind set free in its beauty and its obscenity. By the time he was twelve, there was no depraved thing in the world he had not seen, and his school friends couldn’t hope to compete with the merry band with which he shared his nights, raiding and pillaging and laughing until sunrise. He was the youngest hacker activist, a squire of the night.

Until the boss found him.

He was herding back in those days, gathering hordes of computers into his employ, mostly for Denial of Service attacks but also for The Big One, the fruit of long hours’ toil. The idea came to him during one of his marathon all-nighters (many become hackers and end up staying awake through the night; he was an insomniac since toddlerhood and ended up hacking): a new method for brute-force attacks, to run on a distributed network of slave machines. A means to an electronic zombie apocalypse.  It was beautiful, it was powerful, it was secret.

He received an e-mail about it.

He didn’t realize the nature of the message at first; it was encrypted, a slice of random-looking information. He assumed it was some kind of error, a postage mix-up. It certainly wasn’t encrypted with his public key, which would allow Roger, and only Roger, to read the message. He forgot about it. It languished in his e-mail for weeks until, on a whim, he tried to decode it using his private key. The one nobody knew but him and that could only be pried from his dead, callused, fingers. It worked. The encryption unraveled. He tried to trace the e-mail, cold sweat dripping down his brow, but the address was utterly anonymous. It could be from some Chinese kid in an internet café, or a hacker collective in Belarus, or the old lady down the hall. His system had been violated by a stranger in the wind.

It made him shudder to think of the childish, violent e-mail he’d sent in return. If he had known the type of person he was insulting…

A metallic ping surfaced through the electric blare of his music to interrupt his thoughts. He switched to his inbox and found the message, terse as always:

FNET/#hax/HELLIX/SHTDWN

He smiled a predator’s smile.

 

 

Willie Stewart flattened himself against the brick wall of the alley, cushioned by his empty backpack. The passerby on Fulton didn’t need to see the three of them huddled closely and speaking to each other’s shoes. “What about the homeless guy?” he asked.

“You’re kiddin‘ me,” spat Jamal, twice Willie’s size and almost twice his age. “He’ll be scared out of his mind. Don’t say you’re running home to your momma now.” He wasn’t Willie’s friendliest uncle.

Willie shook his head. “Just tell me again why I’m the one going in.”

Jamal swore. “How many times do I have to tell you? You’re the youngest. You have a face that says you never committed no crime.”

“I really never did,” said Willie.

Jamal ignored him. “They’ll never see it coming. Now take this.” He produced a nice matte black .22 from his pocket, pulled up Willie’s t-shirt, and shoved the pistol into the teen’s waistband. Willie looked like he just swallowed something terrible that was about to come back up and tugged down on his shirt hem. “We’ll be right behind you,” said Jamal. He grinned. “A couple of hours from now you’ll be pickin‘ out new shoes.” Willie’s head bobbled in affirmation and he lurched out of the alley before he could think of everything that could go wrong with their plan.

He tied a black bandana over his mouth, pulled up his sagging jeans, and pulled open the drugstore door. Bells tinkled overhead. The small store was cluttered and stuffy. On the once-white tiled floor next to the door lay a coarse round red mat, on which a brown mutt awoke, raised an eyelid and twitched its nose, and went back to sleep. Willie approached the deserted counter with its grubby sign informing shoppers at what age they could buy tobacco; it showed a date three years before he was born. Where’s the storekeeper? he wondered. He must be in the back. The chair in the corner near the coffeemaker where the homeless man sat was also empty. His heart ratcheted in his chest.

“Good afternoon, Willie.”

He spun. His gun leapt into his hand. He pointed it into the face of Homeless Guy, who blinked in surprise and took a step back. “Down on the ground!” yelled Willie, voice breaking. The old hobo obeyed, sinking to his knees, hands behind his head. The young robber glanced at the man’s ruined teeth and gnarled dreadlocks and calm face before turning around and vaulting the store’s counter. Cash register: open; Money: into his pack; no sound but his own gasps. Dog: Still asleep; Homeless guy: still on the ground, staring at him. Bag: zipped; Gun: back in his pants. Over the counter. Three steps from freedom.

“Willie,” said the derelict. The teen took his hand off the door and let it swing shut. The bells jingled lightly. He knows my name. The thought caromed around his mind, looking for an emotion to incite. “I know about your uncle,” said the scruffy man, voice a rough slur. Willie’s first instinct was to yank the gun on him again. But then, what? Shoot him?

He knows my name.

“I’m not going to stop you walking out that door,” said the old man. “I’ll never tell anyone who robbed this store. I even sent Mr. Gupta out for a smoke so there’d be no other witnesses.”

“How-”

“Not ‘how.’ Why. Why are you doing this?”

Something in the man’s voice compelled him to stay, though Willie’s every instinct screamed for him to run. The question wasn’t a demand or a rebuke; it was an honest inquiry, and dark patient eyes waited for his answer beneath a wrinkled brow.

“I’m sorry,” he said, feeling like an idiot. “We need this money.”

“I know,” said the hobo, voice thick. He seemed to Willie to visibly slump. “Your mother has cancer, and y’all can’t afford the medicine. Your younger brother goes to special private school. Jamal and his gang want to help, but they don’t have the cash.”

Willie gaped behind the bandana. Who is this guy?

“I wasn’t asking what your reasons are,” said the hobo. “They’re good reasons. I asked why you’re doing this. Do you see the difference?”

Willie was surprised he didn’t hate the question. Sweat dripped into his eyes. He shook his head.

“You have your reasons, but you’re not forced. You do as you please. This is your decision.”

“What choice do I have?” Willie croaked.

“You have all the choice in the world,” thundered the old rasping voice. “You are responsible for what you do today. Whichever way you decide, it is your decision, not your uncle’s or your mother’s. It will not be decided by economic or political forces; it will not be decided by what you watch on TV or who your friends are. Now, Willie Stewart, don’t tell me what you have to do; tell me what you will do, and own it.”

“We need the money.”

“Maybe you need a clear conscience.”

“I’m going.”

“I’ll be here.”

Willie turned and opened the door into the bright light and the fresh air. He ran across the street to Jamal’s waiting car, threw his pack in, and jumped into the back seat. The Pontiac squealed into the flow of traffic. “Any trouble?” asked his uncle, unzipping the pack and examining the cash.

“No. The owner wasn’t even inside. Just the dog and the homeless guy.”

“What’d he do?”

“It was like you said,” Willie lied. “He was scared.”

“Of course he was,” said Jamal. “Ain’t no messin’ with a man with a gun.”

 

 

When Roger peeled back Hellix’s security like a can’s lid and the user’s private information cascaded into his lap, he felt the thrill of finding a good friend in some marketplace halfway around the world. This is what he lived for, once; the hunt, the scam, the theft.

Getting into the machine was like saddling a wild horse: First, the adrenaline of exposure to danger, like a brass section playing high notes in his brain. Then tentative steps, weighing the creature’s intentions.  Next, unwavering, he imposes his will; sweet freedom only comes to those who aren’t afraid to be in control, who don’t mind swinging the saddle over that proud back. Slowly, in the face of his strong will and agile mind, the animal calms, its bucking wanes. It shudders and slumps and surrenders.  Because, deep down, the animal wants to succumb; it needs a master.  And Roger was a master.

His eyes saw Hellix’s real name, address, social security number, and location. His fingers, full of potential energy, waited to harness the data. This was his rebellion, when he took every feeling of alienation, every long, lonely, painful night, every inch of his angst, and shoved it back in the face of the world. It was a nearly unbearable, and when he couldn’t stand mocking his prey any longer, when he was ready to show them just how badly they’d messed up that night, he’d free their information in some nightmarish scheme straight from his imagination and watch their growing panic with satisfaction.

Yes, he lived to hack.

Hellix seemed to be a typical loser, a clone of a thousand other people he could attack, but then, Roger rarely understood the boss’s choices. He’d dig deeper and deeper, cycle through contacts, looking for something, anything that made his mark special. Then he’d give up and do his job.

“Hideous,” he typed into the chat screen as he idly rifled through Hellix’s hard drive. The man (though male was always a safe assumption, Roger had been surprised on that count before, and made sure, for curiosity’s sake, to glean the info from mark’s files) was a typical IRC troll, devoted to harassing anyone who’d lend him attention, more stupid than average for hanging out in a hacker’s chat room. Perhaps there was a mutual arrangement in which the hackers got entertainment and protection from prying eyes (no decent person could spend much time reading anything Hellix typed) while the troll didn’t need to fear the electronic attacks sometimes pressed against his ilk. The thought made Roger click through to his own status program, which monitored his stealth and defenses during jobs. It showed all clear and in the green.

Hellix responded with a volley of obscenities and a link that Roger recognized to a shock site full of terrible, unsettling images. The two of them were the only active chat users; it was the middle of the afternoon, when the unemployed hackers slept and the employed ones worked; their pet ogre watched over the chat room. Roger drew his blade.

“It’s fun to come online anonymously and pretend you’re fourteen years old and don’t care about anything,” he typed. “Let’s you rampage. Release your stress. Some people around these parts even say it’s the healthiest thing; they don’t know how their friends cope without the outlet.” His suddenly thoughtful tone and proper spelling would themselves put Hellix on the defensive. He’d be rushing to figure out how to turn this around and make fun of it, the troll’s only defense. His predictability rendered him harmless to Roger, a hulking video game boss who attacked and retreated in patterns.

“But you’re not anonymous, Eric. You’re a person, just like me. What would your daughter Kaylee say if she knew the things you said on here?” Roger could practically hear the tinkling sound of insurance salesman Eric Spellman’s (alias: Hellix) blood turning to ice.

A pregnant pause ensued, followed by swearing. “Wut r u, the morality police?” he tried to mock.

“I’m gonna have to put that on the list of your quotes I’ll mail to your wife and daughter in Scottsdale.”

“Please don’t do that,” said Hellix, politeness and grammar surfacing as one.

“Relax. I didn’t hack you so I can ruin your life. I hacked you to get your attention.”

“What do you want?”

“I want you to explain to me why Eric Spellman is the real you and deserves to live, and why Hellix deserves to die.”

Hellix swore again. “Is this a joke?”

“No. You don’t realize it, but this is as serious as it gets. Stop worrying about all the hackers in here reading the chat logs and finding out your name. Stop worrying about your wife and daughter. It’s time to make a decision.”

“And what’s that?”

“Who do you want to be?” asked Roger, shoving his sword into the belly of the beast.

 

 

Martin laughed as she nearly tripped up the steps of the Memorial, where he sat eating his third heavenly hot dog. “You sure are a hungry congressman,” she said, arranging herself a few feet away, allowing tourists to pass between them as they spoke.

He dabbed his lips with a napkin. “I had a busy morning and the afternoon’s shaping up to be a wallop as well,” said Martin.

“Tsk, I bet it is. I wish…” she trailed off, looking over the long reflecting pool, hair brushed by sunlight.

“What is it?” asked the congressman.

“I wish I had such an important job. Then I could make people’s lives better, you know?”

“Well, now, I don’t know how much better this’ll make you feel, but you fix up a mighty fine frankfurter.”

“Thank you. I just wish I was free to help people. I have to live paycheck to paycheck, and I have my little brother to worry about, and, well, I just don’t have time to think about too many people other than myself, I’m afraid. I probably shouldn’t even take breaks to speak to dashing politicians.” The smile again. Martin couldn’t help but grin in response.

“Is there anything I can do to help you?” he asked.

Her back tightened and her head snapped around to face him. “No,” she said. She stood up, dusted herself off, and stepped down, back toward her abandoned snack cart.

“Hey, wait,” Martin called after her, confounded. “Is something wrong?”

She whirled. “You politicians are all alike. You think everythin’ can be bought. I don’t need your help, or anyone else’s. I’m not some animal to stable and feed.” She marched off, leaving the confused congressman to clutch at his hot dog wrapper and ruminate at Abraham Lincoln’s feet.

 

 

In a dark room in the Midwest, a cellphone buzzed. A hand crumpled an aluminum can, threw it in the trash, and answered the phone, pressing it to an ear. Thirty seconds later it grabbed a black coat, turned a doorknob, hailed a cab, and was gone.

 

 

In the nation’s capital, a cellphone buzzed. Red lips pursed as a message spoke through a curtain of red hair. She laid a small stack of cash inside the snack cart for Miguel, and a minute later evaporated into a crowded Metro station.

 

 

In a dusty New York drugstore, an ancient phone rang. Its shrill mechanical trill woke a dog, who shook herself off and went sniffing for treats. Mr. Gupta answered, and handed it over the counter to an old fellow he never expected to stay longer than a night. The recipient didn’t say anything the entire call, just listened, and slowly handed it back to the store owner, an indecipherable look on his face. Gupta placed the receiver on its cradle and asked, “Is everything alright?”

“Fine,” rumbled the old man. He sat down on his stool and rummaged in his pack for something. He produced an old, coverless paperback, and began to read.

“What do you have there?” asked Gupta.

And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie. Ever heard of her?”

“No.”

“Her endings are inevitable.”

“Sounds boring,” said the store owner, and began to wipe his counter.

“No,” he said, though he seemed to be speaking to himself. He turned the page and eyed the door. “You never see them coming, ‘till they do.”

The Good – Prologue – “Dredging Up a Derelict”

THE GOOD

Prologue | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2

 

The damn kids have no respect, thought Malcolm Moses Worthy as he ladled rice into a bowl the color of a wet sidewalk. His granddaughter Marcy was always lecturing him on the alternatives. “What would you prefer, Grandpa?” she’d ask, chin thrust out, brown eyes protruding, muscled brown arms shooting out of her purple sun dress in frenzied indignation. “They could be out on the street. They could be in gangs. Instead they come and play Foosball and watch TV at the Y. Why you complainin‘?”

“I know, I know,” he always answered, and when she turned to go drag one of the hyperactive punks off a ceiling fixture or something he rolled his eyes. Marcy was his only granddaughter, and when she asked her grandfather to accompany her through the long days managing the Y he couldn’t say no. Those kids though! Nothing like when he was their age. They were loud, vulgar as anything, had no interest in the world past the end of their own noses. He would sit at one of the round tables in the cafeteria, eating and reading his books and occasionally casting a glance of death at boys who got too close. He would catch their eye and watch as their arrogance melted into confusion and then into the slightest glimmer of fear of the old man who they didn’t understand. Then he’d look back down at his plate and they would scamper off. He rarely said a word to any of the boys, though Marcy said they asked her about him constantly. The only time he opened his mouth was when he heard the way the older boys would talk about their girlfriends. Malcolm would shower the teens with invective like Philistine arrows until they’d run for cover into the gym or the pool room, swearing all the way. Marcy said it reminded her of the stories of her great-grandfather the minister rebuking his recalcitrant congregation, and Malcolm would grumble and ask for more chicken. It was tedious, day in, day out, but, though he’d never tell Marcy, it beat the hell out of sitting alone in his apartment.

He returned to his customary booth next to the window that looked in on the pool. He put a spoon full of rice in his mouth and picked up his worn paperback. Murder on the Orient Express. He’d read it dozens of times, and it never got old. The perfect murder, and Poirot right in the thick of the mystery. A battle of wits and logic on a train immobilized by snow. Finger-lickin‘ good. He was nearly at the end, where Poirot proposes two different scenarios for the murder. Malcolm always thought it bordered on impossible that someone from outside of the train did the crime, not just because the author set up the entire story as a closed-room mystery and it would violate the unspoken pact between reader and writer to allow an unforseeable, unmentioned character to be the murderer, but because if it were really an outside job, someone on the train nevertheless could have done it. The truth would be clumsier and less elegant that the possible truth. Reality would fail to live up to the detective’s mind. No, from the moment he ties the clues together, there is only one possible answer, one way it could really go.

It was a quiet afternoon, so it wasn’t hard for Malcolm to hear Marcy’s voice. He looked to the front desk on the other side of the atrium. Normally they sat in silence and simply enjoyed each other’s company, but she’d often call out things she read on the Internet or describe some scheduling issue and ask his thoughts. He would then, to her agitation, take out his cell phone, hit “2” on speed dial, and call her. She thought it was idiotic to speak on the phone to someone in the same room; he thought it was crass to shout across the hall at each other.

She wasn’t speaking to him, however, but to the strangest couple he had ever seen in his tenure at the Bed-Stuy YMCA. They were white, first of all, not so unusual after years of neighborhood gentrification. They didn’t look like the creative twenty-year olds he’d normally see on the sidewalks. The woman was much taller than the man and wore a grey cardigan over a black blouse with a polka-dot skirt that sent Malcolm back to the sunny Tennessee streets of his youth. Despite her unusual height she had a certain grace. Her shoulder-length straight hair was the color of fire. He placed her in her mid-thirties.

The man was her opposite in every way. If he could be called a man, that is. Malcolm estimated him to be about sixteen years old, and short. He wore an honest-to-goodness black trench coat. His face was incredibly pale and the black mop on his head completed the image of an intentional social outcast. Judging by the slender wrists resting next to the sign-in pad and the slim face, he was underweight.

What are they doing here? wondered Malcolm as Marcy’s face slanted from polite office bureaucrat to curious granddaughter as she lifted a pink-nailed finger and pointed it in his direction. The pair turned as one to face him, and he raised a hand in a cautious wave. The woman thanked Marcy and they walked toward Malcolm, pausing to wait for two boys to chase a basketball across their path.

His phone vibrated in his pocket. He flipped it open and read a message from Marcy: “They asked for Moses.” He shook his head at her across the room. The only people he ever met who knew his middle name were family members and private investigators. They weren’t the former, and they couldn’t be the latter. The teenager slouched even shorter and punier when he walked, while the woman floated with learned grace. A dancer, thought Malcolm. Or perhaps a gymnast.

They approached and the woman asked, “May we sit?”

Malcolm nodded and gestured to the opposite bench of the booth. The teen sat first, against the window. He peered through it as he extended his hand to Malcolm. “Roger,” he said. His voice was reedy and his grip was firm. “This is Natalie.”

“A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Worthy,” said Natalie as she sat and smoothed her skirt.

“Likewise,” he said. He watched them, full of patience, Roger studying the empty pool with untoward curiosity and Natalie looking at his bowl of rice and his paperback novel, an indecipherable smile on her lips.

“I didn’t actually believe you were eighty until now,” said Roger.

Until now? wondered Malcolm. “What gives it away?” he asked in his friendliest tone.

“Grey dreadlocks. Wrinkly face. Weird voice.” Malcolm suffered a severe bronchial infection a decade earlier that left his voice rough and raspy. “What the hell kind of eighty-year-old wears dreadlocks?”

“The kind you ought to respect, young man,” said Malcolm. He glared at Roger who continued to stare through the window with his brown eyes.

“Mr. Worthy,” said Natalie, “what Roger meant to say is that it’s hard to reconcile what we know of your achievements with your old age. We all imagine our heroes to be young, don’t we?” She spoke slowly, almost dreamily.

Malcolm dropped his friendly façade like a garbage bag. “Who are you? What do you want with me? If you’re private investigators you’re very bad ones.”

Roger began to snicker. Natalie said, “We’re not here to investigate you, Mr. Worthy. We’re here to make you an offer.”

“Since when do octogenarians have to suffer offers?”

“Not all eighty-year-olds have PhDs from Stanford they keep secret, Mr. Worthy; most weren’t professors, or activists, or soldiers. You’ve been all three.” Natalie smiled.

Malcolm took this revelation of knowledge in stride. “You want my advice or something?”

“We want to hire you.”

“To do what?”

“To do what you do best. Help us start a revolution.”

Malcolm burst with surprised laughter. “What are you, communists?” He laughed more.

“No. Materialist dialectics don’t interest us.”

“Well, Ms…What was your last name?”

“Natalie is just fine, Mr. Worthy.”

“Natalie, of course. What is it then? Are you environmentalists? Race warriors? Some kind of charity? Maybe you’re capitalists, lobbying for some big business?”

She shook her head. Roger said, “Do we look like morons to you?”

“Good-cop bad-cop?” Malcolm asked with a grin, as he looked between the two.

“We’re not cops, Mr. Worthy. Roger’s just expressing his adolescence.”

Roger frowned but said nothing.

“Is this going somewhere? I’m in the middle of a good book here.”

She thought for a moment and said, “Say we were communists. We came here to get your advice for fomenting a worker’s revolution here in New York. What would you say?”

“I’d say ‘get lost.'”

“Why would you say that? You were a commie in San Francisco, redder than Stalin if the stories have it right.”

“Who’s telling stories?”

“Apologies, Mr. Worthy, but I can’t say. Not yet. You used to be a communist,” she persisted. “Why wouldn’t you help a revolution now?”

“I don’t know you, Natalie, and I shouldn’t speak to you of personal opinions,” he said. “On the other hand, it has been such a long time since I was asked to lecture.” She leaned on the table and laced her fingers beneath her chin, watching him. He glanced at the front desk, where Marcy was trying to catch his eye. He smiled at her.

He cleared his throat and said, “Revolutions are for young fools, begging your pardon,” he said. “I used to not even care what the cause was, as long as it was revolutionary. Anything was better than the diseased status quo. Then I grew up and realized it’s not so simple. Human problems are resilient. They don’t disappear because a bunch of idealistic children think they should.”

“But you’re an African-American,” said Natalie, full of Socratic innocence. “Don’t you benefit from revolutionaries who came before you in this country? Civil rights activists, at least? We know you met Martin Luther King. And Malcolm X.”

He waved his hand dismissively. “They were special men, Natalie, but their revolution wasn’t a revolution in the truest sense of the word. They changed everything, but they changed nothing.”

“What do you mean?”

“Laws weren’t the problem. People were the problem. Those who were racists, true, unrepentant racists, I mean, of the type uncommon today, remained racist after everything. And my fellow African-Americans…” he trailed off.

“We know exactly what you mean, Mr. Worthy,” Natalie said. “People are the problem, and there is only one way to fix people.”

“Education,” he said instantly, playing his part in an old dialogue. “You’re education reformists?” his bushy eyebrows floated upward.

“Not exactly.”

“Good. I hate education reformists.”

“Our job is to give people choices, Mr. Worthy.”

“What kind of choices?” asked Malcolm.

“Imagine a black boy, a high school student here in Brooklyn, who is considering joining a gang. He should know that he has a choice in the matter.”

“So you offer some kind of after-school programming?” he asked, exasperation tinging his voice.

Roger loosed a tremendous sigh and turned to face him. “No. We show him that he is more than his choice, and set him free.”

“You’re a religious group?”

“G-d, no, I’m an atheist. Listen to what I’m saying,” said Roger. He continued evenly, “I did the same thing you did, you know. When they came for me. I tried to fit it into every box I knew. Eventually I ran out of boxes. This is something different. A real revolution.” For the first time since they’d sat down, Roger seemed to care about the conversation.

“I don’t understand.”

“Our boss can explain it to you better than we can,” said Natalie. “Come with us, and we’ll introduce you.”

“So it’s not just the two of you?”

“No, Mr. Worthy. There are many of us,” said Natalie.

“We are legion,” Roger said, and grinned, though Malcolm didn’t understand what was funny. Natalie rolled her eyes.

“Just come and hear us out. We’ll have you back before Marcy closes up shop.”

“Hmm,” grunted Malcolm. They know a lot about me, he thought. It could be a trap. And even if it’s not, I’m too old for all this. He glanced down at his book. If I don’t go, it might ruin the entire plot, he thought. His own imagination surprised him. Part of him felt that he was part of some grand plan, and that if he declined, it’d be summoning a murderer from outside the train. I’m not being logical, he thought, even as he said, “Alright. I’ll come. But if I miss Law and Order, I’m gonna be one grumpy old SOB.”

“I can’t even imagine what that’d be like,” said Roger, as Natalie stood and offered her hand. Malcolm refused it and grabbed his black cane from where it stood propped against the booth. He texted Marcy, “Be back soon.”

She texted him a question mark. He sent one back, and pocketed his phone.