In the previous installment of The Moderator, Jeremiah Jenkins found himself outed by a fellow cyber bully. He’d made a death threat and his rival The Straw Man called him on his bluff. That night a cyber mob hacked his accounts and warped his online identity. They posted pregnancy news on FaceBook, turned him into a rogue NSA agent on Twitter, and added terrorism to his LinkedIn resumé. They killed his career opportunities, his relationship prospects, and his reputation. The trolls put his head up on a pike for all the world to see.
In part 2 of this 3 part tale, we catch up with Jeremiah in the middle of a psychotic break.
I owe another debt of gratitude to @Raishimi for catching many of my grammatical mistakes (I love it when people point those little buggers out to me).
The Moderator PART 2: The Straw Man
That night, Jeremiah dreamt he was sprinting down cobblestone streets. Oil lanterns passed by in a blur. He swerved as a horse drawn carriage barreled down on him. He dove to avoid being trampled. When the horses past, he heard his pursuers’ feet stomping behind him. Their numbers had grown. Minute men had answered the call. Pedestrians had been enveloped into the horde. Street workers dropped the tools of their trade, and picked up other ones.
The boots came marching out of every entryway. There was a fugitive on the loose. In this police state, every citizen was on call to catch him.
Jeremiah ducked into an alley. The walls were lined with posters, images of all-seeing eyes and pyramids. They led to a fork in the alley: three paths that trailed off into the dark. Bewildered by his options, Jeremiah kept going straight. The path narrowed until he hit a dead end: not a wall, but a corner.
Jeremiah turned back the way he’d come, to find it bricked off. He spun around to find that the corner had opened. The walls had parted when he wasn’t looking.
Jeremiah ran deeper into the brownstone labyrinth. It shifted around him. Darkness solidified into borders. Light bloomed into openings. The walls phased in and out, based on the angle he came at them from.
Jeremiah glanced over his shoulder. The shadows of his pursuers’ wide brimmed hats grew. Their long cloaks fluttered with the wind. Their broad shoulders bounced with every step. They were gaining on him. The cobblestones took on a terrible glow. Their torches were licking at his heels.
Jeremiah charged down the path. His pursuers were waiting in every intersection. There was no horizon, just black hats trailing off into the night.
At the sight of him, the dark choir sang, “Never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down, never gonna run around and desert you. Never gonna make you cry, never gonna say goodbye, never gonna tell a lie and hurt you.”
The impossible architecture of the alley zigged and zagged, narrowed into crawlspaces and expanded into courtyards. M.C. Escher must have been drunk at the drafting table. There was no way there were buildings behind these bricks. These had to be prop walls on hinges, herding him to a destination.
Jeremiah stumbled into a four way stop. His feet sloshed through something sticky. He looked down to find it pumping through the street. It spilled over the cobblestones, tinting them red. It stank of rotten meat.
The path ahead glistened in the candlelight. It was marked by a sign that read: DOWN THE ROAD. The intersecting path read: ACROSS THE STREET.
Jeremiah didn’t know if he should turn or press on.
The dark choir neared. Their feet splashed through the muck. They sang, “Never gonna give, never gonna give, never gonna give.”
Jeremiah went down the road, not the street. The road led to another dead end. A dumpster waited for him there, a hulking rust bucket on bent wheels. Jeremiah threw it open. It was filled with shredded documents, a ransom writer’s wet dream. It would have to do. He dove in, pulled the lid down, and peaked through the crack.
His pursuers goose-stepped toward him. They wore pilgrim hats, long black wigs, and Guy Fawkes masks. They wore swastika arm bands, pedo bear belt buckles, and capes made of AIDS quilts. Some wielded torches. Some wielded pitch forks. Some wielded long dildos like they were swords, big floppy swords.
The dumpster shook with the quake of their footfalls.
The lid creaked open. Jeremiah tried to bury himself in the shreds, but the masked faces had already crowded the opening. They leered at him with their hollow eyes, frozen smiles, and pencil thin mustaches. One held its torch high to reveal their prey.
They applauded at the sight of Jeremiah cowering. He opened his eyes to find them nodding, bowing to one another in long drawn-out gestures. They fanned themselves as if the hunt had left them famished. Then they backed away.
The group turned to face the opposite direction. They parted to let someone through.
Jeremiah peaked over the rim of the dumpster. He watched a figure approach. It splashed down the red brick road. The mob knelt at his feet. Their porcelain lips kissed the cobblestones and came back red.
The figure wore a skin tight coat and slacks over an impossibly thin frame. He looked like a skeleton in a fitted suit. From this distance, he was the spitting image of the Slender Man urban legend, a stick figure brought to life. When he stepped forward, his features revealed themselves in the torch light. His joints jutted out through his garments. His elbows and knees were spikes. Slivers of hay spilled out from beneath his tie, his belt, and his ankles. His face was a ball of tumbleweed with exposed roots for hair.
This was the Straw Man’s avatar come to life. It had left its post on the message board to hunt Jeremiah down personally. The Straw Man approached the dumpster. He towered over the poor wretch that cowered inside. A hushed silence came over the crowd. The Straw Man raised his arm. It snapped as it straightened. His hand was made up of twigs in place of bone columns. His index finger creaked upward to point at the thing in the dumpster. His tumbleweed parted to reveal the wood chips he had for teeth. He gave Jeremiah a big brown Cheshire Cat smile.
The Straw Man said, “Jeremiah Jenkins, you’ve been found guilty of making malicious threats to my poor sickly mother, threats that I’m afraid,” he waved his branches to address his flock, “have exacerbated her condition. Your poison tongue has turned her heart black. The doctors say that she is no longer on the mend. No, my brothers, she has gone terminal.”
His flock shook their heads. They howled at the night. Some fell back faint. Others made spitting motions toward the dumpster.
The Straw Man tapped his twigs to his chest, “A crime so heinous a jury of your peers has put it upon me to pronounce sentence. A responsibility I do not take lightly. I, the Straw Man, sentence you, Jeremiah Jenkins, to death: by consumption.”
Hands thumped against the dumpster. The floor of it shook.
The mob leaned over the edge. Their hats blotted out the light. Their masks contorted. Impossible creases formed in their porcelain surfaces. Their mock-faces shifted with all the flexibility of rubber. Their ball-like cheek bones lowered. Their jaws stretched open. Their chins swung back and forth, pendulums made of putty. Their porcelain teeth were crooked, wet with drool. When Jeremiah saw the tongues slithering up their gullets, he knew these were not masks.
These were their faces. Their resemblance to Guy Fawkes was merely coincidental.
They were a race of albinos with spit shined complexion. For all he knew, the things lining the creatures’ upper lips were not pencil mustaches, but some kind of antennae.
The first of them dove into the dumpster. It took a bite out of Jeremiah’s cheek. Blood sprayed across the paper shreds. A second creature took a chunk out of his eyebrow. A thick black syrup oozed through Jeremiah’s vision. He felt a third bite down on his jugular. There was a wet pop as it punctured his wind pipe. Air seeped out of his neck. Everything went dark as he deflated.
The dream shifted.
Jeremiah felt himself go weightless. He felt himself rise up out of the dumpster, away from the crunching, the chewing, and the smacking of gums. He floated over the bloodbath where his body had been. His assailants’ heads bobbed up and down like wolves feeding. The last of him burst into a red mist that rolled up over their shoulders.
Jeremiah hovered over the dumpster. His ghost was still anchored to the world by what was left of his bones.
A shadow stretched down the alley. It came up behind the Straw Man, who kept watch over the carnage like a scare crow. The figure shambled into the light. He wore a blue suit with boot cut pleats. His hair was combed back. His mustache was thick. He walked with equal parts swagger and stagger. There was an open beer bottle in his grip.
It took Jeremiah a moment to recognize him. It was Will Ferrel as Ron Burgundy. The Anchorman just happened to wander onto the scene. He brushed past the Straw Man, oblivious to the creature’s presence. Ferrel peered into the bloodbath, spilling over the dumpster onto his white Italian loafers. He raised his beer to his lips and took a swig. Then he wiped the suds from his mustache. Ferrel said, “Well. That escalated quickly.”
Jeremiah sat at the kitchen counter in his boxers. He sipped directly from the coffee pot. He had commandeered his mother’s tablet for the rest of the morning.
“Police business,” he said.
She rested her knuckles at her waist. “And what are you investigating?”
“A murder.” Jeremiah said into the pot.
She rolled her eyes, “Who died?”
Jeremiah shrugged, “Not sure. It’s a work in progress.”
The Straw Man’s profile was up on the tablet. His avatar was just as Jeremiah had dreamed it: an illustration of a slender figure with a piece of tumbleweed for a head. The profile listed the Straw Man’s hometown as, “The cornfield on the outskirts of the Twilight Zone.”
Jeremiah ran the words “cornfield” and “the Twilight Zone” through a search engine. He found the synopsis for an episode of the series, called “It’s a Good Life.”
The episode was about a boy with godlike powers. He corralled his neighbors into his parent’s living room. Then he terrorized them with his new found abilities. He made them grovel, to pretend to be happy, to think only happy thoughts. Little by little, angry thoughts trickled into these captives’ minds. With the blink of an eye, the child sent them to the corn field, a place on the edge of reality, where they would cease to exist.
“So you think you’re powerful, do you?” Jeremiah thought aloud.
His mother tapped the kitchen counter. Her fingers were in the early stages of touch screen withdrawal. She said, “Who are you talking to?”
Jeremiah glanced up, “To you, oh benevolent healer of wounds. May your reign be long and free of infection.”
His mother set her medical credentials on the counter. “May my sterile field go unbroken.”
She pulled up a stool across from her son. She said, “You should’ve seen this guy tonight. The cops said they found him lying in a pool of his own blood. He was wearing a plastic mask. They think he was peeping through windows, in our neighborhood of all places.” She shook her head to get an image out of her mind. “He tried to climb over a chain link fence. It must have had a dip in it. One of the points was exposed. He shifted his weight right on top of it. The damn thing went straight through his palm. Then it got stuck in his first dorsal interosseous.”
She held out her hand, “He must have jerked forward, because it tore right through the webbing between his fingers. With the tissue all knotted, he’ll be lucky to regain the use of his thumb.” She wiggled her own, and index finger.
Jeremiah held the tablet higher so he couldn’t see her gesture, “Come on mom, I’m trying to look at pornography over here.”
“Oh,” she waved her mock-injury away, flipping her palm to fan herself. She said, “I’d hate to interrupt such scholarly pursuits with my tales of the macabre. Carry on.”
She leaned over the counter to see if he was telling the truth. Jeremiah jerked the screen away.
She said, “Is there any reason why you don’t put a fresh bag in the trash after you’ve taken the other one out?”
Jeremiah glared at her over the screen, “Is there any reason why you have narrate your entire morning routine?”
Jeremiah returned his attention to the task hand. He scanned the Straw Man’s posts for signs of a regional dialect. He searched to see if his rival said, “You guys, you lot,” or “you all,” or if he used words like, “ma, mom” or “mum,” if he said, “soda, pop” or “Coke.”
Jeremiah combed through the Straw Man’s posts for references to:
“Liquor on Sundays”
“Conceal and carry laws.”
None of his terms came back with anything.
The Straw Man never made references to concert dates or sporting events. Maybe he was afraid to go outside for fear the wind would blow his twigs away. The Straw Man had one all-consuming interest, and that was being King shit of troll mountain. No one dared score any zingers off of him, for fear of the fire and brimstone he’d rein down upon them. No, they offered tribute to find favor with his grace.
Lord Kinbote’s rotted avatar served as a warning to them all. This is what happens to those who refused to pay the troll’s toll.
Whenever the Straw Man called for sexting submissions, inviting his flock to show off their girlfriends, he linked them second hand. Whenever he posted a gif of a severed head, resting on a soldier’s chest, he attributed the shot to its source.
No one would let the Straw Man host snuff on Photobucket. No one would let him post cancerous growths on Instagram. YouTube was full of cat videos, but not videos of what the Straw Man found people doing to cats. Like a ghost who couldn’t leave the cellar, the Straw Man’s social media presence was confined to the message boards, to the internet beneath the internet.
Jeremiah grit his teeth as he typed across the screen.
His mother scratched her nails across the counter top, “What are you really up to?”
Jeremiah tilted the tablet so that his mother could see the string of code he’d typed. “I’ve created a fake profile so that I can send a user personal messages, messages that link to graphic images with a hidden stat-counter embedded in them.”
“So that I can find out where he lives”
“So that I can go to where he lives.”
“Why ask why? Why is the sky blue?”
Jeremiah’s mother made a beeline for the drapes. She threw them open to inflict a sunny day upon him. She said, “Because molecules in the sky scatter blue light more than they do red light.”
Jeremiah raised his coffee pot, “Well played, mother.”
He took a sip, glanced at the tablet and spat his coffee right back into the pot.
His mother waved her hand in front of her nose, “Is that my whiskey in there?”
Jeremiah’s eyes widened. Then he grinned from ear to ear.
His mother tilted her chin back, weary of the source of her son’s happiness. She said, “I take it the mouse took the cheese?”
Jeremiah nodded. He had managed to track the bastard’s IP Address down to the cross streets of his internet service provider. The Straw Man lived in San Diego. With a population of 1.3 million people, that made him a needle in a hay field. Jeremiah would have to narrow the scope of his search.
In the coming months, Jeremiah would have to be persistent. If the Straw Man logged on somewhere new, Jeremiah would have see it if he was ever going to shrink his net. The Straw Man might slip up. He might log on from a coffee shop. He might tap one of Jeremiah’s links from his cellphone.
The tablet flickered. The browser window had refreshed on its own. The stat counter zoomed in on a map, on a pin on the outskirts of the city. The location didn’t appear to be an internet service provider. It was a building in a residential neighborhood, much too small to be a server farm. It was a private address.
Jeremiah knew it was impossible, but somehow his link had traced the Straw Man’s IP all the way to home. He could take a flame thrower to that hay field in San Diego. The stat counter had plucked the needle right out. It even gave him a name:
A name was a magical thing. It helped medium calls upon dead relatives. It helped sorcerers summon demons from the pits of hell, and it would help Jeremiah Jenkins hunt down a troll.
Jeremiah took out seven hundred dollars in cash. He spread it out over the course of the week, never hitting the same ATM twice. There was no off the grid anymore. Not when Jeremiah’s name lit it up. He could only hope to tiptoe across it, to reduce the size of his digital footprint. He didn’t want to leave a trail.