Read the other parts here:
This is the dark conclusion to my cyber-bully storyline. It’s the reason the entire piece is called, “The Moderator.” I write flexible outlines to allow my stories to swerve into the kind of dark territory this one lands in. The ending had me questioning if this was one of the worst, or best things I’ve ever written. The jury is still out on that, but the story had an impact on me.
In part 3, Jeremiah Jenkins has tracked down the cyber bully that outed him online. A man named River. Armed with his target’s whereabouts, Jeremiah has come to San Diego with a plan of his own.
The Moderator PART 3: Bridge Trolls
River walked down the sidewalk with his eyes buried in his phone. It was as big as any touchscreen tablet, except this one made calls. He was using an application that took advantage of the camera. It allowed him to type and see the ground at the same time. With an e-cigarette screwed into his lips, River was a master multitasker. He took a puff. Static crackled inside the pipe. He exhaled. The vapor trailed behind him.
The breeze picked up. The trees dipped, leaves rustled like pom-poms. River’s come-over fell into his face. He blew the hair up, cocked his head back, and felt it settle into place. This was a maneuver he’d perfected years ago, except this time he swore he heard mocking laughter on the wind.
River watched the sidewalk through his screen. The pebbles streaked as he increased his stride. A herd of White Castle wrappers rolled through his path. He stomped over the Crave Case they had spilled out of.
A small white snake sat coiled in River’s path. He swerved to avoid it; then he stopped and spun around. He raised his phone to get a quick snapshot of the creature, only to realize it was a shriveled strip of latex. He got a shot of it anyway.
River loaded the photo into a Twitter post. He typed, “Have you ever noticed how a White Castle wrapper is never more than 10 paces away from a used condom?”
His phone vibrated. Someone had replied, “I hear that when you spot both of them, you get to make a wish.”
The wind cast River’s bangs back into his face. He tried to blow them back, but his hair gel kept them stuck to his nose. He sighed, bent over and set down the phone. He plucked his bangs free, and brushed his come-over back into place. He gripped his e-cigarette, sucked on it until it fizzled and sparked. His head was swimming in a fog of nicotine.
Cascading through the park, the wind set the leaves a-crackling all around him. The next gust almost knocked River off his flip-flops. He barely heard the footfalls racing up from behind.
River dreamt he was trapped beneath a carpet while someone ran a rug shampooer over his face.
River awoke to a concentrated blast of ammonia. It shot through his nostrils and up into his head. He hit his skull against the wall as he backed away from the smell. Even at a distance, the scent lingered with all of its potency, that or the memory of it was just that strong. It was more powerful than the pain throbbing at the base of River’s neck. More powerful than the sting of the twist-ties, digging into his wrists. More powerful than the soreness of the duct tape sticking to his jowls.
River could just make out a ghost hand discarding two halves of a plastic tube at his feet.
He blinked until he could see the moonlight through the archway. He was stuck beneath a bridge. A bridge in the middle of a park with a curfew. A bridge far from any homes or pedestrian traffic, on the eve of a storm when sound wasn’t likely to travel far.
A figure in a long black rain coat loomed over River. The figure wore plastic boot covers over his feet. His hood was up. He wore a surgical mask over his face. Still, those beady little eyes and that pock-marked brow, were a dead give away. This was Jeremiah Jenkins.
Jeremiah reached for River’s mouth with a surgical glove. He struggled to pinch the duct tape for a moment then he tore it clean off. It took River’s five o’clock shadow with it. It unclogged his pores. River’s blood bubbled up through his skin.
There was something in Jeremiah’s other hand. He tapped it against his latex palm. It looked like a shoehorn, but it was too large. It had to be a black jack.
River spat, “Nice poncho there, Jerry. Where did you get the smelling salts? Oh right, your mommy’s a nurse.”
Jeremiah pulled his hood back. He whistled to the tune, “If I Only Had a Brain.” His surgical mask puffed out as he exhaled each note.
Jeremiah reached up his sleeve and pulled out a container of lighter fluid. He set it at his feet. He loosened the surgical mask to take a hit off his inhaler, and resumed whistling.
Jeremiah, reached up his sleeve again. He made a show of pulling out a long stove lighter, a magician presenting his wand. He flicked the switch to produce a flame, and leaned forward. “How about a little fire scarecrow?”
River blew the flame out. Jeremiah clicked it back on. River blew it out again. Jeremiah clicked back on. River spat it out.
“Gross.” Jeremiah said as he wiped the nozzle on his rain coat. The material did little to absorb River’s big green gobbet of spittle.
Jeremiah squeezed the lighter fluid in his fingers, “You’re going to regret–”
River chuckled. He shook his head at the ground. “Before you go flapping your gob saying something that’s supposed to make me wet myself, let me draw out a little scenario for you.”
Jeremiah eased his finger off the switch. He struggled to remove the surgical mask; Then he tossed it to the ground, and rubbed his ears where the bands had viced him. He said, “I’m listening.”
River looked to the lighter fluid, then to his captor. “Let’s pretend you’re a detective, called in to investigate a corpse under a bridge.”
“A charred corpse.” Jeremiah added.
River rolled his eyes. “A charred corpse, whatever. First thing you notice is the accelerant all over my garments. Then you spot the lacerations around my wrists.”
River held up his bonds and pulled them apart to make sure they dug in real good. He nodded toward his ankles. He said, “Then you spot the trail leading from my feet, to the place my killer nabbed me. You note how the tread depth of his shoe prints are consistently flat. You check the hardware stores for receipts containing lighter fluid, twist ties and foot covers. If that isn’t a recipe for premeditation, then I don’t know what is.”
Jeremiah resumed whistling. He wasn’t impressed by the story so far.
River nodded toward the entrance of the bridge. He said, “You check the cameras in the surrounding area. The rim of the park is lined with meters, meters which are being monitored twenty-four seven. You spot my killer entering. You spot my killer exiting. You place the time of death and you do the math.”
Jeremiah rubbed his chin. “So those meters are there just to pay the people watching them? That doesn’t sound very economical?”
River squirmed in his bonds. He felt his wallet missing from his back pocket. His phone missing from the front. He said, “You note the absence of a cellphone and begin to triangulate a signal.”
Jeremiah whistled through an unconvinced nod. He shook the lighter fluid. Then he sang, “I would not be just a nothing, my head would be full of stuffing, my heart all full with pain. I would dance and be merry, life would be a ding-a-derry, if I only had a brain.”
River’s breath quickened. His voice filled with urgency, “Maybe my killer thought to burn my fingerprints off. Maybe he thought to bash my teeth in for good measure, but the moment you take my DNA for a quick spin through the old centrifuge, you’ll know who I was. Then it’s only a matter of time before you search my computer and find the folder labeled ‘JEREMIAH JENKINS.’ Open that up and you’ll have all the motive you’ll ever need.”
Jeremiah flipped the nozzle up on the lighter fluid. He tipped it over and began squirting River’s legs. Jeremiah said, “Don’t worry. I’m just adding a base.”
River shouted, “With evidence of premeditation, motive, and a suspect, who traveled across state lines might I add, you’ve got a slam dunk case. Swoosh, lethal injection. Nothing but vein. You’re not walking away from this unless you’ve got a stack of passports and a wad of bills up your sleeve.”
Jeremiah reached up his sleeve, shook it out, and came back empty.
“I didn’t think so.” River raised his bonds. “I’ve got a cum shot compilation on pause at home. So why don’t you just cut me free and send me on my way.”
Three clicks echoed beneath the bridge. They were quick and metallic, like a robot cracking its knuckles.
“Because that’s not his decision to make.” A voice boomed from the shadows.
A stranger stepped out of the dark. He wore a black hooded sweatshirt and a white plastic mask. He aimed his gun at River then shifted it towards Jeremiah. His hand was wrapped in a bandage. There was a brown stain between his thumb and his index finger.
The stranger said, “This is a fitting place to find the two of you.” His was a grizzled voice, deep and worn.
Jeremiah raised his hands to reveal his the flaccid little blackjack.
“Drop your trinkets and take a seat with your pal over there.” The stranger commanded.
River nodded. “That whole scenario I just outlined, applies to you too, mysterious stranger.”
“This park won’t be open for another six hours,” the stranger said, “and there are no cameras on the meters. As for motive, you were bluffing about there being a folder labeled ‘JERMIAH JENKINS’ on your desktop, or at least you thought you were. It’s there now.”
“I’ll scream,” River said.
The stranger shifted his head from side to side, weighing the possibility. He said, “Please do. It’s a memory I hope to revel in.”
“What do you want with us?” Jeremiah crouched against the wall.
The stranger regarded the surgical mask crumpled up on the ground. “Same thing as you, Dr. Kinbote, except I want it from both of you.”
Jeremiah shook his head. “Both of us? How did you even know that we’d both be–”
The stranger cut him off. “You didn’t really think you could trace someone’s IP to their doorstep, did you? Did you really believe that the Straw Man was dumb enough to start a FourSquare account, just to check into this park at the same time every night?”
River buried his face in his palms. He said, “Clearly, he did.”
The stranger shook his head. “I planted those bread crumbs, just like I sent the Straw Man a link to your name. To get you both out into the open.”
Jeremiah balled his hands into fists. “You still haven’t told us why.”
River sighed. “Because he thought we’d make a cute couple. Why do you think?”
Jeremiah shrugged. Then it hit him. He turned to his enemy. “Because we’re trolls?”
The stranger nodded. “A pair of trolls under a bridge. It’s kind of poetic, when you think about it. It almost seems right.”
River rolled his eyes, “Oh, cut to the chase. Who was it? Who did we flame that’s got you going all Jigsaw on us?”
The stranger took a step forward. He took the deep breath, of a parent dealing with an insolent child. His arm jut out; and in an instant, it was back at his side. Blood sprayed from River’s nostrils. He raised his bound hands to cup his nose. Blood pooled in his palms and spilled into his lap.
The stranger had clipped River with the barrel of his gun.
He balled his free hand into a fist, “You don’t even have respect enough for your situation to refrain from making pop culture references. Everything is just fodder for another joke, your life, your compatriot’s life. That’s the problem with your generation. Nothing is sacred. Nothing is off limits. You yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater just for the shits and giggles of it. You make September 11 jokes, because you were too young to remember it. You throw words like ‘Holocaust,’ ‘rape,’ and ‘AIDS’ around with no regard for their meaning.”
The stranger kicked River in ribs. River fell to his side, where he received another boot in the gut. River sneezed an ink blot across the pavement. The stranger stepped in it with no mind for forensics. He knelt beside River, pressed his gun into the young man’s comb-over. The weight of it reminded River of when he had thought himself a juggler, and tried to balance chairs on his head.
The stranger said, “You take your standup routine on the road. You go into suicide prevention boards to tell people to ‘just do it.’ You’ve no regard for human life. Their deaths are just punchlines waiting to happen.”
River and Jeremiah exchanged looks. That example was a little too specific. It occurred to them that this wasn’t their first shared experience.
River sniffled into his shirt. He tie-dyed it red in an instant.
The stranger raised his barrel to Jeremiah. He said, “A confused girl came to you for help, and you told her to end her own life, just for something to do. I’ve read the transcript so many times. You weren’t hearing her out, you were making her dance for your amusement. At one point you had her trying to argue the merits of her own life, her possible future, and you shot it all down. She looked to outcasts for comfort, and you cast her out. She turned to strangers for reassurance. You booed her off-stage like she was a contestant on the fucking Gong Show.”
“Now there’s a dated reference.” River said out the side of his mouth.
The stranger shifted his aim and shot River point blank. River’s skull burst out the back. Smoke billowed from the hole in his forehead. His comb-over caught fire.
Jeremiah felt River’s blood beneath his thighs. He tried to scramble to his feet, but the stranger held the gun to his forehead. The barrel seared his flesh. The stranger pressed Jeremiah back down into the puddle of blood.
Jeremiah shut his eyes tight. He turned his head back and forth, crying. He cried, “Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God. I’m sorry. I am so sorry. I am–”
The stranger smacked the bridge of Jeremiah’s nose with the butt of his gun. “Your crocodile tears aren’t going to wash your sins clean.”
Jeremiah clutched his shattered nose. His wrist was slick with blood.
The stranger grit his teeth. “Isn’t that right, Lord Kinbote. You’re the one that told my daughter to cut along the lightning lines, to go down the road and not across the street. Well, she took your advice. You–”
The gun went off. The stranger’s finger couldn’t wait for his mouth to finish what it had to say. His anger proved more powerful than his need to speak his piece. He’d pronounced his verdict in the middle of carrying out the sentence. The light went out of Jeremiah’s eyes and his killer found himself without an audience.
The stranger sobbed in the dark. Tears trickled out the underside of his mask. Then he howled at the wind. He howled until his voice went hoarse, until he ran of out of breath. He held the gun beneath his chin, then to his temple, then back to his chin. He paced beneath the bridge with the gun at his head. Then he thought better of it.
The wind whistled, but there were no sirens on its breath.
The stranger knelt at Jeremiah’s feet, peeled the covers off the boy’s boots, wrapped one around his hand, and tugged the rubber gloves off of Jeremiah’s fingers. He wiped the gun down, set the gun in the boy’s hand, and closed his grip around it.
The stranger collected the lighter fluid, stove lighter, and black jack up off the ground. He took a moment to regard the mess he’d made. A small sigh trailed his receding footsteps.