It's funny, isn't it, the way that things trip your memory up? The rustle of leaves, the sound of a car's horn, the rattle of a doorhandle, or the smell of smoke. Some things just bubble up, even amidst the black patches of memory.
It's come to my attention at thirty-five years of age, I simply am not going to be able to remember everything I've done in my life. There are stretches of lazy summers that are gone, now, all blurred together, unsure if I caught that grasshopper when I was nine, or eight, or was it six?
It's the scent of smoke this time, the rising fumes that jog my memory. In this case, it's a strange memory - and as I remember E, it jogs me to remember D, then C, then A, then back to B, then re-remember A, as if I had forgotten something of it. And A, in this case, was being yelled at by an editor.
The job of investigative journalist is a strange one. During my time in university learning the art of learning, one point that kept coming up is how many of the investigators responsible for famous and important exposures worked fifteen-hour days and went home to a rat-infested hole in the wall, and then when I graduated, I learned that the majority of my peers were going to be upper-middle class, if not outright wealthy. Journalism had become big business, and the dreadful yawning mouth of The Paper had gone from consuming news to consuming noise.
It had never really worked for me. I'd bought myself a battered raincoat the day I started my journalism course and it had, throughout the years, just gotten more battered over the years. Maybe it's ego, but I can't help but imagine I look quite classically cool as I emerge from the places where I ply my trade. battered raincoat, classic hat to hide classic bald spot, and it's that self image that has kept me from pushing up the ladder.
I'm an odd guy, I guess. I get into stories and I want to follow them through. It started a long time ago, and to tell you would take all the time we've got, I fancy - more time than column inches there are. It's not helped by my memory, though. I started taking notes of everything as a child because I did, in fact, spend most of my life forgetting things. When I hit high school, the paper just seemed a natural connection, and from there...
That's not what I wanted to talk about.
It's challenging to pin down when the stories start. Historically, the oldest incident that was part of the chain that put me here was in 1973 - before I was even born. In a sleepy town in Bullock County, Alabama. Two fourteen year old boys were reported at their school to have interrupted a teacher on the way to his car, before knocking him to the ground and cooperatively choking him to death. A dark story, particularly for those days, but rendered darker by the mystery that unfolded around it. Neither boy - Sydney or Craston - had anything I could find in common beyond the school. Craston was black, Sydney was white, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Craston was from a poor family, while Sydney's family owned property on the outskirts of town. Good grades, bad grades. One was taught by the teacher, the other wasn't. They had no mutual interest in sports, no common clubs, and in general, the murder was chalked up by the moral panickers of the day as a sign of the evils of desegregation.
Anyway, a pair of boys born in 1959 weren't going to face a normal prison environment. Both were found guilty - Craston being put into the general prison environment, and died within five years, while Sydney's, shall we put it, different family situation meant he went to a mental hospital where he remained until some time during the Reagan era.
The reports from the time were sketchy, in no small part because we're talking about Alabama in the 70s and it brought up a boiling-point topic that the population still weren't happy about when I went to talk to them. The one thing that I could find, throughout it all was that question, constantly asked by every newspaper reporter, before editorials had overtaken the print, of why?
The incident that got my attention involved, however, was of all things, a Black Friday story in a local mall, where a grandfather got into a fight over a CD for his grandson. Not that big a deal - there's always some story about a Black Friday shopper going overboard, whether it's the seventeen year old girl ram-raiding a store to get first access to Michael Jackson compilation CDs, or a mother macing other women over clothing. The thing that set this story apart is that most of the time, you don't have a senior citizen kill seven people and maim four more well after everyone has cleared out and started to run.
I'd been told to pull the information down off AP and just let them take care of the copy work because it wasn't a great story to bring up. The spectacle was one thing, but the last thing we wanted to do was send people away from malls for fear of crazed killers, and none of our story templates fit this one. We couldn't even take a tsk-tsk-tsk stance towards the Black Friday event itself, even though I had a bit of a reputation for that perogative in my writing. We mainly couldn't because at this point, the mall was leaning on us pretty hard. So why did I go?
Well, wouldn't you want to know?
The guy's name was Ryan Orrs. Sitting across from him in the police interview room, he looked almost like he'd stepped out of a Norman Rockwell. Red and blue check shirt. Hard beaten hands and cut-back fingernails like you'd expect from a man who worked in manufacturing. Whispy silver hair that gave his head the impression of always being in motion. Most of his hair, still, and round, gold-rimmed glasses. He wasn't a small man - understandably, considering what he'd done. I never remembered seeing a set of handcuffs binding such a man's wrists to the desk, and ankles to the ground, in any painting before. Sitting with my pencil twirling in my hand, I looked him over, and remembered the way the whole conversation just... meandered.
See, Ryan Orrs was not an idiot. He wasn't an angry man, either. And the conversation kept us coming around to finding out what the police had kept telling him had happened, rather than what he remembered. Because that was the really curious part of this mystery.
"I know we've spoken a lot about a lot of things, about your history, about your family, about your grandson... I hope you don't mind me saying this, but I do conversations like this as part of my job, and I keep coming back to wondering if you really are aware of what's going on."
The chair gave an awkward squeak as Mr Orrs shifted his shoulders forwards. "No." He finally said, voice getting lower.
"No, no, I haven't. The police have yelled at me, and a few of them have shown me photos, but really... I haven't got the faintest idea."
Adjusting my glasses, I turned through the pages of my notebook to the information I'd reduced from the police report. "According to this, and the witnesses and the coroners' report, you were struggling with-" I remember pausing at that point. I remember pausing because my notes were a ridiculous mess, and so were the police reports.
None of the witnsesses agreed on who got what. The CD - recovered from the first victim - was nice and clear, and Ryan had been loudly declaring that it was for his grandson before the fight broke out. Fight. It wasn't really a fight, either. Nobody was sure who hit first, but what they were sure of was the aftermath. One body which had to be identified from dental records. Six people dead from surprisingly surgical injuries, including a crushed larynx, an aorta that appeared to have been opened with a pen that was then jammed in to ensure a bleedout, a nose-break that drove bones up into the brain, and so on. The acts of maim were just as strange, with one victim having had all five of the fingers on her right hand torn off and the pointer finger on her left missing too.
Closing the notebook, I leaned forwards and drew a deep breath. "Honest to god, Mr Orr, it looks like you went crazy and killed a lot of people. Now, I understand that if you were in the military or the navy, you might have... skills that you don't want the police to know about," He gave me a quizzical look, but didn't go to interrupt me, "and you wouldn't tell a reporter, either. But... I don't think you're... I mean," I tilted my head and looked him over once more. "Mr Orr, according to the file on you, you weren't drafted and never served. You have no history of violence, nor of arson, which is often seen as an indicator. You worked as a welder for thirty-five years and retired recently to help with your daughter's home life, and I just cannot imagine how in the hell you of all people were involved in this. So... I mean, I don't know what you're going to tell me, but can you tell me anything?"
Ryan leaned forwards, running one hand nervously over the other. He finally found his voice with a stammer and a shudder. "I've seen the photos. I've seen the camera footage, too, they wanted me to see it, I think... I think, to see my reaction. I felt sick, you know..." Looking down at his hands, he shuddered. "I remember once, years ago... years ago, a young woman came up to me and handed me a white feather - we used to use those to see who was too cowardly to enlist, you know?" He tilted his head. "Shame boys into working. But I couldn't help it. Whenever I went to the offices, I just imagined what it'd be like to kill someone and felt sick to my stomach."
The results of the police demonstrations, or showing him pictures, had been almost universal - he'd fainted the first time, vomited when he saw the grainy black-and-white silent film, and he'd never improved in his reactions beyond being able to hold a conversation while they were around. It was as if he had no connection to the incident, and was a normal grandfather being exposed to images of shocking violence.
"They tell me I did it, and they showed me... but... but I just can't imagine it. I don't remember it... and..." he put his hand on his face. He drew a breath. A shudder of his shoulders and his croaking words faded away into nothing but the silent sound of tears. Pencil in my hand, I kept my distance still, and bit my lower lip. Every murderer lied about it. Every liar tried to be a good liar.
So why did I believe this man?
It was an easy thing to remember, the interview with Ryan Orr. Because that was the interview that started what in hindsight, was an obssession. You could only hear 'and nobody has any idea why' so many times before you start to see a pattern. Ryan Orr's story - which never got the national attention it should have, or really, any, - was the first stone in a long declining chain of memories.
The problem was not finding stories about inexplicable murders. The problem was finding inexplicable murders that were actually inexplicable. Journalists vary in their ability and their intentions, too. Sometimes ending a story with 'And we still are uncertain' is just a way to try and feel a bit less limp about the inverted writing style for which news calls. Most stories are about getting the most important detail at the end, rather than the start, but trust me - a headline world has that formula completely reversed.
Enough sifting though, and I found my second data point. I found the story of Craston and Sydney, and most importantly, I found the age the two were. The same year that Mr Orr was born, within six months. That made it easier to search the databases, and a point from which to work.
The stories had to then be filtered, finding those where the inexplicable elements were explic'd. Surprisingly, across the whole country, there were more than a few that were easily solved and, in hindsight, when I take my notebook back in to the police station and have them sift through it, they might be able to put a few discarded murders to rest. That I was helping people had fallen by the wayside in my mind, at least, though - because somehow, something about these cases just kept urging me onwards.
As piece by piece of the puzzle started to fall together, the erratic nature of the murders seemed to coalesce. The Bullock County case was a separate incident, with a long desert of time before another incident like it had cropped up. What I was looking at, eventually, was murders where the murderer claimed no memory of the incident, the murderer was born in 1959, and the murderer demonstrated no previous or later behaviour appropriate to a murderer.
Sydney had died, in his fifties, protesting to his dying day that he was innocent, that he couldn't remember anything of the incident, and that he had never even met Craston. The medical records were clear on that - every year, another review, another test, and another demonstration of no remorse. Strangely, as I researched, I was coming to suspect that there was some truth to this - and that by a principled stance of honesty, Sydney had doomed himself. If he'd lied, perhaps in his advancing years and helplessness, he might have been released. Of course, if that had happened, he'd be a fifty year old man with no skils and no life experience outside of electroshock therapy.
Reykjavik, a mobile phone executive broke through the glass of his limousine and stabbed his driver in the neck once, in that same oddly surgical method, then duck-and-rolled out of the vehicle before it careened into a storefront, before standing around dumbly waiting for the police, claiming he had no idea what had happened. Born in the United States, and in 1959.
Twin brothers in Albany working as cleaners arrived on a site as the business was closing for the night, and went through a whole floor murdering seventeen different employees, breaking each body's legs after they were dead. They then walked to the next floor, cleaned it and the subsequent floors, went back downstairs, found the bodies and called the police. Security footage shows what they did. Born in 1959.
August Terrin, a mechanic working for a maritine museum repairing exhibits interrupted the repair of a submarine engine to kill three of his co-workers with a wrench, and was half-way through repairing the engine before he noticed them and fled the scene in terror. When questioned, he reported he was afraid that whoever had killed his coworkers would kill him, too.
The pattern got denser in the recent days. In fact, it almost seemed that they'd stepped up in the past year - with almost thirty incidents in this year alone, scattered all across the United States. That was the worrying thing. What had happened, and what had changed, to cause these incidents?
It was a ridiculous detail that got me looking. I noticed our own cleaner - and yes, let me tell you, you'll never see a person in the same way after this kind of research - vacuuming the floor after everyone else had left. He was dancing as he pushed the vacuum along, and I realised he was listening to earbuds. Even an older gent like him was listening to his earbuds, and that got me thinking.
Ryan Orrs' incident occurred over a CD in a music store. The cleaners might have had music devices to drown out the sound of the vacuums. Mechanics often use sound-dampening earplugs, and underneath them...? Earbuds. What if they'd all been listening to some music with a subliminal message...?
It didn't quite work, though. For a start, it was some whacky science fiction nonsense, and following that quickly was that Orrs was in the middle of a public area. The police report didn't show any music player in his personal effects. And of course, Craston and Sydney - they weren't exactly going to have an 8-track on hand. Still, a link was a link.
It was another month of study to find the common link between the playlists, too. Setting aside my two controls - Bullock County and Ryan Orrs - there was a clear musical connection between all the other incidents, a list that was quietly growing as I became more adept to recognize them. That led to playlists. Playlists led to applications that were designed to deduce the musical core of things, of searching crossreferenced artists. There weren't really any common artists across the whole list, but I didn't let that deter me.
When I had chased this rock all the way down the hill, I had learned a great deal about the music industry. I learned that, just as how the minced beef you got in a hamburger probably came from a hundred different cows, so to did the song that got onto the airwaves came from a thousand different sources. That there were 'artists' who were busting their butts to churn out thousands of song components every day for someone higher up the chain to construct into songs that would get on the airwaves. And then I learned that of all of these, one song on each playlist had a common creator.
Many came from large studios - but these songs were all simplistic, with an 8-bit tune underlying them, to give the song a 'retro' feel. Each one composed by a one-man company supposedly named NCR.
As we sat, I remember distinctly pulling at my tie, glancing around the tiny apartment. He wasn't exactly a picture of dignity and respect, of course - the man was a conspiracy theorist, wearing sweat pants that owned their title, a big thick wooly sweater over a long-sleeved shirt, both of which I suspect he'd been given the year he moved out of home, and a beard that had all the hallmarks of resulting from a lost war of ambivalence. Like abandoned rail networks, his face was crisscrossed with the telltale lines of different shaving techniques, knitting together an expression that said he fancied there was always something better to do than deal with the mess.
"Alright, then, Mr..."
"I prefer not to use my birth name."
I sigh, striking through the prescribed symbol for 'mr' on my pad. "Alright, then...?"
A pause as he realised he realised I was talking to him, and he gathered up his girth slightly in his chair and raised his coffee to his lips. "I go by NCR."
"Does that stand for something?"
He glared at me over the coffee.
"Tell you what, I'll stop with the questions - you understand why I'm here, you want your story told, so..." twirling the pencil in my hand, I brought one knee up under the other, forming a makeshift writing surface, and let my silence speak for me. To his credit, NCR, sensing an audience, started to tell me... things.
It seems that my investigations had not been incorrect, if fanciful. I had expected that there was some sort of unpleasant side effect of the musical undertone he'd used in his chipset music. A byproduct, known as a brown note, or even as madness note, such as was connected to incidents of mass hysteria. Of course, I had said it myself while doubting my words - not even sure at this point why I was sweltering in this would-be digital musician's home.
"No... it's project Cadmus." He said, as if that explained something.
Cadmus, the Greek myth of a man who sowed dragon's teeth, leapt to my mind, but he quickly brushed it aside, as he spun me a tale of fanciful black operative government powers, of secret societies, societies he assured me existed, and who have existed for much of humanity's civilized existence. He spoke to me of conspiracies and the ridiculous and as he talked, all I could feel is my perception of where I was sure the borders of the world were slip away.
In 1959, a government project was begun by one of these groups, the name of which I... I can't remember. I'll have to check my notebook later. Experiments in programming minds, of using triggered keywords to get projected results. The plan was to create a number of sleeper agents in randomly seeded locations who could be inspired to 'clean' an area if they heard the right sequence of notes. When I explained to him the story of Craston and Sydney, he'd considered it a test run - to see if they could be triggered to kill a complete stranger. Or maybe they'd both been triggered by the teacher accidentally. Or maybe the teacher was their handler.
The lack of good reporting and evidence for these incidents, it seems, was part of NCR's hypothesis. After all, if nobody was providing good information on this work that was, as a reasonable man might notice, completely off the wall strange, maybe there was some sign of a manipulating force taking a hand in things. It was still an unfalsifiable hypothesis, though, something I felt I could reject. Strange to think about, in hindsight. I after all, did not train in the sciences, but there I am using 'hypothesis,' when what I think I mean is 'theory.'
"They have been doing this now for many years. They've gotten better at it. You have to think of it as ... as a virus. They're spreading a virus across humanity. And what I've been doing... what I've been putting into the music is meant to make them show up. It's meant to defuse their agents before they can get out of hand."
"I'm sorry, Mr- I mean, I'm sorry, NCR, before they get out of hand? You do know we're talking about adult men killing strangers and innocent people, right...?" I asked, tugging off my tie and giving him what was, I'm sure, an annoyed look.
"You have to consider it in terms of the greater... of the greater good," he said, as if that thought had only just now been spoken aloud. That he had only just now considered just what was going on as anything other than him opposing the man. I put one hand to my forehead, and shook it.
"And this is all from 1959, you say?"
"Yeah. That's when the project started."
"What have they done since then, then...?" I asked, tilting my head and looking at him inquisitively.
"... You know, I hadn't thought of it." he said, tapping his chin, as he turned around, reaching to his computer. "I mean, if it was me, I'd probably have set up some sort of defensive mechanism for the project. Some way to protect it without actually engaging it, so it could be denied later and just covered up like all the other-"
The strangest thing about it is, for all that the conversation was pretty important, I can't remember how it ended. I remember having my tie in my hands, I remember the smell of fire, and now... here I am. Just a journalist watching an apartment burn down. Strange, really. I wonder why I'd found it so compelling a case, now, because for all of my focus on it - heck, I got fired! - I can't quite work out why I bothered. Just another conspiracy theory nut, it seems - and no sooner did I leave his house than a fire breaks out. Probably one of his fancy electronic devices breaking down, too.
Hey, where's my notebook?
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