Clay pulled the second drawer of his filing cabinet out as far as it would go and removed from the second-to-last folder in the second-to-last hanging file the neat sheet of paper with his identities and passwords typed in columns and rows. He slid the drawer halfway in and pulled from the second folder in the second hanging file his ledger dates, times, and website addresses. This was a messier affair than the typed words and codes on the other sheet. The soft graphite numbers and letters had smeared from the weight and oil of his left hand as it followed, heavily, the pencil it pushed across the paper—a technique no teacher had been able to break him of.
Outside he heard the occasional vehicle: rarely the sound of a normal car, most often the mechanical buzz of the topless Hummers driven by the private security forces still patrolling Audubon Place. Israeli tactical forces had been hired, some said, and others said no, but rather the American contractors who had misbehaved to notoriety in Iraq. He’d seen an action star riding in one—a guy he’d seen in a movie some years back but couldn’t name—bandoliers crisscrossed for show or fun or real sport. Clay knew he didn’t have to worry; his skin color made him invisible, and the address and last name on his driver’s license marked him as one of the protected.
He worked methodically, careful to use the correct computer for the correct identity on the correct blogs and accounts, a different one for the work he would do under his identity as Wikipedia editor, and the third for the reader reviews he posted to online bookstores.
Three of his targets had been there from the beginning—old friends, really, names that comforted with their familiarity. Others rotated in and out as people caught his ire and then bored him or when he determined that the damage inflicted was proportional to the injury deserved. The punishment should fit the crime, ideally in kind and certainly in degree. This was part of the unwritten but strict code he’d developed since he’d graduated from his youthful commitment to general mayhem and havoc by superglue to the more purposeful enforcement and revenge he now thought of as a practice.
He’d started small, canceling the newspaper and cable television service of an out-of-town neighbor who had smacked her gentle dog’s nose with a rolled-up weekday edition or gluing together the pages of a library book by a local historian who was piggish in interviews. Rarely, but sometimes, the target was personal: a former schoolmate who’d popularized the entertainment of mocking Clay’s gait. That gait was compensation for the small, crucial fact that his left leg was three centimeters shorter than the right, stunted as it had been by a large fibroid tumor in his mother’s uterus.
His father’s voice: See, she gave you more than your money.
He couldn’t do much about his parents—his mother dead and his father seemingly with impunity in all situations—but a series of minor misfortunes had befallen his high school tormentor until the fellow had finally transferred to a parochial school with significantly less impressive college-placement results.
Kiddy stuff, he thought of all that now, but you have to start somewhere, and in those early pranks he saw the genesis of the artist he’d matured into. Though he’d never say it out loud to Johanna, what he did was a kind of art. His medium was the lives of others. Most often these days it was their virtual lives, though Clay understood that the relationship between who we are and whom we present ourselves to be is a strong if complicated one.
Once in a while he actually finished someone off—like the British graphic novelist he had tortured into obliterating his own web presence in the wake of a nervous breakdown, committing a digital suicide nearly as satisfying to Clay as if the man had actually hung himself from the rafters in his attic and not been found until the odor raised the neighbors’ suspicions. But most often the feebleness of the bad actors he targeted educed his leniency. Narcissists are easy to punish. Even as they are quick to generate ego-protecting narratives, they are prone to shame and injure readily. It was hard not to feel sorry for them, really.
Only after Clay had moved item by item through his list, visited each social media account, commented on the blogs and sites he’d scheduled for that day, and read up on a critic he was weighing as potential victim—though lately he preferred to avoid the word victim, thinking instead in the terms of justice—did he search the Czech’s name. How anyone could keep his name off the Internet in this era, even a sewer dweller like Ladislav, he couldn’t fathom. But the only bearers of his name Clay could find with any search engine were human homonyms: an elderly resident of Prague and a middle school swim champion in East Chicago. Only by searching “Hotel Richelieu” and “death” did he produce a representation of Ladislav’s face on screen.
John Doe was what they were calling him. John Doe was what they were calling the man responsible for the only time Clay had hurt someone who didn’t deserve it. John fucking Doe.
Excerpted and adapted from the book The Lower Quarter. Copyright © 2015 by Elise Blackwell. Reprinted by arrangement with Unbridled Books.
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