I'm the last person a family wants to see. But it is as the edicts require.
The building is too nice. Only the high clergy and monstrous wealthy live in these places. The stairs are covered in Alfombra, the latest in sound-absorbing stainless weave. My footfalls leave no evidence. Outside the apartment police and emergency personnel cluster like racehorses at the starting gate. Anxiety crackles through these servants when they see the tiny Church rosette on my lapel. It may look like a drop of blood, but everyone knows what it means.
I glance at my watch. I'm early. Maybe an early arrival will lighten my task. Maybe a good clean case, easy to resolve. As I approach, I assume my mask of indifference. People step away from me, their shoes suddenly of great interest. By the time I reach the apartment door, all chatter is gone. No one talks when you breach a tomb.
The door is covered with a large, metallic New Advent wreath. The shining circle of pure silver threads tie together a ring of blood-red crosses. This garish monstrosity no doubt cost more than a year's salary for any of these civil servants. Ignoring the grotesque and actionable overstatement of religiosity, I knock.
A long pause. I knock again.
A tall, thin boy answers the door. He has that same bowl haircut that is the rage among the young and geeky gamer sect. I saw one on a corpse just two days ago.
Energy drink in one hand, he looks me up and down. He is unafraid but exhausted. "Mom, the interpreter is here."
I walk in, my thumb brushing my tie to make sure it's perfectly centered. "You are Bobby?"
The boy turns and walks down the hall without a word before the mother rushes to the door. Her gait belongs on a beauty pageant runway. Dressed in a tight-fitted leather skirt, she has a glass of water in one hand and a wad of damp tissues in the other. "Oh, you got here so quick."
Not so quick that she missed her hair and makeup. I wonder, did she let the victim hang in the closet while she got ready for a Church visit? Or was she ready beforehand? What did she know? Different face, different body, but in all the ways that matter, she is a facsimile of my mother.
The father shuffles into the entryway, burdened and slow. He looks at me, brushing invisible lint from his misbuttoned shirt. "I'm Walter Higgins. Charlie's dad." He extends his hand, failing to hide a tremor.
I offer the smallest of nods, ignoring his hand. "I'm sorry for your loss." My words are dry, overused, devoid of warmth. I offer the standard explanation -- that I have been dispatched to investigate the death of a young teenage boy in order to determine if the Church will hold the family liable for any violation of the Church-State Religious Accountability Act. I pull out and start to read from my government-issued Rights of the Survivors card. Even though I know the edict by heart, the regulations require us to read them from the card.
Walter reaches out his hand, almost touching my arm before he pulls back as if I'm toxic. "Can you waive this part? The coroner--" He chokes over the word "coroner"; his eyes fill but he doesn't look away. "I mean, Charlie--" He loses words again.
I nod. "You'll have to sign a waiver."
I'm already reaching inside my jacket. No one ever finishes the whole reading of the Church's mandates against suicide. No one really believes they have meaningful rights. We voted our own surrender of our rights in order to keep safe. Two dirty bombs, one at game five of the World Series, and the death of our own President, and within a generation we've become a theocracy. Cameras, the Internet, and the tracking of nearly every aspect of our lives, and the founding fathers of our new America have learned to monetize sin. Now we live beneath the ever-judging eye, world without end, Amen.
The father waves his hand, turning away, stabbing at his face. His wife stands, smoothing the wrinkles from her skirt. I know she is cataloging his list of failures. Within a week I imagine she will be reciting the drama to her friends in hushed, excited tones.
"Where?" I say.
The father points down the hall. "Robert can show you."
I don't need Robert to find my way. Those of us who have reached out to death can smell the loss, a sharp, bloody, metallic taste that never leaves your marrow. The hallway is long and elegant, a dark, majestic teak offset with oak inlays. I walk the edges. I don't like making noise.
Most of the way down, a rotund man in uniform leans against the wall, lost in a paperback. When my shadow cuts into his light, he startles, jamming his finger into the book as he looks at me. He is reading a used print of Kramer's Inherit the Wind. I wonder how that work has escaped the censors. I like him instantly.
I lean in, reading his badge, invading space to establish authority like I had been taught. "Boreland, is it?" His uniform seems a bit baggy, the sort worn by a failed careerist.
He swallows. "Nothing is disturbed."
I offer the faintest of nods as I slide past, allowing an ecclesiastical collection bag to unroll out of my hand. It gives off a hungry plastic rattle. I push the unrolled bag into Boreland's hands so I can slip on rubber gloves. With my fingertips I press the door open, then stand in the doorway, looking, letting my training take over.
The room is my teenage room. Except that where I had cheesecake posters of Katy Perry, Charlie has a holographic screen of Jake and Jane Houston. The TIF is from "Senior Trip to Jesus." The wholesome pair are endlessly repeating their love of the Church in the shadow cast from the Washington Monument's cross.
The screen's glow just washes Charlie's dead face.
He's in the closet. A woven leather belt wrapped over a clothes bar was enough. He's been there too long, undiscovered overnight; lividity and rigor have set in. His skin is swollen, poking between the strands of leather. Little pockets of lividity have set, giving his neck a plagued, purplish look. His tongue protrudes at an odd angle.
No matter what the revised Modern King James claims, death is not "sleeping in the arms of Jesus."
I sense Boreland close in behind me, peering over my shoulder. I turn with a ready rebuke but leave the words unsaid. He's not gawking, he's examining; smart eyes assembling a story. Yet he hasn't advanced through the ranks. Interesting.
I rattle the evidence bag and pause. "What did you think of The Forgotten Bacchanalia?" Long banned and still quite popular. Now there are so many titles on the Index, it seems that all of us have read one or more.
Boreland shakes his head with a smirk. I understand. Such are the paper-thin walls of our society.
"How can I help?" he says.
"Touch nothing and make sure no one comes into the room, especially the mother."
"Nice makeup." The smirk reappears. Yes, I like him.
I move to Charlie's desk, taking things -- his electronics, photographs, anything written -- and dropping them into the Church's collection bag. All of this used to build a psychometric profile of the boy to evaluate his sins. I'm merely the evidence collector; a garbage man of too many painful lives.
I insert a small device into his server's card reader. It goes to work, using ecclesiastical decryption codes, copying every possible manifestation of his digital life -- every photo, chat, text, enneagram, or virtual projection. While the Church tool steals away his electronic life, I take countless virtual photos of the room, catching every depth and nuance of Charlie's bedroom. I end my journey in the closet.
Being careful not to touch his body, I look at how Charlie ended. This was not a spontaneous act -- Charlie had shored up the closet bar so that it would hold his weight. Judging by the marks, the supports were added weeks before. No hesitation marks, no struggles, no accident. Charlie planned his escape.
I sit down at his desk chair, unable to look away from Charlie. He was smarter than I. I rub my wrists where the scars were surgically excised. When you become an Interpreter, the Church removes all evidence of your own attempts -- without anesthetic, of course, to help cleanse and purify. It is a hard rubber eraser against a soft, damaged soul.
I catch myself. I must be careful. Boreland is watching and I have yet to decide.
When Boreland steps out, I reach under the bottom of the desk and find it with my hand. It is there. It is always there. I pull out a bundle of three worn composition books. The books are wrapped with a wide rubber band scored with countless stretch marks. I pull out and open the last volume. I don't have to read much to understand. The diagrams of loss, maps to his faltering self, an encyclopedia of misery; it's all familiar.
The last entry is what passes for poetic to a distraught teenager. "I want to believe there is good in all of us. Good that goes unseen by all these cameras and monitors. What good can come from a platinum-clad preacher reaching into our pockets for every misstep? My friend Carl says that soon they will charge us for our impure thoughts."
I skip back a few pages, stopping at one where the title has been traced over and over again, leaving a deep, wide impression on the paper, as if the pen were a branding iron. SCHEISSE GOTT.
Just beneath this he finds his voice. "I'm never going to be happy. Either I live my life lonely, always fighting against the darkness reaching in to me, or I do something.
"I told the priest about my thoughts, but he told me I was having a crisis of faith. He said pray harder and don't masturbate. He even suggested that my father could pony up a bit, and things would go easier for me at school. When I suggested thirty dollars, he kicked me out of his office. Such bullshit.
"That happened yesterday and it led to today's title. I don't speak German but it translates to Shit God, or shit on God, or God shits on you. I think it means all of these."
I closed the book.
Charlie was smart boy. I'm sure he kept his planning out of his electronic footprint. I know what to do now.
Boreland comes back into the bedroom. I've spent too long with the notebooks. He looks at the room and back at me. He shrugs, pushes the door closed, and waddles over, holding the evidence bag open like a collection plate.
I replace the rubber band and set the bundled notebooks on the desk. I look from the notebook to Charlie's corpse and back to Boreland. "There's nothing there."
We share a long, awkward silence. I glance sidelong at Boreland. His eyes soften around the edges, young but old.
"His brother?" Boreland says.
What he asks is a major violation of the ecclesiastical canons. I wave my hand.
Boreland nods and disappears. Robert is back in an instant. He looks at his brother.
"He was weak," Robert says. "I loved him." Robert finishes his energy drink in one long pull, crushing the can, dropping it to the ground. "Fuck her." He walks down the hall.
I gray out, an old habit from my time in the barrel. I come to when Boreland leans in. He is pushing the evidence tag into my hand. I notice he's already initialed it, a flagrant breach of protocol. A job termination, excommunication, and prison if I report him. No questions about Boreland now.
The evidence bag rattles as he folds it closed and seals the seam. All I see is a plague of Church symbols, many distorted by the folds of the bag, looking like ancient runes of despair. I initial it as well. As soon as I am done, he glances at the notebook.
I lay my hands on the banded bundle. "This is mine."
"Fine. Release the scene to him." I straighten my tie. Now, time to face the parents.
Damn, I fucked up. "Hold on," I say, my voice a bit too loud, too strident.
I walk over to the closet, pausing to consider the camera angles, fumble with Charlie's belt, and yank down his pants, pulling with a savagery I don't feel.
Boreland raises an eyebrow. "I'll get the coroner."
I grab my camera from the desk and start taking the final images needed to create the ecclesiastical truth.
After making my pictures, I put the camera back on the desk. I tuck the composition book behind my jacket, placing the bundle in the small of my back. I return and, with as much respect as I can, I arrange Charlie's pants and underwear to match the story I am to tell.
It takes only a few minutes for the coroner to arrive. He is sword-scabbard thin. His face seems frozen in permanent disdain. He is the sort of person who sees fat people as sinful and lost souls as weak. I nod; he genuflects in response.
He takes in the scene, his practiced, dead-fish eyes disinterested. He looks at Charlie, his prejudices leading him to the obvious conclusion. "Again? Your second this month."
I shrug. "I don't create the pornography. God protect us."
"God protect us," the coroner says, his words loaded with a conviction that mine lack. "Do you see anything that might make them change your findings?"
I shake my head. Behind him, Boreland shrugs.
The coroner steps in close, looking at Charlie, his face granite-hard with judgment. I note he avoids touching Charlie. He speaks down into the clipboard. "They should have a check box for autoerotic asphyxia. When can I expect your report?"
"We're running about six days on average."
"Are you going to wait?"
"No," I say, "I'll tell the family."
He heads out. "I'll send in the photographer. Send me a copy." I translate this as Make sure my ass is covered. He waves without looking back.
Boreland steps in. His face is curious and, unlike mine, devoid of damage. "May I ask why? For the father?"
"The brother. To have a brother who violated one of the most sacred tenets of our new Christianity? No good college, no good job, no chance to change the world. No reason the second son should follow him," I finish, keeping my other reasons to myself.
"You'll do the parents?"
By the time I sit on the couch, I have lost count of the religious symbols decorating the living room. Public faith a requirement for the socially mobile.
The father sits across from me with a stunned look I've seen before. Charlie's mother comes in with a tray of low-fat pastries and a small pot of Lipton, complete with the Bible quote on the label. It hangs down, sticking to the side of the pot.
I shake my head.
She sits next to her husband, not as flustered as you would expect. "I thought you might--"
I hold up my hand. "Thank you, but no." I use the practiced voice of a bureaucrat with power.
Dad is too shattered to think, but I'm certain Mom knows the importance of the Church's determination. A suicide judgment, and all of the family's assets are subject to the Church's voluntary tithing law. Just as Church and State have joined, so have the words voluntary and mandatory. Hand over your money and your son, and you can avoid the Church's for-profit Faith Restoration Camps. Interpreters are given a percentage of the tithe as a reward for their Godliness, which gives me the benefit of paying for my dishonesty even while I commit it.
I take out my Church card. I don't need nor intend to read the words. "I am sorry for your loss," I say, more heartfelt this time, at least for Charlie's father.
His eyes well up with tears, and the mother slides forward on the seat.
"I am not allowed to issue any determination," I say carefully. "The local Church office will issue a final judgment on the matter within sixty days. Should you choose to dispute the findings, you may do so through petition to the Ecclesiastical Court. The closest is located on Park Avenue near the Sony Seraphic Entertainment Complex." I rattle on, dumping out a list of details and procedures that neither of them will remember.
The mother's eyes bore into me. We both know that my finding could wipe out the family's wealth and destroy her place on the Church's social register. I feel no sense of responsibility in her for Charlie.
I end in summary fashion. "Do each of you understand the rights and obligations as I have explained them?"
She nods, too quickly. Charlie's father is non-responsive, looking outward from his grief. The cuffs of my shirt rub where my scars should be.
I pull the required documents out of my jacket pocket. I place them on the coffee table, along with our regulation pen. I spread out the paperwork, showing her where to sign. She helps her husband. He doesn't care.
I fold them and slip them into my suit coat. The wife picks up the teapot, pouring herself a cup. No brandy? She moves with a practiced calm that betrays a portion of liquid courage.
"Sixty days?" she says.
She should be asking why. If I had anyone care about the why, I might not have climbed into the warm tub with the razor, and Charlie might not have snuck into his closet with a muffled hammer to reinforce his hanging bar. No, there is no hidden responsibility in her, no compassion.
"It is not my practice to disclose preliminary findings," I say. "I am merely the Church Investigator. My conclusions are not an ecclesiastical judgment."
"We'll be ruined." Only now does she seem anxious. Charlie's father places a hand on her knee. She pats it like a robot.
I hate everything this mother facsimile stands for, but I look over to the father and remember the brother. "As I said, I am sorry for your loss. It is the Church's desire to handle matters of this sort as quietly as possible within the bounds of the law."
For the first time, the father looks at me. He swallows but does not look away. I imagine he wants to know what he should have done, what he could have done. Just as I am about to shake my head, I catch myself.
Lying never comes naturally to me so I stammer. A stammer that made me willing to pick up my father's straight razor. "I'm sorry, but in accidents of this nature the Church may need to ask you some follow-up questions. It is required, you understand."
"Accident?" Now genuine tears spill out. She looks like Marie Antoinette being asked to step down from the guillotine.
The father stares ahead, his mouth open like a fish that has just escaped its tank. His belief seems paper-thin but she will never let him question it.
"Yes," I say. "Even with the best monitoring, kids find their way to this stuff." I fumble through a too-brief explanation of autoerotic asphyxiation and pornography. I can't get the words out fast enough. I stand. I need to escape. "Again, I'm sorry for your loss." I decline her hand.
On the way out of the apartment, I glance down the hall. I see Boreland reading from his paperback. He is haloed with little bursts of light as the coroner's high-speed flash records the last of Charlie. His book bouncing in the light.
I skip the cab, taking the long walk back to the office. In a city covered with cameras, there are still places available. I find a crooked little alley off Times Square and pull out the notebooks. His pain is still there in every doodle and paragraph. Methodically I tear the pages into tiny fragments, leaving only empty binders. Some of the pieces are slipped into the storm drain at my feet; the rest will find their way into a grease barrel I know just on the edge of Chinatown. The empty composition book covers go into the ordinary recycling bin in plain view of ordinary citizens.
Just before I reach my office, I walk through the shadow of the cross on the Empire State Building. I don't glance at it. Instead I let the shadow pass over me. I have paperwork to complete. I am Interpreter of Suicides, Badge Number 36459. I know that accident is the only escape.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Matthew Wallace. All rights reserved.