A Triptych Tale …

Habits

A Triptych Tale

 

‘What’s his name?’

Gail Whitman peered through the one-way glass at the small, barren room. A man sat alone amid the whitewashed concrete walls, neon striplight buzzing above his head. If the furniture wasn’t bolted down he would have tipped himself over onto the floor by now, but instead he sat chewing on one pink dreadlock, rocking back and forth to the rhythm in his head.

‘Your phone can tell you.’ Detective Ruckley tapped his own handset. Picking up the feed from the interrogation room’s inventory chip, it projected the details onto the wall.

‘Fuck you, Dan.’ Gail scanned the profile, taking in her new client’s details. ‘You know why I don’t carry one of those things.’

‘Shit, sorry.’ Ruckley grimaced. ‘Slipped my mind. It’s been a long day.’

‘It’s OK.’ Gail pointed through the glass. ‘I’d rather put up with a few awkward moments than end up like him.’

‘He wasn’t so bad when they first brought him in, but he’s had to wait a while for you to turn up.’

‘It’ll be worth it.’

‘For him or for you?’

‘Both.’ Gail rummaged in her bag, pulled out a battered notebook and pen. ‘But I’m not holding out high hopes.’

‘Shall we?’

Stevenson jerked upright as the door opened, sat staring at them through clotted blue eyeliner. Ruckley held the door while Gail went in and introduced herself, Stevenson only nodding as she handed him her card and sat down.

‘You know why I don’t carry one of those things.’

Ruckley shut the door, squared his shoulders and put on his fixed police frown. He sat down opposite them, straightened his tie and hit a button on his phone. A red LED lit up on the wall.

The recording system gave the date and time in a clear, officious tone. Then, ‘Present are Detective Daniel Ruckley, Greater Manchester Police, Mr Jeff Stevenson of 17 Hardcastle Drive, and …’

It paused. Stevenson had been slapped into an ankle tag and Ruckley was carrying his phone, but Gail had no electronic ID.

‘Gail Whitman,’ she said in her on-the-record voice. ‘Court-appointed lawyer for Mr Stevenson.’

‘Interrogation begins,’ the machine said, its light switching to amber.

‘Mr Stevenson, you entered the Chocolate Land shop in the Arndale Centre at one twenty-two this afternoon.’ Ruckley looked up from the screen of his phone. ‘Is that correct?’

‘Sounds right,’ Stevenson mumbled around a mouthful of hair.

‘Speak up, Mr Stevenson,’ Ruckley said. ‘This is an official interview.’

‘There’s no need to intimidate my client, detective,’ Gail said. ‘You know as well as I do how sensitive your recording equipment is.’

Ruckley ignored her, kept his gaze on Stevenson.

‘Inside Chocolate Land you picked up a tray of luxury fondants and threw them at customers. In the ensuing struggle you broke a security guard’s nose with the tray. Is that correct?’

‘My phone,’ Stevenson said, rocking back and forth again. ‘My phone will tell me.’

‘I want you to tell me.’

‘Give me my phone.’

‘You’re under arrest, Mr Stevenson. That means no phone.’

‘Give me my phone.’ Stevenson jerked to his feet, snatched Ruckley’s phone from his hand. ‘Give me my phone and I’ll give you yours.’

Ruckley rose, fist clenched, and Gail reached for the panic button. Dan could be a dick at times and he’d been jumpy since the Hemler assault. He didn’t deserve to ruin his own career any more than Stevenson deserved a beating. But Ruckley took a deep breath, unclenched his fist and snatched the phone from Stevenson’s hand. Then he strode round the table and pushed the young man back down into his seat.

‘You don’t understand,’ Stevenson said, tears in his eyes. ‘My baby is dying.’

Ruckley blinked, as close to alarm as he ever showed. But Gail had an idea where this was going. Stevenson’s whole style, from the candy-coloured dreadlocks to the bright, blocky trainers screamed Jellyphone fan. She might not use a phone any more but she was well read on the subcultures around them.

This could be her precedent. Anticipation mingled with sorrow for poor Jeff Stevenson, but she let the conversation play out.

She might not use a phone any more but she was well read on the subcultures around them.

‘Your baby, Mr Stevenson?’ Ruckley’s voice had softened.

Jeff nodded.

‘She’s hungry. She’s been hungry for days, and I can’t feed her. I needed to … Needed to …’

‘How did today help?’ Ruckley asked. ‘Were you stealing food, or did someone pay you to cause trouble in the shop?’

Stevenson shook his head, looking bewildered.

‘Jeff.’ Gail laid a hand on his arm. ‘What sort of baby is it?’

Stevenson smiled.

‘She’s a level-seven cinnamon dragon,’ he said. ‘She has shimmering scales and the two-headed upgrade. She’s the most beautiful baby I’ve ever raised.’

The softness fell from Ruckley’s face.

‘This is that stupid Spice Zoo game, isn’t it?’ His knuckles pressed white against the desk. ‘Your so-called baby’s an imaginary pet.’

Stevenson’s mouth hung open in shock. He clearly wasn’t used to people who didn’t manage their lives through phone games.

‘Detective, can I please have a private word with my client?’ Gail asked.

Ruckley rose, punched a button on his phone. The light on the recorder died.

‘Be my guest,’ he snarled. He stopped in the doorway, pointing back at Stevenson. ‘But remind your client, being an idiot’s no defence in court.’

The door slammed shut and Gail took a deep breath. Stevenson looked on the verge of tears.

‘You play Spice Monster Zoo, don’t you?’ she asked.

She didn’t need to see the nod. What Jellyphone user didn’t play the Zoo? Gaming, socialising, to-do lists, all managed through one bright advert-laden app. Stevenson’s pet would grow when he chatted with his friends through there, gain unique features when he used the calendar. Maybe he clicked on the ads and got extra points. Mix that with the sense of community, the videos to help you relax, the parties to meet other players, all conditioning you to stick with the app. It was why so many adults still used Jellyphones, a way to never let go of their youth.

An addiction.

‘Have Spice Monster Zoo done anything special recently?’ she asked.

‘Food fights at participating sweet shops,’ Stevenson reeled out the line like a quote from an advert. ‘Join in the fun with your phone friends and see your baby grow a new pair of horns.’

‘Was Chocolate Land one of the stores?’

‘Not on the list. But the lists are never right. Food drops come early or late. New releases are delayed. Venue information gets mixed. I’d missed all the best food fights, but I thought, I thought Tandy really needs those horns, and maybe if I can find a place they’ve missed … Chocolate Land joined in last time, so it seemed like …’

This was it — everything she needed in a single case. A big company, erratic drops for conditioning, a client out of control. Poor Jeff’s brain had been programmed past the point of sanity, and someone was responsible. All she needed to make her case was him.

‘Jeff.’ She paused, carefully considering the right words. ‘Would you say that you did this because of the game?’

He looked confused. ‘The game?’

‘The game in your phone. Spice Monster Zoo.’

‘Can I have my phone?’

‘Not just yet, Jeff. Now please, this could really help you: Did Spice Monster Zoo make you feel like you had to throw those chocolates?’

All she needed to make her case was him.

‘I …’ He frowned. ‘Is this about my phone? Are you trying to keep my phone? Because without my phone Tandy will die, and I’ll miss all the parties, and I’ll lose all my friends, and —’

‘I’m not trying to take your phone,’ Gail said. ‘I’m just trying to show that it’s the game’s fault, not yours. I’m trying to —’

‘You are, you’re taking my phone!’ Jeff swung round, grabbed her by the arms. ‘Give me my phone! Give me my fucking phone!’

The look in his eyes was wild, divorced from the cold reality of the cell. He screamed and formed a fist.

Gail shrank back in fear.

The door burst open and Ruckley rushed in, yanked the struggling Jeff Stevenson off of Gail. He pushed her out of the cell and slammed it shut, leaving Jeff to wail and thrash on his own.

#

Ruckley was good, old-fashioned Mancunian police. His first response to a crisis was a strong cup of tea with milk, six sugars and a concerned look.

‘You alright?’ he asked as he handed Gail a mug.

She looked up from one of the break room’s uncomfortable plastic seats, nodded as she took the tea.

‘Just need another minute or two to calm down,’ she said. ‘Has he been like that the whole time?’

Ruckley nodded.

‘Poor bugger’s brain’s completely scrambled.’ He leaned forward conspiratorially. ‘That’s what you need, isn’t it? If you want to prove culpability by the game developer?’

Gail sipped at her tea. Normally her tastes stretched to Earl Grey or Darjeeling, not this thick builder’s brew. But it was comforting in a kids’-food sort of way, sweet and smooth and made with the best of intentions.

‘It’s not everything I need, but it’s the linchpin. A solid line of cause and effect, so the judge’ll understand. Extreme emotions to win a jury round.’

‘Don’t think you’re getting anything logical out of him.’ Ruckley nodded back toward the interrogation room.

‘Maybe not from the horse’s mouth.’ Gail bit her lip. ‘But maybe I can analyse the data on his phone, look at his history on the game, find inconsistent stimuli that would have encouraged his addiction and triggered this instability.’

‘Don’t think you’re getting anything logical out of him.’

‘No chance.’ Ruckley leaned back in his seat, neck clicking as he rolled it from side to side. ‘His phone’s built for social games, not work. All the analytical stuff’s stripped out to avoid confusing users.’

‘On his phone, yes.’ Gail reached reluctantly into her handbag, fingers closing around a thick rectangle of cold plastic. ‘But even legal-aid lawyers get given phones that can analyse outside data.’

She pulled out the phone, cold and inert, and laid it on the table in front of her.

‘Thought you didn’t have one.’ Ruckley sat up, his brow crumpled, reflecting back her own unease.

‘My contract says I have to carry it. Doesn’t mean I have to use it.’

‘Still, Gail … I mean ― shit, that’s like making an ex-junky carry needles in their pocket.’

‘Except a junky couldn’t use those needles for work.’

Ruckley snorted.

‘I’ve met some bloody dodgy doctors.’ He looked her in the eye. ‘You’re not going to do this, are you, Gail? I mean, there are other ways.’

‘I need that data, Dan.’ She reached out, gave his hand a reassuring squeeze. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be careful.’

He took a deep breath, thought better of whatever he’d meant to say. She waited as he finished off his tea, lost in thought.

All the while her contractually appointed phone lay on the table in front of her, a black harbinger against the scratched white plastic. Just looking at it sent a shudder up her spine, a feeling that was half dread, half anticipation.

‘Alright,’ Ruckley said. ‘You can have access to your client’s phone. But you’re doing it in my office, where I can make sure there’s no tampering with the evidence.’

‘Where you can make sure that I’m doing it safely.’ Gail smiled, but he didn’t smile back.

‘C’mon.’ He led her down a corridor and into a small corner office.

Late afternoon sunlight fell through the barred window, illuminating a small, messy desk, two chairs and a gym bag flung down in one corner. As Ruckley stepped inside the walls lit up, details of cases plastered across the broad screens. He jabbed at his phone and the jumble of words and pictures vanished, replaced by blank screens.

Gail sank into one of the seats. It was more comfortable than it looked, well worn in.

She took a deep breath and hit the power button on her phone.

Personal data started scrolling up the screen. An appointment list six months out of date. Birthday reminders for half-forgotten friends. Lists of messages and missed calls. The data archaeology of Gail’s life, called up by her thumb print.

The phone buzzed as it finished connecting to the wall screens. That familiar vibration made Gail’s pulse race.

Now the phone’s data archive appeared across Ruckley’s wall. He took Stevenson’s Jellyphone out of a drawer and placed it on the desk, an oval of bright pink PVC.

Gail’s fingers flitted across her phone of their own accord. It was so easy to slip back into it, rewarding to find that she hadn’t lost her touch. Within seconds she had connected to the Jellyphone, was scouring its data. She pulled up lists of game scores, connected them to social media updates, appointments, heart rate data from a dormant fitness app.

It was so easy to slip back into it, rewarding to find that she hadn’t lost her touch.

She sailed down the streams of data into the wider world, following connections into the game infrastructure, looking at its mechanics, running programs that dissected its code. She could see other players plugged in right now, see which ones were behaving like Stevenson, which exhibited odd patterns, which had been affected by her client’s absence. She saw mania, fragility and obsession, a whirling spiral of information about Spice Monster Zoo and its obsessed players. Fascination drew her deeper.

Out of habit she started flicking through her email, scanning messages while she waited for data to come in. She checked appointments on her cloud calendar, compared them with weather reports and transport maps. It was all so familiar, so easy, so exciting.

A pop-up appeared in one corner telling her what the code-crunching app had spotted. Another reminded her of her mother’s impending birthday, a third suggested restaurants for dinner tonight.

Information rushed over her, sending a huge grin up her face. She had everything here. Everything she needed. Everything she wanted. All the data in the world, here at her fingertips. She ―

She dropped the phone, jerked up from her seat and out the door. In the corridor she stopped, closed her eyes and pressed her head against the wall. Her heart was pounding at the thrill of using the phone. She felt sick stepping away from it.

‘Stop it,’ she muttered, trying to control her own emotions. ‘Stop it!’

She spun around as something touched her shoulder, almost sent Ruckley flying despite his bulk.

‘Sorry!’ She backed up against the wall. ‘Sorry.’

‘No worries,’ he said. ‘Never should have let you do that.’

She shook her head.

‘Not your fault. And anyway,’ she grinned despite the nausea, ‘I found what I need.’

#

She made Ruckley hide the phone before she went back into his office. Information on the case was still on the walls, though she noticed that her personal stuff was gone.

She shook as she entered the room, caught herself darting eager glances at the filing cabinets, wondering where the phone was hidden.

She dug her nails into the palm of her hand, took a deep breath.

‘There it is,’ she said to Ruckley, pointing at the outputs from the code cruncher. ‘Analysis of the pattern behind the food drops. The game responds to physiological factors and the player’s actions. It doesn’t reward them until they get agitated, almost frustrated enough to give up. Then it relieves the tension.

‘It’s the perfect pattern to build an addiction. For someone particularly obsessive, someone like Mr Stevenson, it could become too much. There’s no way it’s coincidence.

‘That’s my precedent.’

#

They took a break before going back into the interrogation room. Ruckley made them tea, prepared his paperwork, made sure Gail had stopped twitching. Then, with his eyes still roaming warily toward her, they went back in.

Stevenson was asleep at the table, head pillowed on his arms. Ruckley put a cup of tea down in front of him then shook him awake, gently at first, then more firmly as Stevenson slowly stirred.

At last her client looked at them, bleary eyed and mournful.

‘Can I have my phone?’ he asked.

‘Not yet.’ Gail took a deep breath. ‘Mr Stevenson, there are good grounds for saying that this wasn’t your fault. You could avoid prison on grounds of diminished responsibility, but you’d have to appear in court for another case I’m making. How does that sound?’

Stevenson nodded. He even smiled.

‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘Thank you so much.’

‘Here.’ Ruckley slid a typed statement and a pen across the table. There were better ways to authenticate information, but public services took a long time to catch up, and the law ten times as long.

‘It’s the perfect pattern to build an addiction.’

Under Gail’s watchful eye Stevenson read the document and fixed his scrawl to the bottom.

‘Can I have my phone now?’ he asked when he was finished.

Ruckley shook his head. ‘It’s evidence.’

‘That might mean I get an upgrade.’ Stevenson smiled again, his gaze growing distant as he disappeared into dreams of a new phone.

Gail looked at Ruckley in alarm. This case could save people from these wretched addictive games; couldn’t they save Stevenson himself?

Ruckley shook his head as Stevenson, pink dreadlocks bouncing with each step, got up and walked out the door.

Andrew Knighton is a Yorkshire-based ghostwriter, responsible for writing many books in other people's names. He's had over fifty stories published in his own name in places such as Daily Science Fiction and Wily Writers. His steampunk adventure series, The Epiphany Club, is out now in all e-book formats, and the first volume, Guns and Guano, is available for free from Amazon or Smashwords. You can find free stories and links to more of his books at andrewknighton.com and follow him on Twitter where he’s @gibbondemon.