The Line of Death

The rain hadn't let up for days, and as Ray waited at the bus stop outside the prison, he felt invisible – grey and wet in the grey and wet world he was re-entering.  If what he had had to do to get early release was traitorous, he thought, it had come from a struggle within himself to decide right from wrong.  Justice engenders justice, but he had been a victim of injustice, he was sure of that.  Not a miscarriage of justice.  An injustice.  

He had been caught in the trap set for Tyke and Reno.  He, an innocent visitor, just returning some videos.  His lawyer had explained to the court his presence at the house, and he had cooperated with the judiciary, but he had been sent down anyway.  His early release bargain seemed sensible, considering his innocence.

The bus into town pulled up, and about ten people got out, mostly young women, happily chatting to each other, there to visit their husbands or boyfriends inside.  One young man stepped off, looking lost and vulnerable.  Ray shuddered when he realised who would be getting this visitor.  No one else got on, and the bus drove away, the radio blaring the latest popular music.  

Never mind, Ray thought.  Any music was better than the random haunting hollow horror sounds of the cells.  The human body cells of the senses tingled and shook and flashed and teased and pleased and intertwined and choked and stabbed and collapsed.  You couldn't forget, couldn't block anything out, because the senses were all working, conspiring to keep you alive with echoing memories.  The sweet secret look of a face was followed by the stabbing pain from behind.  The caress of a rope was followed by the sour rough kiss of dizzying and deep, deep darkness.  You couldn't even forget the blacking out, the little death.  Even when they left you, you were never alone, never dead.

He hadn't been weak, he just hadn't resisted.  There were a few weak ones with him; he had avoided them.  Then there was Carl, soft as a cherub and stately as a seraph.  They had been drawn to each other almost as soon as they met, and they managed to keep it quiet, discreet.  They were the comfort after the torture.  But Carl was still inside.  

Ray was hoping he could stay with Ellie for awhile.  He had sent word to her to expect him.  Her parents' house was more of a crash pad than they knew, both Mum and Dad living now in Jamaica.  Ellie was careful in her choice of "tenants", but there was always the chance of another bust.  He was hoping to be gone by then.  When he got to Ellie's house, she was alone.  She had chased out all the crashers.  All except for Jack.  He was "special", she said.  He was away somewhere, maybe for a month or a year, she couldn't say.  Anyway, he was special.

So, Ray settled in to Ellie's routine.  He did the gardening and the cooking and the cleaning and the shopping, while Ellie worked on her PhD in zoology.  There was always music in the house – she liked it soft, and Ray liked whatever Ellie liked.  Generally, though, modern music had got louder and more hateful, more discordant and ever more violent.  Hatred and violence were the new voices of the young.  Some radio stations had refused to play it, but they lost audience and advertisers alike.  Government regulators were called in to assess the situation.   

Ray needed music to balance himself, to keep his gyroscope spinning.  One day in the middle of the high street, Ray noticed a music/video shop, just opened, advertising for help.  He went in.

"Twenty hours a week, any days you want.  You're doing the backroom work – mixing, dubbing, nothing a child couldn't do these days.  Nah – old operation, new location.  We need to turn thirty thousand units a month for a good clean profit.  We're doing twenty-five now, so it's a safe job.  You'll be working with Jim.  He'll help you out if you get into trouble.  Young fellow – very young – sixteen maybe, but he's a wizard with the discs.  So here I am talking your head off and you've got frozen stuff to take home, I see.  Come in tomorrow morning then?  Ten, eleven, twelve.  We're open till midnight.  Nine to midnight – except Sundays.  I take my missus to her parents every Sunday, I do.  Anyway, — "

Ray escaped the monologue successfully and headed back to his house.  His house – his and Ellie's.  He and Ellie had become quite the couple.  That should last at least until the elusively special Jack returned.  Ray would have time to adjust, to relax, to forget.

But the next day when Ray saw Jim, his co-worker at the shop, he knew he'd have trouble.  Carl's double he was, soft and gentle, a wizard with the discs.  Jim was Carl and Carl was in prison and it all kept coming back to torment him.  It distracted him at work, it flashed into his mind when he was in the shower (those were no prison jokes), when he and Ellie had sex, it appeared in his dreams – all the weight fell into his heart like precious unbearable gold.  It – and Ray could not name it otherwise – it was him, it was his life as he had created himself in order to survive prison.  

Ellie had noticed Ray's odd behaviour but figured it was the usual reaction to the time in prison and the adjustment to normal life.  She thought perhaps they should get registered as partners, and she openly and honestly suggested it to Ray.  His first reaction was confusion, as if he had been offered a book when he hadn't yet learned to read.  Partnership was like marriage.  He was frightened of it.  But he heard the happiness in her voice when she spoke of it, like bird song, and if he could please her he would, for he might find what he too was looking for.  

They were happy enough together, Ellie working now at the university library full time, PhD in Zoology and all.  Ray reduced his hours at the shop to the minimum, and he also avoided Jim as much as he could.  It didn't make things better, but at least things were not getting worse.  Not yet.

Still, Ray was periodically hunted and haunted by his prison memories.  They flashed like  bright headaches hot on his trail and caught him before he could run.  Sometimes he could feel them coming for him, like an epileptic aura, extrasensory warnings to him to act normal if he was with others, or seek release if he was alone.  Alone, he could indulge his prison fantasies, re-enacting the scenes using the techniques he had learned to combine pleasure and pain and death.  But he was careful not to get caught and not to go too far, to cross the line of death.

One day, about three months after the civil ceremony of partnering, Ellie announced that Jack was returning, and did Ray mind?  He'd stay in the top bedroom.  He was her best old friend.  Ray had only vague recollections of meeting Jack or seeing him around before the bust.  But Ellie was right to want him to stay there.  It would all work out.  Ellie was always right about these things. 


Jack arrived within the week, quietly and with little fuss or inconvenience.  Ray took to him right away – someone to talk seriously to, about life, about his problems.  Jack had the personality that made people trust him, talk to him, confide in him.  Jack himself was more reserved toward Ray.  He sensed a troubled mind, and he had seen his share of those.  In any case, he knew enough about Ray to satisfy his curiosity.  Ray, on the other hand, wanted always to ask questions and talk and talk.

With the persistence of water dripping on stone, Ray broke Jack's reluctance to talk.  And eventually, not just talk.  Ray had intimated his physical interest in Jack, relating certain scenes from prison and tempting him to participate.  Of the two, it was Jack who had had considerably more experience of such matters in general, and it was more out of kindness and concern that he took up with Ray the various practices of sexual pleasure.

At first the acts were mutually satisfying, but Ray kept increasing the risks – bondage, strangulation, penetration, force, torture.  He was always the tortured, Jack acting as the torturer.  At first it was a few times a week, then daily, sometimes even twice a day.  Whenever Ellie was out, Ray would get Jack to tie him up or hang him or choke him.  He said that he would do it alone if Jack didn't cooperate.  Neither considered this blackmail, but it was as much mental torture for Jack as the bondage was physical pleasure for Ray.  For Ellie's sake, Jack had to keep Ray safe from harm.  And Ellie must never find out about Ray's perversions.

Ray had learned in prison how to avoid bruising, techniques to hide abuse, knowing how and where to apply pressure, knowing when to pause, when to stop, just the right twists of a limb, when to appreciate that more did not always mean better, when to let the body take over, and when to release control.  There were instances when Ellie became curious or suspicious, but she was easily convinced that everything was normal.  Still, she noticed that Jack and Ray were together a lot more than she was alone with Ray.  Only at night, when all was still, she felt his fear and excitement at something beyond.  His lips moved, his fingers twitched, he was dreaming of something without her, she felt.  Odd, too, that he didn't seem to have the nightmares anymore like he had had when he was first out of prison.  He slept now as if it were another life he could lead.

More and more, Ray was losing control of himself.  Jack would often come home from his job at the garage to find Ray having already started the games.  He was sinking deeper and deeper into the prison he had never left.  All Jack could do was keep things under control, faking as much as he could to maintain an equilibrium, to avoid making matters worse.  He cooperated just enough to keep Ray on the safe side, to forestall accidents.  At first,  the music Ray was always playing during these games had been soothing or soft or sad, but gradually it became loud and mad, dangerous and demonic, degenerate and deadly.  Modern music had become all those things, and there had even been talk of a broadcasting ban on certain types of songs.

It had been an erotic game – until Ray introduced The Game.  And for The Game, Jack also had to be tortured – tied or strangled or squeezed or penetrated – as much as Ray.  He called it The Game, but it was also known as the Truth Game or the Exquisite Inquisition.  The person torturing – tightening a rope around the other one's neck, for instance – extracted a confession of some seriousness from the tortured.  If it were judged "true", whether it actually was or not, the torture stopped and the roles were reversed.  But the torturer could demand more, and more.  Of course, the idea was to "confess" a minor truth, then, enjoying the torture, only slowly increase the gravity of the truth confessed, until the ultimate orgasmic release.  

And always the music in the background.  During the day, Jack might chance to hear a song associated with those sessions, and it became a reminder of his role in that dangerous charade.  The songs became THEIR songs.  They developed meanings of their own independent of the words.  A rhythm, a melody would elicit a sensation, a feeling, an emotion – a cry of pain, a wince as a rope tightened, as a clamp bit harder into flesh, a moan of ecstasy, of release, of luxury.

Occasionally, The Game would result in an actual serious truth being revealed unbidden.  During one session, Ray admitted having fantasised killing Ellie so that he could be with Jim.  Jim entered more and more into Ray's outbursts of truth.  Jack had managed to keep his truth statements either imaginary or relatively harmless.  But during one Game, Ray had, under great torture, revealed that his early release from prison had come about because he had cooperated with the authorities to expose the leader of the drug-running gang bringing drugs into the prison.

Jack knew that this was a huge test of confidence in him.  Ray was admitting to betrayal, of sorts.  It was not so much what he was guilty of, it was what he was capable of.  And, as the roles in The Game reversed, Jack felt himself let go – release the secret he had been hiding from everyone.  It was during a particularly painful throbbing in his left thigh that Jack's resistance broke.  His voice came out in gasps and whispers.  Then silence.  Even the music had stopped.

Ray fell back on the bed.  The air turned cold, full of particles of ice suspended like dust.  In the stillness, Jack slowly, methodically, removed his bonds, undoing each knot and strap and clamp and buckle.  Ray had turned away, but with lowered head he looked around again at this fellow in his bed, his house, his life.  "Say it again, Jack.  Tell me what you just said.  Tell me."

Jack sat up and ran a hand over his chin.  His breathing had slowed and deepened.  The motes of ice froze in his lungs.  There was where he hurt, where the pain was, in the ice crystals.  Ray had scooted up to the top of the bed, far far away.  "Jack.  Is it true?  Tell me.  I don't believe you."

It was Jack's turn to look away.  "Yes.  It's true.  This Game – it took over.  I didn't want to tell you, ever.  I regret it.  It hurt you and it hurt Ellie.  She doesn't know either.  When I turned you in, I needed the money.  I knew you'd be there.  I waited until the most people would be in the house, then I told.  I didn't really even know you then."

"And I don't know you now.  You're not the one I've been talking to, having fun with.  You're not my pal.  Jack, I'm sick of this, I'm sick of you.  I'm just sick.  Sick of —   I'll give you a week to get out.  I don't want Ellie to get suspicious.  You just go somewhere like I've heard you do – in and out of people's lives.  God!  What you meant to me!  What I felt for you!  What I did for you!"

                                              *                           *                           *

Ray kept himself busy at the shop, working any hours he was sure Jack would be at home.  Jack had time to contact someone abroad who would let him move in for a few months.  Near the end of the week, Jack got a call from Ellie just as he was getting ready to leave work.  She had found Ray hanging in the closet, he was tied up, he was naked, he was dead.  The ambulance had come, the police had come, Ray was gone.  They had told her it was a suspicious death – either accident, suicide, or murder.  There would be an inquest.  Jack couldn't leave her now.  She wanted him to stay.  He would stay.  He wouldn't go to the funeral.  But afterwards, he would tell her the truth.  No games.  The truth.

                                           *                               *                                *

                                                    Twenty-five years later

Had it been raining, Jacko would not have noticed.  Had it been sunny, or cold, or snowing volcanic ash, he would, indeed, could not have noticed.  The car, which had picked him up from inside the building, had blacked-out windows and curtains covering those.  The rear seats were as isolated as the cell he was leaving for the last time.  Class 2 criminals would not normally get this guarded treatment, but Jacko was special.

He sat back in the soft leather seat of the car that the governor of the prison had provided for this trip.  He felt safe, he felt comfortable, but he did not yet feel free.  He knew where they were heading, he and whoever his driver was.  Jacko had chosen the modern flat himself from an album of offers.  High over the city, it gave spectacular views of the river and the nearby hills.  He hoped that he might feel free there, floating over the place he had grown up in and knew so well.

He would find his old friends again and explain his early release by saying he had a good lawyer.  No one need know the truth.  Of course, he'd have to avoid certain people, but he had always avoided them anyway, so no one would be suspicious when he stayed clear of them now.  El – he'd have to see El.  She'd still be behind the bar at the Pickwick.  Even after ten years, she'd still be there.  She had never visited him in prison this time, but he had heard stories.  She had had no reason to be faithful to him, and he had not expected her to be.  Theirs had been just a brief affair after his earlier stint in prison.  He had had the usual prison experiences again.  There was one fellow in particular, a boy, really.  Now he'd try to forget Mick.

He felt the car going down a ramp and into an even quieter silence than the silence generator had been producing during the ride.  Down into the parking.  The driver stopped and got out without closing his door.  He went around and opened Jacko's door.  Jacko felt cold air on his face and neck.  "Your things are already in the flat.  The lift is over there.  Flat X-7b.  Top floor."  Then the driver got back into the car and drove away.

Jacko wondered how he'd get into the flat without a passcard.  As he entered the lift, he noticed the overhead cameras rotating full circle, to record his image, he figured.  His XA file must be linked to the video database, for the doors closed, and opened again.  The time it took to travel to the top floor was nearly instantaneous, but it would still be deducted from his account.

Silence reigned, even rained, over all.  At his arrival in front of flat X-7b, the door opened automatically.  The silence generator had not been turned on, and the quiet murmur was disturbing.  Bloody hell! he thought, as he looked for the control panels near the door.  He had heard and read about all the new technology that had been introduced in just the last few years.  Suddenly the whole world was new, exploding into sleek, elegantly designed uniformity, as old technology was quickly abandoned.  But Jacko was a runner – he'd figure it all out.  He'd survive.  At least his medical condition had not allowed the doctors to implant anything into his brain.  He had only had to consent to digital configurability. 


Having managed to set the silence controls to Calm, he went to the window.  The view was exactly as he had expected.  No neighbours.  He stripped  his clothes off and opened the window.  The blast of sudden air pressure against the silence hurt his ears and forced him to shut the window again.  When he turned around, he noticed the room – grey, brown, black, white – as sterile as a showroom.  Muted, dull, silent, eerie.  A quick glance at the other rooms revealed their bleak uniformity.  

Jacko found his carrier bag propped up behind the sofa.  Digging in for his TD, he suddenly wondered if he was being monitored.  The TD gave a short buzz and vibe at his Find command.  He waved two fingers over it and it connected him to Facts.  "Scan," he said, and the TD screen displayed the layout of the flat.  There were two areas of exclusion – the kitchen and the study.  The rest of the flat was wired.  He wagged a finger and a voice chirped, "Number, please."  

He had to talk to Dexy before showing up suddenly at the Pickwick.  Dexy'd know who'd be there and when.  "And Dex, I need some smash.  Who's got?  Yeah?  Well, OK.  That'll have to do.  I'll fill you in on things later."

Jacko was tired.  He went to the kitchen, figured out the coffee machine, and got a cup of moccato.  On the counter was a box of energy sticks and flavour sticks.  He took one of each, snapped them lit, and took alternating puffs from each.  His head cleared enough for him to get more interested in his surroundings.  The bedroom wardrobe held a variety of suits and shirts, mostly regulation bland.  A flash of red turned out to be a cotton Hawaiian shirt.  Something primal shook his brain, a sound like steel speaking a rhythmic language.  Anyway, the shirt would go well with the tan trousers.  He dressed and within an instant found himself on the main road leading to the Pickwick.  Time was going very fast, he realised, since he'd been released. 

At the Pickwick were the same crowd as from ten years before – Stubbs and Scrot, Dexy and Max, Phil by himself as always, Gogo with a new girlfriend, and El behind the bar.  "Hey, Jacko!  Dexy said you were out.  God, you look good for a jailbird.  Treat you right, did they?  Good to see you!  Hope you didn't drop the soap.  How's life? Free as a bird, Eh?"  All the crowd contributed to the welcome, except Dexy and Gogo's new girlfriend.  Jacko sat down between Dexy and the girl, avoiding El's glance.  "Get us a drink, will you, Dex?"  The girl looked at him with obvious interest, as if she had something of great importance to tell him, which indeed she had.

"Jack.  You don't remember me, do you?"

"Uh – no.  Not really.  Should I?  Who are you?"

"Ellie didn't recognise me either.  Jane – Jane Clark.  Ray's sister."

"Jane!  Of course!  How have you been?"

"The same – well, twenty-some years of the same.  A lot's changed.  You're looking well.  And Ellie, well, she's aged.  I'm fine."  Jack let her talk.  "After your trial, we never saw each other.  You weren't allowed at the funeral, were you?  Ellie was looking all over for you anyway."

Dexy returned with three pints of bitter and put two in front of Jacko, who slid one over to Jane.  "Ta, Dex.  We've been reminiscing, Jane and I.  Oh – Jane's an old friend.  Now she knows Gogo.  That right, Jane?  You fitting in?"  Jane jokingly tossed her head around, pretending to look for something, then smiled.  She didn't fit in.

"Got something for me, Dex?  Dex's got some smash for me," he whispered to Jane.

"It's in the wagon.  We can get it later."

The bitter was beer and the beer was bitter, and that's all the Pickwick served.  Every once in a while a cloud of mist puffed around the ceiling, spreading joy and happiness and thankfulness.  The customers all inhaled deeply, all except for Jacko.  That was a luxury he hadn't had in prison, and he wasn't sure if he could handle it.  The silence generators shut off automatically during the Cloud, allowing everyone to enjoy the sounds of breathing in, holding, breathing out, in contemplation of the everlife promised to good citizens.  In prisons this was not necessary, as there were more expedient measures to ensure compliance in captivity.

"Jack – I only came here to give you something," Jane said, when the silence generators were running again.  "I'm putting it on the bench here next to me.  I found it among Ray's things only last week.  The things Ellie had given me – books and papers and things.  It took me that long to get up the strength to go through them.  Twenty-five years.  This has got your name on it.  Whatever it is, it was meant for you."

"How'd you know where to find me?  How'd you know I was out?"

"I've got my spies, Jack.  I've been keeping an eye on you, since you got out the first time.  I wanted to keep in touch with the last person to see Ray alive.  I needed to keep track of you."

"Jane – I did what I had to do."

"You confessed."

"It avoided a full-blown trial."

"It didn't avoid the news media getting hold of it."

"I did my time.  Ten years.  As I said, I did what I had to do."

"Jack — "

"It was my decision.  I did what I had to do.  Now that's it.  I don't want to talk about it any more."

Jane finished her drink and left.  Jacko slid over on the bench and covered the small envelope with his hand.  Slipping it into a jacket pocket, he said, "Dex, let's go get smashed."

Later, back in his sterile flat close to the sky, Jacko opened the envelope.  A CD – the old crystal disc no one had used for decades.  Ray had left him a CD.  How could he play it?  Even transferring the data would be a problem.  If only Jane had found it twenty years earlier, he might have been able to play it, but with the new regulations banning music, eventually all music equipment had been confiscated.  

So, music had taken to the airwaves – and into space.  People listened on illicit cochlear implants, or they modified the government brain control chips to receive the signal from Piradio, a pirate broadcasting station orbiting the earth.  It was manned by a rota of volunteers sent there from a remote Pacific atoll which had been declared off-limits after a nuclear accident.  Jacko had been on his second deployment on board when the Space Patrol busted the station and shut it down.  He had been sentenced to fifteen years on charges of sedition.  

Now that he was out, he'd try to find someone from the station to help him with Ray's CD.  What it could possibly contain was starting to nag his brain.  Why couldn't he have been given it earlier?  Music was nearly a forgotten taboo now – there was no pleasure in listening to music.  Almost everyone loved silence, even appreciated its subtle nuances, its swells and its ebbs, its luscious, rapturous echoes of emotion.  People had their favourite moments of silent memory, passages in the great symphony of stillness.  Most people were happy now with silence.  After the initial silent shockwave had reverberated through their music-addled brains, they had begun hearing new sounds, real sounds.  Sounds of life, of nature, of emotion, of thinking.  New rhythms and patterns contributed to the tempo of living.  Unwanted ambient noise was captured by the silence generators and relayed to collecting stations for military use as sonic weaponry.

Jacko had been music abstinent for five years now and wasn't sure he'd want to break his quiet fast, listening to Ray's disc.  It could only be music.  He really had cured his addiction, thanks to prison and to the anonymous self-help group he had joined.  Best of all, the Pickwick now seemed to be an aroma/silence bar, catering, from what he had seen, to the young yoganauts as well as old-aged smash heads and trannies.

So, with the help of a retired associate producer from Piradio, Jacko managed a link to the ether antenna and could listen to Ray's disc, although the video crystal portion did not load.  It had required only his TD phone and a special SIN card.  Normally those were dispensed by the State Church for people to coordinate their prayers with their sins, but a renegade nun had managed to bypass the Church and hack into a special interface directly with space.  Thus it was that Jacko heard Ray's final words.

"Jack – I'm recording this for you to use as evidence, as proof of your innocence.  I'm going to leave it for Ellie to find and give to you.  If I give it to you myself, you might get suspicious.  I'm going to convince you to have just one more torture session, and I want you to kill me – strangle me.  I'll resist and beg you to stop, but you won't disappoint me.  I will have you in my power, and I will make you kill me.  There's no other way out of my pain, my torment. 

Show this vid to the police, or a judge, or a lawyer.  They can't blame you.  I am the one confessing.  And anyway, if you don't kill me at that last session, I'll just kill myself.  I can do it.  I've come very close before.  But I want YOU to do it.  That will be my release.

My years in jail were wasted years, but they probably would have been wasted anyway.  Help me die and I'll forgive you forever.  When I die, a part of me will become a part of you.  I'll live on just a bit in you.  That's what I want, Jack.

Take care of Ellie.  And tell my family it was an accident, or an experiment, or trying out a scene for a video I was making, or some excuse for them so they don't know how sick I had become, how damaged.

And you, Jack, you must understand it – you are not to blame for any of this.  You helped me – I know you were trying to protect me, keep me from going too far over the line.  But I am beyond help.  I can only thank you for all the trouble you went through.  You cared about me, and I cared so very much about you.  I think I loved you.  I think I ended up loving you.  And I'll die loving you, Jack.  Take care of yourself."

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