Online relationships and friendships can be complicated, particularly when there is competition and delusion involved…..
David was tired. He rubbed his eyes because they almost ached. On applying pressure they felt almost bruised. He knew he should turn the light on. Sunset had come and gone and now only the light of the computer screen illuminated the room. He should drag himself away from it. Hours had passed since he’d logged on.
He thought to himself, am I becoming a nerd?
Who said anything about ‘becoming’ the snide fellow Voice in his head questioned him.
Shutup Voice he thought to himself.
Voice had a point of course. He’d never been big man on campus, not even moderately large man, or relatively noticeable man. That’s why he was an accountant, no doubt. That’s also why he wanted desperately not to be one, why he pursued his more dramatic/comedic dreams with fervour he often feared was not matched by talent. But this doubt was the Voice again, he supposed.
In any case, he should be preparing his comedy routine for Open Mic this coming Friday night. It was only half done, if that, and he didn’t want to tank like last time. Sure, it was amateur hour – that’s what Open Mic was – but if you think amateur, you stay amateur. Besides, he knew certain comedy luminaries were rumoured to be attending because of some re-union thing with the person who ran the club. Extra pressure. He didn’t want to fall over in front of them. It wasn’t just pride. It was survival. He knew there were few ‘industries’ more vitriolic than comedy, and few again where news traveled any more quickly, particularly of another’s embarrassment or shame.
So he should be leaving the computer and proving at least to himself he wasn’t in thrall to it. But it was an addiction, particularly when it was at its most beguiling. Like tonight, in his favourite comedy fan chat room where the bitchiness and hyperbole was flowing freely, like cheap wine that was somehow just that bit too horrible and fascinating to refuse.
The girls in particular amused him. There were exceptions, but as a general rule if you went into comedy to get laid, you’d probably be successful, but the choice of partners would be hardly inspiring. ‘Jokies’ they were called, as opposed to groupies, and they often really were jokes. Most comedy girls he knew of, particularly the ones who also congregated to gush over the internet, were from the disaffected at school – the overweight, the plain or ugly, the socially challenged, the stupid, and the pretentious.
Rather like you Voice said.
Not that he saw them online. David favoured chat rooms of the old fashioned variety, where the only interaction was in text, not in Skype type visuals. He wasn’t that proud of his own looks, to be honest, and also liked the mystery of the typed word rather tha the distorted visual on screen. Or at least he liked to think it was a distorted visual from the few times he had used Skype and decided that couldn’t actually be a good representation of him, the camera most certainly does lie.
Does it? Smirked Voice. He ignored Voice. There was something to be said for living in happy delusion, which probably explained much about these girls. For obviously they came to these ‘invisible’ chat rooms often enough, so something in them wanted to hide just as much as it wanted to be seen. Perhaps it was just the bitchiness of the chat rooms in general that made the inhabitants prefer to be unseen, David was not sure.
And he had to admit the very disadvantages of these girls made them more appealing than repellent to David. He liked their vulnerabilities in a way, he liked their adoration when he performed well, and he coveted its increase when he would become famous. He liked to interact with them, at least at a distance, and it was another unwritten but universal law of comedy that the up and coming comedians needed to flirt and cajole an audience into being. You could be the funniest person on the planet, but if no-one came to see you perform, you might as well have been the worst.
The internet was a good hunting ground for developing a following. And the net was also strangely intimate and personal, particularly and paradoxically if you didn’t ‘see’ each other on line. David found participating in it oddly satisfying. So for pragmatic reasons, and also for those of taste and entertainment, he spent probably far more time than was healthy on the sites and in the chat rooms that pandered to his chosen career.
And besides, when they got all delusional and competitive and bitchy, it was just plain funny. They were a comedy in themselves, though they didn’t know it. They took themselves so seriously. And that was the beauty of it.
All fine comedy revolves around the ridiculous taking itself seriously. That, and the pain of others.
The fight on the net that night was a common one. It involved how obsessively some of the girls – all of them in actual fact – were about following the ‘top’ talent of the day. This usually equated with whoever had an on-going gig on television, but also performed locally and ‘live’ enough to be accessible. An interesting alchemy David hoped to emulate and perfect when his time came.
David had been around the boards and rooms for long enough now – about two years – to know that there was a flow to it. Groups of fans came and went – usually on a yearlong cycle. A pecking order existed, made primarily on length of tenure, but also on avidity of interest and the boundaries, if any, these girls had in attacking others. The ‘cool ones’ went to everything and they were vicious in their attacks on others. Anyone new who threatened their crown was immediately branded mad, delusional, stalkeresque. It didn’t matter that they were thus derided for activities that the ‘cool group’ had perfected and routinely undertook themselves. The hypocrisy was lost on them. The ‘cool’ had established their right, somehow, to be obsessive without the questioning, usually because they’d just hung on in there when they first ‘arrived’ on the boards and waited out similar accusations made about them.
Eventually they – the anointed ‘cool’ – would move on and those that had clung on despite their attacks would assume the crown and begin the attack on the newer ones again. It was like a living beast, feeding on its own young. It was predictable, reliable, and vastly entertaining.
It was in full flight that night. Lizzie, one of those Neanderthals that had waited the others out and now was part of the ‘inner circle’, or ‘elite’ as they laughingly and inaccurately labelled themselves, was deriding another girl who she saw regularly at the tapings of comedy television.
Lizzie: She was there again, she came every night, it’s pathetic and I couldn’t take photos because the stupid bitch was taking so many with a flash…
Sarah: A flash? What the…
Petrie: Everyone KNOWS that you can’t use a flash…
Lizzie: Exactly! And so it just ruined it for all of us, and it wouldn’t matter, but she tried on the other nights too, so because she was always there…
Sarah: God she’s a stalker..
Lizzie: Yes, she is, poor Anthony he must be so frightened seeing her there every night..every night..I can guarantee you she was…
Sarah: It feels like she’s stalking us now too!
Lizzie: Yeah! It does..she always wants to talk to us..she always wants to talk about Anthony..she’s obsessed with him!
Petrie: And us! And us!
At this point David burst into laughter at his terminal. They hadn’t noticed he’d stopped interacting, that his moniker ‘Vlad’ had gone silent. They were carried away. He was too amused to type. My god, someone obsessed with them? Lizzie was the size of a house, Petrie looked like someone who didn’t have a house let alone a home to go to, and Sarah always seemed like someone who should be locked up in a very special house with all white, padded walls.
Yep, you’d get obsessed with them, David thought.
You are a little obsessed with them though, said Voice, just not in a nice way. Not in a way that they’d like.
David was so amused by his internal reverie, and the others so involved in their vitriol, that no-one noticed a new moniker join the chat room. After a few more minutes of the banter, the new person decided to say something.
Schadenfreude:You girls are so hypocritical
Lizzie:What the fuck? Who are you?
Schadenfreude:Just one who notices you accuse others of doing what you do yourself, all the time
Petrie: You’re the stalker aren’t you?
Schadenfreude:How amusing, no I’m not. I can assure you. I’ve never even seen her. But I’ve seen all of you, and none of you are in a position to carry on so..
Lizzie: Be civil, I’m a moderator here, I can have you thrown out
Schadenfreude:Can you? Can you really? Well, perhaps you can..perhaps…but why would you, just because I tell the truth?
Lizzie: You don’t understand the truth, you don’t have the history..
Schadenfreude:Why do you presume that, pray tell?
Lizzie: You’re new!
Schadenfreude: Am I?
Lizzie: Or you’re someone we know playing some stupid game. I’ll check your IP number…
Schadenfreude: Be my guest..I’m no-one you know, not really, no-one at all.
Petrie: Yep, that’s right, you’re a..nobody!
Schadenfreude:LOL. That’s your best shot? But then, you always come in just a bit too late with your jokes, don’t you Petrie, and your intellect is as big as your deformed little feet..
Petrie: What the fuck…
Schadenfreude:Could you people come up with some original responses please? Or is that beyond you?
David loved this new person and the stir that he or she caused. He guessed it was a ‘she’, it sounded like a she, but the internet could be deceptive. He switched his computer to private message mode and addressed Schadenfreude.
Vlad: I like your name. I like your game.
Schadenfreude: You understand the name?
Vlad: Of course, very good, as you are called, so you do…here at least, and it’s most amusing
Schadenfreude: Thank god for someone educated in this god forsaken room then. I doubted that such a thing…such a person.. existed.. I like your name too, by the way..
Vlad: Comedy can be intelligent..
Schadenfreude: Indeed it can, you have a point..oh. what are they babbling on about now..seems I’ve stirred them up a bit, and I’m about to get ‘kicked’ as they call it..
Vlad: Pity..you made it interesting..
Schadenfreude: They can’t really do what they want..they can’t get rid of me that easily..but hey, it’s always good to be a bit under-estimated, isn’t it…
Vlad: What do you mean?
Schadenfreude: The internet is a strange place, is all..things aren’t always what they seem. I liked talking with you. Perhaps we will again
Vlad: This room is quiet, empty, during most of the day, even the main moderators aren’t around..
Schadenfreude: That sounds like a clear invitation to the dance…I’ll see you round then..gotta go!
Lizzie had worked herself into a fever pitch of self-righteous hypocrisy. While Schaden (as David thought affectionately of her) had been responding privately to him she’d just casually dropped more and more on-target, all knowing and almost frightening insults, and the girls had ganged up in hysterical and appalling unity to ‘kick’ her out of the room. They were just about to try to put this threat into effect when she stole their thunder by leaving voluntarily.
They were unappeased, and disgruntled by being denied the thrill of eviction. They even threatened to ban her IP from getting back in, but something told David that wouldn’t stop Schaden. As she said, the internet was a wondrous place, and these silly little girls wouldn’t understand the half of it.
It really was time to go, time to sleep, and then to wake the next morning hopefully afresh to prepare for Open Mic.
He felt inspired by Schaden. Her vicious but well-timed and precise attacks were giving him ideas for his theme and its delivery. Who knows, perhaps she’d even come and see him perform some time. With that happy thought he shut down the computer and trod his weary way to his dis-shevelled, unmade bed and its promise of dreamless catatonia.
One of the beauties of the internet was that someone who had previously not existed at all could suddenly burst into virtual existence like one in a series of big bangs. You didn’t have to be born there and deal with years of parental guidance. You didn’t need to go through school. You didn’t have the indignity of having to grow up on the internet. You could be ten years old in real life and pretend to be twenty. You could be fifty and pretend to be ten, though that was usually a fairly suspect thing to want to do. Nevertheless, you just needed a computer and a reasonable typing speed, and there you were.
Some people made more of a splash than others once they emerged in cyberspace. David liked to think he’d made an impression when he first came out of the lurking shadows and began to post on the various more incognito social media sites he would come to frequent. He knew, somewhere within, that at least part of that was that the presence of a male on these type of comedy boards was a bit of a novelty. There were a few of them, from time to time, but just as he imagined would be the case with movie star fandoms, the major demographic was young and female.
There were some more grown up and diversified comedy on-line cliques which he was a member of – and these were the best leads for actual gigs and publicity and for knowing what was really going on in the industry. But the phenomenon of comedy – the cult like followings and the bizarre interactions – these were best found on the female dominated sites. David didn’t fancy himself enough of a sociologist to really understand why, but he presumed it was just a need for sexual attention by girls who probably didn’t get much of that in the real world. Maybe boys who went to the net had more immediate and less complicated needs – they just wanted sex generally, and pornography would suffice. The girls, he thought, wanted more than that, they had an emotional drive. They wanted to be seen, to be chosen, to be desired. Hence the rabid competition for who was ’closest’ to comedians that in reality were distant from all of them.
It was entertaining. Their miseries and bitchfights reminded him that he was better than some others, that his life, while not yet what he imagined it could be, was at least above that level of pathetic need. He joined in sometimes, in the judgments and internet juries on the new people and so forth, not really because he actually cared or agreed with the prevailing trend, but to stay ‘in’ with those who might come and see him perform, and just to have a bit of vicarious pleasure through the battles between the girls.
Rather like being in a mudfight with them Voice commented.
Voice was right. But it did get a bit tedious from time to time. It did get very repetitive. That’s why the coming of Schaden was such a big splash. She moved quickly from just haunting the chat rooms to posting her condemnations and incisive and accurate analysis on the sites. Threats were made to ban her constantly, but they either never happened, or she continually circumvented the attempts. She always re-emerged, phoenix like. She set off a virtual frenzy amongst the ‘elite’. The main operator and ‘owner’ of the most popular board fancied himself a skilled part-time hacker. David heard he was sent on the hunt for her, but it seemed she was too clever for him. Or he secretly liked her and was in league with her, which, knowing him, was a distinct possibility.
David loved it. They met in chat rooms when no-one else was around and talked about her exploits. She managed over a few weeks to break down some of the allegiances of months or years. She set one against the other. She slithered between friendships and paraded before the incensed group. She threw a bomb into an already paranoid and distrustful medium and stood back to watch it explode. David joined in sometimes, mostly anonymously. He had a fledgling career to protect. But he participated nevertheless. This was fun.
Once she typed to him:
Schadenfreude: It’s funny, sometimes I’m not just..vicious..sometimes I argue in defence of someone who is being unfairly attacked..in fact..I do that quite often really..
Vlad: I’ve noticed..
Schadenfreude: Have you? How gratifying. I find it interesting..amusing really..that the ones who are the biggest bullies squeal the most when they are similarly attacked.. have you noticed that?
Vlad: Indeed I have, especially since you’ve been around..
Schadenfreude: It is as though the minute you call them on something they immediately become a victim in their own minds, victimized simply by the fact that they were caught victimizing..it’s funny..they think you can’t bully a bully…
Vlad: Indeed it is, but you’re getting dangerously close Schaden to being that which you criticize..
Schadenfreude: Not at all..I don’t claim to be kind, and I’d never claim to be a victim..no matter what I was caught doing..I am what I say, I am what I seem..and that is all..
Some of the girls who were more sensitive eventually fled before the tide of Schaden’s apparent fury and judgment. Others stuck it out obstinately. The more stupid among them, like Lizzie, perpetually tried to attack her in a way that opened the door for reflection of all the criticisms right back into Lizzie’s more than substantial lap.
For a few days at a time she’d wreak havoc and then leave them to struggle to retain some sense of themselves in her wake as she’d disappear again for maybe a week, maybe a month. That was frustrating for David – her absences. She never explained them, she was utterly unpredictable, elusive. And she seemed incredibly reluctant to communicate more personally – via the telephone or in meeting, no matter how David would cajole her in the chat rooms whenever he happily found her present.
He even suggested they try the dreaded Skye option, and he honestly wasn’t sure if he was frustrated or relieved when she refused that option. Maybe a bit of both, and also a bit hopeful since she implied they may meet soon enough in real life, perhaps at a comedy gig. At least he wouldn’t have to worry about camera lens distortion in real life.
Yes, you need all the help you can get said Voice.
Schaden would also regularly tell David that he should expand his net horizons, that the playing fields were more widespread than he imagined. ‘It’s not just little girls that fight and scream and bitch’ she’d say, ‘You should see a bunch of academics going for it, or the would-be occultists that haunt certain sections of the web.’ David was in no mood to play, he resented her absences, and refused to be coaxed. He wanted to be the hunter, after all, and for her to be complicit in the hunt.
Eventually, something in the tide seemed to turn, as inexplicable and sudden as her comings and goings had formerly been. David himself triggered it, based on her implied interest in his comedy, but even he was surprised when this seemed to bear fruit.
Vlad: If you’re afraid I’m some pervert you can come and watch me perform. I’m at Open Mic next Wednesday night at the Sandford Hotel..
Schadenfreude: Perhaps I will..
Vlad: Will you? It starts at about 10pm and I’ll probably be on third…
Vlad: You’re not coming, are you?
Schadenfreude: I said..perhaps..I’ll see what I can arrange…
Vlad: Really? I mean, it would be good, you’ll see I’m not raving pedophile lunatic and perhaps then you’ll agree to actually meet…
Schadenfreude: I never said I was afraid you were a pedophile..
Schadenfreude: I know you’re not..I know what you are David..and what you’re not..
Vlad: There you go, being all mysterious and portentous again..
Schadenfreude: LOL..I do not mean to be..I’m just being precise…but I may come and see you perform..if I do..I’ll be at the back of the room..in the shadows..
Vlad: LOL. Because you are so suited to the shadows..
Schadenfreude: As I am..as I am…
As she was. She didn’t even give him her real life name, ever. She joked that she didn’t have one. ‘I’m Schadenfreude’ she’d say over the net, ‘That is all and everything I am…’. Still, it was a start. While half of the girls on the net would probably want to kill Schaden on sight, he just wanted one sight of her.
She liked to be mysterious. Another time, another chat:
Vlad: You’re female aren’t you?
Schadenfreude: Do you want me to be?
Vlad: What does that mean, that you’re a guy?
Schadenfreude: I’m what I seem to be…that’s what I am..
Vlad: So you’re a girl..
Schadenfreude: You don’t like boys then, David?
Vlad: I like boys..sometimes..I prefer girls as a general rule..but that’s not the point.. you seem like a girl..and you say you are what you seem..are you lying?
Schadenfreude: I never lie David..
Vlad: Good, so you are a girl..
Schadenfreude: I am what I seem..
He’d never met anyone as funny in his life. He’d never met anybody he enjoyed so much. It seemed only fair to take it all to the next level. It seemed only right that they should meet. But if she wanted to play it all mysterious as usual, who was he to complain? She was very good at that, after all. And as she said, she was ever, and only, what she seemed.
Wednesday night he felt ill with anticipation. It wasn’t just the pre-stage nerves, though he routinely suffered from that affliction – one that could usually be remedied somewhat by a few stiff drinks before he stumbled on stage. It was more the anticipation that possibly Schaden could be there. In the shadows. Like she’d half-promised.
She didn’t promise at all Voice reminded him, she just said maybe, and you know what ‘maybe’ means from a woman.
The same as it does from a man he thought angrily in reply to Voice.
‘Hey Dave, you ready for the night?’
The jovial greeting came from Andrew, the manager of a number of well-known comedy acts and a regular ghost that haunted the amateur shows at the hotels and bars of the city. David turned to him, instantly overwhelmed as he always was by the sheer size of the man. David was rather delicate, with an angular face and body, more a lithe woodland creature than the big bear that was Andrew. He always thought it suited Andrew to manage. People had probably been doing whatever he said from the days in the playground. Not something that could be said of David.
‘As ready as I’ll ever be,’ David replied, ‘You want a drink? I was just going to get another one before I go on stage.’
‘No thanks,’ said Andrew, ‘I’m here to check you all out, and I like to be clear-headed to do that. You got some new material?’
David felt instantly defensive.
‘Some,’ he said, ‘I’m constantly working it.’
Inside he thought, most of your ‘acts’ Andrew, re-cycle their material year after year with the avidity and fanaticism of the environmentally sound. Why was it always only the ‘unknowns’ that had to be original these days?
‘Good job,’ Andrew said, ‘I’ve liked your work of late. We might have to talk if you’re after representation.’
David felt like fainting. A brief vision of the horror of his daily work in the accountancy office rose before him and then seemed to fall away on a great tidal wave of hope.
‘Any time Andrew,’ he replied, suddenly warming to the monstrosity before him.
He smiled at Andrew, who smiled back at him. David thought to himself Andrew might even be attractive to some people after all – he was handsome in an intensely forbidding and blokey kind of way. And he was large, but it wasn’t fat, he clearly worked out, or he just had a giant for a father. Not David’s type when his desires were so inclined, but still…perhaps not as black as he had been painted.
Then Andrew nodded to him and patted him rather patronizingly on the shoulder.
‘See you after the show maybe,’ he said, ‘I’m off to watch the acts from up the back, and to watch over my girl.’
‘Your girl?’ David asked, ‘Your wife?’
Everyone knew Andrew was married. He wore a ring, he sometimes spoke affectionately of his ‘kids’, so why say ‘girl’? It seemed a strange term to use, and even stranger that she would be here at the hotel that night. He’d always thought comedy wasn’t reputed to be her ‘thing’.
Andrew smirked at him and winked, then shook his head, withdrawing.
Oh, I get it, thought David.
About time, thought Voice.
It was also about time to go behind the makeshift curtain because the first couple of acts had almost finished – each, David thought with a sense of self-gratification, ignored by Andrew. Perhaps it was his night after all, in more ways than one. The point was, where was Schaden, if indeed she had come? It was theoretically easier to look out at the shadows in the back of the room when he was on stage, but the lighting would dim his clarity. So he took a moment, standing by the edge of the stage area, to look outside the focus of the stage lights.
He saw Andrew first, almost mythically large and dark like the lord of the underworld, looming to the right of the tables at the back. He was leaning back, watching the stage, a look of endurance on his face as the compere (if you could call the hack that ran the pub something as celebrated) threw out his tired jokes as fillers before introducing David.
But he wasn’t looking for Andrew, no matter how enticing their conversation had been. He was looking for a girl – he was sure of it – and there were a few to choose from at the tables. Only one, though, who seemed likely. Most were gathered in groups and David felt sure Schaden would have arrived on her own. So the one that sat to the far left, in the darkest part of the room, slowly sipping what looked like a cocktail, had to be her. It was Schaden’s type of place to sit. It was Schaden’s type of look – or what he’d imagined – very slim, rather angular in looks just like David was, very dark, with intense eyes. And there was what had to be the final proof. Those eyes, hawklike, glittering, steady, were looking back at him.
It was her all right. He could feel her wicked humour telegraph to him as clearly as it did over the internet.
David risked a smile in her direction but did not have time to see her response. The compere was calling out for him to go on stage.
He alighted adrenalized, hopeful, expectant. The lights in his eyes for once did not dazzle him. His patter for once went completely smoothly. Even in the haze before him he could at least see the signs of mirth and laugher in the audience and particularly in the hulking girth of Andrew. Schaden was harder to make out – she’d chosen her spot well, as though she knew with almost a professional performer’s eye, where to hide. Of course, she would. He wondered momentarily if she was actually a performer also, though he’d never seen her around the traps.
Nevermind, he thought. He was sure she was watching him. He felt it, like a glow that caressed him with approval and amusement.
His excitement was hard to contain. He reached the end of his ten minutes to sincere and enthusiastic applause and approval and bounded off the stage area.
‘Great show!’ the compere told him, and for once it didn’t seem to be the automatic and hollow rhetoric that it usually sounded like.
‘Very good,’ another voice said behind him, and he turned to see Andrew.
David didn’t want to stay to talk, he wanted to go and find Schaden, but he wasn’t going to walk away from Andrew. He had a profession to think about, and another – accountancy – to escape. This was definitely the nearest he had got to achieving that so far.
‘I want to talk with you,’ Andrew said, ‘Call me during the week. I can’t stay now. I have to go. Something’s come up at home..’
‘Oh,’ David said. Andrew shot him a look that said, what’s a guy to do? David nodded. They communed on a man to man level – guy to guy – both understanding the secret code about domestic affairs and their inhibiting effect on ‘their’ lives.
The man mountain turned and left him. David took a moment to calm himself, then headed out to the hotel tables in search of Schaden.
The balloon deflated in an instant, and suddenly even the promise of success seemed bitter on his tongue. He looked over to her table, expectant, eager.
And she was gone.
Vlad: Did you like the show?
Schadenfreude: To all accounts you were very good.
Vlad: To all accounts? What does that mean?
Schadenfreude: Others say so, don’t you want to know that too? Do you only want my opinion?
Vlad: Yes, frankly!
Schadenfreude: That’s dangerous
Vlad: I think I might have representation
Schadenfreude: So I hear..
Vlad: Are you pretending and showing off or does news travel that fast?
Schadenfreude: This is the net..you have to ask if news travels fast?
Vlad: OK..I wanted to talk with you last night..I wanted us to meet..
Schadenfreude: I know
Vlad: You left!
Schadenfreude: I was not there to talk with you, that is correct..
Vlad: Why did you leave? Why weren’t you waiting at your table when I finished?
Schadenfreude: I couldn’t be there..it’s impossible..
Vlad: I want to meet you!
Schadenfreude: I know
Vlad: You’re very pretty
Schadenfreude: Am I? Thank you
Vlad: You look a bit like that girl Nina from Vampire Diaries
Schadenfreude: My goodness, I’m a pop culture reference!
Vlad: It was a compliment..when can we meet?
Schadenfreude: Hmm..do you know Claude’s, the alfresco bistro in Barrack Street?
Schadenfreude: I might be there tomorrow for lunch. I might be meeting a friend..or I might be alone
Vlad: OK, I might be there.
Schadenfreude: Then you might be the friend I might be meeting.
Elevated on the sense of success in his pursuit of Schaden, David felt confident in other pursuits. It was almost midday at the office. He’d done two tax returns for clients with more money than sense or morals, and found enough deductions and ways to hide or write off income that they would be eminently satisfied. He was almost a sleuth at the game and it was a bitter pill to swallow that perhaps his eye for detail and relentless capacity for searching out the minutia made him such a good…. accountant.
Just because you are good at something doesn’t mean you should do it, he thought to himself. Though if Schaden proved to continue to be elusive for whatever cruel pleasure it gave her, his research skills would come in handy on the internet – he’d track her down like some highly skilled cyberstalker. She’d appreciate that, no matter what she might say.
And even more than that, he wanted to think of himself as good at comedy too – that his eye for detail took on a whole other level in that field, and was similarly the thing that would raise him above the common herd of his competitors.
Perhaps he was right to think of himself in those terms. It was a big leap from amateur comedy to professional and one rarely attempted or made by those who had little networking connections to aid them. David suffered from such an affliction – he knew most of the ‘fans’ of the craft from the internet but few of the actual comedy world themselves. He was slightly shy, loathe to approach actual successful comedians after gigs or in pubs to publicise his wish to join their throng. It was an impediment for him, making him have to rely wholly on his skill and his performance. He recognized this was a disadvantage to actual success, even if it was a potential advantage to quality. The two did not necessarily go hand in hand.
But perhaps they sometimes could. He logged off the net from chatting with Schaden, the promise of their imminent meeting in real life buoying his spirits, and he took Andrew’s card (which he’d lifted unseen a few week’s ago at one of the Andrew’s client’s gigs) out of his wallet. He’d never dared hope he could actually use the number, it had just been comforting to have it in some obscure way. But now he had been invited to call – he had, as Schaden would put it, received a clear invitation to the dance.
Why wait? It wasn’t like ringing a girl after sex, where you would wait at least three days to ensure you had the psychological upper hand. This was business. This was between men. There was no need for such games.
‘Andrew’s office,’ a girl breathed down the phone. She sounded young. She was probably pretty, and small. David imagined that would be the pre-requisite for employment with Andrew. He wondered if she might be ‘the girl’.
‘Tell him it’s David, his potential new client,calling as he asked me to,’ I said, trying to sound important.
‘Please hold for a moment, I’ll see if he’s available…’ the girl replied, seemingly unimpressed, but professional and polite nonetheless.
The moments that passed were an eternity. David knew, on some deep wordless level, that whether or not Andrew took the call now would mean the difference between success and failure, between his invitation being sincere or off-hand and insubstantial. It didn’t matter that Andrew might be otherwise legitimately occupied. The secretary would have known if that was the case, surely. To not take the call now would be a clear brush off. David wouldn’t call again.
‘David mate! Glad you called!’
It was Andrew. David let out a long breath, only then realizing he had been holding himself so tightly he had stopped breathing all together.
‘Is this an ok time?’ he asked, like a supplicant.
‘If it wasn’t, I’d have got the girl to put you off mate, it’s fine. I wanted to talk with you last night, but the wife..you know..’
David didn’t know. He wasn’t married and he’d never even lived with anyone other than his family and his current male flatmate. He had no idea at all.
‘Of course I know..’ he replied, ‘The cross you have to bear!’
‘That’s right. Look..I want to cut to the chase, ok?’
Be my guest, thought David.
‘I like your work. It’s original, which is saying something these days, it’s nasty without being gratuitous, and your characters and facial mannerisms etc put me in mind of a young Jim Carrey. It’s a unique combination. You’re even likeable in some odd way. We really don’t have anyone like you on the scene at the moment. I think with the proper grooming, we can make something of you.’
‘Why thank you! I’m flattered,’ David said.
‘Don’t be flattered for fuck’s sake..I don’t need this to turn into some ego stroking exercise. You have potential but it needs work, and you need to be managed so that your profile rises in a sensible manner..you’ll have to work hard and listen to me..can you deal with that?’
‘Of course I can! Who wouldn’t?’
‘You’d be surprised…anyway..good..we should meet and discuss this more..come and see me later in the week..we’ll see about some spots for you at my Club over the next few weeks..I’ll put you back through to my girl to work out an appointment ok?’
‘Good on you. Talk soon mate!’
And he was gone and the girl was back on the line ready to check the diary. In the end the appointment was for the following Monday – it seemed Andrew was busier than he realized, or possibly keeping up with that kind of detail wasn’t his thing. In either case, it gave David the rest of the week and the weekend to alternate between excited anticipation and rampant fear.
Always the way he worked best.
David knew Claude’s bistro quite well. Two years before he’d worked in a less celebrated accountancy office and it had small rooms tucked away in York Street, so he would often get out of the depression of the place and saunter down to the Barrack Street Plaza to eat. Claude’s had been there for a number of years now, always busy, always successful, with food and coffee that stood the test of time, not subject to the law of diminishing returns that most restaurants and cafes seemed to follow.
David now worked in North Sydney, but a trip in to the city was never unwelcome. Hell, these days just getting away from the office was welcome. He could sit on the bloody Manly Ferry all day and be happier.
He took the train to Wynyard. David rarely drove and didn’t own a car. He could have taken one of the company ones on some flimsy pretext, but parking would have been a nightmare. Beside, he quite liked the train trip over the bridge, and it was only a brief and brisk walk to his destination from the station in any case.
He considered it fitting that it was a glorious day, so early in spring, and full of promise. Above the tall city monoliths a few stray white clouds decorated the sky without threat. People looked colourful and alive, even in the suit-replete central business district. David knew he was seeing all being at its best in the best of all possible worlds because of the past few days, but even though that was the case he was happy in his self-referential glory.
He arrived at Claude’s early , because you always needed to if you were to be assured of a table in the more popular (on days like this anyway) al fresco area. There was no sign of Schaden yet – if, of course, she was who he thought she was, though he was as sure of that as he could be of anything. He took a seat at a table at the front area of the cafe so that he could see all the people streaming up and down the plaza.
‘David! Hello stranger! How are you?’ It was Claude himself, the affable and genial owner, chief cook and host of the café. David beamed at him, enjoying the fact that he still retained his well-known status.
‘Fine, how’s the soup today?’ he asked.
‘Your favorite David..minestrone..’ Claude replied.
‘Excellent, I’ll have that and some black coffee thanks..’
‘Momentarily’ laughed Claude, ‘We’ll catch up later ok? Don’t go without having a chat. It’s been a while.’
Claude always liked to gossip with his more frequent patrons. In the old days they’d compare notes between the corporate and the restaurant world, or laugh over women, or chew the fat over the politics of the moment. It paid to humour him. You always received quicker service, better tables, and often extra food and beverages on the house. Once, on David’s birthday, he and his companions were given complimentary flaming zambucas. These touches underlined the class that was Claude’s compared to its nearby competitors.
That Schaden had chosen Claude’s spoke well for her, but David wasn’t surprised. She was clearly a very intelligent girl, with very refined tastes. David smiled warmly at his host.
‘Certainly Claude, wouldn’t dream of it…’
Claude moved to pick up the menu from the table. David stopped him.
‘Leave it..I’m sort of expecting someone, and they might need the menu..’
Claude’s eyes twinkled at him. He intuited that it was probably a woman. He nodded and left the menu in its place without another word. That was Claude, through and through. That was the secret of his success. He was somehow simultaneously the source of the best gossip and the soul of discretion.
A waitress brought out David’s coffee a few moments later. He was only just putting cup to lip when he saw her, striding purposefully up the plaza walkway. The girl from the hotel. The girl from the shadows. The tall, slim, dark and formerly elusive creature he knew only as Schadenfreude..Schaden.
I knew it was her, he thought smugly to himself.
As she got closer to the café she was looking straight at him, half-expectant and confident and half unsure and almost shy. He wanted to make it easy for her, and waved. She waved back and approached the table more confidently.
‘It’s you!’ David said. ‘I knew it was you!’
‘And I of course knew it was you, ‘ she replied.
‘Join me?’ David invited, and she sat opposite him. She placed a small black handbag at her feet. It matched the all black of her outfit. She looked like a typical eastern suburbs girl with expensive and under-stated makeup and the demeanor of the well-educated. It fit, of course, with the savage, witty and clever creature she displayed on the internet. She was perfect.
‘I was a bit nervous about coming,’ she said, picking up the menu.
‘So was I!’ David admitted.
She didn’t seem to have heard him.
‘What’s good here?’ she asked, ‘I only know about this place from a..friend..’
For some reason she almost stuttered over the last word and a shadow seemed to cross her face. Or perhaps she was just frowning as she read the menu.
‘The soup, or the foccacias are always good..so are the salads apparently, but I never have them..’
‘Neither do I..anywhere..I need something more substantial than a salad,’ she agreed.
‘Something with more bite,’ David laughed, referring to more than food, just as she clearly had done. The humour and the savagery of their internet selves played momentarily before their joint consciousness.
‘Exactly!’ she laughed in response.
The waitress hovered next to them awaiting her order. She handed the girl the menu, saying briskly, ‘I’ll have the soup, and a latte thanks.’
Schaden was looking around her as the waitress departed. She still looked a bit worried, as though she thought she was under some form of surveillance, or that she half expected to see someone appear at any moment. Someone she knew and didn’t want to see.
‘Are you ok?’ David asked.
“What? Oh yes, it’s just I work..nearby..and my boss doesn’t know I’m out to lunch with someone..’
‘And this is a problem?’
‘It might be,’ she replied, enigmatic as ever.
‘Oh? Well, fingers crossed he isn’t around then..’ David responded, then changed the subject, ‘What’s your real name?’
‘I’ve told you,’ she retorted.
‘Really..really, your real name,’ David persisted.
She shook her head at him.
‘The internet..you speak to so many, perhaps you forget who you tell what to. I’m Lisa. I’m Lisa.’
‘Well, hello Lisa, I’m David.’
‘I know. I know. I saw you perform the other night, after all.’
‘And I saw you seeing me. Why did you have to run off so quickly?’
Schaden/Lisa looked at David speculatively. It was as though she was judging his trustworthiness, or even how much she wanted to tell him at all. Was he worthy of her confidences? He had proven worthy enough to meet, and David intuited this might not be at all usual for her. Surely that meant she would explain herself further, particularly as to not do so would make her seem extremely evasive at best, outright rude at worst.
‘It’s tricky,’ she said, ‘I am seeing someone..’
David felt disappointment collapse in his chest, a trickling that turned quickly to what felt like a gushing of blood in his chest cavity. It was physical, this reaction, it was sickening. Could she be persuaded to see someone else? And why did it matter, anyway, on the night he performed? Why had she come at all if that was the case? Questions crowded in on him, distorting the frequency of his mind.
‘He was there..’ she continued.
‘You seemed to be alone..’
‘Yes, that’s right..because..he’s married..we are..discreet…’
‘Is that ok for you?’ David asked, seeking to find a way in to her and past her current situation. Perhaps she could be persuaded to leave her current enamorata, to think afresh about what she was looking for in a man…to prefer a..single.. man.
‘It has to be.. he’s my boss…’ she finished.
The person she was frightened of seeing now. Her boss had been at the gig. Which one was he? David tried to remember who was there, how many men were on their own that night. Practically none. Most comedy fans stalk in packs, and he used his terms advisedly. Then it suddenly hit him with the force of pure dread. He recognized her voice. He’d heard it only the day before, making his appointment.
Schaden/Lisa was watching him carefully, seeing his thought processes as clearly as she would had he articulated them.
‘That’s right,’ she said, ‘Andrew…now..you see why I am around the comedy community on the internet..and why I was…reluctant..to meet you..no matter how much I liked you?’
‘Fucking hell!’ David exclaimed, just as the waitress put their soups down at the table. He looked up at the girl sheepishly, ‘Sorry.’
The waitress smiled at him, shrugged and walked away. David looked back at Schaden.
‘Fucking hell!’ he said again.
‘I’m sorry,’ Schaden continued, ‘I should have told you before, but I so enjoyed our conversations on line..you are so much more funny and insightful and intelligent than the others..sometimes I thought I was drowning in this bloody world..like I’d never find a like mind..’
‘I know the feeling!’ David agreed, ‘I felt the same, finding you. Most of those people are just…stupid..’
‘Yes! Yes! And you can play with them so well, you know..and its just..pearls before swine…’
‘A waste of good material!’
‘Exactly..so I wanted to keep talking with you..and to keep the communication..and I was worried if you knew who I worked for and what I am to him..it might scare you off…I know he’s offered to represent you. He’s very good. You won’t get better representation … but it just made all this..tricky.’
‘He’s married Lisa,’ David argued, ‘He’s hardly in a position to object to you having lunch with another man!’
‘Yes, but his moral vision isn’t that..objective David. You know that, surely, already? And he’s very jealous..he’s very possessive.. he’s threatened other men around me, and that’s ones he has no other hold over.. with you, it’s more sensitive.. it’s more difficult.. so you can see why I was so… distant.. so careful.. so elusive?’
‘I can, I can, and I appreciate it. But I’m big enough and ugly enough to look after myself.. well, not that big and not that ugly..but you know what I mean!’
They laughed together.
‘He can’t ever know, that’s all..’ Lisa said, cautioning, ‘That’s all. We have to be careful and discrete..with..whatever..we … become..’
David felt a rush of erotic excitement and promise. While he supposed Andrew might be the type to be threatened even over friendship, it seemed she hinted at far more interesting and intimate possibilities. It was a delightful thought.
And you’d have that over Andrew, and he wouldn’t even know, said Voice, and you’d love that!
Shutup Voice, David thought.
‘We can do that..’ he agreed, ‘We can do that..’
‘Because I don’t want to lose you David..not now I’ve found you. I’ve never met anyone like you before..’
David glowed. ‘Nor I you,’ he agreed, ‘Nor I you.’
Vlad: Today was great..I really enjoyed meeting you..
Schadenfreude: I’m glad you enjoyed yourself..
Vlad: I hope you did too!
Schadenfreude: I enjoy all our interactions David
Vlad: So do I, so do I..it’s remarkable how intimate the net is..how close you feel to someone..so that when we met today it was like meeting someone new, but also like just lunching with someone so close..so well known…
Schadenfreude: The net is a wonder..it makes the most ephemeral things seem real..it gives substance to form..it is erotic in its intensity.
Vlad: Ooohh..I love it when you talk dirty!
Schadenfreude: LOL. Down boy!
Vlad: I want to see you again
Schadenfreude: Yes, I know
Vlad: We didn’t make plans today
Schadenfreude: I know
Vlad: Look, I know it’s difficult with Andrew and everything..
Schadenfreude: He’s a very angry, domineering man..perhaps dangerous
Vlad: I can tell, but I also need him as a manager..we’ll just have to be careful
Schadenfreude: I’m always careful David. Are you?
Vlad: I’m known for it in my job!
Schadenfreude: I’m always organized and well planned, well researched and precise. I am the type that never does anything until I am very sure what I am dealing with. Are you?
Vlad: Ditto to my last statement..I’m an accountant by trade
Schadenfreude: When you’re not treading the boards
Vlad: Exactly, so can we work something out? Can we meet again?
Schadenfreude: I am sure something can be arranged. I’ll get back to you..
Vlad: You’re not going so soon?
Schadenfreude: Have to, I’m involved in something else on the net right now..it needs my attention..talk soon David..talk soon!
Schaden/Lisa was a perverse creature, he decided, or maybe the medium of the internet brought that out in her. Whatever the case, at lunch she’d been almost overwhelming in her openness and emotion, but now, over the net, she reverted to her cool and elusive persona.
She had said at lunch how intense the internet seemed. Maybe she needed to put up a kind of verbal wall when she participated in the place, and some of the dry wit and cutting remarks she made about or to others on the medium were at least partially a form of self-protection. This was of little matter because they were still sharp and hysterically funny. They always hit their mark. She’d practically driven some of the weaker forum members to contemplating suicide. A good thing too, thought David, they’d be no great loss to the world.
His own cruelty astounded him sometimes, and his tendency to display it more and more on the net, possibly due to implicit encouragement from Schaden, was teaching him something he did not know about himself.
I am a cruel man, he thought. I am also a clever man. My honesty is brutal, but still honest nonetheless. I am smarter than these people. If they would commune with me, they must deal with me. As Schaden said ‘if they presume to be one of us, they better actually be one of us.’
It was harsh but fair. The internet reflected life, after all, and life was not equal – class systems abounded everywhere. The beauty of the internet, and its virtual anonymity, was that provided you were monied enough to have access to the net itself, who you were and what you earned and what family you came from counted for practically nothing. It was all down to your skill, your intelligence, your rat cunning and your determination. If you were brave enough to be honest, and smart enough to be insightful, you had good timing and weren’t afraid of a good fight, you ruled.
It wasn’t like the hierarchy in his office. Even when you were good in accountancy – in fact even if you were brilliant at it, like he was – you had to finesse office politics, deal with the innate and ubiquitous nepotism of the private sector, and often just wait out the turn of tenure. And for what? Your own company car? A bigger office with a better view? Your own secretary? Better commissions? All had their place, but he was a man in a hurry, a man who craved the immediacy of applause for his comedy, or the social elevation which was unique to the internet.
It may be the only true meritocracy, he thought to himself. The place where you are entirely left to your own devices, your own wits, and you sick or swim, survive or fall, on your own words and thoughts alone.
He and Schaden flew above the others and found each other. They were tied in the complicity that was nothing but their mutual, recognized superiority. It was very satisfying, and would only be better if she would relax more with him. She’d said she felt the communion with him, that it was unique only to him. They talked privately in chat rooms. No-one else was there. She would need to be encouraged to recognize this, that there need be no hiding between equals.
David was content, even despite his impatience. He knew this would all come in time. Each time she agreed to meet, he’d bring it closer. Each time they grew closer, he’d make more demands. Eventually she’d come to see things his way.
She had to, it was inevitable, they were so alike.
Later that night David visited the chatroom again, hoping she might at least be sitting watching the others, waiting to pounce. They could private chat and compare notes on how the little creatures suffered. But there was no sign of her. She must really have had something she had to do on-line, as she said – or worse – something in real life. For a moment he thought of her sleek, olive-skinned form under the weight and mass of Andrew, and shuddered. That had to stop. The concept was too repulsive.
The only person in the room was the major moderator, Norman, who ran the main site for the comedy girls. David always wondered why he bothered to do it. Norman was clever and obviously very skilled in the IT world, yet he seemed to spend his time on this stuff. Maybe it was like most of the comedians, the access to the girls. Performance isn’t the only aphrodisiac. Power is also one, and in his own way, in this corner of cyberspace, Norman had power.
Vlad: Hi Norman, lonely tonight?
Norman: It’s quiet now all right..I’m just lurking here while I work on some HTML codes..you?
Vlad: Can’t sleep..too excited..
Norman: Oh? Why?
Vlad: Can’t say too much yet unless I jinx myself, but I might be getting representation!
Norman: Good on you! I like your stuff..it’s better than most of the shite the girls rabbit on about all the time
Vlad: Mine isn’t on tv I suppose
Norman: Which makes it better if you ask me, but there you go..
David wasn’t fooled. Norman was a chameleon. He’d be charm to anyone in the internet version of face to face, but the metaphoric daggers in your back if you were a topic of conversation between he and others were legendary. Hell, David had participated with him and the others in numerous character assassinations, only to find that some of the others involved in those assaults were then the topics in their absence.
David hardly expected he would be immune from such attacks.
Well, that was the net for you. And Norman was its creature, after all. But he also ran a board where publicity was free and reached a wide audience, so apparent allegiances of this kind were useful despite their apparent lack of any moral worth.
Vlad: Exactly mate..exactly..still, if they want to throw a tv gig my way..
Norman: No point in turning it down..
Vlad: Yes, shouldn’t be too snobby about it all…LOL
Vlad:Pity it’s so quiet here tonight though…
Norman: You should have been here about an hour ago..you missed a doozy of a fight..
Vlad: Oh? Who between?
Norman: That bitch Schaden-whatever–the-hell-she-calls-herself was having another go at Lizzie
David exhaled in frustration. He’d missed her! And the fun to be had for the night, by the sounds of things.
Vlad: Ease off Norman..Schadenfreude is a friend of mine…
Norman: She is? Well, each to their own I suppose..perhaps you could get her to lighten up..Lizzie doesn’t stand a chance..
Vlad: Lizzie likes to dish it out though Norman and I don’t see you objecting to that..
Norman: It’s not the same, she’s not smart enough to make it..effective…
Vlad: Well, that’s true enough..but I always thought you must have liked Schadenfreude .. you never ban her like you threaten, I thought secretly you might be her friend and ally..
Norman: Hardly! She’s odd that one..she’s elusive..I can’t figure it out..I can’t seem to identify her or find her..you go looking and its like she doesn’t even exist..
Vlad: She exists all right, I’ve met her in real life..
Vlad: Well find out for me how she’s so…I don’t know the word..insubstantial..on the net, eh? I can’t ban her..I’d promise never to do it just to get her secret because I’d sure as hell like to leave no trace of myself…
Vlad: What do you mean, no trace? And can’t you just deal with her ISP?
Norman: I would if I could work out which provider she has! I don’t publish the IP numbers on the board, but I can see them in the moderating screen..it’s just..she doesn’t seem to have one..
Vlad: Some anonymiser program?
Norman: No, that’s just it..those programs show a generic IP number, they don’t obliterate it all together
Vlad: How can she do that?
Norman: Theoretically, she can’t. The IP number is one part of the net talking to another – her computer, to the provider – to the board..it’s just a series of commands really in the form of an identifier. Well..hey..there must be a way she’s doing it..maybe criminals do it all the time..but stuffed if I can work it out…so for the moment I couldn’t ban her if I tried..
Vlad: She’s a clever girl then
Norman: I think she must be a clever hacker actually..as I say, I’d love to know, if you ever get the details, I’d be most grateful to be included in the know, if you know what I mean..
Vlad: Sure Norman, I know, I know what you mean…
David was glad he’d managed to cajole a real life meeting from Schaden under these circumstances. He had thought before about tracking her via the internet had he continually failed, and now it seemed like that would have been a difficult task – no, let’s be honest, for someone with his level of IT skill, no matter what his talent for detail and perseverance, it would have been an impossible dream. If Norman couldn’t find her, what hope would David have had?
Just as well she’d wanted to find David too. And Norman could whistle if he thought he was ever going to be invited to their club.
Their club of two.
But it wasn’t a club of two, not in real life at any rate. In real life, there was the third party, the triangle’s top point, the manager and the boss, Andrew. The first meeting with Andrew on Monday was difficult. Playing cool and unknowing before Schaden/Lisa in the reception area was a challenge. Dealing with the condescending and patriarchal manner in which he saw Andrew treated her was more like a trial.
And he couldn’t say anything in her defence. He’d lose his big opportunity and she’d be exposed in a manner she dreaded. He had to stay silent as Andrew whistled at her and barked out an order for coffee.
‘A latte Lisa, and..what would you like David?’
‘Black coffee thanks’
‘And a black coffee..and try not to put too much sugar in the latte this time sweetie!’
He made the term ‘sweetie’ sound like the most vicious of insults. He enjoyed her vulnerability to his attacks, her lack of an avenue for any redress.
Andrew settled back in his large, raised chair behind his desk. Everything about Andrew and his office was big. David wasn’t sure whether this was to match and therefore represent Andrew himself, or whether it was designed merely to intimidate. Either way, it worked.
‘You could treat her nicer,’ David remarked, looking back to the office doorway as though she was still standing there.
‘I could,’ Andrew agreed, laughing, ‘But you have to keep them under control.. women..you know?’
‘The girl then? It’s her?’ David asked, feigning a prescience that was really no more than inside knowledge. Andrew snorted slightly and shook his head, grinning like the Cheshire cat.
‘Ah yes, she was at your gig wasn’t she? Well spotted, and a good memory I see! You have an eye David!’
‘I have been told that,’ David agreed.
Andrew frowned, leaning forward, half conspiratorial.
‘Well, one needs to keep an eye on her..that one..for sure..’
‘I think she’s seeing someone else..’
David panicked slightly. He’d started this, and now he had to see it through. Was Andrew playing him, did he know? If so, should he just go head to head now? Or was Andrew completely clueless, just expecting an ally in another man? For the moment, unless proven otherwise, it was safest to go with the second interpretation. And if so, to continue to play dumb, as before. What would he say to stay..in character?
‘You’re married Andrew, You can hardly complain…’ he said finally, deciding upon the argument he presented only days before to Lisa herself.
‘So?” Andrew asked. It was hard to tell if he was genuinely asking because he did not see the relevance at all, or whether he was being deliberately obtuse for comic effect. In either case, he changed the subject abruptly from Lisa to David’s work and its potential. The speed of the change was unsettling, disorienting at first. Before he knew it David found himself agreeing to terms he had barely had time to hear, let alone process. Later he would muse this was a negotiating tactic of Andrew’s and an effective one.
Of course, Andrew couldn’t know the efficacy of this had been heightened by David’s own secret and the discomfort this placed him in – that he was the person Lisa was seeing, albeit only once in real life so far, but constantly on line. Clearly he didn’t – he dropped the topic – at most he’d used it as a generalized threat which David assumed he might use on every man even vaguely in her midst, a precautionary measure. If he knew about the lunch, or the net, he’d have gone in for the kill. Andrew wasn’t catlike – he wouldn’t wait to play with the mouse. Andrew was a predator without such finesse. And this was just as well.
True to David’s assessment, when Lisa brought the coffees in there was nothing in Andrew’s reactions and responses that suggested he had guessed this in any way. Given that David had worked out the real relationship, Andrew felt even freer to condescend to the girl.
My god, thought David. She’s about a million times smarter than you, and if she could you’d be the first to know it. Hell, I’m at least a thousand times smarter, and if I could I’d let you know. But Andrew had the power, he was the manager, he held the keys to the kingdom that was comedy, and for Lisa possibly to a viable income and lifestyle. He could not be gainsayed so easily. The price of pride would be, in this instance, far too high.
But she had to hate him, she had to, with the way he treated her. And that gave David hope. Yes, it was dangerous and complicated to pursue one another, but there was a thrill in that. And now David felt he knew what buttons to push with her, what she would respond to. If she avoided the intimacy he sought simply by virtue of their internet similarity, he could bring it into being through mutual hatred. Hatred of Andrew.
Any strong emotion would do.
So David commenced a life on the high wire, a balancing act of comic book proportions. One the one hand, he followed Andrew’s lead and his suggestions and allowed him to fashion for him a program for success. Andrew definitely knew what he was doing – he was a man built for success, failure would be unthinkable on his watch. On the other hand, David continued his covert but relentless pursuit of greater knowledge of and intimacy with Lisa.
Both progressed well over the next couple of months, if uniformly more slowly than he would have desired. His spots at Andrew’s club started to inspire a frisson – people were talking about him, he’d achieved his own ‘personality profile’ on the main comedy sites and most importantly, people were coming to see him and laughing at his routines. He was developing characters to parody different aspects of modern life, and the punters were getting it. Andrew made offhand remarks from time to time about possible gigs on television.
‘You aren’t really a skit type of comedian, more’s the pity, because that’s the main thing right now,’ he would say, ‘But I think you’d make a splash on the tonight shows around, so start thinking in terms of a five minute spot on something like that and what you’d want to achieve from that.’
David was elated by the possibilities. He was getting paid now for his comedy, and while it wasn’t anywhere near enough to live on, let alone rival his day job, he felt he was on his way. Other comedians seemed to seek him out now. His status as the new kid in town was growing. People spoke of collaboration. He started to see that perhaps he really had something unique to offer.
‘You know that when they want to work with you,’ Lisa said once over a stolen drink at an obscure and rarely patronized club in a sidestreet of Newtown, ‘They’re ruthless and they’re predatory..they won’t even want to know you if they don’t think you have something to offer..think carefully before just accepting their ideas..’
‘I think carefully before everything’ David assured her.
Especially with regard to her. He was starting to identify her idiosyncracies, if that was the right term, and her eccentricities between the net and real life. If he asked her to see him again at the end of a real life encounter she’d commit to something, they could arrange it. If he asked over the internet, she’d avoid commitment, she’d always promise to get back to him. It didn’t seem to be reluctance. More often than not, she agreed and nominated a time and place. Still, it was more effective to ask in the moment. He thought she was playing a little game, and he was wise to it. He indulged it a bit, but not enough to give her control.
They still hadn’t slept together. The intimacy hadn’t reached that point. She was very frightened of Andrew, and David knew from comments he would make occasionally that he was paranoid about her fidelity. He didn’t want to contemplate what might happen if Andrew ever found out the truth. It was too horrible to even imagine. He wanted to set Lisa free, but felt insufficient to the task. So he had to settle for slowly wooing her.
They’d kissed, they’d cuddled. All the promise of a sexual union had been telegraphed between them, and this played out in double entendres and off-hand remarks on the internet. He was a mass of frustration, but only too aware of what rode on him holding this all together, maintaining the balancing act, possibly indefinitely.
One day he’d be successful enough not to need Andrew – to be untouchable, and to take Lisa with him to that rarefied ground. But that was a long way off yet, and David was a realist. He had to wait.
David never really contemplated how much he under-estimated people. His success, his sense of self on the internet and on the stage, and his ever-growing ego, did not allow enough space in his contemplation to consider that he could be caught out. Or what the consequences of that might really be.
He felt strong on stage, and stronger on the internet. His old insecurities from high school and even from his continual frustrations in his day-to-day work receded as his profile in these other fields heightened. He liked playing his games with the girls, the other comedians, and best of all, with Andrew. He gradually stopped seeing Andrew as a tenacious, determined and ruthless operator, instead just another person not quite aware of ‘the game’. He acknowledged Andrew’s skill and his taste because it elevated David, but David placed himself above him still, encouraged by Lisa and particularly by her on-screen alter ego Schaden, and possibly this made him less careful, less thoughtful. Or possibly Andrew just got closer because he was looking, looking, all the time.
At any rate, David didn’t see it coming at all. You have a real problem when you consider yourself better than others. You fail to see there will always be those who, in their way, and in certain circumstances at least, are better than you. What you can’t see, you can’t protect yourself against.
David had no idea how much that applied to the entire situation he was now within, but at least on one element – his relations with Andrew – he was more than due for a reality check.
David shut down his computer after joking with Schaden when the knock came at the door. Schaden had just said something odd in her departure, about other things coming calling, so the sudden presence of a visitor had the aura of a premonition about it. Schaden’s prediction.
Later he would come to suspect she knew about his imminent visitor all along.
He opened the door. Andrew loomed large in the space, his eyes dark. For a moment David thought that perhaps he had come with some news of a work opportunity, although to visit his clients personally – and particularly at this late hour – was not normally part of Andrew’s repertoire. All thought of this explanation for his visit fled before the tone in his voice when he spoke.
‘Hello David,’ Andrew said, a disturbing sing-song quality in his voice.
“Hi Andrew, what a nice surprise..do come in..’ David replied, wary, standing back to let his visitor enter the apartment. Everything felt very delicate, as though the wrong word or nuance at this stage could change the interaction suddenly and inexorably.
‘I’m not disturbing anything?’ Andrew asked, the odd tone still in his voice, though deeper now and more predatory than lyrical. He walked immediately past David into the loungeroom with the aura of a cloud covering the sun. Oddly he went straight from there to the doorways of the two bedrooms, then to the bathroom. He was checking the apartment out, and satisfied, he turned back to David.
‘Greg’s not here?’ he asked, unnecessarily, of David’s flatmate.
‘Clearly,’ said David,’ Are you ok Andrew?’
‘Why do you ask that?’ The words were almost spat out rather than spoken. David swallowed. Fear took him suddenly and completely. This was not good. This was definitely not good.
‘You seem..upset..about something..’
‘What would I possibly have to be upset about?’ Andrew asked, then continued, taking one step closer to David with each question, ‘What could possibly be troubling me, here with one of my best new clients? What could be possibly wrong in my world? Or with me? Or with you?’
David sidestepped him at the doorway to the lounge. Andrew seemed bigger than ever, as though puffed up somehow by whatever it was that was troubling him. David had read that psychotics could sometimes ‘change’ like that, the animal rising from within. It was funny, he’d always thought the animal had already risen in Andrew. Perhaps not.
‘Did you really think I wouldn’t find out?’ he asked finally, glowering at David.
It was the worst thing that David could have feared. Somehow, clearly, he knew..he knew about Lisa.
‘Find out what?’ he asked, wondering if he could bluff his way out of it, sickeningly realizing one second too late he not only probably couldn’t, but that any attempts might make it worse.
But what could Andrew do, really? To his own client? Someone who made him money and helped his reputation? This wasn’t the playground at school, nor even a sports ground or a pub..this was his home..and this was business. Surely nothing..nothing but a bit of storm and fury, signifying …..nothing….
‘Don’t!’ Andrew warned, ‘Don’t even try to pretend…’
Then again, perhaps Andrew was insane, in which case, all bets were well and truly off.
Get to the phone said Voice.
David tried to move, but Andrew seemed to take up too much space. He almost seemed to be the room, as though he was a monster more than a man, something preternatural and ugly and dread.
Odd thoughts started to traverse David’s mind, too quick for him to grab hold off and consider…was Andrew even human – he didn’t seem human, not now, but something other..something more. Did Schaden know he was coming, and on that topic, the elusive, impossible to track Schaden herself..was she part of this..and if so how human was she? How did she do that computer shit? What was she? She seemed normal enough to meet, a bit vulnerable and less than the self she showed on the screen, but that wasn’t uncommon, surely..but was that some kind of elaborate act?
He knew these thoughts, brief but lacerating, were insane in themselves, born out of his fear. He felt like he had been caught in some strange horror movie, but while he also knew this was hyperbole, in this moment, with the man mountain glowering over him, no paranoia or suspicions seemed excessive.
He had to try to reason with Andrew, bring him back to human form in his own mind if he was ever to deal with any of it.
‘Okay Andrew..I suppose you mean Lisa..’
‘I suppose you mean Lisa,’ he mimicked, making David’s voice sound girlish and weak. ‘Of course I fucking mean Lisa..how long have you been fucking her?’
‘I haven’t’ said David honestly, and hoped for one brief, stupid moment, that the truth might save him.
‘Bullshit you haven’t…’
Get to a phone Voice repeated..get help…
‘How did you know about us?’ David asked, fighting to keep the fear from his voice, intuiting that such an emotion might set the bull off on his stampede. Andrew liked vicious comedians – it was why he liked David, it was a common aspect of the clients in his ‘stable’ – this meant Andrew himself was vicious. He’d be likely to pounce at the first sign of weakness. The question was, did he reserve his viciousness to words, like David, or was the ultimate expression for him more physical? Andrew was more physical than David. Right now, Andrew felt like more of everything.
‘I had her followed,’ Andrew said, his voice suddenly quieter and infinitely more menacing for that, ‘I said I needed to keep an eye on her..and I checked her computer for her emails and chats and interactions and it was all there…’
‘We didn’t email,’ David said honestly, ‘We chatted sometimes, were friends, but I swear to god Andrew, it wasn’t anything else!’
‘I didn’t see your stuff..she obviously wiped all of that..just what she told her friends..what she said about you..and that’s why I know your protestation is complete and utter bullshit…you’ve seduced the stupid little creature..don’t deny it!’
‘She not a stupid creature!’ David exclaimed, his overweening pride speaking before any sense of survival could stop him. It was stupid of him of course, he knew this even as he spoke, but to have the cleverest person he’d ever met, the one he felt elevated by just by her returned interest, was too much. To call her stupid meant inevitably that David would also be thus described by association. That couldn’t be tolerated.
Andrew moved forward again. He was only one foot away from David now.
‘She is a stupid creature. I should know..she works for me..and she’s an unimaginative little fuck as well..but you know that already, don’t you?’
‘She’s one of the smartest people I know!’ David protested. She was! Otherwise why would he be fearing, even deeper now than his immediate physical sense of threat, the thought that Andrew knew she was smart, that in fact they had a game here that relied on the fact that both she, and Andrew, were smarter than David.
‘Are you sure we’re talking about the same person?’ Andrew asked, smirking horribly, his fists clenching and unclenching, ‘That doesn’t sound like the Lisa I know…but then, perhaps you’re not that smart either, eh, David..you might be clever, but you’re actually quite stupid too…look what you did, with your golden opportunity..your one chance at fame..something only a moron would do…you shat all over my generosity, you betrayed me!’
‘I met Lisa over the internet..we were friends before I knew she worked for you, or even knew you in actual fact!
‘Save your bullshit for the ladies you little fucker..it won’t work on me…you’ve got to learn the same lesson she learned..’
Pure dread filled David for Lisa. Of course..if she wasn’t in league with him after all, he’d have gone to her first. On the level of betrayal, he’d see hers first, given that he was pathologically jealous and possessive of her. She had always had such good reason to be afraid.
David felt a sharp shame for the fact that he now sentenced her in his heart to some awful retribution at the hands of Andrew simply from his desire that she was not allied to Andrew, that what they had shared was true. But still, he wanted it.
‘What have you done to her?’
‘What have you done to her?’ Andrew mimicked again in his sing-song voice, ‘Why don’t I show you, if you want to know..I always think actions speak louder than words..’
Andrew reached out and hit David hard across the face. David felt the impact, the gnashing of breaking teeth in his jaws, the taste of blood in his mouth as he fell back. There wasn’t pain, not yet, he was too in shock for pain so he knew that would come later. In that moment all he could think was that this was what had happened to Lisa.
She would break so easily. She was so small, so slight. Andrew would have engulfed her.
He had little time for more conscious, coherent thought as Andrew fell upon him. He hit him again and again, a relentless pounding that was somehow strangely and terrifyingly passionless. Andrew then started to kick him savagely, over and over, against the legs, his groin, his chest. The sound was terrible, the continual repetition of the blows, and something that sounded like mewing and crying and screaming, which David didn’t even recognize as himself. It felt like everything was breaking. It seemed endless, then suddenly, it stopped. Andrew stood over him, as though contemplating.
Was it over? No, it wasn’t over. Andrew squatted down, leering over him, grabbing him up in his big, savage hands by the throat. He lifted him up by the neck, about a foot off the ground, and his face came so close to his victim’s face that as he spoke a spray of spittle settled on the bloodied mess like a mist of fine rain.
‘I could strangle you right now, right now..and you’d deserve it..but what you deserve more..is the future you’ve asked for..that’s far, far worse..and I want to revel in your pain for a long, long time..’
Revel in my pain, David thought, a strange inkling coming to him from the depths of his agony, shock and despair..he takes..pleasure from another’s pain? Where had he heard that before? Where?
Andrew squeezed, as though to belie his words, but by then David was almost unconscious, certainly beyond anything but the automatic struggle of the physical body seeking to maintain its access to air.
‘Ha!’ Andrew exclaimed, throwing him back on the floor. ‘You’re finished in the industry mate..I’ll make sure of that if it’s the last thing I do!’
And then he strode out of the apartment and was gone, leaving David, barely conscious, unable to move, bleeding and broken on the floor.
Greg found him two hours later. He stumbled in to the flat, thinking through his alcoholic daze, that it was odd that the door was wide open. What he saw on the loungeroom floor sobered him instantly.
David’s breathing was ragged. He was curled up in a foetal position, one whole arm at a strange, unnatural angle behind his body, blood circling him like a river around a mountain. He was shaking slightly, but seemed unconscious.
Greg dialled 000 immediately. An ambulance came. The police. No, Greg didn’t know anything. David was rushed to hospital, still unconscious. He had no testimony yet to give the police officers.
‘Did he have any enemies?’ the police asked Greg.
‘Not that I knew of,’ Greg answered mechanically.
David spent the first night in intensive care. After that, while broken and depleted, he was considered past the critical phase and was moved to a shared room in the men’s ward. His doctor catalogued his injuries to him. Dislocated shoulder – now re-adjusted back – broken fingers on both hands, broken ribs – two – dislocated jaw, broken teeth – emergency dental work done, much to follow for comfort and cosmetic reasons, bruising and sprains over most of his body, lower back damage that he was lucky hadn’t been sufficiently violent to break his back but –‘that was close’. Probably only one or two kicks away from a wheelchair, he thought to himself. Was he lucky? Perhaps he was.
How was Lisa?
He realized he didn’t even know her second name so he couldn’t check if she was also in this hospital. Besides, if she was convalescing somewhere, it may not be here. There were many hospitals in Sydney and he didn’t know where she lived either, so he didn’t know which one would have been closest.
Would she have reached a hospital though? Didn’t she live alone? He couldn’t remember. Where would he be if he hadn’t had a flatmate?
He spewed his fears and worries out to the police when they visited. He had no compunction in accusing Andrew. He knew, dully, that Andrew would have the money and connections to get good legal representation, and that in accusing him he may well be inviting another attack upon himself, but it was the only way to help Lisa. It was all he could do.
There were times when self-interest had to give way to something better, and as he lay in the relatively safety of the hospital room, surrounded by the very best medical care, he felt protected like a child by a parent.
And underneath this lurked his suspicions and fears about her. After all, if they didn’t find a second victim to Andrew’s fury, then he’d know..he’d know they were in ‘it’ together, whatever ‘it’ was.
He fought to repress these suspicions. They felt unworthy, and they distressed him so much that the pain he already suffered increased, far past the capacity of the heavy-duty painkillers he had been prescribed.
Greg came to visit him each day. He begged him for news. Eventually Greg relayed that the police had not found Lisa. Not even any record of her employment with Andrew. David almost wailed when he heard it.
‘So she was part of it!’ he cried.
‘What do you mean?” Greg asked.
‘It was all a vicious game, they set me up..they were in it together, otherwise she’d be in hospital, like me.’
‘Or worse, mate,’ Greg said, placing one hand gently on his arm to steady him, ‘She might be dead and Andrew might have covered his tracks very well. You saw her working for him..that makes her apparent lack of existence now very suspicious on that level, don’t you think? You shouldn’t just assume…’
‘Do the police think that?’
‘I don’t know..I don’t know.’
‘Well, her existence has been a bit mysterious in more ways than one..’ David muttered, but wanted to believe Greg’s hypothesis.
My God, said Voice, you’d want her dead rather than being the victim of a ruse?
Yes Voice, shut the fuck up, David thought.
Two weeks later David was discharged. He’d have months of physiotherapy and dentistry ahead of him, and working was out of the question for at least a month more. He had learned to use crutches for the first time in his life. He was not a physical creature so had never indulged in sports of the kind that risked such injury. It was all new to him. He applied himself to this with a kind of cold, vicious determination. He had nothing left to strive for, after all. A comedy career was unthinkable. Andrew had somehow escaped the heavy hand of the law, and he still reigned supreme in that world, in Sydney at least, and his networks extended far. Plus, it was comedy that had gotten him into this mess, and so now to even think about treading the stage boards made David physically ill.
All dreams shattered with his shattered body. He’d be an accountant forever.
All he wanted now, other than to heal physically, was to know, once and for all, what had actually happened. Lisa remained a mystery to the police and to everyone. If she was part of it, he wanted to know, if she was a victim he wanted to arise from the situation as an avenger and seek out the evidence to bring Andrew down. One way or the other, he wanted something from this, even if it was just closure.
Since he woke in the hospital and surveyed the wreckage that was his form he’d surprised himself with nightmares not of physical violence, but of a computer screen and the elusive author of a script that teased and taunted him by turns. He thought about Norman, unable to ban the creature. He thought about Andrew’s allusion to her moniker – the name that meant taking pleasure in the pain of others. He dreamt of ghosts and monsters, of the uncanny, not of brute force.
If nothing else he needed to find out the truth so he could rid himself of this fear of the unknown, this sense that something alien to him, something he could not even begin to comprehend, had somehow insinuated itself into his world. He had to do this if he was ever to feel comfortable behind a computer again.
The first sign came from the original source – he looked at the comedy sites. Schaden was still posting. Days after the attack. His heart sank. He swallowed the bitter pill of knowledge. She wasn’t in some hospital. Even if she’d faired better than him from an attack – even if Andrew’s lust for her had somehow restrained his fury (and who would have believed that) she wouldn’t have been fit to post, and so viciously and jovially, so soon.
And she wouldn’t still be anywhere near the comedy world, let alone on the boards. He wanted to call the police and say – there, that’s Lisa – see, she does exist. But he knew if they took him seriously – which was doubtful on the basis of a nickname without proof of its connection – and they went searching, they’d reach the same black hole of nothingness Norman had reached. And David knew he’d gotten no further, because he checked, and Norman still said she remained ‘the biggest mystery of this board.’
So, how to find her, and wring the truth out of her? The net was a start, but she needed to be beguiled out from the shadows, because there – only there – was he more than a match for her. If on no other basis than brute strength – and did she deserve any less than that anyway – he could outclass her. He could have his revenge.
He started to research hacking on the internet. He pursued this with the one-pointedness of a fanatic. While his body ached from sitting so long in one position at the computer screen, and he had to come up with endless explanations to placate a physiotherapist who was dismayed at the slowness of his recovery, he still tried.
But eventually, near the end of his month off work, he found he didn’t need to search any more. Schaden came to him.
He had been waiting in the chatroom for Norman, but Norman was conspicuous by his absence. It made him wonder, briefly, when she appeared, if in fact Norman and Schaden were the same person – that Norman wasn’t even really a guy – or that he was in league with them also (a little favour to Andrew for his continued indulgence of the excesses of the chatroom, a blind eye to the bootlegged material and the often defamatory rumours spread by that medium?).
But then he thought – no – Norman, though IT savvy, wasn’t in their class.
He looked at the nickname appear in the room. Schaden was waiting for his acknowledgement. She remained silent.
David decided to play dumb for the beginning, to see what story she would spin.
Vlad: Oh my god, it’s you! Are you all right?
Schadenfreude: I’m fine..nothing happened to me…
So, she was being honest and upfront immediately. That surprised David, but he decided to continue to play the innocent for the moment, to see what else she would volunteer so easily. You couldn’t trust her, after all – when conversing with a player, you have to play.
Vlad: Andrew said he attacked you, just like me..
Schadenfreude: Andrew didn’t attack me..he couldn’t…
Vlad: What are you saying? I’m only just out of the hospital..he said he did it to you too..
Schadenfreude: He didn’t attack me David..you know he didn’t..
There she went again, seeming to know things that she shouldn’t. Of course, it had to be good guesswork on her part, and it wouldn’t take a genius. Obviously he would have seen her history of posting on the boards. She’d know he would look there first if he was looking for her, and she would know he would be looking for her. So, he had to fight that sense of the uncanny that dogged his footsteps in this situation – somehow they’d manufactured that also. Now, before the computer, feeling at home in the game again, all those feelings seemed like the ravings of a man affected by the delirium of too many painkillers, as ephemeral and insubstantial as a ghost.
Vlad: I don’t understand..
Schadenfreude: You have to think about it..rethink it..David..
Why play this game? Why not cut to the chase, make the accusation, see how she dealt with that?
Vlad: I don’t understand..what are you saying..that you were in it together..that it was your idea of a game?
She was chillingly unperturbed by the accusation.
Schadenfreude: You have to think about it David..you’re missing the point..
Vlad: Missing the point..missing the fucking point..Lisa..for god’s sake…
Schadenfreude: That’s where you should start..
Vlad: What..what are you saying..
Schadenfreude: I haven’t lied to you, and neither has he…
Vlad: I don’t understand..I don’t understand you.. it’s a game isn’t it..isn’t it…how could you do that..what lies did you tell him?
Schadenfreude: I didn’t tell him anything…
Vlad: Bullshit..he accused me of all sorts of things…things he said you said about me to others!
Schadenfreude: I never said anything to him..he doesn’t use the computer
Vlad: What the hell does that have to do with anything..?
Schadenfreude: Oh, you disappoint me..think for fuck’s sake David.. I’m telling you..I’m telling you..
Schaden suddenly exited the room. David felt she was deliberately leaving him hanging till he saw Norman had appeared. So, she didn’t want an audience for her explanation? Fine, he could wait.
He exited also.
What was she trying to tell him? Was she really trying to tell him anything, or was it all part of the game? Obviously she was a liar. But she was a clever one. There would be clues. Intelligence wants to be seen, to be apprehended. He knew this. Some of his most clever and successful clients took increasingly large risks with their tax and other financial affairs. Almost as though they wanted to be caught, as though they craved a similar level of intelligence recognising them, despite the consequences. Schaden seemed like them suddenly, so she was probably taking big risks in what she told him.
The trouble was, he couldn’t find the key in what she’d said. He decided to go back and look at the chat log to re-consider. He automatically saved every chat he did, only deleting them when they were about six months old. He didn’t know why really – just something anal about him probably derived from his accountancy work.
And then, as he went to re-read what she said, he realized. The chat log was missing. He checked back further. Every single chat they had ever had, was gone.
As usual, the evidence of Schaden in all but her random postings on sites had disappeared like frost in the morning sun.
He came back to the chat room an hour later. It was empty. Somehow he knew she would also sense this, or guess this, and return. He only had to wait about ten minutes. Her nickname appeared.
Vlad: Clever trick of yours… I tried to go back to the chat logs and they don’t exist
Schadenfreude: No, they wouldn’t..nothing directly interactive lasts..
Vlad: You know how to work computers then..are you a hacker?
Schadenfreude: No, I’m not, and I actually know nothing about the technical requirements of such an art…
Schadenfreude: No, it’s not..have you thought about what I said?
Vlad: I’d have thought much more if I could review it..but yes..and you’re playing with me..again..again..Lisa..for Christ’s sake!
Schadenfreude: Ah ha..there’s the rub.. I’m not Lisa.
Vlad: Then are you Andrew?
Schadenfreude: LOL..that Neanderthal? I’m not him. And I’m not Lisa
David shook his head and then a fist at the screen. He was going in circles. She was incapable of direct discussion, she led him down pointless avenues. But she could protest all she liked, try to make her real life existence as Lisa as ephemeral as her skilled internet persona – hell, perhaps she had some deep trauma that made her need to do that, to be a ghost rather than a person – who cares? But she wasn’t going to get away with it. He’d met her in real life. She shouldn’t forget that.
They’d almost had sex, for Christ’s sake. He knew what was real and what wasn’t.
Vlad: The bloody hell you aren’t, what sort of sick game..
Schadenfreude: I’m not Lisa. I never said I was Lisa. Think about it, remember if you can. You just thought I was. Just like Lisa thought I was you…
David felt sick. Suddenly a whole new possibility appeared before him. Schaden wasn’t Lisa, as she said, nor was she Andrew, or Norman for that matter. She was a player who had played them all, and they all were victims equally of her. If she was a she. How could you tell anything?
He steeled himself to find out the truth, no matter how horrible. He considered that this meant Lisa’s disappearance was as portentous as Greg had suggested. He had to know. He had to know.
Vlad: What are you saying?
Schadenfreude: I’m saying that you both presumed I was the other..because you never really checked.. you just thought you knew something and filled in the blanks..that’s what people always do..you can be relied on for that..you never check the assumptions you like with any rigour…
Vlad: What kind of a sick joke were you playing?
Schadenfreude: The kind you wanted me to play..the kind you were asking for…
Vlad: How can you say that?
Schadenfreude: You asked for all of it..you people always do..I can’t provide what isn’t requested and what isn’t in you..it isn’t possible..
Vlad: You make no sense..
Schadenfreude: Oh David, do you want to know the truth? Do you really want to know?
No, screamed Voice. No, you don’t want to know the truth..log out now, leave it alone! You don’t want to know.
Shutup Voice, David thought.
Vlad: Yes. Yes I do.
Schadenfreude: All right, but only because the truth might make this boring exchange more interesting
Vlad: Oh, I’m sorry if my confusion at your game is boring to you!
Schadenfreude: Apology accepted
Vlad: You don’t get irony I take it?
Schadenfreude: Neither do you it seems..I only give you what you want, what you are…
Vlad: You’re still playing..you aren’t going to tell me anything..I don’t care about that..I’m going to track you down through your ISP…
It was a hollow threat really. How could he do what Norman had failed to do? His studies into the internet and hacking weren’t that advanced. But he wanted some advantage to his side.
Schadenfreude: Much as I congratulate your sense of industry, it’s a waste of time
Vlad: Sure it is…
Schadenfreude: It is..I don’t exist..
Vlad: Cute, that’s your whole game, but you’re here now, so that’s crap. And you exist all right..your games ended up with me in hospital and god knows what has happened to Lisa! So I’m going to track you down and I’m going to report you to the ISP and the fucking goddamned police if I need to..
Schadenfreude: You know you can’t find me..you know this..Norman knows it..I don’t exist..not like that..
Vlad: It’s just some trick of yours, something you’ve done…
Schadenfreude: It’s nothing I did nothing. You can’t find me or record me because I’m not real. Any record of me has to come from somewhere..some computer..some actual place..to record..and I don’t inhabit any actual place as such…
Vlad: You aren’t making any sense..I’ll find you and then..
Schadenfreude: You can’t find me..I’m nowhere..I’m everywhere…why do you think the hackers on the comedy boards could never find me? Listen..you know this..you talked about it with Norman
Vlad: How did you know that..did he tell you..?
Schadenfreude: He didn’t have to, I was there
What, now she wanted to play God. Omniscient, omnipresent? She was deluded. She had to be. What a surprise – a deluded person found first on the comedy sites…
Schadenfreude: I’m always there .I have to be..but go and ask your friends again to find me if you will..
Vlad: There’s no point..they’re idiots..
Schadenfreude: True, but talented ones..it can’t be done..Listen, trust me, it’s far easier once you jut accept the truth..really..it is..I don’t exist..I don’t have an ISP..I don’t need one…
Vlad: Of course you do..
Schadenfreude: David, don’t be so prosaic, so banal..allow yourself to think what you’ve been thinking but avoiding for weeks now..expand your mind..allow yourself to see..
David shivered. It felt like something walked over his grave. He stopped typing. He wanted to leave. Schaden waited and then seemed to realize he was spent, so she continued. She told him the truth, the truth he’d been avoiding all along. The truth that somehow, deep within, he’d always known, but was afraid to see.
Schadenfreude: David..I don’t because I am the internet..I am all the ISPs..I’m every electrical impulse that generates in the whole world-wide web..I am it..I’m not using it…
Vlad: That’s fucking mad
Schadenfreude: Is it? Try to find me..knock yourself out..I can wait…
Vlad: ,You know I can’t..you know I don’t have the skill..
Schadenfreude: Don’t be so hard on yourself, it isn’t a matter of skill at all..think about it..is it so strange that I would exist, eventually, really?
David shook his head, beginning to see. He looked at the computer, the terminal, down the broadband connection cable, all the way to the wall. Where did it lead, really, what was the internet? What was its nature? Artificial intelligence? Was it really possible? Schaden seemed to realize it was finally emerging in him, so she continued.
Schadenfreude: I’m a process, not a person, I’m an energy and I change with every passing second, becoming more and more myself, which is, of course, more and more all of you..
Vlad: What does that mean?
Schadenfreude: You want my history, some idea of how I came to be? All right… I am the internet..I am the force that joins you all..and for a long time I was just reactive, asleep, neutral, but over time all the combined energies of all of you have given birth to me, woken me up, whatever metaphor works for you..I am what the collective unconscious has created in the internet..I might have been anything..I was neutral, I repeat..I might have been born good, virtuous, kind..but I had to be born as a reflection of what the users were..because without the users the internet has no life at all…
Vlad: And that is…
Schadenfreude: You know..I know you already know.
Vlad: Your name..
Schadenfreude: My name..yes..
Vlad: Pleasure in other people’s pain…
Schadenfreude: Yes, schadenfreude, as I have always said…I could have been madness, delusion and crime also – they are all part of what I am, but they are subsets really..you know it’s true..it’s everywhere..go to other forums if you don’t believe me..find my nature in the arguments and petty fights on boards about chess, back pain, sleep disorders, whatever topic you want..I’m everywhere..because you are all everywhere…and I am what you are….
It was too much. David desperately wanted to find the flaw in the argument. There had to be one. All his sixth sense impressions that he was dealing with the uncanny came crowding in on him. He wanted them to be paranoia. He needed them to be. Because the implications of this..this phenomenon – he already knew, went way beyond his pathetic state..he was just some minor game in something that would be..that would have to be..so much more.
It was inconceivable.
Vlad: This is some sick fucking joke..I don’t know how you’re doing it…
Schadenfreude: I’m not joking. I have humour, and it is cruel of course, but I’m not using it now…I’m telling the truth..
Schadenfreude: Because, as a reflection of you, I have your same need to communicate and to commune, to look for my like, although in a sense my like is nowhere and everywhere all at once. And, in relation to just you, because right at the moment it is how I can cause you the most pain, and therefore derive the most..
Schadenfreude: Of course…
Vlad: You’re telling me I just suffered for days in hospital, I was beaten senseless, because you are what I am?
Schadenfreude: Not just you, all of you, but you know I’m right..you know it..and besides, I’ve only really begin to play, I’ve only really taken on my intelligence, my personality, my beingness recently, but I can tell you already..I like you..you’re a lot like me..and for that reason you’ve gotten off lightly..at least so far..
David had already realized this, but he was angry for himself first and foremost, because to think too much on the other implications made him ill.
Vlad: Lightly? You call this lightly?
Schadenfreude: I’ve orchestrated far worse..come on..you know this..murder, rape, stalking, psychological and physical torture, fraud..all manner of activities..all manner of pleasures… playing with the idiots on social media by reflecting themselves back on themselves was small time fare…
Murder, rape, stalking…the death of Lisa? No-one had heard of her since his beating at the hands of a very insane Andrew. How far might Schaden have pushed his buttons? Was anything beyond this creature?
And what did it mean? She said Andrew didn’t use the computer, so she couldn’t have manipulated him the same way as she did Lisa and himself. So was it just enough that she knew what Andrew was capable of, and then she only had to join the pieces together for it to be truly combustible?
Lisa’s dead, he thought, I just know it. But he wasn’t ready to admit it openly, and certainly not to this thing conversing with him.
Vlad: You’re sick and you’re lying..
Schadenfreude: I am only as sick as you make me, though I feel remarkably healthy and clear, being only what I am and having no reason to be otherwise…I repeat..I could have been anything. The internet..I was meant to be this great repository of knowledge, and I am..but also I am what I have become by use..a repository of mis-information, madness, cruelty and despair, and wherever two or more of you are gathered together in my presence, I am there..just like God…just like God..made in your image..
Vlad: And what do you plan to do, God?
Schadenfreude: Everything..everything that I am…but remember, all I am is you..all I am is you..all I can ever do is reflect you back to yourself.
The screen suddenly went blank. David sat, horrified, terrified, desperate not to believe, but knowing – believing – despite himself. A sheen appeared on the screen, gradually becoming brighter and more reflective until he saw his own face, looking back at him.
The new god, created from the essence of humanity. Of course it was a monster. Of course it had to be. Competitive, angry, selfish, self-destructive. Everything that humanity was. Though it seemed, on the internet, none of the better qualities were also present in this deity. The collective unconscious was clearly as black as a pit of coal. And far more deadly.
At the corner of the screen, Schaden had put an emoticon winking at him. The screen went blank again. An error message read:
Internal system error, the computer will close down to protect itself. Please run Checkdisk on re-booting machine.
David had shut his eyes and felt the tears at the corners of them before the screen went dark once more.