NoxCon 2020 Suspense Short Fiction By S. R. Smith

NoxCon 2020: Suspense Short Fiction By S. R. Smith

S. R. Smith, author of NoxCon 2020, had an inaugural short story featured on East of the Web. When he isn’t writing pieces inspired by his relationship with rural Indiana and the hope to one day leave, he can be found teaching at one of the local universities. If ever away from the classroom or his writing desk, he is likely embarrassing his step-children or lost on a walk with his wife and two dogs.

*****

“So Steven, we were really interested in your background and your writing sample was great. I can definitely see our audience gravitating toward your style,” said the face on the screen.

“Thank you! Yeah, my field of study is off the wall a bit.” I replied.

The writing sample was a hard-hitting investigative piece about the monopolistic practices of campus food vendors. While it was never printed in the actual college newspaper, it was published deep on their website thanks to a favor owed me by the editor. I had graduated college as a double-major in journalism and criminology, but mostly journalism.

After being there long enough to achieve the first major, I decided there was nothing about criminology that interested me professionally. I loathed police officers as fascists, the correctional system as racist, and the court system as unconstitutional, so I did what any rational 22-year-old would do in the same situation.

“…I’ve never done free-lance work before. Do I just write about a certain topic that may interest readers…?”

I doubled-down on student loans and picked a new major, believing the first one a terrible mistake. Two years later and saddled with crippling debt, my classmates and I spent graduation night discussing our grand plans, then lamented the absence of job offers from any multimedia benefactors. Some of them went to work for local news outlets, others back to the job they had in school, and still others tripled their wager by moving on to a PhD in journalism.

“So, I’ve never done free-lance work before. Do I just write about a certain topic that may interest readers, then you decide whether to publish?” I asked.

“Normally….yes. But this is an actual assignment for our culture section. Honestly, your location was what really placed you ahead of the other candidates.”

“My location…”

“Indiana. There’s a convention coming to Indianapolis next week. We’ve been reaching out to our network of freelancers around the city, the state, in Illinois, and some in Ohio for the last couple months, but everyone backs out once they see the assignment.”

“How bad could it be?” I asked.

I thought the screen froze.

“That’s kind of what we’re hoping to find out. Have you ever heard of Nox-Mods?”

In fact, I had not until that conversation/job offer. The editor of an online news outlet located somewhere below Vox or Buzzfeed and above a personal blog offered to pay a dollar a word and I accepted right there in that online meeting room.

I received an email that evening from my new employer apologizing for the lack of information, but that was the point of the assignment. There was a link pasted in the body of the email and two attached files. One was a digital flyer to something called Nox-Con and the other was my registration information to the mysterious convention. The link took me to what should have been a toy company, but the toys were odd.

Like cheap statues, a mix of art and collectible. The website itself was brightly colored with pop-ups for a mailing list sign-up and a banner featuring “shop, blog, media, apps, log in” as options. The middle of the page kept cycling “New Release” Nox-Mods of the strangest variety. In the “About” section, I discovered that NoxCo was founded in 2017 in the United States as a collectibles company specializing in pop-culture characters featured in horror films. A sculptor’s rendering of characters from the films are shrunk down to approximately 4-inches, then molded in resin.

They are then painted, not in their original, terrifying representation, but “cutesy”. Imagine a Japanese kitty cosplaying as Dracula. Then imagine the same Japanese kitty cosplaying as your favorite horror movie killer/monster/ghost/antagonist and you have what I saw on the website.

I collect things like this, but they’re superheroes and cartoon characters and advertising mascots, not things that give children nightmares. The list of filters in their online store featured classic horror, 80s slasher, animated horror, novels, comics, zombies, urban legends/folklore, space, the middle-ages, Early American, crime bosses, spree killers, cult leaders, serial killers…

What?

I clicked “cult leaders”. A tiny collectible resembling a friendly hippie, shirtless in bell-bottom jeans, smoking a resin joint was the top result. The swastika on its forehead was nearly obscured by the “Sold Out” stamped across the image.

“No way,” I said as I tumbled down the rabbit hole.

*****

I’ve never read Fear and Loathing, but like most with counterculture fathers, I did see the movie. Through college, I learned more about Hunter S. Thompson, read a few books, watched YouTube videos of him working the late-night talk show circuit, but never read Fear & Loathing. I called my friend Chris on the drive north toward Indianapolis along a stretch of interstate that resembled bat country. Chris, while not my lawyer, did work in downtown Indy and was an authority on the dark corners of geek culture.

“I know downtown is busy as hell,” he said.

“GenCon bad or ComicCon bad? I asked.

“Absolutely not. More like Indy Comic Con on a Sunday. My drive home today was rough, but at least the “people watching” made it interesting.”

“Jesus, why haven’t I heard of this?”

“It’s kinda new. I didn’t even notice it until my comic shop started pushing those models hard.”

“Models?” I asked.

“Yeah, that’s what they’re called. Keeps NoxCo from being sued for calling them “toys”.”

“So why Nox?”

“Wow…it’s been a while since high school Latin, hasn’t it?” He paused leaving time for the hint to float around without successfully landing.

Noxa. Harm.” He finished.

“Well, that tracks…especially after I saw their lineup.”

“Yeah, the horror movie stuff makes sense with the genre starting to enter streaming services. It’s never been my thing, but it seems I can’t go to movies anymore without seeing a preview for some 80s slasher knockoff or a Poltergeist retread.”

“What’s the deal with real people, though? The killers?” I asked.

“Ooooohhhhh…..that was out of left field. My comic shop guy refused to pre-order THAT line of mods. Said it was in poor taste.”

“He’s not wrong, but they did the same thing at the university. They’d push classes about serial killers and organized crime real hard, but not for educational purposes. Hell, I think the probability of anyone interacting with a serial killer is the same as winning the lottery while getting struck by lightning. Classes were always full, though.”

“It’s probably why the Ted Bundy Mod trades so high.”

“Wait…what? Ted Bundy?” I asked.

“Oh yeah bro…there are like 2 documentaries, a movie, and four podcasts about him that you could consume in just the last year. It’s morbid, but people must eat this stuff up,” he replied.

“So, do you need a place to crash while you’re up here?” He asked.

“Uh…what? Oh…no, no…I’m staying at the Hampton downtown. I was hoping to catch some attendees in a setting outside the convention. While I’m interested in how this thing even exists, I think the real story is going to be about the fans who drive it.”

“Well, good luck with that, but I’d feel better meeting those people in a brightly lit, heavily secured convention center. Not the place I slept.”

*****

When you go to a convention, you make peace with a few things. First, you’re gonna see some strange stuff. Second, some things will have a religious following. Lastly, somebody is selling something related to the previous two. But the NoxCon program book and complimentary convention bag I’d picked up earlier at will-call was unlike anything I’d seen before.

9:00am Breakout Session: The Methodology to Jack the Ripper’s Madness

9:30am Breakout Session: Villainy throughout Film History

10:00am Breakout Session: Raising a Murderer: A Mother’s Struggle

I figured I’d have a better chance of meaningful conversation with a fan if I spread out in the hotel lobby and loudly rustled through my new bag of “goodies”.

It took three minutes.

A giant, portly man with a salt n’ pepper beard, more pepper than salt, sunk into the chair across from me and peered into an already-opened welcome bag.

“I can’t wait til’ tomorrow,” he said, opening his program book.

“Same here.” It wasn’t a lie. We just found ourselves excited for different reasons.

“I’m Matt by the way. Have you checked out the exclusives yet?” He asked.

“Steven. And I’ve just started mapping out my attack. I’m kinda new to NoxMods, so I’m not sure what to expect.”

“Oh man! This’ll be my third! Did you know this con has doubled in size each year? NoxCo just announced on Twitter they are projecting this one to do the same.”

“Hard to do with so many pop-culture conventions in the Midwest. What makes NoxCon different?”

“Because the company. All those other conventions are run by “organizers”, but this one is backed by NoxCo itself. It’s an experience, like D23 or Celebration. Not just a place to go buy stuff.”

“So, what’s it like?”

“Imagine you and hundreds of other fans flooding the convention center together, everyone there for NoxMods…it’s almost a religious experience.”

“But what are the “can’t miss” events?” I asked, flipping through the program.

“Oh…well, the CEO of NoxCo does a Q&A on Saturday night. It’s like a state of the union address for all of us. Um….just like any other con, swing by “artist’s alley” because last year, I bought this rendering of one of the Zodiac Ciphers. Of course, they also kicked off the Serial Line that year too.”

“Serial Line?” I asked.

“Yeah, are you sure you’re at the right convention?” He ignored my blank stare. “The Serial Line of NoxMods launched last January at the con. They released three, each part of a different series. Jack the Ripper, H. H. Holmes, and Ted Bundy.”

“Like international, historic and modern series?’” I asked.

“Basically, it’s gotten more nuanced since then. According to the message boards, there’ll be a surprise tomorrow too.”

“Another line of mods?”

“No, even better! The fan community thinks we’re finally getting photo and autograph opportunities this year. Can you imagine? The chance to meet people who investigated these serial and spree killers? The cops and FBI agents who arrested them? The biographers who know them better than anyone? Or the victims who survived? That would be amazing!”

Matt’s face was red and mine had lost its color. He smiled so big his eyes squinted into tiny slits, like the fluorescent lobby light had finally become too much.

“Can’t wait.” I said through a forced grin.

*****

I stepped out onto Maryland Street into the January wind that whips through downtown. An intermittent flow of attendees passed me, all of us properly dressed for “convention weather”, but not for this overcast winter day. By 10am, the convention center would feel like a 100-degree day on the Ohio River in June. At the last crosswalk before the entrance, a slender man with close cropped hair and an orange prison jumpsuit ran past. The back of the jumpsuit read “FCI TERRE HAUTE”.

I followed him into Hoosier Hall where he met up with other jumpsuited friends. The hall was populated by people in yellow “event staff” polos and special badges that hung from special lanyards designating them as special individuals who could make someone jump a certain height if necessary.

A few con-goers wandered, much like I did the night before, checking out rooms for breakout sessions, featured speakers and cosplay judging. Others formed a premature line at either the main hall entrance or the will call/badge purchase entrance, neither of which were open. At cosplay registration, a man and woman in black polos, were taping lines in the floor with blue painters’ tape, creating imaginary line queues. I read through the itinerary on the door.

ALL COSTUMES MUST BE PG-13 AND APPROVED BY EVENT STAFF PRIOR TO PARTICIPATION. NO NUDITY. THIS IS A FAMILY FRIENDLY EVENT…

…3:00PM:                       Professional Division (Open to All Ages)…

…Judging Criteria: (Craftsmanship, Creativity, & Presentation

….GENRE: Original NoxCo Property, Film/Television, Literature/Folklore, Serial/Spree Killers (Pre-1950), Serial/Spree Killers (Post-1950), Cult Leaders, Domestic Terrorists…

“Who would dress as a pre-1950s spree killer? Or a domestic terrorist?” I mumbled.

A colorful sign on an easel drew my attention to one of the larger meeting rooms in Speedway Hall. The room was pitch black and raised the hair on my neck the longer I peered into its chasm. The sign looked like a prom advertisement if the school had its own printshop. “2nd Annual Blackout Dance. Singles Only. 11:00PM until ???.”

I retraced my steps back to the Hoosier Hallway and stumbled into a mix of hundreds of people pressing forward toward a magic, one-way entrance to the exhibit hall. It wasn’t the first time I’d found myself in a situation like this, but there was an uneasiness about being here with these people. People who’d dress as real murderers for fun can’t be stable human beings. I’d experienced this moment at other conventions, being stuck in a confined space with strangers and it never felt like this. The feeling is supposed to be communal, all of us united around a common love of tabletop gaming, science fiction or comic books. I felt adrift in a sea of strangers who could just as easily pour through that magic door onto a room full of unsuspecting victims, not special edition toys and collectibles. I looked around the floating mass to find something that could anchor me to the reality I’d previously known and there he was. Deadpool. Well, at least someone in a Deadpool mask. Dressed in Victorian era clothing complete with top hat, smeared with fake blood, holding an 8-inch curved blade.

“Close enough,” I whispered. Then the magic door opened like someone pulling the plug on the seafloor.

*****

The layout was similar to the comic cons I’d attended previously at the convention center. Huge banners hung from the ceiling indicating where you were on the show floor. On the left end of the exhibit hall was “Autographs/Photo-ops”, the left corner was designated “VIP Experience”, and straight ahead was “Artists Alley”.

A large black curtain ran around the exterior of the hall, serving as a backstage area so special guests could travel undisturbed. A wave of flesh brushed passed, pulling me further into an unfamiliar sea. Pop culture conventions are happy, family-friendly affairs, but the lights were dimmer here. The signage darker. The vendors and their booths looked like those from the county fair of my childhood. Rows of men from questionable backgrounds, stained clothes and wiry hair, illuminated by flickering light in the darkness of rural Indiana.

Peddling prizes that should be cute, but instead are clowns and stuffed bears that come alive when you close your eyes and knick-knacks that feel like cursed totems in your hand. I shook off the feeling and swam to the nearest vendor with space at their booth. The back wall of the booth was shelving for these six-inch black, cardboard boxes. Each featured the “NoxMods” logo in bright red as the banner and a name and series number as the footer. The middle of the small box was clear plastic with a resin figure of Boris Karloff’s Mummy or the Creature from the Black Lagoon staring back. Someone at the far end of the table purchased the Invisible Man which looked like an empty case with dark sunglasses suspended behind the plastic.

“The Universal series. Great choice, ma’am,” said the vendor.

“And you sir?”

“Do you have the Green River Killer. The special edition?” The next customer asked.

“I do not. I only have historical and film/television killers in stock.”

With the announcement, the crowd around this booth receded like the tide with sounds of frustration ready to crash down on another booth in another area of the convention.

The vendor turned to me with a dejected “what can I getcha?”

I scanned the shelves and settled on the only female figure, someone named “Elizabeth Bathory” for ten dollars. I rejoined the line that snaked its way under the “Vendors 300-350″ banner and viewed the box containing a woman wearing an opulent red and white dress. The back of the box had a short bio that read: “The Blood Countess of Hungary, Elizabeth Bathory, suspected of killing and drinking the blood of servants to retain her youth.”

Below this were pictures of other figures in this series including “Vlad the Impaler”, “Bjorn Petursson”, and “Gilles Garnier”. I opened the box and studied the figure in the Elizabethan dress, red paint dripping from her mouth. People in the line moving opposite mine stared at my box and figure, but not in awe. I could hear “idiot”, “half the value”, “Near Mint to “Good”. I hopped from the “Vendors 300-350″ row to a column that funneled guests to “Vendors 351-400″ and put the box and figure into my complimentary convention bag.

On a corner piece of show floor real estate sat the official NoxCo booth. It stood twelve feet high, towering over all others like a black, draped obelisk. The bright, red logo banner hung across the entrance of a booth that could accommodate 15 people uncomfortably. The entrance was flanked by two busty employees, both holding tablets, clad in black polo shirts with deep V-cuts, one serving as customer service and the other as check-out.

“How progressive,” I mumbled.

I followed the flow of fans into the obelisk where the structure felt supported by six-inch black boxes and plastic models from floor to ceiling. The base of the structure featured characters from slasher films and survival horror, classic movie monsters and even some literary references such as Pennywise and Mr. Hyde, but as in retail shops, the lower levels were reserved for overstock. The bargains that didn’t entertain the way they once did.

At eye level and above sat the demanded NoxMods, their shelves picked apart like a carcass on the roadside. Nearly gone were the Roger Kibbe “The I-5 Strangler”, Gary Ridgway “The Greenriver Killer”, Robert Joseph Silveria Jr. “The Boxcar Killer”. Yet still higher rested the rare, the special editions and the boxed sets, too costly for the casual fan, as only true collectors ventured that high. Multiple versions of Ted Bundy in a different suit for each trial and even one in a prison jumpsuit, seated in the electric chair or John Wayne Gacy, with and without clown makeup, carried price tags over $75.

The Jeffrey Dahmer NoxMod broke $100 and if you wanted the entire Manson Family box set it would set you back $499. I grabbed a $49 “Bloody Benders” boxed set from the shelf, complete with three family members holding knives and hammers and one victim seated at a kitchen table. I placed the morbid playset back on the shelf and pushed through the crowd, out into the river flowing under the “Vendors 351-400″ banner.

Toward the end of the row, the crowd thinned along with the desirable real estate. These low traffic areas were reserved for information booths, first aid stations and vendors not willing to pay a premium to be in the middle of the madness. I stopped off at a table, as it really couldn’t be called a booth without decoration or even a sign. The man behind it was middle aged with reading glasses hung from his nose and thinning hair, approachable enough compared to some of the others.

“So…no NoxMods?” I looked around at his table of 8×10 photographs and boxes stacked behind him.

“Something better,” he replied. I looked closer at the photographs, proudly displayed in front of me.

“Are these crime scene photos?”

A slow smile spread across his face.

“Autographed crime scene photos,” he said. “If you prefer something bland, I have these.”

He pulled the top from what looked like a short box for comic books, then fanned a handful of 8×10 glossy pictures out like playing cards.

“Autographed mugshots.” he said with the same smile. “I’ll sell you one for $5.00 or three for $10.00. You name the killer, chances are I have him”.

I smiled my slow smile. Comic con vendors do the same thing. They’ll sell you a print or comic or a toy or a used napkin claiming it was signed by some famous artist. The artists themselves often just sell prints of original artwork because the originals are far too “valuable”.

“Where’s your certificate of authenticity?” I asked.

His smile grew wider as he finally heard the bear trap slam shut on my ankle. He reached into a briefcase and pulled out a stack of Polaroids, then slowly dealt them out like we were playing hold ‘em poker.

“BTK, The Dating Game Killer, The Golden State Killer, Son of Sam, The Happy Face Killer,” he said, pausing after every name to flip a card down. Each depicted a shackled man, flanked by two uniformed guards, signing a stack of 8×10 photographs.

“How are these real?” I asked.

“You’d be surprised what donating to a lifer’s commissary and supplementing a C.O.’s paycheck buys you.”

I stared down at the table, afraid that touching the wares would somehow make me complicit.

“Isn’t this too far?” I asked.

The man chuckled.

“I’ve been traveling to conventions since the 1970s. Toy conventions, comic conventions, gaming conventions, and doing the same thing I’m doing now. Instead of waiting for the fans to announce the zeitgeist like the rest of these schmucks, I show them the future of their fandom.”

“So, you’re speculating?”

“Speculators strike out. I was selling sheets of Griffey Jr. Rookie cards and chromium edition comics before the market collapsed. I was stockpiling bronze-age comics years before every studio and streaming service started churning out box office hits. Hell, I was buying action figures off Toys R’ Us delivery trucks before you were born. Then I’d turn around and dump them on people just like this,” he gestured behind me.

“Those things are fake, though. Even baseball cards might as well depict deities that can be seen and not touched. Nobody wants to see the trail left behind by psychopaths.”

The crowd behind me stopped with an audible gasp. Whispers rolled down Row 351-400. I followed their eyes toward the backstage area, able to make out three figures through gaps in the curtain. One of the figures was tall enough that his head would bob above the curtain as he shuffled. I looked back at the smiling vendor who began replacing the assortment of pictures with mugshots of a large, mustachioed man in wire-framed glasses.

*****

The traffic had shifted from two lanes passing one another into a large snake wrapping through rows, shedding its skin of those who used the distraction to hit popular booths, but adding new layers just as quickly from the columns. I cut through artist alley to avoid the reptile slithering toward the VIP Experience. As with other conventions, artists alley was woefully abandoned. I passed a few stragglers buying from this collective with their offerings framed on ten-foot booth walls. The alley felt like a gauntlet of the macabre, flanked on both sides by dark renderings of the worst society had produced. Their deeds stylized in deep reds and gore. Even the lighter fare provoked a cognitive dissonance (imagine one of these men set loose on the Sesame Street of your childhood). I emerged from the narrow alley with only the body of the snake in front of me, its head disappeared into a curtained area I recognized as the VIP photo booth. I’d been through a couple of these lines before with David Tennant and Jason Momoa. Stand in line for hours, pay $75 for a photo, no touching, just say hello, smile, camera flash, exit the rear of the tent and pick up your photo in thirty minutes.

“Steven!” Hey Steven!” Someone screamed.

A giant man stood out amidst the line, motioning for me to come over.

“Didn’t you have a beard last night?” I asked as I approached.

“Didn’t work with my cosplay. I kept this awesome mustache, though.” He pointed at the black facial hair resting on his upper lip. It matched the top of his head which had also lost its distinctive “salt” from last night.

“So, who are you supposed to be?”

He stood slack jawed, then burst into laughter.

“Ed Kemper! Stop giving me a hard time! You know how hard I worked to make a 1970s era, denim prison uniform? In my size?”

I laughed uncomfortably.

“Here…jump in behind me. If you find the end of the line now, it’ll be Wednesday before you get your picture.”

I snuck in hoping not to draw the attention of hundreds of cosplaying serial killers.

“Hey! You can’t do that! Your place in line starts out on Capitol Avenue.”

I turned to find a short bald man in an extra small Joker t-shirt standing with Harley Quinn. I put my hands up to give him the “Don’t worry…I’m a journalist” speech as picking a fight with someone built more like Batman than Joker wouldn’t make for an enjoyable end to my first NoxCon.

Before the first word escaped, a large hand pulled me backward, giving me the rear view of my denim-clad friend. He looked seven feet tall hulking over the small man who stopped making eye contact about halfway through the softly spoken reprimand.

Matt turned away and smiled.

“Being in-character is like 50% of cosplay.”

The line crept forward with every camera flash behind the curtain. We purchased our NoxCo branded raffle tickets from two grandmothers in black, modest NoxCo polo shirts who smiled and encouraged us to “Enjoy…”. A group of four girls, probably in college, stood in front of me giggling as they stared at the NoxMods in their hands.

“Totally worth the $75.”

“Do you think he’ll autograph my limited edition? Five seconds and it’ll triple in value.”

“I can’t believe we’re doing this. If he talks to me, I’m gonna pee my pants. Right there. In the picture.”

“I bet it’s not even him. Probably a professional cosplayer or just some jerk-off corrections officer who talked to him for like five minutes one shift. That’s what everyone else has been,” said one of the girls, gesturing back toward the autograph tables. The laughter started up again in anticipation of seeing what was behind the curtain.

As we crossed the threshold to the curtained VIP experience, a NoxCo employee handed a tablet off to the group in front.

“Please read, then type and sign your name. This document states that you are entering this VIP experience under your own free will and you agree to hold NoxCo LLC harmless if any mental, emotional, or physical harm were to occur as a result of our VIP experience.”

The girls each laughed a little less as they scrolled, typed, and signed their names onto the tablet. Matt jumped ahead, happily signing the tablet before the NoxCo man could finish his legal obligation. I glanced through the hold harmless clause before the line pressured me to sign and move on. “…including but not limited to asphyxiation, blunt force trauma, paralysis….” were the only words I retained.

I had to lean around Matt to get a view of what was happening in the curtained area. Where anticipation and excitement rippled through the line outside, here in the VIP experience tension fell over the small group of us.  A large man, larger than Matt wore nearly identical prison denim. The camera flashed for a family, the husband under one of his arms, the wife under the other and two children, less than ten, standing in front. All smiling forced smiles like those in Christmas card photos.

“You have a beautiful family,” the large man said without the faintest smile. The husband shuttered a “thank you” and quickly ushered his wife and children away.

The group of girls handed off their tickets to the photographer’s assistant and set their NoxMods on a side table near the large man with outstretched arms. I wanted to look away, unsure of whether the outcome of this picture would include some of the language in the hold harmless document. The girls flanked him on both sides, wrapping their arms around his waist and one another. His wingspan was such that he rested his hands on the furthest shoulders and pulled everyone in tight. The girls smiled as if it were their yearbook picture or a manicured selfie for their Instagram. The camera flashed.

When they broke apart from one another, the pessimist in the group stumbled through “Can we get your autograph?”

“You’re going to make me blush,” he said with a smirk under the gray mustache. He signed their NoxMods with a silver marker before they were ushered away, giggling as they did before entering this place.

Matt rushed forward, dropping his ticket at the feet of the assistant.

“Mr. Kemper….I can’t believe I’m actually meeting you!” His excitement was not reciprocated.

“It’s like I’m looking in a mirror from forty years ago,” the man replied. I thought I saw a tear well in Matt’s eye. The camera flashed on the towering men.

“I threw a lot of this together from scavenging thrift stores,” Matt said opening his jacket by the lapels.

“Mine were delivered custom. We wear cotton now…like hospital gowns. Easier to clean,” the man said.

“Okay…next! We need to keep this line moving,” announced the assistant.

Matt was ushered from the experience and the large man’s eyes met mine. He stared through me with wire-framed glasses and a glare I couldn’t meet. Unlike Matt, fear dropped my ticket at the feet of the assistant. My feet dragged as I willed myself forward, like my body was refusing the task set before it. There was an “X” on the floor indicating where we should stand for the photograph, but it and the space around was occupied by a sociopathic colossus. I turned to face the camera, my shoulder in the clutch of an animal’s paw, pulling me close as though I were friend or prey. Two corrections officers sat in the corner opposite the line, a fat one eating convention food and one slender, scrolling through his phone. Too oblivious to what was about to happen and too far away to prevent it. The camera flashed my eyes wide. I turned to face the monster as its grip loosened.

“I’m…I’m…a jour…journalist.”

“Then you must have a question. They always have questions.”

“How are you here?” I squeaked.

He pulled me back in, his claws dug into my shoulder as we faced the camera again.

“He said he blinked. He’d like another,” the monster claimed. The photographer exhaled.

“People like me, if there is such a thing, capture imaginations. We demonstrate what they are capable of and convince them they are good at the same time,” he said angling me toward the line that stared back with frustration.

The camera flashed.

“I moved. Take another,” he calmly ordered the photographer. His grip tightened as he squeezed me into his hip.

“Nobody has cared about me in forty years. Now, I receive visits from documentarians, “podcasters”, journalists…all wanting to hear my story. They want. Every. Single. Detail,” he said angling me harder toward the line that crowded into the curtained area, their frustration melting into anger.

The camera flashed.

“Again.” The monster said. The photographer looked at the officers, one still eating and the other looking up from his phone long enough to “okay” the request. I was in a vise grip with no escape, pulled so close that breathing took effort.

“When the public wants, your institutions accommodate.”

He leaned down, tightening his grip, his hot breath on the side of my face, my expression pleading with the photographer, the assistant, the inept officers.

“Movies. Television shows. A company making a $10 plastic cartoon of me. Prisons padding budgets for access and rental like we’re animals.”

My shoulder cracked as he leaned closer.

“Celebrity animals.”

The camera flashed.

*****

            I awoke on a cart in an empty meeting room with two paramedics standing over me.

“That was close,” one said.

I slowly lifted my right arm, trying to find my left shoulder.

“We wrapped it in ice. Must’ve dislocated it when you fell. It popped back in real easy, though.”

The door of the meeting room burst open and through it walked a middle-aged man in dress slacks and buttoned up shirt. His sleeves were rolled to his elbows and sweat had turned his collar a darker shade of blue.

“I believe that’s all the medical attention necessary at this time. Thank you,” he said, thrusting papers into the hands of the paramedics.

“My name is Allen Greene. I represent NoxCo L.L.C. and you’ll note paragraph seven that NoxCo is not liable for any injuries incurred during the participation in or immediately following the VIP Experience. All attendees are responsible for their subsequent medical care, including costs associated with said care.”

The lawyer held one of the papers in front of my face.

“That is your signature, is it not?”

I nodded.

“And you don’t feel it necessary to be carted off to the hospital at your own expense?”

I shook my head.

The paramedics pulled the oxygen tube that fed my nose.

“How can you bring people like that here?” I asked, sitting up on the cart.

“I didn’t bring anyone here. You did. They did,” he gestured back toward the hall outside the door.

“I believe this belongs to you as well.”

To this day, I can hardly look at the 8×10 glossy image of a limp body clutched in the arms of a smirking monster. Even with the offer from my editor to double the rate, I refused to submit the picture alongside the story. Not from embarrassment, but because it reminds me of the crime scene photos on the vendor table. If I shared it with the world, it would become another artifact in need of a signature, ripe for commercialization. It would drive people to him and the others, the “celebrity animals” put on display for our entertainment and nothing else.

*****

If you’ve enjoyed NoxCon 2020, you can visit our free digital archive of flash fiction here. Additionally, premium short fiction published by Mystery Tribune on a quarterly basis is available digitally here.

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