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Excerpt for Black Max by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



BLACK MAX by David Wellbaum

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.



Novel and cover design by David Wellbaum, 2018. V1.3

Contact: davidwellbaum@gmail.com

ONE

The young man was a true film lover. It was the most complex and rewarding of arts, he believed, and he would spend day after day watching movies by himself, with a particular affinity for the ones of his grandmother’s generation, and some of those slightly before. Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, Vertigo, The Stranger. They were sublime works. Grandma had put this love in him, and now he couldn’t get enough. When he wasn’t watching them, he was reading about them. His weekly trips to the library would usually entail the borrowing of books on the history and mastery of filmmaking. He would illegally download hundreds of films and back them up digitally, displaying them in his small bedroom on the wall from his laptop with his mini-projector.

People these days, he had thought, had no true appreciation for the craftsmanship that the writers and directors of the past wielded. He wouldn’t be caught dead at some superhero popcorn flick at a generic multiplex. It was garbage: soulless, empty warehouses that lacked character and passion, all crammed with insipid stories for neophytes. His ideal experience was the carefully crafted movie palace, now mostly long gone and out of business (except perhaps in a few, small art-house districts). The Paramount and Fox Theaters - those were his comfort zones. To hell with digital capture and projection (except when he just had to watch those films at home); he would be thrilled if they had never existed in the first place. For him, celluloid was king, and always would be the purest of technologies. There was something mystically comfortable about analog. True, he was a bit of a snob about his movies, but he knew that and felt it was well-justified.

It was the film auteur that had always commanded his greatest respects, though. It was their control, creativity, and discipline that had earned his envy. The world needed more Orson Welles and Ingmar Bergman, and less cartoonish nonsense that the studios had now pumped out year after year. Vision was essential – it was fundamental that mankind had great leaders who would take charge to create the masterpieces that were so desperately needed. In many ways, the young man felt like he too was a maestro, just in his own ways. His name, he was sure, would also be up there with the greats. Perhaps someday, somebody would investigate him the same way they did Charles Foster Kane in Welles’s magnum opus, and his importance would then be fully recognized.

Like many others in the Los Angeles area, he had briefly tried to make it in the most competitive business on the planet, and like them he had also landed nowhere. His two movie screenplays and three television treatments would go ignored and tossed into wastebaskets, his endless calls to the studios and agents would go unanswered, and after a while, he had tired of the struggle and had started to doubt whether he had what it really took to make it in Hollywood. He would continue to work in one of the few video rental shops in the area; the Blockbusters and Family Videos had long shut down, but there was still a market for the fringe physical media obsessives like him, especially around this town. It was a great job, aside from the minimum wage that had forced him to pick up work elsewhere. He could endlessly talk shop and ramble on about the cinematic masterpieces from the past to present (but mostly from the past, he had frequently argued), and would enthusiastically recommend hidden gems to fellow cinephiles.

But as fitting as his job was, he had been made an offer that was too difficult to refuse. He remembered the moment, in the video store a couple of years prior, when the tall woman had struck up a conversation about a television show circus that had been dominating the news. Was he interested in the show? Was he interested in the man who had created it and his unique philosophy? She had something he might be interested in, and she had some work for him. She also had plenty of money.

TWO

Divorce was hard on Dale Williams. It’s usually hard on most people, but most people didn’t have the type of relationship that he had with his wife of fifteen years, or so he thought. Like many, Dale believed that the bond with his beautiful partner, Annie, was unbreakable. That bond, strengthened by what he proudly thought of as the all-American family with two teenage girls, a playful Labrador Retriever mix, and a nearly paid-off mortgage for a cozy two-storied home, had convinced the fortysomething man that he had set himself up for the good life. He had imagined that it would anchor him through grandparenthood, eventually completing in his own peaceful passing, ideally surrounded by those in his house whom he had cared for so abundantly. He had actually played it all out in his head, moment for moment of how the big picture might unfold. He knew that it was silly; who pictures their whole life like that? But the story gave him comfort when he daydreamed about it, so Dale went with it for a very long time.

The former social worker, amateur crime sleuth, and now popular writer had watched everything he had devoted himself to, primarily his family and sense of purpose in his community, crumble away in a manner inconceivable just two years before, when his life took an incredible left turn and he found himself stuck in the middle of one of the biggest crime news stories in American television history. Fuck the Tandies, he thought to himself more than a handful of times. Things were good before then, he knew. The Rockwellian quiet life suited him well. The small town friendliness, the PTA meetings, and the cheery local festivals were what had helped allow him to the live the life he had always wanted.

His job, in particular, was a great source of pride. There was a sense of accomplishment and earned respect at his former place of employment, the Kentworth County Social Services Center. But that too had run its course. And now all of that stability, which offered him genuine emotional peace with his then-wife and two girls, was broken. Those psychological anchors, once holding him comfortably down in a bed of moderate success and small-town safety, were rotting away somewhere at the bottom of the ocean, and he was adrift and most certainly not at peace.

Dale now lived in a cheap rental above a liquor store in Fremont City (a nice convenience for the man who developed an impressive drinking habit later in life than most people), and would only see his ex-wife and lovely daughters twice a month on the weekends, which wasn’t nearly enough in his opinion. Though divorce had nearly sucked the life out of him (not to mention a healthy chunk of his book earnings), he still had good reasons to live and be happy from time to time: Laura and Sophia. They were growing into beautiful teenage ladies, and their own love for their father, no matter what his mistakes were, was undeniable. They were just as happy to see him when he came to visit and loved their trips to the movies or to the local bowling alley. He would exchange pleasantries with Annie, briefly and perhaps insincerely, but would then enthusiastically take the girls out for a great day of fun. This was now what he had to live for. It may have been over with Annie, but it certainly wasn’t over with his daughters. He still wanted to be the great father that he knew they deserved.

Dale didn’t talk about his feelings towards Annie with his daughters much. He didn’t need to. They saw enough of the heated arguments and long, passive-aggressive silences at home. The girls didn’t know everything, but they knew enough. They knew that Dad was increasingly absent from home. Like Annie, they were initially excited at their father’s newfangled success. His first and only book, The Lost Family, based on his involvement in the Tandy family disappearance and mystery, had become an instant best seller. It was a part of the wave of attention that flooded nearly every media outlet for months when it was released. It was a riot, his family thought, that their simple, video game-loving, nerdy bookworm father was on everything from 60 Minutes to CNN’s Anderson Cooper show talking about how he had met a young, mentally disabled boy in Dallas Pine, and how this chance meeting had jump-started his involvement in a mystery which even the FBI and Department of Justice couldn’t completely understand by its end.

But the novelty wore off. His absences, and the freeing up of time he had as a result of quitting his social worker position and having a decent new source of income with his book, had led to a sizable increase in the booze consumption department. While Dale was always a bit of a casual drinker, he found himself nearly doubling the amounts he was accustomed to when a strong gust of recognition came upon him. Whether it was used as a way to calm his nerves before an interview or to help him better socialize with the occasional celebrity, the boozing began to take its toll. Less time was spent with family and more time was spent arguing with the woman who would now say over and over, “You have changed. This isn’t the man I married.”

Dale’s exciting whirlwind froze and shattered the day he spotted an inappropriate (to put it mildly) text on his wife’s phone. The amateur detective work on this case was far less thrilling and rewarding than the mystery that made him a semi-public figure; it was downright miserable. Annie had cheated on him, and far from thinking that it was understandable given the circumstances of his absence and increasingly churlish behavior, Dale adopted an attitude of genuine loathing and disgust towards his wife. He proceeded to then lose himself, mostly to anger at first, and then down a dark hole of depression.

Months would go by before he would come out from the worst of it, but the damage was done, and his family was unlikely to ever live under the same roof again. All of those fantasies that Dale had of the ideal, comfortable life, one with grandchildren playing around the house and a long-running romance as fresh as the day they had met in college, would have to be replaced with something new. If only Dale had any idea of what that might actually be.



THREE

Sometimes, no matter how much evidence is presented, and no matter how logical the solution appears to be, there will be those who don’t believe anything suggested just on principle, no matter how reasoned and supported. It’s the way that some conspiracy theories operate. The simplest solution, as William of Ockham was known to have said, is usually the better one. But not for some. For those people, none of what happened could possibly have in the way they were told. We’ve been fed a lie, they would say. None of it makes sense.

It wasn’t an unpopular or uncommon opinion, especially online where anonymous and uncensored opinions could be loudest. The FBI and Department of Justice are lying to us, many would write. No body or significant forensic evidence was ever recovered from the scene they would repeat (this was only partially true; human bones were in fact found). The infamous house, the one that was featured in the introduction song and title sequence for the The Tandies TV series, had gone up in flames, taking many answers with it.

Despite the DOJ’s official report, there wasn’t actually conclusive proof that Kenneth Chandry was dead. Almost every bit of evidence in that house appeared useless. DNA evidence was incomplete, sparse and could confirm little. And Chandry, as so many would fervently argue, was not the type to go out like that. A suicide? On a live video? Come on. A video where he shot himself and not Janie Boggs, former head star of that show who was sitting right next to him? No way, they shouted. There was no way that this man would go through an incredibly elaborate plan to punk the American public, and then just off himself while leaving that woman alive. A man who had spent decades murdering, accumulating wealth, and then engaging in a surreal cat-and-mouse with the highest levels of law enforcement is just going to…call it quits and bitch out? Maybe he had leverage on somebody else and took one of their family members hostage, and forced that person to kill himself with the mask on, they suggested. Or maybe it was a Hollywood-styled blood squib and then he replaced the body with another murder victim! And so it went; there was no end to the speculation.

To others, law enforcement’s explanation of the Tandy chronicle seemed believable, but it still left a lot to be desired. Sometimes neat and tidy conclusions didn’t happen. At least the public got something in the way of clarification. For those who did believe in the official story, it was Janie Boggs’s interviews about what had happened in that house that had mostly convinced them. She was clear that it was Chandry who had kidnapped her and knew her witness protection location somehow. It was Chandry that took her to that house, the one that had been completely redecorated to look like it did in the original 1980’s TV show. But where Janie Boggs’s brief tale left a crack for the conspiracy theorists to sliver in and make their own case was her comments regarding what had happened before she saw a DOJ agent bust through a door with a shotgun and then carry her out of a burning house. Boggs said that she had “woken up tied to a chair and saw him wearing the mask.” Aha! So she didn’t see who was under the mask. It could have been anybody. It was just a part of the elaborate ruse!

And from there the theories developed. It didn’t help that Janie Boggs and Alan Rice had gone silent in prison after talking only briefly to the joint task force in charge of their respective cases. Their refusal to give further interviews made it seem as if they had never been found and removed from witness protection in the first place. They had still appeared missing in the eyes of the public. For many, that was enough to conclude that they were in on it with, or at least were protecting, their old friend Kenneth Chandry, and that he was still roaming the Earth doing who knows what. However, there was not a word from Chandry, the show’s creator and voice of Smoggie, the puppet at the center of the ridiculous saga. Not for two years now, if he were still alive. There were no more taunting phone messages using the puppet’s voice, or dead bodies of peripheral show characters popping up in isolated wooded areas, as had happened with the late Dallas Pine. This itself was the best indicator that the man who had murdered so many in California over such a long period of time was in fact dead, at least so thought the many who did not believe in the “He’s Still Alive!!!” conspiracy.

But there was one possible bit of evidence that the theorists had on their side that no doubt swayed a number of people to the ranks of true believers. The video. The one from inside the burning house that had now been viewed over millions of times (due to its graphic nature, it had been removed from a number of video sites, though it would always pop up again somewhere else). It was the remarkable clip of a man sitting on a chair wearing a large Smoggie mask and holding a shotgun in his hands, while next to him sat Janie, tied up and terrified. It was the same video that made a Department of Justice agent another bona fide celebrity in the case (despite her vigorous desire to avoid being just that) when she had saved Janie Boggs’s life by carrying her out of that house. In the brief video, the man (whether it was Chandry or not depended on which side of the fence you sat), shot himself as he wore the Smoggie mask. This is what a huge number of Americans had seen the day it had happened. What a few others had seen on further inspection of the video had created a major social media stir.

If the Zapruder film was the catalyst for opening the Kennedy Assassination to myriad theories and speculation, then the viral video of the Tandy house fire was the equivalent for this contorted story. There was no umbrella man here. No grassy knoll, no magic bullet, and no mysterious puff of smoke. There was, however, a brutal and bloody shot to the head. This much everybody saw, but what they didn’t originally see was the hand. The Hand of Darkness, people would call it, was a home-made, viral video that a teenager from Dayton, Ohio would create and title after his own theory, in which somebody else may have also been at the scene of the crime. It was a melodramatic, cornball title for a video that purported to show, just moments before the head shot, a black-gloved hand closing a closet door behind Chandry and Boggs. The Hand of Darkness “broke the internet” the week it came out, as they say. Online forums from Reddit to 4Chan were full of wild discussions about what was seen in the video just a few months after the house fire. News sites from The Daily Beast to Salon and Slate had experts (perhaps often of questionable authenticity) analyze it to see if it was indeed a hand. The verdicts were mixed; some thought that it did look like a hand wearing a black glove, while others claimed that it was merely shadow created by the bright lights in the house and the fires engulfing the living room. It wasn’t uncommon for people who previously believed in the official narrative to tell friends that the moment they saw the Darkness video the hair on their arms stood up straight and they got a creepy, tingly feeling on the backs of their necks, and that now they felt differently about the case. But even after its exposure, the internet detectives (operating at an even more intense level of scrutiny than before) were again at square one. There were no legitimate sightings of Chandry and no more killings that fit the profile. But the public still had very strong opinions one way or another. Some people wanted the case re-opened, while some thought that it had been already solved. Some wanted to write books about it, and some just wanted to never hear about it again.

FOUR

“Hey, I know you! You’re that lady! Who did the thing! I knew it was you! That was totally awesome!” said the obese, curly-haired woman in a loud voice near the produce section of the IGA grocery store. The woman opposite her lowered her eyes and nodded in the most polite way she could, but she was definitely embarrassed.

“Hey! Could I get a selfie?” the woman asked as she pulled out her cell phone.

“Look, not to be rude, but that’s not my thing.”

“Ah, I understand. Sorry. But anyway, cool to meet you! You’re awesome,” the lady said. “You’re an inspiration!”

“Thanks,” the other woman mumbled, pushing her grocery cart towards the vegetables, then softly chuckling the word “inspiration” under her breath when the curly-haired woman was out of listening distance. Absurd, she thought. She would never get used to it, and it had not slowed down over the last two years, not even here in the veggie aisle in a small grocery store in East Los Angeles.

If Rova Foster wanted to scurry out of the supermarket, the man standing down the aisle, who was now staring right at her and was grinning ear to ear, would happily stop her in her tracks. “Well, well...look who it is,” the tall, gray-haired gentleman boomed loudly enough to nearly startle the attractive, fit woman still in her thirties.

“Long time no see, Director Miller.”

“Oh for Pete’s sake, call me Andy. It’s been a while. You still look...great.” And he meant it. Foster, the fitness nut, was as healthy-looking as she had ever been.

“Aww, thanks,” Rova replied, putting her items in her cart and then walking up to hug the man. “I hear you have a new job!”

“It took a while, but yeah,” he said. “It seems as though we have switched organizations. You are with the FBI now...and I’m with the Department of Justice. Kind of funny how that worked out.”

“Um, well. When a prestigious special crimes unit calls, you don’t turn down the job.” Rova dropped her hands to her side and took a deep breath. It was damn good to see the former Assistant Director of the FBI unit that had shown so much trust in her during the Tandy case. “What’s your excuse?”

“For joining the DOJ? Uh, as you know, my exit was slightly less glamorous after ‘the dump’ happened,” he said, looking embarrassed. “I wasn’t pushed out, but I think some were uncomfortable with having me there.”

“Not your fault,” Rova said, trying to comfort her former coworker and superior. Both remembered ‘the dump’ all too well. The massive file torrent that Kenneth Chandry had put on the internet had spread and was still available to those who wanted to see the most disgusting of what humanity had to offer. Nobody who had watched the videos (of what the former TV showrunner and his two choice stars did to their victims) could possibly get those images out of their heads, including and especially the law enforcement officers who had to thoroughly investigate the tapes multiple times.

“Anyhow, how is it going? What’s new? The job is treating you well?”

“It’s nice. I enjoy it,” she smiled. “Its day to day isn’t exactly cheery...but I get to do some great work. I work with some awesome people. Scary smart folks over at the FBI.”

“Oh, I remember,” Miller nodded. “You still living in the same place out here?”

“Same house. Same life,” she said. “Just a bit more media hounding me after all this time.” Miller laughed at this and folded his arms.

“Yeah, it was kind of fun, honestly, watching you get your five minutes of fame with this. I actually watched your 60 Minutes interview, along with the rest of the country.”

“Yeah, yeah,” she sighed. “It got old real quick.” A long pause followed. While Miller and Foster could talk volumes about the job, making small chit-chat wasn’t as effortless. Perhaps that might have been a reason for the long drought between them. Both had busy careers to juggle, but both were still single and had developed affections for the other during their big case. In media interviews shortly after the house fire, both would offer very high praise for the professionalism and charitable nature of the other agent. They knew who the good agents were – the ones genuinely focused on keeping the public safe. And they also knew the ones who had less altruistic reasons for joining their respective forces. Foster and Miller were actually quite a bit alike.

“Look,” he said, checking his watch. “I gotta run, but let’s get coffee or a beer sometime.”

“That would be great,” Rova smiled. “I’m very happy that I ran into you.”

“Likewise,” Miller said, then giving her another hug. It really did make him happy, and in some way gave him a sense of relief. For him, a person like Foster didn’t come around too often. He had always been deeply impressed with her, and perhaps a bit smitten, too.

FIVE

Greta Anderson: Ladies and gentlemen, it is with great honor that I bring you tonight’s author and speaker. Personally, I am very excited about this interview. I have been for a long time. Like many in the crowd here tonight, and it looks like quite an impressive number of you decided to show up, I am frankly just thrilled that Dale Williams, author of The Lost Family, has joined us. Welcome, Dale.

(Loud applause).

Let’s just get right into it, Dale. I’m guessing that most people at Book Fest here in San Francisco are familiar with the book you released last year. You’ve been on some pretty high profile shows. How are you holding up?

Dale Williams: Very well, thank you.

Greta: So, what is it about the Tandy story that has resonated with the public? I mean, this story has been huge for the last two years and it hasn’t really let up. What does this have that other true crime stories don’t have?

Dale: I think a better question is what doesn’t it have? You have people missing for over 30 years. You have sex, drugs, and even a little Satan worship...which sounds ludicrous coming out of my mouth. And then you have the fame. These weren’t nobodies. These people were mega superstars during that time. I think for a lot of people, there’s also this element of their wholesome nostalgia getting completely wrecked by a much, much more sinister reality. I think some people may secretly desire having their worlds flipped upside down sometimes. It keeps their brains running.

Greta: Dale, am I to take it that you believe in the official story? I only ask because it seems that now, more than ever, there seems to be a growing contingent among those who follow this story that perhaps there is more to it than your book suggests.

Dale Williams: (chuckling) Meaning, exactly…

Greta: That maybe the man who is responsible for these murders isn’t dead. Now I know you had a close relationship with some of the investigators in this case. Are you still in contact with any of them? Particularly this woman you wrote a lot about, Special Agent Rova Foster?

Dale: (long pause) I am not in contact with Miss Foster these days. We have our own lives. Regardless, I think that they were nothing but professional in their search for the answers in this case, and I have full confidence in their conclusions, which were outlined in the final commission report that they released to the public not long ago.

Greta: Sounds almost like an official, rehearsed soundbite.

Dale: Ouch. Well, how’s this: Those investigators knew what they were doing, and those who believe that Chandry is still alive or that there is some secret cult behind all of this, which is a rumor that’s apparently gaining traction these days, are...misguided. Gullible might be a better word.

(A few boos from the crowd)

Greta: Gullible?

Dale: Yeah, look. Show me the evidence. If you show me clear-cut proof that this man is alive, or that these crimes involved more than Ken Chandry, Janie Boggs, and Alan Rice, great! I’m right there with you and I’ll get started on book number two. Nothing would make me happier.

(A few laughs in the crowd)

Dale: But until then, I go with what I’ve got. And what I’ve got is a very personal account of seeing what these people did to that poor young man, and dozens of other people in California over a thirty year period. I had partial access to FBI and Department of Justice files. I was debriefed by both departments following my involvement in the case. I am not saying I am an expert; I have been very clear about that. But I also have insight that many don’t.

Festivalgoer (yelling from the second row): But what about the video? The Hand of Darkness!

(A few cheers and hollers of support from the crowd)

Dale: (takes a deep breath and smiles) Are we into the Q & A already? Okay. Look, I’ve seen the video. And yes, it looks somewhat like a hand. Or it could just be some shadows. I’m not really sure. But again, the totality of the evidence suggests that exactly three people were involved. If that video is your idea of incontrovertible proof, I think it’s really the wrong hill to die on.

Greta: It sounds to me that you’re pretty convinced. Okay, I have a few other questions to get to next…

SIX

As the San Francisco book reading wound down, Dale had just finished signing his second to last autograph when he saw the awkward young man approach. The room had started to empty, but the tall, lanky guy wearing a black leather jacket had been lurking about, and Dale thought that perhaps he was doing so to possibly get an extra word in with him. He didn’t want to judge the young man by his appearance, which seemed to scream social outcast and loner, but his assumptions were correct (at least about him wanting an extra word with him) when he arrived up at the table.

“How’s it going man?” Dale asked, trying to casually head off any type of negative interaction with a potentially aggressive conspiracy theorist-type. The young man wouldn’t have been the first to give Dale a piece of his mind, and that would sometimes come in the form of Your book is a giant, lying piece of shit. Open your eyes, sheeple.

“Good. Thanks so much for coming here,” the man said as he handed Dale his copy of The Lost Family. Dale quietly sighed with relief. He then opened the front of the hardback and signed it.

“Hey, I was wondering if I could tell you something.”

“Sure,” Dale smiled.

“Your book was super interesting. I mean, it was like, the greatest true crime story I’ve ever read. And I’ve read them all. Helter Skelter, In Cold Blood, The Stranger Beside Me...but yours was just fascinating to no end. I especially loved the part about how you played The Tandy Family Adventure Nintendo video game to figure out more about this Chandry guy.”

“Yeah,” Dale grinned. “It was kind of cool, I can’t lie.”

“It was so cool that it inspired me and a few of my friends to make our own Tandy game. You see, we are a bunch of hardcore programmers. We have our own indie game company startup and we’ve made our own demo. It’s totally in its alpha stage, but here,” the young man said, pulling out a bright yellow USB thumb drive from his pocket and placing it in front of Dale. “You’ll definitely want to check this out. It’s a total open-world, explorable experience.”

Dale stared cautiously at the drive for a moment. He then looked up at the young man. “You know, when it was all happening it was kind of fun. But...” Dale looked across the room, which was now nearly empty, sans a few employees and organizers cleaning up the small convention room. “Looking back on it now, I have to remember something. These were actual lives. A lot of people lost family members to these criminals. Don’t forget, we are talking about real murderers. Real pain and misery. I kind of felt bad writing a book and making money off of it. It was a story that needed to be told, on the one hand. But if I had the choice to become successful off of this whole thing, or just eliminate these crimes from ever happening...”

The man stared at Dale blankly, waiting for him to finish. He was trying to tell the young guy that making a video game off of such a tragedy might not be the most sensitive thing to do, but it was all coming out wrong. Then the young man leaned forward, pushed his long, slicked black bangs back, and then fixed his eyes on Dale’s.

“Now you listen to me, Mr. Dale Williams,” he said with conviction that just moments ago would have seemed completely out of character. “You knew in your heart back then that this story wasn’t over. For better or worse, you were right.” The man stood up tall, looked around himself and then back at Dale. “Play the game. Black Max is coming for you. This is your warning. Don’t do any more of these speaking events. Shut up about the Tandies.” And then he walked away, leaving Dale taken back at first, confused, and then just pissed off.

SEVEN

Sergeant Barry Trick of the Kentworth County Police Department took a deep breath, leaned back in his comfortable leather chair, and rubbed his free hand across his face while holding the office phone next to his right ear. The look of irritation and impatience was unmistakable, though nobody else was in his office to see it.

“No, dammit Dale...don’t fuckin’ plug the thing into your computer. Jesus, I thought you were all tech-savvy.” The cop paused, listened to what his good buddy on the other end of the phone had to say, and tried to be a little more patient. After all, he had not had his morning coffee yet and was still struggling to get himself together before his day really started.

“Why don’t you just throw it away. You know,” the sergeant said, pulling himself up to his desk and leaning his elbows on it, “if I had a dime every time some donkey called in with a silly tip or theory on this case, I’d have a lot of dimes. I don’t have to tell you that the case is closed. Just because some weirdo makes a vague threat and gives you a USB doesn’t mean you need to investigate it. It would be wise to just shrug this off.”

Once again, Trick listened to what his friend had to say, but he had already made up his mind. “Well, Dale, if you want to bring it here I’m sure we can have Harvey look at it,” he said, referring to the county’s one and only forensic specialist who dealt with the few computer issues that these small town police ran into from time to time. “He’s good. He’ll probably just run some malware test on it before you check it out. Does that make your majesty happy?”

Trick nodded, knowing that he had temporarily satisfied his friend and newly acclaimed writer. It may have been a couple of years since they had worked together on the Tandy case, but the story was practically the only thing the two talked about when running into one another. After that kind of drama in their lives, everything else seemed to be a little less interesting. It was no different this time, and the two would be meeting to discuss the topic yet again.



EIGHT

“It’s clean. Not a terribly large file, if it’s really a game like he said,” mumbled Harvey Lloyd, part-time Computer Forensic Specialist and Technician of the Kentworth County Police Department, affectionately known as “Harve” by everybody else in the small town department. Harve certainly didn’t look the part of tech specialist. Where some might expect a young, geeky college kid to do this kind of work, Harve was a pot-bellied man in his mid-sixties who was nearing retirement and had been involved in computer culture for a very long time, even programming KERNAL operating systems in Commodores when Dale was still in diapers. He never let up on his hobbies and had still maintained his passion for refurbishing old systems. He would even repair old Atari 2600 gaming consoles and give them out as gifts to kids at his church, whom were initially skeptical of the ancient machines, but were later won over by their primitive charms.

“So,” Dale said, staring at the USB now sitting on Sergeant Trick’s desk next to his tower PC. “Can we fire it up?” Trick grinned and shook his head in mock irritation. Sure, it was silly he thought. But truth be told, he enjoyed the action that the case gave him back in the day, and it would hurt nobody to see what the lunatics who had obsessed over this drama were into nowadays. He had already set his expectations low, anyhow.

“Whaddya’ say, Harve?” Trick nodded.

The old man sat down, squeezing himself into one of Trick’s narrow office chairs. “What the hell. Give it a go.” Trick grabbed the USB, placed it into the PC slot, and then turned the monitor around towards Dale and Harve. He then circled around his desk and stood behind the two seated men. Dale took control of the keyboard and mouse and proceeded to load the .exe file.

Visually, what played in front of the men wasn’t particularly impressive; it really did reflect a homemade project developed by a small team. It was no Minecraft, but neither was it likely made with modern, state-of-the-art graphics engines. It was a first-person perspective experience. It started in the woods. There was a small, dirt path. Dale did what any gamer would do. He pressed the arrow forward and looked around his surroundings by moving the mouse to get a full 360-degree view. He continued to walk down the path for a good fifteen seconds.

“Well,” Harve said flatly, “this is exciting.”

“Hold on,” Dale smiled. He continued down the path and in the draw distance saw a few gray blocks. “See?”

“Ah...” Harve said. “What have we here?”

Dale pushed forward, finally having his avatar arrive at the building. “Well I’ll be damned,” Barry Trick said. “That looks familiar.”

“Yes, it does,” Dale responded. He recognized the pixelated house at the center of the forest. All three of them did. It was the brutalist-style home, built in the early 1960’s, that Ken Chandry had eventually purchased in the 80’s. It was the same house that Special Agent Rova Foster and her team arrived at to find a library of abuse videos, including two videos that showed the deaths of Jesse and Joey, the two teenagers who starred in the show. It also housed the original body puppet used for Smoggie in The Tandies series. “That’s the old Lake Arnold house just over in Wool County,” Trick added.

As a result of the crime’s notoriety, the house would eventually be bombarded by local and national news teams, and more frequently by those people who were indomitably curious about the crimes committed (some of which had happened in that very house). As a result, the city had the structure quickly demolished in a very public fashion before it could gather more celebrity. Wool County had tired quickly of the reputation Kenneth Chandry had brought it.

“Go in the front door,” Harve instructed Dale, to which he obliged. The interior of the digital house was a facsimile for the real one, Dale knew, but anybody could have known that. Some of the mansion’s crime scene photos had become public record and were in the DOJ’s investigative report released the prior year. Like the real scene of the crime, the first two floors were empty. Dale walked through the virtual house just to check.

“The basement,” Sergeant Trick said, now less skeptical than before. “That’s where they found all of those videos and books. Go to the basement.” Dale nodded and headed to the rear left of the first floor, where the door was located. His avatar pushed through the door and headed down to the basement, yet again another identical representation of what Agent Foster and Director Miller had seen that night.

But this time, there were no rows of neatly organized books, Tandy memorabilia, or videos on shelves. There was no desk with two tapes labeled Jesse and Joe. There was, however, a Smoggie – right in the middle of the room. And unlike the last time, Smoggie’s headpiece was actually on the puppet, standing there all by itself.

“Oh, shit...” Harve mumbled. “This is actually kind of creepy.” Dale turned to him and nodded in agreement. He swiveled back to the screen and then moved his character near Smoggie. “Wow,” Harve said. “Look behind him. You can see a red pentagram on the wall behind him. There!” he pointed. “It’s just like the house that burned down. Remember, it had a big Satanic symbol on it, too.”

“Yeah,” Trick replied, now pulling up another chair as all three stared intently at the screen. Dale got close enough to Smoggie to touch him when his avatar froze and some music started to play. It was a Gregorian chant-like hymn, causing the sergeant to chuckle at the absurdity before him. Slowly, several identical, fedora-wearing men began to surround Smoggie and Dale’s game character. Dale immediately recognized the characters – they were Black Max, the main villain from The Tandy Family Adventure Nintendo game he had played years ago when the case was unfolding. “And that’s Black Max,” Dale said to the two men next to him, though they had certainly known this.

The program camera zoomed in on Smoggie’s large, yellow head. His bright blue eyes and tangled whiskers stared directly at the screen. And then it spoke in the same voice so many Americans recognized – the one that Kenneth Chandry taunted them with years before.

“Long live Black Max! Long live Black Max!”

It did this over and over again until the screen faded to black. White text achromatized on the screen, reading “KEEP IT QUIET! OR ELSE!

The three men were silent, waiting for one to speak up and give their thoughts about what they had just seen. Eventually, it was Trick who sarcastically (and much like the Church Lady from the old Saturday Night Live skits) bellowed, “Well isn’t that special!” Dale and Harve snapped out of their dazes and looked at the sergeant. Trick shrugged his shoulders and exhaled. “Kind of anticlimactic if you ask me. I mean, why go through the effort to threaten somebody, if that’s what this is? Looks like they’re just jerkin’ your chain.”

“Sorry, Barry,” Dale said, now sinking into his chair. “Didn’t mean to waste your time.”

“Nah, it was fun for a moment. They did a pretty good job with that puppet voice, too,” Trick smiled, putting his hand on Dale’s shoulder. “Some people will do anything for a bit of attention, eh?” He pulled the USB out of his computer and handed it to Dale. “Here buddy, go wild with it.” Dale took it with a frown on his face.

NINE

“I don’t know what to tell you. You’ve been coming to this old bar and grill for years now. I remember you used to come here with your two girls when one was still running around in diapers and your wife had just given birth to the other. It was great to see what you had: a family that most people would really envy. It actually brought me a lot of joy to see you come in here and buy a beer from me. Now, I’m not so sure. You might be good for business, but at the same time, I’m watching somebody fall really hard. Friend to friend. Or honest bartender to loyal patron.”

“Well, Gene, tell me what you really think,” Dale said, now on his fifth Michelob at Stroh’s Fish and Chips on the lake.

“I think you need to go and work shit out with her.”

“Not my call, man. Remember, I didn’t leave her. She left me. She doesn’t want to work shit out. She wants me out of her life, and she wants this new guy, Kevin McFuckface in her life.”

“What if she got rid of Mr. McFuckface? Would you go back to her?”

Dale paused and thought about his answer. He then snapped out of it and shook his head. “Would you?” Gene continued to dry the large mug in his hand with a worn old rag.

“Depends on what’s at stake,” Gene answered. “You’ve got two beautiful girls. Living under the same roof is important. My parents split when I was a kid. It made no difference to me at the time, or so I thought. Thinking about it now...it’s kind of heartbreaking, actually.”

Dale took another swig of his beer, finishing it, and then tapped the bar with his index finger, indicating to Gene that he wanted yet another. “Heartbreaking. The heartbreaking phase is over. The being pissed off at the world for it not working out when I tried so hard is also over. The depression, even, is over. What’s not over,” Dale said, entering the more rambling phase of his now nightly drunkenness, “is the renewed interest in moving on. Maybe even hooking up with someone new, yeah?” Dale paused, looked around at the emptiness of the bar, and flashed an exaggerated frown at Gene. “Maybe I’m in the wrong place.”

“Try Tinder,” smiled Gene.

“Bah...I’m in my forties now. Never mind everything I just said. I’m just going to do what any other self-disrespecting guy who gets divorced does at this point in his life.” Gene finished his pour and slid the topped mug to Dale.

“Drink yourself into a black hole of misery and -”

“No, sir!” Dale interrupted with a huge smile, now drunk to the point of where his words were beginning to slur. “I’m going to work on my second book. Dive deep into the mystery yet again! Stay busy - that’s what they say you should do when there’s a personal...tragedy.”

“I thought that mystery was over. To be frank, and no disrespect to your fine book, but I kind of wish people would shut the fuck up about the whole Tandy thing.”

“It’s all I’ve got at this point...” Dale replied, and then upon realizing how depressing this actually sounded when it came out of his mouth, leaned back, looking deflated.

Gene stared at one of his best customers over the years and then did what came naturally. He pulled out the bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label, threw a couple of rocks in the glass, and poured a double before sliding it to Dale. “This one’s on the house, my friend.”

TEN

Rova Foster found that many of her coworkers, and the few friends that she did have, said that they just loved going to the gym. But she knew that it was often just talk. She could tell by the way that they described their routines, or perhaps by looking at their less-than-stellar physiques, that they weren’t as die-hard in their conditioning passions as she was. Not that she held it against them. The gym wasn’t for everybody, she knew. It was one thing to aerobicize, to do yoga, or jog on the Flexitrim 2000 Running Machine for thirty minutes. It was another thing, as Rova did on an almost daily basis, to have a morning routine filled with barbell front squats, heavy bench press lifts, and free weight curls that were usually twice the lifting weight of the other women in the fitness center. She loved it and simply wasn’t herself for the rest of the day if she didn’t get her hour in shortly after waking up.

Foster was in a full sweat when her smartphone rang in the gym and she was requested to get a move on to the FBI’s L.A. branch earlier than usual this Monday morning. It sounded not quite like an emergency, but she was told by her new boss, Division Director Edward Hicks, that a case that she had worked on needed immediate attention. Fine by her, she thought. The workout was nearing its end anyway, and the office was only two miles from her gym.

When she arrived at the branch, she headed towards her personal office on the fifth floor, but a knock on the window of the conference room just up the hall diverted her path. Director Hicks motioned for her to come in, where two other agents, whom Foster had seen around the office though had not formally met, were sitting with their casebooks open and pens in hand.

“Good morning, Agent Foster,” Hicks said warmly, not seeming to be in any kind of hurry or concern that the phone call she received suggested. “Sorry to call you in a bit early today, but something happened last night that I’d like to inform you of. These are Agents Shawna Horn and Gus Bow. They will be sitting in on this meeting with us today. They are new to the case and will be assisting us.”

“Nice to meet you,” Foster said, approaching the agents and shaking their hands. “What’s going on?”

“Have a seat,” Hicks said. Though Foster had only known Hicks for about six months now, she had decided early on in their professional relationship that he seemed legit. While he didn’t have the playfully foul-mouthed temperament and likability that former director Andrew Miller had, she found that he was equally passionate in his drive for an FBI that was honorable, distinguished, and above all, effective in solving and preventing crime. It didn’t hurt that Foster recognized Hicks’s deference for former Director Miller and that he had actively tried to persuade him not to move away from the FBI to the Department of Justice. Hicks, however, couldn’t have been more different than Miller in appearance and expression. Miller was tall, handsome, gray and frequently loud; Hicks was short, bald and soft-spoken. But both men were all business, and this made Foster’s work much more enjoyable and less of a headache than other organizations she had worked for.

“It’s about the Tandy case,” Hicks said, eyes now looking down at a slim, transparent binder of reports in front of him. He slid an identical binder to Foster, which she opened and then scanned. “Are you familiar with a Lucy Emmons?”

“Sure. Emmons ran The New Way up in Kentworth County. Her parents ran the church for years, then she became the pastor when they passed. Emmons was the woman who was on probation at the time when Dale Williams was a court-designated social worker overseeing certain elements of her participation.”

“Sorry to show my ignorance on this case, this is still pretty new to me, but Dale Williams,” said Agent Shawna Horn, sitting across from Foster, “he was the one who wrote the book about the case, right?”

“Yes,” Foster replied. “Though Williams’s book doesn’t really get into the Lucy Emmons story too much. In fact, he gave her a pseudonym in the book and never named the church. In it, he explained that she had helped him figure out a few clues in the case. Apparently, she knew quite a bit about the TV show. I never actually met the woman myself. None of what she had to offer was really directly related to Kenneth Chandry, Alan Rice or Janie Boggs. So...why do you ask?”

“Her church was burned down last night. Well, partially burned down. On the side of the building that wasn’t fully destroyed,” Hicks said, “there was a message. Open your file to page four there. This is from local law enforcement.”

Foster flipped past a few pages to see the blown-up color photo of the damaged, white chapel church. On the side of the church’s wall, with all four of its corners badly burnt, a bright red pentagram was sprayed. Scrawled in red below it were the words “Long Live Black Max”. Foster studied the photo for a long moment as the others carefully watched her. The director and two new agents were aware that a well-known, modern crime-fighting icon was in the room with them, and they were more than curious to know what her initial thoughts were. This was, after all, closely related to the case that had made her career.

“Okay,” Foster said, pushing the photo away and leaning back in the chair. “Is this it?” she asked, not trying to be rude, but indicating that she wasn’t sure why she was sitting there. “I mean, this could be any clown who is obsessed with the crime and just wants to get his or her rocks off. We’ve already seen stuff similar to this. Everything from fifteen-year-old boys saying they worship Smoggie, to lonely grandpas who say they knew Chandry in elementary school. So many crazies want to be involved with this case for whatever reasons. How can I help?”

Hicks shifted in his chair, leaning his elbow on the extended arm. “The DOJ never gave out Lucy’s real name or the name of the church. Neither did Dale Williams’s book. How did they know that this was the church?”

Rova shrugged slightly. “I don’t think this would be very hard for a laptop detective to figure out. How many evangelical churches could a place like Kentworth County really have?”

“True,” said Director Hicks. “But nonetheless, if somebody were to figure this out on their own, that might show a very unhealthy obsession with this case. And if that person did something as drastic and dangerous as setting fire to a church, then it could get a lot worse. Perhaps the bureau might need someone familiar with the original case to help predict motives or intentions, or at least provide some kind of thoughtful analysis here that somebody unfamiliar with the case might miss.”

Rova grinned at the director. “And you want the FBI to focus its resources on this? I don’t want you to think I’m questioning your judgment, it’s just that usually local law enforcement -”

“It’s a hate crime. It falls under the Church Arsons Prevention Act of 1996, signed by Bill Clinton,” Hicks said, anticipating her concerns. “The ATF would usually be in charge of this, operating under the Department of Justice. But the DOJ brass has asked for our help. I’ll give you one good guess who recommended you over there.”

Rova smiled and rolled her eyes, finally relaxing her posture and letting out a deep breath. “Ahhh...I’ll have to thank Andy Miller next time I see him at the grocery store.” Rova grabbed the file laying in front of her and straightened it out on the edge of the conference room table. “Okay then. I’ll see what I can do with it.”

ELEVEN

Dale’s pounding headache woke him up the next morning, but it was quickly replaced by intrigue and a jolt of curiosity when he turned on the Chanel 6 News Team’s Breaking Story. The New Way church had burned down, with vandalism left behind that had suggested a connection to the Tandy story. The excitement subsided after the news segment ended, and he couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed when he realized that it was probably just a malicious attack. Who could have really done this? The principals in the original investigation were dead or in prison. It was likely just some punk kids who were trying to get a rise out of the community, he thought. At times like this, Dale often ruminated on his own youth and how he was lucky to not have been arrested for the shenanigans that he and his high school buddies occasionally dabbled in. The wrecking of golf carts, the drunken drag races, and the spray painting of road signs. He was, quite frankly, a world-class prick in his youth, though he eventually developed a more wholesome attitude in adulthood, particularly when he became a father.

He did feel bad for Lucy Emmons, though; he had come to like her despite the fact that the two were absolutely nothing alike. She had heart, and he knew that she must now be struggling. The church was all she had, he remembered, and maybe he should drop her a line, he thought.

Dale looked around his compact, second-floor apartment as he switched off the small, flat-screened TV. It was a mess. He was a mess. He rubbed his shaggy hair and coughed – even his own breath disgusted him. Despite the increase in his booze intake, he still hadn’t come to peace with the filthy hangovers that followed. He would pop two Tylenol, drink close to a liter of water, curse himself for being such a drunken ass and a shame of a human being, and then would probably start drinking again at six that evening.

Before heading to the shower, he spotted the yellow USB that Sergeant Trick returned to him the day before. “You...” he said, staring at it. “Are worth another chance, my friend.” He grabbed the small device and headed over to his desk in the corner of the room next to the window with a few plants struggling to survive on the sill. Once a symbol of adulthood in his life, the desk now irritated him; it was one of the few things that he was able to take from his comfortable home office at his former family residence and bring to his new dump above the liquor store. It reminded him of his family, and not in a good way.

He slid the thumb drive into his laptop and decided to give the game another play. Dale wasn’t ready to let go of the odd interaction with the weirdo from the book signing just yet. That brief moment with the greasy guy with the moppy bangs really rubbed him the wrong way and was still on his mind. It wasn’t lost on Dale that putting the USB in the computer gave him a similar high to when he had played The Tandy Family Adventure on his old, 8-bit system. That was a big moment in the case for him, and he fantasized that this might recreate that level of excitement, but he also recognized the silliness of that prospect. He didn’t want to chase old feelings, and maybe it was time to push his writing skills in a different direction and not try to milk his involvement in the case any further. For a few months, he had told himself that he could investigate another crime and write a fresh new book. But the booze got in the way, so Dale went with what was easy and most comfortable.


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