Bobby Fleck couldn’t understand why he was getting heat about his performance. He wasn’t just doing his job; he was crushing it. Things running so smooth that he barely needed to get involved at all. That was the problem. The work was getting done, but Bobby wasn’t technically doing it. The words his boss used repeatedly during the twenty-minute railing were negligence, blatant lack of ethics, and massive sociopathic tendencies. They all took even turns in the burning circle of his speech, but negligence stood out as the captain of his fiery monologue. End result? Because Bobby violated countless written and unwritten codes in the Obituary Writers Coalition of Northern Massachusetts codebook, he was reassigned to field work, effective immediately. Bobby didn’t realize field work was a thing still, living that beautiful blindly entitled work at home lifestyle of his. And if he didn’t perform with flying colors on the field assignment he would be promptly fired. Easily replaced by someone who wouldn’t mind the forever grind and the resulting case of carpel tunnel with a side of blurred vision. Plenty of those guys around.
“This is your last chance. Jack Howe, the obit writer, is dead. Go up to Haverhill, grab his stuff, bring it back to office, and sort it out,” his boss said, much calmer after the tirade. “His wife Doris is in shock. She’s grieving. She wants his work items removed from his office immediately. They’re causing her severe trauma. On the way up stop and check on Walt. Ask Kenson about Walt, he’ll tell you the mess there. Screw any of this up, don’t come back. I also need a write up on Howe for the Sunday edition by 5pm Sat-ur-day. That gives you three days. Three days. Box of stuff. Sort it. Write it up. No screwups. Howe’s dead but he’s still under contract and with his wife on edge I don’t need any blowback on this.”
Bobby had no idea where Haverhill was, or who Walt or Jack Howe was, but he nodded his head yes just to get the whole thing over with then went down to see Kenson, dazed at the prospect of doing actual work.
For the past eleven months Bobby had been doing nothing during the day. He’d wake up at six am, log into his computer, check the daily log of fatalities, open his program, and press run. After that he’d set his mouse on an automatic toggler and return to bed until 9am. His program was technically his “company’s program” so the modifications he made to it were “technically illegal”, violating a lot of proprietary laws, stuff his boss was pissed about, stuff that could get him fired and possibly imprisoned. But those penalties weren’t much of a deterrent at the time. Not with passive income on the line. Sweet, sweet passive income. Bobby didn’t lose a wink of sleep.
The company’s program was like a database dump of regional fatalities, dumped each day, with the occasional national flyer added on top. The modification Bobby was clever enough to create combined that mass dump of data with an advanced search engine that had a sort of MadLib machine learning quality to it that spit out somewhat decent work, full obituaries, not great, but full, acceptable enough for the editor department (a lady named Sarah) to feel needed but not burdened. After eleven months the algorithm in the modification became too smart and began drafting far superior obituaries then Bobby could ever manage on a good day. The quality and originality reached the level of shocking to Sarah, and the red flags were raised. Investigation was cut and dry. The knock came at Bobby’s door and after eleven easy months of automated bliss he was now a foot soldier going who the hell knows where in northern Massachusetts.
Kenson swore Bobby in, for lack of a better term, to the field office division on a three day visa, where he got his photo taken, laminated credentials, a company account, a car, laptop, and directions to both Howe and Walt. While getting sworn in, Kenson gave Bobby the backstory on Howe. The man didn’t just write obituaries, he was a conduit between life here on earth, the recently departed soul, and heaven above. He knew things that only few people knew about his clients. Personal things. Inside jokes. Secrets. Things that would sometimes frighten the surviving relatives, but the words were expressed so well, with such a caring, empathetic touch, it felt like an angel adorned them. Jack Howe won awards for his obituaries. Then suddenly he stopped writing them regularly. He retired with his wife Doris, the one now in a fevered, traumatic state. Every year or two though Jack Howe would make a comeback, pen an obit, dazzle the masses with a harrowing, tragic death, like a missing child found too late, that would once again capture the heart of the community. They’d be published with great anticipation, landing spots on the front page. A sign that the healing process could begin.
Kenson segued into the exploits of Howe’s long time buddy Walt Winslow, a beat cop, a legend in his own right, with an uncanny ability to discover fresh crime scenes. Bobby stopped Kenson before he went any further and asked, “Shouldn’t Walt be grabbing Howe’s stuff if they were buddies?”
“You didn’t hear?” Kenson asked.
“Man, you’re seriously on an island.”
“They already asked Walt. He got halfway to Haverhill and hit some black ice and his rinky-dink Tacoma did a legit cartwheel over the median and into oncoming traffic. Fortunately, he hit black ice on the other side too and slid off into the trees before getting creamed by a logging truck. Easily could have happened.”
It was a blizzard outside. Bobby hadn’t driven anywhere in a year. No need to. No reason to go outside anymore. He’d made peace with the outside world. The world could go its way and he would stay still, sedentary, utilizing his minor programming prowess to what he assumed was a minimally invasive manner, staying well below work radar, or so he thought, and forever existing in what he liked to call blissful mediocrity. All news of war, global warming, injustice, or hate slid through him, by him, just like Walt’s car on its side on the wrong side of the highway on a winter night of black ice. Off into the woods.
So, he had Walt to thank for this long shot second chance to keep his subpar job that at this point he didn’t see the point of keeping now that his automated methods were blown, but the three day per diem was a curiosity he wouldn’t mind exploring and beyond that, deep down, he didn’t like to feel outsmarted. And that’s how he felt. Deep down Bobby thought he could wire his scheme over again, do it better, maybe at some other company, unsuspecting of his moves. Maybe not with obituaries, but with something else. What he needed though, for this to happen, was a letter of recommendation.
Bobby decided an hour into his drive to Haverhill to branch off and take the long way. There was no sense getting a box of stuff in one day if he was getting paid for three. He was close to Boxford so he detoured over to the hospital to see Walt. Walt was wrapped up head to toe in casts, slings, cozy as a q-tip in a fully packed q-tip container. Almost looked like he was wearing a bicycle helmet but that was just his head from the swelling and the wraps. His eyes were open and crisp and immediately locked on Bobby the moment he stepped in the room. Bobby walked over to the bedside and fumbled a few words of encouragement and told Walt he was heading to Jack’s to grab his stuff. Walt groaned. His fingers crawling in wild bursts over the bedsheet made Bobby take a step backwards.
“You were on your way to Howe’s right when all of this happened,” Bobby spread his arms wide like acknowledging a banquet table of food, “I’m sorry. I heard you two were close.”
Walt chittered his mouth open, his tongue sweeping like Jabba the Hut. What was visible of his face was lit up tomato red. Veins ran like farm roads over the hill of his fat blue nose. After a cough and a couple false starts Walt managed some words.
“Go. Back. Home.” His eyes crackled.
“I will,” Bobby replied, “as soon as I get whatever Howe left. His wife is in a state, she wants everything gone.” Bobby slid his phone out of his pocket and snapped a quick picture of Walt who seethed. In case his boss had doubts, Bobby could at least prove he made it this far.
“You don’t want…to know. What. This. Is.”
That was enough for Bobby. He didn’t need the cryptic scare. He made the stop. Had the photo proof. The drugs must be running thin on Walt. Bobby stopped by the nurse’s station and recommended they up the dosage of whatever he was on.
The four-hour drive to Haverhill should have only taken two hours. The roads were iced and deadly. Walt was proof of that. Bobby kept it ten under the speed limit the entire way, rarely another car around to worry about. The day dimmed quick, and it was on the doorstep of dark when he hit Howe’s slushy, gravel drive. It wound for another half mile before ending at a big farmhouse, a couple lights on in the bottom floor windows. The top floor and the barn on the side both pitch black.
Doris yanked the door open before Bobby could knock.
“Who are you?” she demanded, out of breath.
“Car accident. They have him in a bed in North Mass General. He’s gonna be there for a while.” Bobby’s eyes adjusted to the interior light and realized Doris’ face was heavily bruised on the right side, her eye twitched uncontrollably.
“Did you see anyone?” Doris asked.
“No. The roads were completely empty.”
“Not the roads. The driveway.” Doris’ head peered out the door. Bobby noticed the fire poker in her hand.
“No,” Bobby said, “is everything alright?”
“Nothing is alright. Jack’s dead. The boy,” she trailed off, eyes searched the dark. “Walt. Now you’re here,” Doris hissed breath in visible spouts from nose and mouth and waves of heat steamed around her like a bad aura. The knuckles of her hand that held the poker were raw, beaded up with little red dots of blood.
“I’m just here to pick up your husband’s work items. My boss said you wanted them out.”
“You won’t touch a thing.”
Things happened fast after that. A car door slammed in the distance. Bobby turned to see it was his car with a figure now inside of it frantically searching for keys. Doris pushed past Bobby with surprising force, sending him over a small porch table. He got up in time to see the fireplace poker smash through the passenger side mirror. A guy, a boy really, underdressed for the night, leapt from the driver side and ran off behind the barn. Doris struggled out after him. When Bobby got to his car there was blood on the steering wheel, the door handle, glass granules everywhere and a worn notebook on the floor of the car that wasn’t his. Bobby looked out into the night and couldn’t see signs of either one. They must have rounded the side of the house or gone further out into the woods. Maybe they would circle back around. He picked up the notebook and a paper slipped free. Bobby unfolded it to see a faded black and white photo of a middle-aged man, wearing a suit, with a headline stamped “Missing Person”. He opened the notebook, and each page was dedicated to a specific person. Details, statistics, hobbies, likes, fears, obsessions, all written out. Bobby’s head jerking up and down from the notebook to the dark night. Listening for anything. The pages were tightly scribbled. So many pages, full, top to bottom. More pieces of paper fell loose from the back of the notebook. Newspaper clippings. All of them obituaries. Bobby only had to read one to connect it with the missing persons picture, to the details in the notebook. It was a ledger of death.
Bobby used his jacket sleeve and brushed as much shattered glass as he could off the driver’s side seat, got in, closed the door, and started the car. He put it into reverse and then heard the boy’s scream. It was horrifying. It was an animal in a trap. Looking into his rear-view mirror, through a clear spot of unfrosted glass, Bobby could make out the boy’s shadow collapsing from a hard blow to the head. Doris walked toward the car. Her gate slow, exhausted from the hunt. She got within ten feet of the car and Bobby hit the gas and reversed back into her. Her body quickly disappeared but was felt as the car rolled over her.
The police station in town was closed. Bobby left a note. He stopped at a Super 8 and stayed the night. He didn’t sleep. The entire night he read the notebook. He looked up every person on the internet, and every story was the same. Person missing for a week, a month, then their body found. Without an exception the officer on the scene was Detective Walt. Without exception the man behind the obituary was Jack Howe.
Before dawn Bobby made the drive back down to Boxford. Back to Walt’s room where he lay asleep. Bobby sat down in the empty visitor’s chair, opened the notebook until he found a fresh page, clicked his pen, and waited.